The Christian fear of the pagan outlook has damaged the whole consciousness of man. – D.H. Lawrence
Yesterday was Vinalia Rustica, the oldest known Roman festival to the goddess Venus; like Vinalia Urbana in the spring, it was shared between her and Jupiter, because she was the patroness of common wine while he was the patron of fine wines. Though some Roman historians insisted that the festival was sacred to Jupiter from the time of Aeneas (the dawn of Roman history), and that Venus only came into the celebration later, the evidence is that it was actually the opposite: the festival was associated with Venus Obsequens, her second-oldest aspect, who was much more like the original Latin vegetation goddess than the Greek Aphrodite. Furthermore, the more primitive rites were celebrated at her temples; the main sacrificial victim for the ritual was a ewe lamb; and the very name of the holiday indicates its original dedication to rustic wine (vinum spurcum) rather than the professionally-prepared, high-quality wine (vinum temetum) which was considered fit for religious ceremonies.
Long-time readers will probably recognize that this is a familiar pattern in the development of holidays: they usually have their origins in very ancient times, often prior to the advent of written language, and start out as agricultural celebrations presided over by women and dedicated to fertility deities. In their original forms, they usually involved blood sacrifice – sometimes even human sacrifice – and were often terrifying observances born of the fear that something could go wrong with sun or weather to destroy the crops on which they depended; these grisly rites were intended to propitiate the mysterious, capricious gods our ancestors held responsible for natural phenomena. As human civilization developed and people became more certain that the seasons at least were relatively dependable, and that the sun did not need to be bribed into returning every winter, the ceremonies became symbolic celebrations of thanksgiving rather than solemn ceremonies of bargaining and appeasement. Still later, as societies became more patriarchal, ceremonies which were originally dedicated to fertility goddesses and sacrificial vegetation gods (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, etc) shifted to the control of authoritative sky-god types like Zeus who controlled the world as kings ruled countries, by force and might, rather than having to go through that messy and embarrassing annual-death bit. For example, starting in the 5th century BCE the primary winter solstice celebration in Greece began to shift from Lenaea (dedicated to Gaea and Dionysus) to Kronia (dedicated to Kronos); I suspect something similar happened in Rome about two centuries later, as Jupiter muscled in on the two wine-festivals which were previously considered the province of Venus.
But when Christianity installed its own interpretations on most of the popular pagan festivals in order to rededicate them to Christian purposes, it seems to have virtually ignored the warmer months. From Samhain to Beltane virtually every pagan holiday was converted into a Christian one, but the other half of the year was nearly empty. The Roman wine festival seems to have merged with the Celtic/Germanic festival of First Fruits (Lammas) which along with the summer solstice and autumnal equinox persisted as popular secular celebrations into the 19th century, though none of them were officially observed under Christian guises. But given that the day’s patron is also that of my profession, and that it’s conveniently located to herald the end of the Dog Days (we’ve enjoyed nights below 20o Celsius for over a week now), I decided to dedicate today’s column to Venus, and to recall a once-important occasion now consigned to the attic of history.