Pontifex Maximus Marcus Cassius Iulianus
This "How To" manual has been written for Citizens who are interested in beginning to practice the Religio Romana on their own, by practicing the household rites that were a part of Roman life for centuries. It is intended to be a basic practical introduction rather than a scholarly text. Further research, reading and learning are as always highly encouraged.
Private worship was the foundation of Religion in ancient Rome. The Public rites, with their grand Temples and many festivals have received the most attention from historians. Yet such things were possible only because of the pietas which grew from household and family rites. Each household in Rome was in a sense a temple to the Gods. All Roman homes had a household altar, or "lararium", at which the family interacted with the Goddesses and Gods on a personal level each day. The rites of the home and family were so important to the Romans that such worship persisted into very late antiquity, surviving centuries longer than the public manifestations of the Religio Romana which were officially banned in the late 4th century CE.
The reasons why household worship was important are understandable even today. The family is the basis of Roman culture, and the household is the "center" of a family's existence. Inviting the Gods into ones house helps to ensure that one's property, relatives, and worldly efforts are blessed by the Roman deities, and that the positive powers of the Goddesses and Gods will enrich ones daily life. Such a sharing of life between humans and the Gods is the essence of the Pax Deorum, or "Peace of the Gods."
The basics of Religio Romana household worship are simple and easy to do. A "sacred space" is set up in the home, in the form of a household altar or Lararium. At this altar both the deities that are responsible for the home and the patron deities of the family are worshipped. Historically, there are two simple rites done at the Lararium altar each day - in the morning and evening. During these rites the Gods are honored, and asked to watch over the affairs of the family. The Lararium was of course also a place where individuals could worship the gods privately, and make small offerings to them. In essence, the Lararium is the "sacred heart" of the household, where the positive forces of the gods may be brought into everyday mundane existence.
The Lararium altar is the sacred place of the home where offerings and prayers are made to the Gods. In more affluent Roman homes, such as private villas, the main Lararium altar was usually set in the Atrium (front reception room, near the front door). In smaller Roman homes which might not have an atrium, such as insula apartments, the Lararium was most often located near the hearth (the kitchen or place of a central fire). But a house could have several minor Lararia as well, indoors (specially in the bedrooms) or outdoors.
The forms of Lararium varied greatly. Rich homes might have a huge affair of carved marble which looked rather like a temple in miniature. In other homes the Lararium might only be a simple wooden cabinet or wall shelf. Big or small, the important thing about a Lararium altar is that it should be permanent rather than something to be put away when the rites are not being held. Either the Gods have a place in one's home or they do not.
The easiest way to set up a Lararium is to reserve a small one-tier wall shelf, or a table or cabinet as an altar. A trip to a hardware store, a department store or an antique shop will usually yield something workable. A Lararium need not be any special style or color, if you like the look of it, it works! It's nice if one can place the Lararium in a front room or near the kitchen area as was done in history, but this is not essential. The important thing is that the Lararium be placed somewhere that isn't so remote that it will be ignored or forgotten, or in a place so obtrusive it gets bumped into and knocked about during the course of the day! One doesn't really need a lot of surface space for the altar. A square foot of space or so is about the average, as long as there is room for a candle, incense, and an offering dish. Space for statuary or wall space to hang pictures on is nice but not critical. The Lararium should be kept clean, and may be decorated to taste in Classical style if one wishes.
Once you have a sacred place reserved by setting up a Lararium, it's time to add some of the tools used in Roman worship. We'll start with the basics and work up from there.
In the earliest times of Roman history, the Gods and Goddesses were considered to be formless powers, or "Numina". It was only later, as the Romans came in contact with the Etruscans and Greeks, that the Gods began to be thought of as taking humanized forms.
Before statues were used in the household rites, the home altar centered around a sacred fire. This fire was a representation of the Goddess Vesta, (who we'll learn more about later) but also it was a combination of offering TO the gods, and a representation of the power OF the Gods. In all eras of the Religio Romana, a sacred flame was part of household worship.
The Lucerna, "Loo-KAIR-na", or sacred lamp, was most usually the source of sacred flame at the Lararium altar. This was an oil lamp made of clay or metal that was lit during the rites in honor of deity. There are companies which make reproductions of ancient Roman oil lamps, but one can use a small modern oil lamp just as well. It is the flame that's important, not the container. Even more easily, a white votive or taper candle in a holder may be used... the tallow candle was invented by Romans and certainly was used in ancient times. A lucerna or candle should be on the Lararium altar always, but it needs only be lit during the rites or when an offering of food, flowers, etc. is made to the Gods.
The Patera, "Pah-TER-ah" or offering dish was also used at the Lararium altar throughout all periods of Roman religion. The Patera is used to offer bits of food or wine from houshold meals to the Gods. The Romans thought it important to symbolically share the sustinance of life with deity, as honored members of the home. In ancient times there were many different forms of Pateras. Most often it was a clay or metal saucer-like dish, shallow and perhaps half an inch deep at best. The patera was usually round or oval in shape.
