Rome (Ancient Religion & Magic)
Magical practice was widespread among the ancient Romans.
Magic was integral to their worship and operated as an
organized system of magical rites for communal ends. Magic
formed a foundation for thought and outlook upon the world,
entered daily life, and directly affected many laws and customs.
This ingrained tendency eventually developed into a broad
polytheistic system, which led during bad times, especially in
the later years of the Empire, to a frenzied search for new gods,
borrowed from various countries Rome had conquered. In
times of misfortune and disaster, the Romans were always
ready to utilize a non-Roman deity if his or her favors promised
more than those of their own deities.
Although there was a strong conservative element in the
populous, and the ‘‘custom of the elders’’ was strongly upheld
by the priestly fraternity, this usually gave way before the momentary
impulses of the people. Thus, as a rock shows its geological
history by its differing strata, so the theogony of the
Roman gods tells its tale of the race that conceived it. There are
prehistoric nature deities, borrowed from indigenous tribes;
gods of the Sabines, from whom the young colony stole its
wives; gods of the Etruscans, and of the Egyptians, Greeks, and
Persians. The temple of Jupiter on the capitol contained the
altar of an ancient deity, a stone-god, Terminus, the spirit of
boundaries. In the temple of Diana of the Grove, a fountain
nymph was worshiped. Additional instances of this kind
Belief in Spirits
In addition to the gods, the spirits needed to be propitiated.
Indeed the objects offered to the Roman for veneration were
seemingly numberless. Apuleius gave a description of popular
supernaturalism when he told of a country road where one
might meet an altar wreathed with flowers, a cave hung with
garlands, an oak tree laden with horns of cattle, a hill marked
by fences as sacred, a log rough-hewn into shape, an altar of
turf smoking with libations, or a stone anointed with oil.
Every single action of man’s daily life had a presiding spirit,
as did commerce and husbandry. Ednea was concerned with
eating and Potina with drinking. Other spirits oversaw departures,
travel, approaching, and homecoming. In commerce
Mercurius reigned as the spirit of gain and Pecunia of money.
Farmers had to pay attention to the spirits of cutting, grinding,
sowing, and bee-keeping. A deity presided over streets and
highways; Cloacina served as goddess of the sewers, while the
lowly Mephitis was the spirit of bad smells. Spirits of evil, such
as Robigo, the spirit of mildew, also had to be propitiated by
pacificatory rites. In Rome there was an altar to fever and bad
From the country came Silvanus, god of farms and woods,
and his fauns and nymphs with Picus, the woodpecker god who
fed the twins Romulus and Remus with berries. Each deity or
spirit possessed some influence, and had to be approached with
proper rites. The names of these spirits were inscribed on tablets,
indigitamenta, which were in the charge of the pontiffs
(priests), who thus knew which spirit to evoke according to
need. Most of these spirits were animistic in origin.
Rites and Worship
Worship in ancient Rome consisted largely of magical rites
destined to propitiate the powers controlling human beings, to
bring people into touch with those powers, to renew life and the
land that supported it, and to stop that process of degeneration
constantly set in motion by evil influences. Everything connected
with worship typified this restoration. The priests, who represented
the life of the community, were therefore bound by
strict observances from endangering it in any way. Rules as to
attire, eating, and touch were numerous. Sacrifices were systematized
according to the end desired and the deity invoked.
Worship instructions designated the age and gender of all
animal sacrifices; oxen were to be offered to Jupiter and Mars,
and swine to Juno, Ceres the corn-goddess, and Silvanus. At
one shrine, a pregnant cow was sacrificed and the ashes of the
unborn young were considered to be of special magical efficacy.
Even human sacrifice existed within historical times. After the
battle of Cannæ, the Romans sought to divert misfortune by
burying two Greeks alive in the cattle-market, while in the time
of Julius Cæsar, two men were put to death with sacrificial solemnities
by the pontiff and flamen of Mars. Again, in the time
of Cicero and Horace, boys were killed for magical purposes.
Fire possessed great virtue and was held sacred in the worship
of Vesta, in early belief Vesta being the fire itself; it presided
over the family hearth; it restored purity and conferred protection.
Blood had the same quality and, smeared on the face of the
god, symbolized and brought about the oneness of the deity
with the community. On great occasions the statue of Jupiter
was treated thus the priests of Bellona made incisions in their
shoulders and sprinkled the blood upon the image. The face
of a triumphant general was painted with vermilion to represent
Kneeling and prostration brought one into direct contact
with the earth of the sacred place.
Music was also used as a species of incantation, probably deriving
its origin in sounds made to drive away evil spirits. Dancing
too was of magical efficacy. In Rome there were colleges of
dancers for the purposes of religion, youths who danced in solemn
measure about the altars, who, in the sacred month of
Mars, took part in the festivals and were sent throughout the
city dancing and singing. One authority stated that there were
four kinds of ‘‘holy solemnity’’—sacrifice, sacred banquets,
public festivals, and games. Theatrical performances also belonged
to this category, in one instance being used as a means
of diverting a pestilence.
