The Parentalia Festival

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The Romans honored their dead at the Parentalia. Image by Muammer Mujdat Uzel/E+/Getty Images

The ancient Romans had a festival for just about everything, and honoring your family’s dead was no exception. The Parentalia festival was celebrated each year for a week, beginning on February 13. Originating in Etruscan practice, the celebration included private rituals held in the home to honor the ancestors, followed by a public festival.

The Parentalia was, unlike many other Roman celebrations, often a time of quiet, personal reflection rather than boisterous merrymaking.

Families often gathered together, visited the ancestral tombs of their forebears, and offered libations to the dead. Sometimes offerings of bread and wine were left for the deceased kinfolk, and if a family had a household deity, a small sacrifice might be made to them as well.

During the Parentalia, which traditionally lasted seven days (although some sources place it at eight or nine), Romans suspended much of their regular businesses. Weddings were put on hold during that time, temples shut their doors to the public, and politicians and lawmakers postponed all business during the Parentalia.

On the final day of Parentalia, a public feast called the Feralia was held. Although little is known about the specific rituals of Feralia, Ovid writes:

Now ghostly spirits and the entombed dead wander,
Now the shadow feeds on the nourishment that's offered.
But it only lasts till there are no more days in the month
Than the feet that my metres possess.
This day they call the Feralia because they bear
Offerings to the dead: the last day to propitiate the shades.

The Feralia was also a time to celebrate the god Jupiter, in his aspect as Iuppiter Feretrius, the subduer of enemies and oath-breakers.

Blogger Camilla Laurentine describes how her family, today, celebrates the Parentalia each year. She says, "Long before my spiritual practice fell comfortably into the lines of a modern Roman practice, I held family and my ancestors in high esteem.

Friends found this curious for a long time, many probably still do, but it is what it is. Now I have the alignment of my religious practice to help cement those I’ve come from as spiritually important.  This is a very meaningful and important relationship to me... This upcoming week is going to be busy getting our dining room cleaned, swept, and organized for this festival, because you tidy up for honored guests. We will decorate the table, which is being turned into a place of offering for every meal."

Camilla goes on to outline how each day, she and her family celebrate with invocations and offerings to the gods, and honoring the dead and the household deities.

Be sure to read about other Roman festivals held throughout the year, many of which are still observed today by modern Pagans:

  • January 24, Sementivae: This grain-oriented festival celebrates the sowing of the fields in preparation for springtime's planting.
  • January 30 – February 2, Februalia: This was a period of sacrifice and atonement, invovling offerings to the gods, prayer, and sacrifices.
  • February 15, Lupercalia: This event celebrated the fertility of not only the livestock but people as well.
  • March 1, Matronalia: This annual "festival of women" was held in honor of Juno Luciana, a goddess who watched over married women and those in childbirth.
  • April 28 – May 3, Floralia: It was believed that a good festival ensured that the goddess Flora would protect the blooming flowers around the city.
  • More Roman Festivals: Even if your path isn’t specifically rooted in Roman religion, you can still observe these holidays, many of which were based upon seasonal or agricultural markers.
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Wigington, Patti. "The Parentalia Festival." ThoughtCo, Oct. 6, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-roman-parentalia-festival-2562141. Wigington, Patti. (2016, October 6). The Parentalia Festival. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-roman-parentalia-festival-2562141 Wigington, Patti. "The Parentalia Festival." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-roman-parentalia-festival-2562141 (accessed December 13, 2017).