LECTISTERNIUM (from Lat. lectum sternere, "to spread a couch "; orpajjuceu in Dion. Halic. xii. 9), in ancient Rome, a propitiatory ceremony, consisting of a meal offered to gods and goddesses, represented by their busts or statues, or by portable figures of wood, with heads of bronze, wax or marble, and covered with drapery. Another suggestion is that the symbols of the gods consisted of bundles of sacred herbs, tied together in the form of a head, covered by a waxen mask so as to resemble a kind of bust (cf. the straw puppets called Argei). These symbols were laid upon a couch (lectus), the left arm resting on a cushion (pulvinus, whence the couch itself was often called puhinar) in the attitude of reclining. In front of the couch, which was placed in the open street, a meal was set out on a table. It is definitely stated by Livy (v. 13) that the ceremony took place " for the first time " in Rome in the year 399 B.C., after the Sibylline books had been consulted by their keepers and interpreters (duumviri sacris faciendis), on the occasion of a pestilence. Three couches were prepared for three pairs of gods Apollo and Latona, Hercules and Diana, Mercury and Neptune. The feast, which on that occasion lasted for eight (or seven) days, was also celebrated by private individuals; the citizens kept open house, quarrels were forgotten, debtors and prisoners were released, and everything done to banish sorrow. Similar honours were paid to other divinities in subsequent times Fortuna, Saturnus, Juno Regina of the Aventine, the three Capitoline deities (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva), and in 217, after the defeat of lake Trasimenus, a lectisternium was held for three days to six pairs of gods, corresponding to the twelve great gods of Olympus Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mars, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Vulcan, Vesta; Mercury, Ceres. In 205, alarmed by unfavourable prodigies, the Romans were ordered to fetch the Great Mother of the gods from Pessinus in Phrygia; in the following year the image was brought to Rome, and a lectisternium held. In later times, the lectisternium became of constant (even daily) occurrence, and was celebrated in the different temples. Such celebrations must be distinguished from those which were ordered, like the earlier lectisternia, by the Sibylline books in special emergencies. Although undoubtedly offerings of food were made to the gods in very early Roman times on such occasions as the ceremony of confarreatio, and the epulum Jovis (often confounded with the lectisternium), it is generally agreed that the lectisternia were of Greek origin. In favour of this may be mentioned : the similarity of the Greek Qfo^tvia, in which, however, the gods played the part of hosts; the gods associated with it were either previously unknown to Roman religion, though often concealed under Roman names, or were provided with a new cult (thus Hercules was not worshipped as at the Ara Maxima, where, according to Servius on Aeneid, viii. 176 and Cornelius Balbus, ap. Macrobius, Sat. iii. 6, a lectisternium was forbidden); the Sibylline books, which decided whether a lectisternium was to be held or not, were of Greek origin; the custom of reclining at meals was Greek. Some, however, assign an Etruscan origin to the ceremony, the Sibylline books themselves being looked upon as old Italian " black books." A probable explanation of the confusion between the lectisternia and genuine old Italian ceremonies is that, as the lectisternia became an almost everyday occurrence in Rome, people forgot their foreign origin and the circumstances in which they were first introduced, and then the word pulvinar with its associations was transferred to times in which it had no existence. In imperial times, according to Tacitus (Annals, xv. 44), chairs were substituted for couches in the case of goddesses, and the lectisternium in their case became a sellisternium (the reading, however, is not certain). This was in accordance with Roman custom, since in the earliest times all the members of a family sat at meals, and in later times at least the women and children. This is a point of distinction between the original practice at the lectisternium and the epulum Jovis, the goddesses at the latter being provided with chairs, whereas in the lectisternium they reclined. In Christian times the word was used for a feast in memory of the dead (Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistulae, iv. 15).
See article by A. Bouche-Leclercq in Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquites; Marquardt, Romische Staatsverwaltung, iii. 45, 187 (1885); G. Wissowa, Religion und Kuitus der Romer, P- 355 eq-; monograph by Wackermann (Hanau, 1888); C. Pascal, Studii di anlichita e mitologia (1896).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)