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The Golden Bough

Chapter 13. The Kings of Rome and Alba.
1. Numa and Egeria
FROM THE FOREGOING survey of custom and legend we may infer that the sacred
marriage of the powers both of vegetation and of water has been celebrated by many
peoples for the sake of promoting the fertility of the earth, on which the life of animals
and men ultimately depends, and that in such rites the part of the divine bridegroom or
bride is often sustained by a man or woman. The evidence may, therefore, lend some
countenance to the conjecture that in the sacred grove at Nemi, where the powers of
vegetation and of water manifested themselves in the fair forms of shady woods,
tumbling cascades, and glassy lake, a marriage like that of our King and Queen of May
was annually celebrated between the mortal King of the Wood and the immortal Queen
of the Wood, Diana. In this connexion an important figure in the grove was the water-
nymph Egeria, who was worshipped by pregnant women because she, like Diana, could
grant them an easy delivery. From this it seems fairly safe to conclude that, like many
other springs, the water of Egeria was credited with a power of facilitating conception as
well as delivery. The votive offerings found on the spot, which clearly refer to the
begetting of children, may possibly have been dedicated to Egeria rather than to Diana, or
perhaps we should rather say that the water-nymph Egeria is only another form of the
great nature-goddess Diana herself, the mistress of sounding rivers as well as of
umbrageous woods, who had her home by the lake and her mirror in its calm waters, and
whose Greek counterpart Artemis loved to haunt meres and springs. The identification of
Egeria with Diana is confirmed by a statement of Plutarch that Egeria was one of the oak-
nymphs whom the Romans believed to preside over every green oak-grove; for, while
Diana was a goddess of the woodlands in general, she appears to have been intimately
associated with oaks in particular, especially at her sacred grove of Nemi. Perhaps, then,
Egeria was the fairy of a spring that flowed from the roots of a sacred oak. Such a spring
is said to have gushed from the foot of the great oak at Dodona, and from its murmurous
flow the priestess drew oracles. Among the Greeks a draught of water from certain sacred
springs or wells was supposed to confer prophetic powers. This would explain the more
than mortal wisdom with which, according to tradition, Egeria inspired her royal husband
or lover Numa. When we remember how very often in early society the king is held
responsible for the fall of rain and the fruitfulness of the earth, it seems hardly rash to
conjecture that in the legend of the nuptials of Numa and Egeria we have a reminiscence
of a sacred marriage which the old Roman kings regularly contracted with a goddess of
vegetation and water for the purpose of enabling him to discharge his divine or magical
functions. In such a rite the part of the goddess might be played either by an image or a
woman, and if by a woman, probably by the Queen. If there is any truth in this
conjecture, we may suppose that the King and Queen of Rome masqueraded as god and
goddess at their marriage, exactly as the King and Queen of Egypt appear to have done.
The legend of Numa and Egeria points to a sacred grove rather than to a house as the
scene of the nuptial union, which, like the marriage of the King and Queen of May, or of
the vine-god and the Queen of Athens, may have been annually celebrated as a charm to
ensure the fertility not only of the earth but of man and beast. Now, according to some