Bona Dea, Roman Fertility Goddess

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Bona Dea was a Roman goddess of fertility. Photo Credit: sonjayounger/RooM/Getty Images

In ancient Rome, Bona Dea was a goddess of fertility. In an interesting paradox, she was also a goddess of chastity and virginity. Honored originally as an earth goddess, she was an agricultural deity, and was often invoked to protect the area from earthquakes. Unlike many Roman goddesses, Bona Dea seems to have been particularly honored by the lower social classes. Slaves and plebian women who were trying to conceive a child might make offerings to her in hopes of being granted a fertile womb.

Her name comes from the Latin for "good goddess."

Although her principal temple was on the Aventine hill, secret rituals and rites were performed in private homes. Once a year, usually in early December, high-ranking women would gather at the house of Rome's most prominent magistrates, the Pontifex Maximus. While there, the magistrate's wife led secret rituals at which men were forbidden. It was even prohibited to discuss men or anything masculine at the ritual. While the details of these rites are unknown, it is believed they were related to agriculture and fertility.

In the year 62 b.c.e., Julius Caesar was the Pontifex Maximus of Rome. Caesar's wife, Pompeia, was in charge of the Bona Dea rite, which was to be held in her home during her husband's absence. Caesar's mother, Aurelia, was assisting with hostessing duties, because Pompeia wasn't exactly known for being stable. At one point during the evening, Aurelia noticed that one of the cloaked women was extremely tall, and there was something a bit off about her voice.

She discovered that the tall woman was in fact a man named Clodius, but he escaped from the house before he could be apprehended. This sacrilege of disrupting the sacred Bona Dea rite was highly upsetting to Romans, and Clodius was eventually caught and brought to trial for his improper act. Rumor had it that he may have been having an adulterous affair with Pompeia.

He was later acquitted, but Caesar divorced Pompeia for allowing such an impiety to take place in his home.

Bona Dea's image often appeared on Roman coins, and she is represented by the serpent as well as the cornucopia. The two of them together make it clear that she was a symbol of fertility and abundance. Although the private ritual was held in December, a public festival celebrating Bona Dea was held each year in May, just in time for the planting season. Sacrifices were made in Bona Dea's honor, including suckling pigs, and offerings of flowers, wine and milk.

Aediculaantinoi over at Antinoan Connections says, "Sometimes, Bona Dea is said to have been either the wife or the daughter of the god Faunus, and therefore connected to or synonymous with the goddess Fauna. Depending on her relationship to Faunus, he either (as her father) tried to seduce her and was rebuffed, but then made her drunk and beat her with myrtle branches until he assumed the form of a snake and seduced her, or (as her husband) she was a chaste wife who became excessively drunk on wine and was beaten by Faunus with myrtle until she died, whereupon she was made into a goddess. The wine used in her ritual on December 3 was called “milk” instead, and the covered jar which held it was called a “honey pot” so as not to recall the bad effects wine had on her story, whichever version of it happened to be accepted at the time."