Lares, Manes, Penates, oh my…

The issue of who are the Lares, the Penates, the Manes, the Di Parentes, and so forth can be pretty confusing. I remember going through a bit of a mind storm in my early days as a cultor, since I read different and sometimes opposing answers to the question. To some extent, they are over-lapping categories and I’m not sure if the ancient Romans themselves had a uniform belief on the topic. Which is hardly surprising in a religion with no orthodoxy and naturally open to more or less slow changes of various origins. Several things may have contributed to changeable notions throughout the pre-Christian periods, like the cult of the Lares Augusti and Compitales, although the latter may also be part of an older trend already connected to roads and crossroads, and the influence of both public and imperial cult over household practices, shaping them to a degree. Then there is also the element of attempting to reconstruct and adapt an ancient religion from surviving information, most of which comes from specific periods and sometimes through the biased view of the elite. None of this helps getting a clear idea of who are the Lares, Penates, etc., but then again that’s probably besides the point: after all, if we’re talking about a religion with no orthodoxy, diverse and sometimes divergent beliefs are only to be expected.

As such, this post is largely a personal take on the matter. It lists my own views of who’s who and thus the ideas that preside over my sacra privata. To some extent, they are a synthesis of the information drawn from the past, trying to make sense of over one thousand years of traditions. No doubt the ancient Romans did something of the sort when confronted with practices whose original meaning they could no longer recall, as seen in the works of antiquaries on the religions and History of Rome.

Lar Familiaris and the Lares
The Lar Familiaris is the guardian spirit of a household. It may be the first in the line of ancestors, human or divine, or a numen who at some point became attached to a particular family and watches over its members, adoptive or blood ones. When relatives die and are invited to remain part of daily life, they continue to be under the protection of the Lar Familiaris and become Lares. In my household, this includes our pets, who even attend our religious ceremonies: our dogs, for instance, join us in the living room as we make offerings to Janus and other gods during New Year. Thus for me, the family Lares are the same as the Di Parentes or Divine Ancestors, who may be a specific group of the broader Manes.

Gods can sometimes be part of the lot, either as divine ancestors or deities connected to the household and therefore given a place in the Lararium. Venus could be an example, in the case of the Julii in ancient Rome, or maybe Jupiter as a father figure or a guardian of the home, much like Zeus, as explained by Apollodorosh here. Another option, more personal, is the Norse god Ingui: He’s connected with the ancestors and ‘freyr’ simply means ‘lord’ (see here), which in Latin would link Him to the household (domus) and the master of the house (dominus). And since today the governing of the home is shared by the couple, His sister Freya (domina) can accompany Him in that function.

Lares Patriae
This is an innovation of mine born out of the inclusion of historical figures in my household cult (as mentioned here). They are not blood relatives, but rather adoptive ancestors in a broader sense, as founding fathers or heroes of the country or community in which I was born and raised (the Patria or Fatherland). They can be kings, military leaders, explorers, scholars, and humanists whose genii are worshipped on their birthdays or, if the day of birth is unknown, at the anniversary of a defining moment in their lives.

Di Penates
The Penates are the spirits of the pantry. Or at least that’s a popular interpretation of their name (from Latin penus). As such, they are the housewights proper or the genii loci of a dwelling. They may have different origins: spirits of the place where the building was erected, deceased animals or people who remained friendly and attached to the site, spirits that may have moved from elsewhere for some reason. As a goddess of the hearth and home, Vesta is probably the best connected deity to Them, though this may be just me and She may just as easily be linked to the family Lares. However, since She’s a goddess of fire and most of us don’t have fireplaces, in modern-day life the closest thing to a hearth is usually in the kitchen, which is normally close to the pantry, and that may link Vesta to the Penates. The family Lares, on the other hand, would have a place of honour in or near the living room. Unsurprisingly, today’s common layout in urban dwellings can be a determining factor in the structure of household religion.

Lares Viales
They may be an early expansion of the ancestors’ spirits, either by watching over the street right in front of the home or the paths inside the family property. Or it may derive from the practice of erecting tombs along the roads, thereby turning the dead into their guardians. In any case, I view Them as a type of genii loci of the pathways and, like the Penates, they may have diverse origins, including victims of road accidents whose spirits remained attached to the place.

So… when do you worship Them?
Festive dates naturally vary depending on the recipients and personal or family practices. Traditionally, the family Lares are honoured at least three times every month, on the Calends, Nones, and Ides. There’s also the Parentalia on February 13, extending all the way to the 21 and 22, with the Caristia. You may want to add the birthdays of especially loved ancestors and none of this excludes daily honours to Them, as well as to the Penates. I haven’t found a traditional date for an ancient Rome festival for the Lares Viales, so I created the Vialia in Their honour and Mercury’s, on January 4, asking Them to keep the roads safe during the starting year.

