|Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 2nd century CE.|
Source: iessi Flickr
For someone like me, who only allows my closest friends and family to know of my Pagan ways, I must admit I sometimes feel a tinge of envy when I see “moderate” Muslim women flaunting their religion so conspicuously by wearing colourful headscarves and modest Western dress.* It is historical fact that modest dress and head covering was widespread amongst ancient Roman women, so is this a tradition that contemporary Roman polytheists should adopt? I like to think I’m pretty open-minded so I want to try to understand what “the veil” meant to ancient Roman women. In particular, I want to understand if it was a religious practice.
Head covering during religious rites
It is a fundamental basic of Roman polytheism that in most religious rites one, whether male or female, covers the head (capite velato), except where the ritus Graecus applies:
“The Romans usually sacrificed with the head covered. In the case of Apollo and Ceres, however, sacrifice was made in the Greek mode, with the head uncovered, apparently because these deities were considered to retain something of their Greek origin … [Warrior, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press at 21].”
Plutarch (1st century CE) posed the question of why it is that when Romans worshipped the Gods they covered their heads and gave a tentative answer:
“… they thus worshipped the Gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying [Plutarch, Roman Questions, penelope.uchicago.edu].”
Covering the head thus denotes piety and establishes the fundamental dress code appropriate to most Roman rites. For me, when I cover my head before the household shrine it is as if I move from the profane to the sacred dimension of life. Also, as Plutarch says, covering the head may minimise the chance of seeing or hearing something inauspicious while conducting the rite. Thus one is less distracted and more focused. Averting negative influences by head covering is also alluded to by Virgil, in book III of the Aeneid; in which head covering is advised so that “no evil-eyed enemy face can intrude” on the rite (line 406, as translated by Ahl).