Sacella: The Little Shrines

Late in the year, when Marco was only four, his family moved into a new house on the east side of Cleveland. The earth was cold and hard as he knelt down and sat upon his ankles. As his mother instructed, he placed the palm of  his right hand flat on the cold earth and called upon the Goddess who dwelt there as he dug in the soil with the knife he held clumsily in his left hand. It was difficult not least because he wasn’t use to working with his left hand. But only in this way would Mother Earth protect him from the dangers that lay beneath when he would make his offerings.

“You must plant this garlic,” his mother said, “so the commenu of this place may nibble on the roots to keep them through the winter. Then come spring they will stay and help us with the garden.”

After the shallow trench was dug, he carefully placed the cloves in a line along with a cube of bread, then watered them with drops of wine before covering them with soil and watering them in. Satisfied that the spirits of the land would be happy to receive his gifts he awaited spring in anticipation.

Like the children of ancient Rome, my religious life began with the ancestral spirits among the shrines and altars established by my family, rather than at any mosques, churches or synagogues of strangers. Ours shrines were generally placed in or around the gardens. A little grotto would be built up in which a statue of Ceres Ferentina was placed. My father’s family had arrived in the Americas from the town of Ferentino, the ancient city of Ferentium about twenty-five kilometers from Rome. Ferentina was the patron Goddess of this ancient city, whose megalithic walls were said to have been built by giants who are the Sons of Saturnus. Ferentina was also the patron Goddess of the Latin League.  It was in Her sanctuary at Aricia where the League’s leaders met during the Latin Wars against Rome. Ceres, the Goddess of the produce of the Earth, Goddess of grain, cultivation, the Law-Giver who brought civilization to mortal humans, in Her particular aspect as Ferentina, was not only the patroness of our gardens but also the protective Goddess therefore of our family. Ceres Ferentina is known as a Lar familiaris. In a sense She is the matriarch from which all family members have descended, as we, too, are the product of the land. Thus She is also found indoors in a special shrine called a lararium, as my Lar familiaris.  Around and amongst the furrows of the garden other little shrines might be no more than a pile of rocks and pebbles, each added as an offering with a little prayer.

Garden Altar

Golden-haired Ceres Ferentina, may You accept this offering and bless our garden.

Piled stones could be found at crossroads where the spirits of the dead might be offered something for their journey. They could be found along the trails where my bisnonna foraged for wild herbs, giving thanks to the genius loci of a place where the herbs were especially bountiful. A more elaborate sanctuary was once at my grandfather’s place. Tall bushes formed the walls of a simple maze, laid out as concentric squares with entrances on either side. At the center stood a stone slab atop to stones, forming an altar of Giove, flanked by two fig trees representing His children by Ceres, whom the Romans knew as Liber and Libera.

My own sanctuary these days is an herb garden dedicated to Ferentina as the Hortus Cereris. It is for Her that I offer my first herbs and vegetables of spring, of cresses and radicchio, and a prayer for the coming season.

O most holy Ceres, nurturing Mother, whose sacred womb gave birth to both Gods and men; may You, Ferentina, hear me, please, and favor me.  This I ask of You, Holy Mother, and may You willingly give answer to me: May whatever herbs grow by Your providence bring health to all humankind.  May You now send these forth to me as Your medicines.  May they be filled with Your healing virtues.  May everything that I prepare from these herbs have good result, each and every one in the same way.  As I shall receive these herbs from You, so too shall I willingly give them out to others, so that their health too may be ensured through Your good graces.  Ferentina, eternal savior, Ceres, lavishing Your bounty upon me and mine, to You, flaxen-haired Ceres, gladly I give thanks and praise, and, from the little I have, to You I willingly make an offering.  Accept these, the first fruits of my fields.  May my offering incline You more towards me.  May You ever nourish me and mine with Your bounty, O most holy and nurturing Mother, gentle Ceres.


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