Some days after Saturnalia [ostensibly January 3rd], we find ourselves at the ‘Compitalia’ – the Observance of the Crossroads (Compita) dedicated to the Lares … and also to the formidable Goddess, Mania.
And for this occasion, we shall endeavour to delve into the Indo-European origination and broader comparative co-expressions for both the Observance and its propitiated deifics, accordingly.
Because whilst one can go almost half-a-hundred places to read of only the Roman (and post-facto Classical Studies academic) interpretations to the observance … we here exalt in our chartered role as a custodian of the (Inter-Indo-European) Crossroads.
And so – just as the Cross-Roads is a crossing of paths which produces a Gateway, a Conduit, in the ritual dimension (as we had covered quite extensively in our recent work in this area late last year) … so, too, in the theological sense do we find the gateway to greater depth of meaning and of insight through our cross-comparative Indo-European analysis.
Due to its length, we have elected to partition this commentary. The first portion shall briefly set out some of the ‘why’ of the festival, in more purely Roman terms; the second should begin the task of actually ‘tracing together’ both the Roman observance and the figures at its center with its (and Their) broad Indo-European correlates. Readers of our other work over the past few months concerning the Crossroads Rites of the rest of the Indo-European world shall, understandably, already have apprehended where we likely intend to go with this. That is to say – all the way back to the Urheimat, via whatever Crossroads junctures we may so happen to traverse to get there, under the great guidance of certain formidable Guardian figures of Wandering, and Maternal disposition.
But let us return to the Compitalia (and Ludi Compitalicii – the Games of the Crossroads) directly [and yes, yes I am aware that the illustration for this first piece is drawn from a domestic Lararium – in this case, that of the house of Julius Polybius at Pompeii].
An ‘official explanation’ of sorts is given by the likes of Pliny or Dionysus of Halicarnassus as to the reasoning for the observance. We shall go with Pliny’s, as it is rather shorter:
“I must not forget to mention one instance of a hearth that is famous in Roman literature. It is said that during the reign of Tarquinius Priscus there suddenly emerged from the ashes on his hearth a male genital organ, and that a captive girl who was sitting there, Ocresia, a maidservant of Queen Tanaquil, rose from there in a state of pregnancy. According to the story, this was how Servius Tullius, who succeeded to the throne, came to be born. Afterwards, and likewise in the king’s house, it is said that flames blazed round the child’s head as he slept, and that he was therefore believed to be the son of the Lar, the god who protected the household. Hence, we are told, he first founded the Festival of Compitalia [‘Compitalia Ludos’] in honour of the Lares.”
[Natural History, XXXVI 204, Eichholz translation]
Dionysus [IV 1-2, Cary translation] expands upon this somewhat (after having provided an entirely euhemeric account in which Tullius Servius is instead the son of a slain royal of Corniculum, his mother taken as war-booty by the Roman king Tarquin and given to his wife, who then is said to have freed the woman, assumedly as the result of being “informed of everything that related to” her – potentially via the divinatory means mentioned later in the text), adding the rather important detail (for us modern readers) that this site of the fiery phallic apparition was “the hearth in the palace, on which the Romans offer various other sacrifices and also consecrate the first portion of their meals, there rose up above the fire a man’s privy member, and that Ocrisia was the first to see it as she was carrying the customary cakes to the fire”, and further specifying that (under the auspices of the queen, Tanaquil, wise in such divinatory matters) the woman in question was said to have been arrayed as a bride and left in privacy to ‘engage’ with the Lingam thusly produced from the flame. He then goes on to add (as Pliny does, albeit at somewhat grander length and expository detail) that the young Tullius had also been observed sometime later by both King and Queen and the lad’s mother to have had Flame illuminating his head, projecting from his brow – ascribing this, perhaps understandably, to the incandescent parentage of which the prince had been in receipt aforehand.
However, Dionysus also goes on to specify that the seeming introduction of the Compitalia by Tullius was something correlate with that king’s re-organization of the state and populace. To quote from the Cary translation [IV 14 3-4]:
” After this he commanded that there should be erected in every street by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood chapels to heroes whose statues stood in front of the houses, and he made a law that sacrifices should be performed to them every year, each family contributing a honey-cake. He directed also that the persons attending and assisting those who performed the sacrifices at these shrines on behalf of the neighbourhood should not be free men, but slaves, the ministry of servants being looked upon as pleasing to the heroes. This festival the Romans still continued to celebrate even in my day in the most solemn and sumptuous manner a few days after the Saturnalia, calling it the Compitalia, after the streets; for compiti, is their name for streets. And they still observe the ancient custom in connexion with those sacrifices, propitiating the heroes by the ministry of their servants, and during these days removing every badge of their servitude, in order that the slaves, being softened by this instance of humanity, which has something great and solemn about it, may make themselves more agreeable to their masters and be less sensible of the severity of their condition.”
As a point of interest, the footnoting further clarifies that, by “chapels to heroes whose statues stood in front of the houses”, the author should be taken in a less-than-literal sense; the Ancient Greek term at issue indeed meaning ‘in front of a house’, but clearly instead … “evidently the word is used here to express compitalis, the heroes being the lares compitales. These lares doubtless reminded Dionysius of the Greek herms, and his descriptive adjective is more appropriate to the latter.”.
