The goddess Bona Dea has been worshipped in Rome since about the 3rd century BC. One of the goddesses merged with her was probably the Greek goddess Hygieia, who was responsible for the health of women – and thus also for fertility.
An animal that is directly or indirectly connected to all these goddesses is the snake. Bona Dea statues and pictures show not only a snake but also (usually) a “cornucopia”, an object that is actually attributed to the goddess Fortuna. This goddess also has a Greek origin (Tyche) and possible overlaps with Bona Dea.
There are further references and connections to Fauna, Ceres, Terra, Ops, Kybele… a blog entry would be worthwhile, but given the extent of this, I will limit myself today to the two first mentioned goddesses: Hygieia and Fortuna and their main attributes, snake, and cornucopia.
On the internet you will find – besides Wikipedia – a lot of information about the goddess and what “de facto” was handed down.
Here are some examples of quite extensive compilations (primarily in German):
One can even find the beginning of a dissertation on Bona Dea and her cult online.
It is remarkable that this goddess is still receiving such a great response – or again (in the age of the Internet) today. This is probably due to the fact that you have relatively much and secure information about her. The Bona Dea temple in Rome was located from the 3rd century B. C. to the 4th century A. D., covering a period of 700 years.
Bona Dea (or Ceres). By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Marble statue of Demeter-Ceres or Bona Dea (The Good Goddess), Nîmes Archaeology Museum, France, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link
Because the cult was secret, many legends entwine around Bona Dea. Sometimes she is considered the wife of the Faunus, sometimes as his daughter. She was said to be so shy that she never left the house, but got drunk with wine at home because she was so bored. Faunus was furious and beat her to death with myrtle branches. Later he repented of his deed and deified his wife.
As the daughter of Faunus, Bona Dea had it even harder for her own father followed her, and she was only safe from him when she turned into a serpent.
There is also the variant in which Bona Dea is the sister of Faunus.
Aesculapius and Hygieia. By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/23/e8/bf37ac7142c9354f84444d1c23f5.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0036061.html, CC BY 4.0, Link
Hygieia was the daughter of Aesculapius, the god of healing art, and is invoked in the Hippocratic oath. This oath is used in Germany only as a moral-ethical yardstick, but since antiquity and also today in the USA it is also a solemn “oath” in the classical sense, which is read aloud when graduating from medical courses of study.
There are no dramatic stories about Hygieia, but this goddess also has several “own” connections to e. g. Salus, Sirona, or to all these here. 😉
Both Hygieia and Aeskulap (Aeskulap Staff) were associated with snakes as symbolic animals.
In the temple of Bona Dea there are said to have been even tame snakes.
The snake is a very interesting symbolic animal, its mythical existence even dates back to pre-worldly – paradisiacal – times.
It was the snake who allegedly encouraged Eve to bite into the apple of knowledge and then pass it on to poor, innocent Adam. 😉
Hercules (an ancient hero who will be mentioned below) is said to have strangled with his bare hands two snakes sent by his stepmother Hera/Juno to kill him.
Hercules as a baby.
By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14763741315/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/barclaysuniversa00barc/barclaysuniversa00barc#page/n501/mode/1up, No restrictions, Link
The Old Testament or the story in the first book of Moses was written in Hebrew, a language in which “the serpent” is masculine. It is called נחשׁ = nâchâsh, which sometimes serves as an explanation for the fact that the snake according to the translation of Seebass turns to the woman and not to Adam.
Adam’s first wife, Lilith, is also often associated with snakes.
That Adam had a first wife is told in the Talmud (a kind of commentary on the Tanach/Old Testament). The story – as absurd as it is true – goes as follows: Since there are two reports of creation in the Bible (once man/woman are created at the same time 1 Genesis 1:27, once Eve emerges from the rib of Adam 1 Genesis 2:26), an explanation was needed. The explanation was: Adam had a first wife, Lilith, with whom he had argued. It was supposedly about which of the two was allowed to have the upper hand (in sex). Lilith wanted to be on top, Adam too, but that didn’t work out, so Lilith decided to abandon paradise and leave Adam to himself. So the story was about who rules over whom or who is in charge.
Adam, Eve and Lilith (the snake). By Hugo van der Goes – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link
The core of this biblical story, if you like, can also be found in the goddess Bona Dea. Because their festivities were only open to women – and there is also the peculiarity that the celebrating women refused to give the hero Hercules something to drink (maybe because he killed two snakes as a baby?). Hercules then ordered women to be excluded from the festivities at his altar (ara maxima).
The offerings were also for the first time (?) only addressed to Hercules himself, since no other gods were allowed to be worshipped. In the course of time, rich patrician families at the ara maxima made sacrifices mainly for financial affairs, up to 10% of the profit of the trade was donated. There was a huge banquet, of which Crassus (a very rich Roman who was also an ally of Pompeius and Caesar) in particular, was remembered for hosting the Roman citizens for three months.
