Roman Houses were full of Spirits Not All of Which came from Grapes

By: The Scribe on Friday, March 11, 2011

Romans often had a very busy religious life. There were many different religious festivals and rites that needed to be observed for well known Roman gods including Vesta, Jupiter and Juno but other than the religious ceremonies, these deities didn’t have much control over the daily lives of regular citizens. That was the responsibility of a collection of different spirits that were believed to reside in and around the home of Roman citizens. It was believed that these invisible spirits had a huge role to play in how harmonious, prosperous and peaceful a Roman home was and that if the spirits were not appeased, things could go very badly indeed.An illustration from a 4th century manuscript

If a Roman wanted to ensure that they would have enough food in the house, they didn’t go to Juno or Vesta. Instead, a Roman would pray to Panes or Penates. These were earth spirits who also held sway over the pantry and kitchen of a Roman home. They were represented by statuettes that were prayed to daily and which were set out on a table during a meal.

There were several different names for the spirits of dead ancestors. Ancestor worship was a huge part of Roman religious life. When someone’s mother or father died, it was believed that they became one of the Parentes, which were spirits of immediate family members. Parentes could also be the spirits of close relatives who were still living. They were represented by statuettes and it was not unusual for a Roman to take the statuettes of living relatives with them. The statuettes of living relatives were accompanied by fire from a Roman’s own hearth.

A statuette believed to hold a Lar or guardian spiritThe spirits of dead ancestors were believed to live in statuettes as well but these were known as Lares. A Roman family was expected to pray to them daily and make offerings to them at different times during the year. Significant dates such as anniversaries, weddings and birthdays were celebrated by more elaborate rituals.

Moving permanently from one household to another meant that the statuettes which represented the Lares and Panes would also be moved by the family. It was very important to Romans that the spirits were prayed to and worshipped properly. It was believed that if a spirit was not shown the proper respect or if a family forgot to pray to it, it could become wrathful or mischievous. Spirits who became unhappy were known as Lemures. Since the Romans believed that the world around them was full of spirits it was not unusual that they would think some were wrathful or out to do harm to the living.

Romans referred to the spirits of the deceased as Manes. The Manes were worshipped during a festival known as Parentalia. During the festival, sacrifices were made to the Manes. The sacrifices (which usually took the form of flower garlands, wine-soaked bread, wheat and salt) were placed at family tombs and the celebration was considered to be a positive one. However, the evil spirits were also addressed during Feralia, a celebration that marked the end of Parentalia. It was believed that unless Feralia took place, the spirits of the dead would rise from their graves and roam the streets.


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