By Sheila Cook - Volunteer Guide

Sacred groves, or patches of woodland thought to hold spiritual or symbolic values, have existed since ancient times, and can still be found today in West Africa, India, and Japan, among other places. As well as playing a part in Roman religion they were important in ancient Celtic and various Northern European religious practices.  Lucan described a Celtic grove near Massilia (Marseille) in terms designed to horrify his audience:

‘… a grove which no man had dared to violate from earliest times (…) No woodland nymphs nor Pan resided here, instead there were savage rites and barbarous worship, massive upright stones used as horrible altars; every tree made sacred with human blood (…) Crude effigies of gods fashioned from fallen trunks were all around.’ (Pharsalia 3 399-418)

Caesar and Tacitus both wrote that Druids met in sacred woodlands called nemeta. These were shunned by the superstitious Romans, who believed that human sacrifice took place there, and viewed such practices with horror. Interestingly, they had no qualms about sending criminals and sometimes even Christians to their death in the arena, or to treat slaves as property which could be disposed of as the owner saw fit. Human sacrifice was banned by Romans around 97BC, although ancient writers mention instances of this practice, and ritual killings still occurred in specific circumstances.

The Romans believed that every piece of land and every tree had its own guardian spirit or genius, and these had to be appeased before any work could be done in that area.  It was not considered proper to cut down trees (lucum conlocare) without making an offering to the gods who lived there. Cato described the ritual to be performed in De Agricultura:

‘whether you be a god or a goddess, as it is right to offer for atonement to you a pig for the pruning of this sacred place, (…) in order that it may have been done rightly, for the sake of this thing I pray good prayers to you for the sacrificing of this pig for atonement, that you may be favourable and gracious to me, to my family and house, to my children…’ (De Agricultura 139-140).

As you can see, the invocation is very convoluted and formulaic and it would have been essential to perform the ritual and recite the above wording totally correctly, or the whole process would be null and void!  The invocation was deliberately left anonymous so that any god or spirit who lived there could not take offence.

The Roman version of a sacred grove was more benevolent than a nemeton. The term lucus had originally applied to trees or a patch of woodland, but evolved rapidly to mean an open space surrounded by woodland, more like a landscaped park, with features used for ritual such as wells or springs and a shrine containing the image of a god. The largest examples might contain a temple or even buildings housing a market. The Roman sacred groves were often found on the edge of cities amidst fully cultivated land, and performed several functions, including as places for meetings or assemblies.

According to Bouke:  ‘After an initial stage of being a sacred glade, clearing or grove where votive gifts could be deposited, a lucus could be monumentalized by the addition of altars, statue bases, votive cippi (i.e. short pillars with inscriptions) and temples.’

Votive offerings might include pottery or metal reproductions of body parts, such as hands or legs, ceramic vases and statuettes, and were sometimes suspended in trees.  Apuleius described what might be found in a sacred grove. Among various features he mentions a mound with a surrounding hedge to show that this is a sacred place, an altar decorated with flowers, a trunk carved with the image of a god, grass on which libations of wine have been poured, a grotto shaded with foliage, and beech trees draped with wild animal skins. He also mentioned how a pious person might act when coming across such a place:

‘It is the usual practice of wayfarers with a religious disposition, when they come upon a sacred grove or holy place by the roadside, to make a vow, to offer an apple, and pause for a moment from their journeying.’  (Florida introduction).

Some sacred groves became so famous that whole communities grew up round them. Examples of this can still be seen in modern place names such as Lugo, in Spain, and Luc-en-Diois, in France. Evidence of groves dedicated to Jupiter, because of his connection to volcanic phenomena, has been found on Vesuvius and Etna. Sacred groves would undoubtedly have existed in Britain, although not much archaeological evidence survives.  It is probable that they existed along Hadrian’s Wall, but have long  been cut down or can no longer be identified.

  

  

The remains of Lucus Feroniae, an ancient sacred grove dedicated to the Sabine goddess Feronia and located in Etruria, near Capena, Lazio.

Aquae Arnemetiae (Buxton) was a small settlement based around its natural warm springs.  In 1787, the base of a Roman temple dedicated to the water deity Arnemetia was discovered overlooking the springs. The name is a clear link to Celtic sacred groves, and evidence for the very widespread practice of assimilating the religious beliefs of the cultures the Romans conquered into their own pantheon.

Lucaria: Festival of the grove

The Lucaria was a very ancient festival held on July 19th and 21st, whose original meaning and ritual were shrouded in mystery. A list of festivals composed in the mid first century BC, does not mention this one, which may have been linked to various other festivals focussing on protection from the hot summer sun and concerns for drought around this time of year.  Verrius Flaccus, a famous scholar of the late Republic and early Empire, connected the Lucaria to the disastrous defeat of the Romans by the Gauls at the Battle of the Allia, which was fought on July 18th in 387 BC, although it is unsure how reliable his evidence for this is. The festival, he says, was celebrated in the large grove beside the Tiber, the remains of the great wood where the Romans who survived the battle had hidden.

Warde Fowler suggests that the festival was dedicated to anonymous deities (just like Cato’s grove clearing invocation):

‘..this was a propitiatory worship offered to the deities inhabiting the woods which bordered on the cultivated Roman ager (arable land) (at) the time when the corn was being gathered in, and the men and women were in the fields.  (..); it belonged to the most primitive of Roman rites, and partly for that reason, partly also from the absorption of land by large private owners, it fell into desuetude.’

Unfortunately, we have no further information about the festival, but it is a reasonable assumption that it was one of the many agricultural festivals celebrated in the early life of the Roman republic. Several of these festivales ceased to have any practical significance or direct relevance to the huge numbers of city dwellers as the Roman Republic evolved into an Empire.

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

Bibliography

Apuleius - Florida   

Cato - De Agricultura   

Lucan - Pharsalia 3   

de Cazanove O. and Scheid J. (ed.)   Les bois sacrés (collection of papers)

Schulz C E - The Romans and ritual murder 

Van der Meer L B   The impact of Rome on luci (sacred glades, clearings and groves) in Italy

Warde Fowler W.     The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic    

Wikipedia:

Aquae Arnemetiae  

Glossary of Ancient Roman religion 

Lucaria   

Lucus