Silvanus (meaning "of the woods" in Latin) was a Roman tutelary deity of woods and fields. As protector of forests (sylvestris deus), he especially presided over plantations and delighted in trees growing wild. He is also described as a god watching over the fields and husbandmen, protecting in particular the boundaries of fields. The similarly named Etruscan deity Selvans may be a borrowing of Silvanus, or not even related in origin.
Silvanus is described as the divinity protecting the flocks of cattle, warding off wolves, and promoting their fertility. Dolabella, a rural engineer of whom only a few pages are known, states that Silvanus was the first to set up stones to mark the limits of fields, and that every estate had three Silvani:
- a Silvanus domesticus (in inscriptions called Silvanus Larum and Silvanus sanctus sacer Larum)
- a Silvanus agrestis (also called salutaris), who was worshipped by shepherds, and
- a Silvanus orientalis, that is, the god presiding over the point at which an estate begins.
Hence Silvani were often referred to in the plural.
Attributes and associations
Like other gods of woods and flocks, Silvanus is described as fond of music; the syrinx was sacred to him, and he is mentioned along with the Pans and Nymphs. Later speculators even identified Silvanus with Pan, Faunus, Inuus and Aegipan. He must have been associated with the Italian Mars, for Cato refers to him as Mars Silvanus. In the provinces outside of Italy, Silvanus was identified with numerous native gods:
The sacrifices offered to Silvanus consisted of grapes, ears of grain, milk, meat, wine and pigs. In Cato's De Agricultura an offering to Mars Silvanus is described, to ensure the health of cattle; it is stated there that his connection with agriculture referred only to the labour performed by men, and that females were excluded from his worship. (Compare Bona Dea for a Roman deity from whose worship men were excluded.) Virgil relates that in the very earliest times the Tyrrhenian Pelasgians had dedicated a grove and a festival to Silvanus.
In works of Latin poetry and art, Silvanus always appears as an old man, but as cheerful and in love with Pomona. Virgil represents him as carrying the trunk of a cypress (Greek: δενδροφόρος), about which the following myth is told. Silvanus – or Apollo according to other versions – was in love with Cyparissus, and once by accident killed a hind belonging to Cyparissus. The latter died of grief, and was metamorphosed into a cypress.
In Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590–96), Silvanus appears in Canto VI of Book I. His 'wyld woodgods' (Stanza 9) save the lost and frightened Lady Una from being molested by Sans loy and take her to him. They treat her as a Queen because of her great beauty. Spenser writes in Stanza 14:
- So towards old Syluanus they did her bring;
- Who with the noyse awaked, commeth out,
- To weet the cause, his weake steps gouerning,
- And aged limbs on Cypresse stadle stout,
- And with an yvie twyne his wast is girt about.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1870). "Silvanus (1)". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
- Tibullus II.5.27, 30.
- Lucan. Pharsalia III.402.
- Pliny the Elder. Naturalis historia XII.2.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses I.193.
- Horace. Epodes II.21-22.
- Robert Schilling, "Silvanus," in Roman and European Mythologies (University of Chicago Press, 1992, from the French edition of 1981), p. 146 online, concurring with Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, p. 616.
- Peter F. Dorcey, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion (Brill, 1992), pp. 10–12 online, noting earlier efforts to press an Etruscan etymology on Silvanus.
- Virgil. Aeneid VIII.600-1.
- Cato the Elder. De Re Rustica 83
- Nonnus II.324.
- Dolabella. ex libris Dolabellae, in "Die Schriften der rômischen Feldmesser", edited by Karl Lachmann, Georg Reimer ed., Berlin, 1848, p302
- Virgil. Georgics I.20-1.
- Plutarch. Parallel Lives. Min. 22.
- Peter F. Dorcey (1992). The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion, p.32. ISBN 978-90-04-09601-1.
- Horace. Epistles II.1.143.
- Juvenal. VI.446, with associated scholia.
- Compare Voss. Mythol. Briefe, 2.68; Hartung, Die Relig. der Röm. vol. 2. p. 170, &c.
- Virgil. Georgics II.494
- Horace. Carmina III.8.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses XIV.639.
- Servius. Commentary on the Aeneid III.680.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses X.106
- Servius. Commentary on Virgil's Georgics I.20
- Virgil. Eclogues X.26.
- Virgil. Aeneid III.680.
- Cato's De Agricultura: an offering to Mars Silvanus (e-text in English and Latin)