The seemingly placid waters of the Nemi lake shine under the light of the spring sun. The grassy shores are spread in a large embrace and over there the slopes of the forest can be seen: intricate and austere it reaches as far as the eye can see, touching the sky on the rim of the ancient volcanic crater.
The sanctuary of Nemi was, for a long time, one of the most renowned and frequented of the ancient world; the Appia road passed right by it and it was cluttered with the carts of the pilgrims, the extended hands of the beggars and the shops offering ex-voto and the special bread loaves to be offered to the goddess. Merchants and gladiators coaches; emperors and slaves; men and women; nobles and commoners; sufferers looking for healing and brides to be; grieving families and young wastrels looking for girls: people of all kinds came to the sanctuary.
However, no matter thousands of years of frequentation, the sacred area of Nemi retains untouched its areas of silence, the places where the Mystery whispers undisturbed. In the shady woods it seems like the outline of the rex, at once predator and prey, can still be discerned, hiding from human gazes as his predecessors before him; hundreds of lamps, used for ancient necromancy rites, still lie in the dark, deep waters; north of the lake, the caves, places where access to the underworld is gained, rest unchanged.
Here is where the outcasts, the runaways, could leave behind the laws of men and dedicate their life to the goddess, the woods and a bloody ritual; here is where our ancestors went looking for a rebirth; here is where the worlds are brought together and merge in one another; where the depths touch the heights.
Here is where even the gods came to die.
Little remains of the great gold ceiled temple, as of the cells laden with gifts and the great nymphaeum of Egeria; but the real temple, the one that ancient peoples have worshipped since the Neolithic, is still there: Diana’s living body, the core and the map of the Mystery, is still in Nemi. And it’s hiding in plain sight.
Since when the first signs of a coming back to the old polytheisms manifested in Europe, Diana has played a main and multifaceted role.
If in the Middle Ages She was seen almost exclusively as a symbol of chastity and purity, during the Romantic age there was a rediscovery of her wilder aspect, that could complement well a renewed interest for the irrational: the forests, the moon, the night… these are all elements that abound in the artistic and literary expressions of this historical phase.
From a point of view more focused on the history of neo-pagans movements and wicca (which, of course, fit rightly in this historical period and whose origins are rooted in this same massive cultural shift), the converging of C.G. Lenand’s studies in the tosco-emilianaarea, of Graves’s “White Goddess”and, later, of Z. Budapest’s discussions, concurred in ensuring Diana’s key role in the foundational myths and in the orthopraxis of Gardnerian wicca.
In more recent times, an impressive reworking and popularization of the thesis tied to the “Goddess Movement” and to matriarchy in pre and proto historical times (thesis that were intermittently developed from late ‘700 to the forties), and the appearance of new kinds of “Italian Witchcraft” in the US, have collectively brought a revision of Diana’s image. This goddess is shown on the one hand as an ancient italic goddess, tied to an exclusive all-female cult and involved in a relationship with a lesser god of vegetation (remindful of the Ishtar-Tammuz model and Frazer’s theories), and on the other hand, as a powerful goddess of the witches, honored in South Italy (particularly in Sicily) through a millenary cult that would have preceded the arrival of greek colonials and whose characteristics would have been transmitted orally to the present day, to be preserved and divulged in the overseas lands.
Amid all this, a question arises: where is Diana?
Is She the virgin and chaste, yet somewhat provocative, maiden of our medieval ancestors? Is She the Mistress of wild places, beasts and blood sacrifices? Is She just an italic impression of the greek Artemis? Is She the mother presiding an agricultural cult, or is She the untamed maiden of hunting rituals? Is She the Lady of women and witchcraft or is She connected to ancient male initiatory rites?
The goddess seems to delight in making fun of us and hiding behind the endless masks that are put on Her: elusive, and unbound, She never fails to rebel to the yoke that is forced on Her by those that can’t respect Her essential core (which is, by nature, hostile to constrictions), leaving behind Her, as object of worship, only a simulacrum of others’ ideas and beliefs.
The main cult place of Diana was situated near by the ancient town of Aricia, on the shores of lake Nemi. A place of huge historical value, where important events took place: tied to the birth of the Roman Republic and the merging with the Latin peoples, as well as the tension and the restlessness that marked the beginning of the Empire.
The sacredness of this place, however, is rooted in much more ancient times, with traces of frequentation and worship coming back at least to the Bronze Age, if not to the Neolithic.
This tendency to try to harness the nature of the goddess, to bend Her in order to appease interests or visions of the world that are at odds with each other, can be found in the academic field as well, where we find a goddess of women that was originally unrelated to hunting (as in Wissowa’s studies), or a divinity strictly connected to tribal rites of power succession or , again, a cultural impression that almost passively receives the features of foreign goddesses such as Hekate and Artemis.
Archaeological records and studies have long since demonstrated how the idea of Diana as an exclusively female-related goddess cannot be sustainable, and Frazer-insipired thesis,
based on extreme comparativism, that aimed at presenting Her as one of the many mother goddesses tied to rural cults, have been long abandoned. Even the “potnia theron” label, so popular in the
last century, is anything but clear and meaningful, from an historical point of view.
What’s left, then?
If this article peeked your curiosity and you would like to explore the answer to this question; if you want to discover the historical aspect of Diana’s cult, as well as the mystical one, you can’t miss this unique opportunity!
Giulia Turolla, the author of this piece (her short bio is at the end of the page) will be offering:
- An online webinary on the historical aspects of the cult of Diana
- A two-day workshop “Diana, the Lake and Her Mysteries”, in Portland (OR)
Giulia – a short biography
I am an Italian witch, High Priestess and teacher in the Temple of Ara tradition (Tempio di Ara, in Italy: www.tempiodiara.it) .
I graduated with honors in Archaeology and Ancient World Cultures from Alma Mater Studiorum –University of Bologna; my field of specialization is ancient magical/religious technology and culture.
I have been leading circles for the Temple of Ara since 2008 and actively teaching study groups and advanced workshops since 2012.
As an artisan, I also create shamanic and magical tools focused on European magical traditions.
R.Hutton “The Triumph of the Moon”, 1999
The geographical area between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. C.G. Leland “Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches”, 1899; “Etruscan Roman remains in popular tradition”, 1892.
R. Graves “The White Goddess”, 1948
Z. Budapest, author and activist, founder of the Dianic tradition.
M. Marconi “Riflessi mediterranei della più antica religione laziale”, 1937
Publications devulging this kind of fakelore are too numerous to be listed here.
G. Wissowa “Diana”, RE vol.5, 1905; “Religion und kultus der Romer” Munchen, 1912
Among others: C.M.C. Green “Roman religion and the cult of Diana at Aricia”, Cambridge 2007; Coarelli, Ghini, Diosono, Braconi “Il Santuario di Diana a Nemi”, 2014; F. Diosono “Nemi, nascita di un luogo sacro e del suo mito”, 2014; E. Malaspina “Diana nemorensis vs Diana aventinensis”, 1995; M. Moltesen “Diana and her followers in a late republican pediment from Nemi”, 2009; M. Nielsen and A.Rathje “Artumes in Etruria”, 2009.
M.L. Nosch “Approaches to Artemis in Bronze Age Greece”, 2009.