The Law of Unintended Sequels: Ten Unusual and Obscure Roman Deities

[E]vidently Forculus [the god of the threshold] can’t watch the hinge and the threshold at the same time.” – St. Augustine

Nobody enjoys mocking the Egyptian pantheon for its weirdness than the supposedly straight-laced Romans, so I thought as a companion to last week’s entry, we’d give them a taste of their own medicine and talk about some equally strange Roman deities. We often think of Roman mythology as just a Greek mythological redux, but the Romans had a religion before they started plugging the Greek pantheon into their belief system, and in some ways, it’s far more interesting than watching Ares become Mars and Apollo becoming…Apollo…

[Hey, sometimes you just have to keep a good idea…]

Indigenous Roman religion is very ancient in its outlook, animistic and full of spirits in a way that strikes one as much more aboriginal African in its outlook than what we’re accustomed to seeing as ancient Mediterranean beliefs. Many of these entities are connected to nature, because the Romans as a culture believed greatly in their bonds to the land, but as we’ll see, some of these personified deities are distinctly urban, pointing to this being an ongoing aspect of Roman religious belief, as opposed to being solely a vestige of a primitive past. Many of these minor deities saw a revival during the early Empire, as Octavius used ancient Roman practices and gods to legitimize his rule by tying the Principate to a mythologized past.

Roman religion was also, like the Egyptian religion, very invested in ritual. As we saw in my entry about divination, despite turn of the millennium skepticism towards certain practices like haruspices and augury, the Roman civic system depended on them. They were linked to Rome’s cultural past and the Romans were, at heart, lovers of their traditions. A continual refrain in discussions of Rome’s old gods and many of their festivals is that even the Romans didn’t understand the meanings or origins of these celebrations or their rituals. But much of ancient religious rituals were founded on the idea that only perfect observance of these rituals would avert disaster, so it was far riskier to stop doing even the most nonsensical practices than just going along with it all. It didn’t matter if a priesthood didn’t know why they did something, only that they did so.

10) Vediovus

Vediovus (Veiovis) was originally an Etruscan god, whom the Romans believed to be one of the first gods. In spite of this, Vediovus was typically portrayed as a young man. His iconography showed him clutching arrows, pila (javelins), or thunderbolts, and accompanied by a goat. His association with thunderbolts and goats leads him to be tied to the much more well-known Jupiter/Jove, who had assumed much of those attributes from the Greek Zeus (who was supposedly raised by the she-goat Amaltheia).

In fact, Vediovus shares much of his name with Jove— it’s just not obvious unless you remember that the letter J is actually an I in classical Latin. So, you can say that Vediovus’ name is in truth Vedjovus (or Vejovis). The Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius  (ca. 125-180s AD) claims that the “ve” of Vediovus’ is a negative particle, like with the Latin word for insane, “vesanus” (not sanus — sane). He therefore claimed that Vediovus operated much like Alakshmi does in Vedic thought, an anti-Jove. However, we have little documentation on this obscure god, so even an ancient source like Gellius can only be taken with a grain of salt.

Obscure, yes, but Vediovus still enjoyed some protection in the imperial cult because one of the few places that he is known to have had a long-standing presence was in the Latin town of Bovillae, which had ancient ties to the gens Julii. Octavius brought Vediovus to Rome, where he had a temple on the Capitoline hill and one on Tiber Island in the middle of the river. There, his worship seems to have been more closely connected to the Greek medical god Asclepius than Jove, and he was seen as a god of healing. This, combined with his arrows also brings his cult into Apollo’s orbit as well. This motley assortment of divine forms might explain why such a minor god still managed to have three festivals (January 1st, March 7th, and May 21st). During the spring festivals, Gellius tells us that female goats were sacrificed to Vediovus to avert plague, an always-important ritual for a city continually beset with the water-borne diseases that were bred in its marshy environs. Gellius also says that the goats were sacrificed ritu humano, “in the manner of a human sacrifice,” which might point to an older, darker aspect of the god that might explain his view of Vediovus as the opposite of generally benevolent Jove.

