(Essay) Searching for Diana by Max Dashu

After a long hiatus, I’m back to work on the manuscript—most recently on Diana: goddess of the Moon, of the ancient Sabine and Capuans, and a goddess of women and of enslaved people. With the greatly expanded reach of Google as a research tool, many topics blossom in amazing ways, but in this case I was struck by how little quality material was available. But women’s religion usually goes unattested, especially by sources as patriarchal as the classic Roman writers.

So much attention goes to the relatively late Roman legend about the rex Nemorensis (“king of Nemi”). This was supposed to be an ancient line of priests of Diana who had been fugitive slaves or criminals, and who gained the priesthood by murdering their predecessors: “who slew the slayer and shall himself be slain.” Nothing about this story, of course, fits with anything we know about Diana. James Fraser wrote about the rex Nemorensis in The Golden Bough (although he concluded that such priests actually served the forest god, not Diana).

The title comes, of course, from Diana’s oldest sanctuary of Nemi. But this story about the rex Nemorensis seems to be quite late; all the sources for it date to the 1st century CE and later. The lack of attestation for such an ancient tradition puzzled more than one scholar. “The problem is peculiarly obscure,” commented Arthur Gordon, a respected scholar of Diana, and an earlier commentator agreed: “It is curious that in none of the inscriptions that have been found is the priest of Diana mentioned…” Gordon confirmed that there was no record of such priests or what function they might have served. 1 In the 1960’s, the distinguished classicist Joseph Fontenrose was one of the first to discount the story as false. 2 Yet it continues to be told.

So where are the priestesses? The picture is murky, since the scholarly literature does not seem to mention any. But Plutarch (also a late source) tells us that no man was allowed to enter her temple, a tradition also reported for the women’s mysteries of Bona Dea. 3 We can eke out more by looking at what is known about the goddess and her temples.

Diana’s sanctuary of Nemi stood in the Alban hills. (This place was also known as Aricia, after aDiana of Nemi, threefold goddessfemale water-spirit). There, a volcanic lake lay in a crater surrounded on three sides by steep, forested cliffs. On its shores three statues of the goddess stood in a sacred grove. Later, around the 4th century BCE, a stone temple was added. Diana Nemorensis or Nemoralis (“of the sacred grove”) was related by name to the Celtic forest goddesses Nemetona, Nemetobriga, Arnemetia. All these titles refer to forest sanctuaries.

Diana had another ancient hilltop grove at Tifata, further south near Capua. This goddess was known as Diana Tifatina. On the Palatine hill in Rome, there was a sanctuary of Diana Noctiluca (“light of night”) that was kept illumined til dawn. Diana had another grove at Tibur, where she was called Opifera, “help-bringing.”4 This place was the very old shrine of the Tiburtine or Albunean sibyls, prophetic women linked to the goddess Fauna, also known as Fatua Fauna or Bona Dea, the “Good Goddess.” She was an explicitly feminist deity, called Dea feminarum, “the goddess of women,” whose myths speak to female oppression and resistance, and who was known for all-female rituals. (See “The Women’s Mysteries in Rome.”)

The name of Diana means “luminous, shining,” and comes from the same Indo-European root as our words “deity,” “divinity,” and the Latin dea (“goddess”). She is literally the Goddess. She is light and strength and the boldness of women. Her name is also related to Dione, goddess of the Greek oracular priestesses at Dodona, the “black doves” that Herodotus said had come from Thebes in Egypt. Diana also shares a common root with Jove (originally Diuve), a form of Jupiter, and with dies, Latin for “day.” The core meaning of “shining” in these names and words also describes the moon, and this is the core essence of Diana. Like many other moon goddesses, she had power in birth, life, death and the underworld.

Diana was a threefold goddess, like Hecate, with whom she was often compared and associated.5 Both goddesses hold the title Trivia, “three roads,” charged with all the magical potency of the crossroads. An inscription at Aricia does call Diana a great mistress of sorcerers, an attribute she retained into the middle ages.6 Diana, like Hecate, is a protector and defender of women.

