A thiasos of the Starry Bull Liberalia


The next festival on our calendar is the Roman Liberalia, which Senex Caecilius of Ancient Worlds describes as follows:

In rural areas, the Liberalia (March 17) was a festival that was connected to Liber Pater, the god responsible for protecting seed. (Over time this feast evolved to include his consort Libera.) The Roman rustics hung masks in trees and carried a large phallus across the fields to insure fertility and to ward off evil. The worshippers indulged loudly and openly in obscene songs and licentious gaiety, and when the procession halted, the most respectable of the matrons ceremoniously crowned the head of the phallus with a garland. These processions were finally suppressed by the Roman senate. In Rome, the Liberalia was the traditional day for boys who had come of age to take off the bulla and the toga praetexta of childhood and to don the toga virilis of manhood. (In imperial times, according to Platner, this ceremony took place in the Temple of Mars Ultor.) Liber had no temple of his own in Rome, but he was part of the Aventine Triad and shared a temple there with Ceres and Libera. His priestesses were typically older women. On the Liberalia, they made special cakes (libi) of oil and honey which passing devotees would have sacrificed on their behalf on portable altars. The funeral of Julius Caesar and his apotheosis as a god purportedly occured on the occasion of the Liberalia in 44 BC.

For those who would like to know more about how this festival was anciently observed, I recommend the following links:

Danuta Musial, Divinities of Roman Liberalia
William Smith, Bacchanalia from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities
M. Moravius Piscinus Horatianus Quiritibus, On the Liberalia and Agonalia
Ovid, Fasti Book Three
Augustine, De Civitate Dei Book Seven
Wikipedia s.v. Liberalia
Nova Roma Wiki s.v. Liberalia

I’ve also written various things about it over the years:

An interesting coincidence
All hail Father Freedom!
A free verse hymn for Liberalia
Libera Mater
Buzz buzz buzz
Liber Pater
A timely passage

An aspect of this festival that is not normally prominent for me is the rite de passage whereby young freeborn Roman boys would trade in their bulla and toga praetexta for the toga virilis thereby becoming free Roman citizens. I understood why this occurred under the auspices of our god who guides us through all of the transformations of life but being neither a young man myself nor having any I just never really focused on this part of the festival before.

But with so many starting off in the thiasos of the Starry Bull and feeling a need to formally introduce themselves to the gods and spirits of this tradition, I thought that the Liberalia would be a most suitable occasion for that and I may also perform initiations on this date in the future.

For now I’ve come up with a brief ritual sketch that people can use. In place of the Lares I have included the predecessors of our tradition, the Dionysian dead. In addition to the liba cakes that are traditionally offered at this time I would recommend the koulourakia recipe that was recently shared. I’m keeping this simple but feel free to adapt or flesh it out to your needs.

* Set up shrines to the Dionysian dead and to Liber Pater (Dionysos) and Libera Mater (Ariadne).
* Make offerings of cake, mead, oil and honey to the Dionysian dead, in particular to Prosymnos and Melampos.
* Cut off a lock of hair in offering to them. (Either burn it or place it on their shrine.)
* Ask their blessing and guidance on this path.
* Optional: you may perform the desate rite, the rite to the Dionysian dead or make a personal pledge to the gods and spirits of this tradition.
* Put on an ivy crown.
* Pour out a bowl of wine to Liber Pater and one to Liber Mater.
* Recite hymns – either ancient ones or some of your own devising.
* Make a phallos if you don’t have one. (And if you do make some other kind of phallic art.)
* Anoint the phallos with oil and then place it in a bowl of wine.
* While the phallos is soaking up the potency of the god, participants should share wine, tell lewd stories and jokes and sing obscene songs.
* Then when the phallos is ready it is to be carried around the home so that it may bring blessings of fertility, abundance and protection to all that it comes into contact with.
* At that point the procession may continue outdoors into the fields and streets or one may return to the shrine of Liber Pater and Liber Mater. The phallos is to be erected in their presence and crowned with the participants’ ivy-wreaths.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “A thiasos of the Starry Bull Liberalia

  1. Small thing, but it bugs me, because I know a little Latin: Libera Mater, not Liber Mater. Gender has to agree.


  2. Matt G

    I enjoy theorizing about the interrelationship between Roman spring festivals and the social implications of the march off to war. Is the rite of passage early enough in March that the older boys and men can see their younger brothers become men, or is this a “now that the older men are away you need to be the man of the house,” sort of dynamic? Particularly since this occurs in the temple of Mars Ultor I would be surprised if it didn’t have ties to warriorship. It’s sort of ironic being both liberated into the freedoms of adulthood but then introduced to the Martial duties of adult manhood in the same moment.


  3. Pingback: Getting ready for Liberalia | The House of Vines

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