Friday, 19 February 2016

Summanus, whoever he may be

Summanus, whoever he may be

Summanus is the god who everyone almost forgot. The tile of this blog comes from Ovid, “The temple is said to have been dedicated to Summanus, whoever he may be" (quisquis is est, Summano templa feruntur): Ovid, Fasti 6, 731, translation by Sir George Frazer.

The temple in question is on the Aventine Hill, which was originally outside the Pomerium, the sacred notional bounds of the city. The cult seems to be from Gallia Cisalpina in what is now north Italy, centred on and around the Mons Summani (today’s Monte Summano) near Vicenza in the Veneto, anciently Vincentia.

Monte Summano Today

Summanus is credited as a god of nighttime thunder. Many years ago I experienced such an event while staying in Como, the loudest thunder and the heaviest rain I have ever experienced; the sudden rise of the Alps and rapid cooling of humid air seem to the reason for such electrical storms.

The cult centre on the Aventine seems to have been an attempt to keep his following confined to the margins of Rome. The Euganei that area seem to have been a pre-Italic people who merged with Gaulish Venetic tribes around 500BC.

Roman authors seem all to have viewed Summanus as a chthonic god, a god of the nighttime and underworld, a god to be propriated. They variously associated him with Jupiter (Iuppiter Summanus), with Pluto and by Martianus Capella as the greatest of the Manes, the divine ancestors (Summus Manium).

Varro in the first century BC thought he was an Etruscan god (De  Lingua Latina 5.74) and Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia 5.23) says ‘The Tuscan books inform us, that there are nine Gods who discharge thunder-storms, that there are eleven different kinds of them, and that three of them are darted out by Jupiter. Of these the Romans retained only two, ascribing the diurnal kind to Jupiter, and the nocturnal to Summanus; this latter kind being more rare, in consequence of the heavens being colder’. Ovid, in his piece on the Fasti, comments that two black wethers (castrated rams) were the designated sacrifice to Summanus, supporting the idea of him being a chthonic god.

Allegedly a statue to Summanus

 From the little that anyone seems to know about this, Summanus seems to be an early version of Pluto. Hades/ Pluton in Greek myth, the god of the underworld, is of course connected with the abduction of Kore, daughter of Demeter. I’ve always thought this odd, as in Mycenaean Greece, Poseidon, their top god, was god of the underworld, not of the sea (that was Proteus); this would make the abduction incest. Poseidon seems to be an avatar of Hades/Pluton; from the local legends about a shepherdess vanishing in a cave on Monte Summano, it is possible that Summanus acquired some of the myth of the abduction very early, and by a landward route.

How did this cult get to Rome? The temple to Summanus on the Aventine, towards the Circus Maximus, was built in 278-6 BC, but fell into disuse after a bigger and better temple to Jupiter was built. It suggests that some of the allies of Rome in the Veneto, probably the earlier Euganei merged with the Gaulish Veneti, ended up living at the margins of Rome. The Aventine was an area under Plebeian authority, and with temples already to Ceres (the bread dole wheat was milled there) and Liber (Bacchus), so a god with an alimentary aspect would be welcomed there. On the day of his festival, 20 June, Summanus was propriated with summanalia, wheel-shaped cakes of flour, milk and honey. This suggests that this was a meal for the god who had been moved – perhaps the shepherds on the Mons Summani ate these while working, and gave some to the god.

Twin Peaks of Monte Summano

 One aspect that has not been mentioned elsewhere is that Monte Summano has twin peaks, one lower than the other, and so does the Aventine Hill in Rome; perhaps the people who chose it for a cult centre did so because it resembles their sacred mountain.

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