Reverie at Bennys Place

The Romans and The Festival of Pomona

Dear friends,

Today, I am pleased to share with you a second post. As mentioned in my previous post, time slipped away too soon and I could not complete a set of all encompassing posts related to the history of Halowe’en. One bit however is more the words of Ovid than my own so I wanted to share this with you today for it is an absolutely beautiful story. The threads of a key Halloween component — the apple — can be traced back (most likely) to the days of the Romans so without further ado:

The Romans and The Festival of Pomona


“Pomona and Vertumnus”
by Francesco Melzi
Pomona, the classical goddess of fruit, and Vertumnus, the god of transformation, are the main figures in an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which is depicted here. Vertumnus enters Pomona’s grove in order to convince her of his love. Because she had always run away on previous occasions when he came, he has cunningly dressed as an old woman on this occasion. By telling her about the allegory of the grapevine and elm, he is able to convince her of the importance of togetherness, for the grapevine needs something it can climb up and the elm, when considered on its own, is useless. Persuaded, Pomona gives in to love and her innermost longings and they become a couple.
Vertumnus is a composite figure who represents various moments in time and historical elements in his various parts. His face is that of an old man, only the bonnet identifies him as an old woman. The feet and hands are those of a young person. This makes his transformation visible. The motif of his gait, due to which his garments are still fluttering, shows that he has just arrived. At the point where his right wrist is bent, the grapevine is entwined around the elm. The gentle touch of her shoulder with his youthful hand depicts the moment at which he reveals himself to her. Pomona’s eyes are still lowered longingly while he is already gazing at her passionately.
Source: Web Gallery Of Art

The Romans successfully conquered the majority of the Celtic lands of modern day Great Britain in approximately 43AD. With them they brought their own traditions and customs. It has been widely referenced that the Roman festival of Pomona combined with the Celtic festival of Samhain. The festival was dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of fruits and was held around November 1st. Being the goddess of the orchards and of the harvest, the feast of Pomona included nuts and apples. It is because of this reference, any Halloween tradition involving apples is often attributed to the Pomonia or the feast of Pomona.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of any Pomona festival on any of the old Roman calendars. While one cannot categorically disprove the existence of a Pomona festival, it does seem unlikely. Still it is rather romantic to believe that as we enjoy our apple cider or bobbing for apples we are enjoying the influences of ancient Rome.

There may be no historical proof that a festival to Pomona ever existed but that does not take away from the romantic notion that there may have been. While performing my research, I uncovered some very interesting references to the mythological Pomona. One I will include here is a poem dedicated to her written by Ovid in the book Metamorphoses. In its original form you may struggle with the Elizabethan style of English so I found a version that is a little more reader friendly.

Bk XIV:623-697 Vertumnus woos Pomona

Pomona lived in this king’s reign. No other hamadryad, of the wood nymphs of Latium, tended the gardens more skilfully or was more devoted to the orchards’ care, hence her name. She loved the fields and the branches loaded with ripe apples, not the woods and rivers. She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling. She would not allow them to suffer from being parched, watering, in trickling streams, the twining tendrils of thirsty root. This was her love, and her passion, and she had no longing for desire. Still fearing boorish aggression, she enclosed herself in an orchard, and denied an entrance, and shunned men.

What did the Satyrs, fitted by their youth for dancing, not do to possess her, and the Pans with pine-wreathed horns, and Silvanus, always younger than his years, and Priapus, the god who scares off thieves, with his pruning hook or his phallus? But Vertumnus surpassed them all, even, in his love, though he was no more fortunate than them. O how often, disguised as an uncouth reaper, he would bring her a basket filled with ears of barley, and he was the perfect image of a reaper! Often he would display his forehead bound with freshly cut hay, and might seem to have been tossing the new-mown grass. Often he would be carrying an ox-goad in his stiff hand, so that you would swear he had just unyoked his weary team. Given a knife he was a dresser and pruner of vines: he would carry a ladder: you would think he’d be picking apples. He was a soldier with a sword, or a fisherman taking up his rod.

In short, by his many disguises, he frequently gained admittance, and found joy, gazing at her beauty. Once, he even covered his head with a coloured scarf, and leaning on a staff, with a wig of grey hair, imitated an old woman. He entered the well-tended garden, and admiring the fruit, said: ‘You are so much more lovely’, and gave her a few congratulatory kisses, as no true old woman would have done. He sat on the flattened grass, looking at the branches bending, weighed down with autumn fruit. There was a specimen elm opposite, covered with gleaming bunches of grapes. After he had praised it, and its companion vine, he said: ‘But if that tree stood there, unmated, without its vine, it would not be sought after for more than its leaves, and the vine also, which is joined to and rests on the elm, would lie on the ground, if it were not married to it, and leaning on it.

