In summary: the Lares are essentially deities of place who may protect the inhabitants of their regional domain if regular offerings are made to them. Suitable offerings include food plates, honey, honeycomb, honey cakes/pastries, grapes, garlands, wreathes of wheat, crowns made of flowers, corn/grain (wheat, barley and/or millet), rosemary, myrtle, coins and precious personal items. Scroll down for more.
What the scholars say
In many ways the heart of the Roman way to the Gods can be said to lay with the household shrine and the deities worshipped thereon. The Lares familiares/Lares domestici (Lares of the household/familia – which includes family members, slaves, servants and perhaps animals) are prominent among these but what is their nature – are they guardians of place (where the household resides) or, as some have suggested, ancestor guardians of the family? Respected scholars M Beard et al describe them as follows:
“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, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 2.2a].”
Valerie Warrior writes:
“Each Roman home has its own protective deities, the Lar (plural Lares), protecting the household or family; the Penates, protecting the stores-cupboard or pantry (penus) in the inner part of the house; the Genius or guardian spirit of individual members of the household, especially the paterfamilias; and Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The shrine to the Lar, generally known as the lararium, was sometimes in the atrium, the more public part of the house near the entrance, but more commonly in the kitchen area. Just as the home had its tutelary deities, so too did the entire property [Warrior, Roman Religion at 28-29] …”
Jo-Ann Shelton says:
“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, As the Romans Did at 361-362, footnotes included in square brackets and italics] …”
Thus it would seem that these well-respected scholars understand the Lares familiares to be deities who protect that place called home. However there is another perspective, possibly deriving from Augustine of Hippo’s description of the Lares as spirits of the dead (which begs the obvious question – how trustworthy can we regard descriptions relating to Paganism by a Christian, who seems never to have practised polytheism himself and who was so obviously hostile to the Gods?), see Augustine’s The City of God. Contemporary scholar Robert Turcan describes the Lares thus:
“the Lar familiaris [is] a kind of demon of the ancestors and the continuity of the tribe as well as being the familiar spirit of the household [Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome at 15] …”
A variation of this perspective is described by Mariah Smith:
“[the] Lares began as protective gods of certain places and gradually gained … ancestral identity over time and through proximity to other spirits [especially sacred snakes, Hecate and Mercury] … The Lares began as general and multifaceted deities, but they had a very specific function, to protect physical places. The nature [or function] of the Lares [was]… to protect locations within a clearly demarcated boundary. The concept of boundaries is prevalent throughout the Roman worship of the Lares. The Lares are venerated as boundary gods in their placement on boundary lines, such as the pomerium and the crossroads, and during ceremonies celebrating the passage over a boundary, such as the agrarian new year or a coming of age rite. They retain this function as boundary gods, even as the Lares become connected with the chthonic associations of other divinities. When the Lares are identified as ancestors, they still negotiate a boundary – the one between the living and the dead [Smith, To Seek the Boundaries of the Roman Lares at 56-58].”
Exploring ancient references to the Lares
There are also a wealth of textual references to the Lares by ancient authors. By exploring some of these ancient sources some kind of picture should emerge pointing towards greater understanding of these important deities. The most revealing literature as to the nature of the Lares familiares is perhaps from Tibullus who depicts them as guardians of the family home, who could bring fertility to family lands and could protect family members from harm. He affectionately and reverently describes his Lar as being represented by an old wooden statue (thus it appears that the Lares familiares were not always represented in pairs*) that was dressed and located in a “narrow” (thus modest) shrine.
“You too, accept your gifts, Lares, guardians of impoverished fields that once were fruitful. Then a slaughtered calf purified countless heifers: now a lamb’s the poor sacrifice of my meagre land. A lamb shall fall to you, round which the rustic youths will shout: “Hurrah, give us good crops and wine! [Tibullus, Book I: Delia, I. The True Life]”
“Lares of my fathers, save me: you are the same that reared me, a little child running before your feet. Don’t be ashamed that you’re made from ancient wood: so you were when you lived in my grandfather’s house. Then faith was better kept, when a wooden God poorly dressed, stood in a narrow shrine. He was placated if someone offered the first grapes or placed the garland of wheatears on his sacred head: and whoever gained his wish brought the honey-cakes himself, his little daughter behind, with the pure comb. Turn the bronze spears away from me, Lares, and (accept) a sacrifice of a hog from the full sty. I will follow in pure clothing, carrying the basket bound with myrtle, myrtle binding my own head. So I may please you: let another be brave in war, and topple hostile generals with Mars’ help, then he can tell me his military deeds while I drink, and draw his camp on the table with wine [Tibullus, Book 1, X Make Peace Not War].”