10 thoughts on “Lares, Manes, Penates, oh my…

  1. This post really resonated with me! My name is Frederick and I am intrigued by your combination of Romaitas and devotion to a Germanic deity. I would like to ask of you a few questions, if I may, about the Religio Romana.
    For some time now I have been looking at the Nova Roma website and greedily devouring all that I see there. For a longer time still I have been looking into Roman influence on Germanic traditional religion in antiquity and possible residual Romano-British religious culture at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions and how this may have affected the religiosity of my English ancestors. The cult of the Romano-Germanic Matronae has also long fascinated me and I have been attempting to revive their cultus. Upon my weofod (altar) I have a depiction of the goddess Frigga in the style of a Roman lady, in addition to a Roman oil lamp. I am thinking about acquiring other traditional accoutrements of a Roman lararium; the statues of the Lar familiaris and the Penates.
    So, what is this creeping romanitas all about, especially given that I have a strong commitment to reconstructing Anglo-Saxon Heathenry? I have to admit that I am a little confused about this impulse toward things Roman; I feel it emerges out of more than a mere preference for Classical aesthetics.
    Now, I should point out that for me, in terms of my personal spiritual practice, these Roman accoutrements actually express a native Germanic complex of ideas and associations (the Genius corresponds in my mind for example to the kin-fylgja of Norse tradition). Pagan Roman and Heathen Germanic religiosity nevertheless do seem to bare some pan-European (or Indo-European) relation to one other. I don’t think the household religion of ancient Romans or Germans would have been all that different, particularly after they came into contact with each other. This Romano-Germanic religion seems curiously absent from contemporary Heathen narrative, even though it enjoyed such prominence in antiquity, but it fascinates me utterly. What I suppose I have to find out is whether something like the Genius and kin-fetch really are functionally similar and whether it really matters to my household religion whether they are not. At the moment I have “Roman” forms for “Germanic” ideas on my weofod and also, if I am honest, there is a degree of Nova Roman influence on our household religion. This is partly because of the paucity of historical resources on domestic Anglo-Saxon religion. In the quest for suitable forms I turned to the Nova Roma website and Germanified some of the daily rituals I found there. In Roman terms, I value and cultivate piety. All of this can perhaps be justified within the parameters of my Germanic Reconstructionism. On the Nova Roma website I find the following quote:
    “We also affirm that the Roman Pagan Religion is compatible with, and may be practiced alongside all other forms of religion and spiritual expression, without diluting or diminishing its basic ideals and spiritual identity. In the ancient world Roman religion was practised alongside Celtic, German, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Oriental faiths, to the enhancement of all. This syncretistic approach to other religions remains basic to the Roman Pagan spiritual world view.”
    Are we talking here about the interpretatio romana? The mechanics of polytheism confuse and intrigue me; to take an example from Roman Britain – is it the Celtic Sulis or the Roman Minerva being worshipped at Bath, or a hybrid deity? That is perhaps an imponderable. But surveying the field of the interpretatio romana I worry that it might have been an asymmetrical process in antiquity that favoured the Gods on the Roman side of the equation. That being the case (possibly) I can assume that such a process may recur today within Nova Roma and within the religio more genrally. Do you have any thoughts on this? It is probably preferable that I don’t conflate and confuse deities in such a way in any case; my polytheology suggests in any case that Roman and Germanic deities are essentially not the same; that they are distinct entities. How then might I practice Roman religion alongside my native Germanic troth? What might their compatibility, alluded to in the above quote, look like in practical terms?
    Regards – Frederick

    • Hello Frederik!

      First of all, thank you for your comment. Let’s see if I can address your points in a coherent way.

      It’s true that the interpretatio romana of the past might have been an asymmetrical process. For one, because Romans saw political advantages in it, in that it allowed for an easier assimilation of conquered peoples; and because the latter eventually adopted Roman ways, be it language, clothing, construction and, yes, religion. That said, it is also true that ancient Romans were deeply orthopraxic and could preserve or allow the preservation of a native cult’s identity in the form of different rituals, symbols, and traditions. How far could be a matter of political relations, cultural vitality, or even social dynamics. For instance, Egyptian gods were not usually identified with Roman gods, but Egypt was an old nation, it had a Greek element since Alexander the Great, at time it was even an ally and vassal of Rome, and Egyptian religious culture was in many ways very different. It had everything to be able to sustain a separate identity as indeed it did. Not Carthage, though: it was a die-hard enemy whose gods were identified with Roman ones. Tanit, for instance, was equated with Juno Caelestis. And then there’s Magna Mater, whose Anatolian ritual traditions shocked Rome, but which were nonetheless tolerated to a certain degree. Why? Probably because She was invited into the city to help and not as a deity of a vanquished people; or maybe because Romans saw themselves as descendents from the Trojans and therefore believed Cybele to be an ancestral goddess of sorts.

