The term Argei is the name of an ancient Roman festival, as well as a series of small shrines associated with the ritual, and also the name of the wicker effigies that were drowned in the river at these festivals. There were 27 of these shrines, and every March and May worshipers would place large woven dolls (made of reeds and straw) shaped like a man at each of the 27 sites. Then, on the 17th of May they'd gather up these wicker men and drown them all in the Tiber River.
No one really knows why they drowned these effigies. Modern historians have numerous theories, including:
- rainmaking ritual designed to ensure good weather for agriculture in the summer
- ritual purification of the city of Rome, with the effigies sucking up pollution or bad luck to be washed away
- a less-murderous stand-in for a previous human sacrifice to Saturn
- a commemoration of an event in which 27 Greek prisoners-of-war were executed by drowning
The freaky thing is that not only don't we know what it was all about, neither did the Romans. By the 1st Century BC (and possibly well before that), the Roman populace had lost the meaning and reason of the ritual. It was just something they did. Ovid wrote that he didn't know what the popular festival was supposed to represent, but expressed his opinion that the original human sacrifice had been replaced by the woven effigies well before the founding of Rome itself. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that the original sacrifices had been men over the age of 60, and indicated that the Romans had a popular turn of phrase "sexagenarians off a bridge" that referenced it. That the Romans kept doing this for generations well after losing the meaning of it, speaks volumes about their take on tradition and culture.
Game and Story Use
- It's a great way to establish some background or flavor in a historical or time-travel campaign, especially if the PCs aren't Roman, but are just visiting. Here's this crazy morbid festival the locals engage in, and not a one of them knows why.
- Similarly morbid or inexplicable festivals being conducted by the cultures, people, or races of your own campaign setting could help make them feel more foreign or unearthly.
- Roman culture could be fairly harshly pragmatic - sickly or deformed babies could be exposed as ruthlessly as in Sparta. Perhaps this was a leftover from an earlier, even grimmer age in which the old and infirm were culled as well to keep scarce resources for the younger and fitter.
- Why did Rome fall? Not because of plague nor barbarians nor political squabble. One year they neglected the Argei festival, and everything fell apart. Turns out the ritual was really important, after all.
- A lot of Roman religion had a strong strain of animism about it, and when dealing with spirits it can be best to stick to what works, even once you've forgotten why. As Chesterton put it, "before you take down the huge iron gate on your new house, make very sure you know exactly why the previous owner put it up". As for the use of dolls - perhaps the spirits were content with the ritual obeisance (or with an original sacrifice that it commemorates) … or perhaps they just weren't that observant.
- In a word: Cthulhu. The victims of the festival are sent out to the sea by way of the river. No one remembers why, but they do it anyway. Sounds to me like most of the city failed a sanity test.
- The Med's a bit shallow for ol'Octopus Face … Deep Ones on the other hand …
- Thanks to Interpretatio Graeca, the sacrifice might not be to Saturn or Tiber, you could cast just about any God (or other supernatural entity) of the classical world in the part.
- Could be some sort of poppet magic.
- What sort of nasty spell would require 27 human sacrifices? Does the spell still work with the reed & straw surrogates?
- The dolls might represent specific people. It would effectively be a black magic version of the Greek Ostracon - with 27 people put to death every year.
- Even if it normally doesn't, it might be possible to construct one of the dolls as a poppet that directly ties a specific person to that sacrifice and makes them forfeit to the spirit(s) of the Tiber.