When looking at civilizations, and the mythologies thereof, what better place to start than the building blocks of said civilizations? Households and family. First you start with one family — one household and eventually that household turns into two, then three then more. A village is born. A city is born. A civilization is born. Thus was the case of Rome, early Japan and China, and many other nations around the world. When looking at the mythologies of households and families around the world, there’s one mythological aspect that seems to persist over a variety of cultures: that of the familial spirit. These spirits can take on many forms, but for now I will focus on sex distinct mythological spirits of six different cultures over two continents: Japanese culture, Czech culture, Han Chinese Culture, Roman Cultures, Korean Culture, and British Culture.
We’ll start today by looking at the Roman spirits of the household, of which there were several. First, is the Manes: ancestral spirits. Di Manes were chthonic spirits who were the collective spirits of the ambivalent dead. According to Apulieus’ City of God, “…indeed, that the souls of men are demons, and that men become…Manes if it is uncertain whether they deserve well or ill…” (Chapter 11, of Book Nine). Manes, were honored as ancestral spirits on the Roman Holidays of Parentalia and Feralia, both celebrated in mid-late February, and seems to be a precursor to Dia De Los Muertos, the Mexican Holiday to celebrate their spirits of the dead. We’re looking at these spirits first, because, though they have no relation to the household, per-se, they have a bit of relation to two of the other spirits of a household that I am interested in speaking of today: the Lares, and Lemures.
The household lares, according to the same passage in City of Gods, were the spirits of passed individuals who were goodly in their lifetime. They were depicted with statues, and kept in a specific cabinet to be worshiped and to abide in.
Lares, in general, however, were seen as general guardian spirits: there were Lares of the roads, Lares of woods, and Lares of specific plots of land, (some other motifs that would carry over into other mythologies that I will discuss in the future). Lares, in fact, seems to be a generalized term for any guardian spirit.
Household Lares, however, served a specific function: protecting the household inhabitants, the family, from evil, and bringing in fortune. Something that is echoed in similar mythos throughout the world, and were usually the ancestral spirits of the family, chosen by said family to come back, (Ancient.edu).
The one other spirit that I want to focus on today, in the roman tradition is the Lemures. These spirits are much like the poltergeist of western tradition: the spirits of the troubled or malevolent dead, wreaking havoc on those living in the house. They were known to haunt their living family and do terrible injuries to them in retaliation to not have been properly buried, or having been wronged by them and were seen as a curse, unlike the Manes, and Lares. Rituals were performed yearly to ward them off during Lemuria which were held on May 9th, 11th and 13th. They were associated with dread, betrayal and fear and would often take the forms of horrendous apparitions.
“…For if they were spirites that haunted some houses, by appearing in diuers and horrible formes, and making greate dinne: they were called Lemures or Spectra” – (Daemonlogie, King James I, Third book, section 1).
We also see this motif play out in other mythologies: those that come immediately to mind are the redcaps in British/Border of which I will speak of more in the future, and the aforementioned poltergeists.
Next week we will delve into the household spirits of the British Isles — from the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, Pictish and Borderlands, to the Emerald Isle and compare them to their Roman counterparts. How similar are they? How different? Those are questions to be answered next week.
- The City of Gods – (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45304/45304-h/45304-h.htm)
- Roman Household Spirits: Manes, Panes, and Lares – (https://www.ancient.eu/article/34/roman-household-spirits-manes-panes-and-lares/)
- Daemonologie – (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25929/25929-h/25929-h.html)