Diana Nemorensis: Origins of the Legend

Diana at Nemi

Diana as Huntress at Nemi. Photo: © Ann Inscker


The goddess Diana was the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Artemis. She was best known as the goddess of the hunt, nature and animals. Later, she also became known as goddess of the moon. She was the daughter of Jupiter (king of the gods) and Latona, and was the twin sister of Apollo (god of the sun).

In most depictions she is shown carrying a bow and arrows while wearing a small crescent moon in her hair. Her most sacred animals were deer, bears and hunting dogs. Diana was also the goddess of birth, even though she herself remained a virgin. Both animals and humans were protected by her and their fertility was Diana’s concern.

In trying to appease the goddess, young men and women offered the goddess votives to secure healthy and strong offspring. Amongst these votives could be various jewellery objects, statuettes and figurines either of the goddess or her devotees and figurines of animals. Votives offered to Diana quite often show a very strong connection with nature in all its manifestations, relating to her nature as goddess of the hunt and fertility. This can be illustrated by looking at the votive offerings found on site, which include human body parts like the uterus.

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Diana Nemorensis

Diana was known in different characters. One of her guises was Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi). The sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis was found on the northern shore of Lake Nemi and her cult was particularly violent. The Romans frequently adopted Greek divinities and merged them with their own, which resulted in several legends that refer to the origin of the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis.

One of the legends goes that there was a large oak tree to be found in her sacred grove at Nemi. It was absolutely forbidden to break off any of its branches (some say the mistletoe surrounding it). The only people allowed to do so were fugitive slaves. Breaking off one of the branches gave the slaves the right to fight the presiding high priest of the temple to the death. If the challenger won, he could take the place, adopting the title of rex nemorensis, king of the sacred grove.

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue of Diana Nemorensis on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The tale of the rex nemorensis is told in the ancient sources. Ovid’s description (Fasti Book 3) reads:

‘one with strong hands and swift feet rules there, and each is later killed, as he himself killed before’.

According to the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer, the rule of the sanctuary was that:

‘A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he himself was slain by a stronger or a craftier.’

Origins of the Legend

This bloody ritual could be explained as a variation on the story of Orestes, known in Greek mythology. Orestes (son of the king and queen of Mycenae, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) killed his mother and her lover to avenge his father. To purify himself the god Apollo sent him to Tauris. Iphegeneia, Orestes’ sister was the priestess of the local divinity, Artemis of Tauris. The cult of Artemis of Tauris was known for killing all the foreigners that came to shore.

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi.
Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

After tricking the king of the Tauric Chersonese to escape an unfortunate ending, Orestes fled with his sister to Italy. They took the image of the Tauric Artemis with them and the cult of Artemis of Tauris took hold in the woods of Nemi. This barbaric goddess was known for the bloody rituals taking place in her sanctuaries; every stranger who landed on the shore was sacrificed on her altar.

The ritual in Nemi can be interpreted as a milder form of this gruesome practice. However, the goddess still could only be appeased properly with human blood. The death of the rex nemorensis or his challenger had to be violent, ‘as the spurting blood from the loser was meant to fertilise the surrounding ground’, as Ludovico Pisani argues.

Another tradition, again of Greek origin, explains the existence of the first rex nemorensis. According to the Aricians, the priesthood would have been held by Hippolytus. Hippolytus, after being unjustly killed by his father, was resurrected by Asclepius (the god of healing, Aesculapius in Latin) with the aid of Artemis. He was named Virbius (twice man) and went on to become a king, devoting a place of worship to Artemis. Diana was also called Virbia, which helps to explain the connection between her perceived healing powers and those of Virbius, who became a minor deity himself.

Celebrating Diana at Nemi

Diana was honoured at Nemi by an annual festival on August 13th (which, incidentally, is also our Twitter guru Fundilia’s birthday!) called Nemoralia. Burning torches were carried in a procession around the lake, known as Speculum Dianae (Diana’s Mirror). Those whose prayers had been answered would attend wearing wreaths of flowers, in order to fulfil vows made to the goddess. Hounds were honoured out of respect for Diana’s role as the goddess of the hunt. The day is also known as servorum dies festus, as it was holiday for slaves.

