Tomorrow is both the Ides of February and the start of the Parentalia: it’s quite a loaded day. This post will focus on the Parentalia.
The holiday starts on 13 February and lasts until the 21st or the 22nd. It is a domestic festival focused on the worship of one’s ancestors and is one of two festivals of the dead that occur throughout the year; the other is the Lemuria, which takes place on several days in mid-May.
Historically on the Parentalia, families would go to the resting place of their ancestors (whether a tomb or one of the columbaria where the deceased’s ashes were kept) and lay an offering(s) on the ground: these offerings could be wine, animals, perfume, and/or wreaths. Like all other offerings to deities of the underworld, these offerings would be burnt upon a pyre.
There were, however, exceptions to the overall domesticity of the festival. On the first day, a Vestal Virgin would conduct a sacrifice at the tomb of Tarpeia (a woman who betrayed Rome to the Sabines for gold and whose body was thrown off the Tarpeian Rock) for the ancestors of Rome as a whole. Also, from the first day of the Parentalia to the Caristia, the day after the Parentalia ends, several things were not done: marriages were not allowed to take place, all temples would be closed, and no government business would be done.
For this year’s Parentalia I plan on offering incense and libum (sort of a cheesecake-like sweet) and saying prayers to my ancestors. If you have ancestors buried in a cemetery, putting flowers on their graves and cleaning up the area a little would be a nice idea as well.
Happy Parentalia, and valete bene!
(sources for this post are Ovid’s Fasti and John Scheid’s An Introduction to Roman Religion)