The Ancient Roman Rites that Gave Their Name to February: Explore the Forgotten Connection

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pine branches with snow on themThis month continues the series Longfellow called The Poet’s Calendar, written mostly in 1880. While writing about the days of February, he refers to something you might not have read: a six-book Latin poem on months and days by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) “published” in the year 8. This source tells more about the seasonal custom of purifying the earth and how pine branches were involved in the ancient, pre-Roman ritual that gave this month its name.

February

I am lustration, and the sea is mine!
I wash the sands and headlands with my tide;
My brow is crowned with branches of the pine;
Before my chariot-wheels the fishes glide.
By me all things unclean are purified,
By me the souls of men washed white again;
E’en the unlovely tombs of those who died
Without a dirge, I cleanse from every stain.

In her book A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome, Meghan DiLuzi helps explain the references found here. She uses the term flaminica, a person who was the wife of a high priest of Jupiter called Flamen Dialis.

Near the beginning of the second book of the Fasti, Ovid claims to have seen the flaminica asking for a “februa” and receiving a twig of pine in return. Though Ovid does not reveal who gave the flaminica her pine twig, he does provide an explanation of its purpose. The term februa, he tells us, describes “anything with which our bodies are purified.” Indeed, februa could take a variety of forms. Ovid includes under this heading wool, salted grain, the strips of leather with which the Luperci “purify the earth,” and the leaves cut from a “pure tree” that priests wear on their “chaste brows.”

Matthew Robinson has recently proposed that that she used the pine branch to sprinkle water at rites of purification. This is an attractive suggestion, particularly in light of compelling evidence associating the flaminica with some of the most important purification rituals in the festival calendar.

Here is an excerpt from the source (Ovid’s Fasti, Book 2) in William Massey’s 1757 translation:

A pliant branch cut from a lofty pine,
which round the temples of the priests they twine,
Is Februa called; which if the priest demand,
A branch of pine is put into his hand;
In short, with whatsoe’er our hearts we hold
Are purified, was Februa termed of old;
Lustrations are from hence, from hence the name
Of this our month of February came;

Couple these spiritual thoughts with another perspective on sacred trees from John Williams.

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