PARENTALIA

Feb. 13th: A Commemoration of departed role-models

Februārius XIII (Ides of February) marked the beginning of a nine-day Roman festival, Parentālia, which was held in honor of deceased ancestors. It seems like the festival acquired its name from the Latin term parentēs (sg., parēns), who were the primary recipients of the rites. The term was usually just applied to one’s biological parents, but its application was very flexible in the context of this festival. So it’s best to translate the term as “relatives”—all relatives by blood or by marriage both near and distant. As the festival evolved over the centuries, members of the same collēgium —a kind of professional or legal association—would commemorate each other after their death. ALL THIS TO SAY: I think it’s reasonable to use this time of the year to commemorate not only our ancestors but also our friends and colleagues and anyone who you’d like to remember. 

Lastly this festival was centered around the deceased. Gratitude certainly should certainly extend to everyone —the living and the dead—but we already have a holiday in the US for general gratitude: Thanksgiving! Let’s use this time to focus on those that are gone but not forgotten.

What rites were involved?

A great article about ancient Parentalia was written by Dr. Fanny Dolansky titled “Honouring The Family Dead on the Parentalia: Ceremony, spectacle, and memory” [in Phoenix , Vol. 65, No. 1/2 (2011), pp. 125-157]. A lot of the historical details are drawn from this work. 

Concerning the objects of commemoration, for example, she had this to say:

From the evidence for the festival in practice, it is clear that the Parentalia concerned a spectrum of kin, and honoured both vertical and horizontal bonds. The rites commemorated relatives who had departed long ago—grandparents and great-grandparents, who could legitimately be called ancestors (maiores)— but also those who had died more recently, such as siblings, spouses, and frequently children and youths

Dolansky, p. 130

Regarding the offerings or tributes themselves— called munera — Dolansky begins her discussion with a passage from Ovid’s Fasti:

Placate your fathers’ souls,
Bring tiny tributes to the erected pyres.
The dead desire little. They want piety,
Not rich gifts; deep Styx has no greedy gods.
A tile covered and arranged with wreaths is enough,
Sprinkled corn and a thrifty grain of salt,
And Ceres softened in wine and loose violets.
Leave them lying on a shard in mid-street.
I do not forbid larger gifts, but these appease wraiths.
Build hearths and add prayers and ritual words.

Ovid, vv. 533-542 (trans. Boyle and Woodard)

This is a remarkable passage and I’ll return to it a few times. At the moment, we can just take stock of the kinds of tributes (mūnera) that Ovid lists here, which are elaborated a bit by Dolansky: 

  • decorating a clay or metal tile (which served as a makeshift temporary altar)
  • dedicating—and sometimes burning— a kind of grain like wheat or barley (not maize corn)
  • sprinkling salt on the altar
  • pouring wine libations
  • laying down garlands of roses, violets, or myrtle
  • saying a few words of gratitude

These munera are offered either at the ancestral tomb in the local necropolis (the neighborhood outside the city walls that served as the cemetery) or in the middle of the road as Ovid suggests. This is because it was thought that—though the spirits of the dead resided in the necropolis—they were thought to wander around town during Parentalia and consume any food left for them.

My first impression of this holiday was that it seemed similar to the Mexican Catholic “Day of the Dead” (Día de los Muertos) festival celebrated around All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). This is particularly important in Los Angeles considering that the largest religion represented here is Catholicism—and this is likely because of the large Mexican population. 

For Dia de los Muertos families set up altars (ofrendas) to their deceased loved ones; clean and decorate their graves; leave food and beverages as offerings; and lay fragrant marigold flowers around the cemetery and their homes to guide the dead. 

The most important similarities between the ancient Parentalia and Dia de los Muertos is the celebratory atmosphere they encourage. Celebrants for both festivals often have picnics or hold commemorative dinners at the gravesites. During Parentalia, some families would even host games (lūdī) in the necropolis as a kind of offering to their ancestors.

This idea—that we should celebrate our ancestors and that a festival commemorating them should not be too solemn—is in keeping with the Stoic approach to life and death. Life is a dinner party and it would be a faux pas to outstay our welcome; death is a natural culmination of a complete and happy life. Far from fearing death, we should accept it wholeheartedly. Far from being upset about the death of our loved ones, we should focus on the good that they did in life and the inspiration that they can still provide.

Why did people consider these rites meaningful?

During Parentalia, the munera are offerings given out of a sense of duty (officium), piety (pietās), reverence (reverentia), and honor (honor) to the dead. Recall Ovid’s line: “The dead desire little. They want piety, not rich gifts; deep Styx has no greedy gods.” You don’t need to give much or do much in order to stay in keeping with the spirit of the festival.

The holiday persisted for centuries well into the onset of Christianity and it could be argued that it still persists in festivals like Dia de los Muertos, although I’m not sure there is a direct influence there. At the very least, we can stay that there is a human need to show respect and gratitude to those who came before us. It provides a way to properly frame the death and mitigate grief and sadness. It also instills a sense of shared identity, which was likely why the festival was kept going up as the Roman Empire expanded across so many regions and local cultures.

Dolansky also proposes that the longevity of the festival can be attributed to “respect for pietas and officium as guiding moral principles” and “the appeal of the social dimensions of the rites” (p. 152). This is particularly relevant to Stoics. The term officium is often translated as “duty” (think Cicero’s On Duty), but it is more broadly construed as “appropriate action” since the Latin term was Cicero’s suggested translation of the Greek term kathēkon—the means by which we undertake Epictetus’ second field of study (sometimes called the “discipline of action”):


The second [field of study] has to do with appropriate behavior (kathēkon), because I shouldn’t be as unfeeling as a statue, but should maintain my natural and acquired relationships toward gods, father, brothers, children, and fellow citizens.

Discourses 3.2.1-3 (trans. Waterfield)

Presumably, fulfilling our duties in the context of Parentalia may help us live in accordance with our social nature as human beings. This means that the festival provides a framework around which we may exercise virtue—not just courage through confronting our mortality, but justice through fulfilling our social roles.

How to observe the holiday

OK. So how could we observe this festival as modern Stoics? The following are some minimal suggestions; feel free to reach out and help us explore more concrete ideas. 

For a certain length of time between Feb. 13th and Feb. 21st (the festival was nine days, remember), do your best to keep some departed role-models in mind: family, friends, colleagues, or historical figures from which you’ve drawn inspiration. Do things that you think they would approve of or appreciate.

Again, it seems in keeping with the spirit of the festival to commemorate anyone who is deceased who served as a role-model or inspiration. Think of their virtue or particular character strengths that you yourself would like to emulate.

As for me, I am privileged to have access to a detailed family history. I’ve come to learn a lot about some ancestors who have encountered and overcome hardship. Though I have not met most of them, I can still use them as role models. For example, my paternal grandfather put his education on hold and enlisted in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War. Because of his small frame, he was ultimately assigned to the ball-turret of a B-17 “Flying Fortress”—often considered the most dangerous position considering how exposed it was, hanging below the plane. He flew dozens of missions over Poland and Germany and survived to then get his PhD in political science, teach in Ecuador and Pakistan, and raise four boys including my father. The virtues that I see him exhibiting through all that are courage, justice, and a kind of prudence about prioritizing his values. From my personal experience of him, I can say that he also exhibited good humor—an important character strength!

Every year during Parentalia, I think of my grandfathers, grandmothers and several other deceased ancestors throughout the week. Sometimes, I schedule a trip to the Forrest Lawn cemetery in Glendale in order to spend time at my great grandparents’ plots (another privilege of mine). Perhaps one day I will have a picnic there and play some games.

BONA PARENTĀLIA!