Monday, 4 September 2017

Dis Pater and Proserpina

"Hades and Persephone" by
In Roman polytheism Dis Pater, Pluto and Orcus are all names for the same God of the underworld and of death. His consort Proserpina is equally a Goddess of death, but also of spring, and thus the possibility of renewed life. Any discussion of one of these deities is incomplete without the other. Both deities should be understood as being essentially the same as the Hellenic Hades and Persephone. Although they are infernal Gods they are in no way like their Christian usurper, Satan. They are not inherently evil and their raison d'etre is not to torture the damned or tempt the weak. Nor is their domain a burning hell, but rather a “gloomy palace” (Ovid) surrounded by water. Dis Pater is euphemistically called the rich one – this title meaning, literally, rich father. As the foremost God of the underworld Dis Pater is naturally associated with all the wealth that comes from it, including gold, precious gems and, most importantly, the latent fertility of the earth. This latter aspect of the God links him with the Goddess of the harvest (Ceres), and of course her daughter who emerges from beneath the earth every spring, Proserpina. 
Their historical worship in ancient Rome
According to traditional Greco-Roman mythology Jupiter rules the heavens and Neptune rules the seas:
“The entire range and element of earth has been consecrated to father Dis; his name means rich (dives) … because all things dissolve into the earth and spring up from it. With Dis they link Proserpina … they regard her as the seed of the harvest … kept out of sight and sought by her mother Ceres [Cicero at 71].”
Not only is the magnitude of Dis Pater’s domain emphasised here but so too is the link he and Proserpina have with emerging life. Likewise, the most important Roman rites associated with Dis Pater and Proserpina were also associated with new life, these were the ludi saeculares, held to mark the commencement of a new saeculum, being the amount of time it took for an entire generation of Romans to renew themselves (calculated to be around 100-110 years – however, in practice it seems the dates of the games were not precisely spaced). This was a major festival during which sacrifices were made to a variety of deities for the health of a new cycle of Romans. Professor Turcan describes the origin of the games, as ancient Romans took it to be:
“It was believed that the celebration of the secular games, which had become a public liturgy, was due to the Valerii. Their function was periodically to render to the Roman people the health inherent in the very name (valere) of the family. It was recounted that a certain Valesius , whose daughter and two sons were ill, had placed hot water on his hearth at the same time entreating the Lares [family deities] to divert the danger threatening his family on to himself. These Gods advised  him to go and get some water at the river Tiber as far as Tarentum (where … the secular games would be held). Valesius carried the water from the river to a spot where the soil was smoking; there, he heated it and gave it to his children to drink. Healed, they said they had seen in a dream a God sponging their bodies, ordering the sacrifice to Dis and Proserpina of black victims on the altar where the water had been brought, and there to celebrate … nocturnal games. Returning to the place, the father had the foundations of an altar dug out, but found one already there precisely dedicated to the two underworld deities. This archeology legitimised a gentilitial cult, and Valerius Publicola (consul with Brutus in 509 BC) was supposed to have been the first to apply its benefits to the Roman people [Turcan at 45-46].” 
The story illustrates perfectly the Roman approach to the divine – if you want to live you do not just make offerings to Gods of life but also (even especially) to Gods of death, that they might not take life away. Likewise, when Roman farmers wanted to protect their crops from wheat rust, they propitiated Robigo, the deity of wheat rust, that she might stay away; they understood too that Apollo, God of healing, is equally a God of disease and pestilence. In the same way, Diana is the divine protector of wild animals, but also the Goddess who grants success in the hunt of them. Understanding this principle explains why Romans readily accepted that Dis Pater and Proserpina have associations with life, as well as death. Principally, however, Proserpina and Dis Pater should be understood as Gods of death, and with this understanding the Romans held games in their honour in 149 BCE, on the eve of major wars in Greece and north Africa, apparently with the purpose of gifting the lives of their enemies to Dis Pater and his wife (Beard et al, bk 1, at 111).

Another Roman festival associated with Dis Pater and Proserpina is the ludi taurii. The origin, nature and timing of these games are the subject of scholarly debate, hence little may be said of them with certainty.

Rites honouring Dis Pater and Proserpina
As to the nature of rites in honour of the Gods Dis Pater and Proserpina – we know that dark coloured animals were sacrificed to them at night in State offerings (Scheid at 80), which by their very nature were on a large scale. In our own times black flowers and even black food (such as licorice, black beans, black sesame, squid ink pasta, black rice and so on) and black drinks (such as black coffee and tea) may be suitable offerings. As Dis Pater and Proserpina are chthonic deities it is likely that offerings should be placed or poured in the earth with the left hand while the right hand faces palm down on the earth during the prayer.

