Archangel or goddess? New trail raises questions about pagan past at Lake Nemi

NEMI, Italy – Earlier this month, the hilltop town of Nemi, Italy opened a nature trail leading to a small cave that served as a hermitage site for local monks. But the trail is named after Saint Michael the Archangel, raising questions about the name and its relationship to the famous Temple of Diana on the shores of the eponymous lake.

The town of Nemi is famous for being the site of the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, whose cult was immortalized by James George Frazer in The golden branch and attested in Roman antiquity by the Roman poet and historian Livy.

The Temple of Diana was built when the Roman King Servius Tullius, after hearing about the famous Temple of Diana at Ephesus, convinced the Latin people that a temple of similar size should be built and dedicated to the goddess. The Temple of Diana was built and remained in use until the 4th century AD

The sanctuary of Diana in Nemi predates the temple of Rome where the cult of Diana was, according to the founding accounts, aroused by Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. The temple site in the sanctuary was built around 300 BCE Indeed, the celebrations may have started six centuries BCE, with suggestions that worship took place around 10,000 years ago. Before our era.

Lake Nemi: Diane’s mirror [Photo Credit: Manny Tejeda-Moreno]

Veneration of Diana continued until the 4th century and officially ended as an overt practice with the persecution of pagans at the end of the Roman Empire.

Nemi is in the Castelli Romani Regional Park in the Alban Hills, and the park service and township have been keen to reinvigorate travel to the area.

The city eagerly embraced his relationship with Diana. Last year, even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they began celebrating the Ides of Diana to “promote the history and culture of Nemi” through “the re-enactment of the festival in honor of the goddess Diana, which took place every August 13 and brought together women from all over the Peninsula.

The current restoration of the trails is part of their economic revitalization. Mayor Alberto Bertucci described the project as a joint activity between the park service, the city and the local Catholic parish.

Entrance to the Nemi trail site [Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti]

The paved trail begins at the town’s headland and then turns into dirt, descending steeply through the Nemi Woods to a cave site with frescoes that show where the monks retreated as hermits back then medieval. The frescoes themselves depict various elements of Christian imagery, such as St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven, the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and the Madonna and Child. The hermitage dates from 1250 to 1400 AD. The spiritual retreat site was managed by the Abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome in the 1400s, according to the Papal Bull, and then later by the monks of the parish of Nemi.

The story then becomes cloudy. Monks arrived to take care of the site, but these men were not part of the parish of Nemi and records do not appear to identify where they came from. The monks shared a common calendar of worship and celebration that honored Saint Michael the Archangel.

It was then that the cave was renamed “La Grotte du Diable” and consecrated to Saint Michael the Archangel. “The symbolism is problematic,” said Stefano, a local who identifies as Pagan and asked that his last name not be released. “St. Michael represents not only the conquest of the Church of Rome over the region, but also the exorcism of the region of the pagan gods, namely Diana.

Diane represented a true rival of the Christian faith in her ascendant. Diana is the only pagan goddess mentioned specifically by name in the New Testament (Acts 19) by Paul the Apostle. His veneration was well established throughout the Roman Empire.

Stefano explained that Nemi is related to Diana. The presence of the goddess is omnipresent, including a famous statue in the main square, and even on the seal of the city. Groups sometimes hold secret lakeside rituals, and offerings are found both near the ancient temple site and along the lake.

However, the area is steeped in history and clearing the trail for visitors is likely only for economic reasons to promote cultural tourism and enhance travel to the region. Stefano’s companion Carla isn’t worried about the consequences, but she agrees on the symbolism. “It’s really about the money,” she said, “and getting people to the area.” But she also believes that drawing attention to the Monks’ Cave was an unnecessary “assault” in an attempt to woo Catholic visitors by focusing on imagery.

Indeed, the cave has been a generally forgotten site in Nemi, easily overshadowed by a ship that once belonged to Caligula and the excavations of the Temple of Diana. But the cave’s original purpose as a place of spiritual reflection and a message of subordination to Christianity was repeated too eagerly throughout the region to be ignored.

The site is also called Lo speco di San Michele Arcangelo, the Mirror of Saint Michael the Archangel, obvious reference to the lake as the Mirror of Diana and possible testimony to the overstepping of the area as a place of Christian pilgrimage.

At the entrance to the cave, there is an inscription from 1 Peter 5-8: “Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil walks like a roaring lion, seeking whom he will devour. The post that could be relevant to anyone who might visit.

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