Friday, 20 May 2016

The Lararium

Miniture bronze statue of Venus (1st-2nd century CE)
such as may have been placed on an ancient Lararium
For me, the heart of Roman polytheism lays with the Lararium – the household shrine which honours the household and patron Gods. For nearly seven years I have maintained this shrine and over the years its location, look and the ritual associated with it has changed. I make offerings several times a monthThis is the time when my home, or at least my shrine, becomes a sacred space; when I connect with the divine, which is to say I connect with the universe more fulsomely because I do not simply use it for my own ends but offer in return my respect, my reverence, fire, water, food and incense. Without the Lararium Roman polytheism would, for me, be no more than a theory, or an inclination. With the Lararium it is ritual action, it is part of my life and my home.

The setting up of the Lararium is inspired by the ancient Roman practice of maintaining a sacred space in the home. Beard, North and Price write:
“The Roman house itself was the centre of family and private religion. In richer and middle-ranking houses a common feature was a shrine of the household gods – now conventionally known as a Lararium ... Commonly found in the central court (atrium) of a house, or sometimes in the kitchen, these shrines contained paintings or statuettes of household gods and other deities; they might also include (in a wealthier house) commemoration of the family's ancestors. We assume ... that these shrines would have formed the focus of family rituals ... [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2, Cambridge University Press at 4.12]”
The diversity of Lararia in the ancient world is emphasised by Scheid:
“In private houses, the scale and number of cult places varies. Not all houses ran to a built-up or wooden Lararium in the atrium or altars and extra rooms devoted to a cult as did grand aristocratic residences. In poorer houses, without an atrium or specially decorated rooms, the earthenware statuettes of the family ‘pantheon’ would be kept in cupboards, and sacrifices would generally be made on the ground or, when banquets were held, in the flames of a portable altar [Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana University Press at 73].”
Physical features
The fundamentals of my Lararium include:
  • A designated space for the shrine itself – in my case this is on top of a chest of drawers sitting just outside the kitchen.
  • A candle (compare to a lucerna), which is lit in reverence of Vesta, by doing so the ritual begins and the shrine is, for want of a better word, activated.
  • An incense holder (compare to a turibulum).
  • A small plate on which to place food offerings (compare to a patera).
  • A glass for offering water (compare to a gutus).
  • A wooden box in which to keep incense, lighter, etc (compare to an acerra).
  • A small container for salt (compare to a salinum). For me, the presence of salt is a nod to the important Goddess Salus, Goddess of good health and well-being. By including it I implicitly offer good health and well being to the Gods and to myself.
  • Statues of the major deities honoured at my Lararium, however, implicitly not all the deities of the shrine are physically represented, instead I invoke them by name during the ritual – initially, years ago, I had no statues and invoked all deities by words alone. Note that in the earliest Roman times anthropomorphic representations of the Gods were not made, though they were common by the imperial era, so it is certainly not necessary to have statues on one’s Lararium, but rather it is a personal choice. I think my statues are lovely and help me to connect with the deities they represent, which is why I have them. 
My Lararium. Front, left to right = offering to household Gods, candle, incense offerings and water offering to local spirits. 
Back, left to right = scent diffusers, Lar behind a salt container, Vesta, Mercury on a box containing special items, Venus, wooden box for incense, lighter, etc. 
Ritual Practice
The ritual practice that takes place at my Lararium currently goes something like this:
  1. Dust and lightly clean the shrine space, as well as my hands.
  2. Set up all the offerings ready to go (I do not light the candle or incense at this point).
  3. Cover my head with a scarf – the head is usually covered when engaging in Roman rites.
  4. Light the candle flame and say: “I light this flame in reverence of divine Vesta, may your flames protect this household, may they light the path to wisdom”.
  5. Light the first stick of incense and say: “Janus, opener of the way, gatekeeper, I offer this incense to you first, that you may look favourably upon this household and to obtain access through your doors to the divine. May you be well, may this offering please you.”
  6. Light the second stick of incense and say “I light this incense in reverence of divine Mercurius, may you be well, may this offering please you”. I then, with open palms (manu supina), offer up a more elaborate prayer to Mercury, see Prayer to Mercury for more on this. Note that I regard Mercury as my patron God, which is to say the God to whom I feel the strongest connection and affection.
  7. Light the third stick of incense and say “I light this incense in reverence of divine Venus, may you be well, may this offering please you”. I then, with open palms, offer up a more elaborate prayer to Venus, see Prayer to Venus for more on this. Note that I personally regard Venus as an extremely important deity, which is why I include her on my Lararium.
  8. Light the fourth stick of incense and say “If I have done anything to violate this rite I offer this incense to you, whoever is offended”.
  9. With reference to the glass holding fresh, purified water I say “I offer this water to all local spirits, may you be well, may you look favourably upon this household.”
  10. With reference to the food offering (usually fruit) I say “I offer this food to the spirits of this household, Vesta foremost, may this offering please you, may you look favourably upon this household.” I then, with open palms, offer up a more elaborate prayer to Vesta, see Prayer to Vesta for more on this. I include a statue of Vesta with flames on my shrine so that she is symbolically always present on my shrine, in the same way that in ancient times ritual fire was intended to burn continuously.
  11. I then blow a kiss to the shrine and place my hands together in prayer (without crossing or interlinking the fingers – I have read that it is inauspicious to cross one’s body parts in Roman rituals) and bow in the same sort of way that Japanese people are known to do and say “I bow to the deities of this shrine, both named and unnamed”.
  12. Then I say “it is done”. This concludes the rite.
Note that it is traditional, in Roman rites, to make the first offering to Janus (the gateway to the divine) and the last to Vesta, though Vesta is invoked first (see Ovid, Fasti, 9 June and Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, bk 2). However I certainly do not claim that my ritual is super traditional. For example, I do not honour my Juno (the spirit or active force of a being) at my Lararium, nor do I make offerings to my ancestors there, though I do make prayers for the well being of my ancestors at my Buddhist shrine (which is located separately).* I honestly don't feel any of my immediate dead ancestors are looking after me, although I am open to the idea of accessible ancestor spirits.