Dis Pater and Proserpina’s domain
"The return of Persephone" by Leighton (1891)
As well being the Hellenic name for the God, Hades is also a place. Hades is traditionally described as being surrounded by various rivers, including the river Styx, which can only be crossed after paying Charon the ferry-man, and the river Lethe, the drinking from which causes the dead to forget their former lives. Apuleius vividly describes Hades in The Golden Ass, during a scene when Venus sends Psyche to collect a gift from Proserpina:
‘... you must look for Taenarus, which lies hidden in a trackless region. Dis has his breathing-vent there, and a sign-post points through open gates to a track which none should tread. Once you have crossed the threshold and committed yourself to that path, the track will lead you to Orcus’ very palace. But you are not to advance through that dark region empty handed, but carry in both hands barley cakes baked in sweet wine, and have between your lips twin coins. When you are well advanced on your infernal journey, you will meet a lame ass carrying a load of logs with a driver likewise lame; he will ask you to hand him some sticks which have slipped from his load, but you must pass by in silence without uttering a word. Immediately after that you will reach the lifeless river over which Charon presides. He peremptorily demands the fare, and when he receives it he transports travellers on his stitched up craft over to the further shore ... You must allow this squalid elder to take for your fare one of the coins you are to carry, but he must remove it from your mouth with his own hand. Then again, as you cross the sluggish stream, an old man now dead will float up to you, and raising his decaying hands will beg you to drag him into the boat; but you must not be moved by a sense of pity, for that is not permitted.
‘When you have crossed the river and have advanced a little further, some aged women weaving at the loom [presumably the Fates] will beg you to lend a hand for a short time. But you are not permitted to touch that either … Posted there is a massive hound with a huge, triple-formed head [Cerberus]. This monstrous, fearsome brute confronts the dead with thunderous barking, though his menaces are futile since he can do them no harm. He keeps constant guard before the very threshold and the dark hall of Proserpina, protecting that deserted abode … You must disarm him by offering him a cake … Then you can easily pass him, and gain immediate access to Proserpina herself. She will welcome you in genial and kindly fashion, and she will try to induce you to sit on a cushioned seat beside her and enjoy a rich repast. But you must settle on the ground, ask for coarse bread and eat it. Then you must tell her why you have come. When you have obtained what she gives you, you must make your way back, using the remaining cake to neutralise the dog’s savagery. Then you must give the greedy mariner the one coin which you have held back, and once across the river you must retrace your earlier steps and return …’ 
Psyche immediately sped to Taenarus and having duly obtained the coins and cakes she hastened down the path to Hades. She passed the lame ass driver without a word, handed the fare to the ferryman for the river crossing, ignored the entreaty of the dead man floating on the surface, disregarded the crafty pleas of the weavers, fed the cake to the dog to quell his fearsome rage, and gained access to the house of Proserpina. Psyche declined the soft cushion and the rich food offered by her hostess; she perched on the ground at her feet, and was content with plain bread. She then reported her mission from Venus [requesting that Proserpina fill a box carried by Psyche] … The box was at once filled … and Psyche took it. She quietened the dog’s barking by disarming it with a second cake, offered her remaining coin to the ferryman, and quite animatedly hastened out of Hades [Apuleius at 109-111].”
The idea seems to be don’t get too close to death (lest you die yourself), but be respectful too, and make sufficient propitiatory offerings when necessary – this was the essence of the attitude to death that was mainstream in ancient Rome.

There was not a uniform vision of Hades amongst Romans, Apuleius' description is just one amongst a number, but most ancient writers were in agreement that it is not a place one should be too eager to go to, as Virgil describes:
“In the very entrance gate of Hades, grief and vengeful care have their couches. And there also abide pale diseases and sad old age, fear, hunger and poverty … War, the bringer of death, is on the opposite threshold. There are the iron chambers of the Furies, and wild Discord with bloody fillets binding her snaky hair [cited in Hendricks at 259].”
Virgil then has us tour through various regions of Hades and its surrounds, in a manner that somewhat foreshadows Dante’s Inferno, except that the manner of death and subsequent funeral rites appear to be more important than personal virtue in determining the afterlife experience of the dead. Though those who hated their brothers, beat their parents, planned fraud or kept wealth for themselves without sharing it with their relatives are said to end up in Tartarus, a fiery place of punishment, which may have inspired the Christian concept of hell. Tartarus does not appear to be part of Hades, however, but resides separately underneath it. The closest thing to Roman heaven, Elysium, also appears to be separate from Hades. Elysium is described as a happy and green place, which is “the home of the blessed. Here ample air covers the fields with bright light, and they have their own sun and stars” (cited in Hendricks at 263). In Virgil’s story a dead man is brought back to our world, and there were a few others like it during the Greco-Roman period. The most notable of these is the story of Proserpina herself, which was the focus of a hugely popular mystery religion in Greece, the Eleusinian mysteries, which may have offered initiates hope that, like Proserpina, who resided in Hades through the winter and emerged from it every spring, they too could enjoy the possibility of renewed life after death.

Just as Dis Pater is said to have abducted the beautiful Proserpina from her happy life with her mother Ceres, so too does death take us, oftentimes in similarly traumatic circumstances. Where we end up after that is full of possibilities – ancient Romans had an unlimited number of beliefs surrounding the afterlife. Hades was considered to be the main afterlife destination, but it was not necessarily an eternal outcome. Epicureans denied that Hades was a place at all, Stoics reserved judgment, and Neoplatonists argued that we reincarnated from one life to the next, similar to Hindus. Then there were the countless number of Romans who adhered to one of the numerous mystery religions that flourished throughout the empire, each of which would have had their own nuanced ideas about the afterlife. Through all of this Dis Pater and Proserpina remain sovereigns of the dead, but by emerging from Hades every spring Proserpina offers the hope that death is not eternal, and this is the message that should most hold our attention.

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my earlier post on Roman Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass (Oxford)
Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Vol 1 (Cambridge)    
Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Vol 2 (Cambridge) (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online)
Cicero, The Nature of the Gods (Oxford)
Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Reference)
Hendricks (trans), Classical Gods and Heroes (Quill)
Murgatroyd, Reeves and Parker, Ovid's Heroides (Routledge)
Scheid J, An Introduction to Roman Religion (Indiana University Press)
Shelton, As the Romans Did (Oxford) 
Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome (Routledge)

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at neo and on Facebook

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