Bellona was an ancient Roman war-goddess, often likened to the similar Greek war-goddess, Enyo. As a goddess of war, Bellona was always associated with bloodshed, but by the 1st century BCE, the goddess and her cult began to take on more gruesome characteristics in Rome. This change apparently occurred when Romans encountered a certain goddess, named Ma, within the region of Cappadocia—this goddess, too, was equated to Bellona, and therefore the original Roman goddess of the same name began to be infused with characteristics of the newly-discovered Anatolian deity.
Cults of Cappadocian and Phrygian deities could often be quite bloody in the way they worshipped their gods. Another Anatolian goddess, Cybele, was a prime example, as her cult (adopted into Rome in 204 BCE) practiced bull sacrifices, self-flagellation, and even castration. As for Ma-Bellona, the cult practices carried out for that goddess seemed to not be as graphic as the rites of Cybele, yet bloodletting indeed occurred. Instead of castration or flagellation, the cult of Ma-Bellona apparently opted for the route of ceremoniously cutting their own arms. This odd form of religious expression was mentioned by the Roman poets, Albius Tibullus (c. 55-19 BCE) and Lucan (c. 39-65 CE). The latter poet’s comment was brief, as Lucan simply wrote, “Then with their lacerated arms those who placate fierce Bellona sang of the gods…” (Civil War, Book 1, approximately line 565). Tibullus’ description of a priestess of Bellona was lengthier. He wrote:
“She, when she’s inspired by Bellona’s power, fears
No fierce flames, in her madness, nor the twisted lash:
She slashes her arms fiercely with the double-axe
And, unharmed, sprinkles the goddess with flowing blood,
Stands there with a spear in her side, wounds on her breast,
And chants the fate that the great goddess proclaims:”
(Tibullus, Elegies, 1.6.44-55)
Such, then, were two ancient Roman impressions of the cult of Ma-Bellona. While it was not as gruesome or graphic as the ceremonies carried out by the worshippers of Cybele, the services of Ma-Bellona were still likely best not attended by those who faint at the sight of blood. Nevertheless, a little bloodletting does not seem surprising for ceremonies involving an ancient war goddess.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Bellona Seated on her Trophies, by Léon Davent (16th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
- From Lucan’s Civil War, translated by Matthew Fox (Penguin Classics, 2012).