Ever wondered about the inspiration behind ‘putti’, the little winged children that are seen, playing, fighting and attending Gods and Goddesses, in Renaissance painting and sculpture and also in frescoes from Pompeii? My thoughts inspired this fictional account. It is given by Lavinia, a servant at the Latin shrine of Alba Longa or White Ridge.
The holiest parts of the shrine lie deep within the grove and in the fissures and clefts of the cliff. A great square boulder tumbled from the cliff forms a natural altar and screens a dank crevasse, shaded with ferns. Flocks of rock doves nest on the cliffs and also in wattle dove houses where they are bred up for sacrifice. The priestess tends them herself and marks which are to be offered and which to be spared.
We used them especially for the rite of Ruminalis which is carried out when a child is to be fully weaned. The mother and child with other relatives come to the shrine and make offerings of sweet stuffs, dried figs and raisins, honey or fresh fruits in season. A dove is selected and offered at the common altar, just within the grove. The doves are accustomed to handling and make little disturbance. A swift stroke with the knife will take off the head and the welling blood is caught in a cup. Most of this is poured as a libation to the goddess. Then the wings are cut off the bird and used to anoint the child, forehead and breast, with a splash of blood. At White Ridge we then thread the wings on a string and give them to the child, to play with or to wear. Very pretty these weanlings look, tumbling about on unsteady feet, chased for their feathers by older playmates.
The dove is cooked into a good broth for the child’s first proper meal. It is well if the young one has played hard and is hungry when the time comes to eat, for weaning is a dangerous time for children. The mothers and relatives will talk long with the priestess about the best foods and methods and how to tempt a sickly or fractious child. For the women the afternoon often ends in weeping, talking over bittersweet memories of other children, lost as infants. But living children coming in boisterous and hungry to the evening meal are a comfort and a distraction. All in all, it is a happy festival, is Ruminalis and there are few in farms and villages around the lake who would neglect to come to the shrine to mark it.
Image cropped from Heldrich, Frieze with Putti 1898, Shepherd Gallery CC by 2.0