Bona Dea

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Ancient Romans worshiped a deity named Bona Dea. She was linked to Roman women’s virginity and fertility, healing, and the nation’s and people’s safety.

She was imported from Magna Graecia at some point in the early or middle Republic, according to Roman literary sources, and she was granted her own official cult atop the Aventine Hill. In contrast to Roman custom, her rites let women consume strong wine and sacrifice human blood. Her secrets and the ownership of her genuine identity were off-limits to men. Ancient theories concerning her identity vary due to the fact that male authors had little understanding of her rites and characteristics. Some of these theories include the notion that she was a Latinized version of the Greek goddess “Damia” or an aspect of Terra, Ops, Cybele, or Ceres (perhaps Demeter). She was most frequently referred to as the wife, sister, or daughter of the deity Faunus, making her a counterpart to or a variation of the nature-goddess Fauna who could foretell the futures of women.

The goddess celebrated two feasts yearly. The other was hosted by the wife of a senior yearly magistrate in Rome for an invited group of aristocratic matrons and female attendants. One was held in her Aventine temple for the benefit of the Roman people. When the politician Publius Clodius Pulcher was convicted for supposed sacrilegious interference in the ceremonies, purportedly motivated by his desire to seduce Julius Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, the later celebration rose to scandalous prominence in 62 BC. Despite Clodius’ innocence, Caesar nonetheless decided to divorce Pompeia because “Caesar’s wife must be beyond suspicion.” Cicero incurred the ferocious enmity of Clodius for his backing of the prosecution. The festival rituals continued to arouse masculine interest and conjecture, both pious and lewd.

The Vestal Virgins and the Sacerdos Bonae Deae were in charge of Bona Dea’s cults in the city of Rome, while virgin or matron priestesses oversaw her cults in the provinces. She is shown in surviving statues as a somber Roman woman holding a cornucopia and a serpent. All social classes have made personal commitments to her, notably plebeians, freedmen and women, and slaves. Men make up around one-third of her dedications, some of whom may be identified as her cult’s priests and acolytes.

Featured image: Bona Dea Marble Statue with Epigraph; “Ex visu iussu Bonae Deae sacr(um) Callistus Rufinae N(ostrae) Act(or)” (Dedicated to Bona Dea by Callistus, slave of Rufina) CIL. XIV 2251. Antoninian, Ager Albanus, Italy


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