In another passage Tibullus makes a reference to the Lares being passed on when the property they were associated with was sold:
“Why, even if she [his beloved] ordered me to sell my ancestral home, you Lares must go under the hammer, at her command [Tibullus, Book II: Nemesis, IV Her Greed].”
Thus if he sells his property he thereby sells the Lares connected with the property “if only she’ll look with kindness on me”. This affirms that the Lares are intricately wound up with place, for it is inconceivable that one could find a buyer for one’s family deities in their own right.
Like Tibullus, Plautus suggests that the Lares familiares were specifically associated with the geographical place where households reside:
“I am the Lar of the family (familiaris) from this household (familia) … Already for many years I have occupied and inhabited this house with the father and grandfather of the man who now lives here [Plautus, Aulularia].”
However, all of these passages suggest a close relationship between property, the family who owns the property and the Lares. On the same note, in his Fasti, Ovid writes of the Caristia (February 22):
“[on this day] a throng of relations gathers to the family Gods … Give family Gods incense, good men (gentle Concordia, they say is specially present today), and offer food-plates to nourish the Lares in their girt-up robes as a token of sweet respect.”
Thus the family Gods are offered incense and the Lares are offered food. This could mean that the Lares are especially honoured (with food), as they are particularly important among the family Gods (the other family Gods being Vesta, Janus, the Penates, etc), or that they are separate deities to the family Gods who receive distinctly separate offerings. However, it seems that the Gods of the household were in fact traditionally offered food:
“It was once the custom to sit on long benches by the hearth and think the Gods dined with you [Ovid’s Fasti at 6.305-6.310, Penguin edition].”
Therefore it seems that the family Gods are simply the Gods of the household, which includes the Lares, and that both incense and food are suitable offerings to these domestic deities – although food seems to have been more traditional. Note that the deities of the household in the Germanic tradition which seem to parallel the Lares (eg, Tomten) were also traditionally offered food.
Despite some of the ambiguities in these passages, it seems clear that the Lares familiares are connected with place and with the people who live in that place – families who had lived in the one spot for countless generations may well have believed that these divine spirits of place were also ancestors.
However, Cato, a well known Roman traditionalist, cements the notion that the Lares familiars are essentially deities of place in the following passage:
“Whenever the paterfamilias visits the farm, after he has greeted the Lar of the household, he should go round the property, on the same day if possible [Cato, On Agriculture].”
That is to say that he needs to greet the Lar when he comes to the property over which the Lar watches. And to make it really clear that the Lares familiares is not necessarily tied up with one’s genetic family members, he is happy for a member of his household who is almost certainly not a blood relation to propitiate the Lar of his property:
“On the kalends, the ides and nones of each month, and at each religious festival, she [the farm overseers’ wife] is to hang a garland over the hearth, and on the same days she is to pray to the Lar of the family for plenty in the house [Cato, On Agriculture].”
This passage is also interesting because it indicates the times when the Lares were honoured. At a minimum it appears that the Lares were honoured once a month:
“Everything’s mute and silent, and the Lares’ closed shrine is barely opened, through custom, by a girl, on the infrequent Kalends [Propertius, The Elegies, Book IV.3:1-72 A wife’s letter].”
Once again we see there is a reference to a female performing the ritual at the household shrine. Horace mentions likewise in his Ode to “Pure Hands” – clearly it was not unusual for women to make offerings to the Lares:
“Phidyle, my country girl, if you raise your upturned palms to heaven, at the new-born moon, if you placate the Lares with corn from this year’s harvest, with a greedy pig: your fruiting vines won’t suffer the destructive southerlies, nor your crops the killing mildew, nor will the young of the flock be born in that sickly season, heavy with fruit.
Since the destined victim, grazing, on snowy Algidus, amongst the oak and ilex trees, or fattening in the Alban meadows, will stain the axes of the priest with blood: there’s no need for you to try and influence the gods, with repeated sacrifice of sheep while you crown their tiny images with rosemary, and the brittle myrtle.
