Mar 8, 2008

Diana Nemorensis

Adapted from an article by Pia Guldager Bilde: "By Torch-light: The Cult in the Sanctuary".

So far we talked a bit about the Lake Nemi and it's surroundings. Now we shall look into the cult of the goddess that was worshipped ther: Diana Nemorensis.

Diana is traditionally described as the goddess of the hunt. And as such, there could hardly be a better place than Nemi, because the Alban hills would have been a paradise for hunters in ancient times. But this is only one of her aspects. It is always difficult to describe a deity with few words, because they have different description in different times and cultures, even if they have the same name. And goddesses with different names may be similar.

Thus at Nemi, we find votive gifts in bronze and terracotta showing Diana in a short chiton, a small cloak, boots and with a bow in her hands. This Diana is the gallant and chaste goddess and sister of Apollo, ie. identical to the greek Artemis.

But then we also find votive gifts in the form of parts of the body, particularly the hands, feet or eyes. But there are also replicas of the wombs and the penis, which shows that the desire for children was strong. The votives demonstrates that Diana had power over health and sickness. Wether medical healing was practised at Nemi is not known, but varoius doctor instruments are found. It is also possible that the bathing facilities at the Sanctuary in Nemi had a therapeutic purpose.

However, Diana's most common appelation is Trivia (sometimes she is also called Diana Triformis), which means the place where three roads meet, or more general, a cross road. At such liminal regions - meeting points between two worlds - dangerous forces are at work. It was particularly Hekate who reigned there, and it was important for travellers to offer correct sacrifices for her. Trivia also alludes to the three faces of Diana. Virgil Servius explains that she rules over three spheres: the underworld, the earth and heaven. This means that she has power over birth, life and death. Servius also says that the three faces of Diana represent the three faces of the moon, the waxing, the full and the waning. (Thus he describes Diana as a triple goddess or moon goddess).

It was in her aspect as Hekate, Goddess of the underworld that this dark goddess was worshipped. Literary sources tell about women, who wished her to answer their prayers, wandering from Aricia to the Sanctuary in the black night, carrying a torch, and with wreaths of flowers in their hair. (Sometimes the Goddess was called Diana Lucifera, and it is not difficult to find similarities with Lucina, Luna (Selene), and even the Sancta Lucia celebrations)

Her darker side also comes to the fore in the myth concerning the founding of the Sanctuary, according to which the original cult is an offshoot of the cult of the Taurian or Scythian Artemis, and Diana Nemorensis is sometimes called Scythian Diana. This cult-image demanded human blood, and any strangers who sailed past the point where the temple of Artemis was situated, were sacrified to her.

This myth may explain a bloody ritual of the Sanctuary, namely the succesion of its priesthood where the Priest-King, Rex Nemorensis had to fight a duel to the death with a challenger, who was a runaway slave, like himself. This duel may be a ritualisation of an ancient practise, where the worship of the goddess included human sacrifice, just like the worship of many other deities of the ancient world.

The universal character of Diana Nemorensis meant that she was venerated in the same sancturay together with the Egyptian goddess Isis with whose identity she became partly assimilated. Here we recognize the all-powerful Goddess whose origin is lost in the remotes stirrings of the religious consciousness of the Mediterranean lands. Linguistic evidence indicates that Diana was a very old Italic goddess, and historical evidence shows that she had a cult at Nemi as far back as the sixt century B.C.E. The Rex Nemorensis, indicates that the cult is in fact far older than that.


Diana (Wikipedia) Artemis

C.M.C.Green: Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia, READ ONLINE

A meditation

This is just a fantasy - nothing is known to have happened exactly like this. But maybe it has?

I am sitting on a wagon, behind a huge white horse. The wagon is heavy and we are going slow. So the horse turns his head back to me, as if to say, "come and sit on my back, that's more comfortable". So I do, and at the same time the wagon is released and the horse is free. Now we are going much faster. I suddenly realise that he also has wings. How come I haven't noticed before? He increases the speed and suddendly makes a big jump up in the air, and out into the clear, black night. We are flying out from land. Above us glittering stars, below the black ocean. I can see the full moon reflected in the sea.

After a long journey we are approaching land again, but from far, far above, and now I recognize the "foot" of Italy. We are getting lower, and below I see a lake that looks like a little eye in the forest, or a glittering mirror - the Mirror of Diana. We are circling around it and from a certain angle I can see the moon-eye looking up at us again as we get nearer. It looks like we are going to land on the shore of the lake. As we go down in a sort of valley, the horison is suddenly much higher and we are surrounded by hills in every direction.We land on a green, grassy clearing in the wood, and I fall to sleep.

