Mystic & The Mind: Of Mental and Spiritual Health

The landscape of mental health and spirituality in relation to the Pagan and Polytheist experience is vast and regularly uncharted territory. How can we gather the tools to help those that are experiencing spiritual emergence? What happens when emergence becomes an emergency? How can we support our community members who experience mental illness? And is it possible that there is a spectrum of experiences relating to mental health and spiritual transformation instead of a dichotomy? This blog explores the realm of mental health's intersection with spiritual health, both from a personal perspective and an academic one.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

The Lemuria: Folk Magic and Ghosts in Ancient Rome

One of the reasons I was so deeply attracted to Religio Romana was the attention that is given to the Dead and the Ancestors. In February, the end of the traditional Roman religious year, the month is spent paying our dues to those powers higher than us that perhaps we've neglected either knowingly or unknowingly. This shows up with the observation of the Parentalia and the Feralia within it, both to recognize the Lares, the God/Spirits of our more spiritually-developed Ancestors and Heroes, and the Manes, the Spirits of our Beloved Dead and, in my personal tradition, the Spirits of the Unclaimed Dead.

The month of May, a month of purification and possibly named after the Maiores (Ancestors), also has an ancient festival in it focusing on the Dead. But this time it is not for the Manes, the “good” Dead, those who had been given proper rites in burial and were offered cultus by their families, but the Lemures, the angry, restless Dead.


By the time of the Late Republic, the Lemuria was not a part of the State-led festivals. It had most likely been turned into the basis of the Feralia, or that was Ovid's theory. It was important to the Romans to attempt to drive away the angry ghosts of the Dead while at the same time giving them what they were owed. You can't get more Roman than this.

According to Ovid in Fasti, at midnight on the nights of the 9th, 11th, and 13th (1), the Paterfamilias, or head male of the family, would rise out of bed. In bare feet he would make the sign of the mano fica (known more modernly as the figa) to drive off any spirits he met. After washing his hands in spring water, he'd turn to throw black beans over his shoulder saying the words, “With these beans I throw, I redeem me and mine.” Without looking back, he says this 9 times. It's believed that the spirit then gathers the beans and follows. He washes his hands again and then beats brass pots together, asking the spirit to leave the house by saying, “Ancestral spirit, depart!” He is then safe to look behind him.

What we have in Ovid's poem is the basis of the modern practice of Lemuria along with a historical look at folk magic of the Romans.

Those of us who work with chthonic deities and spirits typically have the understanding that midnight is a liminal space where it is easier for communication and contact with all things Underworld. This was very, very true in the Roman worldview. So first we see our practitioner rising at the ideal moment of strength of the spirit, which will hopefully ensure that they will find the spirit haunting their home present.

Then there is the barefoot part of the ritual, unfettered is the word that Ovid uses. Being knotless, ringless, and shoeless is typical in Roman fashion, especially when dealing with the Underworld. One sees it in the Aeneid, for instance, when Dido calls upon the Gods during her suicide. Some priests were prohibited from wearing knots or rings unbroken by stones, which is in contrast to one of the wedding rituals of the Patrician women where the knot in her attire is untied by her husband after the ritual is complete, likely signifying the release of the bride from her familial binding of her maiden days. However, it should be noted that Lemuria is also likely where the belief that May is an unlucky time to get married, because it is directly mentioned in Ovid's poem.

We see the employment of the mano fico, which even today in various cultures is seen as having the ability to ward from the Evil Eye. This belief in the Evil Eye is possibly also why one does not look back on the spirits of the Dead when attending to Them at night. This is a point where they are at their most powerful, most able to place harm on us with simply their gaze.

Clearly, this was not a ritual for our beloved Aunt Betty who died peacefully in her sleep and had a beautiful funeral filled with roses and a hundred attending mourners. This is a ritual to help appease the spirits of those places we tell ghost stories about where people have been murdered or suffered greatly in their moment of death. Those who did not get burials at all. Confused and angry, they are likely held there and not capable of escaping.

The usage of black beans in various points in the cult of the Manes and Dead has always been a curious one for me. They were thrown onto graves in offering, for instance. In Ovid's Fasti they are mentioned during the glimpse of folk magic where they were use to silence harmful gossip during the Feralia. The official Roman priest mentioned above who could not wear knots could also not touch beans. While I'm still exploring if this has connection to Pythagorean belief or is something that comes from the early days of the Roman spiritual tradition, I can say with authority that black beans are a traditional offering to the Manes and Dead who have not made it safely into the cult of the honored within the Roman's world.

Obviously the beans are meant for the most basic of offerings to appease the restless Dead. This plays into the Roman concept of pietas (piety) and the societal obligations that were mutually beneficial, as exemplified in the term do ut des (I give that you may give). To the non-polytheist, this may seem very cold and contractual, and even to some polytheists this statement of offering when asking for things and to carry on a social contract is sometimes seen as unnecessary. However, it shows a moral obligation to those that are part of your society, and to a Roman polytheist that community contains the spirits of the Dead whom we not only came from but who remain willing to help us after their death. Tradition calls for stopping to recognize that, and in the case of the Lemures it's a moment in the year to take note that we, as a people, have failed others. It is our chance to make amends on behalf of our larger society. It is, at the very basis, a compassionate venture into the true nature of reciprocity, and in this day and age a rebellious act against the cult of the individual.

But the Romans also kept very distinct lines between what was sacred (simply belonging to the Gods) and profane (not belonging to the Gods). The line was also drawn between the living and the Dead to the point where the cemeteries were much like cities with houses for the families of the Manes. The Dead, especially the restless Dead, were not welcome to stay within the mortal Roman's home after having been given what they are due.

We give the beans, because that is the hospitality that is the ghost's due in our homes. These are the Dead that have no relation to us, but we are still obligated to give them something since in life they had belonged to our civilization. And then the Romans chased them from the house by banging brass pots and pans together, because they decidedly did not belong in the home. The Dead and I have the same reaction to loud, crashing noises, I guess, which is to get away from it as quickly as possible.

In my house, things work a little differently, though. Since I'm a death worker and in the middle of learning the tools and techniques of being a death doula, my home regularly has visitors that are lost and confused. I don't tend to chase them from my home. Instead I keep a small broken birdbath out on the other side of our driveway. The Romans served the dead on broken pottery, you see, so my birdbath that didn't survive a winter serves as the perfect altar to place my offerings of beans and libations of water on regular offering days. For Lemuria, I toss the beans, not looking over my shoulder. I offer a place in the cult of my Manes, which during Parentalia and Feralia this year I officially started working rituals to elevate the Unclaimed Dead into my Manes cult.

This isn't an obligation that everyone must take on, though I would encourage it. The Dead are important. We should honor Them.


1. The Romans did not use this numerical distinction for their days, but instead this is the modern equivalent of when this would have happened.

Last modified on
Camilla Laurentine is a mother, artist, writer, and craftswoman wandering about Memphis, TN. She is a Roman Revivalist and American Pagan. Her path is a living, continuously changing entity that could best be described as a syncretic blend of the Continental Europe, honoring a careful balance of Spirit-informed gnosis and scholarly study. She has big dreams of building temples and a safe sanctuary for those struggling with spiritual and mental health issues. Camilla is a sibyl and teacher, available for spiritual consultation and mentoring. You can find her jewelry and art at her Etsy shop: Wunderkammer by C. Laurentine -  


Additional information