Nicostrata, " the felicitous prophetess" and the Carmentalia

11 January, the Carmentalia were celebrated in Ancient Rome, honouring the goddess Nicostrata or Carmenta, a patroness of childbirth, prophecy, scientific innovation and scholarship.

“But the felicitous prophetess, as she lived beloved of the gods, Now a goddess herself, has this day of Janus’ month as hers.“ (Ovid, “Fasti”)

A woodcut of Carmenta or Nicostrata
 unlocking the Tower of Sciences with an abecedarium for a young student
 (Gregor Reisch “margarita philosophica”, Basel 1519)

A provenance does seldom come more versatile than Evander’s. Born in idyllic Arcadia with Mercury as father and the Cimmerian Sibyl as mother, the young man was quite obviously destined to eclectic greatness. However, he managed to get himself exiled from Arcadia, ended up in Latium and lived up to his full potential in an alien place. Sixty years before the Trojan War, Evander founded the city of Pallantium on the future site of Rome, brought the benighted natives the Greek pantheon, Greek laws, whatever that meant in the Bronze Age, the Greek alphabet, the Lupercalia and his mother Nicostrata. And it was actually she who had altered the letters into the Latin alphabet and became something of a patron for technological innovation. And one fine day, she went up Palatine Hill, the elevation no hill surpasses, at least according to Ovid, and had a vision of Rome and her coming greatness there, as befitting to one of the Sibyls. The good people of Latium held her in high regard, for her scientific achievements and the great expectations she gave them. They called her Carmenta ever since, from “carmen”, a magic spell or song. When she died, she was buried at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, close to the Porta Carmentalis and her altar was one of the oldest in Rome.

An introductory illustration to Giovanni Boccaccio's book “De claris mulieribus“ – which is pretty much self-explanatory (Ulm, 1474)

As one of the di indigetes, the native gods, Carmenta received special attention until late antiquity and was called upon by women in childbirth, since she was among the deities who would decide the future fate of the unborn, a patron of midwives and depicted as lovely young woman with a crown of pods from broad beans, vicia faba, and a harp, she was a Sibyl, an oracle, after all. A thousand years later, her remembrance was re-established during the Renaissance, Boccaccio included her biography in his collection “De mulieribus claris“, Of Famous Women” and the Northern Renaissance made Evander’s learning of the alphabet from his mother Carmenta into an archetypical scene of teaching and an abecedarium becomes the allegorical key to the Tower of Sciences, where students are taught vocabulary and grammar in the basement, as basics for future scientific advancement.

And more about Carmenta on:

Boccaccio’s  “De mulieribus claris“ on:

And the abecedarium on: