The Robigalia, was instituted by Numa Pompilius, the second legendary king of Rome -- who was said to have been taught wisdom and law by the nymph Egeria (1) -- during the eleventh year of his singularly benevolent reign. This annual Roman festival intended to conciliate Robigus, the god of rust, started with a procession that left Rome by the Flamian gate, crossed the Milvian bridge, and proceeded to the fifth milestone on the Claudian Way where, in a sacred grove, the priest (flamen Quirenalis (2)) made sacrifices. Ovid (3) in his Fasti (4) [iv, 901-942], describes these as follows (5):
When April shall have six days left, the season of spring
will be in mid-course, and in vain will you look for
the ram of Helle, daughter of Athamas; the rains will
be your sign and the constellation of the Dog Star
Sirius (6) will rise.
0n that day as I was returning from Nomentum to Rome, a white-robed crowd blocked the middle of the road. A priest [flamen] was on his way to the grove of ancient Robigo (7) to throw the entrails of a [reddish] dog and the entrails of a sheep into the flames. Straightway I went up to him to inform myself of the rite. Your priest, Quirinus, intoned these words: " Harsh Robigo, spare the sprouting grain and let the unblemished tops quiver above the ground. Let the crops, nursed by the heaven's propitious stars, grow till they are ripe for the sickle. Yours is no feeble power: the grain on which you have branded your mark the husbandman gives up for lost. Not the winds, nor the showers, nor the glistening frost that nips the sallow grain, harm it so much as when the sun warms the wet stalks; then, dread goddess, is it the hour you wreck your wrath. Spare, I pray, and take your scabby hands from off the harvest: Harm not the tilth; be it enough that you have the power to harm. Grip not the tender crops but rather grip the hard iron. Forestall the destroyer. Better that you should gnaw at swords and baneful weapons. There is no need of them: the world is at peace. Now let the rustic gear, the rakes and the hard hoe and the curved share be burnished bright; but let the rust defile the arms and when one essays to draw the sword from the scabbord let him feel it stick from long disuse. But do not profane the grain and ever may the husbandman be able to pay his vows to you in your absence." So he spoke. On his right hand hung a towel with a loose nap and he had a bowl of wine and a casket of incense. The incense and wine and sheep's guts and the foul entrails of a filthy dog he put upon the hearth -- we saw him do it. Then he said to me: "You ask why an innocent victim is assigned to these rites?" Indeed. I had asked the question. "Learn the cause." the priest said. "There is a Dog (they call it the Icarian (8) dog), and when that constellation rises the earth is parched and dry, and the crop ripens too soon. This dog is put on the altar instead of the starry dog, and the only reason for sacrificing him is his name."
1. Bullfinch, T. 1861. The Age of Fable. S.W.Tilton: Boston.
Frazer, J. G. 1951. The Golden Bough. Macmillan: New York.
See also: Ainsworth, G. C. 1976. Introduction to the History of Mycology. Cambridge University Press: London
2. Quirinus was a very old diety whom the ancients looked on as a war-god.
3. Ovid, a Roman poet, lived during the years 43 BC - 12 AD.
4. In Rome, fasti were working days when the law courts were open. Pewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 9th ed. Harper & Row: New York.
5.Translation (with modifications) and other general information from: Frazer, J. G. 1929. The Fasti of Ovid. 5 vols. Macmillan: London.
6. According to the Romans the dog-star Sirius, the Brightest star in the sky, rising with the sun added to its heat, and the dog-days [about 3 July to 11 August] bore the combined heat of the dog-star and the sun.
7. Ovid, contrary to the weight of contemporary evidence, interpreted the deity as a goddess.
8. Icarius, the constellation Boötes, rises in July a little before the dog-star.