9) Summanus

On a somewhat similar note, Jove was the god of thunder, epitomized by his famous thunderbolts. But what you might not know is technically Jove is only the god of daylight thunder. Nighttime thunderstorms are the province of Summanus, a god so old and shadowy none of the ancient writers could agree where he came from. Pliny the Elder believed he was originally one of the nine Etruscan thunder gods, while Marcus Terentius Varro thought he was a Sabine god brought to the Romans by the Sabine king Titus Tatius when he made peace with Romulus and the Latins. Ovid sums it up in his Fasti by saying “The temple is said to have been dedicated to Summanus, whoever he may be.” 

To draw another parallel to Hinduism and Vedic culture, it might be that Summanus served a similar role to Jove as the god Varuna does to Mitra, providing a dichotomous divine pair that guard cosmic balance. Jove would be the guardian of light and the benevolent, life-giving summer storm, where Summanus represented the violent, uncanny nocturnal storm— the mysterious aspect of the deity. In line with this, writers of antiquity, the Middles Ages, and the Renaissance would identify Summanus with the underworld god Pluto. The Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões would write that Summanus’ realm was one of gloom, and English poet John Milton would describe Satan’s visit to Rome thusly: “Just so [like] Summanus, wrapped in a smoking whirlwind of blue flame, falls upon people and cities…

Summanus’ temple in Rome was on the slopes of the Aventine hill, west of the Circus Maximus, dedicated on June 20, 278 BC. We believe it was built in response to a lightning strike destroying an effigy of the god that was perched on the roof of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. To appease Summanus and protect Jupiter’s temple, every June 20th, the Temple of Summanus received offerings of summanalia, wheel-shaped cakes made of flour, milk, and honey; as well as two black oxen. These dark-coated animals further point to the idea that Summanus might have had chthonic connections, as black animals were usually only sacrificed for underworld deities.

8) Laverna

Okay, I’ll finally get away from Jovian-adjacent gods and give the ladies a chance by turning to an ancient Italian/Etruscan goddess, Laverna: patron goddess of thieves, con men, and cheating. Older scholars turned to Horace for the etymology of her name, thinking it was a gloss of laternio/lavernio, “robber;” or a very specific form of thief, the lavatore, the “bath thief,” who presumably was someone who cruised for unattended valuables at the public baths, as opposed to a literal bath-stealer. On the other hand, many modern linguists connect it to levare, “shop-lifters,” or lu-cum, “gain.” All of which point to her role as a goddess of acquisition, legitimate or otherwise.

Laverna also seems to have begun her existence as an underworld deity, being mentioned in Etruscan tombs as connected to the di inferni, the infernal spirits. This makes sense when one remembers the lord of the underworld, Pluto, was also worshipped as the god of wealth (“Pluto” coming from the Greek Πλοῦτος/Ploûtos, “wealth”). She probably became associated with thieves because of her pairing with the uncertainty of night and darkness that make illegal activity easier to accomplish. The one ritualistic aspect we know of her worship is that any libation offered to Laverna had to be made with the left hand, the non-dominant hand as seen by the ancients. The Latin word for “left” (sinister/sinistra) was also the word for “unlucky,” demonstrating the upside down logic needed to please the goddess of tricksters. It was thought thieves who successfully invoked Laverna’s protection would not only achieve their aims, but do so without ruining their good reputation— a must for any self-respecting con man.

Laverna’s altar was on the Aventine hill, near the gate that bore her name (the Porta Lavernalis), but she also possessed a sacred grove near the Via Salaria. Traditionally, the Aventine had been outside the original boundaries of Rome, and until later into the imperial period, it was the home of many of Rome’s foreign populations, as well as those outsiders’ gods. This gave the hill a somewhat lawless air that would attract a slightly underhanded goddess like Laverna, who was probably right at home there. As for her sacred grove, Robin Hood knows that a forest is great place to cool one’s heels while evading the law or offloading hot merchandise.

7) Annona

As we discussed with the god “Lupercus” that Octavius eventually just made up to get people to stop asking to which god everyone was sacrificing to during the Lupercalia, the Romans and the emperors in particular were no strangers to just creating deities out of whole cloth to fulfill some spiritual or propaganda-based need. Annona is a great example of this.

