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May Ghost Festivals - Lemuria

Filed under: Ghost Stories — loretta @ 01:54:43 pm

For 3 (or more) alternate days in May (9th, 11th and 13th) the Ancient Romans practised ceremonies to drive away malevolent spirits the Larvae and Lemures. These were hungry ghosts who returned to torment the living, either because they were wicked people in life or because they had not been afforded a proper burial or funeral rites. The Manes is another name for spirits but these were normally ‘good’, as long as the rites were observed.

Barefooted and at night, the head of the household would snap his fingers and wash his hands 3 times to purify himself. Filling his mouth with black beans which he thre behind himself saying: “I throw away these beans and with them I redeem myself and mine.” The formula was repeated nine times. Having completed the offering, the patriarch again purified his hands. He then struck a brazen instrument. He repeated a ritual phrase nine times: “Paternal manes, go.” As the ritual was now finished, he could safely look behind himself.
By taking food out of his own mouth and then offering this food directly to the Lemures, the Lemures would feel they had received their just due and leave the family in peace for another year. The month of May was seen as unlucky and marriages were forbidden or discouraged.

On the 13th May 609, Pope Boniface IV consectrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. The 13th May later became All Saints Day, probably to Christianize the Lemuria festival. However, in 741 All Saints moved to November 1st (by Pope Gregory III) but the assoiciation of the festival with ghosts remained in the eve of the hallowed day being rife with spirits (31st October).

Some believe that the fixing of the anniversary to the 1st November relates to Christianisation of the Irish autumn feast of ‘Samhain’ or Samonios as it would have been known ( But the Christian church in Ireland was the Celtic Church, with its own distinctive traditions which was not under the direct power of the Roman Church. Also it was likely first observed on November 1st in Germany which makes the Irish connection even less likely. (

In Ireland the 1st November is associated with the harvest and the paying of taxes (in food) to the King. According to Stephen Roud there is a tradition of the boundaries between worlds being broken down at this time - but in the Celtic world this is more likely to refer to fairy folk than to the dead. This is all makes for the origins of Hallowe’en to be very confused but I would like to put forward the idea that it comes from the Lemuria festival, a time when ghosts went abroad and had to be appeased does sound rather like the Hallowe’en tradition. Especially when you consider that beans are still sacred to the dead in Italy, and on November 2nd, All Souls Day, Festa dei Morti, they play an important part in the feast. (At the ancient Greek Necromanteon, Oracle of the Dead, beans were given to the supplicants before they were allowed an audience with the Oracle.)

Some of the beliefs about ghosts in classical times are still with us. The idea that ghosts that haunt are the unhappy dead, because they have not received a decent burial is one that survives to this day. The ghost story told by Pliny the Younger is not so different from stories we are all familiar with today. This translation is from Latin teacher Rose Williams (

“There was a big house in Athens, with an unsavory and unhealthy reputation. The silence of the night was interrupted by the sound of weapons and chains. First they came from afar, but then they were heard nearby. Soon there appeared a filthy, emaciated old man with scraggly hair and beard. He had chains on his hands and feet.

The residents didn’t sleep very well. Some even died from fear. Eventually the house was empty.

Finally, deserted, it remained quiet. When it was put up for sale no one was interested.

Then one day Athenodorus, the philosopher, came to town. He saw the FOR SALE sign on the house, learned the asking price, and asked a great many other questions.

No one held back on the horrific details, but still the philosopher decided to go ahead and buy the place.

That very evening, his first in the house, Athenodorus took a torch, stylus, and writing tablet to the front of his house. He let the slaves off for the night. Then he determined to keep himself busy writing because, he thought, an idle mind is the devil’s playground.

At first, all was still. Then from afar came the rattling of chains. Stoically, Athenodorus didn’t even bat an eye, but kept on writing. The sounds grew closer and closer.

Soon they were in the cottage….

Then they were in his very room….

At this Athenodorus laid down his stylus and looked up. There was the ghost. It beckoned him with a finger, but Athenodorus just took up his stylus again. When the philosopher heard the chains rattling above his head, he picked up his torch.

Slowly the ghost ambled to the door with Athenodorus close behind. As it reached an open area in the house, the ghost disappeared. Athenodorus grabbed a handy nearby clump of grass and placed it on the spot where the ghost had vanished.

The next day, Athenodorus called the magistrate. In his official capacity, he dug up the spot that had been marked. There they found chains and inside the chains, the bones of a man.

The magistrate gathered the bones for a proper burial. Never was the ghost heard from again.”

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