But you are not moved by this tree’s example, and you shun marriage, and do not care to be wed. I wish that you did! Helen would not have had more suitors to trouble her, or Hippodamia, who caused the Lapithae problems, or Penelope, wife of that Ulysses, who was delayed too long at the war. Even now a thousand men want you, and the demi-gods and the gods, and the divinities that haunt the Alban hills, though you shun them and turn away from their wooing. But if you are wise, if you want to marry well, and listen to this old woman, that loves you more than you think, more than them all, reject their vulgar offers, and choose Vertumnus to share your bed! You have my assurance as well: he is not better known to himself than he is to me: he does not wander here and there in the wide world: he lives on his own in this place: and he does not love the latest girl he has seen, as most of your suitors do.

You will be his first love, and you will be his last, and he will devote his life only to you. And then he is young, is blessed with natural charm, can take on a fitting appearance, and whatever is ordered, though you ask all, he will do. Besides, that which you love the same, those apples you cherish, he is the first to have, and with joy holds your gifts in his hand! But he does not desire now the fruit of your trees, or the sweet juice of your herbs: he desires nothing but you. Take pity on his ardour, and believe that he, who seeks you, is begging you, in person, through my mouth. Fear the vengeful gods, and Idalian Venus, who hates the hard-hearted, and Rhamnusian Nemesis, her inexorable wrath! That you may fear them more (since my long life has given me knowledge of many tales) I will tell you a story, famous through all of Cyprus, by which you might easily be swayed and softened.’

Bk XIV:698-771 Anaxarete and Iphis

‘Once, Iphis, a youth, born of humble stock, saw noble Anaxarete, of the blood of Teucer, saw her, and felt the fire of passion in every bone. He fought it for a long time, but when he could not conquer his madness by reason, he came begging at her threshold. Now he would confess his sorry love to her nurse, asking her not to be hard on him, by the hopes she had for her darling. At other times he flattered each of her many attendants, with enticing words, seeking their favourable disposition. Often he gave them messages to carry to her, in the form of fawning letters. Sometimes he hung garlands on her doorpost wet with his tears, and lay with his soft flank on the hard threshold, complaining at the pitiless bolts barring the way.

But she spurned, and mocked, him, crueler than the surging sea, when the Kids set; harder than steel tempered in the fires of Noricum; or natural rock still rooted to its bed. And she added proud, insolent words to harsh actions, robbing her lover of hope, as well. Unable to endure the pain of his long torment, Iphis spoke these last words before her door. “You have conquered, Anaxarete, and you will not have to suffer any tedium on my account. Devise glad triumphs, and sing the Paean of victory, and wreathe your brow with shining laurel! You have conquered, and I die gladly: now, heart of steel, rejoice! Now you will have something to praise about my love, something that pleases you. Remember that my love for you did not end before life itself, and that I lose twin lights in one.

No mere rumour will come to you to announce my death: have no doubt, I myself will be there, visibly present, so you can feast your savage eyes on my lifeless corpse. Yet, if you, O gods, see what mortals do, let me be remembered (my tongue can bear to ask for nothing more), and suffer my tale to be told, in future ages, and grant, to my fame, the years, you have taken from my life.”

He spoke, and lifted his tear-filled eyes to the doorposts he had often crowned with flowery garlands, and, raising his pale arms to them, tied a rope to the cross-beam, saying: “This wreath will please you, cruel and wicked, as you are!” Then he thrust his head in the noose, though, as he hung there, a pitiful burden, his windpipe crushed, even then he turned towards her. The drumming of his feet seemed to sound a request to enter, and when the door was opened it revealed what he had done.

The servants shrieked, and lifted him down, but in vain. Then they carried his body to his mother’s house (since his father was dead). She took him to her breast, and embraced her son’s cold limbs, and when she had said all the words a distraught father could say, and done the things distraught mothers do, weeping, she led his funeral procession through the heart of the city, carrying the pallid corpse, on a bier, to the pyre.

The sound of mourning rose to the ears of stony-hearted Anaxarete, her house chancing to be near the street, where the sad procession passed. Now a vengeful god roused her. Still, she was roused, and said: “Let us see this miserable funeral” and went to a rooftop room with open windows. She had barely looked at Iphis, lying on the bier, when her eyes grew fixed, and the warm blood left her pallid body. Trying to step backwards she was rooted: trying to turn her face away, also, she could not. Gradually the stone that had long existed in her heart possessed her body. If you think this is only a tale, Salamis still preserves the image of the lady as a statue, and also possesses a temple of Gazing Venus.

Remember all this, O nymph of mine: put aside, I beg you, reluctant pride, and yield to your lover. Then the frost will not sear your apples in the bud, nor the storm winds scatter them in flower.’

When Vertumnus, the god, disguised in the shape of the old woman, had spoken, but to no effect, he went back to being a youth, and threw off the dress of an old woman, and appeared to Pomona, in the glowing likeness of the sun, when it overcomes contending clouds, and shines out, unopposed. He was ready to force her: but no force was needed, and the nymph captivated by the form of the god, felt a mutual passion.

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