When I wake up, it seems like I have slept a whole year. And when I look aroud I recognize the place at once. It is Nemi! And somehow I know that we have gone back in time, some two and a half, maybe three millenia. I am lying on my back in the grass, looking up on the starry sky down in crater, and beside me is the sacred tree. I know this is an asherah guarded by an ex slave, called the King of Nemi, Rex Nemorensis. This is long before the Temple of Diana is erected here, and the sanctuary at Nemi is like a woodehenge, a natural cathedral in the forest, surrounded by wooden pillars. The rumours say that terrible things happen down here. The Rex Nemorensis can only rule as long as he is the strongest - as long as he can defend himself. But eventually there comes another man, stronger than him, who will slay him and become the new King!

The full moon crawles slowly over the ridge of the crater, and fills Nemi with a pale light. On the other side of the crater, almost like a reflection, a silver droplet appears. Then the one becomes two, then three, and soon a whole river of silver is running down the crater slope. As it gets nearer I can see that the silver light comes from torches, and I am beginning to hear voices - women singing and chanting and laughing. As they came nearer to me, I can see that they all are in white linen, with flowers around their heads and they all have bare feet. And now I remember why they are here, and where they come from. They are women of Alba Longa, the capital of the Latins. They are coming to worship their Goddess and to ask her to bring them children This tratition is later to be transferred to Aricia, at a time when the Romans takes over control, and when the steep road has become Via Virbia, a side track to Via Appia from Rome..

Now the women are all down. They gather around me in silence and put the torches into the ground. Then appears a tall, strong figure in the outskirst of the circle of light. He looks frightening. Is this the Rex? But he seems to be just a regular slave, because he is instructed to gather all the womens clothes as they go down to the water. They are going for a bathe in the lake, probably a healing ritual. Before they return I can see that candles are lit and set out floating on the water. They get back to me where I sit under the tree of Diana. This is the center of her cult. This is her sanctuary, but there is no one here to guard it? I stand by watching while each of them bring the Goddess a present wrapped in red clothe, and hangs it from a thread in the tree. And each of them whispers her wish to Diana. When this ceremony is over, they perform a ring dance evoking Diana, Luna, Artemis, Isis and Hekate. She is all of these, she that is called Nemetona, the goddess of this grove - this Nemus.

But it is not ower, the best part is yet to come. The slave steps forward. He brakes a bow from the tree and goes slowly towards me! Why? What is happening? Does he think I am ...? I want to run away, but the only thing I can do is to stand paralyzed. Then he speaks to me. - Just pretend, O King, he whispers, - just act your part! Then he smiles to me! So we don't fight at all, we perform a ritual. We dance! And I remember my part and know what I have to do, and it is a relief to do it. He rises the golden bow high, and dances towards me with strength, but stops right before the bow reaches my head. He has defeated me. The King is dead, long live the King! And while I am carried away, the former slave, innstalls himself below the Asherah as the new Rex Nemorerensis.

It is over. I have fulfilled my duty. I am free! We all gather our things and start walking the steep slope up from Nemi. And when my winged horse returns to collect me I take a final look down at the Mirror of Diana. I see the King of Nemi going down to the sea. The moonshine is now glittering in the midst of the water. Then i see something in between the rays. It looks like a woman rising from the water. It must be the lady of the lake, and I know that the Rex is going to meet her. Because I remember what happened last year. Oh yes, this is the best part!

Feb 11, 2008

Nemi: The lake and it's surroundings

If you are in the outskirts of Rome and looking in the south-east direction, you may on a clear day see some mountains. This is the Colli Albani, or Alban hills, about twenty kilometers away. The dominant peak is the Monte Cavo at 950 m, and below are two small calderas, or volcanos that have collapsed, which later have been filled with water and thus formed the lakes, Lago Albano and Lago di Nemi.

Violent prehistory

A caldera is formed when a volcano collapses. The collapse is triggered by the emptying of the magma chamber beneath the volcano, usually as the result of a large volcanic eruption. One famous example is Santorini's caldera, formed in the Minoan eruption around 1600 BCE

Now the Alban volcanos are dead, although they still emits large amounts of carbon dioxide that can potentially reach lethal concentrations. 29 cows were killed in 1999 and eight sheep were killed in a similar incident in 2001.

