When in 8 AD Ovid was sent into exile to the Black Sea, he was writing a poem about the religious festivities taking place at every month, the Fasti (calendar). Every month had its own book, but Ovid did not complete the work and only the first six months were ready.
Ovid was a poet and not a scholar in religion and the Fasti is therefore not always a reliable guide. Still, it contains a wealth of information, which we otherwise would not have known. For example the ritual to drive away malevolent ghosts of deceased forefathers from ones house during the Lemuria is only known from the passage below. The name lemuria is derived from lemures `evil spirits’ and took place on 9, 11 and 13 May and because of the connection with evil spirits, the whole month of May was considered inauspicious and no festivities were allowed to take place.
As I have done a master in comparative religion, I have a keen interest in rituals and this one is quite easy: the pater familias has to go at midnight through the house, make a fist in order to avert the evil eye, wash his hands and throw black beans over his shoulder while uttering some Latin. So far so good: I can easily do that, but where can I find Temesan bronze? I am afraid that I will have to live with the evil spirits in my house…
Ovid, Fasti 5, 429-444
nox ubi iam media est somnoque silentia praebet,
et canis et variae conticuistis aves, 430
ille memor veteris ritus timidusque deorum
surgit (habent gemini vincula nulla pedes),
signaque dat digitis medio cum pollice iunctis,
occurrat tacito ne levis umbra sibi.
cumque manus puras fontana perluit unda, 435
vertitur et nigras accipit ante fabas,
aversusque iacit; sed dum iacit, 'haec ego mitto,
his' inquit 'redimo meque meosque fabis.'
hoc novies dicit nec respicit: umbra putatur
colligere et nullo terga vidente sequi. 440
rursus aquam tangit, Temesaeaque concrepat aera,
et rogat ut tectis exeat umbra suis.
cum dixit novies 'manes exite paterni'
respicit, et pure sacra peracta putat.
praebeo praebui praebitum: to give, grant
canis: everyone knows of course that this means `dog’, but it is less known that canis is directly related to `hound’. In words inherited from Indo-European the Latin initial c can correspond to Germanic h: cornu –horn, centum – hundred etc.
conticesco conticui: to fall silent
memor (+gen.): mindfull of
ritus ritus (m.): ceremony, rite
timidus deorum: genitivus objectivus `afraid of’
habent gemini vincula nulla pedes: his both feet have no fetters (i.e. not wearing sandals).
signaque dat digitis medio cum pollice iunctis: `and he makes a sign with his fingers, connected with the thumb (pollex pollicis (m.) in the middle’. So he makes a fist with the fingers over the thumb. This sign is made to ward of the evil eye. In Italian it is called `the fig’. la fica or mano fica.
occurrat tacito ne levis umbra sibi = ne occurrat tacito levis umbra sibi
tacito with sibi
umbra: shadow, ghost
puras: resultative adjective, so `in order the hands become clean’.
fontanus: belonging to/from a fountain
perluo perlui perlutum: to wash
unda = in unda
averto averti aversum: to turn away
iacio ieci iactum: to throw
redimo redemi redemptum: to redeem
novies: nine times
nullo vidente: seen by nobody
terga sequi: to follow behind
colligere: i.e. to collect the beans
Temesaea aera: bronze (aes aeris (n.) from the mines near Temesa. Probably some kind of bell is meant.
concrepo concrepui concrepitum: to sound, rattle
Manes: the spirits of the forefathers. Normally they are benevolent, but here they are identified with evil spirits.
Translation by Sir James Frazer (1931):
When midnight has come and lends silence to sleep,
and dogs and all ye varied fowls are hushed, the
worshipper who bears the olden rite in mind and
fears the gods arises ; no knots constrict his feet ;
and he makes a sign with his thumb in the middle
of his closed fingers," lest in his silence an unsub-
stantial shade should meet him. And after washing
his hands clean in spring water, he turns, and first
he receives black beans and throws them away with
face averted ; but while he throws them, he says :
" These I cast ; with these beans I redeem me and
mine." This he says nine times, without looking
back : the shade is thought to gather the beans,
and to follow unseen behind. Again he touches
water, and clashes Temesan bronze, and asks the
shade to go out of his house. When he has said
nine times, " Ghosts of my fathers, go forth ! " he
looks back, and thinks that he has duly performed
the sacred rites.