In total, there are thirty six known altars dedicated to the Lares Viales. Apart from the aforementioned example from Rome, there’s a second piece from Italy (CIL XI 3079), one from Dacia (CIL III 1422), another from Morocco (CIL VIII 9755) and one from Gaul (CIL XII 4320). There’s also three from the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula (AE 1903 185; CIL II 2987) and then a whopping twenty eight altars in the northwest corner of the region, mostly in modern-day Galicia (Franco Maside 2002: 218-9).
The exact reason for this disproportion is unclear, but it may be connected to the late Romanization of northern Iberia, for while the south was conquered by Rome by the start of the second century BCE, it was only two hundred years later that the Asturias and surrounding regions were subdued. And unsurprisingly, such a chronological discrepancy carries cultural consequences, in that the south was already well within the Roman world by the time the north was entering it. William van Andringa noted as much, pointing out that religious practices reflected more closely those of Rome in long-conquered provinces like Baetica (southern Spain): in Tucci, Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Pietas Augusta were popular, as were Diana, Venus, Libertas Augusta, Mars Augustus and the Lares Augustorum in Singili Barba. But in Lugo, Galicia, during the Roman period, a myriad of native Iberian gods were worshipped alongside Jupiter (van Andringa 2011: 86). No surprise then that Portela Filgueiras suggested that, in northwest Iberia, the Lares Viales and the king of the gods fulfilled the same role as the imperial cult elsewhere, i.e. were a religious expression of loyalty towards the Roman State (1984: 157). On that note and despite the fact that her work is three decades old and may therefore be somewhat outdated, it is nonetheless worth mentioning that Portela Filgueiras found no archaeological traces of the Lares Augusti being worshipped in Galicia and only two for the Lares Romani (or four, if you consider the borders of Roman Galicia, which included northern Portugal). And that’s despite the fact that over two dozen pieces dedicated to those two divine groups have been found elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula (Portela Filgueiras 1989: 161).
If they fulfilled the role of the imperial cult, then the popularity of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia was an early or at best intermediate stage in a process of cultural assimilation. Had it started earlier or lasted longer, beyond Christianization, and perhaps the Lares Augusti would have become more popular in the region and maybe even displace the Lares Viales. But to thus conclude that Their popularity was just a product of a political scheme is to barely scratch the surface, for syncretism or assimilation of religious practices can only work if there’s a commonality, something that’s shared by both the new and old and allows for a transition. Which is why some have suggested that the Lares Viales of ancient Galicia were essentially a Roman mask to much older cults (Santos Yanguas 2014: 254). In other words, there must have been pre-existing entities who were already popular in the region and whose worshippers found a suitable Latin expression to their devotion in the Lares Viales. Had it been merely a case of a religious phenomenon produced by the movements of Roman troops along north-Iberian roads, then one would expect to find a similar result elsewhere in Europe. Yet that’s not the case. The popularity of the Lares Viales in Galicia is exceptional, so it stands to reason that there must have been exceptionally popular wayfaring gods of some sort during the region’s pre-Roman period, which, combined with the late Romanization, produced the cluster of altars visible in the map above. Who were those deities is a question to which there is no answer, since also unlike what happens elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the Roman world, They were not syncretised by means of epithets. There’s nothing along the lines of Mars Nodens, Apollo Belenus or Silvanus Sinquas – there’s just Lares Viales.
Perhaps even more enticing is the awareness that Galicia remains a land religiously defined by wayfaring. It is marked by scores of travellers on traditional courses signalled by shells and cairns, though their destination is not a polytheistic shrine, but rather a Catholic one in Santiago de Compostela. Now before anyone jumps to the conclusions, the Galician cult of Saint James is not a Christianized version of an older, pre-Christian cult. There are elements of it, yes, the cairns being a clear example, but you’ll find that pretty much anywhere in Europe where there are hiking trails or pilgrimage routes. The fact that the 5th century bishop Martin of Dume (Braga, Portugal), in chapter 16 of his De Correctione Rusticorum, mentions the lighting of candles at crossroads is hardly evidence of a persistent worship of the Lares Viales in ancient Galicia. And that’s because in those same lines he also mentions the worshipping of trees and boulders, performing auguries, celebrating the Volcanalia and Calends, stepping in with your right foot, throwing bread and wine into fountains and invoking Minerva when weaving. Which begs the question of how far the text reflects a local reality that was observed first-hand or merely employs a standardized list of pagan practices in use by any Christian missionary at the time.
