Review of Le Feste di Venere: Fertilità femminile e configurazioni astrali nel calendario di Roma antica

by Leonardo Magini
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Le Feste di Venere: Fertilità femminile e configurazioni astrali nel calendario di Roma antica
Book Author
Leonardo Magini
Book Publisher
L'Erma di Bretschneider
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Annie Vigourt
History of Religions
Select License
September 3rd, 2012

Le Feste di Venere: Fertilitri femminile e conjgurazioni astrali nel calendario

di Roma antica. By LEONARDO MAGINI. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider,

1996. Pp. 117. Lire 70.000.

A clear introduction states the author's objectives and leading ideas. L. Magini has tried to show that certain festivals, dedicated to diverse divinities and ob- served at different times, in fact constitute a cycle. This is an interesting approach to the Roman calendar in that it underscores its coherence. The author also sug- gests-and the idea is appealing-that there may have been astronomical peri- odicities coexisting with and impinging on biological and social periodicities.

Two observations have guided the author. First, the eclipse of the sun described by Plutarch at the moment of the death of Romulus would have been physically impossible on the nones of the month if the lunar month began on the calends. Second, celebrated on June 11 and March 17, the Matralia and the Liberalia- classed among the women's festivals-are separated by the length of a pregnancy (estimated by the author to be 281 days), whereas the Veneralia of April 1 falls seventy-one days after the Matralia, that is to say, the lapse of time necessary for the planet Venus to move from one specific position in the sky to another. This book mentions the religion of Venus only marginally, making allusion to Aphrodite or to characteristics of the goddess Venus that, at times, leave one perplexed. Take, for example, "goddess of earthly love" (p. 23) or "Fortuna as- sures conception . . . whereas, Venus, in her guise as the morning star, assures the growth of the conceived" (pp. 45-46). At no point does Magini make a sustained study of the goddess; the absence of any reference to the works of R. Schilling corroborates this assertion.

The first part of the book, entitled "Venus and Fortuna," primarily makes use of the myths retold by Ovid, supplementing these with references to the accounts of Lucretius, Plutarch, and Macrobius, and relying also on linguistic evidence. In attempting to characterize each festival-the Veneralia is represented as the celebration of marriage, the Matralia as that of conception, the festival of For- tuna Muliebris becomes the day when wives gain assurance of being pregnant,

Permission to reprint a book review printed in this section may be obtained only from the author

178 Book Reviews

the Matronalia becomes a preparation for delivery, and the Liberalia is the festi- val of delivery-the author uses surprising oversimplifications that may raise the reader's eyebrows. The matronae, for example, are defined as future mothers by reference to a phrase from Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, 18.6.8). L. Magini is forgetting (willfully?) the nuance that this Latin erudite introduces-"matrona dictum esse proprie, quae in matrimonium cum viro convenisset, quoad in mat- rimonio maneret, etiamsi sibi liberi nondum nati forent" (a matron is, strictly speaking, a woman who in marriage has come under the authority of a man, as long as she remains in marriage, even if no children have yet been born to her). Necessitas and Spes become the moon; Jupiter appears as the god of the lumi- nous sky and of the sun; Wotan and Freia are taken to be equivalents of Mercury and Venus.

In these fifty pages the author wants to demonstrate that the goddesses hon- ored over the course of these festivals literally are-and this understanding of Roman divinities is difficult to support-either the planet Venus or the moon. The planet Venus, its characteristics and double form Lucifera-Hesperus, are cor- related with the rites of reversal and inversion observed in the Matralia, and also with Verticordia, Obsequens, and Respiciens, epithets that evoke, according to the author, the movements by which the planet Venus approaches and with- draws from the sun. Discovering the planet Venus in all these festivals permits the author to assert that the women's festivals correspond to the movements of heavenly bodies and that the positioning of these festivals in the calendar reflects a biological rhythm.

But the length of gestation was not reckoned at 281 days by the ancients.

