How the Romans celebrated the spirits of the dead

Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons

The Romans might not have celebrated Halloween, but they did have their own spooky festivals to honour the spirits of the dead. And when they came to Britain, they brought some of their own creepy traditions with them…

This Halloween, our team of archaeologists is out on site excavating the remains of an old Roman town, which lies buried at East Park on the outskirts of Sedgefield. Although we’re not expecting to find anything spooky, we do love Halloween (especially carving our own archaeology-themed pumpkins, and watching horror movies starring archaeologists!). This year, we figured it was time to take a look at the Roman version.

Now, it’s pretty well-known that the idea of Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, but the wildly superstitious Romans did bring their own spooky flair to Britain.

In fact, the Romans had not just one Halloween-style celebration, they actually had two! These guys definitely upped the creepy factor.

Feralia – the Roman festival celebrating the spirit of the dead

First up was a festival called Feralia. This was a big public celebration of the Manes (spirits of the dead) and marked the end of nine days of festivities.

Unlike our modern-day tradition, this was celebrated in February, and involved honouring your dead ancestors. People gave offerings like flowers and bread, and the public went into a sort of mass mourning period. That meant no worship, even at home, and no fun ceremonies like marriage.

You might be wondering, why did they do all this? Well, all this was intended to keep the spirits at bay. The Romans believed that if they neglected these traditions, the spirits would rise again in anger to haunt them. Spooky!

Wikimedia Commons

Lemuria – the Roman festival to ward of malevolent spirits

Later in the year, the Romans held their second annual eerie festival. This time, the feast of Lemuria. Unlike Feralia, this festival had a more sinister nature. The Romans would perform special rites in order to prevent malevolent ghosts from haunting their homes.

These ghosts, called Lemures, were the spirits of people who died violently or with unfinished business. Exorcising these ghosts kept them from carrying out sinister hauntings in your home. Deeply superstitious, the Romans believed the whole month of May – when Lemuria took place – was deeply unlucky. So much so, that for the whole month nobody would get married!

The belief that ghosts can return to the earth hasn’t gone away, and even when Samhain turned into All Soul’s Day and Halloween, we humans still stay wary of any visitors from beyond the grave. So, this year, when you tuck into your sweets or turn on that new Netflix horror, don’t forget that you’re taking part in an ancient tradition, and keeping the spirit of the Romans alive.

What are your favourite Halloween traditions?

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Georgina Cole

Written by Georgina Cole

Ginny is a Community Archaeologist with DigVentures and recent Durham University graduate. She has a passion for speaking to the public and she especially loves British archaeology and forensics. In keeping with archaeological tradition, when she isn’t in the trenches you can often find her grabbing a pint at the local pub!

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