Egeria (mythology)

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A 16th-century drawing of Egeria

Egeria (Latin: Ēgeria) was a nymph attributed a legendary role in the early history of Rome as a divine consort and counselor of the Sabine second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, to whom she imparted laws and rituals pertaining to ancient Roman religion. Her name is used as an eponym for a female advisor or counselor.

Function[edit]

Egeria as a nymph or minor goddess of the Roman religious system is of unclear origin; she is consistently, though not in a very clear way, associated with another figure of the Diana type; their cult is known [1] to have been celebrated at sacred groves, such as the site of Nemi at Aricia, and another one close to Rome, expedient for her presumed regular meetings with King Numa; both goddesses are also associated with water bearing wondrous, religious or medical properties (the source in that grove at Rome was dedicated to the exclusive use of the Vestals[2]); their cult was associated with other, male figures of even more obscure meaning, such as one named Virbius,[3] or a Manius Egerius, presumably a youthful male, that anyway in later years was identified with figures like Atys or Hippolyte, because of the Diana reference (see Frazer).

Described sometime as a "mountain nymph" (Plutarch), she is usually regarded as a water nymph and somehow her cult also involved some link with childbirth, like the Greek goddess Ilithyia.

But most of all, Egeria gave wisdom and prophecy in return for libations of water or milk at her sacred groves. This quality has been made especially popular through the tale of her relationship with Numa Pompilius (the second legendary king of Rome, that succeeded its founder Romulus);

In this myth she is shown as counselor and guide to King Numa in the establishment of the original framework of laws and rituals of Rome, and in this role she is somehow uniquely in Roman mythology associated with "sacred books"; Numa (Latin "numen" designates "the expressed will of a deity"[4]) is reputed to have written down the teachings of Egeria in "sacred books" that he had buried with him; when some chance accident brought them back to light some 500 years later, they were deemed by the Senate inappropriate for disclosure to the people and destroyed by their order;[5] what made them inappropriate was certainly of religious nature with "political" bearing but apparently has not been handed down by Valerius Antias, the source that Plutarch was using.Dionysius of Halicarnassus hints that they were actually kept as a very close secret by the Pontifices.[6]

She is also gifted with oracular capabilities (she interpreted for Numa the abstruse omens of gods, for instance the episode of the omen from Faunus[7]). In another episode she helps Numa in a battle of wits with Jupiter himself, whereby Numa sought to gain a protective ritual against lightning strokes and thunder.[8]

The name Egeria has been diversely interpreted; it might mean "of the black poplar" (needs source); George Dumézil[9] proposed it came from "e-gerere", suggesting it came from her childbirth role, though this sounds very unlikely; her role as prophetess and author of "sacred books" (even through the proxy of Numa) would compare[10] her to the Etruscan figure of Vegoia (alleged author among other things of "Libri Fulgurales", which give keys to interpreting the meaning of lightning strokes, seen as ominous messages from deities, a variety of them).

Numa also invoked communicating with other deities, such as Muses;[11] hence naturally enough, the somewhat "pale" figure of Egeria was later categorized by the Romans as one of the Camenae, deities who came to be equated with the Greek Muses as Rome fell under the cultural influence of Greece; so Dionysius of Halicarnassus listed Egeria among the Muses.[12]

The precise level of her relationship to Numa has been described diversely sometimes as Amica,[13] but ordinarily has been qualified with the more respectful coniuncta ("consort"); Plutarch is very evasive as of the actual mode, and hints that Numa himself entertained a level of ambiguïty.[14] In later years that tradition came under critical review in Juvenal's day.[15]

Numa Pompilius died in 673 BC of old age. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, after Numa's death Egeria was transformed into a spring, this sort of place being a usual site of inspiration and prophecy in antiquity.[16]

At Aricia[edit]

Egeria mourns Numa (1669) by Claude Lorrain

Egeria may predate Roman myth: she could have been of Italic origin in the sacred forest of Aricia in Latium, her immemorial site, which was equally the grove of Diana Nemorensis ("Diana of Nemi"). At Aricia there was also a Manius Egerius, a male counterpart of Egeria.[17]

At Rome[edit]

Apse of the Ninfeo d'Egeria, Parco Cafarella, Rome

A grove sacred to Egeria in connection with Numa stood close by a busy gate of Rome, the Porta Capena, near where the Baths of Caracalla were built in the third century. In the second century, when Herodes Atticus recast an inherited villa nearby as a great landscaped estate, the natural grotto was formalized as an arched interior with an apsidal end where a statue of Egeria once stood in a niche; the surfaces were enriched with revetments of green and white marble facings and green porphyry flooring and friezes of mosaic. The primeval spring, one of dozens of springs that flow into the river Almone, was made to feed large pools, one of which was known as Lacus Salutaris or "Lake of Health". Juvenal regretted an earlier phase of architectural elaboration:

Nymph of the Spring! More honour’d hadst thou been,
If, free from art, an edge of living green,
Thy bubbling fount had circumscribed alone,
And marble ne’er profaned the native stone.[18]

The ninfeo was a favored picnic spot for nineteenth-century Romans and can still be visited in the archaeological park of the Caffarella, between the Appian Way and the even more ancient Via Latina.[19]

In modern literature[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ James George Frazer, The Golden Bough,I, The magician king in primitive societies
  2. ^ Plutarch, "The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius"
  3. ^ Georges Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque, Bibliothèque historique Payot, ISBN 2-228-89297-1, 1974, 2000, appendice sur la religion des Etrusques
  4. ^ Georges Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque, Bibliothèque historique Payot, ISBN 2-228-89297-1, 1974, 2000, appendice sur la religion des Etrusques,p47
  5. ^ Plutarch, "The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius"; Livy AUC libri XXXVIII.
  6. ^ note by Gerard Walter, editor of Plutarch's Parallel lives translation by Jacques Amyot, La Pléïade volume n°43, 1967
  7. ^ Georges Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque, Bibliothèque historique Payot, ISBN 2-228-89297-1, 1974, 2000, appendice sur la religion des Etrusques p377
  8. ^ Plutarch, "The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius, §XXVII"
  9. ^ Georges Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque, Bibliothèque historique Payot, ISBN 2-228-89297-1, 1974, 2000, appendice sur la religion des Etrusques
  10. ^ Vegoia and Egeria
  11. ^ Plutarch, "The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius"
  12. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, ii. 6o.
  13. ^ or "girlfriend" in Juvenal's sceptical phrase
  14. ^ Plutarch, "The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius, 4.2 and 8.6.
  15. ^ Alex Hardie, "Juvenal, the Phaedrus, and the Truth about Rome" The Classical Quarterly New Series, 48.1 (1998), pp. 234-251.
  16. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses xv. 479.
  17. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica 1911.
  18. ^ Juvenal, Satire 3.17–20, as translated by William Gifford.
  19. ^ Information about the Park of the Caffarella

External links[edit]