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The Lares and Penates

Tales beyond belief

The Lares and Penates
Discover the myths and religious beliefs surrounding the Lares and Penates, the ancient Roman family and house gods, the protectors of a family's treasured possessions and regarded as the souls of deceased ancestors. The Lar Familiaris, or guardian spirit, protected all members of a house, including itís slaves. Small statues, or figures, representing the Lares and Penates were kept in a Lararium, a shrine or altar for private worship that was an arch shaped niche built into the wall.

The Lares and Penates were also had public counterparts and revered as guardians of businesses and at crossroads of streets.

The Lares and Penates, Roman family & house gods (spirits)
The Lares and the Penates were two groups of supernatural beings or spirits, they were not two separate gods. The Lares and the Penates became almost inseparable so the roles of these house spirits were difficult to specify on an individual level. The Romans worshipped the collection of spirits, known as the Lares and Penates, in relation to several different aspects and were known as guardians and protectors of private homes and families:

  • The Lares were house gods and guardians of the house and the protectors of treasured possessions belonging to the family. The Lares were the dii familiares, house and family deities
  • The Lares were also connected with the dii familiares called the Penates who were another type of house gods who were primarily the guardians of the storeroom protecting the food, wine and oil belonging to the family
  • The Penates were also protectors of the hearth which associated them with the Roman goddess Vesta
  • Small figures representing the house gods, including both the Lares and Penates, were housed in the Lararium which was usually a small, arched niche built into the wall that was surrounded by curtains
  • The Lararium was a shrine dedicated to the goddess Vesta the goddess of the hearth and home
  • Small images, statuettes or figures were placed in the Lararium representing the Lares and Penates and the goddess Vesta
  • The cult of the Lares and Penates included the worship of the ancestral spirits of the family, watching over them from the afterlife
  • Daily prayers and offerings were made to the Lares and Penates
  • The Romans believed that the Lares and Penates were present at family meals and all family affairs and small offerings were made to them on these occasions
  • If the head of the house, the Paterfamilias, failed to ensure the proper care and worship of the Lares and Penates, the family would suffer
  • Elaborate rituals were enacted on special days such as birthdays, weddings, coming of age ceremonies and anniversaries
  • Prayers were also offered to Vesta and the Lares and Penates on the departure or return from a journey
  • There were also other important private images and statuettes called the Parentes. The Parentalia or 'dies parentales' meaning ancestral days was a nine-day festival beginning February 13, held in honor of family ancestors. The Romans would offer private prayers to deceased members of their family
  • Figures representing the immediate, living, family members such a wife and children were also created and these together with the statuettes or deceased ancestors were portable and taken on journeys way from home along with some ashes taken from the family hearth. Prayers could then be offered for the protection of the family who had been left at home

The Lares and Penates - the Lararium
The Lararium altar was the sacred place of the home where offerings and prayers were made to the gods and the Lares and Penates spirits. Cicero made reference to the Lararium as follows:

"The most sacred, the most hallowed place on earth is the home of each and every citizen. There are his sacred hearth and his house gods, there the very centre of his worship, religion, and domestic ritual."

The Lararium took various forms dependent on the wealth and status of the family. Most families had a  niche in the wall as shown in the above picture. Wealthy families had a marble altar set on a podium, resembling a miniature temple, which was called an aedicula. Another type of lararium was a fresco painted on the wall to give the illusion of an aedicula, and  depicting images of the figures of the gods and the Lares and Penates.

The Worship of the Lares and Penates
The ceremonies and rituals in honor of the Lares and Penates were conducted by the head of the family, the paterfamilias. Various offerings were made to the Lares and Penates from special containers. The items used in the worship of the Lares and Penate were:

  • Incense burner - Turibulum

  • Container for incense - Acerra

  • Sacred lamp - Lucerna

  • Container for milk or wine - Gutus

  • Container for salt - Salinum

  • Offering dish - Patera

Public Worship of Lares and Penates
The worship of the Lares and Penates was not restricted to the home, they also protected businesses. They were also deemed to be guardian spirits of the  fields and farm deities. Lares and Penates were also Protectors of crossroads which some Romans believed were haunted by ghosts of the dead and evil spirits that had to be propitiated. The Lares and Penates were also deemed to be public, not just private, spirits and protectors of the community and state. A high priest in charge of the state cult of the Lares and Penates brought them sacrificial offerings in the temple of Vesta and were worshiped in a temple on the Via Sacra in Rome. The Festival of Larentalia was celebrated on December 23 in honor of the goddess of death, Larenta, the Silent Goddess and mother of the Lares during which time offerings were made to the dead.

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