Carnaria: The Festival of the Goddess Carna


  • Marjeta Šašel Kos



Carna (Roman goddess), religious holidays (Roman religion), noble families, Roman inscriptions, Ljubljana (Slovenia)


I. The Caesernii at Emona

Built into the church of St Leonard at Spodnje Gameljne (Picture 1), c. 9 kilometres north of Ljubljana (the Roman Emona), was a Roman tombstone made of Glinščica (Rosandra) limestone. Its inscription refers to the family of the Caesernii and to the festival Carnaria, which is mentioned in no other literary work or inscription of the Roman Empire. Due to the unique significance of the inscription, the tombstone, dilapidated by exposure, was removed in 1997 and transported to the National Museum of Slovenia. In translation, the text runs: ‘To the divine Spirits of the Deceased. To Lucius Caesernius Primitivus, one of the board of five and the head of the decuria of the college of artisans (collegium fabrum), and to his wife Ollia Primilla. By their wills they left 200_ denarii to the four decuriae of the collegium fabrum in order that they would bring roses (to their grave) on the day of the festival of Carna. Lucius Caesernius Primitivus (had the tombstone erected) to his parents.’ (Picture 2)

The Caesernii family, whose forebears had moved to Emona from northern Italy, especially from Aquileia, belonged among the most distinguished and economically important local families. Judging by the tombstone of the Aquileian public functionary Titus Caesernius Diphilus, who had moved to Emona with his freedman Dignus in the middle of the 1st century BC or slightly later, the family’s first representatives came to Emona even before the latter was established as a colony (an event probably dating to the earliest Augustan era). Since Diphilus had his tombstone erected in his lifetime, he appears

to have chosen the town as his permanent residence. Emona became a secondary centre of the Caesernii, from which they went on to settle in various towns of Noricum and Pannonia. As part of their wealth may have rested on ironworks, it is hardly surprising that Lucius Caesernius Primitivus had a leading role in the craftsmen’s association (collegium fabrum) comprising blacksmiths, workers in copper and bronze, builders, and masons, whose activities included firemen’s duties in the larger towns.

Caesernius Primitivus and Ollia Primilla, who presumably owned an estate in the territory of today’s village of Spodnje Gameljne, bequeathed to the collegium 200 denarii (equalling 800 sestertii) on condition that (part of) the annual interest should be used to buy roses and decorate their grave. Inscriptions referring to similar bequests are mainly known from northern Italy but largely unknown in the western provinces: Noricum and Pannonia have yielded no finds, nor are expected to do so (yet another proof that Emona belonged under the Regio X, Tenth Italic Region). The testament writers usually desired to have their memory honoured on the Parentalia (a festival of the dead) and/or the Rosalia and Violaria (festivals when graves were decorated with roses and violets respectively), or on their birthdays or death anniversaries. On occasion other festivals could be selected if they were important to their families or collegia. A Greek inscription from Cepigovo (Macedonia), for example, stipulates that the festival of Vettius Bolanus should be commemorated with a yearly banquet on 19 October: this date may have been his birthday or an important family festival. The same may be assumed about the Carnaria of the Caesarnii inscription, as the Roman custom was to cite the date by referring to the accompanying festival.


II. Carna and Her Festival

According to Ovid’s Fasti, the Calends, i.e. the first day, of June were dedicated to the goddess Carna: ‘The first day is given to thee, Carna. She is the goddess of the hinge: by her divine power she opens what is closed, and closes what is open’ (6.101–102; trans. J. G. Frazer). The versification of her myth at Fasti 6.101–182 is our best extant source for the characteristics and province of this ancient Roman goddess. Ovid’s initial definition of her as the goddess of hinges has been questioned by many scholars, believing that the poet had confounded her with Cardea (cardo is the Latin for ‘door hinge’). To all appearances, however, no such goddess as Cardea had ever existed (a conclusion partly accepted by the scholarship), and Ovid’s lines offer no proof that Carna might not have been the goddess of hinges as well. Te idea could hardly have been Ovid’s own invention: what is more likely is that his contemporaries actually worshipped Carna also as a patron of doors, an office agreeing with her other characteristics. Her name, however, probably derives from caro, carnis, ‘flesh’, as an early etymology has claimed.

Carna was an ancient Roman goddess: ‘Time has dimmed the tradition which sets forth how she acquired the powers she owns, but you shall learn it from my song’ (103–104). According to Ovid, the grove of Alernus near the Tiber, still held sacred in his own time, was the birthplace of a nymph, Cranaë. She managed to evade all suitors until she was caught by Janus, from whom she could not hide because he had eyes in the back of his head. In return for her maidenhood, he invested her with power over the hinges and gave her a twig of whitethorn (spina alba), which repels harm from doors. Particularly dangerous were nocturnal birds of prey, the striges which attacked nurseless infants in their cradles at night, rent their innards and sucked their blood. On one occasion, Carna thus rescued the five-day-old Proca (the future great-grandfather of Romulus and king in Alba Longa) by touching the doorposts and threshold three times with a whitethorn twig, sprinkling the entrance with healing water, and sacrificing the innards of a suckling pig just two months old.

Ovid begins by naming Carna and the Calends sacred to her and continues by using her ‘old’ name, Cranaë, but reverts to the name ‘Carna’ after the Proca episode, saying: ‘You ask why fat bacon is eaten on these [C]alends, and why beans are mixed with hot spelt. She is a goddess of the olden time, and subsists upon the foods to which she was inured before; no voluptuary is she to run after foreign viands’ (6.169–172). His description of expensive foreign dishes, which had not been served at the Roman tables of old, concludes: ‘The pig was prized, people feasted on slaughtered swine: the ground yielded only beans and hard spelt. Whoever eats at the same time these two foods on the [C]alends of the sixth month, they affirm that nothing can hurt his bowels’ (178–182). The June Calends were popularly known as Kalendae fabariae because it was in June that the first beans were harvested in Italy and brought as offerings to the altars. This is attested by Macrobius, and while his details slightly diverge from Ovid’s, the two accounts are easily amalgamated into a whole. Macrobius further mentions a temple on Mount Caelius dedicated to Carna by Lucius Iunius Brutus.

The Greeks believed that whitethorn twigs attached to doors or windows would repel witches (Dioscorides, De natura medica 1.119). Judging by Ovid’s tale of Carna, similar superstitious beliefs proliferated among the Romans. And since superstition dies hard, the belief still lingers in many places that strongly scented plants, if hung about the room, will repel bloodsuckers and vampires. Moreover, it was believed into late antiquity that whitethorn offered protection against spirits on the day when they supposedly stalked and harassed the living.

For the territory of present-day Slovenia, Johann Weikhard von Valvasor’s ‘Glory of the Duchy of Carniola’ (Die Ehre, vol. 3, 400) preserves a note about evil spirits who kill children by sucking their blood, not unlike the Roman striges repelled by Carna. The rumour about the spirits is cited in connection with the Prestranek (Prostranigkh) castle: ‘As for this area around Pivka, it is said that at certain times, such as Christmas Eve, there is a host of apparitions to be seen; called vedavci in the local language, they are believed to drain children of their blood. These spirits are resisted and fought against

by lower spirits called šentjanževci. If rumour is to be trusted, they have been seen by many.’


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