Lemuria (also Lemuralia) Ancient Rome’s annual threeday festival for appeasing the Lemures, the spirits of the dead, especially those of an evil nature. According to legend, the festival was inaugurated by Romulus after his murder of his brother, Remus, and was called Remuria. The festival took place on the ninth, 11th and 15th of May, which made the entire month unlucky for all sorts of activities, especially marriages.

During Lemuria, businesses and temples were closed, and people observed rituals for the dead. On the third and final day, the merchants held a festival intended to resume normal activities and help business prosper. Images made of rushes were cast into the Tiber River.

The most important ritual of Lemuria was performed during the last night by heads of households to protect their homes against Ghosts. In the middle of the night, each participant washed his hands three times, placed black beans in his mouth, and walked barefoot through the house tossing other black beans over his shoulder while calling out, “With these beans I do redeem me and mine.”

The incantation was repeated nine times without looking backward. It was thought that any ghosts present would follow along, pick up the beans and then leave until Lemuria the following year. While walking, the man also kept one hand in the sign of the horns—the thumb crossed over the two middle fingers and the index and little fingers extended—an amuletic gesture which protected him against any ghosts he might unexpectedly encounter (see AMULET; Charms AGAINST Ghosts). To close the ritual, he washed his hands again, and then banged brass cymbals while urging all uninvited spirits to depart the premises.

The ancient Greeks had a similar festival for propitiating ghosts, and the Romans absorbed some of the customs into Lemuria. The Greek observances were held over three days earlier in the year in February or March. Temples and businesses were closed. Residents were careful to avoid contact with ghosts by smearing their doors with pitch and chewing whitehorn, a type of hawthorn used in folk remedies to lower blood pressure and the heart rate (and also considered an effective amulet against vampires). On the final day, sacrifices were made to Hermes, the wing-footed messenger god who escorted the souls of the dead to Hades, and ghosts were invited to leave. See BEANS.

Further Reading:

  • Finucane, R. C. Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984.
  • Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley  – September 1, 2007