A novena is a common Catholic prayer practice which can be used as a devotional or an offering or a means of gaining focus and connection. The essential structure of a novena is a prayer, repeated over nine days. Typically one strives to make the same prayer at the same time in the same place during each of the nine days.
There are many times throughout the year which might make sense as a novena for the dead. Halloween or Samhain is an option. The memorial day for a deceased loved one, or of an important ancestor, could also be an option. There are surely other days of personal significance and other holidays which have reasonable links that may suggest on going prayer for the dead.
Making some daily prayer for the dead at a significant, or even a not significant time, can do a few things for us. Most simply it keeps them in our focus and helps link our attention to them. It shows respect and devotion. It provides a gift of our time. More esoterically, if the dead are in a place where they suffer or if they are in need of elevation prayer can be means of reducing suffering and aiding in elevation. Acts which draw the dead into our awareness are also acts which give the dead further hold in our world. Part of their connection to the world is the memory and attention given them by the living, and the active interaction the living seek with them. So praying for or praying with them can help them be more effective allies for us in the world of the living. With the opportunity to create connection, to link them to the world, and to aid them in a comfortable afterlife, prayer is often an offering enjoyed and desired by the dead, at least in my experience.
With it being February we have another opportunity that suggests a novena for the dead. The Dies Parentales, or Parentalia. This was a nine day Roman festival for the dead, which incorporated several other holidays. The dead during the Parentalia are both our positive and protective ancestors and the troublesome and unsettled dead, there are also opportunities to address those elements of our positive dead which are more negative and frightful.
For our purposes, a magician could explore the cycle of holidays which are part of the Dies Parentales or they could simply approach it as nine days in which the dead are available and so we can approach them with prayer, reflection, offerings, and other rites and customs for interacting with them. For many people this second approach is going to make more sense, which is why I began with the concept of a novena. Some have suggested that the idea of a novena stems from the nine days of Parentalia, but I’m sure there are many religious practices which could have inspired this mode of prayer. Regardless a novena would be a simple way to observe these days for someone not seeking to engage in Roman customs, or someone who is just beginning their journey in befriending the dead.
If we want to be more Roman about it, during the Parentalia the temples were closed, people did not show signs of their office and other civic religious practices were on hold. The focus was on the dead.
The first day of the Parentalia was for the ancestors, the positive spirits who are honored by the family and look after the family. This was celebrated with offerings of grain and salt, wine, bread, and flowers made at the cemeteries outside the city. This occurs Feb 13th and begins the nine day cycle.
Lupercalia, the holiday which likely influenced the advent of Valentines day, occurs Feb 15th and celebrates the wolf and the shepherd who aided Romulus and Remus as babies. These figures are in a sense ancestors of Rome in general. The holiday was celebrated with naked youths touching people with bits of leather to make them fertile. This may make less sense for us to adapt in our work with the dead directly, but we could acknowledge the day as a way of noting the mythic ancestors of our community or our non-familial ancestors whose work or efforts still helped shape us. In particular it may be a time to seek help from those ancestors in achieving fertility, or perhaps fecundity and prosperity.
Quirinalia occurs Feb 17th and is the day dedicated to Quirinus or Romulus, the first King of Rome, and one of Rome’s two founders. Again, to adapt this holiday we might acknowledge the civic ancestors of our community.
Feralia wraps up the primary holiday cycle on Feb 21st. Feralia is the night to appease the darker aspects of our ancestors and to remove the more harmful and unsettled dead. Offerings would be made, as well as signs of mourning, but for the more dangerous dead there may have also been rites to exorcise and banish.
February 22nd the holiday was concluded on Caristia, with a day of joyful celebration and feasting to bring the family together and celebrate the positive relationship with the ancestors. Food and incense were offered to the dead, and the family joined together and settled disputes in honor of the positive relationships and echoing the positive ties which they had just strengthened with their ancestors.
So if you wanted to follow something like this cycle
Day One/Two – Honor your ancestors, deceased parents and grandparents in particular, with wine, grain, bread and flowers. Celebrate them, mourn them, give them attention.
Day Three – Honor those whose work laid a foundation for you, honor mythical figures whose stories reflect the values and culture of your community
Day Five – Honor your community’s civic ancestors
Day Nine – propitiate any spirits you have wronged, address any grievances your ancestors may have, make offerings like on day one and call for your ancestors to restrain anger or harmful acts. Work to remove those other spirits who might plague you or your family who can not otherwise be propitiated and brought to a good relationship
Day Ten – celebrate your living family, and with them honor the dead and your relationship with the dead.
On the remaining days I would continue focusing on the work from day one.
Otherwise, you might take a simpler approach and just pick a prayer and make that prayer each day, or give nine days of offerings. Or even make offerings the first day and propitiations the last day and leave it at that. There are a lot of approaches you can take should you decide to take advantage of this traditional time for building relationships with the dead.
But just remember, the focus here is the dead themselves, not the gods who rule them or the guardians who keep them.
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