How to start practicing private rites
by Pontifex Maximus Marcus Cassius Iulianus
This "How To" manual has been written for Citizens who are interested in beginning to practice the Religio Romana on their own, by practicing the household rites that were a part of Roman life for centuries. It is intended to be a basic practical introduction rather than a scholarly text. Further research, reading and learning are as always highly encouraged.
Importance of Household Worship
Private worship was the foundation of Religion in ancient Rome. The Public rites, with their grand Temples and many festivals have received the most attention from historians. Yet such things were possible only because of the pietas which grew from household and family rites. Each household in Rome was in a sense a temple to the Gods. All Roman homes had a household altar, or "lararium", at which the family interacted with the Goddesses and Gods on a personal level each day. The rites of the home and family were so important to the Romans that such worship persisted into very late antiquity, surviving centuries longer than the public manifestations of the Religio Romana which were officially banned in the late 4th century CE.
The reasons why household worship was important are understandable even today. The family is the basis of Roman culture, and the household is the "center" of a family's existence. Inviting the Gods into ones house helps to ensure that one's property, relatives, and worldly efforts are blessed by the Roman deities, and that the positive powers of the Goddesses and Gods will enrich ones daily life. Such a sharing of life between humans and the Gods is the essence of the Pax Deorum, or "Peace of the Gods."
The Basic Outline of Household Worship
The basics of Religio Romana household worship are simple and easy to do. A "sacred space" is set up in the home, in the form of a household altar or Lararium. At this altar both the deities that are responsible for the home and the patron deities of the family are worshipped. Historically, there are two simple rites done at the Lararium altar each day - in the morning and evening. During these rites the Gods are honored, and asked to watch over the affairs of the family. The Lararium was of course also a place where individuals could worship the gods privately, and make small offerings to them. In essence, the Lararium is the "sacred heart" of the household, where the positive forces of the gods may be brought into everyday mundane existence.
Once you have a sacred place reserved by setting up a Lararium, it's time to add some of the tools used in Roman worship. We'll start with the basics and work up from there.
The Basic Tools
Sacred Fire and the Lucerna
In the earliest times of Roman history, the Gods and Goddesses were considered to be formless powers, or "Numina". It was only later, as the Romans came in contact with the Etruscans and Greeks, that the Gods began to be thought of as taking humanized forms.
Before statues were used in the household rites, the home altar centered around a sacred fire. This fire was a representation of the Goddess Vesta, (who we'll learn more about later) but also it was a combination of offering to the gods, and a representation of the power of the Gods. In all eras of the Religio Romana, a sacred flame was part of household worship.
The Lucerna, "Loo-KAIR-na", or sacred lamp, was most usually the source of sacred flame at the Lararium altar. This was an oil lamp made of clay or metal that was lit during the rites in honor of deity. There are companies which make reproductions of ancient Roman oil lamps, but one can use a small modern oil lamp just as well. It is the flame that's important, not the container. Even more easily, a white votive or taper candle in a holder may be used... the tallow candle was invented by Romans and certainly was used in ancient times. A lucerna or candle should be on the Lararium altar always, but it needs only be lit during the rites or when an offering of food, flowers, etc. is made to the Gods.
The Turibulum, "Tur-IB-yoo-lum" or incense burner was used in household worship throughout Roman history. The Turibulum is used both to create sacred scents pleasing to the Gods, and also to change things from solid form into an ethereal form by consuming them with fire. The Accera, "Ak-KER-ah" is a special container for sacred incense. As with the Turibulum, in the ancient Roman world the Accera could be made from a variety of materials and designs.
The ancient Romans burned a wide variety of incenses. Usually they were resins, powdered substances or herbs, or a mixture of the three. Resins such as Frankincense or Myrrh were very popular, as were substances such as Sandalwood. The Romans sprinkled the powdery incense over the coals of the Turibulum to make offerings to the Gods. It is because the incense was considered a sacred offering that the Accera is a sacred Lararium "tool."
An Accera for your home altar should be some sort of covered container that will keep your incense "fresh." Resins such as Frankincense can sometimes absorb too much moisture, or even lose some of their sent if left uncovered for weeks at a time. A pottery container with a lid, or a decorated metal or wood box can make a fine Accera.
The Patera, "Pah-TER-ah" or offering dish was also used at the Lararium altar throughout all periods of Roman religion. The Patera is used to offer bits of food or wine from houshold meals to the Gods. The Romans thought it important to symbolically share the sustinance of life with deity, as honored members of the home. In ancient times there were many different forms of Pateras. Most often it was a clay or metal saucer-like dish, shallow and perhaps half an inch deep at best. The patera was usually round or oval in shape.
Obviously, the Patera is an easy tool to use. A small bit of food from the family table, or liquid such as wine or milk is placed into it so that the Gods may share with the members of the household. The offerings placed in a Patera need only be left for an hour or two, although they can be left from meal to meal if one wishes. The Patera should be kept spotless when not in use.
The Salinum, "Sa-LEE-num" is a container for sacred purifying salt. The Romans and other ancient cultures considered salt to be a very powerful substance that removed negative spiritual influences. The Romans understood that salt had antiseptic qualities even though they did not know about bacteria, etc. Salt was used for health in baths as well as in medicine. The name of the goddess Salus (the goddess of public health) is associated with the Latin word for salt. Salt was also of course important for life itself, and was so precious in the ancient world that the Roman Legions were paid partially in salt.
A Salinum for a Lararium can be made of pottery or metal, and should have a covering so that the salt does not absorb moisture or get dirty. The Salinum container may be plain or decorated as you choose. Sea Salt or course granular salt is recommended, both can be found at any health food shop or in most grocery stores. Iodized table salt is less desirable as it is less traditional.
The Gutus, "GOO-tus" is a container for sacred milk or wine that is offered to the Gods. As with the Accera and the Salinum, the Gutus is used to keep a sacred offering substance clean and protected. Any of a variety of materials may be used, such as pottery, glass, stone or metal.
Liquid from the Gutus is poured into the Patera when it is being offered to the Gods. If you are offering milk to the Gods it should be placed in the Gutus only a short time before the rite in which you will offer it, and the Gutus should be emptied afterward. Wine may be left in the Gutus for a longer time, although care should be taken if your Gutus is made from metal. (The acid in wine may corrode the metal if left there for days.)
The Accera, the Salinum and the Gutus can be stored near or under your Lararium depending on it's design, and need only be present before the Gods during the rites.