I made an interesting discovery recently, and I’d like to share with you: Ancestor Worship in Italy. The phrase, “Ancestor Worship,” conjures up a religious idea, but as it turns out, that is mostly erroneous, at least the way the ancient Romans viewed it.
Did you know that every human culture throughout history has practiced some sort of ancestor worship? Nobody knows the origin, but we can definitely say it is a collective practice of humanity.
The Romans had many festivals for their gods, but during the month of February, there were several festivals that were strictly social, and not so much religious.
The first one was Parentalia – pretty obvious that our word, “parent” originated from the Latin. But it means “family relative,” not just parent. (The Italian word for relatives is parenti. The word for parents is genitori).
This was a nine day festival of... guess what? Cemetery and tomb visits that included bringing cake and wine, lighting lamps and communing with deceased family members, seeking their guidance and wisdom.
(No wonder Italians today go to such lengths to decorate and illuminate their family graves, loading them with flowers and photos! An Italian cemetery is a marvel to behold.)
The second festival of note was celebrated on February 22nd: Caristia or Cara Cognatio. I LOVED discovering this one too. “Cara” is a familiar word in Italian. It means something or someone dear. Cara and caro are used to address people close to us, in a letter or in person.
“Cognatio” is Latin for “who you know well, as in family members.”
This festival was all about coming together AT HOME – among ancestral sacred objects, dining on ritual foods, exchanging gifts and notably, setting aside family disagreements – a love feast, with the ancestors at the center, like the hearth of a home.
Speaking of hearth and fires, our phrase, “keeping the home fires burning” also has a connection with these familial celebrations.
The Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome had roles to play privately and publicly. Their primary duty was to ensure that the sacred fire of the temple never went out. As archetypes of the “Goddess of the Hearth,” they not only tended the fires, but collected water from sacred springs, cared for sacred objects, were the keepers of wills and testaments (which ensured family lineage) and were very visible during the February festivals for ancestors.
When Christianity became the State religion, it was determined that the “love feasts” were not compatible with Christian beliefs around behavior. (Too much drinking, eating and celebrating). After 1,000 years of tending the fires, the Vestal Virgins were extinguished.
I believe these desires to honor, revere and respect our ancestors in the form of rituals, celebrations, traditions live deeply within all of us – a connection to who and where we belong in the world.
We honor tradition at the table by creating the meals that our ancestors handed down to us. We have stories that we tell our children and grandchildren that were also passed on, mostly oral histories. We keep photos and albums, frame them and give them places of honor in our homes. It keeps their memory alive and this is a great thing.
My Italian cousin Monica and I visit her father’s grave on a fine Spring morning, the anniversary of his passing: Goffredo.
He was part of my “Italian Life” for almost forty years. Bigger than life, Charles Boyer handsome, curious, a person who found humor, sometimes sarcastic, in daily life, was devoted to family and tradition. He was also a jeweler providing me with many beautiful hours over the years of private “shopping.”
A pendant the family gifted me with is something I wear every day, like a talisman, an object of family memory and love.
Goffredo and I shared a love of prosecco, as spontaneous indulgence. Never planned, only “perche no?” – Why not right now?
Monica and I picked up a chilled bottle of this bubbly confection and a few other favorites: Tuscan pecorino cheeses, some focaccia, salumi. We brought along two glass flutes, some napkins and put our elegant moveable feast together, graveside.
We raised our glasses to him, speaking of and celebrating so many shared memories. We laughed and cried. One of the flutes tipped over and broke, which we attributed to Goffredo becoming over enthusiastic.
This felt so right to me – to be there, at his grave, having lunch. The feeling it gave me was rooted in something I could not identify, but it was deep.
My ancestors are an active part of my daily life. I ask for my grandmother’s guidance and being at her gravesite feels like a good place to have this conversation with her. When I travel to my ancestral homes in Italy, either in Carrara or in Pitigliano, I bring photos of them with me and ask them to lead me. I never feel alone. They are always around me. It is a great comfort.
While I was writing my book, The Stonecutter’s Aria, I found myself asking them questions out loud, requesting their help in writing their stories with truth and beauty. Amazing things sometimes happened.
I don’t think this hinges on religious belief systems. One may or may not believe that souls live on. I don’t think it matters.
There is a power in engaging our ancestors intimately and directly. Because the truth is, who and what we are comes from who and what they were, whether one is conscious of it or not.
“When we illuminate the road back to our ancestors, they have a way of reaching out, of manifesting themselves.” - Raquel Cepeda
Whatever our beliefs about this, knowing about their lives, remembering their stories gives us a way to keep the memory of them alive for ourselves and our children. Which is why I have created a workshop called: Preserving Family Stories, How to Begin.
This noble task can be daunting. I can help. Take a look at the curriculum (CLICK HERE) and send me a message for how to participate.
I keep a photo of my grandfather, Otto, in my kitchen. He is in his Chef’s uniform at the Columbia Club. I ask him what I should cook, how much of something to add to a sauce. And I greet him every morning when I make my stove top espresso. He is always smiling at me.
Why are we so uncomfortable with the idea of speaking with our ancestors? Like it’s a crazy thing to do. (We all talk to ourselves, sometimes out loud which when you think about it, is kind of crazy).
It adds so much joy to my life. What about you? I would love to hear your thoughts about ancestor worship in Italy. Please feel free to leave a comment below!