Introduction to Private Roman Worship
Establishing a Sacred Space
For those wishing to begin a Roman mode of worship, probably the best place to begin is in creating a suitable worship space - the lararium and the hearth. The hearth in a traditional Roman home was the center, both literally and symbolically of the household. If not in the very center of the house, it was opposite the door, on the far side, or in a separate kitchen. Vesta, being the living flame, was worshiped in the home as the heart of the household. The lararium was more or less a shrine honoring the household deities. It usually depicted, at the very least, the household gods, the Lares and Penates.
Creating a sacred space in one's home for worship depends on individual preferences. Location is important, as ideally, the lararium would be the first thing one sees as one enters the home. This might still be possible for those who do not wish to display overt signs of their worship to visitors. A small cupboard, such as a curio cabinet or even a box with closing doors would be appropriate and can easily be passed off as part of one's decor, rather than a place of worship if necessary. Still, if this is not possible, one makes do – a lararium might be as simple as a drawing that is rolled up and stored away when not in use, or it can be as elaborate as a separate room or garden with a hearth, statuary, and fountains.
The traditional center of the Roman household, the hearth, would be either centrally located or at the far side from the door. The women of the household were responsible for keeping it burning (or banked) and tended on a daily basis. Nowadays, not everyone has a fireplace, and scant few of those who do use it as a cooking hearth. While it might be desirable, it is hardly practical – unsafe, even – to keep a flame burning at all times. Nonetheless, it would be appropriate to have some kind of fire lit at least during the main meal of the day and during morning devotions, preferably if it is one in which small offerings may be burnt later.
Recognizing that there are fundamental differences in the way we function in the twenty-first century, we make do with what we have. A modern day hearth could be wherever and whatever seems most appropriate. The central focus of our household may well be an electric furnace, rather than a cooking hearth. If one has a gas stove, one may even have a perpetual flame in the form of a pilot light. A small hearth stone on which incense is burnt might suffice for some. Modern pagans have to use their creativity and innovation to adapt as seems best for them.
Romans were notorious for their scrupulous attention to detail in composing prayers; they liked to cover all possible contingencies. A perfect example of a thoroughly well-constructed prayer, circa 80 B.C.E., comes to us in the form of a prayer vow written by the Arval Brethren and is worded most meticulously:
Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, if the emperor Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, holder of the tribunician power, father of his country, and Caesar Domitian, son of the deified Vespasian of whom we deem we are speaking, should live and their house be safe on the next January first that comes to pass for the Roman people, the Quirites, and for the State of the Roman people, the Quirites, and you preserve that day and them safe from dangers (if there are or shall be any before that day), and if you have granted a felicitous issue in the manner that we deem that we are speaking of, and you have preserved them in that present condition or better - and may you so do these things - then we vow that you shall have, in the name of the College of the Arval Brethern, two gilded oxen.
In many ways, Roman prayers resemble modern day legal contracts. Not incoincidentally, they were, in fact, contracts between humans and the gods. Romans felt that in dealing with the gods, it was best to err on the side of caution, and could be considered rather obsessive about their prayers by our standards. For instance, if any part of the prayer or ritual was omitted, interrupted, performed improperly, or by attended by an improper person, it was necessary to start all over, at considerable expense and trouble to the celebrator. Not only that, but the second time around would probably necessitate the addition of a piaculum, a propitiatory sacrifice, as well. While perfection is a lofty goal to which one might aspire, perhaps celebrants should simply do the best they can and improve with practice. In any case, if one were to cover all bases, one could make a piacular sacrifice at every ritual, just in case.
Preparation for Worship
Rule number one of Roman worship is to be well-prepared. It should suffice to know what one wants to accomplish, say and do during a simple ritual. It may be helpful to write out a prayer ahead of time and memorize it, if at all possible. Good preparation includes having all ritual supplies – incense, lighters, offering bowls, and other paraphernalia – ready before beginning.
Rule number two for Roman rituals is to be clean. In ancient times, some were turned away from public rituals or sent to wash up because they did not pass muster. The act of cleaning or purification is known as lustration (from luere, which means "to loose," as in freeing from sinister influences) and is a necessary factor for effective Roman worship. All participants and objects used in a ritual must be casta ("clean" or "pure"). Bathing or washing is only the most obvious means of cleansing. One of the simplest means of lustration is to draw a circle around whatever it is that needs purification. Such lustrations were extremely common in Roman ritual observances, including the ancient festival of Ambarvalia, where folks would lead a procession of a bull, sheep, and pig thrice around the boundaries of the fields, then sacrifice them to Ceres. A similar practice involving "beating the bounds" still survives in Britain at Ascension-tide in May (Ogilvie 88).
