Friday, 19 April 2013

Household Shrine and Ritual

Lararium fresco from a tavern in Pompeii - on either side of the Lares is
Mercury on the left and Bacchus on the right. Sacred snakes appear below.
Over three and a half years after I first set up my household shrine a few things have changed – one of the biggest changes is that after years of wariness of statues I now have a carefully chosen statue of Mercury on my shrine, for he is a God I particularly revere. Initially I held the notion that the household shrine, or lararium, should, to be consistent with the religious practices of ancient Romans, only honour household deities, but I have since come to realise that ancient Romans did not necessarily hold that view. Mary Beard writes:
"… one of the most distinctive and easily recognisable features of Pompeian houses is shrines that we now call by the Latin word lararium, shrine of the Lares or household Gods … some of these are quite elaborate affairs … But many others are much simpler … In many cases statuettes of Gods and Goddesses stood on the ledge or shelf of the lararium. Sometimes these depict the Lares themselves, but a much wider range of deities has been found … After the Lares, Mercury is the most popular divine subject, closely followed by Egyptian Gods … with Venus, Minerva, Jupiter and Hercules, in that order, coming next [M Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town at 295-298]."
Some hold that it is better to have a separate shrine to the household Gods (whom I invoke as “spirits of the household” during the shrine ritual) as distinct from any other Gods one wishes to especially honour, but I live in a small home and it is not practical to have separate shrines. I am very happy with my modest multi-deity shrine.

Postcard from 1880s showing a Pompeii lararium, located in
the servants' quarters, which included an image of Bacchus
(he is depicted on the far left, above the sacred snake).
Image sourced from
The wording of my prayers have also changed significantly – I used to ask for quite tangible worldly things. Whereas, in a philosophical effort to be less grasping (I’m sure the Stoics of Greece and Rome would have approved of this), the focus is now more on showing my reverence for particular deities and asking for their goodwill in a non-specific way. The offerings have changed too – they are now less traditionally Roman and more Buddhist (incense, flowers, fruit and pure water are traditional offerings on Buddhist shrines*), as is the whole ritual. This is because I wish to show both my reverence for the Gods and to affirm my quasi-Epicurean aspiration to improve my mind/soul/spirit/genius/juno/self and so become more like them.

Clearly my approach is unashamedly eclectic and syncretic – an approach that ancient Romans, with their enthusiasm for “foreign” Gods such as Isis and Mithras, were very familiar with. I revere the Gods primarily in their Roman manifestation, but philosophically I am drawn to the teachings of the Buddha. Wisdom and truth have no ethnicity, no culture, no colour, no nation, no time – I am not going to restrict myself to Greco-Roman philosophy just because I am in the habit of revering Roman Gods. Nor am I going to embrace only eastern deities merely because they are associated with Buddhism – for culturally I am a Westerner and I understand the Gods through a (mostly) Western gaze.

The items on my shrine are as follows (left to right, back row first, then front row):
  • Home fragrance reed diffuser – so that the shrine is always pleasant smelling.
  • Wedgwood jasperware container for salt with the three Graces on the lid. This is essentially a salinum – a container for sacred purifying salt.
  • Royal Doulton  porcelain flowers in a vase – as a symbolic representation of flowers, which I feel should always be present on a shrine.
  • A tortoise – an animal traditionally associated with Mercury.
  • A statue of Mercury – originally I planned to paint it, but an attempt to paint another statue I owned (of the laughing Buddha) did not go as well as I had hoped so I am happily leaving the statue in white.
  • A wooden box that belonged to my late grandmother (and was given to her by my late mother) with a peacock (evocative of Juno) carved onto the lid – it contains supplies for the shrine, such as incense and a lighter. This is essentially an acerra (container for storing sacred incense). The association of this humble box with my ancestors is a deliberate representation of my love for my mother and grandmother on this sacred place. Elsewhere I have a shelf devoted to images, and treasured belongings, of my mother – however I make no offerings on that shelf as I don't think she would have approved.
  • Japanese lacquered tray to place incense and candle holder on – so that the heat caused by these items does not stain the surface of the altar.
  • Incense holders and incense. The middle incense holder has an image of a cockerel on it – an animal traditionally associated with Mercury. Compare to the ancient Roman turibulum.
  • Candle holder with a tealight. Compare to the ancient Roman lucerna. Generally my tea light burns for around five hours straight, thus if I perform the ritual before dinner the tea light has generally burned out by the time I go to bed. I have used more hard core candles in the past but I have found they can create quite a bit of mess, with dripping wax and blackened ceilings and walls.
  • Wedgwood offering plate, which belonged to my late mother, with an elephant (evocative of Ganesh – who I believe is the Hindu counterpart to Janus) on it. This is essentially a patera.
  • Small glass of purified water. Compare to the ancient Roman gutus.
I used to perform my Pagan ritual almost daily, but now, partly inspired by Cato’s assertion, in On Agriculture, that the kalends, the nones and the ides are dates upon which offerings to the Lares should traditionally be made (as well as on days of religious festivals), I perform it probably once a week and try to ensure that I perform the rite on at least the kalends and the Ides (preferably according to the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar) or the lunar kalends, nones and ides – days which are also traditionally sacred (Uposatha days) to Buddhists.

