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Tales beyond belief

Discover the legends and myths and religious beliefs surrounding Bellona, the Roman goddess of war and the war-cry. She was believed to have inspired a warlike frenzy, in which Roman legionnaires would fight in a nearly uncontrollable, rage and fury. Dies Sanguinis (Day of Blood) was a festival held in Ancient Rome on the 24th March, called Bellona's Day, when devout adherents and priests of the cult of Bellona cut themselves and drank the sacrificial blood to propitiate the goddess.

Her name is derived from the Latin word 'bellum' meaning war. The Greek counterparts of Bellona were Enyo and Eris.

Bellona, the Roman goddess of war
Bellona, the Roman goddess of war was believed to have been introduced to Roman soldiers during campaigns in Asia Minor under General Pompey and Sulla during the last century of the Roman Republic. Her cult also introduced the ferocious, masochistic and orgiastic rites (similar to those of the goddess Cybele) performed by Asian priests. Bellona is often depicted wearing a plumed helmet and armed with a spear and a torch. In the picture by Rubens of Bellona she carries a shield, called the Aegis, displaying the head of Medusa, the gorgon an attribute that is usually associated with Minerva.

Temple of Bellona
The first temple to Bellona was built in the year 296 by the consul Appius Claudius and it was erected by the Circus Flaminius, located in the southern end of the Campus Martius. Campus Martius was located outside the city walls of Rome and was dedicated to Mars, the Roman god of war, with an ancient altar and became closely linked to soldiers and the army. Events, rituals and festivals associated with underworld deities were held in the Campus Martius. The festival in honor of Bellona was celebrated on June 3. Bellona also had had several shrines in Rome and another temple was dedicated to her in Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome. Priests of Bellona would perform furious dances using weapons and armor in honor of the goddess of war and were known to wound and gash themselves in a frightful manner.

Priests of Bellona - the Bellonarii and Belladonna
The priests of Bellona were called the Bellonarii who practised a variety of masochistic rituals. These rites took place on the 24 March and on the day that was called the dies sanguinis meaning the "day of blood".  On the dies sanguinis, the "day of blood" the Bellonarii mutilated their own arms and legs with sharp knives, collecting the blood to either drink or offer to Bellona to invoke the war fury. The bellonaria plant (solanum) was used by priests at this festival. Its seeds were eaten by priests to induce hallucinogenic, prophetic and oracular states. The name Belladonna, deadly nightshade, is a corruption of the word bellonaria. Another festival called Megalesia was celebrated between April 4 - 10 in honor of Cybele, the fertility goddess.  Her eunuch priests, called the Galli, also practised mutilation leading to incorrect historical connections between the worship of two goddesses and their festivals. 

Bellona - the Columna Bellica or War Column
Ambassadors from foreign states, who were not allowed to enter the city of Rome and stayed in the Campus Martius complex. This area, around the temple of Bellona, was considered to symbolize foreign soil, and there the Senate met with ambassadors and received victorious generals prior to their Triumphs. And it was here that war was officially declared. Besides her temple was the columna bellica or war column, which represented the boundary of Rome. To declare war a javelin was thrown over the column by one of the fetialis, a priest involved in diplomacy. The spear was thrown from Roman territory towards the direction of the enemies territory and this act symbolized the attack on a foreign land and the start of war.

The Worship of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war
The Romans were highly practical and believed that their gods and goddesses controlled everything in their lives and therefore every occupation and task had its presiding Roman goddess or god. Bellona the Roman goddess of war was worshipped in the same way as any other Roman divinity with prayers and making vows, dedicating altars, sacrificing blood, animals, birds and offerings of milk, honey, grain, fruit, cakes, flowers,  perfumes and wine. Black victims to the deities of the Underworld. The sex of a sacrificial animal had to correspond to the sex of the goddess to whom it was offered. The blood sacrifices made to Bellona, the goddess of war, would therefore have been a black ewe, cow or heifer, sow, hen or other female birds and conducted outside a temple. An even darker side to Bellona is revealed in relation to blood offerings as the earliest sacrifices are said to have been human.

Gods and Deities
Roman Goddesses
Roman Gods and Deities

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