This post is brought to you by the letter “B”. -cue Sesame Street song-
Bona Dea is one of those deities of whom we know very little; this is because she was the major deity for a women-only mystery cult, and while people wrote down many speculations, we have no insider stories, as it were.
One of the things that we do not know is her true name. That’s right – Bona Dea is not a name: it’s actually a title, meaning “The Good Goddess”. Plenty of other Roman deities are known by titles instead of names, including Bonus Eventus (Good Fortune/Outcome), and Bonus/Bona is often used as an epithet for, well, pretty much all deities.
Anyway. One of the more popular theories as to her identity is that she is Fauna, the wife (and daughter!) of the seer-deity Faunus. Another couple of theories put out by ancient authors is that she is the wife and sister of Faunus, or that her name is not Fauna but instead Fenta Fatua, with Fatua for foretelling women their fates, as Faunus did for men.
In any case, it is speculated that her true name was forbidden for men to speak, and since the women of her cult didn’t write it down, we don’t know what it is.
We do, however, know some things about the cult and mysteries of Bona Dea.
It was apparently similar in nature to the Orphic Mysteries, thought what that means, exactly, I don’t know.
No myrtle was allowed in her cult areas, and there’s a little myth that goes along with the reason: taking the perspective that Bona Dea is Fauna, wife of Faunus. Faunus found out that she had been drinking wine in secret – a huge taboo in ancient Roman society – and, in a rage, he beat her to death with sticks of myrtle. This is also why wine, although used in rituals in her honor, was called “milk”.
It seems that wine or mead and cakes were the most popular offering to Bona Dea, and purple – unsurprisingly – was her sacred color. We know that her sacred groves were decorated with purple ribbons and garlands, and apparently her priestesses wore purple ribbons in their hair.
Sacrifices in honor of Bona Dea were called damium, which comes from a Greek word meaning “public”. Obviously, however, those sacrifices were private, so there’s an interesting use of word there. Along with that, a priestess of Bona Dea was called a damiatrix.
Another myth of this goddess says that she is merely the daughter (not wife) of Faunus, and that she refused to be in the company of men due to her “great chastity”. That, the myth says, is why men aren’t allowed to participate in her mysteries.
Just because men didn’t participate in her mysteries, didn’t mean that they didn’t worship the goddess.
We actually have a ton of evidence, mostly in the form of dedicated altars, that men were devotees of Bona Dea. And they were men of different statuses, too, from freedmen to high-ranking Romans.
And speaking of men involved in some way with Bona Dea…
brings me to the great “Bona Dea Scandal” of 62 BCE. There were a couple of festivals each year in honor of Bona Dea, but the one that concerns us here is the Winter rite. The festival of this particular year was held by Pompeia, the wife of Julius Caesar.
As I’ve said before, but will re-emphasize here: MEN WERE NOT ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE MYSTERIES OF BONA DEA. They weren’t even able to be in the same residence that a mystery festival was taking place in. It was said that she would blind the man who looked upon her sacred rites.
But on this particular day, a young cad by the name of Publius Clodius Pulcher (Clodius the Beautiful, lol) dressed up as a woman and intruded upon the rites, fully intending to seduce Pompeia.
Needless to say, things didn’t end well.
Clodius was caught red-handed and charged with desecration of religious rites. His sentence was execution, though a friend of his – Crassus – managed to bribe the jury into an acquittal. Julius Caesar divorced Pompeia, famously remarking that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”.
Now, moving on.
In iconography, Bona Dea is depicted as holding a cornucopia in her left hand and an offering dish in her right. Oftentimes a snake accompanies her, and it is shown drinking out of the dish.
She is also associated with a good amount of other deities: Silvanus, Hercules, Sabazius, Caelestis, Vesta, Mercurius, Panthaeus, Diana, Juno, and Fortuna Conservatrix.
And, finally, I’ve compiled a list of common epithets of hers found on inscriptions. I’ve attempted to translate them, but some proved more difficult than others and so are left untranslated:
- Ops: the Helper, because it is on her help that life depends
- Fatua: the Speaker, because she teaches speech
- Restituta: the Restorer, the Renewer
- Oclata: either goddess of ophthalmology; or, goddess who strikes men blind who behold her sacred rights
- Annianensis: something to do with time…or perhaps the Anio, a tributary of the Tiber
- Sanctissima: Most Holy
- Conpos: In Control
- Hygia: something to do with healing
- Lucifera: Light-bringer
- Nutrix: Nourisher
- Agrestis Felicula
- Quietana: She who calms
- Pia: Dutiful/Loyal
- Opifera: Bringer of wealth
- Caelestis: Heavenly
- Arcensis Triumphalis
- Augusta: August/Holy
- Sepernas: possible local Etrurian epithet of Bona Dea
- Cereria: possibly used in conjunction with Ceres
- Pagana: Rural
- Obsequens: Gracious
- Domina Heia Augusta Triumphalis
- Dominatrix Terrae Marisque: Mistress of Land and Sea
- Conservatrix: the Protectress
- Potens Mentium Bonarum ac Remediorum: Mistress of wisdom and medicine
- Dea Bene Iudicanti: Goddess of right judgement
- Regina Caelestis: Heavenly Queen
- Valetudo Sancta
- Damia: the Private (really means Public, but taken to mean the opposite)
EDIT: Oops! I forgot to add the book that I got my info from. It’s a fantastic book for anyone interested in the cult of Bona Dea, though, be warned, it is very much a scholarly work. It’s got 577 pages, with 57 pages/plates of pictures, 5 maps, and long lists of inscriptions.
It’s called “Bona Dea: the sources and a description of the cult”, by H. H. J. Brouwer. Published in 1989 in New York by Leiden publishers.