Sementivae Dies—the Days of Sowing January 24–26

Victoria and Albert Museum” by Nick Garrod, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. First V&A Director, Sir Henry Cole, to the left of the picture.

Paganalia, also known as Sementivae, was a festival dedicated to seed, to Ceres (from whom we get the word cereal) and also the Earth Goddess. (There are many to choice from (Tellus, Demeter, Cybele, Gaia, Rhea etc.). Ceres can be seen on the top left roundel resting on the Globe on the marvellous Ceramic Staircase at the V&A, and in my slightly out of focus photograph below. (To be honest, in real life, it looks a little more like my photo than the gorgeous photo above!)

Ceres represented Agriculture, Mercury Commerce, and Vulcan Industry.  Old Photo by the Author.  T
Ceres represented Agriculture, Mercury Commerce, and Vulcan Industry. Old Photo by the Author.

To create life, we need earth and water to nurture and seeds for fertility. And so into the cold dead world of January the Romans created a festival of sowing. It had two parts, one presided over by Mother Earth (Tellus) and the other by Ceres, the Goddess of Corn. The actual day of the festival (aka Paganalia) was chosen not by rote on a set day of the calendar but by the priests, in accordance with the weather. This seems very sensible, as there is no point sowing seeds in terrible weather conditions. I’m assuming the Priests took professional advice!

On the 24th-26th January Tellus prepared the soil, and in early February seeds were sown under the aegis of Ceres. Tellus Mater (also Terra Mater) was known as Gaia to the Greeks. Gaia was chosen by James Lovelock & Lynn Margulis in the 1970s as the face of their Gaia hypothesis.

To me, the importance of the idea is not the scientific principle that environments co-evolve with the organisms within them but, rather, Gaia as a personification of our world as a complex living ecosystem that we have to care for. Gaia exists as a series of feedback loops, and she will spit us out unless we can control our appetites to live in balance with our alma mater.

This is what Ovid has to say about Sementavia in ‘Fasti’ (

Book I: January 24

I have searched the calendar three or four times,
But nowhere found the Day of Sowing:
Seeing this, the Muse said: That day is set by the priests,
Why are you looking for moveable days in the calendar?
Though the day of the feast ís uncertain, its time is known,
When the seed has been sown and the land ís productive.
You bullocks, crowned with garlands, stand at the full
Your labour will return with the warmth of spring.
Let the farmer hang the toil-worn plough on its post:
The wintry earth dreaded its every wound.

Steward, let the soil rest when the sowing is done,
And let the men who worked the soil rest too.
Let the village keep festival: farmers, purify the village,
And offer the yearly cakes on the village hearths.
Propitiate Earth and Ceres, the mothers of the crops,
With their own corn, and a pregnant sow ís entrails.
Ceres and Earth fulfil a common function:
One supplies the chance to bear, the other the soil.
Partners in toil, you who improved on ancient days
Replacing acorns with more useful foods,
Satisfy the eager farmers with full harvest,
So they reap a worthy prize from their efforts.
Grant the tender seeds perpetual fruitfulness,
Don’t let new shoots be scorched by cold snows.
When we sow, let the sky be clear with calm breezes,
Sprinkle the buried seed with heavenly rain.
Forbid the birds, that prey on cultivated land,
To ruin the cornfields in destructive crowds.
You too, spare the sown seed, you ants,
So you’ll win a greater prize from the harvest.

First Published in January 2023, republished in January 2024

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