previous next


REX NEMORENSIS the priest of Diana in the grove by the lake of Nemi, near Aricia. Tradition speaks of Virbius, an ancient king of Aricia (in legend identified with Hippolytus), as founder of this priesthood (Verg. A. 7.761; Serv. ad loc.; cf. Ov. Met. 15.497, Fast. 6.756; Paus. 2.27). The peculiarity of the office lay in the fact that it was gained by killing the holder of it: the aspirant must be a fugitive; according to Pausanias, a runaway slave: he must pluck the golden bough from a tree (the oak?) in this grove (Serv. ad Aen. 6.136), and then fight with the priest, whom Strabo (v. p.239) describes as going about ever on guard with a drawn sword. If he wins in this duel, he takes the office and title of the slain: if he falls, the priesthood is unchanged, till a stronger assailant comes (cf. Suet. Cal. 35). There were probably vestal attendants on Diana (for she is spoken of as “Vesta,” Orell. Inscr. 1453), and the grove was sought by women wishing to bear children,who hung garlands and votive tablets (Ov. Fast. 3.266; Stat. Silv. 3.1, 56): at an annual purification, perhaps a harvest feast, there was a procession with blazing torches. Over all this the Rex presided, perhaps, as some think, in early times with human sacrifices akin to those of the Tauric Artemis; perhaps himself, in the last combat, the only victim. Mr. Frazer, in his Golden Bough, has with great learning and ingenuity offered an explanation of the myth. He conceives this Rex not to have been (like the REX SACRORUM) the survival, in priesthood alone, of a monarchy both temporal [p. 2.555]and priestly; but to have been originally regarded as divine, the incarnate spirit of the wood, whose office and fertilising power passed by a violent death to his successor, because his death by natural decay would have implied the wasting of the vegetable world. The golden bough is taken to be the mistletoe (cf. Plin. Nat. 16.249), therefore pointing to this grove as the seat of a primitive Aryan worship, like that which the Druids of Gaul preserved. Whether the fugitive slave represents the flight of Orestes, or some older symbolism like that of the scapegoat, is a further question, as also whether the conjunction of Diana and Virbius is to be compared with that of Isis and Osiris. For full discussion, see Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890): his arguments, by the nature of the case, must fall short of positive demonstration, but at least afford the most probable explanation which has yet been presented.


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: