The Rex Nemorensis – King of the Wood: The Ghastly Priest who Slew the Slayer

Image by Gerson Martinez from Pixabay

“From the still glassy lake that sleeps

Beneath Aricia’s trees

Those trees in whose dim shadow

The ghastly priest doth reign,

The priest who slew the slayer,

And shall himself be slain” (1)

Thomas Babbington Macaulay

These words by Thomas Babbington Macaulay succinctly sum up the deadly duel of life and death to decide the Rex Nemorensis, the legendary High Priest of Diana Nemorensis of the Sacred Grove of Lake Nemi.   The  Rex Nemorensis was a shadowy figure in ancient Greek and Roman myth and legend. Most versions of his story agree that he earned his title and role by winning a fight to the death to become the “ghastly priest” of the above verse. Here we shall briefly discuss the mythical goddess of the Sacred Grove, Diana Nemorensis, followed by a look at her high priest and his deadly duel, followed by a look at the possible origins of the cult. Finally, there will be a brief discussion centered on “The Golden Bough,” a work by Sir James George Frazer inspired by the legendary Rex Nemorensis.

Diana’s Mirror

Diana Nemorensis was an important goddess in ancient times whose sanctuary and temple were situated on the northern shore of Lake Nemi.   The lake has been referred to as “speculum Dianae” which means “Diana’s Mirror”.   The important Roman festival of Nemoralia was held on the site. 

There were also other lesser deities associated with her and the Sacred Grove.  These were Egeria, who was the spirit of a nearby stream who also shared with Diana the protection of childbirth.   The other was Virbius, the Roman counterpart of the Greek Hippolytus. A third goddess possibly worshiped at the Sacred Grove was Vesta. She was believed to have eventually become conflated with the goddess Artemis.

The Rex Nemorensis

According  to legend,  the cult of Diana Nemorensis was recognized as one of the most ruthless, brutal and mysterious cults of ancient Rome.  The high priest who was said to have presided over her rituals was known as the ‘King of the Sacred Grove’ or the ‘King of the Wood,’ or more famously the ‘Rex Nemorensis.’   According to some traditions the cult was populated by fugitives or runaway slaves who had dedicated themselves to the worship of Diana. However, there is little evidence to support this, though the role of the Rex is linked to such outsiders.

Tradition says growing inside the grove was a huge oak tree.  It was strictly forbidden for anyone to break a branch off this special tree and it was guarded to prevent this.  The only exception to this rule were runaway slaves or fugitives.  If one succeeded they were rewarded with the right to challenge the incumbent high-priest to a duel to the death.  If the incumbent killed his challenger he remained in his post and lived.  If his challenger killed the incumbent he became “the ghastly priest who slew the slayer” –  the new Rex Nemorensis – High Priest of Diana, King of the Grove, King of the Wood and Guardian of the Sacred Grove, but it came with a high price.  

Having fought for and won the post he had to remain on his guard for the rest of his life.  Should a runaway slave, or fugitive, make it to the oak and break a branch off then that slave then earned the right to fight him for his titles and his life as he had done his predecessor.  The victor would become the Rex Nemorensis, until he too was defeated, with his conqueror taking his place. There could only ever be only one Rex Nemorensis.

This murderous cycle ensured that that incumbent high-priest was always kept at the pinnacle of his powers.  As the Rex Nemorensis he was the embodiment of fertility of nature and the woods.  As such he could not succumb to either illness or old age.  Death had to be violent because the spilling of blood on the ground was seen as necessary to bring fertility to the earth.  Despite the certainty of meeting a violent death it did at least offer sanctuary, albeit temporarily, to any such fugitive.

The Cult of Diana Nemorensis

The cult of Diana Nemorensis was very ancient and its beginnings are shrouded in myth and legend.  Many scholars think that it had its roots in ancient Greece.  There are two Greek traditions of how the cult originated. One traces its origins through the story of Orestes and Iphegenia, while the other is based on the tradition of Hippolytus.

Lake Nemi by John Robert Cozens – Public domain

Orestes and Iphegenia

The first account tells how Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, a king of Mycenae and his wife Clytemnestra, brought the cult of Diana Nemoresis to Italy.   On discovering his mother’s affair with Aeegistus, Orestes murders him to avenge his father who is on his way to fight the Trojans.   Orestes was told by the god Apollo to go to Tauris to purify himself as an act of atonement.  In Tauris, Artemis was a revered goddess and it was the custom for any foreigners landing upon the shores to be brought to her temple to be ritually sacrificed before her effigy by the high priestess.

On his arrival Orestes was taken before the High Priestess of Artemis to be prepared for sacrifice.   Fortunately for him she was his long lost sister who he believed had been sacrificed by their father.  She had been saved from this fate by the goddess Artemis and transported to Tauris where she was set in place as the high priestess of her cult.  Recognizing Orestes, Iphegenia could not kill her brother and by deceiving Thoas, the King of Tauris, they both escaped by ship taking with them the effigy of Artemis.  They sailed around the coastline finding their way to the south of Italy, finally making their way to Nemi and settling there.

With the theft of the effigy of Artemis and their escape from Tauris, Orestes and Iphegenia had placed themselves outside of society and the laws as they stood and were effectively fugitives.  Once they became established at Lake Nemi, the cult grew in popularity and strength.  Unlucky foreigners who landed on the shores were brought inland to Nemi for sacrifice. Eventually the tradition evolved so that runaway slaves and fugitives could claim the right to fight the incumbent high priest and claim his position.

The Story of Hippolytus

Death of Hippolytus – Lawrence Alma-Tadema – Public domain

The second version of the origin of the Rex Nemorensis tells how Hyppolytus, the son of Theseus, became the first Rex Nemorensis.   His step-mother was Phaedra who made sexual advances towards him which he rejected.  To gain revenge she accused him of raping her.  He was cursed and banished by his outraged father and was dragged to death by his chariot’s horses after they had been frightened by a sea monster sent by Poseidon.   Ascelapius, the god of medicine, with help from the goddess Artemis returned him to life as an old man named Virbio (Vir bis is Latin for man for the second time) to prevent him being recognized. He was taken to Lake Nemi where he was installed as high priest of the cult of Diana, becoming known as Virbius. Pausanius in his “Description of Greece,” says,

“The Aricians tell a tale … that when Hippolytus (the son of Theseus) was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters.” (2)

The Golden Bough

The legend was the inspiration for The Golden Bough, a comparative work of religion and mythology by Sir James George Frazer first published in 1890. Although the book was influential in its time many of the ideas he proposed are not accepted by many modern scholars.  He appears to have expected this saying, 

“Books like mine, merely speculation, will be superseded sooner or later (the sooner the better for the sake of truth) by better induction based on fuller knowledge.” (3)

Maybe he saw his role as starting the conversation for others to continue.   Many of his contemporaries appeared rather disappointed with his success and popularity though his ideas were very controversial.  Fraser appeared to favor Virbius as the origin of the legend of the Rex Nemorensis,

 “In his character of the founder of the sacred grove and first king of Nemi, Virbius is clearly the mythical predecessor or archetype of the line of priests who served Diana under the title of Kings of the Wood, and who came, like him, one after the other, to a violent end. It is natural, therefore, to conjecture that they stood to the goddess of the grove in the same relation in which Virbius stood to her; in short, that the mortal King of the Wood had for his queen the woodland Diana herself.” (4)

 Whether the legendary Rex Nemorensis was a real historical figure is difficult to say and many think not. Nevertheless, he still cuts a dramatic figure lurking in the darkness of the sacred groves at the back of our minds.

© 29/04/2020 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 4th, 2020 zteve t evans

Folklore, Superstitions and Customs around Hertfordshire Puddingstone

Image by Chris Reynolds – CC BY-SA 2.0

Puddingstone Folklore

Hertfordfordshire puddingstone is mostly found in areas of England in the county of Hertfordshire and  Plumstead Common in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in south-east London. It is a conglomerate silicrete composed of pebbles embedded in a mass of silica making it very hard and enduring.   There are different types made of different materials from different regions. Here we look at the folklore, traditions and superstitions that have become associated with Hertfordshire Puddingstone.  

Supernatural Qualities

In folklore and tradition Hertfordshire puddingstone was believed to possess certain supernatural qualities and local people long believed it protected against witchcraft.  According to the parish records of the village of Aldenham in 1662 a local witch had a piece of puddingstone placed upon her coffin lid before it was covered over to prevent her from returning from the dead (1). Because of the supernatural connotations it was also given various names reflecting this. For example it was also known as Witch stone, Hag stone, or Woe stone.

However, there was a less sinister side to puddingstone, though arguably more bizarre.  Although geologists are not in exact agreement how puddingstone was formed local people believed it grew from the ground and gave birth to new stones which also grew and gave birth. Proof of this was seen when it was split open revealing many smaller pebbles and stones stuck together inside and was called the Breeding stone.  Because it appears out of the ground and said to grow it was called the Growing stone. A piece of puddingstone was given to the happy couple at weddings possibly to promote their fertility and bring luck.

This tendency for it to appear from the ground made it troublesome for arable farmers who can damage their ploughs upon it but its association with breeding makes it a good luck charm for dairy farmers  and it was believed to increase milk production. Pieces of it were kept in the milking shed for this purpose.

Uses for Puddingstone

Puddingstone was used in construction of the Church of St John the Baptist. (2), During Roman times it was used as a millstone for grinding corn.  It was later built into the walls of a number of Hertfordshire churches such as the tower of the church of St. Nicholas in Harpenden.  Nevertheless, it was not widely used for building because although it was a good material it was scarce. 

Puddingstone was used for grave markers and coffin stones and it was placed on top of the coffin to protect the deceased from evil spirits.  It was also used in this way to ensure witches could not come back from the dead. In the churchyard of Great Gaddesden there are still large pieces of puddingstone marking the graves.

 Despite having an unattractive  surface similar to concrete when it was sliced and polished it became something very attractive and desirable.  After it had been sliced and highly polished the sliced surface displayed a variety of multicolored pebbles turning it into a very attractive and beautiful material.  In Victorian times it was made into ornaments, jewellery and small table tops (3).

Lucky Charms

There are many superstitions centered on puddingstone and local people often used pieces of it for a good luck charm.  Because of its associations with good fortune it was also placed in doorways and gate posts. People also carried a small piece in their pockets for luck.

Names of Puddingstone

As well as those already mentioned, Puddingstone has many alternative names that reflect the use it was put to.  For example, to ward against witches it was called Witchstone or Hagstone. For good luck and positive purposes it was called Angel stone. It was also known as Plum puddingstone because it looks like a plum or Christmas pudding when sliced.

© 08/4/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 8th, 2020 zteve t evans

Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

This article was first published #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty on 21/06/2018 by zteve t evans

Elen of the Dream

Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further.  She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute.  Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully  encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?

Who was Elen?

Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.

She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.

There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.

Elen’s Power

From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …

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