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Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: April 21
Where Celebrated: Rome, Italy
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Foliage, Laurel, Olive
Related Holidays: Beltane, May Day, Midsummer Day, October Horse Sacrifice, St. George's Day


The Parilia was a festival in the ancient Roman religion, which scholards date 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.

The Parilia was a Roman agricultural festival designed to purify and protect the flocks. Pales was the protector of shepherds and their sheep, an ancient god usually regarded as male, but sometimes as female. Shepherds would pray to Pales for forgiveness if they or their sheep had unwittingly trespassed on sacred ground and frightened the woodland deities, or if they disturbed the sacred fountains or cut the branches of sacred trees. They would also pray to Pales that their sheep be kept free of disease and not fall prey to wolves or dogs, that the rainfall and vegetation would be plentiful, that many lambs would be born, and that their wool would be thick and soft. They prepared for the Parilia by cleaning and sweeping out their folds with brooms made of LAUREL twigs, by decorating their stalls with FOLIAGE and green boughs, and by hanging wreaths over the entrances. Sometimes they would burn sulphur along with OLIVE wood, laurel, and rosemary, with the smoke passing through their sheepfolds and cattle sheds to purify their flocks and herds. Or they would drive their beasts through BONFIRES , then jump over the flames themselves three times to ensure the welfare of their flocks-a practice that was common throughout Europe on EASTER, MAY DAY, and MIDSUMMER DAY. The blood that had been preserved from the OCTOBER HORSE SACRIFICE six months earlier was burned, as were bean shells and the ashes of the cattle sacrificed at the Fordicidia, the April 15 fertility festival in which unborn calves were torn from their mothers' wombs and burned. The festival would end with an open-air feast.

The Parilia was one of the oldest Roman festivals. One of the reasons why the festival remained so popular is that it fell on the day widely regarded as the birthday of the city of Rome, which was founded in 753 B . C . E . A public holiday known as the Natalis urbis Romae (birthday of the city of Rome) was observed with music, street dancing, and general revelry. ST. GEORGE'S DAY, which is believed to have been the medieval counterpart of the ancient Parilia, was also observed with revelry and dancing in the streets in honor of England's patron saint. But both of these observances had their roots in ancient fertility and purification rites involving turning the herds and flocks out to new pastures.



As a symbol of the sun, fire-in the form of bonfires, torches, burning embers, and even ashes-was believed to be capable of stimulating the growth of crops as well as the health and vigor of humans and animals. Ancient festivals observed, like the Parilia, with fire were designed to ensure the continued supply of light and heat from the sun as well as purification and the destruction of evil. As a symbol, fire combines both positive elements (heat, light) as well as negative (destruction, conflagration). To pass through the fire, as celebrants at the Parilia would do, symbolized transcending the human condition. Driving flocks through a bonfire was a well-known purification rite in ancient times, familiar from the celebration of BELTANE in Scotland and Ireland on May 1.

According to legend, Romulus, the founder of Rome, played a significant role in conducting the purification rituals of the Parilia. This is probably why April 21 was set aside not only to honor the pastoral god Pales, but also the founding of Rome.


The custom of decorating the enclosures where sheep and cattle were kept with green boughs and wreaths at the Parilia probably descended from the primitive rites used by ancient peoples to influence the gods of vegetation. It is still common to decorate houses by bringing leaves and branches indoors at certain special seasons- among them MAY DAY, MIDSUMMER DAY, the harvest, and CHRISTMAS.


Laurel leaves were prized not only for their medicinal properties but also for their ability to cleanse the soul of guilt. In ancient Rome, laurel was believed to possess the power to purge those who had shed the blood of others, and according to legend, laurel was the one tree that was never struck by lightning. By using brooms made of laurel twigs to sweep out their sheep folds, the shepherds were carrying out a symbolic purification that would guarantee the health and safety of their sheep.


For the Romans, the olive tree was associated with Pax, the goddess of peace. A messenger asking for peace or asylum often carried olive branches wrapped in wool, and wreaths made of olive or LAUREL were often used to crown the victors in military battles. As one of the ingredients in the purifying fires used on the Parilia to cleanse sheep folds and cattle stalls, olive wood was intended to protect the animals from danger and disease.


Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. Fowler, W. Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. 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. Olderr, Steven. Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1986. 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

Parilia (Palilia)

April 21
This ancient Roman festival was held in honor of Pales, the protector of shepherds and their flocks—although some say it was named after pario, meaning "to bear or increase." Pales was sometimes regarded as male, and therefore similar to Pan or Faunus, and sometimes as female, and therefore related to Vesta, or Anna Parenna ( see Anna Parenna Festival). In any case, the Parilia was a pastoral rite that was observed not only in rural areas but also in Rome, where it coincided with the city's founding in 753 b.c.e. In fact, it is believed that Romulus, one of the legendary founders of Rome, played a significant role in the cleansing and renewal rituals associated with the Parilia.
Although no sacrifices were offered, lustrations (purifying ceremonies) were carried out with fire and smoke. The blood that had been preserved from the October Horse Sacrifice six months earlier was burned, as were bean shells and the ashes of the cattle sacrificed at the Cerealia. The stables were purified with smoke and swept out with brooms. There were also offerings to Pales of cheese, boiled wine, and millet cakes. In rural areas, heaps of straw were set ablaze, and shepherds and their flocks had to pass over or through them three times. The festival ended with a huge open-air feast.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 246
ClassDict-1984, p. 437
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 845
DictRomRel-1996, p. 175
FestRom-1981, p. 103
OxYear-1999, p. 164
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
This ritual may have been comparable with Ovid's (Fasti 4.721-806) description of similar cleansing rituals performed each year on 21 April as part of the Parilia festival.
In Rome, where religion was closely tied to political power, the same applied (99-100): the Ludi Saeculares (100), the triumphal processions (100), the Cerealia (100), Fornacilia (100-01) and Parilia (101).
Even for the more familiar episodes, such as the Leto circle's antiquarian enthusiasms and their revival of the archaic festival of the Parilia, the birthday of the city, Jacks provides pertinent new findings and makes suggestive connections.