The Rex Nemorensis and Human Sacrifice

The priest (rex Nemoriensis) at the grove of Diana, the Goddess of the Wild Wood at Nemi, was a runaway slave. What was unusual is that this slave became the priest by killing his predecessor in combat. Virbius, Diana’s Consort, is said to have begun this custom. The God of the Month: Diana

What most people know about this ritual sacrifice comes from James Frazer and his work, “The Golden Bough.” (The title refers to the challenger breaking a tree bough to announce his challenge.) Frazer theorized that it was a fertility rite culminating with the sacrifice of the sacred king.

Roman sources do not support Frazer’s theory. In fact, they found this human sacrifice to be both problematic and barbaric. Since it was tied to the Gods, they struggled with what to do about this ancient custom. How could they end it and still maintain the Pax Deorum (Peace of the Gods)? For the Romans, the purpose of any sacrifice was a gift to the Gods, Heroes, and the Dead.

The most extreme sacrifice is for the Romans was the devotio. A Roman general facing a major loss in battle would offer his life. In a complex ritual, he dedicated himself and the enemy to Tellus and the Manes as the Gods of the Underworld. His death in battle would oblige the Gods to take the lives of the enemy. If he survived and won, he would bury a seven foot (2.13 meters) model of himself instead.

The Romans did practice human sacrifice on extreme occasions. After several threats of destruction to Rome, the Senate consulted the Sibylline Books for advice. They buried a Gaul couple and a Greek couple alive to fend off impending doom. Then in 97 BCE, the Roman Senate outlawed human sacrifice all together, calling it a “most un-Roman ritual.”

Human sacrifice has been problematic for Polytheistic cultures. Each has grappled with the practice. For the Romans, after the reforms of Numa Pompilius (Second King of Rome), various substitutions for humans were made.


8 thoughts on “The Rex Nemorensis and Human Sacrifice

  1. Perhaps that, ultimately, is what caused the downfall of Rome. In reading the Norse lore we can see quite clearly that Odin was not accepting of anything other than the actual sacrifice. I personally believe pedophiles and rapists as well as some classes of murderers should be publicly offered as sacrifice to the Gods. That’s just me though.

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    • Numa Pompilius had extensive discussions with Jupiter and other Gods about humans sacrifice. They relented in certain things. When the Roman Senate outlawed the practice, I couldn’t find where they did any divination to find out what the Gods wanted.

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  2. Interesting stuff. I like the notion that a runaway slave is acceptable as a priest. Was the position always open to challenge to combat? Did the slave sacrifice the priest to Diana?

    I’ve also been intrigued by the origin of the word devotion in devotio with its origin in the ultimate sacrifice – one’s life. I feel there is still an element of sacrifice in modern devotion, a demand we surrender certain parts of our lives to the gods, that they might ask for our whole lives, that they can also take them.

    Of course in the Celtic traditions there are lots of examples of human sacrifice, from wicker men, to boiling in vats, to hanging in trees (although these could be Roman exaggerations) to archaeological examples like the Lindow Man and the many severed heads buried in my locality.

    I think to be a sacrifice to one’s gods for the good of the tribe may once have been viewed as a beautiful rather than a horrible thing and can imagine that devotees may have surrendered their lives as an honour.

    To sacrifice people, criminals, or innocent, against their will, though sounds like a horrible thing.

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    • The Romans were quick to point to the awfulness of other culture’s sacrifices, while ignoring their own. It seems that everyone points to the other guy being worse. They usually chose by lots who got sacrificed or did divination. Criminals were usually thought of have being impious, and therefore not a good sacrifice.

      What happened was that the priest would remain in charge until he was challenged by a newcomer. It was always death in combat, with the loser being killed. And yes, it was open to challenge by another runaway slave.

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    • That’s very well said. I was surprised at the very positive depiction of such voluntary sacrifice in the Vikings series, a sign that polytheistic practices are being understood. Human sacrifice is also ambiguously depicted in the famous philosophical film (wrongly called a horror film) The Wicker Man.


    • If they are consigned to death anyway then their lives could actually mean something in the end. I used to work in a correctional facility and believe me many of those guys would offer themselves gladly versus staying there for basically their whole lives.

      Besides. They violated the sanctity of another’s life. They should be outlawed and their lives up for grabs anyway, and their death considered a public service. Only in our modern society is their life still considered sacred.


      • The gladiator games were a hybrid of funeral sacrifices and entertainment. Criminals were sacrificed there.
        Human sacrifice still goes on in modern societies except it is called something else. Such as “dying for the cause” or “giving up your life for your country.” Capital punishment could be thought of in that way – as atonement for society as a whole.

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