Lemuria the Ancient Roman Day of the Dead

Person holding thumb between middle and forefinger.
The mano fica gesture used to ward off evil.

SpecialAdviser / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons 

The upcoming holiday of Halloween may derive, in part, from the Celtic holiday of Samhain. However, the Celts weren’t the only ones to appease their dead. The Romans did so at numerous festivals, including the Lemuria, a rite that Ovid traced back to the very founding of Rome.

Lemuria and Ancestor Worship

The Lemuria took place on three different days in May. On the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth of that month, Roman householders gave offerings to their deceased ancestors to make sure their ancestors didn’t haunt them. The great poet Ovid chronicled Roman festivals in his "Fasti." In his section on the month of May, he discussed the Lemuria.

Ovid alleged that the festival got its name from “Remuria,” a festival named for Remus, Romulus’s twin brother whom he killed after founding Rome. Remus appeared as a ghost after his death and asked his brother’s friends to make future generations honor him. Said Ovid, “Romulus complied, and gave the name Remuria to the day on which due worship is paid to buried ancestors.”

Eventually, “Remuria” became “Lemuria.” Scholars doubt that etymology, however, instead of supporting the likely theory that Lemura was named for the “lemures,” one of the several types of Roman spirits.

The Ceremony for Celebrating the Dead

The Romans believed that there could be no knots present during the ceremony. Some scholars theorize that knots were forbidden to allow natural forces to flow properly. The Romans are known to take off their sandals, and walk in their bare feet while making a sign to ward off evil. This gesture is called mano fica (literally "fig hand"). 

They would then clean themselves with fresh water and throw black beans (or spit black beans from their mouth). Looking away, they would say, “These I cast; with these beans, I redeem me and mine."

By throwing away beans and what they symbolize or contain, ancient Roman's believed they were removing potentially dangerous spirits from their home. According to Ovid, the spirits would follow the beans and leave the living be.

Next, they would wash and bang together pieces of bronze from Temesa in Calabria, Italy. They would ask the shades to leave their home nine times, saying, "Ghost of my fathers, go forth!" And you're done.

It's not "black magic" as we think of it today, which Charles W. King explains in his essay “The Roman Manes: the Dead as Gods." If the Romans even had such a concept, it would have applied to “invoking supernatural powers to harm others,” which doesn't happen here. As King observes, the Roman spirits in the Lemuria aren't the same as our modern ghosts. These are ancestral spirits to be propitiated. They might harm you if you don’t observe certain rites, but they’re not necessarily inherently evil.

Types of Spirits

The spirits Ovid mentions aren’t all one and the same. One particular category of spirits is the manes, which King defines as the “deified dead”; in his "Roman Gods: a Conceptual Approach," Michael Lipka terms them “the venerable souls of the past.” In fact, Ovid calls the ghosts by this name (among others) in his "Fasti." These manes, then, aren’t just spirits, but a kind of god.

Such rituals as the Lemuria aren’t only apotropaic—representative of a type of magic to ward off negative influences—but also negotiate with the dead in different ways. In other texts, the interaction between the human and the manes is encouraged. Thus, the Lemuria provides an insight into the complexities of the ways the Romans regarded their dead.               

But these manes aren't the only sprits involved in this festival. In Jack J. Lennon’s "Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome," he author mentions another kind of spirit invoked in the Lemuria. These are the taciti inferi, the silent dead. Unlike the manes, Lennon says, “these spirits were labeled as harmful and malicious.” Perhaps, then, the Lemuria was an occasion to propitiate different kinds of gods and spirits all at once. Indeed, other sources say the god's worshippers placated at the Lemuria weren't the manes, but the lemures or the larvae, which were often conflated in antiquity. Even Michael Lipka terms these different types of spirits “confusingly similar.” The Romans likely took this holiday as a time to appease all the ghost-gods.

Although Lemuria isn't celebrated today, it might have left its legacy in Western Europe. Some scholars theorize that modern All Saints’ Day derives from this festival (along with another ghostly Roman holiday, Parentalia). Though that assertion is a mere possibility, Lemuria still reigns supreme as one of the deadliest of all Roman holidays.