With Halloween coming up, I thought I’d do a few posts this months on ghosts. Let’s kick things off with the ghosts you’d have been likely to meet in ancient Rome. All of these are the same type of being, namely, the spirits of departed humans. They can be differentiated from one another based on how a person relates to them or possibly the mood they’re in.
Let’s start with the manes, whose name literally means “the good ones.” This is a pretty generic term for the dead when thought of collectively: those who have gone on to the afterlife. They are always spoken of in the plural.
As the Romans understood it, everyone who dies becomes one of the manes. With respect to their surviving family, however, they might be classed as one of the lares or as di parentes.
Lares and Di Parentes
The lares are almost always mentioned in the plural. They were the ancestral spirits or household gods of the ancient Romans, who borrowed the idea from the Etruscans before them. The Etruscans called these spirits the lassi.
Lares were conceived as the souls of mortals that were somehow attached to their former abodes. They functioned somewhat as “guardian angels” for the surviving members of their families: averting dangers and bestowing blessings. They received acts of worship at a special shrine within the home, where they were especially honored on special days for the family such as a birthday, wedding, anniversary, or departure or return from a journey.
The principal guardian spirit of a household was the lar familiaris, who might perhaps be the first in the line of ancestors (divine or human) or else a spirit that at some point became attached to a particular family to watch over it.
Related to the lares were the di parentes, spirits of one’s immediate ancestors, one’s father or mother, who had passed on. This group might also include the spirit or “genius” of a family member still living on earth.
Lemures or Larvae
The lemures were wandering and vengeful spirits of the dead, also sometimes called larvae, “masks.” They are always described in the plural, but a reconstructed singular Latin form would be *lemur. The primates we know as lemurs were saddled with this name because of their nocturnal habits.
Lemures were associated with fear and darkness. A few days every May were set aside to placate them with a ritual held at midnight, in which the head of each family would toss black beans over his shoulder for the lemures to feast on.
Lares could become lemures if the family didn’t make offerings and prayers in a satisfactory way. So be sure to always leave flowers at the graves of your ancestors, and always have some black bean salsa on hand, just in case!