By Ann Hetherington - Museum Volunteer

First of all let’s address the elephant in the room! It is important to spell Fornacalia correctly, as it is based on the Latin word fornax, meaning oven or furnace. The word fornix means arch and probably is where the brothels were found: hence the word ‘fornicate’. Two totally separate things! Unless you want to go down the route of buns in the oven……..!

Thanks to Potted History for this image of the mould of his interpretation of the goddess, Fornax.

Which god/goddess is linked to the festival?

Pliny the Elder tells us that Numa Pompilius (753-673 BC), the Sabine King of Rome, established Fornacalia, The Feast of Ovens.

Ovid in Fasti II:512 writes:

‘For at one time they would sweep up black ashes instead of spelt, and at another time the fire caught the huts themselves. So they made the oven into a goddess of that name (Fornax): delighted with her, the farmers prayed that she would temper the heat to the corn committed to her charge.’

There appear to be no contemporary images of the goddess Fornax to be found on altars or murals. There is some speculation that the name, Fornax, may be where the word ‘furnace’ also comes from. The goddess of ovens and furnaces- without which we could not cook or create, and who was necessary to prevent burnt offerings and serious house fires. A powerful goddess indeed!

When was it celebrated?

Ovid tells us that the thirty Curiae, (the most ancient divisions of the city made by Romulus from the original three tribes of Rome) held the rites on no fixed date. However, it is now accepted that the festival lasted approximately nine days, and probably started around the 7th of February. As there were 10 curiae and the Quirinalia was celebrated around the 17th of February, it would make sense to suppose that the festival began 10 days earlier. The Quirinalia was also known as ‘The feast of fools’ (Plutarch, Moralia – The Roman Questions, 89), because that was the last possible day on which the illiterate or the lost, who did not know which curia they belonged in, could celebrate. "[f]oolish people don’t know which is their ward, so they hold the feast on the last possible day.’

How was it celebrated?

The celebration was proclaimed every year by the Curio Maximus, who was the priest who acted as the head of the curiae. He announced the different part which each curia had to take in the celebration of the festival. It would appear that the ovens were decorated with garlands and ‘round the Forum hang many tablets, on which every ward displays its own sign.’ It would not be unreasonable to surmise that a special loaf of bread would be made to celebrate the feast, although some accounts seem to suggest that the grain would be ceremoniously toasted (and not burnt!) and then turned into loaves.

It is believed that every family in the curia brought far (spelt, a kind of grain), to be toasted in the meeting hall and sacrificed to ensure that bread in the household ovens wouldn’t be burnt in the following year.

Who was it celebrated by?

Roman bread oven from the ramparts at Vindolanda excavated in 2006

Fornacalia was obviously celebrated in Rome, but whether the celebration was brought to Britain and celebrated by the soldiers does not seem to have been documented. As there appears to be a link between the goddess Fornax and fertility, it can perhaps be surmised that this was a celebration primarily marked by women. Although it is easy to imagine some poor soldier, tasked with producing a decent loaf for his mess mates on a damp February day, giving huge thanks to Fornax when the loaves he produced were edible!

Thanks be to Fornax!

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project