As a proud agricultural people, the Romans have a butt-ton (technical term) of grain gods, representing nearly every individual aspect of the cultivation process. Annona is one of these highly specialized deities, as she is very specifically the goddess who is the personification of the grain supply to the city of Rome, its famous grain dole. Her name comes from the Latin annōna, “grain of sustenance,” which in turn derives from the Latin word for “year” (annus), demonstrating how vital grain was to the welfare of the city. The Senate originally was responsible for seeing that grain was distributed to Roman citizens, but as administrative functions evolved into their imperial form, the grain dole was seen as the manifestation of the emperor’s ability to provide for his people and Annona was placed within the confines of the imperial cult.

Much like Octavius’ support of the peace goddess Pax, Annona’s imperial connections portray her as the gift of the security the emperor could offer his subjects. As a result, her iconography is very similar to that of Pax’s on the Ara Pacis. Annona is usually shown bearing a cornucopia, sheaves of grain, or a modius (a grain-measure), often in the presence of Ceres (the Roman equivalent of Greek Demeter), the main goddess of agriculture. What you might not expect is Annona is also often shown with nautical elements: perched on a ship prow, or holding an anchor or ship’s rudder. This is because much of Rome’s grain came from its provinces abroad, so Annona was also a way to illustrate the emperor’s subjugation of foreign enemies like Egypt, whose vast and fertile fields served the stomachs of Rome to such an extent it would eventually destroy the Two Lands’ prosperity until the Muslim conquest.

6) Picus

Picus was the legendary first king of Latium, the ancient Italian kingdom that existed before the founding of Rome (the one Aeneas marries into). He was supposedly the son of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time compared with the Greek Kronos. He was the founder of the city of Laurentum (“The City of Laurels”), located slightly southwest of Rome, often considered the first Latin capital of Italy.

His name is Latin for “woodpecker” (indeed, the scientific family name of woodpeckers as a species is Picidae), and there are several myths attesting to the origins of this. Sometimes it is said to refer to Picus’ skill at the divination art of augury, hence a connection with birds, but the more famous myths say that Picus himself was turned into a woodpecker by the sorceress Circe for refusing her advances. In The Metamorphoses, Ovid says after this, Picus’ wife, the nymph Canens, searched for him for six days until she threw herself into the Tiber in despair. Canens was the personification of song, which in turn ties her to birds and birdsong.

As a deity, Picus was usually invoked by the Latins when younger generations set out to found new cities and colonies. The settlers would perform rituals in the spring to the god and his flight would be followed to new lands and designate where sacred boundaries should be established. This use of a specific form of augury connects him back to both his mythic skill in the art, and his divine form.

5) Cardea

Speaking of marking out sacred boundaries and protecting transitional spaces from negative forces, that was also the purview of Cardea, the goddess of door hinges. It’s her along with her fellow entryway guardians Forculus (doors) and Limentinus (the threshold) that St. Augustine is mocking in my flavor text for this entry, the early Church fathers having scant respect for the “little gods” of paganism responsible for every blessed thing, as compared to one great, all-powerful god who could control everything at once.

But as societies moved from nomadic pastoral groups into urban agrarianism, boundary marking and the delineation of secular and sacred space was seen as increasingly important. It was a way to see that the gods were given their due and for people to protect themselves from the various unseen forces that might interfere with their lives. Doorways, like crossroads, were seen as dangerous spaces because of their in-between spatial relationship to the greater world. Just as at a crossroads one can be coming or going, doorways can be used as much to keep things out as to let things in, and one must always be cognizant of the traffic using your door. That’s why the Romans are hardly the only ancient culture that attaches multiple deities to doors. Cardea’s position as a hinge echoes the Roman god Janus, who has two faces with which he can both look forward and backwards at the same time. Indeed, Ovid relates the story of a nymph, Cranaë, whom he conflates with Cardea, who is pursued by Janus, and he says it is the gatekeeping god who transforms the pastoral nymph into the boundary goddess.

