Lares are ancestral spirits that protect and preserve family lines and family knowledge. The Lares (Lar-AY) serve as bridges connecting the past to the present. In homes of Italian Witches Lare shrines were usually placed in the East or West quarters. Traditionally Lares are associated with the hearth, so Witches usually place them on a mantle near the hearth.
In the ancient Roman religion Lares were worshipped at crossroads where small towers were built to honor them and offerings were left for them on alters. They were originally spirits of the fields, and with the development of agricultural knowledge they became associated with plots of farmland. They now guarded specific places, and the towers erected for them were their watchtowers. Because of their association with planting, Lares also were connected to the seasons and time itself.
The divine protection of places was as significant to the ancient Romans as the protection of time and seasons. The Roman god Janus, from which is derived the name of the month January, stood at the threshold of all these things, and was associated with the Lares by this relationship.
He was also the god of doorways, and the Lares were spirits of the hearth and protectors of the home. Also, by being spirits of the seasons and time, they were considered ancestral spirits the connected the past, present, and future together through preservation of linkage.
The Lares gradually acquired other protective duties and became Penates (pay-NOT-ays), spirits protecting the food supply within the home. The modern word “pantry” is derived from Penates. It is important to add that the Lares were not discriminate in protecting all members of a Roman household be they free or slave, blood related or not. This proved to be beneficial to the lower free class and the slave class who found shelter within the Lares cult. Among modern Italian Witches, non-Italians are adopted into the clan through the Lares and thereby become full members of the Tradition in all regards.
As a result of the earliest connection to the fields and meadows, the Lares also have a relationship with Faunus, Silvanus and other rustic gods. With the development of agriculture the Lares became linked to the seed, which resulted in the establishment of a connection with buried flesh. In their notions with death, the ancient Romans were more concern with the disappearance from this world than entry into the next.
The Roman viewed death as the defilement of the person, and this defilement should be removed with the performance of certain rites. Specifically this required the sacrifice of a sow to Ceres, a sacred meal eaten at the burial site, and a ritual cleansing of the home of the departed. From this evolved the modern customs of serving a “wake” meal and sending flowers to the home of the deceased.
The ancient Roman religion taught that the divine force survived the departed individual. If the departed was male this force was called his genius (jenn-ee-us) spirit, and if the departed was female it was called her juno spirit. The genius spirit of the father of a family was personalized in art, which linked him to the ancestral spirit. The portrait introduced the genius spirit to each new generation.
On the center of the Lare shrine was a painting of the father flanked on both sides by a Lare spirit. The female juno spirit was never depicted in art but was connected with the hearth. The goddess Vesta, of whom the Romans never made a statue, represented the feminine juno spirit. Vesta was the spirit of the fire in the hearth. The wife of the home was responsible for keeping the fire alive, just as the vestal virgins kept the eternal flame alive in the temple of Vesta.
The wife received the juno spirit, on the day of her marriage when it was passed to her beneath her veil by the priest of Jupiter and Juno, which she possessed as she performed the duties of the household. Though not known to many, this custom is present today. It is connected with the popularity of June weddings, as June is the sacred month of Juno. The woman’s juno gave her fertility and helped her in childbirth. Every woman had her juno as every man had his genius, sharing in all aspects of their life.
It became customary in the ancient Roman religion to present offerings at both the hearth and the Lara shrines. Such customs were inherited from the Etruscans who left offerings for spirits of the dead known as manes (mah-NAY), spirits that continued living on either in or near their tombs, and had to be fed.
When these spirits were satisfied because they were favorable toward the living but when neglected they suffered and could be very revengeful to the living when they became lemures (LAY-murr-ays).
Such customs gradually evolved into placing offerings such as spelt grain or cakes at the Lare shrines. These shrines were depicted as a serpent on a base. It also was believed ancestral spirits came as serpents to retrieve offerings left on the hearth.
Because of the great reference paid to the ancestral spirits of the particular household the Lare shrine was taken with the family whenever it moved to a new residence. A.G.H.
Grimassi, Raven, Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft, St. Paul, MN, Llewellyn Worldwide, 2000, pp. 214-216