The cult of trees and woods is a feature common to many, if not all, Prechristian European Religions; in Roman-Italic religions it must have had a particular relevance, since in Latin there are three words that mean ‘wood’, two of which are related to the religious context. As a rule of thumb, we can say that Latin, if compared to Greek, is richer in verbs than in nouns, so the existence of three words for most alike things shows the importance this place must have in Roman religious context. The meaning we can ascribe to these words was object of discussion even among ancient authors: this is proof of a continuous evolution both of language and of religion, which, opposite to the monotheistic ones, tends to be a dynamic reality.
Let’s begin from the first word, the one that doesn’t define a sacred place, but sometimes is the habitat of a god (like Faunus): silva. According to Servius, who wrote a commentary on Virgil in 4th-5th century c.e., silva is the wild forest, dark and without entry spaces. Usually not so specific, Latin language prefers this word as a common noun to mean ‘wood’, while there are other words for ‘sacred woods’.
The word that always belongs to a sacred context is lucus (plural: luci): there is no lucus that isn’t sacred, but different Latin writers had different opinions about what lucus exactly meant. From a religious point of view, between the silva and the lucus there’s the nemus (plural: nemora), that is the third word meaning ‘wood’. Does it mean ‘sacred wood’ also? Yes, and it has the same root than the Celtic word nemeton, meaning a sacred place, but then how is it different from the lucus?
According to Servius, who we quoted some lines above, the lucus is a multitude of trees with a sacred character, while the nemus is an ensemble of trees tidily planted by the hand of men. Among modern scholars, Pierre Grimal agrees with him and distinguishes the lucus as the Italic sacred wood, wild, from the nemus as the Greek-type sacred wood, men-created. This contradicts some authors who are closer to Roman religion in a chronological sense: one for all, Horace, who calls Diana lady of mountains and of woods, using the word nemus. How can it be that Diana is goddess of men-planted woods? Cato writes about a lucus dedicated to Diana inside the nemus in Aricia; other authors write about a lucus in a silva: a wood inside a wood?
Actually, as these examples state, the lucus becomes a wood only in a late period; some luci were in ancient times places for federal meetings, very uncomfortable to be held into wild trees! The lucus is in fact a clearing, wild or created by the man as Cato explains in De agri cultura, if the trees are cut with the due rites, but it’s always sacred per se, like a contact place between the man and the divine that lives into the wood, be this latter a nemus or a silva. It happened probably with progressive disappear of wild places, due to agriculture and settings expansion, that the word lucus began to mean the wood; the nemus is instead the wood with a sacred character because it’s located inside sacred grounds or because it has been consecrated, like a temple.
Comparing the nemus-lucus system to the temple, the nemus is the temple’s cella, the place reserved to the deity that inhabits it, the lucus that part in which humans are allowed too.
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