Saturday, December 4, 2010

4th Day of Yule: It's Ladies' Night (Bona Dea)

Tonight is the night for the ancient Roman observance paying homage to the goddess called Bona Dea, "The Good Goddess".  Warning - there is no way to even mention this without being a little ribald.  It's not my fault! It's in the spirit of the day.

Bona Dea has a name - in the Roman custom of giving female names that are a feminization of the father, Bona Dea's name is a variant of Faunus, whose festival is tomorrow.  But it was regarded as very disrespectful and a fast track to profound bad luck for anyone - especially men - to say her name.  So she goes by the title of Good Goddess.

Bona Dea was important to the Roman's - she's the giver of gifts, fertility and abundance, and securing her favor meant that Rome itself would be held in favor in the coming year. Her image appears on many Roman coins (Bona Dea may well be the reason for the custom of 'bonuses' offered at this time of year, too.  Those Romans really impacted the world in a big way).  To Romans, proper worship and recognitions of the gods and goddesses in their proper time was not just an individual religious act but a citizen's duty, because proper religious actions translated directly into national well-being.

But unlike many of the deities that protected Rome, Bona Dea was taboo to men - they could not say her name and it was regarded as great sacrilege for them to attend her rites or even know what they were. (So, a few centuries later, Plutarch speculated that if a bunch of women ever got together in secret without men there must be some gay orgies going on.  And maybe he was right - but since men weren't allowed, he doesn't know.  And given the nearly universal appeal and threat of that fantasy to men through the ages... I wonder.)

Women engaged in rites to Bona Dea twice a year - once in spring at the temple of the Vestals, and once in early December at the home of the magistrate's wife... Mrs. Caesar, that is.

And I have no doubt at all that there was plenty of alcohol flowing ... it was one of only a couple times when Roman women were legally allowed to drink at all (although because it was generally illegal, the women called the Bona Dea libations 'milk')... plenty of bawdy merrymaking and absolutely, a good dose of trash-talking about the men in their lives.  And it is entirely possible that the ritual included not only wine, song, the sacrifice of a sow (this is Rome we're talking about... just about every animal butchered ended their lives as a sacrifice, but they were then roasted and eaten, so think about it more as a physical method of saying grace before the feast), but also some female only sexual acts.  In the culture of the times, women were kept very closely confined, and sexual energy is energy - they had plenty to release.  Part of the preparation for this event involved abstinence from either it was for this reason or... again, the guys decided that must be what was happening. (battlecry of the spurned male: "Are you a lesbian or somethin'??")

Whatever is was they did, the men kept away and welcomed the 'bonus' of abundance that came their way by allowing it. (Well, except for one memorable guy who cross dressed and went to go peek, landing himself a trial on the level of treason for putting the welfare of the entire empire at risk.  But that's another story.

Fortunately, we do not live in the tightly confined culture that Roman women did, but today might still be a good day to send the men off to the mall with the kids, invite a few female friends over to laugh and enjoy time together. Women do an awful lot during this season to make it merry for everyone else, and a bit of time to let your hair down and release some energy in order to let the abundance flow can't be a bad thing, right?  Watch a good chick flick the guys wouldn't be caught dead at, tell a few dirty jokes, pop open a bottle of wine or some egg nog.  If you get together to make some gifts while you're laughing, you'll even be able to insert a bit of the 'secret' element of the rite.

May Bona Dea bless you and yours this month and all of the year!  If you're interested in more about Bona Dea, Women's Mysteries has a well documented account of the holiday and the history and myth behind it.

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