In ancient Roman religion, Feronia was a goddess associated with wildlife, fertility, health and abundance. Also as the goddess who grants freedom to slaves or civil rights to the most humble part of society, in fact she was especially honored among plebeians and freedmen. Her festival, the Feroniae, was November 13, Ides of November, during the Ludi Plebeii ("Plebeian Games"), in conjunction with Fortuna Primigenia; both were goddesses of Praeneste.
Origins and functions
Varro places Feronia in his list of Sabine gods who had altars in Rome. Inscriptions to Feronia are found mostly in central Italy. She was among the deities that Sabine moneyers placed on their coins to honor their heritage. She may have been introduced into Roman religious practice when Manius Curius Dentatus conquered Sabinum in the early 3rd century BC.
Many versions of Feronia’s cult have been supposed, and it is not quite clear that she was only one goddess or had only one function in ancient times. Some Latins believed Feronia to be a harvest goddess, and honoured her with the harvest firstfruits in order to secure a good harvest the following year.
Feronia also served as a goddess of travellers, fire, and waters.
In Vergil's Aeneid, troops from Feronia's grove fight on the side of Turnus against Aeneas. The Arcadian king Evander recalls how in his youth he killed a son of Feronia, Erulus, who like Geryon had a triple body and a triple soul; Evander thus had to kill him thrice. Erulus, whom Vergil identifies as king at Praeneste, is otherwise unknown in literature.
Georges Dumézil considers Feronia to be a goddess of wilderness, of untamed nature and her vital forces, but honoured because she offers man the opportunity to put those forces to good use in acquiring nurture, health and fertility. She fecundates and heals, therefore despite her being worshipped only in the wild she receive the firstfruits of the harvest, because she permits men to domesticate the wild forces of vegetation, favouring the transformation of that which is uncouth into that which is cultivated.
Thence her shrines were all located in the wild, far from human settlements. Two stories about her sanctuary of Terracina highlight the character of Feronia as goddess of the wilderness. Servius writes that when a fire destroyed her wood and the locals were about moving the statues to another location, the burnt wood turned green all of a sudden. Pliny states that all attempts at building towers in times of war between Terracina and the sanctuary of Feronia have been abandoned because all are without exception destroyed by lightningbolts. The goddess thus refused any continuity and linkage with the nearby town.
Her lucus at Capena was a place where everybody was allowed to come for worship and trade, attracting people from different nations, Sabines, Latins, Etruscans and other even from farther away, providing everybody with a neutral territory in which peace must not be perturbed.
Dumézil compares her to Vedic god Rudra: he is similar to Feronia in that he represents that which has not yet been transformed by civilization, he is the god of the rude, of the jungle, at one time dangerous and uniquely useful, healer thanks to the herbs of his reign, protector of the freed slaves and of the outcast.
Feronia though has only the positive or useful function of putting the forces of wild nature at the service of man. Her name reveals she is one of the Roman and Italic goddesses whose name is formed by a derivate terminating with the suffix -ona, -onia of a noun denoting a difficult or dangerous state or condition: the deity is a sovereign of that danger only to help man to best avoid damage or get the greatest advantage, such as Angerona for the angusti dies near the winter solstice. Her name is to be derived from a Sabine adjective corresponding to Latin fĕrus but with a long vowel, such as the cognate words in every Indoeuropean language (e.g. Greek θήρ, θήριον). Fĕrus means "not cultivated, untamed" (Thesaurus Linguae Latinae), "of the field, wood, untamed, not mitigated by any cultivation (Forcellini Totius Latinatis Lexicon) which fits the environment of the sanctuaries of Feronia and is very close to rudis, rude, root of the name of Vedic god Rudrá as well.
Festus's entry on the picus Feronius of Trebula Mutuesca testifies the goddess had also prophetic qualities among the Sabines, as did the picus martius of Tiora Matiena ascribed to the Aborigines.
