Saturday, 9 August 2014

Salus – Goddess of Health and Well Being

"Hygieia" (the Hellenic Salus) by Klimt (1900)
Salus is the Goddess of safety, health, well being and, according to some translations, salvation. If we think of the English word deriving from her name – salubrious – we get an idea of who she is. The Arval Brothers, priests in charge of public sacrifices made for the well being of Rome, prayed and made offerings to her not just for the safety of the city of Rome but also for the health and fertility of the entire Roman community, including its animals and farms (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 52). The Nones/fifth of August was the day on which she was honoured most, with circus games and the public sacrifice of a cow (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 73). She was revered from at least as early as the 4th century BCE, with her temple on the Quirinal Hill being founded in 302 BCE (Rüpke, Religion of the Romans at 55). In the 4th century CE her temple in Rome still stood – despite being twice hit by lightning, in 276 and 206 BCE, and damaged by fire in the 1st century CE (and then restored) – and she appeared on Roman coinage up until the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine I (Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 162; Platner, 
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome). In her public aspect she was known as Salus Publica and even Salus Augusti – for during the imperial era the well being of the emperor was equated with the well being of Rome as a whole (Lipka, Roman Gods at 95). Another title was Salus Romana – Ovid briefly mentions that an offering should be made to her, alongside Janus, Concordia (Goddess of peaceful agreement) and Pax (Goddess of peace), on 30 March (Ovid, Fasti, Book 3). It may be that the three Goddesses shared a temple founded on that date (Boyle and Woodard’s notes to the Penguin edition of Ovid, Fasti at 229); at the very least we know there were statues of these Goddesses in Rome, erected by Augustus (Wiseman’s notes to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ovid, Fasti at 136).

From the 1st century CE onwards Salus was identified with the Hellenic Hygieia, though in earlier times Valetudo (lit. health) had been the Roman name attributed to Hygieia (Lipka, Roman Gods at 95). In Hellenic polytheism Hygieia is the Goddess of health, and according to myth one of the daughters of Asclepius/Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans), the God of medicine. In turn, Asclepius is regarded as the son of Apollo (Penguin, Dictionary of Classical Mythology at 62 and 207). Thus, depending on our view of the Gods, we may regard the honouring of Salus as the honouring of a specific aspect of Apollo, the great God of light and the sun, healing, disease, music, prophecy and truth.

Salus-Hygieia is typically represented with a snake and an offering plate, as in the two most famous images of her by Rubens and Klimt respectively, but that which is most commonly associated with Salus is salt (in latin, sal), which the Romans knew had antiseptic properties, thus salt was intricately associated with good health (Time Magazine, A Brief History of Salt). It is traditional for household shrines, following the Roman way to the Gods, to include a container for salt, known as a salinumand the offering of salt seems to have been integral to ancient Roman rites (see eg, Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26.36):
“The simple libation of grain and salt was commonly regarded by the Romans as the earliest form of offering to the Gods, before the ‘invention’ of animal sacrifice … [for it was thought that in the earliest days of Rome] the Gods were satisfied with just vegetable offerings [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 154].”
In bloodier times salt was mixed with flour and sprinkled over the heads of sacrificial animals. The Vestal Virgins themselves prepared this mixture for use in public sacrifices (Warrior, Roman Religion at 22 and 45). It may be that the presence of salt during the ritual denotes ritual purity/cleanliness/health, which is how I have long regarded it. Perhaps we can say that the presence of salt on our altars indicates our wish for Salus herself to be present – a recognition of her essential role in our happiness. An offering of salt may also be a symbolic offering or prayer for the well being of the deity to whom it is offered – as salt was associated with good health and well being, in a holistic sense, this interpretation is plausible, though not certain.

"At the Thermae" by Godward (1909)
Salus was also, and still is, associated with baths and healing waters (Fosbroke, Encyclopedia of Antiquities at 895; Giardina, The Romans at 118; Wollaston, A Short Description of the Thermae Romano-Britannicae at 11). It is even said, without certainty, that the word “spa” derives from the acronym for the Latin Salus Per Aquam, meaning health through water (Neldeborn).  In keeping with the spirit of Salus, the public baths, for which the Romans are so famous, were not merely places to become clean, they were also:
“fitness centres … health spas, or sports clubs. There were often areas for ballgames, jogging, various exercises, swimming and massages as well as the baths proper, which consisted of a hot-air, hot-tub room; warm-air, warm tub room; and cold-air, cold-tub room … The baths catered to the total well being of the person [Shelton, As the Romans Did at 310].”
They were also a key aspect of Roman society:
“cleanliness was an integral part of the Roman ‘civilising process’ … an ultra clean, well-groomed body was their badge [Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity].”
Good health and well being are what all of us need, and so the Romans honoured Salus with temples, shrines, baths, statues, festival days, games, offerings, coins and the like. Through her they understood that good hygiene (a word which derives from Hygieia) is essential for good health and well being – today we take this for granted, and salt has been unfairly demonised (whereas in truth it is the proliferation of pre-packaged processed foods which deserve the black mark), but think back to those dark times when Europe neglected to honour the Gods and the bubonic plague ravaged our ancestors. People had become so ignorant by this time that they:
“generally viewed bathing as unnecessary and even unhealthy and rarely washed their bodies, clothes or bedding [Slavicek, The Black Death at 33].”
A study of DNA extracted from the teeth of 14th century plague victims determined that the poor personal hygiene and public health of the medieval era goes towards explaining why the disease was so deadly in Europe – people had weakened themselves via filthy living conditions (Giotlin, Dissecting the Cause of the Black Death). With the coming of the renaissance we began to know the Gods again, and eventually we came to understand that cleanliness is next to Godliness, the God we speak of in fact being Salus, long may she bless us.

"Hygieia" by Rubens (circa 1615)

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. Really interesting article, thank you. I have been really interested in the word "wellbeing" over the last couple of days, and this morning on the 30 March I searched on Google for the god of wellbeing and found Salus. It was wonderful to read that Ovid mentions that offerings should be made to her on the 30th March, today :) I will enjoy doing this later today

    Thanks a lot

    1. what a happy coincidence, thanks for the message:)