In every early religion, there will be found, apart from external influences, traces of its own internal development, of stages by which it must have advanced from a mass of vague and primitive beliefs and customs to the organized worship of a civilized community. The religion of Rome is no exception to this rule; we can detect in its later practice evidence of its primitive notions and habits which it had in common with other semi-barbarous peoples, and we shall see that the leading ideas in its theology are not necessarily characteristically Roman in development but rather correlate with features of many local, nascent “religions” of that era.
Anthropology has taught us that in many primitive societies religion—a sense of humanity’s dependence on a power higher than himself—is preceded by a stage of magic—a belief in humanity’s own power to influence by occult means the action of the world around her. That the ancestors of the Roman community passed through this stage seems clear, and in surviving religious practice we may discover evidence of such magic in various forms. There is, for instance, what anthropology describes as ‘sympathetic magic’—the attempt to influence the powers of nature by an imitation of the process which it is desired that they should perform. Of this, we have a characteristic example in the ceremony of the aquaelicium, designed to produce rain after a long drought. In classical times, the ceremony consisted of a procession headed by the pontifices, which bore the sacred rainstone from its resting place by the Porta Capena to the Capitol, where offerings were made to the sky deity, Juppiter. But from the analogy of other primitive cults and the sacred title of the stone (lapis manalis), it is practically certain that the original ritual was the purely imitative process of pouring water over the stone.
A similar rain-charm may be seen in the curious ritual of the argeorum sacra, when puppets of straw were thrown into the Tiber—a symbolic wetting of the crops to which many parallels may be found among other early peoples. A sympathetic charm of a rather different character seems to survive in the ceremony of the augurium canarium, at which a red dog was sacrificed for the prosperity of the crop—a symbolic killing of the red mildew (robigo); and again the slaughter of pregnant cows at the Fordicidia in the middle of April, before the sprouting of the corn, has a clearly sympathetic connection with the fertility of the Earth. Another prominent belief—equally characteristic of early peoples—is the notion of the sacred which attaches to the person of the priest-king, so that his every act or word may have a magic significance or effect. This is reflected in the Roman priesthood, but especially in the ceremonial significance of the Flamen Dialis, the priest of Jupiter. He must always appear in festival garb and fire may never be taken from his hearth but for sacred purposes. No other person may ever sleep in his bed; the cuttings of his hair and nails must be preserved and buried beneath an arbor felix—no doubt a magic charm for fertility— and he must not eat or even mention a goat or a bean, or other objects of an unlucky character.
All of these practices were not uniquely Roman in origin but rather represent an internal process of religious development that occurred over centuries before the founding of Rome. By focusing on the particularities of religious practice and belief, the process of internal development becomes increasingly obvious.
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