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Richard's Writings > The Birth of Rome > Chapter 3: The Festival of Voltumna

Synopsis of Chapter 3: The Festival of Voltumna

The twelve cities of the Etruscan League meet each summer for series of civic meetings and religious rites called the Festival of Voltumna. On their way to Lake Volsiniensis, where the Shrine of Voltumna is located, the family stops for the night at the foundary owned by Demaratus. He shows how bronze is made, how to work iron, and how metal is poured into molds or cut from sheets for shields, weapons, cooking gear, and so on. They travel on and enter a huge valley filled with colorful tents and banners. Marcus, Cneve, Tanaquil and Arruns enjoy live theater, a twilight torch parade, and look on while sacrifical auguries are taken. Marcus and Cneve are invited to join Demaratus for a meeting of the Council, because the Etruscan League has a mission for them. They are designated to act as ambassadors and take a proposal to the tribes that live on the seven hills overlooking the vital Tiber River crossing. Marcus is going home!
The except below is taken from a conversation while the family is waiting for their turn to pass through the city gate and leave for the festival.

Excerpt from Chapter 3: The Festival of Voltumna

Cneve paused to pour a cup of lemonade from the pitcher being shared by the family. They stood together on the street under the morning sun. A horse stamped impatiently.

"What about you?" he asked Marcus. "Do you have any kind of ceremony when you become a man?"

Marcus looked down at his feet, then at the sky, then at the crowd filtering through the distant gate.

"We do have a coming-of-age ceremony in my village, but I'm afraid it will seem pretty barbaric to you."

"Oh do tell us," Arruns chimed in. "I want to know how everyone everywhere lives. Tell us, Marcus, please. I promise we won't think less of you. Maybe when I become a man, I will do it your way."

"Well, it's not my way," Marcus hastened to note. "It's tradition. It is something my people have done for generations, and they say it goes back to Romulus, the founder of the Palatine village. Anyway, this is how it went for me."

"Wait," said Demaratus, pouring himself a cup of lemonade. "I want to hear this too." They sat or squatted in the shade of the wagon, holding onto the reins of their mounts, all looking at Marcus expectantly, waiting for him to begin.

"Well," Marcus began uncertainly, "on the side of the Palatine that faces the River Tiber there is a cave, the Cave of the Lupercal. According to legend, this cave was the home of the she-wolf who found the newborn twins Romulus and Remus. They had been set adrift in a basket and the basket came to rest in the water-plants of the Tiber, right underneath her cave. She carried each baby to safety and suckled them with her own mother's milk, right there in the cave. So fifteen days before the calendar begins, all the boys who had turned fifteen years old in the prior year -"

"Just a minute, if you please, Marcus," Demaratus interrupted him. "What do you mean, before the calendar begins?"

"Before the first month, before the calendar actually begins -"

"You mean you have a time when there is not a month?" Demaratus interrupted again.

"Yes, of course, winter. There are the ten months of the growing season, and then there is winter. Don't you have a period without months?" Marcus asked.

"No, our months run all year long. How long is winter?"

"Oh, about seven marketdays. We have a market day every ninth day, so that would be a little over sixty days. Winter is roughly the equal of two months."

"How curious," Demaratus commented. "Please continue."

"I was born in the eighth month, October. So when I turned fifteen I was eligible to participate in the next Lupercalia. Boys who turned fifteen in the first month, March, also had to wait until the next Lupercalia. In my village, the rite-of-passage is conducted by everyone eligible at the same time. So, as I said, fifteen days before the new year begins, before March, the Lupercalia is held. All the eligible young men gather in the cave. A member of the Brotherhood of the Wolf conducts a sacrifice of two male goats and a dog, then wipes off the blade with some wool soaked in milk. He uses this wool to mark the foreheads of the young men with a smear of milky blood. We are all naked, wearing only this mark upon our foreheads. The same knife used for the sacrifice is used to cut thin strips from the hides of the sacrificed animals. These thongs are called Februa and they have special power. Each of the young men celebrating the Lupercalia takes two of these thongs in his right hand and runs around the perimeter of the Palatine, where all the people have gathered to watch us run by and cheer us on. Anyone within reach is whipped by the thongs as we run by. Since it is considered a very powerful day for fertility, girls and young woman push to the front of the crowd to receive lashings from the thongs as the young men run by. We believe this will ease the pains of childbirth, prevent sterility, and ensure fertility. Afterwards there is a big celebration by the whole village."

"Fascinating!" exclaimed Arruns. "So everyone in the village sees you naked? I don't know if I would enjoy that!"

"It is a very exciting day," Marcus replied. "You don't even think about it. Besides, there are a lot of pretty girls in that crowd, a great many potential brides out to consider their future husbands. What better way for them to see in advance what they might get?"

"Is there a similar sort of ceremony for the girls?" Cneve asked.

"Alas, no. A bridegroom has to wait until his wedding night to see his bride as nature made her."

"If only Romulus and Remus had had a sister!" Cneve said laughing.


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