Other Household Shrines
My shrine to Saturn for Saturnalia (2015)
While the Lararium is the central focus in my household I do also set up temporary shrines at Christmas time; first to Saturn, for the Saturnalia, and then on Christmas Eve to Sol (the sun). Temporary or permanent shrines to Gods that do not include the Lares (the deities which guard and protect the household and its members, they are similar to or the same as house-elves, such as Tomte) may be known as either Sacraria or Sacella (Sacrarium and Sacellum). Although I have been tempted to in the past, I no longer attempt to honour every deity to whom I wish to show reverence at my Lararium, whenever I have tried to do this it has felt ineffectual. At my Lararium I focus on the household Gods, local spirits and specific patron deities. If I feel a strong urge to make offerings to another God I think it is better to set up a temporary shrine for this purpose, or to find a location which seems to feel sacred to the God in question and make my offerings there (for example, a beach could be a good place to make a water offering to Neptune, or in a mountainous forest for Diana, or a military shrine for Mars, and so on).

Purpose of the Lararium
Before I close I want to point out that in engaging in the rite described above I am in no way attempting to “reconstruct” a supposedly dead religion. What I am trying to do is connect  in a positive way with particular aspects of our sacred universe, and thereby achieve an enhanced life state. Roman religion is a tool which I use to do this, and I think it is an excellent one. Contrary to what many contemporary intellectuals seem to think, Western polytheism is not dead, it may not be widely practised, but it is not dead, it never died (it was only suppressed); it lives on. Long may it be so.


* Just as in Japan people often practice both Shintoism and Buddhism (and ethnic Chinese often practice Chinese folk religion alongside Buddhism), so do I. One religion does not exclude the other. The same sort of inclusive mix and match of religions and philosophies was common in the Roman era though it is unlikely that Buddhism was ever widely practised in ancient Roman territories, even while it is likely that some Romans would have come into contact with it.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.

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