Romains, Jules Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Sacred banquets were often decreed by the Senate as thanksgiving
to the gods. Tables were spread with a sumptuous repast
in the public places and were first offered to the statues of the
deities seated around.
The festivals were numerous, all of a magical and symbolic
nature. In the spring there was the Parilia, when fires of straw
were lighted, through which persons passed to be purified, and
the Cerealia, celebrated with sacrifice and offerings to Ceres,
the corn-goddess, and followed by banquets. The Lupercalia,
the festival of Faunus, was held in February and symbolized the
wakening of spring and growth. Goats were slain as sacrifice
and with their blood the Luperci, youths clad in skins, smeared
their faces. They took thongs made of the goatskin and, laughing
wildly, rushed through the city striking the crowd, Roman
matrons believing that the blows thus received rendered them
Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, also had her
festival, the Matronalia, celebrated by the women of Rome. During
festivals of the dead, the door leading to the other world
was opened, the stone removed from its entrance in the Comitium,
and the dark spirits who came forth were appeased with offerings.
On these days, three times in the year, when the gods
of gloom were abroad, complete cessation from all work was decreed.
No battle could be fought nor ship set sail, neither could
a man and woman marry.
To the sacred games were taken the statues of the gods in
gorgeous procession, chariots of silver, companies of priests,
and youths singing and dancing. The gods viewed the games
reclining on couches.
The chariot races also partook of the nature of rites. After
the races, in the Field of Mars, came one of the most important
Roman rites, the sacrifice of the October Horse. The righthand
horse of the victorious team was sacrificed to Mars, and
the tail of the animal, running with blood, carried to the Altar
of the Regia. The blood was stored in the temple of Vesta until
the following spring and used in the sacrifice of the festival of
Parilia. The sacrifice was essentially magical, all citizens present
being purified by the blood-sprinkling and bonfire.
The Roman outlook upon life was largely colored by magic.
Bodily foes had their counterpart in the unseen world—
wandering spirits of the dead, spirits of evil, the anger of innocently
offended deities, and the menace of the evil eye. Portents
and prodigies were everywhere. In the heavens, strange things
might be seen. The sun had been known to double, even treble
itself, its light turn to blood, or a magical halo to appear round
the orb. Thunder and lightning were always fraught with presage.
Jove was angered when he opened the heavens and hurled
his bolts to earth.
Phantoms, too, hovered amid the clouds. Upon the Campagna,
the gods were observed in conflict, and afterward tracks
of the combatants were visible across the plain. Unearthly
voices were heard amid the mountains and groves and cries of
portent sounded within the temples.
Blood haunted the Roman imagination. Sometimes it was
said to have covered the land as a mantle, the standing corn
dyed with blood, the rivers and fountains flowing with it, while
walls and statues were covered with a bloody sweat.
The flight and song of birds might foretell the decrees of
Fate; unappeased spirits of the dead were known to lurk near
and steal away the souls of men, who then died. All these happenings
were attributable to the gods and spirits, who, if the
portent was one of menace, must be propitiated, if one of good
fortune, thanked with offerings.
Down to later times, this deep belief in the occurrence of
prodigies persisted. When Otho set out for Italy in 69 C.E.,
Rome rang with reports of a gigantic phantom rushing forth
from the Temple of Juno and of the statue of Julius turning
from east to west.
Divination and Augury
Divination was connected with Roman worship. There was
a spot on the Capitol from which the augur, with veiled head,
read the auspices in the flight of birds. Augurs also accompanied
armies and fleets and read the omens before an engagement
was entered upon. Divination was also practiced by reading
the intestines of animals, by dreams, by divine possession,
as in the case of the Oracles, when prophecies were uttered.
These had been gathered together in the Sibylline Books and
were consulted as oracles by the state. With the worship of fortune
were connected the Lots of Praœneste. The questions put to
the goddess were answered by means of oaken lots a boy drew
from a case made of sacred wood. The fortune-tellers also used
a narrow-necked urn that, filled with water, only allowed one
lot at a time to rise. Astrologers from Chaldea were also much
sought after and were attached to the kingly and noble houses.
Familiar things of everyday life took on magical import.
Words and numbers, especially odd ones, were of special significance.
The Kalends, Nones, and Ides were so arranged as to
fall upon odd days. Touch was binding, and so recognized in
the law of Rome, as the grasp of a thing sold, from a slave to
a turf of distant estate. Knotting and twisting of thread was injurious,
so that women must never pass by cornfields twisting
their spindles.
A strange sympathy existed between the trees and humankind,
and great honor was paid to the sacred trees of Rome. On
the oak tree of Jupiter, the triumphant general hung the shield
and arms of his fallen foe, while the hedges about the Temple
of Diana at Nemi were covered with votive offerings. The trees
also harbored the spirits of the dead, who came forth as dreams
to the souls of men. Pliny the Elder stated in this matter
‘‘Trees have a soul since nothing on earth lives without one.