If pure hands have touched the altar, even though they’ve not gratified with lavish sacrifice, they’ll mollify hostile Penates, with the sacred corn, and the dancing grain [Horace, The Odes, Bk III: XXIII].”
Rituals associated with the Lares
In a reference to ritual, we know that Romans who crossed the boundary from childhood to adulthood made offerings to the Lares. For example, the bulla amulet which was worn by free-born male children in ancient Rome was ritually offered to the Lares when they became citizens at around age 16:
“When as a timid youth I first shed that protective purple toga, And my amulet hung there as an offering to the girdled Lares [Perius, The Satires, V].”
A similar ritual involving the offering of dolls may have been made by girls immediately prior to marriage (Hersch, The Roman Wedding at 67). Once wed, the bride offered a coin to the Lares upon entering the home of her new husband, as well as to her husband and to the Lares compitales – the Lares of the neighbouring crossroads (Hersch citing Nonius, The Roman Wedding at 278). Wreaths of flowers were also offered to the Lares at the time of marriage (Littleton, Gods, Goddesses and Mythology at 808).
In another reference to the traditional offerings of wreaths to the Lares, Tibullus writes:
“In the country, a boy first made a wreath of spring flowers and garlanded the ancient Lares with it [Tibullus, Book II: Nemesis I The Country Festival (The Ambarvalia)].”
This was also the case for the Lares compitales:
“He [Augustus] ordained that the Lares of the Crossroads, should be crowned twice a year with wreaths of spring and summer flowers [Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: Augustus, Book Two: XXXI Religious Reforms and Memorials].”
Another ritual involving the Lares compitales was the festival of the Compitalia:
“a moveable festival held each year soon after the Saturnalia … On this day, each family is to bring an offering of cakes to the Lares, and to hang at the crossroads shrines of the Lares, or at the door of the house, a puppet for each member of the household and a ball for each slave. Such tokens were said to have provided purification or protection from ghostly powers [Boyle and Woodard, notes to Ovid’s Fasti at 259].”
The Lares compitales
As to the nature of the Lares of the crossroads, Ovid describes their mythological origins. Note that in this description it is clear that these Lares are not ancestor guardians – for they are described as descendants of Mercury and a once garrulous water nymph:
“who is the goddess Muta?: hear of what I’ve learned from the old men [Jupiter orders the nymphs of Latium to prevent Muta’s sisiter Juturna from successfully fleeing from his embrace] … There was a naiad, named Lara: but her old name was the first syllable twice-repeated, given to her to mark her failing [ie, her name is suggestive of one who babbles or continuously chatters]. Almo, the river-god often said: ‘daughter, hold your tongue,’ but she still did not. As soon as she reached the pools of her sister Juturna, she said: ‘flee these banks’, and spoke Jupiter’s words. She even went to Juno, and showing pity for married women said: ‘your husband loves the naiad Juturna.’ Jupiter was angered, and tearing that tongue from her mouth that she had used so immoderately, called Mercury to him: ‘lead her to the shadows: that place is fitting for the silent. She shall be a nymph, but of the infernal marshes.’ Jove’s order was obeyed. On the way they reached a grove: then it was they say that she pleased the god who led her. He prepared to force her, with a glance instead of words. She pleaded, trying to speak from her mute lips. Heavy with child, she bore twins who guard the crossroads, the Lares, who keep watch forever over the city [Ovid, Fasti, February 21, The Feralia].”
The Lares praestites
Finally, the Lares praestites (Lares of the state), who were apparently associated with dogs, should be mentioned. Plutarch asks a question about these Lares, the answer to which he seems unsure of:
“51. Why is a dog placed beside the Lares that men call by the special name of praestites, and why are the Lares themselves clad in dog-skins?
Is it because “those that stand before” are termed praestites, and, also because it is fitting that those who stand before a house should be its guardians, terrifying to strangers, but gentle and mild to the inmates, even as a dog is? Or is the truth rather, as some Romans affirm, that, just as the philosophic school of Chrysippus think that evil spirits stalk about whom the gods use as executioners and avengers upon unholy and unjust men, even so the Lares are spirits of punishment like the Furies and supervisors of men’s lives and houses? Wherefore they are clothed in the skins of dogs and have a dog as their attendant, in the belief that they are skilful in tracking down and following up evil-doers [Plutarch, The Roman and Greek Questions].”
