By Jackie James - Volunteer Guide

Lunas Backround

Godly ancestry was important in Roman religion. According to Hesiods Theogony, Luna is said to be the daughter of Hyperion and Theia. Hyperion was the Titan god of heavenly light and one of the twelve Titan children of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). Theia was his sister - a goddess of sight who endowed gold, silver and gems with their brilliance and intrinsic value. The Titans were the oldest gods and preceded the next generation, the Roman gods of Olympus. Luna was the sister of Sol (the male sun god) and of Aurora (the female goddess of dawn). She was one of the consorts of Jupiter, the god of sky, thunder and king of the Roman gods; their offspring included Pardeia, Herse and Nemeia.

In addition to Jupiter, Luna had a second mythical consort named Endymion. Endymion may have been an astronomer but is known as a handsome young shepherd, favoured by Jupiter who bestowed upon him the gift of eternal youth and the ability to sleep for as long and as often as he desired. Luna is said to have been so entranced by his beauty that she descended nightly from heaven to watch over and protect him. Notwithstanding this protectiverole Luna and Endymion had fifty offspring; known as The Menae, they were the fifty goddesses of the lunar months within a four year Olympiad! The myth of Endymion was a popular subject for Roman wall paintings.

It is generally believed that the cult of Luna dates back to the time of the Kings i.e. predates Republican Rome. The mythical story of Romulus and Remus culminating in the foundation of Rome in 753BC is well known. The city was subsequently ruled by a series of seven kings, not all of whom were as competent as Romulus, the first King of Rome. Eventually, deposition of the seventh king, Tarquinius Superbus, led to the advent of the Roman Republic in 509BC. When the first (mythical) war between Rome/Romulus and the Sabines/Titus Tatius came to an end the two leaders agreed to form a complete Roman society; each pledged to fulfil his religious duty by institution of cults. Romulus instituted a single cult - to Jupiter - and Titus Tatius introduced a series of cults including those to Sol and Luna.

Constructing a detailed, non-mythological account of the origins and importance of Luna is difficult as all early writings were destroyed during the first sack of Rome in 387BC when the invading Gauls burned and plundered the city, killing most of the Roman Senate. Many famous Roman writers and poets including Varro (116BC - 27BC), Virgil (70BC - 19BC) and Horace (65BC - 8BC) refer to Luna but were writing about events which occurred many centuries before they were born. Consequently, the manner in which they portrayed factswas coloured by their own perceptions and experiences and by what they deemed the populace of the time wished to heard and read. Ancient Roman history may be presented as factual but is, in reality, a collection of myths. In the absence of written records, it is difficult for us to decipher which parts of the mythological writings represent fact and which represent embellishment. What is beyond dispute however is that the moon occupied a central place in Roman religion.

Why Luna was worshipped

Roman goddesses of the moon, and their Greek counterparts, were said to be formed in a triadic manner hence Luna was associated with two further goddesses, Diana and Hecate. Luna was the goddess in heaven and of the full moon (Greek counterpart being Selene), Diana was the goddess on earth and of the halfmoon (Greek Artemis) and Hecate (or Hekate) was the goddess in the underworld and of the dark moon.

Diana was originally a goddess of fertility and was worshipped by women as the giver of fertility and easy births. She was also the goddess of nature and of hunting. Hecate was the underworld goddess of magic and witchcraft. Varro mentions the association of Luna with Diana and further association with other goddesses linked to chastity and childbirth such as Prosperina and Juno Lucina, an ancient maternal character. The latter may even have been a more central figure within the triad of moon goddesses with Hecate being a later participant.

The multiple facets of women, femininity and childbirth were believed to be associated with the phases of the moon: the new moon represented the maiden goddess, Diana, always new, virginal, reborn and ready for the hunt whereas the waxing moon increasing in size represented the fertile mother goddess, pregnant with life. The darkening moon reflected the wise crone or witch, Hecate, with power to heal and transform.

 The moon advances pregnancies and ripens them into birthand the moon is the source of conception and birth and of growth and maturity. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BC - 43BC)

Varro categorised both Luna and Sol as being amongst the visible gods as opposed to the invisible gods, such as Neptune, and deified mortals, such as Hercules. He includes Luna within a list of twelve principal gods of Rome; a list which starts with Jupiter and Telles (Earth) and is followed by Sol and Luna, whose seasons are observed at sowing and harvesting. Varro also includes Luna amongst twelve deities vital to agriculture; Sol and Luna whose courses are watched in all manners of planting and harvesting. Virgil also associated Luna with agriculture although he quotes a different list of twelve gods in which he refers to Luna and Sol as clarissima mundi lumina, the worlds clearest sources of light. The moon and, by association, the cult of Luna were undoubted potent emblems of the agricultural cycle in ancient Rome symbolising that just as seeds reawaken and grow, all that dies will be reborn. Horace, Columella (Roman writer AD4 - AD70), Pliny (Roman writer (AD23 - AD79), Apuleius (Roman writer AD124 - AD170) and Cicero all attest to the importance of the moon, at the heart of religious belief, as mistress of agriculture; the finest and most profitable, delightful occupation.

