The Lares Alcobacenses

Who’s the god of my homeland? There’s more than one god in one place. Who are the genii loci of my native land? The spirits of trees, rocks, hills and beaches, the nymphs of rivers, lakes and woods, those who dwell unseen yet not unfelt along the roads and in fields and orchards. The blood and bone of your ancestors, your blood and bones. What about the dead? The unclaimed wander, the claimed join their families. Many are forgotten, some remembered, but most cannot be severed from the place that embraced their bodies. Your body is a part of you, a trace of you. And when it melts away into the soil, it becomes one with the land, its trees, its rivers, its rocks. The genii loci know you, because a part of you is a part of them. This is a land of your forefathers: the soil has blood and bones of your ancestors, your blood and bone.

Let me be clear and state that the lines above are not from a conversation with a god. I have not been endowed with such an ability. They are simply the sum of my mental notes on the issue of the local gods of my homeland. And after experimenting and considering the matter for two years, I believe I have found the answer I was looking for.

In the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, there are several Roman-period inscriptions and altars dedicated to Lares. Not the horn-raising gods from Roman lararia, but something else, less domestic and even if it can have a link with households. This takes us back to the issue of religious terminology, since the term lar overlaps with genius and deus: there are genii loci or local spirits of both the natural and man-made landscape, but also an individual’s genius and community’s; the Lares can be one’s ancestors, spirits of a place (e.g. crossroads) or maybe both. For instance, the Lares Viales may be genii of pathways, of trees and rocks that stand along them or the spirits of the people who were buried by the roads just outside ancient cities. The word Lar could even be used as a title for a greater god, as in the case of Silvanus (CIL VI 646). I know clear-cut categories are much more comfortable and easier to work with, but that’s not how these things work. God, lar, genius, nymph and so forth are not mutually exclusive terms. They serve practical purposes, yes, and in that sense they’re not mere synonyms of each other, but neither do they stand for entirely or even largely different groups. Genius is a generic word that can be used for all kinds of spirits, including those of living people. God or deus (plural di) is also generic, but refers to non-human and deceased numinous entites: Di Manes (the Divine Dead), Di Parentes (the Divine Relatives), Di Penates (the Household Gods), Di Consentes (the greater or Olympian Gods), Di Inferi (the Infernal or Underworld Gods), Di Conservatores (the Gods who Save or Preserve) and Di Indigetes, which could include small gods like Cardea, who presides over door hinges, or Prema, who supervises sexual embrace. “Good fairies” is how Robert Turcan described some of the Indigetes (Gods of Ancient Rome 2002: 18), but though minor, they, like the dead, are gods or di nonetheless. And the groups can also overlap, since the Infernal may include the Manes and some of the Consentes are also Conservatores. As for nymph, it always refers to a female deity, often associated with water. The goddesses Juturna, Carmenta and Egeria are all at one time described as nymphs and hence also why Brigantia is referred to as one. And She’s not alone in that: the equally British Coventina is referred to as a goddess (Dea Conuentina) and nymph (Nimpha Couentina) (RIB 1526-7). But when in doubt on the specific identity of local gods one wished to address, the generic genii loci was useful, as was the expression sive deus sive dea (whether god or goddess). Mane has an underworld quality to it, whereas Lar appears to be more benign, so while both terms can refer to the spirits of the dead (though not exclusively), the latter seems to summon a non-infernal side or part of the deceased, in as much as they can be worshipped domestically (Family Lares), while the Manes are normally confined to graveyards. As I said before, the terminology is less about clear-cut categories and more about scope and function where divinity is not a privilege of a limited few up on the hierarchy, but a trait of the countless many, both great and minor. As evidenced by the common use of deus/di.

