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Saint Cecilia and the Bona Dea

Gregory DiPippo

Today, the Lenten station in Rome is kept at the basilica in the Trastevere region dedicated to St Cecilia, the patron Saint of musicians. She was a Roman noblewoman martyred for the Faith around the year 220, and the traditional account of her life states that she requested the contemporary Pope, St Urban I, to consecrate her house as a church after she had received the crown of martyrdom. While the historicity of all the details concerned with Cecilia and her martyrdom is highly doubtful, there can be no doubt that the church is one of the oldest Christian sites in the city, and was certainly an important parish already in the 5th century.

In the traditional Roman Rite, the Epistle on this day is taken from the deuterocanonical additions to the book of Esther, the only reading from that book in the Missal. In chapter 13 (vss. 9-11 and 15-17), Mardochai prays for the delivery of the Jewish people from their enemy Haman, who has arranged for the Persian Emperor to order the massacre of all the Jews in his dominions.

“In diébus illis: Orávit Mardochaeus ad Dóminum, dicens: Dómine, Dómine, Rex omnípotens, in dicióne enim tua cuncta sunt pósita, et non est, qui possit tuae resístere voluntáti, si decréveris salváre Israël. Tu fecisti caelum et terram, et quidquid caeli ámbitu continétur. Dóminus omnium es, nec est, qui resistat maiestáti tuae. Et nunc, Dómine Rex, Deus Abraham, miserére pópuli tui, quia volunt nos inimíci nostri pérdere, et hereditátem tuam delére. Ne despicias partem tuam, quam redemisti tibi de Aegypto. Exaudi deprecatiónem meam, et propitius esto sorti et funículo tuo, et converte luctum nostrum in gaudium, ut viventes laudémus nomen tuum, Dómine, et ne claudas ora te canentium, Dómine, Deus noster.

In those days, Mardochai prayed to the Lord, saying, ‘O Lord, Lord, almighty king, for all things are in thy power, and there is none that can resist thy will, if thou determine to save Israel. Thou hast made heaven and earth, and all things that are under the cope of heaven. Thou art Lord of all, and there is none that can resist thy majesty. And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish thy inheritance. Despise not thy portion, which thou hast redeemed for thyself out of Egypt. Hear my supplication, and be merciful to thy lot and inheritance, and turn our mourning into joy, that we may live and praise thy name, O Lord, and shut not the mouths of them that sing to thee, O Lord, our God.’ ”

Esther and Mardochai Write the First Purim Letter, 1675, by the Dutch painter Aert de Gelder (1645-1727); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Originally, however, this reading began with the words, “In those days, Esther prayed to the Lord, saying…”, despite the fact that it is Mardochai who offers this prayer in the Bible. This probably seemed like nothing more than a mistake to the editors who reformed the Missal at the behest of Pope St Pius V, and so “Esther” was changed to “Mardochai” in the edition which he promulgated in 1570, to conform the reading to the Biblical text. Subsequently, archeological research has revealed that the original reading was actually quite deliberate.

In 1744, three inscriptions were found very close to the basilica, each of which refers to the presence of a small shrine of the “Bona Dea”, as she was called, “the good goddess.” Although she was quite popular in ancient Rome, we know very little about her, since it was forbidden to write down any of what took place at her two annual festivals. In point of fact, “Good Goddess” is a euphemistic name, since men were absolutely excluded from any participation in either of her two festivals, and not allowed to speak or even know her true name. One of these festivals was held at a temple dedicated to her on the Aventine hill, the other in the house of the senior magistrate of the Republic, presided over by his wife. A famous episode of the late Roman Republic, involving all of the leading political figures of the day, including Cicero, Pompey and Julius Caesar, took place when these rites were held in the latter’s house in 62 BC. A man named Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman in an attempt to sneak into the rites and seduce Caesar’s wife, creating an enormous and long-lasting scandal.

The Bona Dea was a goddess very much associated with female chastity, and therefore, anything to do with the goddess of sexual desire, Venus, was also removed from the house where the rites of the Bona Dea were held. This included any statues and images of Venus, and most particularly the plant myrtle, which was woven into crowns and worn on the head by her worshippers at her principal festivals.

It might seem that by taking the words of a man and putting them in the mouth of a woman, the Church had somehow adopted or absorbed an aspect of the Bona Dea cult when reading them at the basilica of St Cecilia right next door to her shrine. However, the exact opposite is the case. In the Biblical book, chapter 2, verse 7, states that Esther, who becomes the Queen of Persia, and saves the Jews from Haman, was called “Hadassah,” (הֲדַסָּה) which is the Hebrew word for “myrtle”, the plant of Venus that was excluded from the rites of the Bona Dea. This reading would therefore be a deliberate critique of the cultus of the Bona Dea, and a statement of rejection of the many pagan cults that excluded one class of persons or another, while Christianity accepted all persons without regard to their class, status, or condition of life.

By coincidence, this evening is the beginning of the feast of Purim, by which the Jewish people commemorate their deliverance from destruction as recounted in the book of Esther. This feast has sometimes been described as the Jewish Mardi Gras. It has been a common custom since the late 15th century for people to dress up in costume on Purim, as it was formerly very common to do during the Catholic carnival. During the liturgy of Purim, the whole Biblical story of Esther is read at one go; harsh-sounding rattles are passed to out to all the children, and each time the name of Haman, the villain of the story, is said, they use them to drown it out. To all our Jewish readers, Chag Purim Sameach!

(A building in the city of Hamadan in west-central Iran, traditionally venerated as the tomb of Esther and Mardochai. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Philippe Chavin: CC BY-SA 3.0)

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