The chant of Egeria – goddess, nymph or muse
Her role – Egeria in the eternal city
Egeria’s most ancient story is lost in the fog of centuries. Probably as old as Rome itself, she has been recorded as a goddess or nymph by the earliest Latin writers whose scraps arrived to us. As a deity, she was invoked by pregnant women for good child delivery. As a nymph she was tight to waters and to the Camenae, prophetic deities, whose name came from the Latin carmen, meaning an oracle or song, a magic ritual speech, and root to the word charm in English. Egeria, as political and religious advisor at a very early stage of Roman history, emphasizes the role of women in harmony, peace, inclusion, and diplomacy.
Her legend – the fairy dimention of Rome’s land
The legend tells that the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, born on April 21st, 753 B.C., on the day of the birth of the eternal city, fell in love with Egeria. They used to meet at night outside the city walls in the wood of the Camanae where inside a cave a source was running. For this reason, Numa made the wood, the valley, and the source sacred. Numa was from the Sabine hills, where the women were kidnapped a long time before to fill the need of the first archaic society. After ten years of war, originating from this “accident” the Sabines and Romans were unified ruling alternatively. Egeria helped Numa to close the doors of the temple of Janus, open in war times, to codify norms in civil, criminal, and religious matters. As the Roman king died Egeria, sad and desperate, left the surrounding of the still tiny city, and on the top of the Latium Volcano, where there was the sanctuary of Diana, melted in tears leaving a source that was attested in that sacred place by the ancient writers.
The legendary influence of a woman in early stages of Roman history
Already, a few centuries B.C. a lot of Latin writers were skeptics and described Egeria as a good political stratagem to dignify norms that were reforming the social life of Roman citizens. There were footsteps of older traditions where gods have been pointed as direct sources of inspiration for rulers like Dionysius of Halicarnassus that used to meet Zeus in a grotto or Mosè being dictated the laws by the Jewish god on Mount Sinai, among others. Under the legendary influence of Egeria, human sacrifices were banned, it was made a distinction between premeditated and accidental murders, grief times, January and February were added to the usual calendar, the 300 hundred men guard for the security of the king was dismantled, new festivities and new orders like the Vestal Virgins one were created, among many other innovations.
The suave sound – a natural phenomena or a genie in early Rome
“To him answered Egeria with suave sound,” wrote Quintus Ennius, considered the father of Latin literature, and father to Roman poetry in his elegant hexameters of the Annales (171 B.C.). The earliest deities were tight to natural phenomena like Volcano. With society getting more refined, the adoption of foreign deities, the intercultural market, and the influence of other religions, most of those gods ended up occupying a sub-alternative role. It is said that there were more than 150 minor deities with speaking names of their role in common lives. They didn’t occupy all the areas of human lives but concentrated on the more difficult turning points of life. Towards the end of the Roman empire, the pagan world was filled with genies, there were responsible for each place, corporation, or life phase but especially each person was supposed to have had one, indivisible until death like a shade, to protect and advise him or her, awaking the irony of many writers.
Real enemies and legendary supporters
For sure the idea of a suave sound and water sources impressed Augustine of Hippo, father of the Latin Church, and philosopher of Berber origin, that in his City of God, written just after the Sack of Rome of 410 A.D., pointed to demonic forces as a source of inspiration of his religious norms, evil spirits that took him away from the search of the real God. Agustine speaks of voices: he’s assuming that Numa was apt to the divinatory practice that ancients called hydromancy, calling demons’ shades on water surfaces trying to see their shapes and hear their voices. Probably for this connection with chant and inspiration the Camenae, in the late Republic, with the translation of the Odyssey, became Muses. It was then that, behind the Porticus Octaviae, a temple was erected dedicated to Hercules protecting Muses.
From a chant to protect birth to the Latin alphabet
The Camenae were also tight to childbirth, and from one early powerful deity of the village of Rome, Carmenta three minor deities, with Antevorta and Postworta, were recreated, the later two respectively representing either future and past or head down and breech childbirth. The importance of Carmenta is underlined by the name of one of the main gates to the ancient city in royal times, by the festivity dedicated to her and worshipped regularly only by women, and by the flamen, the priests dedicated to her cult (only 18 gods had a dedicated flamen in the Republic). She generated Evander of Pallene with Hermes, and her son with some Greek followers supposed to have grounded the city of Pallantium, before the war of Troy, on the ground where Rome would flourish later. Carmenta was not only the principal advisor to her son but she is recorded as the inventor of the Latin alphabet.
Renaissance reconstructions – Egeria attributes
In the Renaissance, in full antiquity revival and use of pagan symbols, for the marriage of Francesco I, the second Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Joanna of Austria, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, the celebrations culminated in a masked procession made by 21 parade floats and more than 500 characters representing the ancient deities. On the parade float dedicated to the moon, there was also our Egeria with a key, believed to open doors to an easy birth, and an eagle-stone, a limonite concretion with inside a small loose stone that rattles when shaken. Keys were found in recent archeological excavations as ancient Rome offers next to the votive uterus while the belief that eagle stone would prevent abortion is rooted in the 4th century B.C. Greek medicine.
The land dedicated to Egeria – our guided tours
Leaving the Mediterranean behind, the ancient Port of Ostia where in archaic times the salt mines assured sheep life, we love to follow the Tiber River to hear its sounds. There you can spot hawks, coots, herons, and moorhens easily. On the banks there is a path maintained by the local population, the Pasolini trail, loved by all the citizens of these Rome districts that grew too quickly, half squatting, half children of political interests towards the seaside. Today is a story of claims and pride in improving the quality of life in these areas that once were the suburbs of the city and now host the Roman working class, artisans, and professionals pulled out from the ancient center of the city. Following that chant, we love to arrive at the ex-industrial quarters and inspect markets, industrial architectures, and archeology to face the Tiber River Port and gates to the city and start again following Egeria towards the Latium Volcano to remind our guests of the importance of water beyond body needs and time.
Egeria in the eternal city and her political legacy – call for imagination
Egeria, a nymph or deity, played a legendary political and religious part emphasizing the female role in leading a society in harmony, peace, inclusion and diplomacy. All states that require prophetic qualities, which recall the Latin origin of Camenae, sisters or friends to Egeria but also hers from the verb egerere, i.e. to bring out, to generate. Old as Rome itself, she has been able to arrive to us in the topography of Rome and her name is the one of our main water source in the city. It’s a natural light sparkling water loved by Roman citizens, but her most suave and ancient voice invoking harmony, peace, and inclusion is lost in the fog of centuries.