Obviously, the Patera is an easy tool to use. A small bit of food from the family table, or liquid such as wine or milk is placed into it so that the Gods may share with the members of the household. The offerings placed in a Patera need only be left for an hour or two, although they can be left from meal to meal if one wishes. The Patera should be kept spotless when not in use.
The Turibulum, "Tur-IB-yoo-lum" or incense burner was
also used in household worship throughout Roman history. The Turibulum is used
both to create sacred scents pleasing to the Gods, and also to change things
from solid form into an ethereal form by consuming them with fire.
The Turibulum holds hot coals, and powdered or resin incense is put on them to give off smoke. The coals were also used to burn small offerings such as bits food or flowers and other sacred plants.
In the ancient Roman world, the Turibulum was made from a variety of materials depending on a person's needs or monetary status. A variety of forms was accurate as well.
To add a Turibulum to your home Lararium, you will need a non-burnable container, (clay, stone or metal), and fill it with some sort of non-burnable substance for the coals to rest on so that they won't make the Turibulum too hot to hold or leave on the surface of an altar. A simple pottery bowl filled with an insulating substance such as sand (so that the coals won't overheat and crack the bowl) will work fine. as can a metal or stoneware vessel. The Turibulum may be decorated or plain. Incense burners are of course commercially available in religious shops, etc.
In the ancient world, the coals for the Turibulum were wood charcoal. Today it is easy enough to buy "incense burner charcoal." This can be purchased at many different stores including church supply stores, religious shops, new age shops, and of course online. Outdoor "charcoal briquettes" for your backyard grill should NOT be used indoors, as those give off poison gasses that can be very dangerous if used inside. If you are having trouble finding incense burner charcoal please email the Pontiffs and they will try to point you to a place where you can purchase it.
The material for the inside of the incense burner should be both non-burnable, and also something that doesn't conduct heat. Sand is perfect. Clay based granular "kitty litter" will work as well. Dug up earth won't work well unless it is very, very dry, as anything organic in it tends to be burned by the charcoal and give off a smell. Again, feel free to email the Pontiffs if you're having trouble finding something suitable.
The Accera, "Ak-KER-ah" is a special container for
sacred incense. As with the Turibulum, in the ancient Roman world the Accera
could be made from a variety of materials and designs.
The ancient Romans burned a wide variety of incenses. Usually they were resins, powdered substances or herbs, or a mixture of the three. Resins such as Frankincense or Myrrh were very popular, as were substances such as Sandalwood. The Romans sprinkled the powdery incense over the coals of the Turibulum to make offerings to the Gods. It is because the incense was considered a sacred offering that the Accera is a sacred Lararium "tool."
An Accera for your home altar should be some sort of covered container that will keep your incense "fresh." Resins such as Frankincense can sometimes absorb too much moisture, or even lose some of their sent if left uncovered for weeks at a time. A pottery container with a lid, or a decorated metal or wood box can make a fine Accera.
The Salinum, "Sa-LEE-num" is a container for sacred
purifying salt. The Romans and other ancient cultures considered salt to be a
very powerful substance that removed negative spiritual influences. The Romans
understood that salt had antiseptic qualities even though they did not know
about bacteria, etc. Salt was used for health in baths as well as in medicine.
The name of the goddess Salus (the goddess of public health) is associated with
the Latin word for salt. Salt was also of course important for life itself, and
was so precious in the ancient world that the Roman Legions were paid partially
Salt was used for purification, and also for making Mola Salsa, ("MOW-la SAWL-sa"- a purified cake made with a mixture of flower, water and salt.) Mola salsa was offered to Vesta both at home Larariums and also by the Vestal Virgins on behalf of Rome itself.
To make Mola Salsa with salt from the Salinum, mix a small portion of spelt flour (a variety of flour used in ancient Rome, available in most health-food shops) with a small amount of water until it becomes a paste. Add some salt and 'knead' it a bit with your fingers. Flatten it into small, round wafer-like cakes, the thinner the better. The cakes can be burned in the Turibulum as an offering to the Gods.
A Salinum for a Lararium can be made of pottery or metal, and should have a covering so that the salt does not absorb moisture or get dirty. The Salinum container may be plain or decorated as you choose. Sea Salt or course granular salt is recommended, both can be found at any health food shop or in most grocery stores. Iodized table salt is less desirable as it is less traditional.
The Gutus, "GOO-tus" is a container for sacred milk or
wine that is offered to the Gods. As with the Accera and the Salinum, the Gutus
is used to keep a sacred offering substance clean and protected. Any of a
variety of materials may be used, such as pottery, glass, stone or metal.
Liquid from the Gutus is poured into the Patera when it is being offered to the Gods. If you are offering milk to the Gods it should be placed in the Gutus only a short time before the rite in which you will offer it, and the Gutus should be emptied afterward. Wine may be left in the Gutus for a longer time, although care should be taken if your Gutus is made from metal. (The acid in wine may corrode the metal if left there for days.)
The Accera, the Salinum and the Gutus can be stored near or under your Lararium depending on it's design, and need only be present before the Gods during the rites.
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