The truth is that the history of the Galician shrine of Saint James is complex and does not fit into the simplistic model of a pre-Christian cult with a Christian guise – though that is no doubt a popular belief among modern pagans and polytheists, especially those affected by the way too common form of paranoia known as siege mentality. For starters, because organized Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula goes back to c. 180, but the presumed discovery of the body of Saint James took place in c. 813. It’s a gap of over six centuries and between those two dates there was the officialization of Christianity, the outlawing of pagan religions, Germanic invasions and settlement, renewed missionary activity by Martin of Dume and others, schisms and internal struggles between Christian sects (Arianism, Priscilianism, Donatism, etc.), the Muslim conquest of almost all of the Iberian Peninsula and finally the start of the Reconquista in c. 720. By the time the body of the apostle is said to have been discovered, religious strife in Iberia was not between Christians and traditional polytheists, but between different movements of the former and Islam. It is revealing that the presumed tomb of Saint James, who was killed in Palestine and not in Galicia (Acts of the Apostles, 12:2), may in fact have been that of Priscillian, a Galician bishop who was decapitated for heresy in 385 and had a strong following in the region. That a remnant or memory of a cult to his remains may have been picked up by the Catholic Church in the first century of war against the Muslim south, thus in time providing the northern Christian kingdoms with a reinforced religious banner, goes to show how detached the Galician shrine of Saint James is from any hypothetical pre-Christian version. Even more so if one considers that the Asturian chronicles of the late ninth and early tenth centuries – the Albeldense and both versions of the Alfonso III – say nothing about the “miraculous discovery” in Santiago de Compostela, thus placing the popularity of the Catholic cult at an even later date.
Still, there is a coincidence, an accidental continuum, if you will: the land where the Lares Viales appear to have been more popular is still a country of travellers, defined for centuries by wayfaring. That’s actually the reason why this blog’s header image is a photo of a golden scallop on cobblestones: shells have become a symbol of the way of Saint James – the exact motive is unknown – and you’ll see them being used by just about any pilgrim, decorating Galician churches and signs along roads and hiking trails and find dozens of them in golden metal on the medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela, marking old pilgrimage routes.
Old ways made new
In using the scallop, I’m drinking from the continuum and using it to express my west-Iberian roots, mercurial devotion and worship of the Lares Viales, employing what has essentially become a recognizable symbol of travellers and movement in the land where the gods of the roads were popular. I’m not integrating Saint James into my practices or pantheon, just as the shrine at Santiago de Compostela didn’t replace a pre-Christian cult site, but I am picking up elements, similarly to Catholic pilgrims and non-religious hikers who have taken up the older practice of erecting cairns. It’s a continuous use and reuse of gestures and symbols in an ever-present Galician background of wayfaring that stretches back over two millennia. And incidentally, when I was midway through writing this post and left the computer to join a few friends at a party, I found two clamshells down the street and saw two roosters walking by a busy road in a nearby village. Which is interesting at the very least.
Perhaps it’s time I add the pieces and start something cohesive and concrete. I’m already a devotee of Mercury and honour the Lares Viales alongside Him on January 4th, the first days of April and am considering two additional annual celebrations (thus reaching a total of four). The gods of roads are also in my daily prayers and, every time I pour wheat on a wayside or cairn to Mercury, I pour an extra for Them. There are Iberian gods full of mercurial potential, like Ilurbeda, for whom there are archaeological links to the Lares Viales, or Quangeio, hypothetically a god’s companion just as dogs are humans’. A basic philosophy has been worked out and there’s plenty of symbols to choose from, be it scallops, wheels, travellers’ staffs, winged boots or hats, cairns or canines. There’s even fertile ground for an initiatory element with the goal of becoming a Lar Viale upon death and thus join Mercury’s divine entourage of travelling gods.
Perhaps I should take the clamshells and roosters as a hint, add the pieces I already have and lay the foundations of something new, something that may become a tradition if it survives the test of time. An Iberian branch of Roman polytheism, complete with its own coherent set of ideas and practices and focusing on the Lares Viales and Mercury as foremost among Them. Of course, it would have to be done in full awareness that human existence is brief, no more than a few decades long, so if such a religious construct is to become a tradition, grow and be successful, I will not see it in my lifetime. But I can still sow the fields, I can lay the first stone. Every journey starts with a single step, even if you do not reach the intended destination and others have to continue for you. You do your part, no matter how small, and then let others do theirs.
Perhaps it’s time for a Way of the Wayfarers to be born.
BEARD, Mary; NORTH, John; PRICE, Simon. 2010. Religions of Rome, volume I: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
FRANCO MASIDE, Rosa María. 2002. “Lares Viales na provincia de A Coruña. In Gallaecia n. 21, Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, pp. 215-222.
PORTELA FILGUEIRAS, Maria Isabel. 1984. “Los dioses Lares en la Hispania romana”. In Lucentum, n. 3, Alicante: Universidad de Alicante, pp. 153-180.
SANTOS YANGUAS, Narciso. 2014. “El culto a los Lares Viales en Asturias”. In Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, n. 25. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, pp. 251-263.
VAN ANDRINGA, William. 2011. “Religions and the integration of cities in the Empire in the second century AD: the creation of a common religious language”. In A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. Jörg Rüpke. Blackwell: Oxford, pp. 83-95.