The Roman and Greek Questions, by Plutarch, tr. Frank Cole Babbitt, , at sacred-texts.com
20. Why is it that the women, when they adorn in their houses a shrine to the women's goddess, whom they call Bona Dea, a bring in no myrtle, although they are very eager to make use of all manner of growing and blooming plants?
Was this goddess, as the mythologists relate, the wife of the seer Faunus; and was she secretly addicted to wine, b but did not escape detection and was beaten by her husband with myrtle rods, and is this the reason why they do not bring in myrtle and, when they make libations of wine to her, call it milk?
Or is it because they remain pure from many things, particularly from venery, when they perform this holy service? For they not only exclude their husbands, but they also drive everything male out of the house c whenever they conduct the customary ceremonies in honour of the goddess. So, because the myrtle is sacred to Venus, they religiously exclude it. For she whom they now call Venus Murcia, in ancient days, it seems, they styled Myrtia.
21. Why do the Latins revere the woodpecker and all strictly abstain d from it?
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Is it because, as they tell the tale, Picus, a transformed by his wife's magic drugs, became a woodpecker and in that form gives oracles and prophecies to those who consult him?
Or is this wholly incredible and monstrous, and is that other tale b more credible which relates that when Romulus and Remus were exposed, not only did a she-wolf suckle them, but also a certain woodpecker came continually to visit them and bring them scraps of food? For generally, even to this day, in foot-hills and thickly wooded places where the woodpecker is found, there also is found the wolf, as Nigidius records.
Or is it rather because they regard this bird as sacred to Mars, even as other birds to other gods? For it is a courageous and spirited bird and has a beak so strong that it can overturn oaks by pecking them until it has reached the inmost part of the tree.
22. Why do they suppose Janus to have been two-faced and so represent him in painting and sculpture?
Is it because, as they relate, he was by birth a Greek from Perrhaebia, and, when he had crossed to Italy and had settled among the savages there, he changed both his speech and his habits? Or is it rather because he changed the people of Italy to another manner and form of life by persuading a people which had formerly made use of wild plants and lawless customs to till the soil and to live under organized government? c
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23. Why do they sell articles for funerals in the precinct of Libitina, whom they identify with Venus? a
Is this also one of the philosophic devices of king Numa, that they should learn not to feel repugnance at such things nor shun them as a pollution?
Or is it rather a reminder that whatever is born must die, since one goddess presides over births and deaths? For in Delphi there is a little statue of Aphrodite of the Tomb, to which they summon the departed to come forth for the libations.
24. Why have they in the month three beginnings or fixed points, and do not adopt the same interval of days between them?
Is it, as Juba b and his followers relate, that on the Kalends the officials used to call c the people and announce the Nones for the fifth day thereafter, regarding the Ides as a holy day?
Or is it rather because, since they measured time by the phases of the moon, they observed that in each month the moon undergoes three very important changes: first, when she is hidden by her conjunction with the sun; second, when she has escaped the sun's rays and becomes visible for the first time at sunset; and third, at the full moon, when her orb is completely round? The disappearance and concealment of the moon they call Kalendae, for everything
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concealed or secret is clam, and "to be concealed" is celari. a The first appearance of the moon they call Nones, the most accurate since it is the new moon: for their word for "new" and "novel" is the same as ours. b They name the Ides as they do either because of the beauty and form (eidos) of the full-orbed moon, or by derivation from a title of Jupiter. c But we must not follow out the most exact calculation of the number of days nor cast aspersions on approximate reckoning; since even now, when astronomy has made so much progress, the irregularity of the moon's movements is still beyond the skill of mathematicians, and continues to elude their calculations. d
25. Why do they reckon the day that follows the Kalends, the Nones, or the Ides as unsuitable for leaving home or for travel?
Is it, as most authorities think and as Livy e records, that on the day after the Ides of Quintilis, which they now call July, the military tribunes led out the army, and were vanquished in battle by the Gauls at the river Allia and lost the City? But when the day after the Ides had come to be regarded as ill-omened, did superstition, as is its wont, extend the custom
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further, and involve in the same circumspection the day after the Nones and the day after the Kalends?
Or does this contain many irrational assumptions? For it was on a different day that they were defeated in battle, a a day which they call Alliensis from the river, and make a dread day of expiation b; and although they have many ill-omened days, they do not observe them under the same names c in each month, but each in the month in which it occurs; and it is thus quite incredible that the superstition should have attached itself simply to all the days that follow immediately after the Nones or the Kalends.
