Fordicalia, a Roman Grain Festival

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WARNING: gross out alert, but it all ends happily.

The Fordicalia or Fordicidia as it is also known, is notorious for the sacrifice of pregnant cows, at the Roman festival celebrated April 15th for the Goddess Tellus Mater. But the stories, if not the form of the sacrifice, may be due to a misunderstanding of the word forde-. It’s my argument that originally what the Romans offered to Tellus Mater (a Grain Goddess), was probably barley, not pregnant cows. Only in decadent, classical Rome would the practice of killing perfectly healthy and valuable pregnant animals have developed.

pregnant barley, actually wild rye, notice baby bump next to middle finger The words forda and horda do mean ‘pregnant cows’, that is, ‘cows in calf.’ The two different forms forda- and horda- are dialect forms in which the h- and f- are allophonic (you say tomayto, I say tomahto). There is a similar situation with the words hordeum and fordeum which both mean ‘barley’. It isn’t clear just what the range of these dialect differences is however, since some classical authors label one or the other forms archaic, but this isn’t necessarily correct. Furthermore, the name of the festival Fordicidea, the form usually used in classical Rome is questionable. The name in Ovid’s Fasti certainly ends in -cidea which has a meaning ‘slaughter’ (as in ‘suicide, genocide’), but both Hordicalia and Fordicalia are also attested various places as names of the festival and these have the more usual form of the name of a festival in Latin, with a typical -alia ending, which means ‘festival’. No one knows exactly what the festival was called in the time before Julius Caesar because the name appears always abbreviated as F•O•R•D in the old calendars.

That pregnant cows were slaughtered in the time of classical Rome appears from two sources, Varro and Ovid. Ovid never told the truth about anything if he could come up with an entertaining story, since he seems to have been interested in “selling” his writings. Varro is a little more problematic since he seems more reserved in his writing and he was a farmer, or more accurately an estate owner who was interested in farming.

Ovid describes the Fordicidea in unambiguous terms when he says: pontifices, forda sacra litate bove, which Frazer translates as “ye pontiffs, offer in sacrifice a pregnant cow” where forda... bove means ‘pregnant cow.’ Ovid was writing in approximately the year 17 CE. Varro wrote earlier (about 47-45 BCE), where his description of the festival appears in De Lingua Latina. He also uses unambiguous language: Fordicidia a fordis bubus: bos forda quae fert in ventre; quod eo die publice immolantur boves praegnantes in curiis, which hardly needs a translation but here it is from the Loeb library edition, translation by Roland Kent, “The Fordicidia was named for fordae cows, a forda cow is one carrying an unborn calf; because on this day several pregnant cows are officially and publicly sacrificed in the curia.”

Ovid goes on in great and gory detail about the sacrifices, and even offers a little mythological tale (of the dream of Numa) to explain how the practice got started, but the point is that Romans probably originally offered barley, specifically pregnant barley to the Grain Goddess, Tellus Mater. How can barley be pregnant, one might well ask? Barley gets pregnant in the spring, when the over-wintered grain (which just looks like lawn grass all winter), shoots up and begins to form ears, inside the stalks. At first it isn’t noticeable, but eventually, a close look shows that the stalks between the nodes are getting “fat” because the ears are forming inside, while they are still covered by the sheaf of one of the blades of the barley. In English, the barley is said to be “in the blade” meaning that it is forming ears. This is a time of great anxiety for grain farmers since they are hoping that everything will turn out right and the ears will eventually shoot above the main part of the plant and then ripen properly. Very widely among the Indo-Europeans, there is a festival to encourage the grain growth at this time, which seems to be the main impetus for these Tellus Mater festivals. Typically the Indo-Europeans would propitiate the Grain Goddess with -- grain! There is even some confirmation that this is the case among Romans from a late source. Joannes Laurentius Lydus wrote about Roman festivals (in Greek) in the time of the Byzantine empire (approximately 500 CE). He describes this festival, calling it Fordicalia and says that there were sacrifices for fertility, and that the priests prayed and sacrificed in the fields to Demeter. In this case he has “translated” the name of a Roman Goddess of grain to a Greek Goddess of grain, Demeter, because he is writing in Greek.

All this to say, the Romans probably confused the words forda ‘pregnant cow’ and hordeum ‘barley’ and may have developed a practice based on a misunderstanding of their own language. There are many examples of this type of confusion in the antiquarian sources that we have. See for example Varro’s introduction to the months. It is incomprehensible that there would be any widespread practice of sacrificing pregnant cows to make grain grow, because it doesn’t make any sense. There is nothing “sympathetic” about this sort of magic. Furthermore the Indo-Europeans were subsistence farmers. Sacrificing a pregnant cow wastes the cow, the calf and even the potential milk production of the cow which was the whole point in breeding her. People usually are not this stupid and they often have a very close relationship with their dairy cows and would not want to hurt them. In conclusion, the elements of the Roman Fordicalia point to a typical Indo-European grain festival preceding the spring grain harvest. [fuggle26]


• The Fasti of Ovid are published as Publii Ovidii Nasonis, Fastorum Libiri Sex edited with translation by James G. Frazer, MacMillan and Co., Ltd., London, 1929.
On the Latin Language by Marcus Terentius Varro, translated by Roland G. Kent, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1938, (a Loeb Library dual language edition.)
Oxford Latin Dictionary, ed. by P. G. W. Glare, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982.
Joannis Laurentii Lydii, Liber de Mensibus, edited by Ricardus Wuensch in Aedibus B.G. Teubneri, Lipsig, 1898.
On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 by Michele Salzman, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.

This article was originally posted on the PIEreligion forum on Yahoo Groups on Oct. 20, 2007, however that group is defunct so the article is now revised and reposted here with the permission of the author.

© 2007, last updated 1/15/2013,