The ancient image of Diana at Aricia was three statues linked together in front of trees, as we know from numerous coins. The trees are probably cypresses, which were connected with Diana, the dead, and chthonic spirits. This triune quality stayed with Diana; centuries later, Horace was still calling her diva triformis. 7 One of her three forms holds a bow, another a poppy, both attributes borrowed from the Greek Artemis, at least according to most of the scholars. I’m not so sure about that, given the Diana-like attributes of the Italian huntress and warrior Camilla of ancient Volscian legend. But I digress.

The triple goddess on the Arician denarii has other “un-Greek” attributes that go back to the Etruscans—like the short curly hair she sports on the obverse side of the coins. This was a commonDiana with Etruscan coiffure style for Etruscan women around 500 BCE. Later coins show Diana with loose, undressed hair that looks positively wild next to the tightly coiffed and veiled classic Roman femininity. Another striking thing about these “maiden” profiles is the witchy dragon-headed wand that appears to their left. The reverse of these coins depicts Diana as a single goddess holding a stag by its horns, in archaic Greek style, with a spear in her other hand. 8

four coins with images of Diana
Diana with maiden’s tresses and with spear and stags. Roman coins

The lake at Nemi was called the Mirror of Diana. It was fed by the spring of Egeria, another nymph who was worshipped at Nemi. Women carried torches to Egeria’s waters to pray for children and easy birth. “Almost countless clay models of the uterus have been found near her shrine, together with the torch, the symbol of midwives and of the Mater Matuta, who in the early hours of the morning opened the uterus and bade the baby come forth.” 9 Diana Lucina herself was a guardian of birthing mothers. 10 She shares this title of Lucina with Juno, another ancient Italian goddess, who goes back to the Etruscan goddess Uni.

The first Roman temple of Diana was founded on the Aventine hill, outside the city limits. It was inaugurated on August 13, the festival of Diana, back in the early days of Rome. On that day a league of the eight Latin tribes raised a bronze pillar in Diana’s new Roman precincts, inscribed with laws governing the festivals of all Latin cities. The inscription was known as the Aventine canon. All this testifies to the political and cultural importance of this goddess in ancient Latium. She oversaw political treaties between tribes, laws, and the oldest religious calendar of Rome.

However, for the Roman patricians, Diana retained a definite aura of otherness. She was and remained a foreigner to them, as a Sabine goddess and therefore a plebeian goddess—the conquered Sabines being the first settlers of the plebeian Aventine hill. And so the August 13 festival of Diana was known as servorum dies festus, “a holiday for slaves,” or simply dies servorum, “day of slaves.” 11 In this quality of compassionate protector and liberator, Diana resembles the goddess Feronia, in whose temple at Terracina slaves were emancipated. 12

Diana’s connection to slaves is one of several ways that she resembles Artemis of Ephesia, whose temple was a refuge for fugitive slaves. 13 (And this is the one aspect of the rex Nemorensis story that has some truth to it: that slaves took refuge in the temple of Diana—but not by killing each other.) Strabo related an old tradition that the statue of Aventine Diana was modeled on that of Artemis Ephesia, by way of Massilia (Marseilles). 14 An older story, going back to the 6th century, says that the Nemi sanctuary was founded by Orestes and Iphigenia, who had fled the temple of Artemis at Taurus on the Black Sea, carrying her image with them. 15 This legend is dubious, though many scholars think that Diana did take on the huntress aspect from Artemis, possibly via the Etruscans. However, Greek influences were also strong from the south, and are visible in what remains of the temple of Diana Tifatina.

But this mixture of influences is typical. We can look back and discern similar strands of transmission and exchange throughout history. They are everywhere, because culture is like a web. Look at the Sumerian theophoric name Ku-Bau, borne by a woman trader who founded a dynasty at Kish, and compare the name of her goddess (Bau) with the great Syrian goddess Kubaba of Carchemish, and the Anatolian mountain goddess and “Mother of the Gods” Kybele. The Romans brought the sacred meteorite of Kybele (Cybele as they wrote it) from her sacred mountain to their imperial capital, and from there her veneration disseminated across much of north Africa and Europe. As Kybele travelled, she exchanged titles and symbols with Isis and Juno and Tanit and Atargatis. The devotees of these goddesses recognized their commonalities in the last great flowering of the Magna Mater in the first centuries CE.

