Nenia Dea (Engl.: Goddess Nenia; never Naenia) was an ancient funeral deity of Rome, who had a sanctuary outside of the Porta Viminalis. The cult of the Nenia is doubtlessly a very old one, but according to Wissowa the location of Nenia's shrine outside of the center of early Rome indicates that she didn't belong to the earliest circle of Roman deities. In a different interpretation her shrine was located outside of the old city walls, because it had been custom for all gods connected to death or dying.
Goddess of the Roman funerary lament
Nenia shares her name with the nenia that sometimes took the meaning of carmen funebre ("dirge"), and Marcus Terentius Varro regarded the Nenia Dea as a personification of the funerary lament's protective power. She was therefore a goddess also connected to the end of a person's life. It has to be noted that Varro assigned the Nenia Dea to a polar position with respect to the god Ianus, which was probably inspired by one of the ancient Roman etymologies of the word nenia, defining it as nenia finis ("end", fig.: "finale").
Arnobius of Sicca places men, who are near to death, under Nenia's care. Although Arnobius' writings are mainly influenced by Cornelius Antistius Labeo, the identification of Nenia as the goddess of human transience here also suggests a Varronian origin. It is unclear whether Tertullian referred to the Nenia Dea, when he wrote about the "goddess of death herself". If the worship of Nenia herself was part of the last rites is uncertain. However, Lucius Afranius clearly associates the term nenia (i.e. the funeral song) with the obsequies.
Heller rejects Nenia's status as a funerary deity and makes a guess as to her original nature as the goddess of "children's playtime". Heller's restrictive emphasis on nenia as a "jingle" or "plaything" alone has however been refuted, since sufficient sources on the funerary nature have been delivered by Heller himself, albeit disregarded.
In any case, even Heller's erroneous interpretation of the term nenia could in principle be applicable to Roman funerary customs, because death was also seen as a rebirth into the afterlife. Lucretius explicitely connects the funeral lamentations with the "wail that children raise upon first seeing the shores of light." Furthermore, the dirges could sometimes also have paralleled the lullabies that mothers sing to their children, since some neniae were sung with a soothing voice. However, this source and other sources on the nenia as a lullaby do not specifically refer to dirges, but to neniae in general. Beside the lament to fend off perdition, Nenia's character might have included some of the hypothesized philosophies, e.g. the wailing of rebirth, but since the sources are silent with respect to the goddess herself, these views on the Nenia Dea remain speculation.
- Cf. e.g. "Nēnia", in: Oskar Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1894, p. 414; this alternative spelling was only used by later authors in antiquity and in some secondary scholarly publications. The spelling naenia does not accord with any of the earliest ancient sources on the goddess, e.g. by Varro, although it might in theory have been used also by the Romans.
- Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatu 161.32–162.1 Müller, 2nd ed. Leipzig 1880 (156.13–15 Lindsay, Leipzig 1913): <Neniae deae> sacellum ultra portam <Viminalelm …… > …………t aediculam. Cf. Paulus ed. of Fest. De verb. sign. 163 Müller (157 Lindsay): Neniae deae sacellum extra portam Viminalem fuerat dedicatum.
- Georg Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, München 1912/1971, p. 197.
- "Naenia", in: William Smith (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Boston 1870, p. 1135.
- Marcus Terentius Varro, Antiquitatum rerum humanarum et divinarum libri XLI 14, fragment 65 Agahd, Leipzig 1898; testimony in: Aurelius Augustinus, De Civitate Dei 6.9; see also: Georg Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, München 1912/1971, p. 245; Kroll, "Nenia", in: RE 2392; Kurt Latte: Römische Religionsgeschichte, München 1960, p. 52.
- See the article on the nenia for this specific etymology including sources.
- Arnobius of Sicca, Against the heathen 4.7.
- Contra: R. Agahd "Varronis Antiquitatum rerum divinarum Libri", in: Jahrbuch für classische Philologie, Supplement Volume 24, Leipzig 1898, p. 124; pro: John Lewis Heller: "Nenia 'παίγνιον'", in: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 74, 1943, p. 225: The expliciteness of the identification as finis strongly suggests a Varronian origin.
- Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, Libri duo ad Nationes II.15.
- Lucius Afranius, Com. fragment 2181, in Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatu 161.14–16 Müller (154.20–22 Lindsay); John Lewis Heller: "Nenia 'παίγνιον'", in: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 74, 1943, p. 228, fragment completed as: <Afra>nius in Materte<ris: ut cum nenia tibicines exe>quias eant. See also: Thomas Habinek, The World of Roman Song. From Ritualized Speech to Social Order, Baltimore 2005.
- John Lewis Heller: "Nenia 'παίγνιον'", in: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 74, 1943, p. 263
- Wilhelm Kierdorf, Laudatio Funebris. Interpretationen und Untersuchungen zur Entwicklung der römischen Leichenrede, Meisenheim am Glan 1980, p. 97; Kurt Latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte, München 1960, p.101; also referring to Nilsson, Opusc. I 107.
- Thomas Habinek, The World of Roman Song. From Ritualized Speech to Social Order, Baltimore 2005, pp. 233–243.
- Titus Lucretius Carus, On the Nature of Things, II 575–577; see also II 579–80; cp. also the feeding of the deceased with breast-milk as a Roman funerary custom.
- Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied. Gesture in Ancient Rome, Princeton 2004.
- Arnobius of Sicca, Against the heathen 7.32.
- Still, it was speculated that the worship of Nenia was to "procure rest and peace for the departed in the lower world" (cf. "Naenia", in: William Smith (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Boston 1870, p. 1135).