In this area, several catastrophic events like sudden mudflows (lahars) from the hillside and rising of the water level have occurred in recent times, probably up to less than 7000 years ago, and this may have prevented human settlements. Of particular interest is the description reported by several ancient historians (from Plutarcus to Titus Livius) of a sudden lake overflow from the Albano Lake, occurring in the IV century B.C., an event that induced the excavation of a drainage tunnel that has since kept the lake level 70 m below the lowest crater rim. This tunnell is only one of a series of impressive works, draining the lake of Albano and other lakes in the area, including Lake Nemi. The Nemi-tunnell, Emissarium, is 1653 m long, and most people say that they were made by the romans, but some argues that it must have been carried out by early civilisations, well before the Romans conquered Italy and governed the territory. This is based on the the fact that the techniques used in the excavations are similar to findings in Greece, in the tunnel of Samos, and in the outlet of Kopais, the latter which could be attributed to the Mycenaean civilisation, namely to the 12th century BC. It would be reasonable to counter this: Techniques can be learned! In any case, it may be safe to say that there must have been a transfer of culture.

So the tunnels gives us the first clue that Nemi are of pre-roman origin and connected to Greece and the eastern mediterranean regions, a theme that we shall return to later.

Alba Longa, the mother city of Rome

Another clue comes from the myths and history of Rome where the kingdom of Alba Longa has a very important place. After the destruction of Troy, many refugees were thought to have fled the city, among them was Aeneas, the the son of prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. Aeneas was a great Trojan hero second only to the mighty Hector. Aeneas's travels brought him eventually to Latium, the homeland of the latin people. This is the region now called Lazio.

Soon after arriving in Italy, Aeneas made war against the city of Falerii. But Latinus, king of the Latins (who, according to Hesiod, was the son of Odysseus and Circe), welcomed Aeneas's army of exiled Trojans and let them reorganize their life in Latium. His daughter Lavinia had been promised to the king of the Rutuli, but Latinus preferred to offer her to Aeneas. According to legend Alba Longa was founded by the son of Aeneas, Ascanius (or Iulus), and from him there is said to have sprung a dynasty of Alban kings (see the Family tree of the kings of Alba Longa) , one of the last was Numitor who was the grandfather of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome.

Until today the location of Alba Longa has never been established with certainty. The site has been at various times identified with the convent of S. Paolo at Palazzola, near Albano, or with Coste Caselle, near Marino, or finally witth Castel Gandolfo. There is also a theory that Alba Longa means the western crater rim of the Albano Lake, based upon the observed light belt cast there soon after sunrise.

The Latin League and war with Rome

Latium at that time was a mixture of different nations and small tribes, among which was the Latins. Actually, they were not a single nation, but rather a confederation uniting many tribes of common Italic origin. They spoke the same language, led the same way of economic life and worshipped the same deities. Due to Italic traditions, and also to later Etruscan influence, Latin towns and villages composed the urban alliance, the Latin League, which was both military and religious, and led by the city of Alba Longa, where all Latins used to gather to the sacred temple on a mountain and to the common meeting. The official leader of the alliance was the king of Alba Longa.

At first Rome was probably one of these cities, but as Rome's power increased, the two cities fell into conflict, and finally under King Tullus Hostilius (around the middle of the 7th century BC), a war between them was settled by the famous combat of the Horatii and the Curiatii; Alba was destroyed, never to be rebuilt, and her inhabitants were transferred to Rome, where the Caelian hill was given to them. The increasing power of Rome gradually led to its domination of the league. The renewal of the original treaty in 358 BC formally established Roman leadership and eventually triggered the outbreak of the Latin War (343 BC—338 BC). Following the Roman victory, the league was dissolved, and Rome was an it's way to imperial power.

Religion and recreation

On the top of the Monte Cavo was a very ancient shrine consecrated to Jupiter Latiaris. Florus (2nd century) states that the site was selected by Ascanius, who, having founded Alba, invited all the Latins to celebrate sacrifices there to Jupiter, a custom which eventually led to the annual celebration there of the Feriae Latinae, at which all the cities that belonged to the Latin Confederation would gather under the aegis of Alba, sacrificing a white bull, the flesh of which was distributed among all the participants..