Consider the following analogy: just as they have dedicated the first month to the gods of Olympus, and the second, in which they perform certain rites of purification and sacrifice to the departed, to the gods of the lower world, so also in regard to the days of the month they have established three as festive and holy days, as I have stated, d which are, as it were, fundamental and sovereign days; but the days which follow immediately they have dedicated to the spirits and the dead, and have come to regard them as ill-omened and unsuitable for business. In fact, the Greeks worship the gods on the day of the new moon; the next day they have duly assigned to the heroes and spirits, and the second bowl of wine is mixed in honour of the heroes and heroines. e And speaking generally, time is a sort of number; and the beginning of number is divine, for it is the monad. But after it is the dyad, antagonistic to the beginning number, and the first of the even numbers. The even numbers are imperfect, incomplete,
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and indeterminate, just as the odd numbers are determinate, completing, and perfect. a Wherefore, in like manner, the Nones succeed the Kalends at an interval of five days and the Ides succeed the Nones at an interval of nine days. For the odd numbers define the beginnings, but the even numbers, since they occur after the beginnings, have no position nor power; therefore on these days they do not begin any business or travel.
Or has also the saying of Themistocles b some foundation in reason? For once upon a time, said he, the Day-After had an altercation with the Feast-Day on the ground that the Feast-Day had much labour and toil, whereas she herself provided the opportunity of enjoying in leisure and quiet all the things prepared for the festival. To this the Feast-Day replied, "You are quite right; but if I had not been, you would not be!" This story Themistocles related to the Athenian generals who succeeded him, to show that they would have been nowhere, if he himself had not saved the city.
Since, therefore, all travel and all business of importance needs provision and preparation, and since in ancient days the Romans, at the time of festivals, made no provision or plan for anything, save only that they were engaged in the service of their gods and busied themselves with this only, just as even to this day the priests cause such a proclamation to be made in advance as they proceed on their way to sacrifice; so it was only natural that they did not set out on a journey immediately after their festivals, nor did they transact any business, for they were
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unprepared; but that day they always spent at home making their plans and preparations.
Or is it even as men now, who have offered their prayers and oblations, are wont to tarry and sit a while in the temples, a and so they would not let busy days succeed holy days immediately, but made some pause and breathing-space between, since business brings with it much that is distasteful and undesired?
26. Why do women in mourning wear white robes and white head-dresses?
Do they do this, as men say the Magi do, arraying themselves against Hades and the powers of darkness, and making themselves like unto Light and Brightness?
Or is it that, just as they clothe the body of the dead in white, they think it proper that the relatives should also wear this colour? They adorn the body thus since they cannot so adorn the soul; and they wish to send forth the soul bright and pure, since it is now set free after having fought the good fight in all its manifold forms.
Or are plainness and simplicity most becoming on these occasions? Of the dyed garments, some reflect expense, others over-elaboration; for we may say no less with reference to black than to purple: "These be cheating garments, these be cheating colours." b That which is naturally black is dyed not through art, but by nature; and when it is
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combined with a dark colour, it is overpowered. a Only white, b therefore, is pure, unmixed, and uncontaminated by dye, nor can it be imitated; wherefore it is most appropriate for the dead at burial. For he who is dead has become something simple, unmixed, and pure, once he has been released from the body, which is indeed to be compared with a stain made by dyeing. In Argos, as Socrates c says, persons in mourning wear white garments washed in water.
27. Why do they regard all the city wall as inviolable and sacred, but not the gates?
Is it, as Varro has written, because the wall must be considered sacred that men may fight and die with enthusiasm in its defence? It was under such circumstances, it seems, that Romulus killed his brother because he was attempting to leap across a place that was inviolable and sacred, and to make it traversable and profane.
But it was impossible to consecrate the gates, for through them they carry out many other objectionable things and also dead bodies. d Wherefore the original founders of a city yoke a bull and a cow, and mark out with a plough all the land on which they intend to build e; and when they are engaged in tracing f the circuit of the walls, as they measure off the space intended for gates, they lift up the ploughshare and thus carry the plough across,
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since they hold that all the land that is ploughed is to be kept sacred and inviolable.
28. Why do they tell children, whenever they would swear by Hercules, not to do so under a roof, and bid them go out into the open air? a
Is it, as some relate, because they believe that Hercules had no pleasure in staying in the house, but rejoiced in a life in the open air and a bed under the stars?
Or is it rather because Hercules is not one of the native gods, but a foreigner from afar? For neither do they swear under a roof by Bacchus, since he also is a foreign god if he is from Nysa.
