Today is the Ancient Roman festival of Bona Dea. The name just means ‘good goddess’ and her real name was so secret that nobody knows what it was. The rituals that were associated with the festival were also secret, but we do know that they were only attended by women. She seems to have been a mother goddess who was strongly associated with snakes and strong wine, but definitely not with the plant myrtle. She is often portrayed holding a cornucopia and with a snake wound around her arm. Roman historians have speculated her true identity. Some have suggested Maia, the universal earth goddess. Others have mentioned Fauna, who was either the wife, sister or daughter of Faunus (the Roman version of Pan) perhaps she was all three, Roman gods don’t seem that fussy. Fauna was beaten by Faunus with myrtle twigs either for drinking in secret or for refusing to have sex with him.
There was a temple dedicated to her in Rome which, unusually, had a wall around it and harmless snakes lived in its precincts. It seems to have been a centre for healing and kept a store of medicinal herbs. The only men allowed within its walls were those allowed by the goddess herself, and presumably they were not allowed into the inner sanctum.
Bona Dea had two festivals, one at the temple in May 1st, which was for the common people and another on December 3rd which was at the home of the magistrate and was for Rome’s elite. It was supervised by the Vestal Virgins. The only reason we know anything about the ceremony at all is because there was a massive scandal at the Winter rites in 62BC. It was during the reign of Julius Caesar, and his wife, Pompeia, was officiating at that year’s ceremony. It was being held at the house of a man called Clodius, with whom she may or may not have been having an affair.
Men were strictly excluded from the occasion. The house was ritually cleansed and there must be nothing masculine in it whatsoever. Not only did all the men have to leave, but any male animal was also turned out. They even removed all portraiture of men. Then the women made bowers of vine leaves and all sorts of other plants, as long as it wasn’t myrtle. They laid a banquet and prepared a couch for their goddess, her image was brought from the temple by the Vestals and laid on it, along with the image of a snake. They sacrificed a sow and drank strong sacrificial wine. Then, there was a women only banquet which went on through the night, there were female musicians, there were games. Nobody on the outside knew what they were because they only heard the revels from a distance.
In 62BC, Clodius disguised himself as a lute girl and tried to sneak in to the celebrations. He was rumbled by Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, after he declined to play the lute with her, which was rude. She questioned him about who he was and where he had come from and as soon as he spoke, he gave himself away. There was a terrible scene, everyone was horrified that there was a man there and the whole ceremony was ruined. Clodius was sentenced to death for his transgression, though he was later let off. Julius Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, though he later said that he didn’t really think she was guilty of adultery. When asked why it was, he replied it was because he thought the wife of Caesar should not even be under suspicion.
The whole affair called into question the reputation of the Vestal Virgins. Now that some of the details of the rituals had been revealed, men began to pruriently imagine all sorts of things about the women only celebrations. Suddenly no one was very sure that it was a good idea to let women drink strong wine and party all night. By the time the satirist Juvenal was writing about Bona Dea’s festival a hundred or so years later he called it an opportunity for women of all classes, most shamefully those of the upper class – and men in drag (“which altars do not have their Clodius these days?”) – to get drunk and cavort indiscriminately in a sexual free-for-all.