The women who came with torches to Aricia for Diana and Egeria also welcomed Isis into their sanctuary. Stone reliefs of ecstatic dancers in the Egyptian rite were raised there when Isis veneration swept across the Roman empire. Similar welcomes for Isis were rolled out at Paestum and Pompeii and other places where women reverenced the local goddess, whether Fortuna or Hera or Ceres. Britons combined Celtic veneration of ancestral Mothers with that of Minerva and Diana. At Metz and Lyons and Autun, Gaulish people honored Kybele, who was worshipped with Demeter at Eleusis, with Bona Dea near Marseilles, and with Isis in Libya.15 We’re in a similar period of cross-pollination under empire now.

It seems as if I’ve strayed from Diana, but she underwent this cultural journeying process herself, as Minerva had in an earlier period of the Roman empire, becoming syncretized with Celtic goddesses of healing springs, as Kybele also was. But somehow it was Diana who emerged in late antiquity as the quintessential pagan goddess that the Christian clergy were desperate to stamp out. Through a process of giving Roman names to everything, what scholars call the interpretatio romana, all other goddess came to be conflated under the name of Diana. It was she who was associated with ecstatic states, and those who underwent them were dubbed dianaticus or dianatica (compare lunaticus, which came to mean crazy person but originally meant someone under the influence of the moon).

It was Diana, too, who was said to lead hosts of spirits and women on shamanic flights through the night skies. The origins of this tradition in late Roman times, and their transmission through the early middle ages are most obscure and difficult to track. They are under the historical waterline, lying in the pagan corners that were kept carefully hidden from church and state. We know this much: by the ninth century, Frankish bishops were denouncing beliefs in Diana as a goddess of the witches, eager to stamp them out as “an illusion of the devil.” So Diana shines in the darkness, in the foundational myth of the European witch tradition.

Bibliographic Notes

1. Gordon, Arthur E., “On the Origin of Diana,” 186; and Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1911, “Nemorensis Lacus,” 369, which cites Strabo, Pausanius, and Servius as the first sources for the rex N. legend.

2. Fontenrose, Joseph, Ritual Theory of Myth, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966

3. Plutarch, Roman Questions, 3.

4. Noctiluca is mentioned by the old Roman writer Varro; on Opifera: Palmer, Robert E.A., Roman Religion and the Roman Empire, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974, pp. 58, 77; and Ogilvie, R.M.: Early Rome and the Etruscans, Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, 1976, pp. 65-7

5. On triune Diana and Hecate: Green, Carin M. C., Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 134; on the goddess of sorcerers: Alföldi, “Diana Nemorensis,” in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 64 No. 2, April, 1960, 141

6. Alföldi

7. Alföldi

8. Hurd-Mead, Kate Campbell, A History of Women in Medicine, from the earliest times to the beginning of the 19th century, Haddam CT: The Haddam Press, 1938, circa p. 49

9. Green, 135

10. Gordon, 185; Plutarch, Roman Questions, 3

11. Servius, ad Aen. viii. 465, in Gordon

12. Altheim, in Gordon, 185

13. Strabo, IV, 179f

14. Servius, in Gordon, 180

15. Vermaseren, Martin J., Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977, pp. 36, 133-4, 128.

(This article was first published here: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/diana.html)

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Grandma Sally Berkley
Grandma Sally Berkley

Thank You Max Dashu for commendable research on Diana…she is held close to my heart!


Interesting data about Diana here, Max. Especially the dragon wand–I did not know she had that. I’m so glad you didn’t give credence to the slave- priests-fighting-to-the-death story. I find myself bracing for this every time I read something about Diana. And I know only too well that you have to scour everywhere for tidbits about this goddess, in spite (because?) of her importance. In my book Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess, which is due out July 26th, I naturally discuss Diana quite a bit. I have an excerpt at http://invokinganimalmagic.com/excerpt.htm which mentions Diana in passing.

Donna Snyder

Dear Max, thank you for this wealth of information packed into a small package! I find that there are many, many things I did not know of Diana. Thanks, again. And as always, thank you, Sisters of the Return to Mago, for providing us this resource. Peace.

Sara Wright

I found this essay on Diana very informative and illuminating -following these threads can be very frustrating if we are trying to ground our scholarship – It’s almost as if the sources go out of their way to wipe out any traces of the goddess in whatever form. I appreciate your tenacity!