Hercules drinking. By Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscans, Indiana University Press, 1975 (1st edition: Etruscologia, Milan: Hoepli, 1942).References:Online commentary;Jean Bayet, Herclé, op. cit. p. 150 et pl. IV;A. J. Pfiffig, Herakles in der Bilderwelt der etruskischen Spiegel, 1980, p. 19., Public Domain, Link
So the question that arises right now: what did Hercules want to drink at the feast of Bona Dea? ):):):)
Although it seems certain that “Bona Dea” was the goddess for a pure cult of women, Brouwer points out in his above mentioned dissertation that emperor Augustus was possibly also involved as a priest (Introduction, p. XXIII.) It is also noticeable that many men gave or dedicated something to the goddess, e. g. an altar, their desires/prayers, or statues.
At her main celebration, however, only women really celebrated. In three weeks’ time, there will be more information about this.
A goddess with whom Bona Dea is also associated is the goddess Fortuna, in addition to the Hygieia mentioned above.
The cornucopia is also an interesting ancient symbol that stands for wealth, overflow and abundance. The cornucopia is also very often associated with Ceres (Goddess of grain and growth) and Plutos (God of wealth).
It goes back to the nymph (or goat) Amalthea, who fed the little Zeus with the horn of a goat or even was a goat herself. She is also the mother (or wife) of Pan, the god of shepherds and goats.
Zeus/Jupiter immortalized the goat (?) Amalthea in gratitude for his salvation (she had nourished him with her milk/filling horn) in the night sky as a constellation.
The cornucopia is also connected with Hercules, because the ancient authors also report that Hercules had broken a horn in his struggle with the river god Acheloos, which then became a cornucopia.
Why Hercules did this is another interesting story.
Acheloos was just as interested in the beautiful Deianeira as Hercules. He fights with Hercules for the hand of the beautiful Deianeira (whose name means “male hater” by the way), turns into a snake and a bull (LINK), but all this did not help him, Hercules killed him.
Thomas Hart Benton (1947) put this fight into the limelight.
It even continues. For the history of “Struggle with rivers/beings” repeats itself in the history of Hercules.
When he and Deianeira have to cross a river, the Kentaur Nessos offers to carry Deianeira over. Of course, he does not do this without ulterior motives, for he wants Deianeira for himself.
Hercules intervenes and wins by killing Nessos. But Nessos had previously planted a ruse in Deianeira’s ear. He advised her, if Hercules should ever become unfaithful to her, to give him a cloak of Nessos, which would guarantee her eternal fidelity.
Many years later, Hercules actually looks around for other women.
What does Deianeira do?
She gives Hercules the mantle, who then (not) dies in wretched torment.
However, she herself thinks that Hercules died (or left) and then kills herself. The parallels to Dido are obvious.
Hercules isn´t really dead. By Francisco de Zurbarán – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link
As the only son of Jupiter/Zeus Hercules is admitted to the Olympus by the gods. There he reconciles himself with his stepmother Juno/Hera and marries another woman: Hebe, the goddess of the rosy cheeks = the youth. (So no more male haters.)
In fact and with historical certainty, Hercules as God even made it into Buddhism:
Bona Dea – and the goddesses belonging to it – lived and live (?) especially in some female saints.
Saints with the attribute “snake” are among others: Goar, Phillipus the Apostle, Wilburgis, Amandus of Maastricht, Hilarius of Poitiers, Jakobos of the Mark.
These saints have the serpent “only” as a symbol animal, some of them have other symbols, but they have no narrative connection to the animal.
For some saints with the attribute snake there are longer or shorter stories in which the animal appears in a positive or negative light.
Notburga von Hochhausen receives healing herbs from a snake after she loses an arm due to her violent father.
Patrick of Ireland is said to have left the island when he arrived in Ireland. But the last snake in Ireland was lured into a crate by him, promising to release it “tomorrow”. The next day, when the serpent asked for her release, he said,”Tomorrow.”
Thekla of Ikonium refused to marry a “heathen” because she had become a Christian. Since she lived in pagan Rome and was very disadvantaged as a Christian, she was taken to a dungeon full of poisonous snakes, but a ray of lightning killed the reptiles. Thekla experiences some other nasty things, but she is protected by God and does not suffer.
Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine order, to whom the beautiful saying ora et labora is attributed, should have been poisoned by his own monks. But the poison escaped as a serpent from the cup in which it was found when Benedict made a sign of the cross above it.
The cornucopia does not seem to have made it into the Christian world of thought. However, the prophet Joel (Old Testament) and the Holy Kajetan of Tiene seem to have a cornucopia of filling as an attribute (but without any plot behind it).
Finally, I would like to mention the martyrdom of Christina von Bolsena, who is cared for by snakes after suffering endless pain.
Even today there are festivities in Italy that reenact the fate of Christina. A great article with lots of photos can be found at Bizzarrobazar. I really do recommend to read it.