For many, the heart of Roman polytheism lays with the Lararium, or household shrine. As respected English scholars 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 at 102]”
As the name suggests, every Lararium honours the Lares. Lares are essentially spirits who may protect your home. Of them Beard, North and Price write:
“Lares, protecting spirits of place, were worshipped in various contexts: in the house, at the crossroads, in the city (as guardians of the State). The Lares ‘familiares’ (Gods of the house and its members) are the best known of these – receiving offerings, sacrifices and prayers within the household, and commonly appealed to as the protectors of its safety and prosperity. But no mythological stories attached to them; nor were they defined as individual personalities [Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 31-31].”
As well as the Lares, Larariums may honour other household Gods such as Janus (God of doorways and beginnings), Vesta (Goddess of ritual and hearth fire), the Penates (spirits of the pantry/household provision) and any other Deities of the home. To ensure you include all the relevant Deities you may wish to use an inclusive term when invoking them, such as “spirits of the household”, “Deities of the household” or “household Gods”.
The Lararium may also include your patron God or Gods (note that it is rare to honour every single God, even all of the major Gods, at the household shrine). On this, respected Cambridge scholar, Mary Beard, writes:
“… one of the most distinctive and easily recognisable features of Pompeian houses is shrines that we now call by the Latin word Lararium, shrine of the Lares or household Gods … some of these are quite elaborate affairs … But many others are much simpler … In many cases statuettes of Gods and Goddesses stood on the ledge or shelf of the Lararium. Sometimes these depict the Lares themselves, but a much wider range of Deities has been found … After the Lares, Mercury is the most popular divine subject, closely followed by Egyptian Gods … with Venus, Minerva, Jupiter and Hercules, in that order, coming next. The big question is what ritual … took place at these shrines? … the problem in reconstructing the religious life of the home is that rituals such as this very rarely leave any archaeological trace … [M Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius at 295-298].”
If you prefer to have a separate shrine for an individual Deity, apart from the Lares, such a shrine is known as a Sacrarium (if indoors) or Sacellum (if outdoors), which you can maintain as well as your Lararium. It may be that you are attracted to a particular God and don’t immediately feel attracted to the household Gods. Even if this is so you may still want to create and maintain a Lararium, as doing so can strongly deepen your appreciation of the divine as understood in the Roman way to the Gods.
“The Roman Gods best known to most people today are the … Roman Gods who paralleled the Greek Olympians … However … the Romans believed in many other Deities or spirits who dwelled … in the immediate environment. Each of these Deities had a very specific or narrow sphere of influence, since each was associated with a particular place or process. Every tree or stream of water, for example, had its own spirit … Rarely were anthropomorphic features or emotions attributed to these spirits. No Roman would worship all of these spirits; he (or she) would direct his devotion to those nearest to his home or associated with his occupation, and he might set up a shrine for their worship on his property …
There were spirits in the home as well as in the fields and woods, spirits of the hearth fire and of the cupboard … Each household had its own Lar who would protect the household if properly propitiated [lar: the lar familiares (household lar) was the spirit or Deity which guarded and protected the household and its members. There was a shrine to this Deity in the home, and sacrifices were made to it regularly] … [Shelton’s As the Romans Did at 361-362, footnotes included in square brackets and italics].”
The household shrine can include just about anything you like. The main thing is that is kept clean, that it does not pose a health or safety hazard, and that it is a space treated and maintained with respect and reverence. Some of the more usual items that may be found on a shrine are as follows:
- Statues or images (eg, framed picture) which represent the Deities you wish to honour at your shrine. The images need not be anthropomorphic, for example, a rose may represent Venus or ivy may represent Bacchus. You may also choose not to represent the Deities in this way, but invoke them only by name instead.
- Candle holder with a tealight. Compare to the ancient Roman lucerna. You can use a traditional Roman oil lamp or larger candles but they can create quite a bit of mess, with dripping wax and blackened ceilings and walls, so consider this possibility before buying items of this kind for your shrine.
- Incense holders and incense. Compare to the ancient Roman turibulum.
- A tray or placemat to place incense and candle holder on – so that the heat caused by these items does not stain the surface of the altar.
- An acerra (container for storing sacred incense).
- An offering plate for food or plant offerings, this is essentially a patera.
- Small glass for liquid offerings. Compare to the ancient Roman gutus.
- A salinum – a container for sacred purifying salt.
You can perform rituals at your household shrine as often or as little as you like, though at least once a month is advisable – Propertius tells us that ancient Romans worshipped at their household shrines at least every kalends (1st of the month). However Cato informs us that pious Romans made offerings to the household Gods on the kalends, the nones and the ides, as well as on days of any religious festivals celebrated by the household. Note that when calculating the dates of the kalends, nones and ides you can use the contemporary Gregorian calendar, but if you wish to be more traditional you might prefer the Julian calendar or the lunar calendar – according to which the kalends is the date of the new moon, the nones falls upon the half moon and the ides indicates the date of the full moon. Given the significant differences between the various calendars it may not be vitally important to observe the ides, nones and ides as such; what is more important is that you make offerings to the Gods at your shrine, preferably at least once a month, several times a month, or more.
There is no one right way to perform the ritual, for ancient sources only hint at what was done in ancient Roman homes. However, invoking Vesta first when you light the flame, then making the first offering to Janus and the last to Vesta conforms to ancient practice (see Ovid’s Fasti and Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods). You may wish to cover your head when you perform the ritual, as this is traditional regarding rituals in honour of most Roman Gods.
An example of a household ritual is as follows:
Covering your head (using a long scarf or putting the hood up if wearing a hoodie), and with clean hands held out with palms, or right palm only, facing the shrine, light the candle and say:
“Be well revered Vesta, may your flames protect this family and may they light the path to well being.”
Light incense and say:
“I light this incense in reverence of all wise and compassionate divine beings, Janus foremost, may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [your surname].”
Light a second offering of incense and say:
“I light this incense in reverence of divine [name Deity, eg, patron Deity]. May you be well; may you look favourably on the house of [your surname].”
You may then offer a more elongated prayer, if you wish, and then light a third offering incense and say:
“If I have done anything, or I do anything, to violate this rite may you receive this incense in expiation of my error.”
Then, if you placed a glass of wine on your shrine for another (patron) Deity (such as for most male Gods or Venus), say:
“This wine is offered with good will to [name Deity], may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [your surname].”
You may then offer a more elongated prayer, if you wish, and then, if you placed a glass of water on your shrine for local Deities, say:
“This water is offered with good will to all local spirits, may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [your surname].”
Then, if you placed food on a place on your shrine for household Deities, say:
“This fruit is offered with good will to the spirits of this household, Vesta foremost, may you be well and may you look favourably on the house of [your surname].”
Then finish the ritual by blowing a kiss to the shrine, or placing palms together and bowing slightly the way Japanese people do (but do not interlock the fingers the way some Christians do when praying), and say:
“To any divine beings who are listening, thank you for your blessings if they be so, and may they be so.
“I pay homage to the Deities of this shrine, both named and unnamed.”
Blow a kiss, or kiss your fingers, and then touch the altar and say:
“It is done.”
To see some examples of household shrines see this post on contemporary shrines at romanpagan.blogspot.com.