Letting the New Year In

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to have written about this post’s subject last month, but it makes more sense to me to cover her now instead of waiting until next March. Anna Perenna was the Roman goddess of the new year, whose name basically means living through one year and many years, as per the words “annual” and “perennial.” Her festival was celebrated on the Ides of March, then considered the first month of the year. That’s why, by the way, the ninth through twelfth months of the year have names indicating that they’re the seventh through tenth months. Back then, January and February didn’t count. Anyway, the festival, popular primarily among the lower classes, celebrated the circle of the year, and was marked with wild revelry and drunkenness. There was apparently a tradition that the goddess would grant you as many years of life as cups of wine you drank. Nowadays, people don’t even need a superstition like that to get totally wasted on New Year’s Day. Much of our knowledge of the holiday comes from the work of Ovid, whose unfinished Fasti was a poetic guide to all the festivals of the Roman year. He gives two different accounts as to the identity of the goddess.

One is that she’s the sister of Dido of Carthage, driven out of Africa by the Berbers after the queen’s death. As I mentioned before, I don’t think Anna was part of the earlier accounts of Dido and the founding of Carthage, but I don’t know whether she was Virgil’s invention. I do wonder why, if Dido’s father intended to divide his kingdom between his children, Anna wasn’t figured into the inheritance.

Anyway, she sought sanctuary in a few places before coming to Italy, where Aeneas allowed her to stay as a guest. He was probably still feeling guilty about what happened to her sister. Aeneas’ wife Lavinia was jealous, however, and sought to kill the refugee. I’m not quite sure what Lavinia’s motivation would have been. Did she think her husband would fall for Anna, or was it just her connection to his ex-lover? Warned of Lavinia’s treachery by Dido’s ghost, Anna fled from the city and was turned into a nymph in the River Numicius.

Picture by Eleonora Stella
Ovid’s other account makes Anna an old woman from the town of Bovillae, who was made a goddess for her work distributing cakes to the people. After Anna achieved divinity, Mars confided in her his desire for an affair with the perpetual virgin Minerva. Anna disguised herself as Minerva instead, and when Mars realized the deception, everyone laughed at him for almost having sex with an old maid. The relation between Anna and Mars probably had something to do with her holiday falling within his month. The poet also mentions that Anna Perenna was sometimes associated with the Moon, Io, and Themis. The favored historical explanation seems to be that she already existed as an Italian goddess, and these later stories were attempts to connect her with the Greek mythology that the Romans adopted as their own.

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6 Responses to Letting the New Year In

  1. Bryan T Babel says:

    Another Roman holiday swiped by the Christians!

    In the western liturgical year, Lady Day is the traditional name in some English speaking countries of the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), known in the 1549 Prayer Book of Edward VI and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as “The Annunciation of the (Blessed) Virgin Mary” but more accurately (as currently in the 1997 Calendar of the Church of England) termed “The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary”. It is the first of the four traditional English quarter days. The “Lady” is the Virgin Mary…In England, Lady Day was New Year’s Day between 1155 and 1752, when 1 January was declared to be the official start of the year.

    Tolkien noted in Nomenclature that the date the Ring was destroyed (March 25)was purposefully chosen. It coincides with the feast of Annunciation or Lady Day.

    –facts stitched together from Wikipedia and Tolkien Gateway.

  2. vinod vaddi says:

    Other than this annual+perennial interpretation, I understand that she is also associated with food. does this new year festival fall in the time of harvest of crops? What is striking in this is that, the name anna perenna sounds very close to Annapurna (pronounced annapoorna) who is godess of food and nourishment in hinduism. In sanskrit, Anna (अन्न) means “food” or “grains” and pūrṇa (पूर्ण) means “full, complete and perfect”.

    • vinod vaddi says:

      ps: you’ll see many restaurants in india with name Annapurna

    • Nathan says:

      Since the festival took place in March, it wouldn’t have been the harvest season, but there still might have been some association. I wonder how much contact Romans of the time would have had with India.

  3. Pingback: Real Food | VoVatia

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