Most references to the Ides of March would have us believe the symbolism and meaning centers on Julius Caesar and Shakespeare and the ideas of betrayal, murder and prophecies of doom. But did you know, the original meaning has to do with moon cycles and March 15th was a celebration of the new year?
Enter the infamous Romans and their attempts to control life via meddling with Nature’s calendar. Prior to their first attempt around 753 BCE, dates were expressed in relation to the lunar phase of the month using three markers: Kalends (Kal), Nones (Non) and Ides (Id). The first phase of the moon, the new moon, was denoted by Kalends and signified the first day of the month; the first quarter moon fell on either the fifth or seventh day of the month and was referred to as Nones; the full moon fell on either the 13th or 15th day of the month and was referred to as Ides. The Ides of March—March 15—initially marked the first full moon of a new year. During this time, a new year’s festival was held where people would gather and honor the Roman deity Anna Perenna for a happy and prosperous new year.
Prior to Caesar’s manipulation of the calendar and his subsequent death, the Ides of March focused on the celebration of this ancient Roman deity of the circle or ring of the year, a Goddess of long life and renewal, health and plenty. Her two names both make reference to the year: anna means to live through a year, while perenna means last many years (still seen in the English words annual and perennial). Anna Perenna was concerned with cycles of renewal and connecting the past to the present and her festival was held on the midpoint of the month when, in the old calendar, the moon was full. This timing, both within the month as well as within the larger cycle of the year, also points to a relationship with memory, cyclical time, and endings becoming beginnings, for March was considered the first month of the year when springtime was in full flower and newness was all around. According to her stories, sacrifices were made to her with the intent that the circle of the year may be completed happily. A Goddess of health and longevity as well as the calendar, She embodies the concept of the moon-calculated month within the year.
The Festival of Anna Perenna was an officially recognized holiday beloved by the common people. On the evening of the 15th, people would gather at the 1st milestone on the Via Flaminia in Her sacred grove of fruit trees (in bloom at that time of year) by the banks of the Tiber, and camp out with some bringing tents, others making little shelters from leafy tree branches. There they feasted merrily into the night, dancing, singing, and celebrating with much wine, toasting to health and long life. It was believed that one would live as many years as the cups of wine one could drink, so it was traditional to get very, very drunk. This festival connected the old and the new, death and life and this Goddess was seen embodying both youth and age.
An older Goddess, Anna Perenna appears in writings by both Ovid and Virgil along with her symbolism of renewal and new year’s celebration in March. However, in 46 BCE after consulting with the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar by adding ten days to the 355-day year, instituting January 1 as the first day of the new year (beginning in 45 BCE) and introducing a leap year every four years. Shortly thereafter, he was granted the title Dictator Perpetuus or Dictator for Life. Concerned with Caesar’s increasing power and monarchical leanings, a group of Roman senators stabbed the ruler to death on March 15, 44 BCE—forever linking the Ides of March with the assassination of Julius Caesar.
By the time Shakespeare wrote his famous play, Julius Caesar, the symbolism of the Ides of March had already shifted to the themes of betrayal and death. The play further served to cement this symbolism into the cultural psyche and, from there forward in His-story, this date has come to symbolize not the beautiful celebration of Anna Perenna – with its thanksgivings for a successful year and honorings of renewal and regeneration – but the more macabre patriarchal themes of power, betrayal, death and prophecies of doom.
This transition from life-affirming celebration to symbols of death and foreboding, is one more example of Patriarchy’s co-optation of societies that lived in harmony with and honored Nature and her changing cycles and seasons. One more example of the Blade supplanting the Chalice*.
Today, on March 15th… the Ides of March… this traditional day of celebrating based on moon cycles… I choose the older, life affirming, traditional celebration of the Goddess Anna Perenna, Goddess of long life and renewal, health and plenty. I offer a ritual of celebration to the cycle of the year – the Great Wheel – acknowledging both light and dark, life and death – affirming that the coming cycle will be one of plenty and completed happily.
With my feet planted firmly on the path of my ancestors and the old ways…
So it is.
Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler, Harper San Francisco, 1988.
Artwork labeled as Goddess Creating Tomorrow, but author unknown.