They are the temples of spirits and the simple countryside dedicates
still a noble tree to some god. The various kinds of trees
are sacred to their protecting spirits the oak to Jupiter, the laurel
to Apollo, olive to Minerva, myrtle to Venus, white poplar
to Hercules.’’
These trees therefore partook of the nature of their presiding
spirits and it was desirable to bring about communion with
their magical influence, as in the spring, when laurel boughs
were hung at the doors of the flamens and pontiffs, and in the
temple of Vesta, where they remained hanging until the following
year. Trees and their leaves were also possessed of healing
and purifying value. Laurel was used for the latter quality after
triumphs, when the spears and javelins of legionaries were
wreathed with its branches to purify them from the blood of the
Man himself had a presiding spirit, his genius, each woman
her ‘‘Juno’’ and the Saturnalia was really a holiday for this
‘‘other self.’’ The Roman kept his birthday in honor of his genius.
He would offer frankincense, cakes, and unmixed wine on
an altar garlanded with flowers while making solemn prayers
for the coming year. Cities and villages had their genii.
Beliefs About Death
Death was believed to be the life and soul enticed away by
revengeful ghosts, hence death would never occur save by such
agencies. The dead therefore must be appeased with offerings
or else they wandered abroad working evil among the living.
One manifestation of this belief appeared in Ovid’s lines,
‘‘Once upon a time the great feast of the dead was not observed
and the manes failed to receive the customary gifts, the
fruit, the salt, the corn steeped in unmixed wine, the violets.
The injured spirits revenged themselves on the living and the
city was encircled with the funeral fires of their victims. The
townsfolk heard their grandsires complaining in the quiet
hours of the night, and told each other how the unsubstantial
troop of monstrous specters rising from their tombs, shrieked
along the city streets and up and down the fields.’’
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Rome (Ancient Religion & Magic)
Beans were used in the funeral feasts. They were supposed
to harbor the souls of the dead, and the bean-blossom to be inscribed
with characters of mourning.
Dreams were considered of great importance by the Romans
and many historical instances of prophetic dreams may
be found. They were thought to be like birds, the ‘‘bronzecolored’’
hawks; they were also thought to be the souls of
human beings visiting others in their sleep or the souls of the
dead returning to earth. In Virgil much may be found on this
subject. Lucretius tried to find a scientific reason for dreams;
Cicero, although writing in a slighting manner of the prevalent
belief in these manifestations of sleep, recorded dreams of his
Sorcery & Witchcraft
Sorcery in all its forms, from love-magic to death-magic, was
rife among all classes, as were necromantic practices. There
were charms and spells for everything under the sun. The raincharm
of the pontiffs consisted of the throwing of puppets into
the Tiber. The charm against thunderbolts was compounded
of onions, hair, and sprats. The charm against an epidemic required
the matrons of Rome to sweep the temple-floors with
their hair. There were many more charms, including the simple
love-charm strung around the neck of the country maiden.
Witches were prevalent. The poets often chose these sinister
figures for their subjects, as when Horace described the ghastly
rites of two witches in the cemetery of the Esquiline. Under the
light of the new moon they crawled about looking for poisonous
herbs and bones. They called the specters to a banquet consisting
of a black lamb torn to pieces with their teeth, and afterward
these phantoms had to answer the questions of the
Witches made images of their victims and prayed to the infernal
powers for help; hounds and snakes glided over the
ground, the moon turned to blood, and as the images were
melted so the lives of the victims ebbed away.
Virgil gives a picture of a sorceress performing love-magic
by means of a waxen image of the youth whose love she desired.
Lucan, in his Pharsalia, discusses Thessaly, notorious in all ages
for sorcery, and drew a terrific figure of Erichtho, a sorceress
of illimitable powers, one whom even the gods obeyed, and to
whom the forces of earth and heaven were bond-slaves.
Both Nero and his mother Agrippina were reported to have
had recourse to the infamous arts of sorcery, while in the New
Testament may be found testimony as to these practices in
The attitude of the cultured class towards magic is illustrated
by an illuminating passage to be found in the writings of
Pliny the Elder. He states,
‘‘The art of magic has prevailed in most ages and in most
parts of the globe. Let no one wonder that it has wielded very
great authority inasmuch as it embraces three other sources of
influence. No one doubts that it took its rise in medicine and
sought to cloak itself in the garb of a science more profound
and holy than the common run. It added to its tempting promises
the force of religion, after which the human race is groping,
especially at this time. Further it has brought in the arts of
astrology and divination. For everyone desires to know what is
to come to him and believes that certainty can be gained by
consulting the stars. Having in this way taken captive the feelings
of man by a triple chain, it has reached such a pitch that
it rules over all the world and in the East, governs the King of