In 222 year of Rome Tarquinius Superbus legendary King of Rome fixed a temple common to the Latins, to the Hernici and the Volsci on the Mons Albanus, where every year there were celebrations in honor of Jupiter Latiaris. A triumphal procession, along this sacred way, the Via Triumphalis, left the Appian Way at Ariccia and climbed ut 450 m to the hillside. More than 5 Km of this way is well preserved through the woods. The temple has not survived, but it may be no coincidence that in the early Middle Ages, a hermitage was built by a Dalmatian hermit devoted to St. Peter, that replaced the pagan temple. It was visited by Pope Pius II in 1463, and subsequently by Pope Alexander VII, and later converted to a monastery,

This monastery also had many prominent guests. And this is certainly no coincidence, because the hills, especially around the shores of the lakes, have been popular since ancient times as a way to escape the heat and crowds of Rome, and there are many villas and country houses to be seen. Since 1626 the Pope has had his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, and even Julius Caesar, appreciated the beauty of the place and commissioned a villa to be built at Nemi.

The Sacred grove

In antiquity the Alban hills were thickly wooded, the original forest was probably of beech trees and scrub, and down by the shore of lake Nemi was a Nemus, or a Sacred Grove. The Celts called such a place a Nemeton, and the earliest sanctuary was just a clearing in the wood which was turned into a templum, a consecrated area. The principal deity in the sanctuary was Diana (or Diana Nemorensis that she was called here), but also the greek hero Hippolytos, who had been transformed into a minor local deity bye the name of Virbius was worshipped. A peculiar feature of this cult was the Rex Nemorensis who reigned as the King of the Grove. This king was a runaway slave that ruled until he was challanged and beaten by the next King. A study of this cult served as the seed for Sir James Frazer's seminal work on the anthropology of religion, The Golden Bough.

It is uncertain how old this cult is, but as far as the around 500 BC, the sanctuary was for a period the League Sanctuary for of the Latin towns. It was not just of local significance, since men of power fro other cities, particularly Rome, travelled to the Sacred Grove at Lake Nemi to present her with rich gifts. Around 300 BC the first temple was built, and later there were added bathing facilities and a theatre. We do not know where the money came from, but the building activity show that the Sanctuary was well provided for.

Caligulas sunken ships

But there is more: early in the 1930s two ships were recovered from the mud of lake Nemi. It was not just any ships - they were over 70 m long and 20 wide, and had a gross tonnage of up to 1100 tonns. The deck of oak were covered with a marble mosaic floor. Findings showed that there had been running water, heating, and possibly even bathing facilities. These ocean-going, floating palaces are attributed to Caligula, maybe the most decadent of all the emperors.

The boats were finally salvaged under orders of Mussolini as an attempt to relate himself to the Roman Emperors of the past. From 1936 the ships was exhibited in a a newely constructed museum with a "hangar" for each, and here it was possible to admire them for the next nine years, until the 31st may in 1944, when then were taken by the flames lit by retreating german soldiers.

We do not know wether the ships are connected with the cult of Diana, but we may certainly take them as a symbol that there is more under the surface than meets the eye at Nemi, and more surprices to be had.


The mains source is In the sacred Grove of Diana, by Pia Guldager Bilde et al. Linked websites.


Colli Albani or Alban Hills volcanic complex, Latium, Italy Albans & Etruscans Tourist information for Castel Gandolfo

Jan 16, 2008

About this blog

Diana's Mirror is three things: Firstly it is the lake of Nemi, Lago di Nemi, near Aricia, just outside Rome. The romans called this lake Lacus Diana, Lacus Trivia or Speculum Diana: Diana's Mirror. It is situated down in a volcano, and by the lakeside, there was in ancient times a forest with a sacred grove with a shrine for Diana Nemorensis. The shrine and the surrounding Alban hills is one of the most inportant sacred and historic places for the romans and the Latins.

Secondly there are all the goddesses that are like Diana, who we may call a Mirror of Diana. Diana at Nemi is called Diana Nemorensis. Sometimes she is called the Scythian Diana, and is related to Artemis, Cybele and other goddesses like Hecate, Nemetona, Trivia, Isis, The Black Madonna or Luna. All of these are mirrors of Diana.

Thirdly it is a method: To see all the images of Diana we have to use a tool. Diana's Mirror is our magic tool through which we can her mirror-images. But the mirror's magic can be used by others as well. If Jesus looks into it, he'll see Dionysos, perhaps Tammuz, or who knows?

So this is what we are going to do: to look into Diana's Mirror from different angles and see what turnes up!

By the way, there also is a novel by AR Homer (!) called "The Mirror of Diana", which you can read online.