Rex Nemorensis

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Ruins by the shores of Lake Nemi, in an 1831 engraving

The rex Nemorensis (Latin, "king of Nemi" or "king of the Grove") was a priest of the goddess Diana at Aricia in Italy, by the shores of Lake Nemi, where she was known as Diana Nemorensis. The priesthood played a major role in the mythography of J.G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, whose interpretation has exerted a lasting influence.

Ancient sources[edit]

The tale of the rex Nemorensis is told in a number of ancient sources. Ovid gives a poetic account of the priesthood of Nemi in his Fasti, Book 3 (on the month of March), noting that the lake of Nemi was "sacred to antique religion," and that the priest who dwelt there "holds his reign by strong hands and fleet feet, and dies according to the example he set himself."[1] The Latin name of the priesthood is given by Suetonius: "He [Caligula] caused the rex Nemorensis, who had held his priesthood for many years, to be supplanted by a stronger adversary."[2] That same passage indicates that by the time of the early principate the custom of choosing the office-holder's successor by combat had fallen into disuse.

The Greek geographer Strabo also mentions the institution: "and in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the people set up as priest merely a run-away slave who has slain with his own hand the man previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself."[3]

Pausanias gives an etiological myth on the founding of the shrine:

Denarius depicting Diana Nemorensis, who was conceived as a triple goddess (diva triformis)[4]
The Aricians tell a tale … that when Hippolytus (the son of Theseus) was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters."[5]

In Roman mythology, Hippolytus was deified as the god Virbius; Artemis was the Greek name of the goddess identified with the Roman Diana. A possible allusion to the origins of the priesthood at Nemi is contained in Vergil's Aeneid, as Virgil places Hippolytus at the grove of Aricia.[6]

An alternative story has the worship of Diana at Nemi instituted by Orestes; the flight of the slave represents the flight of Orestes into exile.[citation needed]

Ritual murder[edit]

Surviving lore concerning the rex Nemorensis tells the tale that this priest or king held a very uneasy position. Macaulay's quatrain on the institution of the rex Nemorensis states:

Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.

This is, in a nutshell, the surviving legend of the rex Nemorensis: the priesthood of Diana at Nemi was held by a person who obtained that honour by slaying the prior incumbent in a trial by combat, and who could remain at the post only so long as he successfully defended his position against all challengers. However, a successful candidate had first to test his mettle by plucking a golden bough from one of the trees in the sacred grove.

The human sacrifice conducted at Nemi was thought to be highly unusual by the ancients. Suetonius mentions it as an example of the moral failings of Caligula. Strabo calls it Scythian, implying that he found it barbaric. The violent character of this singular institution could barely be justified by reference to its great antiquity and mythological sanctity. The ancient sources also appear to concur that an escaped slave who seeks refuge in this uneasy office is likely to be a desperate man.[citation needed]

The Golden Bough[edit]

Diana in hunting boots, from a 2nd-century Roman mosaic

James George Frazer, in his seminal work The Golden Bough, argued that the tale of the priesthood of Nemi was an instance of a worldwide myth of a sacred king who must periodically die as part of a regular fertility rite. While later anthropology is sceptical of Frazer's broad hypothesis, it had an extensive influence. As a consequence, the notion of a sacred king who must periodically be slain by his rival as part of a fertility rite is likely to be more familiar to contemporary readers than it was to the ancients.[citation needed]

In 1990, a radio programme entitled "The Priest of Nemi" was produced by Michael Bakewell and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, to celebrate the publication by Macmillan of the book "The Making of the Golden Bough" by Robert Fraser, itself timed to mark the centenary of the appearance of the first edition of Frazer's book.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1950, abridged edition)
  • Hornblower, Simon, et al. (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3d edition. 2003) ISBN 0-19-860641-9
  • Robert Fraser, 'The Making of the Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of An Argument' (Macmillan, 1990) ISBN 0-333-49631-0

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Regna tenent fortes manibus pedibusque fugaces, / et perit exemplo postmodo quisque suo.
  2. ^ Nemorensi regi, quod multos iam annos poteretur sacerdotio, ualidiorem aduersarium subornauit, in Life of Caligula.
  3. ^ Strabo, Geographia V, 3, 12.
  4. ^ Horace, Carmen 3.22.4, where he identifies the diva triformis as Luna, Diana, and Hecate.
  5. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece II, 27, 4.
  6. ^ Vergil, Aeneid, book VII, 761 et. seq.

External links[edit]