Poplifugia and Festival for Romulus in Rome

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The Festivals of the Poplifugia and the commemoration of Romulus are celebrated on July 5 and July 7, respectively. These two festivals are thought to be a continuation of the same festival, as it was customary for the Romans to have festivals that ran on several days but skipped the even-numbered days because those were considered ill-omened in Rome. There was also a Rumilia festival that might have been celebrated at the same time.

There is a detailed description of what is known about these festivals in the Golden Bough and in several articles by Jaan Puhvel. This early July date corresponds approximately to the time of slaughter of livestock in Mediterranean countries which have a dry season during most of the summer when there is no fodder for cattle. Although much has been written on this topic, it is not well understood because the Romans had an extremely conservative religion, in which they continued to do rituals, but they did not remember what they were for. In addition, much of the information about Roman religion has been lost or deliberately destroyed. On the other hand, many modern authors (Frazer, Benveniste and Puhvel) have written on this topic, but their analysis was strongly influenced by their beliefs about Indo-European society, which often had a religious or political agenda.

Bucrania from the Ara Pacis at Reed College, their photograph The Poplifugia was a ritual in which someone was chased out of the Regia, or “King’s House”, actually the formal residence of the Sacred King of Rome. It is impossible not to notice that the word popli- in Poplifugia, and which is interpreted as meaning ‘people’ is very similar to the word popa which is the Latin word for the attendant who actually slaughtered the animals at a sacrifice. It was the job of the popa to hit the animal in the forehead with an ax which stunned it. Someone else cut the animal’s throat so that it bled to death, and the whole operation was organized by a priest who spoke the religious formulas and directed everyone on what they should do. If the festival was originally called a *Popafugia (“fleeing of the popa or axeman”), it would correspond with the Bouphonia, as it was performed in classical Greece. Such a connection has been made between the Poplifugia and the Greek Bouphonia and both are thought to embody the myth of the killing of the first cow, which makes up the Indo-European myth of creation known as the Primal Cow Creation Myth.

Many authors have connected the Roman legendary figures Romulus and Remus to the Indo-European God Yama. The legend of Romulus and Remus is given in Livy’s History of Rome, Plutarch’s Lives (for Romulus) and additional details are known from many other sources.
Rumilia Festival
There was a Rumilia Festival in Rome (date unknown), according to brief mentions by Varro and Plutarch. The Goddess Rumina was honored with libations of milk on the banks of the Tiber River at the city of Rome. Libation means ‘pouring’ and in this ritual, milk was poured into the river and songs were most certainly sung to her. It has been surmised that the original name of the Tiber river was Rumina, and in fact rumon is an Etruscan word for ‘river.’ On the other hand ruminant is the standard Latin word for a ‘cow’ and while this may be a syncretic identification, it is also true that the Indo-Europeans named rivers after cows all over the Indo-European-speaking world. Although the classical Romans themselves and many modern authors have believed that the city of Rome was named after Romulus, the eponymous founder of the city, it is quite likely that the city is named after the river, and this very early ritual, so early that it is mostly forgotten, probably conserves one of the oldest elements of Roman religion.

The Roman legendary figures appear christianized as the two St. James, whose feast days are celebrated on May 1st (for St. James and St. Phillip), July 25 (for St. James the Greater) and on October 23rd (for St. James the Lesser) in the Roman Catholic Church. The city of Rome, which was deified as the Goddess Roma also appears christianized as Pope Saint Urban (e.g. Urba de Roman “City of Rome”), whose feast day corresponds to the Roman Pagan festival which celebrated the founding of the city of Rome, April 23rd. These are all examples of Pagan Saints. Many of the christianized forms of these Gods, such as the Catholic saints, both St. James and St. Urban lost their status as major objects of devotion when the mass was reorganized in 1965 (at Vatican II). However the form Santiago de Compostela is still very popular in Spain, and many pilgrims make their way to his shrine in Galicia.

A modern reconstructionist group known as Religio Romana celebrates some of the traditional holidays of the classical Romans, but as far as I know they have not organized a feast for Romulus nor for the Poplifugia. That should come as no surprise, considering the discomfort that the Indo-Europeans evidently felt at the prospect of slaughtering their domestic animals as can be seen from the reconstruction of the ritual. On the other hand it is customary in many places to express devotion to rivers with libations of milk (in India, see particularly the worship of the Yamuna River) and of water, everywhere. [fuggle26]

• Frazer, James, Golden Bough, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition).
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), published by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981. See especially the article “Remus and Frater.”

This article was published at pierce.yolasite.com/poplifugia but Yola went out of business. It is now republished here with an update.

© 2007, last updated 3/18/2015, at piereligion.org/poplifugia.html