Many people may think the reason behind this story is blatant self-promotion, but I assure you it is not. I share my pen name on AC and other sites with a Roman nymph who had her tongue cut out by Jupiter for talking to much according to The Dictionary of Roman Religion by Adkins and Adkins. I would like to believe that the story further adds that the poor nymph simply loved to gossip about the alleged conquests of Olympus’s ruler to his jealous wife. The last bit may not be supported. While that may be interesting, it was not her, but rather her sons by Mercury the Messenger of the Gods that bore the name of a common Roman household spirit.
On every Roman heart there would be a small altar that served the same purpose in the family that the temples did for society. The lararium as the Romans called their household sacred space. Concested of an oil lamp called a lucerna and an incense burner. Simple prayers and offerings to the Gods could be made at the lararium in order to bring their favor upon the house. The father of the house was responsible for making sure rites were carried out properly and certain holy days of the month observed.
While many people see Roman religion as merely worshiping Olympian gods under different names that was not the case. The upper class typically equated their Gods with those of what they considered humanity’s golden age which occurred shortly before the rise of the Macedonian Alexander.
The most important of the household gods or spirits however are the Lares and the Penates. When Vergil wrote his version of the fall of Troy from the perspective of the Trojans, the defeated hero of the Trojan war and of the Aneid takes special care to rescue the statues representing this. What most people may not know is what these Roman gods represented. The Lares, twins of the silent nymph Lara (honestly that is her name, where do you think I got it?) served the much the same function that guardian angels do in Christianity today, spirits of protection. Part of the Saturnalia festival which took place in December honored them. The Penates were not individual gods, but rather a group of gods and every family had a god that looked after members of that lineage. Since the Romans traced family lines through the father, a woman upon marriage would fall under the watchful gaze of the penate of her husband.
While they may be the two major class of Roman spirits, the Romans did not start out believing in the Tartarus and Elysian fields noted by the Greeks. Instead, they believed the spirits of the dead hung around until they once again came to life. This belief probably passed out of common usage sometime during the Republic, but the idea remained that the dead were considerably more powerful than the living. Because of this a custom continues to this day that you do not speak ill of someone beyond the grave. You never know when they might listen in. Archaeologists digging up a catacomb underneath the city on the Tiber will often find bowls or other ways of making offerings to someone who had passed away.
The next time you find yourself in Rome (a feat which I hope to achieve someday) you will not only do as the Romans do but remember to honor the household spirits inhabiting the city long ago. Don’t forget to make an offering to the genius loci, or the spirit of the place. Just remember the old adage about doing as the people around you do.