Lararium from Pompeii with Mercury painted
into the niche. From
The Ritual
Covering my head (using a long scarf or putting the hood up if wearing a hoodie), and with clean hands, I light the candle and say:
Be well revered Vesta, may your flames protect this family and may they light the path to wisdom. 
As I light each of the three cones of incense offered I say:
I light this incense in reverence of all wise and compassionate divine beings, Janus foremost, may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [my surname]. 
I light this incense in reverence of divine Mercurius. May you be well; may you look favourably on the house of [my surname]. 
If I have done anything, or I do anything, to violate this rite may you receive this incense in expiation of my error.
I then may include an elongated and more personal prayer to Mercury, and then say regarding the purified water and fruit** that have been placed on the shrine as offerings to local and household deities: 
This water is offered with good will to all local spirits, may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [my surname].  
This fruit is offered with good will to the spirits of this household, Vesta foremost, may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [my surname].   
Buddhist household altar - includes flowers,
fruit, clean water and incense. Image sourced
To any divine beings who are listening, thank you for your blessings if they be so, and may they be so.  
Or I place my palms together and bow slightly the way Japanese people do and say:
I pay homage to the deities of this shrine, both named and unnamed.
I blow a kiss, or kiss my fingers, and then touch the altar and say:
It is done.  

* Incense reminds us that as incense makes the room we are in more pleasant so to does virtuous conduct make our lives happier. Flowers remind us that life is constantly changing - what is beautiful today may be wilted tomorrow. Fruit reminds us that just as fruit grows from a small seed, so too do actions have consequences. Water reminds us that as water is clear and calm so too is the mind when it is unstirred by passions. 

** Note that offering fruit to the Lares is not untraditional – for example, Tibullus records that grapes, inter alia, were traditional offerings to the Lares. For more on traditional offerings see this post on Interpreting the Lares. Note that when I refer to "spirits of the household" and "local spirits" this necessarily includes the Lares familiares (guardian spirits of the household) and, I hope, the Lares Compitales (guardian spirits of the crossroads) respectively – since I live very close to crossroads. By referring to "spirits of the household" I also intend to include the Penates (guardians of the storeroom), Vesta and any other household deities. The generalised catch all terminology is deliberate – perhaps I read "Sleeping Beauty" at too young an age, for I do not wish to unwittingly exclude a deity. Note also that Cicero records that the last offering should go to Vesta (and the first to Janus) – by making the last offering to the household Gods I implicitly do so. Meanwhile Ovid records that Vesta is the first deity who should be addressed in a ritual  thus it is appropriate to invoke her first. For more discussion on this see Vesta - Goddess of the Living Flame.

Postscript (2016): to see how my household shrine and ritual changed in 2016 see my post entitled The Lararium. To see how it was in 2011 see my post entitled Pagan Altar.

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at and Roman Pagan on Facebook


  1. Oh, great post! As I am a newcomer to Roman paganism it is difficult to me to imagine how rituals should be performed or which words to say. Mercury must be very proud of you. He's also a patron of mine together with Minerva. Although I'm not sure if I would follow your Eastern approach to Roman religion I appreciate your syncretic point of view and your straight and easy way to address Gods, sometimes I feel a bit scared by all those impressive rituals and sacrifices: am I performing correctly? should Gods feel satisfied with my offerings? can they understand my Latin? May be the most important is to show sincere respect and friendly trust on the deities, whatever way you do (in a Roman way... of course) I think that Cultus Deorum open mind is an important asset and you help a lot to show it off. Thank you again, Figula.

    1. Many thanks for your lovely comments:) Regarding the importance of intent during ritual, I like this passage from Ovid's description of the story of Pygmalion and his love for his ivory statue (who Venus brings to life) in *Metamorphoses* (book X):

      "... having already brought his own gift to the altar [of Venus], Pygmalion stood by and offered this fainthearted prayer: ‘If you in heaven are able to give us whatever we ask for, then I would like as my wife’ and not daring to say ‘my ivory maiden’ said ‘one like my statue!’ Since golden Venus was present there at her altar, she knew what he wanted to ask for, and as a good omen three times the flames soared and leapt right up to the heavens."

      Here it is clear that Venus heard Pygmalion's unspoken prayer in his heart - his heartfelt intent mattered more than the actual words he spoke. Thus I deduce that the Gods, with their great wisdom and compassion, will not look unkindly upon supplicants who sincerely aspire to honour them, and that it is intent that matters most - though a ritual well performed surely goes towards demonstrating the sincerity of that intent.

  2. Hi. I just discovered your blog and I'm really enjoying it. I'm an American Wiccan who has moved to Melbourne. For the last year, I've just been settling in, investigating the local Pagan community, and working on adapting my practice to the Southern Hemisphere, which includes getting to know the local spirits and learning to honor them. Setting up my lararium is something I've been thinking about, but the traditional look (i.e. Pompeii) doesn't feel right. I've decided to try and create a canvas to better capture the spirits and landscape here. It's interesting and encouraging to see the adaptations you've made.

    1. Thanks for your lovely comments:) I agree with you about the desirability of honouring local spirits in one's household rituals - I am pretty sure that in Australia they wouldn't look anything like Pompeian Lares but I am not really sure what they might look like (I tend to think of birds rather than people) ...