L. Magini admits this elsewhere (pp. 57-58), and this fact greatly diminishes the persuasiveness of the author's argument. Furthermore, the study would have gained much in clarity if the goddess Venus had been distinguished from the planet in its several phases; but the assimilation, effected by the author, of the goddess to the planet renders the book highly ambiguous.

The second part of the book, on the theme "the cycle of Venus and the calen- dar of Numa," aims to show that there was an archaic Roman year that began on March 8. This is the only way, according to the author, to account for the obser- vation of a solar eclipse on the nonae Caprotinae. It seems that this is to forget that all the accounts concerning the birth or the death of Romulus are mytholog- ical, that to locate an eclipse on a day when it was not astronomically possible increases the portentous aspect of the event and allows the symbolism of the eclipse to take preeminence in the story. In addition, making the year begin on March 8 may solve the physical difficulty of a solar eclipse on July 7, but it cre- ates another inconsistency: the ides, consecrated to Jupiter as the sovereign deity, are no longer at the "summit" of the lunar month. Having defined this new cal- endar, the author looks for festivals that, at that time, would have corresponded with the visible movements of the planet Venus; those highlighted are the cal- endae Fabariae and the Carmentalia. In this entire second part, the analyses con- cerning the discernible movements of the planets, supported by diagrams, are very clear. But it is very hindering and truly damaging to the credibility of his demonstration that the author argues on the basis of an apparent synodical year of Venus reckoned at precisely 584 days and then looks for festivals that fall near the days when Venus appears. despite the fact that ancient authors show no

History of Religions

knowledge of such a time cycle. Germanicus (Fragment 2.15) and Cicero (On the Nature of the Gods, 2.20.53) estimate the time it takes Venus to pass through all the houses of the zodiac to be about a year, Vitruvius (9.4) counts 485 days, and Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 2.6.38) 345 days.

Three appendices complete the work. In the first, rather important, appendix the author retrieves Camillus from the influence of Mater Matuta in order to link him with Lucifera-Venus. This is an odd distinction to make given that, earlier in the book, the author affirms that Lucifera is Mater Matuta (pp. 27, 37-40). This "correction" to the study made by Georges DumCzil (Camillus [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 19801) does not seem to advance our un- derstanding of the figure of Camillus. There then follow a calendar, reinterpreted by the author, and some astronomical observations concerning Venus.

For the nonexpert, this work, despite interesting opening hypotheses, presents great risk for confusion respecting the history of Roman religion.


University of Paris

Plato the Myth Maker. By LUC BRISSON, translated, edited, and with an intro- duction by GERARD NADDAF. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. lv+ 188. $27.50 (cloth).

Plato the Myth Maker is a new edition and translation of Brisson's 1982 work, Platon: Les mots et les mythes, and this edition brings to a wider audience the best current treatment of Plato's relation to myth. Not only has Plato's critique of myth profoundly influenced the understanding of myth in philosophy, religion, and literature from his day to our own, but Plato, as Brisson points out, stands at an ideal point in history to comment on the powers and dangers of the mythic tradition. "Plato's testimony on myth is thus balanced on a razor's edge. At the turning point between two civilizations, one founded on orality and the other on writing, Plato in fact describes the twilight of myths" (pp. 38-39). Plato's own use of myths, along with his criticism of the myths of the poets, reveals the fluid workings of traditional myth through a kind of analysis only possible after the advent of writing.

Brisson divides his treatment into two sections: Plato's testimony and Plato's critique. In the first section, Brisson analyzes the dynamics of myth in an oral traditional culture such as Plato's. Drawing on the insights of Havelock's Preface to Plato, Brisson highlights the importance of myth as the medium of transmis- sion for the important ideas of a culture.' He analyzes the dynamics of this tra- dition, from the fabrication of the message through its reception by the audience, noting that much of this transmission takes place in a religious context that rein- forces the authority of the tradition. Although Brisson tends to some of the ex- tremes that trouble Havelock's work, especially in his description of the effects of imitation upon people in an oral culture, his analysis brings out both how myth

Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univer- sity Press, 1963). 

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