Ovid also mentions dogs in conjunction with these Lares:
“The Kalends of May saw an altar dedicated to the Lares praestites, with small statues of the gods. Curius [king of the Sabines, said to be ancestors of the Romans] vowed them: but time destroys many things, and the long ages wear away the stone. The reason for their epithet of praestites [guardians], is that they keep safe watch over everything. They support us, and protect the city walls, and they’re propitious, and bring us aid. A dog, carved from the same stone, used to stand at their feet: why did it stand there with the Lares? Both guard the house: both are loyal to their master: crossroads are dear to the god, and to dogs. Both the Lar and Diana’s pack chase away thieves: and the Lares are watchful, and so are dogs. I looked for statues of the twin gods, but they’d fallen with the weight of years: the city has a thousand Lares, and our leader’s Genius, who gave them to the people, and each district worships the three divinities [two Lares compitales on either side of the spirit/Genius of Augustus] [Ovid, Fasti, May 1, Kalends].”
What conclusions can be drawn? The picture that has emerged is thus:
- The primordial origin of the Lares is unclear – some may be considered to be descended from Gods and/or nymphs (regional nature spirits), or simply to be nymphs, and others perhaps are the spirits of those who traditionally lived on the Lares’ physical domain; out of this latter perspective the possibility emerges that the Lares are ancestor guardians** and that they are even, if the right rituals are performed, able to be moved into the location of new family homes (maybe … eg, as Aeneas brought the family Gods – whom Tibullus refers to as the Lares, though most other authors refer to these deities as the Penates – from Troy to Rome). Either way, the Lares are essentially deities of place who may protect the inhabitants of their regional domain if regular offerings are made to them.
- Traditional offerings to the Lares include crowns for the Lares made of flowers, corn/grain (which in ancient Rome would have typically been wheat, barley and/or millet), rosemary and myrtle; food-plates and/or burnt offerings (food thrown into the ritual fire), which might include mola salsa (made of flour and salt), honey cakes, honeycomb, grapes, calves, lambs and pigs. Coins and precious personal items may also be ritually offered.
- Offerings to the Lares are traditionally made, by persons of either gender, at a minimum, once a month on the kalends (in the earliest times this was at the time of the new moon but on the 1st of each month under the later Roman calendar), but for the more devout, offerings should also be made on the ides (originally the time of the full moon, but later the 13th or 15th of the calendar month), the nones (originally the first half moon, but later the 5th or 7th day of the calendar month) and at each religious festival. Offerings to the Lares may also be made daily – perhaps every morning and evening and before or during meal times.
- The location of the shrine to the Lares (or the Lar – for the Lares familiares were not always represented in pairs) is traditionally near the entrance to the property, or in an open space in the property – such as in the atrium, or in the kitchen, or even in the bedroom.
* The household God in Plautus’ Aulularia: The Pot of Gold is also referred to in the singular – he speaks: “I am the Household God of that family … For many years now I have possessed this dwelling, and preserved it for the sire and grandsire of its present occupant.”
** How this may work may be illuminated by ancient Germanic attitudes to the spirits of those who were laid to rest in burial mounds:
“The Vanir [Germanic deities of earth and water – i.e., not celestial Gods] are represented as having close connection with life in the burial mound … The idea that the dead men rested inside his grave mound as in a dwelling is one found repeatedly in the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes it is crudely expressed, as when a dead Christian hermit appears in a dream to rebuke a herd girl for wiping her muddy feet on his house, or a man is buried in a high place, so that he may ‘look out over the whole district’. Sometimes we find the pleasant idea of friends buried in neighbouring mounds conversing with one another … [we know of an] early king of Norway, called Olaf Geirstadaalfr, ‘elf of Geirstad’. We are told in Flateyjarbok that in time of famine men sacrificed to him in his howe for plenty … [there is an] element of ancestor worship implied in this story …
The title of ‘elf’ borne by Olaf may be significant. An ancestor of his, Halfdan Whiteleg, had the same title, and is called Brynalfr in the poem Ynglingatal, which recounts the places where a number of early kings were buried. Regular ceremonies connected with the elves continued in Sweden into the late Viking age [H R Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe at 154-156].”