In addition to femininity, childbirth and agriculture Romans believed that the moon controlled many other facets of sublunar life including the wind, rain, tides, animal life, mineral growth and earthquakes. Suetonius (Roman historian AD69 - AD122) wrote The moon is a great magnet of vapour and all substances characterised by moisture. When the moon grows so do all fruits, and as it was, so they also shrink. Luna was also believed to have the power to mask reality, to pierce illusion, to awaken intuition and to spark visions. This latter arising from association of the night and the moon with dreams. She was also known as a patron of solutions which came to people in dreams, when the subconscious mind processes information.

Inscriptions on altars and buildings stones are a valuable source of evidence when researching Roman history. Text and images on coins provide another evidence source: the silver denarius, minted from around 211BC, generally showed the helmeted head of Roma, the legend ROMAand the letter X, to indicate that its value was equivalent to 10 asses. The reverse bore the semi divine twin horsemen, the Dioscuri, who according to legend appeared miraculously and ensured victory for Rome during a battle between the newly formed Roman Republic and the Latin leagues led by the ageing Tarquinius Superbus, the deposed and last King of Rome.  Around 194BC - 190BC the Dioscuri were replaced on a single issue of coins by Luna in a biga (a two horse chariot). Eleven such depictions are recorded with a further ten around 150BC. Diana is also recorded in a biga of stags in 144BC. As a patroness of charioteers, Luna is often depicted as a pale, beautiful woman with long, shining, black hair riding in a two yoke, silver chariot or biga pulled either by oxen, a pair of horses or a pair of serpentine dragons. She may also be depicted riding a horse or a bull or driving a four-horse chariot, a quadriga. She may carry a torch or be portrayed with the crescent moon lying above her forehead.

A temple dedicated to Luna dating from the 6th century BC and attributed to Servius Tullius, the legendary sixth King of Rome who reigned from 578BC to 535BC, stood on the Aventine Hill in Rome. According to Livy (Roman historian 64/59BC - AD12/17), the temple was damaged during a storm in 182BC with the doors being torn off and blown into the rear wall of the nearby temple of Ceres (an ancient goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships hence strongly associated with Luna). Following the Achaean war in 146BC, the consul Lucius Mummius deposited some of the spoils gained during the sack of Corinth (a city in south-central Greece) in the temple of Luna. Another famous politician linked to the temple is Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, the reformist tribune of 123/122BC who is said to have been injured jumping down from the temple when fleeing from his enemies. The temple sustained further damage in 84BC following a lightning strike; that this led to postponement of the consular elections confirms the importance of the cult of Luna in Republican Rome. Likely situated at the northern end of the Aventine near the Porta Trigomina the temple is said to have been destroyed during the great fire of Rome in 64AD during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Varro attests to a second temple, on the Palatine Hill, which was illuminated at night and dedicated to Luna Noctiluca (night-shiner/Luna that shines by night).

Celebrating Luna

Festivals in honour of Luna were held on March 31st in the Aventine temple on the anniversary of its founding. On August 24th, sacrifices to Luna were made on the Graecostasis - a tribunal or platform between the Comitium (the open-air public speaking site) and the forum; the Lunae Graecostasis was first documented in 304BC. The Solis et Lunae Circenses was celebrated on August 28th at a temple dedicated on this date to the sun and moon and situated near the Circus Maximus. Tacitus (Roman historian AD56 - AD120) refers to it as vetus aedem, an old building and the celebration only became important when Games were added to the agenda in the late Empire (3rd century AD). This temple was primarily dedicated to the sun and a statue of the sun driving a chariot may have sat atop it.

Evidence that Luna was a visible deity outside Rome itself comes from an analysis of pipe-clay figurines recovered from Roman London. 168 such artefacts have been discovered within the Londinium settlement from a mix of residential, trade and religious sites. The figurines were modelled using two piece moulds by plastes, craftsmen, working from officinae, terracotta production centres in the Allier Valley in France. Sixty four percent (109) of the 168 figurines were deities; all were female and Venus was by far the most common (85) however there were two Luna/Diana figurines and one Juno. The Luna/Diana figurines were found below modern day Leadenhall Street and Bond Court - they are unique as only one other similar figurine, from a cemetary near Nijmegan in The Netherlands has been recorded.

Roman belief that gods and goddesses controlled every aspect of life resulted in countless deities presiding over every task, every occupation, every action. Each deity had to be wooed with prayers, vows, dedication of altars, animal or bird sacrifices and offerings of milk, honey, grain, fruit, cake, perfumes or flowers. Animal and bird sacrifices were specified by colour and gender hence sacrifices to Luna, conducted outside her temple on the Aventine Hill, would have been of white animals or birds.

In 17BC, Horace, the Roman lyric poet (65BC - 8BC) was commissioned by the Emperor Augustus to write a hymn/ode for the opening ceremony of the Ludi Saeculares, the Secular Games. These were held only once per century and comprised a grand festival of games, sacrifices and performances. Horaces Carmen Saeculare (Secular Hymn) was sung by a choir or 27 boys and 27 girls and invokes Luna as the siderum regina bicornis (two horned queen of the stars) bidding her to listen to the girls singing as Apollo listens to the boys. Horace was the equivalent of the Poet Laureate and wrote this collection of religious and mythological verses not only to reinforce Augustusdesire to promote his new marriage laws intended to stimulate citizens birth rates but also to promote restoration of traditional Roman values and to encourage glorification of the gods.

Glorification of the gods, proper management of relations with the gods and ethical behaviour were cornerstones of Roman society and led to Roman prosperity and Roman dominance. It was within this societal framework that the cult of Luna flourished.

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


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