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The rex Nemorensis, (Latin: "the king of Nemi" or "the king of Groves") was a sort of sacred king who served as priest of the goddess Diana at Aricia in Italy, by the shores of Lake Nemi.

Diana, in Roman mythology, the goddess of hunting and wilderness.

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A priest who slew his predecessor

Surviving lore concerning the rex Nemorensis tells the tale that this priest or king held a very uneasy position. Macaulay's well known quatrain on the institution of the rex Nemorensis states:

Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.

This is, in a nutshell, the surviving legend of the rex Nemorensis: the priesthood of Diana at Nemi was held by a person who obtained that honour by slaying the prior incumbent in a trial by combat, and who could remain at the post only so long as he successfully defended his position against all challengers. However, a successful candidate had first to test his mettle by plucking a golden bough from one of the trees in the sacred grove.

Ancient sources of the story

The tale of the rex Nemorensis is told in a number of ancient sources. The Latin name of the priesthood is given by Suetonius who mentions in passing in his account of Caligula: Nemorensi regi, quod multos iam annos poteretur sacerdotio, ualidiorem aduersarium subornauit: "He caused the king of Nemi, who had held his priesthood for many years, to be supplanted by a stronger adversary." Ovid, also, gives a poetic account of the priesthood of Nemi in his Fasti, book III, noting that the lake of Nemi was "sacred to antique religion," and that the priest who dwelt there:

regna tenent fortes manibus pedibusque fugaces,
     et perit exemplo postmodo quisque suo.
("holds his reign by strong hands and fleet feet, and dies according to the example he set himself.")

In Greek, Strabo's Geography also mentions the institution: "and in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the people set up as priest merely a run-away slave who has slain with his own hand the man previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself." (Geographia V, 3, 12)

Pausanias gives an obscure myth that attempts to explain the founding of the shrine. "The Aricians tell a tale . . . . that when Hippolytus (the son of Theseus) was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters." (Description of Greece II, 27, 4) In Roman mythology, Hippolytus was deified as the god Virbius; Artemis and Diana were the Greek and Latin names, respectively, of the same goddess. An alternative story has the worship of Diana at Nemi instituted by Orestes; the flight of the slave represents the flight of Orestes.

The ruins by the shores of the lake of Nemi.

The most extensive ancient record of the priesthood at Nemi, however, is contained in Virgil's Aeneid. In the Aeneid, Aeneas, significantly a fugitive from the fall of Troy, visits the sacred grove at Nemi and plucks the golden bough. (Aeneid, book VI, 124 et. seq.) He presents it, not as part of a ritual challenge to become the rex Nemorensis, but rather as a gift to the Sybil of Cumae, who instructs Aenas on the way to travel to Hades, where he converses with the ghost of his father Anchises. However, at the conclusion of the poem Aenes slays Turnus in battle, and Turnus allegorically represents the Etruscans: the theme of supplanting the prior occupants of Latium remains arguably present in the Aeneid as well. Virgil also places Hippolytus at the grove of Aricia, and has Aeneas encounter him there. (Aeneid, book VII, 761 et. seq.)

More recent interpretations

The human sacrifice conducted at Nemi was thought to be highly unusual by the ancients. The surviving accounts suggest that it was thought extremely primitive, even if hallowed by centuries of tradition. Suetonius mentions it as an example of the moral failings of Caligula, his subject. Strabo calls it Scythian, implying that he found it barbaric. The violent character of this singular institution could barely be justified by reference to its great antiquity and mythological sanctity. The ancient sources also appear to concur that an escaped slave who seeks refuge in this uneasy office is likely to be a desperate man.

However, Sir James George Frazer, in his seminal work The Golden Bough, argued that the tale of the priesthood of Nemi was in fact an instance of a worldwide myth of a sacred king who must periodically die as part of a regular fertility rite. While later anthropology is sceptical of Frazer's broad hypothesis, this hypothesis went on to have an extensive literary career. Because of Frazer's deep literary influence, the notion of a sacred king who must periodically be slain by his rival as part of a fertility rite is likely far more familiar to contemporary readers than it was to the ancients.

In 1990, a radio progamme entitled "The Priest of Nemi" was produced by Michael Bakewell and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, to celebrate the publication by Macmillan of the book "The Making of the Golden Bough" by Robert Fraser, itself timed to mark the centenary of the appearance of the first edition of J.G.Frazer's book.

References

  • Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1950, abridged edition)
  • Hornblower, Simon, et al. (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3d edition. 2003) ISBN 0-19-860641-9
  • Robert Fraser, 'The Making of the Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of An Argument' (Macmillan, 1990) ISBN 0-333-49631-0

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