Or is this but said in jest to the children, and what is done is really a check upon over-readiness and hastiness to swear, as Favorinus stated? For what is done following, as it were, upon preparation produces delay and allows deliberation. Yet one might urge against Favorinus the fact that this custom is not common, but peculiar to Hercules, as may be seen from the legend about him: for it is recorded that he was so circumspect regarding an oath that he swore but once and for Phyleus, the son of Augeas, alone. Wherefore they say that the prophetic priestess also brought up against the Spartans all the oaths they had sworn, saying that it would be better and much more to be desired if they would keep them! b
29. Why do they not allow the bride to cross the threshold of her home herself, but those who are escorting her lift her over? c
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Is it because they carried off by force also the first Roman brides and bore them in in this manner, and the women did not enter of their own accord?
Or do they wish it to appear that it is under constraint and not of their own desire that they enter a dwelling where they are about to lose their virginity?
Or is it a token that the woman may not go forth of her own accord and abandon her home if she be not constrained, just as it was under constraint that she entered it? So likewise among us in Boeotia they burn the axle of the bridal carriage before the door, signifying that the bride must remain, since her means of departure has been destroyed.
35:a p. 34 Cf. Macrobius, Saturnalia, i. 12. 21–28.
35:b Cf. 265 B, supra.
35:c Cf. Life of Caesar, ix. (711 E), Life of Cicero, xix. (870 B); Juvenal, vi. 339.
35:d No doubt this means "from eating it" since they used to eat all small birds.
37:a Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, xiv. 320 ff.
37:b Cf. 278 c, 320. D, infra; Life of Romulus, iv. (19 F), vii (21 C).
37:c Cf. 274 F, infra; Life of Numa, xix. (72 F); Athenaeus, 692 D; Lydus, De Mensibus, iv. 2; Macrobius, Saturnalia i. 7. 21, and i. 9.
39:a Cf. Life of Numa, xii. (67 E); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, iv. 15. 5; Varro, De Lingua Latina, vi. 47.
39:b Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. iii. p. 470.
39:c Cf. Old Latin calare, equated with Greek καλεῖν by Plutarch and by other writers.
41:a Much is made of Plutarch's mistake in equating celare (mss.) with λανθάνειν rather than with κρύπτειν, but the mistake is more likely that of a scribe.
41:b This is true etymologically; but is Plutarch thinking of the syllable nou in νουμηνία and noaus?
41:c Cf. Macrobius, Saturnalia, i. 15. 14, where it is stated that Ictus is derived from the Etruscan Itis, said to mean "Iovis fiducia."
41:d Cf. Life of Aristides, chap. xix. (331 A).
41:e Livy, v. 37; and vi. 1. 11.
43:a p. 42 The traditional date of the battle was July 18, 390 B.C.
43:b Cf. Life of Camillus, chap. xix. 8 (138 D).
43:c As the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides have the same names in every month.
43:d 269 B, supra.
43:e That is, the spirits of the men and women of the Heroic p. 43 Age who dwelt after death in the Isles of the Blest or in Hades.
45:a p. 44 Cf. 264 A, supra, also Moralia, 374 A, 367 F, 429 A, 1002 A, 1012 E.
45:b Cf. 320 F, infra; Life of Themistocles, xviii. (121 B). The context of 345 C, infra, makes it very probable that p. 45 the essay De Gloria Atheniensium began with this favourite story of Plutarch's.
47:a p. 46 Cf. Life of Numa, xiv. (69 E-70 A); Propertius ii. 28. 45–46; see also Lewy in Philologus, lxxxiv. p. 378.
47:b Apparently a misquotation of Herodotus, iii. 22. 1: otherwise misquoted in Moralia, 646 B and 863 E. Cf. also Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, i. x. 48. 6 (p. 344 Potter).
49:a p. 48 This apparently means: Naturally black wool may be dyed purple or any other strong dark colour. It is possible, however, that Plutarch wrote κέκραται (and so several MSS.): "it is modified when combined with a dark colour."
49:b Cf. Plato, Republic, 729 D–E.
49:c Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. iv. 498.
49:d Cf. Moralia, 518 B.
49:e Cf. Varro, De Lingua Latina, v. 143, Res Rusticae, ii. 1.9; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, i. 88; Ovid, Fasti, iv. 819 ff.
49:f Cf. Life of Romulus, xi. (23 n).
51:a Cf. Varro, De Lingua Latina, v. 66.
51:b Cf. Moralia, 229 B and the note (Vol. III. p. 372).
51:c Cf. Life of Romulus, xv. (26 D–E).