Feronia had a temple at the base of Mt. Soracte which was near Capena. The Lucus Feroniae, or "grove of Feronia" (Fiano Romano) was the site of an annual festival in her honour, which was in the nature of a trade fair. The place, in the territory of Capena in southwestern Etruria, was plundered of its gold and silver by Hannibal's retreating troops in 211 BCE, when he turned aside from the Via Salaria to visit the sanctuary; later it became an Augustan colonia. Its status as a colony is recorded in a single inscription, copied in a manuscript of the rule of the Farfa Abbey as colonia Iulia Felix Lucoferonensis.
Another important site was near Anxur (Terracina, southern Latium), in a wood three Roman miles from the town, where Servius recorded a joint cult of "the boy Jupiter" (puer Iuppiter) under the name of Anxyrus and "Juno the Virgin" (Iuno virgo), whom he identifies as Feronia. According to another tradition, slaves who had just been freed might go to the shrine at Terracina and receive upon their shaved heads the pileus, a hat that symbolized their liberty.
Her temple in the Campus Martius, in what is now Largo di Torre Argentina, was probably located in a grove as well according to an inscription found on the site. It was established before 217 BCE. It may have been dedicated by Curtius Dentatus following his victory over the Sabines. His building program also included the Anio Vetus, a major new aqueduct, and a number of fountains near the temple. Feronia's cults at Aquileia and Terracina were near springs that were used in her rites. The Augustan poet Horace speaks of the water (lympha) of Feronia, in which "we bathe our face and hands."
Freedmen and Libertas
Varro identified Feronia with Libertas, the goddess who personified Liberty. According to Servius, Feronia was a tutelary goddess of freedmen (dea libertorum). A stone at the Terracina shrine was inscribed "let deserving slaves sit down so that they may stand up free." Livy notes that in 217 BC freed women collected money as a gift for Feronia. Some sources state that slaves were set free at her temple near Terracina.
- William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (London, 1908), pp. 252–254; Peter F. Dorcey, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion (Brill, 1992), p. 7.
- Varro, De lingua latina 5.74 (Latin).
- Dorcey, The Cult of Feronia, p. 109.
- Gary D. Farney, Ethnic Identity and Aristocratic competition in Republican Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 82.
- Farney, Ethnic Identity, p. 286, citing Coarelli.
- Livy xxvi.11.8.
- Vergil, Aeneid 7.800.
- Aeneid 8.564, and Servius's note to the passage.
- Lee Fratantuono, Madness Unchained: A Reading of Virgil's Aeneid (Lexington Books, 2007), pp. 242 and 248.
- Georges Dumézil La religione romana arcaica. Con un'appendice sulla religione degli Etruschi Edizione e traduzione a cura di Furio Jesi: Milano Rizzoli 1977 (Italian translation conducted on an expanded version of the 2nd edition of La religion romaine archaïque Paris Payot 1974) pp. 361-366.
- Servius Ad Aeneidem VII 800 as cited by Dumézil 1977 p. 362.
- Pliny Natural History II 146 as cited by Dumézil 1977 p. 362.
- Dumézil 1977 p. 364 citing Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities III 32, 12.
- Festus p. 308 L<up>2</up> as cited by Dumézil p. 363.
- Strabo, v: Sub monte Soracte urbs est Feronia...
- Strabo, v.2.9; Filippo Coarelli, I Santuari del Lazio in eta Repubblicana (Rome) 1987
- Karl Otfried Müller, Die Etrusker (1828) identified her as a goddess of the marketplace.
- Livy.
- Codex Vaticanus Latinus 6808.
- Lily Ross Taylor, "The Site of Lucus Feroniae" The Journal of Roman Studies 10 (1920), pp. 29-36. Taylor identified the site as Nazzano
- Coarelli 1987; Servius, note to Aeneid 7.799.
- G. Gatti Notizie degli Scavi 1905 p. 15 as cited by Dumézil 1977 p. 362.
- John W. Stamper, The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 44–45.
- Farney, Ethnic Identity, p. 286.
- Horace, Satires 1.5.24, as cited by R.B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate (Cambridge University Press, 1951), p. 480
- Servius, in his note to Aeneid 8.564, says that Varro called the goddess Liberty Feronia or Fidonia.
- Livy, 22.1.18.
- Dorcey, The Cult of Silvanus, p. 109.
- Encyclopædia Britannica 1966, volume 9
- Leland, Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition 1892, ch. III "Feronia"