From the Oak: Let’s hear it for the God!
Many are those that focus on female divinities, leaving male divinities in the shadows if they get mentioned at all. This is a shame. Here I will share my thoughts, stories and prayers on male divinities.
Penates and Lares
Today’s blog is on the di Penates or Penates. Blog number 9 of my gods of the “graveyard” series. This one was extremely difficult to write because…well no one really agrees on who the Penates are. The concept for the Penates and Lares comes from the ancient Roman domestic cultus and were at some point included as part of civil or state rituals. They remind me a lot of the ancient Greek agathos daimons, which are good spirits/gods of home, family and/or individual. Everything I’ve read on Penates and Lares boils down to the individual. I’m including the Lares in this blog because they are often honored with the Penates and very hard for the researcher to tell apart.
The Nova Roma website describes the Penates as the Keepers of the Fire and the Guardians of the Store room. They describe the Lares as the protective spirits of the land and/or household and call them the Keepers of the Gates. They could be nature spirits or “ghosts of their fathers”. Yet Penates are also described as Spirits of Ancestors.
The Roman Kin of ADF describes the Penates as a generic term for the beings worshipped in the inner most part of the house, which includes the Lares and gods such as Vesta. They point out that the Penates probably differ for every household and that even ancient authors contradict themselves (as do modern scholars) on the identity of these beings. Penates protected the household’s food supply and were propitiated to prevent hunger and avoid being inhospitable. Some families kept salt and seasonal fruits on the table for the Penates. A morning prayer was said each in which all the family divinities were recognized. Formal rituals were held on the first of the month (Kalends), the 9th (Nones) and the 13th or 15th (Ides), October 14th and on Compitalia (whose date(s) varied) where they received offerings like corn, wine or pig.
Prepresentations of the Penates and Lares differed. Sometimes as statues in the form of the Dioscuri. Sometimes as aniconic objects like herald’s staffs or clay pots. Other times as paintings called lararia which varied in content but generally included a snake (representing earth powers or possibly the Greek’s Agathos daimon) and two youths (typically male or even androgynous) sometimes holding cornucopias. Both the Lares and the Penates were portable despite being closely tied to location, in that they moved from house to house with the family so it was an intimate connection. Often lararia were whitewashed by the new owners and replaced with a painting virtually identical in content.
Meanwhile, acquaintances describe Penates as protective household spirits comparable to house wights stating that they are more attached to places than people. They may move with you but are more likely to remain behind. The “greater gods” can serve as Penates, such as Janus, but that applying the term Penates to them should be done with caution. Lares are described as protective spirits of the land and household, that may or may not by ancestors (or even heroes). I was reminded that artistic representations are very individualistic as there was no fixed doctrine or definition and that leaving out a female representation would not be sensible if the Lares were ancestors.
Collectively these two classes of divinities are honored within the home. As all homes differ due to the individuals within, so the individual characteristics of home practice differ. In ancient times, the gods were part of everyday life, not relegated to churches or temples. The gods of the home enjoyed an intimate place in the central part of the house, the cooking fire. They knew about the trials and tribulations of the household because of this placement. Who the Penates and Lares were may be less important that what they did which was protect the family and home. Maybe the labels are mere duties, maybe. Penates have focused purpose of caring for the family, while Lares have a broader focus on the family line, the home and the land. Yet even that categorization may be too cut and dried. However they are defined within the home, may they be honored by my attempt to quantify them.
Chapter 14: Cicero’s Minerva, Penates and the Mother of the Lares: An Outline of Roman Domestic Religion by John Bodel of “Household and family religion in antiquity” Edited by John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan
Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome By Lesley Adkins, Roy A. Adkins
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