Another way Cardea drew boundaries in the Latin world was through the cardo, the Roman surveying practice derived from her name, where the important north-south main street of a town was marked. This was done with the obvious directional procedures, but also with the aid of augury for maximum favorableness. Roman legionary encampments were constructed in the exact same way to ensure divine protection for the Empire’s troops stationed far from home. So Cardea could let Fortuna and other lucky forces in, as well as block unfriendly influences from the expanded frontiers of Rome. In this way, the nymph of the wilds returned to her primeval roots.

4) Mefitis

Mefitis (Mephitis) was an ancient Italian goddess principally worshipped by the Samnites, a tribal group believed to have possibly descended from the Latins’ first frienemies on the peninsula, the Sabines. Unlike the Sabines, the Samnites maintained a separate ethnic identity from the Romans until as late as the Social War in the late 80s BC. But unfortunately for them, they chose to ally themselves with the Populares and Gaius Marius in that conflict and once Sulla defeated the Populares in 87 BC, he retaliated against the Samnites as ruthlessly as he did against his Roman opponents. The Samnites were punished so severely that it was said that “some of their cities have now dwindled into villages, some indeed being entirely deserted.” After the Social War, the Samnites effectively ceased to be a separate tribal group and were assimilated into Roman culture, presumably taking Mefitis with them.

Mefitis is the goddess of poisonous gases coming from swamps and volcanic fissures in the highly active volcanic fields of central Italy, especially in the area around Ampsanctus, a small lake district along the Via Appia where she had her largest shrine. Her altar was in a cave that trapped the noxious vapors associated with the goddess which travelers along the Appian Way stopped at to offer Mefitis sacrifices in order to protect themselves from the gases she controlled. She also had a temple in Rome on the Esquiline hill and, as you probably guessed, in Pompeii.

The etymology of Mefitis’ name is debated, but the English word “mephitic,” a synonym for “noxious,” is derived from her. This in turn is derived from some of Mefitis’ epithets which suggest that she had connections to underground spring sources, especially sulfuric hot springs that shared her olfactory profile. This is further supported by the presence of two volcanic pools located beside her shrine in Ampsanctus, known for their gaseous exhalations of carbonic acids and hydrogen sulfide.

3) Verminus

Verminus was another god whom the Romans might have adopted from a tribal group they conquered, though in this case, Verminus might have come from outside of Italy. There is some evidence he might have come to Rome from ancient Spain (Hispania), from one of their pre-Latin tribes, the Indigetes. Primarily located on the eastern borders of the Iberian peninsula, the Indigetes appear to have been a fairly sophisticated society. They occupied walled cities and minted their own coins stamped in the Iberian language that was written in a hybrid Greek-indigenous script. 

Possibly brought to Rome after the conquest of Hispania in 218 BC, Verminus was a god who protected cows from cattle worms and other bovine diseases— you can see the Latin word vermin(a), “wracking pain” and vermis, “maggot” right there in his name. This particularly makes sense if he was originally an Iberian god, as ancient inhabitants of the peninsula were as dependent on cattle as modern Spaniards.

Once in Rome, Verminus had a temple on the small Viminal hill, where he received offerings especially during epidemic cycles of bovine disease and when infection hopped from the Romans’ cattle to its human population, as one inscription from the 2nd century AD dedicated to him attests to. An altar dedicated to Verminus erected by Aulus Postumius Albinus as consul in 151 BC has been also been uncovered. Albinus was more well-known in his time as a poet and a scholar, especially of the Greek language, which made many of his fellow Romans see him as vain and unpatriotic. Our friend Aulus Gellius recounts a story where infamous wet blanket Cato the Elder scolds Albinus for begging for indulgence from his readers in a preface to one of his Greek histories written in that language for any grammatical mistakes he makes by reminding the Grecophile Albinus that nobody forced him to write in Greek in the first place, so his readers shouldn’t be asked to indulge anything. Interestingly enough, the last major revolt of Verminus’ Indigetes was put down by Cato in 195 BC.

