Picture it: Italy, 500 BCE!
Vengeful, malevolent wandering spirits of the restless dead seeking to do ill to the living, their faces twisted into horrific masks... cemeteries, black dress, gory ghosts... Happy May!
Yes, May. The 9th, 11th and 13th.
Every October we hear all about Halloween, an Irish tradition, and even the Mexican Day of the Dead. Why don't we hear anything about how the Italians celebrated? Because they don't. At least not at the end of October. At least not until The Church decided it was time to bring the Celts into the fold around 700 ce.
They took the old Italian traditions, which were celebrated in February and May, and moved it to the date of the Irish "Summer's End" festival. Don't worry, this isn't a treatise on the big bad church, but it's impossible to talk about the holidays, especially the Italian ones, without looking at the church's handiwork in subsuming the existing Pagan culture and rearranging the dates to suit their political needs.
According to the sacred wiki: "On what had been the culminating day of the Lemuralia, May 13 in 609 or 610— the day being recorded as more significant than the year—, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, and the feast of that dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres has been celebrated at Rome ever since. According to cultural historians, this ancient custom was Christianized in the feast of All Saints' Day, established in Rome first on May 13, in order to de-paganize the Roman Lemuria"
Until the Romans came along, there was no "united" Pagan religion in Italy. In fact, Italy was a collection of independent city-states, each with it's own language, customs and traditions. When catholocism swept the land, many of the folk ways were folded into each other and condensed across regions. The most readily available information we have is about Roman practice, which means something only when talking about Rome, not about Naples, or Calabria, or Tuscanny, or especially Sicily, which was influenced not only by Greece, but also the Middle East and Africa.
We know of several Roman festivals which specifically dealt with remembering, venerating and making offerings to the departed: The Lemuria, the Parentalia, the Feralia, and The Mania (to narrow it down to a few).
The Parentalia was held in February to venerate Di Manes, the Divine Dead and Di Parentes, the family ancestors. The week long festival was closed with the Feralia, a more public celebration in which families would picnic at the necropolis/cemetery "with" their ancestors.
The Lemuria, held in May, was the time to ward off the spirits I mentioned earlier: The Lemures; the vengeful spirits, who were a contrast to the Lares, the helpful spirits of Ancestors and the Land.
Why May? It's the other side of the wheel of year, opposite Halloween, well, more like "paired with" than "opposite." In May, the veil is once again at it's thinnest, as it is in October. May isn't quite as scary for us northern hemisphere folks because we're coming into the time of abundance instead of preparing for a season of scarcity.
How did they trick, treat, or otherwise remove the Lemures? The paterfamilia, aka: The Man of the House was in charge of this rite. He would get up at midnight and walk through the house tossing fava beans over his shoulder onto the floor. Some sources say loud noises were made by shouting or banging pots or ringing bells to scare the lemures out of the house while they were distracted picking up the beans. Other sources say it was done in silence. Novenas (a prayer repeated 9 times) were also recited to open and close the rites.
Some sources say the fava beans were to placate the Lemures, and yet others believe the restless soul was sucked into the fava bean and housed there or transported to the underworld. Fava beans were held sacred by many in the region, famously by Pythagoras as literal or figurative representations, or houses, of the soul. To give fava beans to the departed was to give them new soul. The custom of offering fava beans was well established even before Rome was founded. It's said Romulus made such an offering to appease the spirit of Remus, the brother he murdered over the founding of the city.
Our good friend, Ovid, has a lot to say about this in his book, Fasti, (translates to "calendar") in which he discusses the origins of various public or state holidays: He talks about May 1st being the day to honor the Lares, the helpful spirits:
"The Kalends of May witnessed the foundation of an altar to the Guardian Lares, together with small images of the gods. Curius indeed had vowed them, but length of time destroys many things, and age prolonged wears out a stone. The reason for the epithet applied to them is that hey guard all things by their eyes. They also stand for us, and preside over the City walls, and they are present and bring us aid. But a dog, carved out of the same stone, used to stand before their feet. What was the reason for its standing with the Lar? Both guard the house: both are faithful to their master: cross-roads are dear to the god, cross-roads are dear to dogs: the Lar and Diana’s pack give chase to thieves; and wakeful are the Lares, and wakeful too are dogs."