You get a sense of all of this once you start going through the ancient altars dedicated to Lares in the Iberian Peninsula: in the area of Castelo Branco (Portugal), inscriptions have been found to both Di and Lares Cairieses, which were presumably local deities; a similar pattern can be found elsewhere, like in an inscription to the Lares Tarmucenbaecis Cecaecis, found in the region of Chaves (Portugal), which are perhaps the gods or Dii Ceceaigis mentioned further north in the area of Ourense (Galicia, Spain); from Coimbra (Portugal) comes a small altar to the Genius Conimbricae or the geni of the city; the same site also produced pieces to the Lares Aquites, which may have been aquatic gods or nymphs, and the Lares Lubanci, believed to have been tribal gods of a specific local clan; an altar dedicated to the Lares Buricis was found in the district of Braga (Portugal) and they were probably genii loci or local gods, since the area where the piece comes from is known as Bouro; and another example is an altar found in Lugo (Galicia, Spain), which was dedicated to the Lares Gallaeciarum or the Galician Lares.*

So in light of this and after meditating on a few ideas, I have started to address the gods of my ancestral land as Lares Alcobacenses. It is a wide category, vague enough to include countless entities of different sorts, while simultaneously expressing their local nature. They are the genii of the trees, rocks and hills, the nymphs of woods and rivers, the gods of fields and roads. Some may step forward individually and be named accordingly, most may remain an anonymous part of the host; some may be strictly local gods, attached to particular elements of the landscape, while others may be localized aspects of greater gods. I may address them collectively or highlight a specific subgroup, such as the Nymphae Alcobacenses. They are nature and animal spirits, both wild and domesticated, but some may also be human, namely the unclaimed dead and even the deceased who were claimed, yet retain a link to the land they were buried in. A body is a part and trace of someone. Perhaps the three kings, two queens and multiple princes whose remains rest in the local monastery are part of the Lares Alcobacenses. Perhaps the host includes spirits of soldiers who fell in nearby battles or people who died in this area while travelling, making them part of the local Lares Viales – yet another subgroup of the Lares Alcobacenses. And perhaps some of them are ancestors of mine, since my family has been in this region for at least 300 years. Their bodies and those of their animals have melted into the local soil, making it part of my blood and bones. This land is ancestral to me, its earth is tied to my family line in a very physical manner. Of course, this means my Family Lares overlap with the Lares Alcobacenses, but how is that surprising given what was said before? If successive generations stay long enough in a particular area, they become a part of it on a deep level; and a deceased person can be a mane, a family or household god and a genius loci, just as a nymph can be called the latter as well as a goddess. Again, don’t think of it as clear-cut or mutually exclusive categories. Rather accept the terminology as fluid, prone to overlaps, and realize the existing continuum between human and divine in its multiple forms, both greater and lesser. A beautiful expression of that is Camilla’s recent post on a Lar of Iowa City.

This leaves me wondering on where to take the idea of a local cult of Silvanus. I still think He makes perfect sense given the natural and even cultural background of the area. The woods, the rivers and its nymphs, the farming and herding, the nearby large pine forest and the fruit production that’s part of the city’s trademark, all of this resonates with Silvanus’ nature and functions. So instead of taking Him as the local god, perhaps it’s best to enshrine Silvanus as a local deity with a corresponding aspect or epithet. Call Him Lar, something that has historical precedent, maybe even foremost among the Lares Alcobacenses. In that sense, He could work as a representative of strictly local deities, allowing me to honour the gods of my homeland through Him when I’m not in situ and therefore cannot reach the local rivers, trees and hills. It would also give me a date for monthly offerings to the Lares Alcobacenses, which would be on the same day of the month as my annual feast to Silvanus, which, by the way, is something that I’m also reviewing. Obviously, I still have some thinking to do, but things are falling into place.

* All examples from the Iberian Peninsula were taken from Los Dioses de la Hispania Céltica by Juan Pedreño (2002), pages 54, 56-7, 74, 81-2 and 93.

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One thought on “The Lares Alcobacenses

  1. Pingback: The Lares Alcobacenses « WiccanWeb

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