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Ruth Léger, researcher, University of Birmingham

Don’t forget, ‘Romans’ FREE event on 5th August 2013 when standard admissions tickets are bought http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=5569&eventId=5868


Always something there to remind me: a short introduction to votives

An essential part of the experience of visiting the ancient Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi was bringing something for the goddess and leaving it behind for her when you left. Known as a ‘votive’, these carefully selected offerings were placed in shrines and temples across the ancient world as a way of communicating with the gods. Dr Emma-Jayne Graham of the Open University* explains the role of votive giving in ancient life:

Giving up an item rendered it sacred or inviolable… These items might be made specifically for the purpose or might be taken from daily life… ranging from a small cake to the building of a monumental temple… A person sought protection, healing or good fortune for either a one-off event (a journey, childbirth, warfare etc.) or as part of the rites of passage (coming of age, marriage, puberty etc.). In order to do this they petitioned the god through prayer, making a vow (votum) that they would acknowledge the support of the god with a gift (ex voto).

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

In the temple at Nemi a base for a statuette was found which the bears the inscription: ‘Aerentia, daughter of Lucius, dedicated [this] sacred offering to Diana in payment of her vow’.

The range of objects left to the goddess at Nemi was vast and they give us an incredible snapshot into the lives of the ancient people who visited the site. Unlike Aerentia, most people did not have their offerings inscribed and so we can never know for certain who they were. However, the particular object that they chose to dedicate can give us some important clues about their lifestyle and what their concern was the day they visited the sanctuary.

Take this unremarkable-looking object, found in the entrance to the temple of Diana.


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

It turns out to be a terracotta representation of a goat or sheep’s astragalus, one of the ankle bones. Might the person who dedicated this have been a farmer, thanking Diana for good stock that year? We often find small models of animals in ancient shrines, thought to be dedicated for just that purpose (see the image below). However, this part of the animal’s body was also used in an ancient gambling game known as knucklebones (the ancient version of the game ‘jacks’). This object could therefore have been left by a player of the game in thanks for a successful contest.

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

A more poignant votive found at Nemi is this small terracotta model of a couple with a new baby, dated 300-100BCE. Despite Diana’s strong link with virginity in ancient myth, objects like these show she was also seen as a goddess of fertility and childbirth in antiquity, and were likely left as thanks for a pregnancy or successful birth. This object is one of four examples found at Nemi which were clearly created from the same mould. As at temples today, such as in India, roads around the sanctuary at Nemi may have been lined with sellers providing mass-produced, ready-made offerings like this one which pilgrims could buy and leave at the shrine for Diana.

One common type of offering found at Nemi, and across the ancient world, are the models of human body parts, now known as ‘anatomical votives’. They come in the shape of heads, hands, eyes, ears, legs, feet, and internal organs. A similar practice continues today in Mexican and Italian Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. In the ancient world these are usually associated with healing shrines to gods such as Aesculapius. Their discovery at Nemi suggests that people suffering with medical issues were making the journey there to take advantage of Diana’s more nurturing side.

NCM 1890-1357-8 Anatomical etc. votive offerings [ii]

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

However, as Dr. Graham highlights, interpreting these captivating objects is not straight forward:

‘It is difficult to know whether these were supposed to refer directly to a specific part of the human body that required divine intervention or healing, or whether they made some sort of metaphorical reference… associated with that part of the anatomy. Does a foot, for example, mean that a person was suffering from pain or difficulty walking, or might it refer to a journey or some sort of metaphorical ‘movement’ through the different stages of life?’


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Anatomical votives are now thought to provide important insights into ancient knowledge of, and attitudes to, the body. For example, it is thought that this terracotta object, also found at Nemi, was meant to represent a uterus. Its appearance suggests that ancient people, who were not in the practice of performing autopsies, had only limited idea of what internal organs really looked like.

Catherine Walker of the Wellcome Collection, suggests that ancient votive wombs are a visual representation of observations made from outside the body:

They would have been aware of the function of the organ and could have observed childbirth, so we see that this understanding has been incorporated into the votive as the wavy lines represent contractions. This understanding of the body had implications for the way people practiced medicine’.

However, others have challenged assumptions that these objects suggest a lack of anatomical knowledge in antiquity. Another artefact found at Nemi seems to indicate a more sophisticated understanding of the internal workings of the human body.


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

As Dr. Katharina Lorenz of the University of Nottingham explains here, this terracotta model of a woman shows her digestive system intricately carved. It is possible it was brought to the temple by a woman with gastric problems. Furthermore, the hand-carved internal organs suggest that whoever she was had a certain amount of money – enough to spend on customizing her small offering to the goddess. Of course, we will never know for sure.

Jen Grove, researcher, University of Exeter (@jenniferegrove)

Have a look through the objects found at the sanctuary and see if you can guess who might have dedicated them and why. If you had visited the sanctuary, what would you have left? 

You can let us know your ideas in the comments.

And look out for more posts on the votives found at Nemi!

*Dr. Emma-Jayne Graham and Dr. Jane Draycott are currently producing a major new academic volume on the anatomical votive.