The Bona Dea
The Bona Dea is a very ancient and holy Roman Goddess of Women and Healing, who was worshipped exclusively by women. Her true name is sometimes said to be Fauna, which means “She Who Wishes Well.” Fauna was considered Her secret name, not to be spoken–especially by men–so She is usually referred to by the name the women called Her: Bona Dea, or the “Good Goddess”. Bona, in Latin, has overtones of worthiness, nobility, honesty, bravery, health, and rightness, as well as connections to wealth (a “bonus”, even now, means an extra gift, of money or other good things). The Bona Dea is an Earth Goddess who protects women through all their changes, and is believed to watch over virgins and matrons especially. She is skilled in healing and herb-lore, and snakes and wine are sacred to Her. She blessed women and the earth with fertility, while at the same time, in a seeming paradox, She was considered by the Romans to be a pure virgin, chaste and inviolate.
The Bona Dea as Fauna is often linked to Faunus, a fertility God of the fields, woods and animals, who, depending on the story, can be Her brother, father, or husband, and whose female counterpart She is supposed to be. In this role then She is an Animal-Goddess (or Goddess of Fauna, fancy that), who gives health and fertility to the animals of the forests and fields. I suspect the original reason the Romans considered Her a virgin was that She was purely concerned with women; and that this focus, which by its nature includes female sexuality and childbearing concerns, Underworld connections, healing, divination, and other typically chthonic attributes of the dark Earth Goddesses, was so sacred and so exclusive that that purity of purpose, and the sanctity and respect it commanded, was symbolized by making Her virgin, much like Artemis.
Men were not allowed to know Her name, never mind speak it, and they were also forbidden from Her secret festival. There were other taboos concerning the worship of the Bona Dea: neither wine nor myrtle were to be mentioned by name during Her secret festival, likely because they were both sacred to Her and therefore very powerful. According to a late legend seeking to explain these prohibitions, Her husband, Faunus, the God of the Wild (later equated with the Greek Pan), came home once to find She had drunk an entire jar of wine. For being drunk He beat Her to death with a myrtle scourge, and this was why myrtle was forbidden, and wine had to be referred to by another name. Myrtle most famously has long associations with Aphrodite, and was used in Roman weddings; but it was also sacred to Demeter, who like the Bona Dea is a Goddess of the Earth and Fertility–and, most importantly for the Women’s Healing-Goddess Bona Dea, myrtle was used as a medicine primarily in the treatment of female ailments. The wine’s part in the legend is perhaps to explain why the matrons were drinking it: under the Republic, matrons were not allowed to drink wine at all, and could be severely punished if caught. By the late Republic this law was no longer in effect, though presumably there was still an air of disrespectability to matrons who drank. The cult of the Bona Dea, of course, is older than the Republic, and wine must have been an element of Her worship all along, but by calling it “milk” (which does allude to the Goddess’s role as Mother), the ancient and sacred practices could be reconciled with the rules of Roman society.
Fauna was believed to have oracular powers which She revealed only to women, and Her prophecies were given at a shrine in a grotto on the Aventine Hill. The Bona Dia’s statue in Her temple on the same hill was depicted wearing a crown of grape leaves, carrying a scepter (as Queen of the Earth who represented its fertile power), standing next to a large jug of wine. Other representations show the Bona Dea as a matron, seated, holding a snake and cornucopia, symbolizing abundance and all good things. Serpents as symbols of renewal, sexuality, fertility and the Underworld were sacred to Her, and in Her temple tame snakes were allowed the run of the place (the “slither of the place?”); one special serpent was kept near Her statue itself. Her temple also hosted a shop that sold healing herbs, and may have had a clinic of sorts there as well, for it is known that the high priestess dispensed medicines from the temple. In Ostia (the port of Rome, some 15 miles downriver), the Bona Dea had both a temple complex and a sanctuary across town, and according to the inscription, the Mayor of Ostia paid for the complex to be built with his own money, which shows that though She was a women’s Goddess, the men honored Her too.
A small shrine, known only from inscriptions, was set up to the Bona Dea to look over the Insula Bolani. An insula is a glommed-together city building that usually has shops on the ground floor and apartments above, and is sometimes as large as an entire city block, though usually several insulae make up a block. This shrine then was to watch over and keep healthy a fairly small area or part of a neighborhood, and it has been suggested that She may have possessed many such small local shrines or statues, indicating a real and personal relationship with the people, not surprising when it is also considered that She was most famous for healing eye and ear disorders or infections, a not-uncommon problem, especially in children.
The Bona Dea had a festival on the first of May that commemorated the date Her temple was founded; at the ceremony prayers were made to Her to avert earthquakes. She also had a secret festival, attended only by women, that took place over the night of the 3rd and 4th of May (and/or December). It was held during the Faunalia, and was referred to as the sacra opertum, (“the secret or hidden sacrifice”): at this ritual sacrifices were made for the benefit of all the people of Rome, something proper to the realm of a Mother or Earth Goddess who is concerned with the well-being of all of Her children. On this night the festival was held in the house of the consul (the chief elected official), and no men were allowed. This taboo extended even to paintings or statues of men, which were required to be covered during the rites–and one assumes the consul himself crashed at a friend’s place for the night. The Vestal Virgins officiated, led by the wife of the consul (probably symbolic of the ancient Queen, on whom fell certain sacred religious duties), and the house was decorated like a temple with garlands of leaves and flowers of all kinds, except for myrtle of course, and the women wore wreaths of grape leaves. A great jar of wine was placed in the room, though it must be referred to as “milk”, and the jar itself was called a mellarium, or “honey jar”. After making libations to the Goddess, music was played and the women drank and danced.
The Bona Dea’s association with wine and dance connects Her with enlightenment and ecstasy of the Dionysian kind, and with the eternal life-force and yearly resurrection that is represented by the grape vine. Maybe aspects of His popular cult were taken into Hers at a later date; for though Her chthonic nature is original to Her, it is said that in Imperial times Her festivals had “degenerated” into wild and extravagant affairs of the Oriental (i.e. Greek mystical) kind. Perhaps though that is just Roman conservatism speaking. At any rate it was the divine female life-force within the Earth and within Woman that was celebrated for the benefit and blessing of all the people.
The Bona Dea was connected to many of the forms of the Great Goddess: as Faula, the wife or lover of Heracles, She was considered an aspect of Aphrodite; and She was equated with Ops, Maia, and Acca Larentia. Angitia, the Serpent-Goddess and Healer of the Marsi, is almost certainly the same Goddess as the Bona Dea, and the modern Festival of the Serpari (Serpent-Keepers) in Abruzzo, Italy, which likely derives from worship of Angitia, is held the first week of May, just like the Bona Dea’s festivals. Her chthonic roots were acknowledged by the ancients in Her association with the Greek Goddesses Medea (a witch who was connected with serpents), Hekate (Goddess of the Moon and Magic), Persephone (Queen of the Dead) and Semele (the mother of Dionysos). Grafted onto the worship of the Bona Dea was that of Damia, an aspect of the Greek Earth-Goddess Demeter as She who brings fertility to the crops; the secret sacrifice at the Bona Dea’s festival was called (in Latin) the damium, and Her priestess was called the Damiatrix.
Epithets: Fatua, Fatuella, (from fatum,”oracle, fate, destiny”; or from fari, “to speak, talk, or say”), Aurita (as healer of ear diseases), Oculata Lucifera “She Who Brings Light to the Eyes” (as healer of eye disorders), Oma, Restituta or Restitutrix (“She Who Heals or Restores”).