Holy Shape-Shifters

Samuel Magal/Sites & Photos Ltd./Bridgeman Images
A fresco showing lares, or local household gods, from a shrine in Pompeii, circa first century AD

Without a holy book to restrain it, Roman polytheism tended to promiscuous hospitality: a profusion of gods, goddesses, nymphs, divine heroes, and abstract virtues appeared and disappeared; faith remained inventive, untroubled by questions of authenticity; distinctions among deities, supernatural powers, personifications, and allegories were casual. Foreign gods—Isis and Serapis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia—were not resisted but inspired innovative rituals and splendid new temples. Newfangled ones—including some individuals who were still alive and active—rose in popularity, then fell away. As early as the first century BCE, the scholar and writer Varro, faced with the plethora of popular divinities, decided to square the circle, and proposed seeing the multiplicity of gods as a series of variations on a single divine principle.

In spite of the prolific numbers and exotic imports, however, Roman cult figures such as Bona Dea (literally, the Good Goddess), Concordia (Harmony), Fortuna, Pax, Salus (Health), and even Virtus herself strike a rather dutiful note. They lack drama and color and feel interchangeable, as do some classical statues raised on their altars. By contrast, before and during the Republic, local divinities had been rustic and even orgiastic: the Liber Pater (the Free Father) was licentious, a Roman Dionysus, a god of ecstasy and intoxication. But his cult, as well as those of the priapic satyr Faunus, the spring goddess Flora, and the great god Pan, was suppressed in imperial times, purged in favor of far more edifying (and political) principles: the Pax Augusti (Peace of Augustus) was given its own magnificent altar, the Ara Pacis, now enshrined under glass beside the Tiber.

All through these changes, for around seven hundred years from the third century BCE until the fifth century CE, small local gods known as lares were worshipped in Roman households and in public celebrations—games, processions, feasts. They were protectors of the household, “kitchen gods,” “who take care of our dwelling from its foundation,” wrote the poet Ennius in his Annales, and they remained a persistent, indelible feature of the Roman scene. It was a cause of deep anxiety—a sense almost of homelessness—for a household to lose its lares, a misfortune that exacerbated whatever ruin, destruction, or exile had already befallen its members. This fact brings to mind the thousands of refugees who arrived in Europe over the past several decades without anything at all (except their phone—if they are fortunate—kept dry in a tied balloon). The connection to home through familiar objects runs very deep; the lares met that powerful need.

Christian officials singled the lares out for suppression along with the Olympians. When the Theodosian Code, issued in 438 CE, banned religious rites associated with the old religion—“paganism”—it specifically mentioned lares. After prohibiting animal sacrifices and idolatry, it commanded: “Let…

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