He goes on to talk about the Lemures, their counterparts and how Mercury came to him to tell him how this whole feast of appeasing the restless dead began. It's pretty long, so I will sum up if you wish to skip the quoted text: It was, Ovid is told, originally called the Remuria, in honor of Remus. There is debate about who caused his death, but Romulus typically gets the blame. The ghost of Remus shows up, really angry, and feeling vengeful. He laments that he was not made king instead of Romulus (they had a contest of augury: whoever saw the largest flock of birds was the winner and Romulus saw more). Then he curses whomever killed him to the same fate.
"Why the day was called Lemuria, and what is the origin of the name, escapes me; it is for some god to discover it. Son of the Pleiad (Mercury) thou reverend master of the puissant wand, inform me: oft hast thou seen the palace of the Stygian Jove (Pluto). At my prayer the Bearer of the Herald’s Staff was come. Learn the cause of the name; the god himself made it known. When Romulus had buried his brother’s ghost in the grave, and the obsequies had been paid to the too nimble Remus, unhappy Faustulus and Acca, with streaming hair, sprinkled the burnt bones with their tears. Then at twilight’s fall they sadly took the homeward way, and flung themselves on their hard couch, just as it was.
The gory ghost of Remus seemed to stand at the bedside and to speak these words in a faint murmur: “Look on me, who shared the half, the full half of your tender care, behold what I am come to, and what I was of late! A little while ago I might have been the foremost of my people, if but the birds had assigned the throne to me. Now I am an empty wrath, escaped from the flames of the pyre; that is all that remains of the once great Remus.... [M]ayest thou yield up thy cruel soul through wounds, and pass like me all bloody underneath the earth! My brother willed not this: his love’s a match for mine: he let fall upon my death – ‘twas all he could – his tears. Pray him by your tears, by your fosterage, that he would celebrate a day by single honour done to me.”
As the ghost gave this charge, they yearned to embrace him and stretched forth their arms; the slippery shade escaped the clasping hands. When the vision fled and carried slumber with it, the pair reported to the king his brother’s words. Romulus complied, and gave the name Remuria to the day on which due worship is paid to buried ancestors. In the course of ages the rough letter, which stood at the beginning of the name, was changed into the smooth; and soon the souls of the silent multitude were also called Lemures:
That is the meaning of the word, that is the force of the expression. But the ancients shut the temples on these days, as even now you see them closed at the season sacred to the dead. The times are unsuitable for the marriage both of a widow and a maid: she who marries then, will not live long. For the same reason, if you give weight to proverbs, the people say bad women wed in May. But these three festivals fall about the same time, though not on three consecutive days."
So great. We know all of this now, wtf do we do with it? This is a step beyond psychic spring cleaning. This is a straight up exorcism of any funky spirits hanging around your house. You can't approach this in jest. You need to step up with real and true authority as the master of the space to exorcise anything, let alone pissed off spirits.
It is a time when the veil is thin, so divination is appropriate. If you have already established a relationship with ancestors or those who have crossed over, this is a great time to communicate with them through dreams, pendulums, tarot, clairaudience or whatever psychic abilities you possess.
If I wanted to go ceremonial, I would find a crossroads where I won't be bothered by other people outside of whomever joined me. I'd cast a circle and inside of it include offerings of garlic and wine for both Nykteria (epithet of Hekate) and Nykterios (epithet of Dionysus) to join the festivities and keep any of their restless hordes from doing something untoward; I would also bring offerings for someone specific I would like to contact, something they enjoyed in life. I don't go around talking to strangers on this plane and I don't do it on other planes either. If someone I don't know wants to come talk to me, they can do it from right outside the edge of my circle.
But that's me. What would you do? Plan to celebrate? I'm picking up the fava beans next week ;)