      Personally, I don’t take the interpretatio for granted or at face-value. I look at each case individually as they come into my religious life and judge them according to what mind and heart tell me. It’s highly subjective, yes, and it may change over time, but that’s just how faith is. For instance, I believe that Hermes and Mercury are the same god. It just makes sense to me that a deity of travels should be known far and wide by different names and even be aware of cultural sensitivities. I’m not that sure about Minerva and Athena and I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Vulcan and Hephaestus are probably not the same god (even if They are closely related). I’m actually writing a blog post on that. This is just me, though, and I have no claim to any ultimate truth. This is how I perceive the Gods and others might do it differently. I tend to look at a deity’s nature, get a feel of it, see if the interpretatio makes sense or not, do some mind storming, and then reach a conclusion, temporary or not.

      As for the kin-fylgja, I see it as the Lar Familiaris. It’s the spirit that watches over your ancestral line and welcomes or guides your family dead on the other side. A personal genius would probably be more of a personal fylgja, though even there I’m not fully sure: I’ve been told that to see a fylgja is an omen of death, but I’ve heard differently, too. Again, this boils down to your own UPG and perception of it.

      Finally, on the issue of mixing Roman and Germanic practices, I think you first need to ask yourself is which one of those two cultural backgrounds has a greater influence in your religious life. Which one rules the way you worship, see the world, organize your calendar, make your offerings? You may have elements of both in all of those things, but usually there’s a dominating line. I, for instance, came to conclusion that mine is Roman, so I brought Freyr into a Roman context and I’m slowly doing the same with other Vanir. I don’t see Him as the same as any Roman god, even if I find Him to very close to some. I also keep Germanic elements in my personal cult to Him: runes, Old Norse words, symbols, ritual practices, etc. There are series of mine that might help you with:

      In Frith!

  2. Thank you for putting me on to these very enlightening discussions! The funny thing is, I am not a reconstructionist of the “liberal” variety, nor am I particularly a fan of multiculturalism, and this may account for the level of my agonizing over including romanitas in my Heathen troth. Then again, we have ample historical precedent for syncretism between the Roman and Germanic religious cultures. Furthermore, when I survey the field of the cultus deorum I am struck immediately by the common Indo-European elements that both traditions share. Additionally, there is a “civic” dimension to Roman religion that Heathenry often fails to cultivate in the modern world, and certain civic virtues concepts valued by the Romans can assist a mature civic engagement that has a polytheistic dimension.

    • Well, civic duties developed in ancient Roman polytheism because it was an urban civilization. The Gods were Gods of the city of Rome. In the Germanic world, urbanization came late. There were villages, yes, and small rural communities, but not large cities proper. In Scandinavia, it started only in the early eighth century and I’m assuming it didn’t come by much earlier among the Germanic tribes. This naturally affects the way social life and religions organize and interact. And this is where strict reconstructionism faces a problem: if the goal is to reconstruct a religion as it was at a certain age, then it will have problems developing new features or adapting to the modern world. And the same goes for multicuralism: ancient Roman civilization was multicultural because it was located in the Mediterranean melting pot; Scandinavian and deep Germanic tribes were not because they were more isolated. Multicuturalism isn’t a matter of cultural or religious predisposition, but simply of geographic location. If Scandinavia was located further south, next to Africa and Asia, old Norse religion and society would have easily absorbed elements from the surrounding cultures. Just like it took elements from the Saami and the Germanic tribes living next to the Rheine collected Roman influences.

  3. Of course you are right, on one level “multiculturalism” can simply refer to the demographic reality of a culturally diverse polity. However, it is also, at least here in Australia, a euphemism for a very particular kind of political ideology. One of the things that appeals to people about Heathenism is that it seems to speak to our yearning for the small, homogeneous tribal societies that flourished before Christianity – societies in which every aspect of life was integrated into a holistic system of community, nature, and cyclic time. Historian of religion James C. Russell has noted the vitality of indigenous Germanic religiosity at the time of “conversion” and the fact that our Germanic ancestors enjoyed a very high level of group solidarity, due in part to the homogeneous and rural nature of Heathen society at the time. Still, as a person living within a modern state (albeit not in an urban context) I want to cultivate civic virtues and somehow integrate an expression of my troth into an expression of active citizenship. Perhaps that can only be done within a Heathen “counter-society” with its own civic body, the integrating ethos of which is understood by its members. Also, there is also the possibility that one may pray for the health and renewal of ones modern nation and the maintenance of justice and peace within the polis: here the Roman tendency to deify abstract virtues as deities may have great utility. Indeed, unless the Gods of the North assume the role of Gods of the urbanised nation state, with all its attendant institutions and civilisational apparatus (a task of which I am sure they are more than capable, being gods) then perhaps an Anglo-Saxon Heathen like me might be permitted to formally honour some deities of the Roman world.

  4. Pingback: Lares, Manes, Penates, oh my… « WiccanWeb

  5. I am so confused. All this time, I’ve been addressing the Penates as the spirits that come with the family and the Lares as those who come with the house/place. Is it the other way around?! Oh, well.

    • I think the Romans themselves didn’t have a uniform belief on that and I’ve seen modern cultores referring to the Lares as house spirits. The disction between Penates and Lares isn’t always clear and I can see why: because an ancestor lives and protects his/her living relatives and their property, he/she is also a household spirit.

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