My own plot of land is only about a third of a iugerum, but sufficient to meet my needs and produce more vegetables than I can use. A large portion of the gardens’ produce are given to family, friends, and neighbors. Its true value for me lies in its being a place to practice my Roman values of frugality, moderation, and industry, as well as a place to practice the religious traditions of my family. In other words, my spiritual life revolves around my gardens. Central to these is a place I have set off and dedicated as an herb garden for Ceres Ferentina, the hortus Cereris.
Each year, as dawn breaks at the vernal equinox, a single shaft of light passes through the barren trees to illuminate the statue of Ceres in Her garden. At that time a ceremony is held to reaffirm the alignment of the garden onto the eight winds. In preparation of that day, the soil must first be turned, and as with all work, the first step is to make an offering to the Gods. Beginning a new garden would mean first offering to the genius locii of the place, who would receive an offering once a year afterward to ensure his or her assistance in the work to be done. Pictured on the left is a garden statue of Ceres, taken last year at Quinquatrus, the fifth day after, inclusive, after the Ides of March. By that time, on 19 March, the first furrows have been raised and a celebration of Ceres is held. An altar is set up with a variety of breads and cakes, along with herbs and vegetables that came from Her garden the previous year. From October through February Her image has been dressed in white with a black mantle while Ceres mourns the loss of Her daughter. But in March, with the promise of Spring, Her image is dressed in a mantle of red and yellow for the fertile soil, and She is crowned with a wreathe. Offerings are made of root crops that have carried us through the last days of winter, as well as offerings of the first herbs to appear in Her garden. She is given back what She has provided us last year in anticipation of what the year ahead shall produce. Then is next few days, with the arrival of the light on the Vernal Equinox, Proserpina returns, Mother and Daughter are united in the rebirth of the land. In addition to other offerings, seeds are sown at this time.
A month later, at Cerealia (19 April), a more formal sacrifice is offered to Ceres, to Her Daughter, to Jupiter the Father, and to other deities of the land and garden. Pictured at right, the image of Ceres is now dressed in white with a blue mantle to represent the virgin earth and the rains that fertilize it in that month. Two altars are set up. One altar is round and and the firewood is placed in a cone formation where offerings are placed of herbs and a bird are given for terrestrial deities. The other altar is square, its firewood placed into a square formation, called the molucum, where offerings are set for the celestial deities. The traditional sacrifice for Ceres was a sow, and thus for last year I purchased four pigs feet to represent Her traditional sacrifice. When I was young my grandfather would slaughter a lamb for our feast at this time, with the bones, organs, and pieces of meat offered to Jupiter to share in our feast. The lamb’s blood was pour on the ground over the roots of his vines, and the wine produced from the grapes was poured as a libation for Jupiter. While some today advocate that animal sacrifices be restored for the Gods, such sacrifices were not original to the Religio Romana. The Founder of the Religio Romana, Numa Pompilius, forbade the use of a profusion of blood in sacrifice. Thus today cultores Deorum Romanorum advocate a return to the Numa tradition as the most original, pure, and devout form of the religion. Meat may be offered as part of a meal one shares with the Gods, and the animal providing the meat ought to be slaughtered in a respectful manner just as required in Islam and Judaism. Rather than blood, wine may be substituted. But for most Goddesses, and certain Gods, milk is the traditional libation. When we look back on the practices of the past, we find that there is much that accommodates modern worship of the Gods in a traditional manner.
This year winter has lingered into May. My growing season is shortened. Rain is flooding the region and cold winds, even snow, has prevented some of the work in the garden thus far. Planting has begun though, and thus ceremonies for Ceres have been held in the garden. Although some have had to be held at Her indoor shrine in March and April this year.
In March/April all of the images of the Gods and Goddesses are washed, purified, and renewed. This includes painting Their images with material containing Their numina. The image of Ceres receives a libation of milk for Her complexion, and Her hair is dressed with saffron, the juice of berries colors Her lips. By May Ceres is dressed in the green of Spring with a crown of flowers. She is seated on a blue pillow for Her sellistrium, the blue representing Her celestial abode. Poppies are generally offered to Ceres in the Fall to aid Her over the annual loss of Proserpina. Here they represent putting aside Her sorrow at the return of Her Daughter. A libation of milk and honey is poured into a bowl before Her image, which is then taken outdoors later to be poured over Her garden image. Bread and cheese cakes are set before Her, later to be buried in Her garden as offerings. Flowers, incense and fragrant oils may be offered to Her. And olive oil, placed in an olive lamp, is burned as an offering as well as providing light during the ceremony.
Outdoors, as each furrow is built up and picked over, the collected rocks and pebbles are piled up at one end to form the simple, rustic altars. Dried herbs of last year, as well as new growth, are offered to the terrestrial gods of the woods and fields. Larger stones are set on the eight directions, each assigned to a particular celestial deity, by which the hortus Cereris is oriented into its place in the wider community. This year, while the work has begun, and some ceremonies carried out, I have been away trying to complete all that is necessary within the time allotted by the Gods and the weather. Hastily, and more than my aging body can perform these days. And then, during morning prayers today, I came upon this Meditation from Marcus Aurelius.
“Take thy joy in simplicity, in integrity, and with indifference towards all that lies between virtue and vice. Love mankind. Follow the Gods. ‘All else,’ says Democritus, ‘is subject to convention; only the elements are absolute and real (7.31).'”
Any time spent in the garden with Ceres is simple and honest, a time of tranquil thoughts. If the ‘elements’ have shortened my growing period this year, it has only meant less labor so far. Marcus Aurelius also said, “If thou wouldst be tranquil, . . . may it not be better to consider: do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a naturally social being requires, and the way reason requires it done? For this brings not only the tranquility of doing right action well, and also of little action. Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluous, and you will have more time and less bother (4.24).”