Faunus
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
Lovely nymphs flee Faunus wooing,
Through sunny fields he pursuing.
Then gently trod the tender shoot
And mind the young while cooing.
{Adopted after Horace Ode III.18]


On the Ides of February is celebrated the founding of the Temple of Faunus in 557 AUC (196 BCE) on an island in the Tiber. Little attention seems to have been paid rustic Faunus in urban Rome, and where He does appear in Latin literature He is more often identified as a kind of Pan. Even in the plastic arts, His image was changed. His older form has the ears and legs of horses, when later His identification with Pan had His image altered to a goat-footed figure, yet retaining the long ears of a horse. In Pompeian paintings fauni are seen as men, identifiable only by their long ears, and sometimes with a long, thin, winding penis. In Roman art and literature He is celebrated mostly as a lecherous rustic spirit, somewhat comic and inept. The most common scenes have Him with dryads, but often He is surprised to find an hermaphrodite instead. Where else He appears in Rome is with the Bona Dea when She is identified with Fauna. In that story He appears as a drunken father who beats his daughter Fauna when she refused his incestuous advances. In urban Rome then He became a kind of rustice pudor, or symbol for a rude rustic's embarrassment when attempting his crude wiles on the sophisticated ladies of the city.

But in rural areas, and without Greek influence on His attributes, Faunus played a more important role. About the time Faunus was introduced into Rome with His Tiberine temple in 196 BCE, Cincius Alimentus connected Him with the legend of Evander and with the Lupercalia (Servius commenting on Virgil’s Georgic I.10). Later, Ovid was the only other source that identifies the god of the Lupercalia [15 February] as Faunus (Fasti 2.361), but there may be some truth in that since this was a festival that extended back to a much earlier time of pastoralism. Faunus was a god of the wilds, of mountain pastures and forests, and a god of fertility among pasturalists, who was also seen as a protector of herdsmen and their herds. His sexual encounters with the dryads produced the forests which in an earlier time provided fodder for the herds (elm leaves) and meal for men (acorns), as well as the medicinal herbs of the earliest Italic treatments (see Pliny N. H. XXIV) and the herbs of purification. “In these woodlands once dwelt native Fauns and Nymphs, a race of men sprung from tree-stocks and with stubborn oaken hearts (Virgil Aeneid VIII. 314).” His name was connected by Servius with favere to be the "kind and propitious one" much like Faustus and Faustulus. He might also be associated with Favonius, god of gentle purifying winds, who traditionally arrived on 7 February. Faunus' main rustic festival, the Faunalia, fell on the Nones of December and He also had a festival on the Nones of February. There is some thought, expressed by Probus, that just as the Kalends of each month were dedicated to Juno, and all the Ides to Jupiter, the Nones belonged to Faunus. “In Italia quidam annum sacrum, quidam menstruum celebrant (Probus on Virgil Georgic 1.10).” This whole period then, from the Nones Februalis through the Lupercalia, may at one time have been dedicated to Faunus.

We should then consider another aspect of Faunus and Roman cultus in general, that of purification. The herbs of purification in the most remote period were those of forest pines and junipers that can be seen as products of Faunus (Ovid Fasti 2.25-30). Faunus was Himself a deity of purification with respect to pastoral herds. His main festival was held on the Nones of December when odore or sweet herbs of forest pastures were offered as incense along with sacrifices of a kid and wine. Afterwards a dance in triple measure like that of the Salii was held. His association with the Lupercalia as a rite of purification of the community as well can be seen as an outgrowth from the earlier rural rites transformed into an urban setting. His association with February’s purification rites, and if with the Nones in general, then also as a god of purification of the house, may indeed indicate that one of His main aspects in a very early period was as the god of purification.

Another important aspect of Faunus is that of prophecy. Varro connected His name with fari, i. e. "the speaker or fortuneteller." Ovid tells a story (Fasti 3.291-326) where Numa lays out an offering for Faunus and Picus in a sacred oak grove beneath the Aventine then lies in wait to seize the gods. As Ovid tells it, "Faunus and Picus can tell you the rite of appeasement...they won't tell you it without force, however: capture and bind them." There are similar stories of the requirement to capture divinities or prophets before they will reveal their secrets. One Etruscan mirror depicts Cacus and Artile in a grove reading from a book on divination, Faunus is in the background, and Caeles and Aulus Vibenna approach to capture them (Bolsena mirror, BM Br 633, 1873.8-20.105; CIE 10854). In a different story (Fasti 4.641-672) Numa enters a sacred grove of Faunus for a ritual of prophecy. Twin sheep are sacrificed, the first to Faunus, the other to Sleep, and their fleeces spread on the ground. Numa cleanses himself with pure spring water and adorns a chaplet of beech leaves, then lies on the fleece to await Faunus for a prophetic dream, in the manner of an "incubation". Virgil provides a similar story and rite (Aeneid VII.81 foll.). There were in Italy several sacred groves dedicated to Faunus, in which oracles could be heard on the wind.

Two things about these various aspects of Faunus. W. W. Fowler, after Scaliger, Nettle and Preller, pose that the fauni and Faunus refer to an ancient race of mountain herders settled in the Apennines during the Bronze Age, and that agriculturists would sometimes capture them to reveal secrets. He also cites Cicero and Livy of telling how Roman armies would often hear voices in woodlands warning them to move on, which Fowler suggests were a primitive aboriginal race (Roman Festivals 259; 262-65), or that they were a group of shamen within an earlier race. He quotes Scaliger, "The Fauni were a class of men who exercised, at a very remote period, the same functions which belonged to the Magi of Persia, and to the Bards of Gaul." There is a parallel to this idea with the way the Romans thought of the Marsi possessing secret knowledge and herbal lore.

Taking these matters together, the wild nature of Faunus, purification using a product from mountain forests, prophecy in dreams, and the danger posed towards women, all points toward a special herb associated with Faunus. It was believed to be very dangerous for women to enter a forest alone, less they would fall prey to the sexual proclivities of Faunus. He is often referred to as an incubus in that regard. In the story of Fauna, Faunus offers wine as a means to seduce Her, then beats Her with myrtle branches when She refused, and for that reason neither wine nor myrtle were permitted in Her rites. We might look closer at myrtle's association with Venus, lovemaking and wine drinking, and its many uses among the Greeks including prophecy, and even its association with the Eleussian mysteries. But myrtle would not seem to be an herb to induce sleep for prophecy or for debauching women. Instead, the herb associated with Faunus was the peony. Called a blessed herb, it was sometimes used to induce labor, and as it is highly poisonous, it was mentioned by Oribasius (in the time of Julian the Blessed) as an abortive. In the earlier period, however, its seeds were worn as an amulet for childbirth. Newborns were likewise given a necklace of peony seeds as a protection against the evil eye. The seeds soaked in rain water were also used as an amulet to protect shepherds, flocks, and crops, as it was thought to ward off witchcraft, storms, and nightmares. Pliny (N. H. XXV. 10) mentions the peony as native to "umbrageous mountain localities" and protected by woodpeckers, both associating it with Faunus. (Picus, the father of Faunus, was said to have been changed into a woodpecker by Circe.) He also recommends peonies as a "preservative against the illusions practiced by the fauni." That would seem to counter the idea of peonies being used for prophetic dreams, but then Pliny does not mention how they might have been used. We know of its ingestion and the danger that caused pregnant women, but men would not be affected. It was once ingested in treatments for kidneys and other ailments. That practice is not recommended now because of the poisonous nature of peonies, but for the same reason it may have once been used to induce a state of sleep for prophecy or otherwise.

M Horatius Piscinus
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