Spiritual Life in a Roman Household
In ancient Rome, although there was regular worship of the better known `state gods' such as Jupiter and Juno and Vesta, individual Roman lives were influenced to a greater degree by the spirits of the home and the spirits of those who had passed on. In the Roman view, it was better by far to forget to sacrifice at the shrine of Vesta than to leave the house in the morning without thanking the spirits which guided and provided for and protected one's family.
Panes also known as Penates (pronounced `PAH-nay' and `PeNAH-tay') - were the spirits of the pantry, of the kitchen. It was the Panes who kept food in the house and provided a pleasant atmosphere in which to live. Statuettes of the Panes/Penates would be taken out and set on the table during meals. These were not spirits of the dead but, rather, spirits of the earth.
Lares were the spirits of one's dead ancestors and there was a cupboard in the home which housed their statuettes and from which they worked to make sure the family prospered. Daily prayers and offerings were made to the Lares throughout the year but elaborate rituals were enacted on special days such as a birthday, wedding, anniversary or departure or return from a journey. When a family moved permanently from one house to another, the Lares and the Panes would move with them.
Parentes were the spirits of one's immediate family - a mother or father - who had passed on but were also the spirits of one's family still living on the earth. If a Roman were to travel to, say, Athens, he would bring along the statuettes of his wife and children, along with some fire from his hearth, so that wherever he went, they would go also. In the popular film Gladiator the statuettes Maximus prays to of his wife and son would be Parentes and the "blessed father" he invokes in his prayers would be his own father, the "blessed mother" his own mother, not any god.
Manes were the collective dead who inhabited the afterlife. Anyone who died became a mane and then were specified as a Lare or a Parentes by whomsoever was involved with them.
Lemures were the uneasy or wrathful or mischevious dead. Today a Lemure would be known as a poltergeist. These spirits, like the Manes, were the general unhappy dead. A Lare could become a Lemure if proper offerings and prayers were not made satisfactorily.
Genius was the household spirit of manhood and was symbolized by the snake. The household Genius was honored on the birthday of the head of the household and was defined as "a spirit of manhood" with special influence over the marriage bed.
Watched over in life but not in death
Everyone, throughout their lives, was watched over by one or more spirits. "While a spirit of some kind watched over a person at most times and on most occasions from conception to death, at the actual moment of death there was none. The religious element in the the funeral rites was directed towards a symbolic purification of the survivors"(Living In Ancient Rome). The funeral, then, was for the living, not to specifically honor the dead. The family would sacrifice a pig, carry out a ritual cleansing of the house and then have a feast with guests as a symbol of life continuing on in the home. Once the dead had moved on and become manes then was the time for worship and prayers honoring who they had been in life and who they remained in the after-life. These spirits guided and protected the Romans in their daily endeavors but, when forgotten, or when a sacrifice or prayer seemed more an act of custom than of actual care, the spirits withdrew their favor and one suffered misfortune great or small.
This article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2008 Professor Joshua J. Mark