2) Cloacina

Cloacina is a goddess who is both odd and at the same time, so practical that she seems to perfectly embody that sensible, can-do spirit of Rome that led it to conquer most of its known world. Her name comes from the Latin cluo, “to cleanse,” and she was the goddess of Rome’s sewer system. Indeed, the Latin word for “sewer,” cloaca, would in turn come from her name. It might at first blush seem silly and possibly a little gross to have a sewer goddess, but as anyone who’s ever experienced a sewage rupture or fought a recalcitrantly clogged toilet can attest, the importance of a smoothly-operating sewage system is really pretty priceless. I, for one, think there might be some benefit to having someone specific to call on in those trying circumstances.

The Romans can be accused of borrowing a lot of other people’s good ideas, but they are one of the early inventors of the moving water drainage systems in the world. The Cloaca Maxima, the main sewer line in the city, was originally an open-air canal drain built by the Etruscans, but the Romans are the ones who covered it and created a subterranean sewage system that both helped to drain the surrounding marshlands and urban waste from the populace. By the 1st century AD, the aqueducts that supplied Rome with its fresh water were connected to the Cloaca Maxima and made running water one of the prime civilizing features of Roman urban life. Cloacina, because she was helping the Romans keep their city sanitary, was actually seen as a very clean deity, rather than what no doubt first ran through all of your minds when I first said “sewer goddess.”

Cloacina shared a shrine with Venus at a site above the Cloaca Maxima in the Forum, which might seem like a weird pairing, but both goddesses were associated with myrtle, a plant seen as a purifying herb. According to legend, Romulus erected a statue to Cloacina upon the site where the Romans made peace with the Sabines because of this cleansing attribute of the goddess, who could cleanse the hate of the war between Rome’s two founding tribes and bring peace. Venus is present in this as well, as the goddess who represented the union of the Romans and Sabines through the binding love of the men of Rome for their Sabine brides. So, as both an integral part of Rome’s founding mythos and emblematic of its achievements, Cloacina is a truly Roman goddess through and through.

1) Aius Locutius

It might be a bit of stretch to even call Aius Locutius a true god, but his (or technically, maybe her?) story is so odd and not especially Roman in character that I think he definitely deserves a slot in an unusual deities blog entry. Aius Locutius’ name means “Spoken Affirmation,” but he is often referred to colloquially by the Romans themselves as “Speaker.” And that’s really his nature— he has no corporeal form, he is simply a mysterious disembodied voice who chose to appear exactly once in Roman history. But it was a very crucial moment.

Supposedly in 391 BC, a Roman plebeian named Marcus Caedicius was walking in the goddess Vesta’s sacred grove on the Palatine hill at night, when he heard a strange, supernatural voice in the darkness. The voice warned of an imminent attack by the Gauls upon the city, and it commanded Caedicius to instruct the tribune of the plebs to fortify Rome’s walls. Caedicius obeyed, but remember that although the tribune served the interests of the plebeians in the government, the tribune was always themselves a patrician. Therefore, imagine the response of your average patrician to a pleb who runs out of the streets in the middle of the night claiming that a voice told him that the Gauls were coming.

So, Caedicius’ warning is promptly ignored… and then the Gauls show up and completely ransack the city. Eventually, the invasion is repelled and Rome rebuilds, presumably while Caedicius stood around telling everyone that he had told them so incessantly. But Rome recognized their mistake, and the Senate built an altar to Aius Locutius, no doubt in part in the hopes that offerings might bring the unknown god back to impart its wisdom. But Aius Locutius never spoke to anyone ever again.

To defend the tribune and the Senate for ignoring the super-clear warning they were given by Aius Locutius a bit, though, it has been pointed out that the Roman religion had never received such a divine visitation before and had no context for it. While Yahweh might speak directly to his people, the obscure signs and symbols of augury and supernatural noises were the only way the gods had ever spoken to the Romans. To have a god speak clearly in a Latin that even a pleb could understand to deliver a message that required no divination to interpret had literally never happened, and never did again. No wonder it threw everyone for such a loop, especially after the message was proven correct.

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