Superstition in Ancient Rome: Crossing the “Bridge of the Dead” (10/31-11/2)

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October 31st to November 2nd marks a span of time that most Italians view with superstition.  It is known as the “Bridge of the Dead,” beginning with Halloween and ending with the Celebration of the Dead—a 72-hour period steeped in occult tradition, stemming from ancient Roman history.

Lost souls, the dead returned to life…masks, witchcraft, nursery rhymes and much more: are they really dark magic or mere superstition?  Or are they simply old wives tales that contain a grain of truth from some forgotten time?  In Rome, with its worshipping of ancient gods, there has always been special attention paid to these dark tales.

In the ancient Roman calendar, there were days considered auspicious (dies fasti) and inauspicious for engaging in certain activities (e.g. engaging business, public administration or legal tasks, or even the planting or reaping of crops). The unluckiest days of the month were the 2nd, the so-called none (the 5th or 7th), and the Ides (the 13th or 15th; and even today the number 13 is still considered “cursed”).  Furthermore, dates of certain disasters became to be known as ominous, e.g. July 18th, which was the date, in 387 BC, that the Gauls defeated the Romans in the Battle of the Allia—a date that came to be marked on the calendar as Clades Gallica (the “Gallic Catastrophe”).


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Take into consideration for a moment the Italian proverb Né di Venere né di Marte non si sposa non si parte, né si dà principio all’arte (“Neither Venus nor Mars, not married not apart, neither one gives himself to art”).  Meaning?  Never do something important, especially travelling or a change in action on either a Tuesday (martedì from Mars, the god of war) or Friday (venerdì from Venus, the goddess of love).  In essence, Tuesdays and Fridays were marked as days of expulsion, during which it was forbidden to leave, get married or start a new business.

However, the ancient Romans didn’t have just the calendar to unsettle their sleep.  A myriad of actions could be considered bad luck, such as spilling wine, oil or water; meeting a mule carrying ipposelino (a plant that was used to adorn graves); letting a black dog inside your home; finding a rat hole in a bag of flour; or having a beam unexpectedly break in your home.

Of course, as a result of all of these superstitions, amulets to ward off misfortune, evil spells and diseases were ubiquitous.  Upon the doors of many houses the word arse verse (which probably came from averte ignem “against fire”) was written to protect the homes against the frequent and dangerous occurrences of fires.   Even Julius Caesar was among the many that resorted to using incantations to avoid calamity.  Pliny the Elder stated that after having his chariot break during a Triumphal procession, Caesar always recited an incantations three times.

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The Romans learned much from the Etruscans, whose religious beliefs were filled shadows of the dead (lemŭres) and other dark aspects of supernatural life.  The Romans, however, did not take the Etruscans preoccupation with the underworld seriously, viewing it only as fodder for children and the uneducated.

The wolf, however, became a recognizable symbol of the Eternal City.  The meaning of the wolf in Roman society created a sense of ambivalence: on one hand, it was seen as the giver of life and fertility (e.g. the she-wolf who cared for the twins Romulus and Remus; or the totem animal of Ver Sacrum), on the other hand, the wolf was linked to the underworld, to violence and wickedness. It was also believed that some men could turn into wolves at night (werewolves), who go about terrorizing and killing.  These werewolves (versipelles meaning “able to transform” or lupi hominari from which the Italian for werewolf, lupi mannari, stems) were described by various authors, such as Ovid, who narrated the tale of the transformation of Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who killed a young man and ate his flesh to honor Zeus.

To this day, the streets of Rome’s Historic Center, between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, reveal the remains of temples or other small buildings that were concerned with luck, superstition, and the occult. So, the next time you find yourself waking to a Friday the 13th, before you head out the door, remember to appeal to any of the many deities associated with luck to ensure for yourself a good day.


Original Article by Samir Hassan

(Translated & Edited  Diedré Blake)

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