Feralia and the Unclaimed Dead

ancient-21569_640Historically the month of February for a Roman had an overarching theme of purification and setting things right with the Lares (our Ancestors and Heroes) and the Manes (our Dead)1. Interestingly, this habit of feeding the Dead did not stop with Roman Polytheists at the time, but it was also a custom of early Christians. This custom has continued to be carried out into modern times, and we see its Christian heir in the varying traditions held in All Saints’ and All Souls Day. In fact, some scholars point to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day being a modern survival of February’s Parentalia.

The Parentalia was a 9-day festival that was mainly celebrated in private, attending to your family’s unique Lares and Manes. It begins on the 13th of February. In my home, we also spend the 9-days of Parentalia sacrificing to the Lares and Manes with offerings of flowers, wine, salt, corn2, and cake. I’ve written more about how my family observes Parentalia, and Helio at Golden Trail also offers how he is observing Parentalia this year.

It’s the final day of Parentalia that I wanted to talk about, though. It was important enough to the Romans that it had its own name: The Feralia.

The Feralia was a public sacrifice for the Manes held at midnight on February 21st, the final day of the Parentalia. We have no surviving description of what the public rites entail, though if we take Ovid’s account in his poem, Fasti, it likely had magical undertones that one did not find in many Roman festivals. Ovid also speaks of the Dead being appeased by offerings of floral wreaths, a little grain, a little salt, bread soaked in wine, and violets, though other offerings are permitted. These were to be taken to the family’s tombs outside of the city, and they picnicked with their Dead.

Ovid tells the tale of a year when the Romans were so busy with fighting war that they neglected the Feralia. The Manes raised from their tombs and took to the street. They angrily howled and roamed until the living paid tribute.

I am still trying to build meaningful traditions for my family within regionally-sound cultus, and Feralia is one of the festivals that I find overlaps in other times of the year within my extended family’s traditions. When I think of Feralia, though, my mind keeps coming back to Ovid’s story of the roaming, forgotten Dead.

While I will privately honor my own Manes with a modest sacrifice of black beans, cracked corn, wine, and flowers, my mind continues to move back to a way to honor the Unclaimed Dead and those who have never been found. In November, I read an article from the L.A. Times about the large number of Unclaimed Dead that exist, and months later it still haunts me. I realized upon reading it that if in a large city like LA an average of 6 people a day go unclaimed, this means nationally the numbers of those unclaimed are likely huge. Or at least large enough that it would hurt my heart to try to calculate. Babies. People who were homeless. People whose relatives were unable to afford getting the bodies brought home. People who have no family.

As a Roman Revivalist, I seek to adapt historical Roman Polytheism to my modern life, which means that I am comfortable moving away from Reconstructionism when it is needed or simply the Gods wish it. In the case of the Feralia, I have taken the line from Ovid’s Fasti, as translated by Betty Nogle, which states, “They called this day Feralia because they do what’s fair.”

In other words, they brought what was due to the Manes, the Dead.

One of the things that drew me to Roman Polytheism so many years ago was the concept of public virtues as laid out by Nova Roma. These are virtues are those of a healthy, whole society. One of these virtues is Pietas, piety or dutifulness, which Rome claimed was their reason for success. When I speak of piety, I do not just speak of what we owe the Gods in a natural contract between humans and Powers. I speak of respect of our duty to our fellow humans, our communities and society at large.

In the United States especially we have turned away from this virtue on the very basic level of societal contract when we allow our fellow humans to starve and freeze to death on the streets. We shame those who find themselves in need of public assistance, ignoring that one of the icons of our country, the Statue of Liberty, the personification of what we believe to be an inalienable right, has a poem by Emma Lazarus that many of us can quote the end of:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

To me being a citizen of the United States means that every other person living in my country is, in a way, extended family. We are part of the same tribe, so to speak. When people are unable to provide for themselves, it is our duty to care for them, because we reasonably have enough as a collective body that no person should go without the basic needs of the living. We forget this. We attempt to quantify and qualify who deserves more or less based on their ability or circumstances in life. When we do this, we fall victim to hubris and the feeling that we are somehow superior to those of our extended, civil family in every way, shape, and form. We ignore that we are connected.

And if we are all connected, if we are all in this together, then it is the duty of those who believe in the Ancestors and Dead to care for them as well. The nameless, faceless Dead, forgotten and ignored by our society at large, are our family. They’re our brothers, sisters, and everything in between. Some of them we have failed while they were living. Some of them came into this world and out again in the blink of an eye. Some simply were not able to make their journey home to their final resting place.

But they shouldn’t be forgotten.

We Pagans and Polytheists have a chance to set these moments right. Those who believe that we still have a relationship with the Dead are able to reach out to them and let them know that They are not forgotten. That we honor Them. That we give Them what They are due as members of our extended family and tribe.

I invite you to observe the Feralia in honor of those Unclaimed Dead on February 22nd. As a larger community, let’s take a moment out of our year to give to those who may be lost and wandering still. When the sun goes down, let’s all take a moment to step outside and leave modest offerings to those so many forget. If you are able, consider joining me during the 9 days of Parentalia in performing an Ancestor Elevation for the Unclaimed Dead, along with your own personal Ancestors. For those unfamiliar with the ritual, Galina Krasskova has written a beautiful ritual that could easily be adapted to the purpose or done as is.

Even if on this day you’re only able to offer a moment of thought or prayer, please do so. Let us not turn our head away from the Dead, lest the Dead take to the streets demanding Their due.

Let us do what is right.

  1. It’s important to note that within the history of the Roman Religion that Lares and Manes are sometimes used interchangeably or in contradictory manners from source to source. For ease of establishing a basis for learning, when I speak of the Lares I am speaking of both historical and modern Heroes along with Ancestors I have not met in my lifetime. When I speak of the Manes, I speak of the recently deceased first but also the group I refer to as the Beloved Dead, or those for which we have recent familial ties such as deceased grandparents, parents, and siblings. The Manes also includes those who were unable to be buried with appropriate final rites, no longer have people attending their graves, and those who were never buried at all. This may not be the classification the next Roman Polytheist you meet agrees with, but for the sake of clarity in my own tradition and writing, this is mine.
  1. The traditional offering is wheat. We have a wheat and gluten-free household, and so we offer corn masa instead, which not only fits regionally as our most common grain crop but also speaks to my Ancestrial cultus having come from generations of corn farmers.
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5 thoughts on “Feralia and the Unclaimed Dead

  1. Hear hear! Will be adding offerings to the unclaimed Dead and leave Them wine and wheat on the streets during the Feralia. It is a most welcomed addition to my Parentalia.

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