Many find that the best time of day for prayer and ritual is early in the morning, just after showering. By beginning early, one reduces the chance for ill omens to occur and ruin the ritual before it has begin. Romans, having been known to be rather superstitious, were quite serious about avoiding unlucky words, accidents, or coincidences prior to or during a ritual. Frequently, they would hire a flutist to play during the ritual to cover any inauspicious sounds. Soft music and a pleasant scent not only lull the senses with a suitable ambience, but they can also distract from any noises or odors that could be considered ominous. Romans also performed rituals capite velato (with head covered) for the same reason. These are customs easily adapted, even for solitary practitioners, by wearing a veil or head covering for solemn rituals and playing some soothing recorded music during a ritual. Always ensure the phone is off the hook before beginning. If necessary, put a "do not disturb" sign on the door if there is any chance of an ill-timed interruption - whatever might be necessary to keep unfavorable omens from interrupting a sacred moment.
Romans would hire a priest to assist the celebrant by prompting the celebrant word by word (called praeire verba: "to anticipate the words"), much like a modern teleprompter aids newscasters and orators to speak effectively in public. Likewise, it is perfectly acceptable – perhaps even preferable – to bring notes to a ritual to prevent any stumbling over the words of a prayer or forgetting a line. Of course, memorizing a prayer in advance would be best, but it never hurts to have a cheat sheet, just in case.
While there are several different types of prayer and sacrifices for different purposes – thanks, entreaties, vows, and fulfillment of promises, for example – for the purposes of this article, the following principles apply to asking a blessing.
Elements of Prayer
The first part of a prayer is the invocation, the purpose of which, in essence, is to get the attention of the god or goddess being addressed. First and foremost, know and use the correct name of the deity(ies) being addressed. Romans felt that the deity's complete name was needed to be used, else their prayers might go unheard. Therefore, consider listing all possible names and variations for that deity. However, if doing so is not feasible, there are some outs. A formula to add to known names would be, sive quo alio nomine te appellari volveris ("or by whatever name to would like to be called"). If the name of a particular deity is unknown, one can address a prayer to "the responsible deity." Another formula common to Roman prayers used to avoid offending a god when you really mean to pray to a goddess, for example, is sive Deus, sive Dea ("whether thou be God or Goddess").
Having gotten the god's attention, one's text task is to convince the deity that what one requests is reasonable. Horace, perhaps, did so in the humblest manner: "to enjoy what I have in good health - nothing more do I ask." Such phrases as "by your majesty," "just as you have done for me before," or "by the mercy of your godhead" also serve to convince the deity that such a request is within his or her power to grant.
Before explaining what is requested, explain what will be done in return. Never demand anything from the gods; it is always up to them to decide whether to assist or not, and they just might not. Until convinced of the supplicant's piety, the supplicant might not feel a bond with the deities at first. Eventually, however, they will hear, and appreciate such piety.
As the supplicant speaks the words of the vow, he or she would make the offering and speak the request – almost as an afterthought, although not so much so that the deity misses the point. It is a question of subtlety and humility. The phrase Macte esto ("Be thou increased") was quite common and is always an appropriate formula to speak while making the offering. The idea is that the offering will increase the numen (i.e., power; holiness) of the god and cause the bond between gods and humans to grow. What offering is made depends on the deity to whom one is praying; for example, sky gods get burnt offerings; underworld gods get libations or buried offerings; nature or agricultural gods get grain, For daily lararium rites, a bit of incense is probably suitable – a bit of wine, juice or maybe a coin or two.
Once familiar with the basic elements of prayers, one may experiment with different words and offerings. One need not speak Latin to address the Roman gods and goddesses; however, one might consider Latin to be their native language and therefore they might be more liable to pay attention and be flattered by efforts to please them. Good advice is to learn as much as you can about the deities to whom you seem drawn and speak to them, with offerings, whenever you can, and begin to develop relationships with them.
Every household could stand to adopt a daily ritual or prayer to the household gods Vesta, the Lares, and Penates. Invite them into your home, your life, and your family, and they will protect you and keep your home safe from harm. Most Roman households did so as a matter of tradition, regardless of religious piety, and the Romans survived and prospered for centuries. They must have been doing something right.
Works Consulted and Cited
- Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Edwards, H.J., trans. Cato: De Re Rustica. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944.
- Ogilvie, R.M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969.
- Orr, David G. "Roman Domestic Religion: The Evidence of the Household Shrines," Aufsteig und Niedergang der Römushen Welt II:16:2, 1978.
- Ovid. Fasti. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
- Rose, H.J. Ancient Roman Religion. London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.
- Scullard, H.H. A History of the Roman World 753 to 146 BC. New York: Routledge, 1980.
- Traupman, John C. Latin and English Dictionary. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.