We mention this as the comparison with the Greek concept of Herms is quite instructive, as we shall perhaps seek to address in due course.
Now to this heady brew we add the annotation of Macrobius, in his Saturnalia [I 7 34-35, Davies translation]:
“I find, Praetextatus, interposed Albinus Caecina, a substituted sacrifice, such as that which you have just mentioned, made in later times at the rites of the Compitalia, when games used to be held at crossroads throughout the city, that is to say, on the restoration of these games by Tarquinus Superbus, in honour of the Lares and of Mania, in accordance with an oracle of Apollo. For that oracle ordained that offering should be made “for heads with heads,” and for some time the ritual required the sacrifice of boys to the goddess Mania, the mother of the Lares, to insure the safety of the family. But after the expulsion of Tarquinius, Junius Brutus, as Consul, determined to change the nature of the sacrificial rite. By his order heads of garlic and poppies were used at the rite, so that the oracle was obeyed in so far as it had prescribed “heads,” and a criminal and unholy sacrifice was discarded. It also became the practice to avert any peril that threatened a particular family by hanging up woolen imagees before the door of the house. As for the games themselves, they were customarily called “Compitalia” from the crossroads (compita) at which they were held. “
Now, as we can see – this is a bit of a different picture for the Compitalia. In no small part because we are not finding mention of King Tullius Servius having initiated the observance in question – but rather, quite the contrary, that King Tarquinius Superbus (Tullius Servius’ ill-starred successor, and the prominent last king of Rome) had restored an element of the observance, in the form of the Games at the Crossroads (the ‘Ludi’ of Ludi Compitalicii). Intriguingly, he did this upon the direction of an Oracle of Apollo (and we note Apollo to have figured as the Third of the Three Deifics offered human sacrifice (or parts thereof – most prominently the heads, to Hades or Dis) in the original form of the “substituted sacrifice” mentioned by Albinus Caecina above [at I 7 28 in the Saturnalia text]. We also find mention of a sacrifice of young boys … and not only to the Lares are offerings made, but to Mania (the ‘Mother of the Lares’ here).
Why does the first of these points matter? Because Tullius Servius was succeeded by Tarquinius Superbus. It should seem most peculiar if he was ‘restoring’ a custom to the observance … that had been instituted only during the immediately previous King’s regnal period. Matters become, perhaps, a bit more plausible if one instead chooses to interpret Pliny’s statement as having Tullius Servius’ predecessor, Tarquinius Priscus, as having instituted the first ‘Compitalia Ludos’ (and note the ‘Ludos’) rather than Tullius Servius doing this himself. However it is still an uneasy fit.
We would instead contend that the actual custom of the Compitalia in fact well predated any of these kings – with, perhaps, the Games attached being the contribution of one of the first two of these kings in honour of the august event capaciously aforementioned (the conception and birth of this divinely sent regent, the eventual king Tullius Servius; and thus likely to have indeed been the enaction of Tarquinius Priscus … infants, no matter their nascent divinity, not being usually in the business of issuing royal proclamations that incept festivals – celebrating their own births or otherwise), the whole custom of the Compitalia being ‘re-organized’ along with much of the Roman polity by said Tullius Servius (as is attested by Dionysus) with perhaps the ‘Games’ component having fallen from favour – as it would get in the way of the ‘localization’ of observances to decidedly and pointedly ‘local’ crossroads and other such shrines (for the simple reason that one cannot possibly put on a decent ‘Games’ of anything much larger than tiddlywinks at every single one of the newly-hallowed shrines in each and every neighbourhood of his New Rome at the same time. Only to have this particular element re-instituted by his immediate successor.
Throughout all of this upheaval until some time ‘midst the Republic era we also find mention of an array of dramaturgical performances. These, too, might plausibly be referred to as ‘ludi’ of the Compitalicii – in the sense of ‘entertainments’. And whilst we have some suggestion of political or ‘plebian’ (in the sense of being ‘lower class entertainment’) pageants and performances therein … I would cautiously suspect that at the core of the practice might have lingered the notion of ritual as performance. And therefore, something rather more theologically and metaphysically salient than all of this might otherwise entailingly imply. Certainly this is interesting to consider in light of the utilization of masks in the evidently not unrelated ‘ritual substitution’ iteration of the Saturnalia rites [c.f. Macrobius, I 7 31]. And to this we may also add the general observation of the situation of the Ludi Compitalicii’s suppression by the Senate seeming suspiciously similar to the reasoning advanced by that same body in 186 BC for the suppression of the ‘Bacchanalia’ of Dionysus – something which, as with the broad public (but not ‘public’ in the sense of the official and state-sanctioned) observances of the Compitalia, found itself eventually replaced (and/or ‘assimilated’) by an officially promulgated ‘sanitized’ and ‘controlled’ formulation.
But let us return to the Compitalia itself – and how Macrobius’ accounting presents us fairly instantly with the tools we need to situate this observance within its proper Indo-European comparative context. And therefore shed some enduring light upon the underlying nature to the occasion.