Bona Dea – the Goddess of goddesses called Serpenta
A wider picture: from prophecy, health, light and industry, the skills of a goddess
The literary sources report different aspects of Bona Dea’s personality and the inscriptions call her with an amazing range of epithets: fatua referring to her prophecy skills, igea for the health she guaranteed, valetudo to prevent diseases, oclata because cautious, damiatrix for sacrifices, opifera for her industriousness, lucifera from light, nutrix as mother but later she was even called Maja, Ops, Semele, and Proserpina. Some sources reported the cult as older than Rome. In the town of Nazzano, around the church of Sant’Antimo, there were found five inscriptions dedicated to her referred also as serpenas (i.e. the snakes one). It was referred to as a patrician cult worshipped exclusively by women but the findings offer us a wider picture: a goddess whose real name was forbidden to pronounce, probably never seen by a man, worshipped publicly and privately by all social classes, also by magistrates, and assuming to the position of the Goddess of all goddesses.
Her natural environment between water, caves, woods and herbs
The entrance to the world of Bona Dea was based on rituals close to grottos, sources, especially water, involving herbs ( but no myrtle ) washing, drinking wine called milk in a vessel that depicted a honey jar and fire. Her most common attributes have been a cornucopia ( a horn-shaped container overflowing with flowers and fruits, symbol of abundance) on one hand and a bowl on the other, from which a snake (symbol of health) was drinking. She is mostly represented seated on a throne and dressed in a richly draped tunic on a chiton with a girdle under the breast, and a wide mantle. Her temples have been found in Rome, in Ostia up to north of Italy but also in north Africa and inside her sanctuaries, the presence of tamed snakes has been reported.
The legendary family of Bona Dea
Her fame arrived clear in modern days because of the mystery that surrounds her character, and the importance of her role in Roman women’s life which made it an essential and sacred cult to the traditions and welfare of the Roman State. The legend tells us that she was the wife or daughter of the mythical Fauno, one of the oldest Italic deities. In some versions of the myth, Faunus is identified with an ancient king of Latium, nephew of God Saturn or Mars, son of Pico and Pomona, and, according to the Aeneid, father of Latino. After his death, he was worshipped both as the protector of crops and herds ( nicknamed Inuus) and for his oracular powers (under the epithet Fatuus). According to another Latin version, he was the son of Jupiter and the sorceress Circe. The Lupercalia, one of the oldest festivities in Italy and the last pagan to die, were celebrated in his honor. In the middle of February, men would sacrifice and once naked wear the animals’ skin going into the wood. It was believed to protect the cattle from wolves and part of the ritual took place in the she-wolf cave on Palatine hill (the she-wolf suckled Romolus and Remus, the twins that grounded the city of Rome. The Lupercalias have many elements in common with the Faliscan cult of Hirpi Sorani ( ie. Soranus’ wolves, from the Sabine word hirpus which means wolf) practiced on Mount Soratte in Bona Dea lands.
Wine and water in her myth
Fauna or Fautua, then Bona Dea, was a cast and modest woman, but one day, she tried some wine and drank all of it. Fauno beat her with myrtle twigs to death. Another version said that Fauno was her father and in love with her, got her drunk to take advantage of her, unsuccessful, he transformed himself into a snake being able then to penetrate her. In all versions, she became a powerful goddess with high prophecy skills, a deity to which all women, to be married or already married, had to be devoted. Virgil tells us that after Hercules freed the area at the feet of the Palatine Hill, in the myrtle valley, from Cacus, a monstrous fire-breathing brigand, was deadly thirsty. He heard some water noise and some girls laughing inside a wood. He approached but at a gate an old priestess sent him away causing his vengeance forbidding the entrance to women to his future cult close by.
In the valley of the myrtle, there was also Venus temple that was able to protect herself with myrtle branches from indiscrete satyrs that found her naked taking a bath. It was the Venus called Cnidia and in the Ashmolean Museum, there is a dedication carved on marble dedicated to both goddesses. Her statue was washed ritually each year, as there was ritual washing also for Bona Dea. The two cults referring to the women’s intimate sphere seem to be strictly connected. Close by, there was the Piscina Pubblica, the public pool probably related, as later the thermal baths of Caracalla. It was thought that those celebrations were reserved for girls about to be married to be initiated into the effects of wine and sensuality. Once the period of initiation was finished they could re-enter the city wall and enjoy civil life as wives. Inside, there was the temple of Bona Dea Subsaxana, so called because it was located under a ‘saxum’, a rock on the Aventine Hill. There, there was a pharmacy in which the priestesses prepared healing remedies thanks to the medicinal properties of herbs. At the beginning of December, there was a kind of private ritual made inside the house of the magistrate in charge from which all men or male animals, live or depicted, were banned. All the Roman matrons took part.
Bona Dea Scandal: Clodius trying to seduce the wife of Ceasar
One of the best and most accurate sources on Bona Dea is the Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero. He tells us also about the Clodius scandal, which occurred in December 62 B.C. Publius Clodius Pulcher, one of the most colorful characters of his time, disguised as a female harper, entered that night at Caesar’s house where the Bona Dea festival was being celebrated. It seems that he wanted to seduce Pompeia, Caesar’s wife. Cicero held the episode as symbolic of the loss of respect for traditions and spoke up against Clodius who was anyway freed from all charges but he could not forgive what happened. It eventually led to a feud between them and Titus Annius Milo, friend and supporter of Cicero. The situation degenerated with bands of armed slaves and gladiators as bodyguards. Clodius’ death ten years later, near a Bona Dea shrine, closes this episode at last.
Bona Dea lands: from local evidence to elective affinities
The wider image of Bona Dea, Goddess of goddesses, whose mystery cult was reserved for women but honored and protected also by men of all social classes, shows why we decided to dedicate these territories and our guided tours on these lands to her. Besides the local pieces of evidence, the inscriptions dedicated to her above the village of Nazzano and the connection of the celebrations on the Soratte Mountain to the Lupercalia, dedicated to her husband, she is tight to water, woods, caves, herbs, and industry, all elements that characterized the Natural Reserve of Tevere Nazzano Farfa and so the lands of Bona Dea.