(redirected from Lemuria (festival))
Also found in: Wikipedia.

Lemuralia (Lemuria)

Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: May 9, 11, 13
Where Celebrated: Rome, Italy
Symbols and Customs: Beans, Lemures
Related Holidays: All Souls' Day, Setsubun


Lemuralia was a holiday in the ancient Roman religion, which scholars date back to the sixth century B . C . E . Roman religion dominated Rome and influenced territories in its empire until Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the third century C . E .

Ancient Roman religion was heavily influenced by the older Greek religion. Roman festivals therefore had much in common with those of the ancient Greeks. Not only were their gods and goddesses mostly the same as those in the Greek pantheon (though the Romans renamed them), but their religious festivals were observed with similar activities: ritual sacrifice, theatrical performances, games, and feasts.

In ancient Rome, where even-numbered days were considered unlucky, the festival of the dead known as the Lemuralia was held on May 9, 11, and 13. It was established by Romulus, one of the legendary founders of Rome, to atone for killing his twin brother, Remus. Legend has it that when Romulus was raising the walls of Rome, Remus-who had been defeated in choosing the city's location- jumped over the wall in a gesture of scorn, for which his brother killed him.

The Lemures were the wandering spirits of the dead, who returned to visit and sometimes to threaten their kinfolk. To ward them off, the father or head of the household would get up at midnight, make a special gesture (holding his thumb between his closed fingers), wash his hands in pure water, and walk through the house spitting black BEANS from his mouth. He would repeat this ritual nine times without looking back, assuming that the ghosts of the dead would pick up the beans he left behind. Then he would wash his hands again and repeat the phrase "Ghosts of my fathers, be gone" nine times. After this, it was considered safe for him to look back, and all the ghosts would be gone.

The Lemuralia was a private and domestic rite rather than a public celebration. It was similar to the Parentalia observed in February (see LEMURES ), but probably descended from a more ancient, superstitious period in Roman history. The February celebration in honor of the dead was more cheerful and civilized, while the Lemuralia was rooted in a time when fear of the dead was a powerful factor in most people's minds. The custom of ridding the house of spirits may have evolved from the periodic expulsion of demons performed on behalf of the community. May was considered an appropriate time to get rid of these demons because they were more likely to be rampant at the turn of the year in spring.

Temples were closed and marriages were prohibited during the three days of the Lemuralia. On the third day, a merchants' festival was held to ensure a prosperous year for business.



Beans were associated with ghosts, witches, and supernatural spirits in ancient times. If a person dreamed about black beans, it was supposed to mean that grave danger awaited him or her. Sometimes beans were regarded as taboo, and priests would not touch them or even mention them-probably because of their associaLemuralia

tion with the powers of the underworld. But their significance is uncertain; they may have been fertility symbols, or possibly surrogates for living family members, whom ghosts might try to snatch away.

Why would the ghosts of the dead pick up the beans scattered through the house at the Lemuralia? There is some reason to believe that by eating this traditional symbol of fertility, the ghosts hoped to obtain a new lease on life. It is also possible that people believed the souls of the dead resided in the beans. In any case, spitting beans was a widely used remedy against ghosts among the ancient Greeks and Romans. People often threw black beans on the graves of the deceased or burned them, as the dead were supposed to be unable to tolerate the smell.

The Japanese have a similar ceremony for driving out demons. On February 3, the head of the household puts on his best clothes and goes through all the rooms at midnight, scattering roasted beans and saying, "Out, demons! In, luck!" (see SETSUBUN ).


Lemures is a general term for spirits after they have left the body, while those who haunt houses are called larvae. Both are considered hostile ghosts, unlike the manes, who were the benign spirits honored at the Parentalia in February. Both the lemures and the larvae terrified the good and haunted the wicked. The custom of celebrating festivals in their honor appears to have been instituted by Romulus, who wanted to appease the ghost of his twin brother, Remus. In fact, the Lemuralia (or Lemuria) was originally known as the Remuria.

The Lemures were believed to be particularly restless in May, which is probably why this month was considered an unlucky time to get married.


Bell, Robert E. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1982. Fowler, W. Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. James, E.O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Lemprière, John. Lemprière's Classical Dictionary. Rev. ed. London: Bracken, 1994. Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


May 9, 11, 15
In ancient Rome the lemures were the ghosts of the family's dead, who were considered to be troublesome and therefore had to be exorcized on a regular basis. The lemures were generally equated with larvae or evil spirits, although some people believed that the lemures included the lares, or "good spirits," as well ( see Larentalia).
The Lemuralia or Lemuria was a yearly festival held on the ninth, 11th, and 15th of May to get rid of the lemures. Supposedly introduced by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, after he killed his twin brother Remus, this festival was originally called the Remuria . Participants walked barefoot, cleansed their hands three times, and threw black beans behind them nine times to appease the spirits of the dead. On the third day of the festival, a merchants' festival was held to ensure a prosperous year for business. The period during which the Lemuralia was held—the entire month of May—was considered to be an unlucky time for marriages.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 333
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 123, 613
DictRomRel-1996, p. 131
FestRom-1981, p. 118
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 110
OxYear-1999, p. 201
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.