Ancient Rome celebrated the rites of Bona Dea, or the “Good Goddess,” on 3 December. One of two days dedicated to the goddess (the other was 1 May), the December celebrations were distinct in that their celebrations were nocturnal and involved a devotional libation of wine along with a sacrificial offering.
Bona Dea was a deity with myriad associations, among them fertility and also protection of the people of Rome. Veneration of the goddess in Rome was overseen by the Vestals, and participation in the cult of Bona Dea was restricted exclusively to women. It was perhaps this gendered exclusivity that led to Bona Dea’s associations with fertility, but documentation as well as ancient dedications suggest that men possibly sneaked into the goddess’ celebrations.
While the May festivities took place at the Temple of Bona Dea on the Aventine Hill of Rome, the December events were hosted by the wife of a prominent Roman senator at their home. This tradition led to controversy in 62 BCE when, as recounted by Plutarch, a young patrician named Clodius Pulcher attempted to gain access to the Bona Dea rituals by disguising himself in a women’s clothing. The discovered attempt became known as the “Bona Dea Scandal” and resulted in a trial during which Cicero argued for Clodius’ guilt.
Given Bona Dea’s status as a relatively generic goddess, history has assigned her various associations with other deities, such as Magna Mater, Tellus, and Fauna. As a result, depictions of Bona Dea are often difficult to parse from those of other goddesses.
Bona Dea (Tellus?), relief panel, Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 13-9 BCE.