The Festival of Fornacalia: Bring Out the Flowers and the Spelt!
Unless you’re a baker, it’s not something you’d typically mark in your calendar. Behold the Festival of Fornacalia, the “festival of the ovens.”
The Roman celebration was for the female deity, Fornax, goddess of the ovens. She kept the ovens warm and blessed all things that emerged from them. We’re talking bread and baked goods.
Garlands of flowers and sacrificed spelt
Every year around February 17, bakers draped garlands of flowers above the hearth of their ovens. The idea was to draw the attention of citizens and Fornax herself. Citizens offered gifts to the goddess and prayed for the success of the wheat crops.
People from the many districts of Rome — the curiae1 — brought offerings of far (spelt) to be toasted in the meeting hall. Citizens wished for their bread well baked — not burnt — the following year.
An orgiastic affair
The festival lasted 13 days. Quirinalia was the last day, possibly an orgiastic food celebration for people in each curia. Drop everything, folks! Sorry for the late notice!
You might see the similarity between the Latin words Fornacalia and Bacchanalia 2, the Roman festivals of Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and a host of other fun things, like fertility, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre.
There is some possibility that the two celebrations were similar. Victoria food writer Danielle Prohom Olson notes that Fornacalia is often misspelled. Some writers spell it Fornicalia, closer to the word fornicate.
Fornicalia or Fornacalia?
Jeffrey Hamelman 3, pays homage to the festival in his authoritative book, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes. Hamelman considers the two theories of the Fornacalia:
The first theory: The prostitutes in Rome were forced to ply their trade outside the city walls, and the city walls were built with an arch shape that simulated the arch of the baker’s oven.
Although this is plausible, I am personally more inclined toward a second interpretation of the connection: in the womb of the oven, bread comes to life, and there has always been an association of the baker’s oven with the generation of life. After all, haven’t we all heard the oft-repeated expression about a pregnant woman that “she has a bun in the oven”? Further, the inside of the back walls of the vagina is called the fornix. The similarity of fornix and Fornax is such that it is hard to ignore the possibility of a connection.
Jeffrey Hamelman, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, Third Edition, p. 36
Connection to the past
I find meaning in this connection with the ancient bakers and the craft of bread baking … in this case, stretching as far back as Roman times. Hamelman again:
What a wonderful feeling it is to turn and look behind us at the hundreds of generations who have baked before us and realize that we have inherited the accumulation of their experience. When we turn and look forward to the innumerable generations of bakers to come, we realize that we are at the fulcrum of this great balance, imbued with a deep responsibility to the future and hopefully equally imbued with gratitude to our colleagues from the past.
Hamelman, preface, p. XII
The last day of this year’s Festival of Fornacalia is Thursday, February 17. That’s my dough mixing day for the Happy Monk baking enterprise. While the dough is fermenting, I’ll stop a moment and place a flower on Mildrith’s dome. I’ll toss a handful of spelt into the oven and utter a quiet prayer to Fornax. I’ll thank her for the warmth she gave Mildrith this past year. And I’ll ask for her continued blessing in the coming year!
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
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In ancientRome, the curiae (the plural form of the singular curia) referred to the ridings or sections of the city. Initially, representatives of the curiae had broad powers. They would confirm the election of magistrates, witness the installation of priests, make wills, and carry out certain adoptions. The curia also denoted the places of assembly, especially of the Roman senate. ↩
To see an image of Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of “Bacchanalia” click here↩
Hamelman’s authority often appears in this blog, notably in this post, almost one year ago↩