Monday, 22 February 2010


“Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind it dies.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Today is the Roman Day VII Kalends March, the last day of the old Roman calendar, on which was celebrated the Terminalia Festival. This was a Roman feast that celebrated the god Terminus who protected boundaries and frontiers. Neighbours met at the boundaries of their properties to drape the termini (stone boundary markers) with garlands. Sacrifices of wheat, honey and wine were offered to Terminus. The women contributed torches ignited on their hearths; the sons brought baskets of produce from the property and the daughters added to the repast with special honey cakes. The women made two fires at the altar, these made carefully with interlaced sticks. Meanwhile, the sons held their baskets over the fire and their sisters shook them three times to scatter its contents into the fire, then sacrificed the cakes to the flames. Farm workers attended as well, dressed in white, carrying the wine. They concluded with singing the praises of the god. Ovid says the rites of the Terminalia form the close of all others. Anyone moving the sacred stones of the boundaries was accursed and would be punished by Terminus.

Legend says that around the sixth century BC, a Roman ruler ordered a temple built to Jupiter, the king of gods and men. He chose Rome’s Capitoline Hill as the favoured site. The legend continues, saying that none of the gods who were worshipped in this area objected to yielding their spots to Jupiter, none that is, except Terminus. Rather than becoming angry with Terminus or resorting to force, the king accepted the god’s decision. The king knew that, according to Roman custom, removing a boundary stone was forbidden. So, Jupiter’s temple was built around Terminus’ shrine. An opening was made in the roof of the temple directly above the stone considered especially sacred to Terminus, since, traditionally, sacrifices made to Terminus had to be offered under the open sky. Jupiter’s cult absorbed Terminus, the temple of Jupiter Terminalius thus serving the syncretised god.

Boundary stones were sacred to Terminus, and specific rituals accompanied the placing, or “planting”, of every new stone. An animal, usually a lamb or a pig, was sacrificed, and its blood and ashes, together with vegetables, fruits, honey, and wine, were placed in a hole made by the owners of the two adjacent properties. A stone or stump of wood, the boundary marker, was then put in place to fill the hole.

The Orthodox church celebrates the Feast Day of St Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna today. Polycarp was born in 60 AD or thereabouts. When he was 20 years old he became a Christian. St Eirenaeus, who was his student, writes that Polycarp was wise, ethical and devoted to his belief in Christ. He was beloved of St John, the Evangelist, who instituted him as the Bishop of Smyrna. He was a zealous church leader and was a teacher, protector of the needy, guardian of the weak and leader of his church. When the Christian persecutions began under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned 138-161 AD) he was suddenly, at age 86, to be arrested.

When he heard Roman officials were intent on arresting him, he decided to wait for them at home. His friends, terror-stricken, pleaded with him to flee, so to calm them, he finally agreed to withdraw to a small estate outside of town. But while in prayer there, he received some sort of vision and he reported to his friends that he now understood, “I must be burned alive”. Roman soldiers eventually discovered Polycarp’s whereabouts and came to his door, upon which he said: “God's will be done”, and he let the soldiers in.

He was escorted to the local proconsul, Statius Quadratus, who interrogated him in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. Polycarp seemed unfazed by the interrogation. He carried on a witty dialogue with Quadratus until Quadratus lost his temper and threatened Polycarp that he’d be thrown to wild beasts, he’d be burned at the stake, and so on. Polycarp just told Quadratus that while the proconsul’s fire lasts but a little while, the fires of judgment which were reserved for the ungodly cannot be quenched.

Soldiers then grabbed him to nail him to a stake, but Polycarp stopped them: “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” He prayed aloud, the fire was lit, and his flesh was consumed. The chronicler of this martyrdom said it was “not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.”

Polycarp in Greek means “many-seeded”, so this saint is beloved of farmers, who invoke his name:
    St Polycarp make our gardens grow
    St Polycarp ripen the wheat we sow.
                                               Greek folk rhyme

Chickweed, Stellaria media, is today’s birthday flower and is under the dominion of the moon.  It symbolises a rendezvous or a meeting. In the language of flowers it asks: “Will you meet me?”


  1. How interesting! Isn't it amazing that we use the word terminus too?
    Poor St Polycarp seems to have had a difficult time at the end of his life...

  2. my grandmother used to collect chickweed and cook it as a vegetable
    saints lives are the horror stories people used to love telling in the past