In my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig, the team excavates an ancient Roman temple complex — but temples weren’t the only place where the ancients worshiped the gods. The household shine or lararium was a central feature in a Roman home, usually located in the atrium or near the kitchen hearth, which was convenient, since offerings of food and drink would be burnt at the shrine.
We don’t know a lot about the symbolism behind the images on these shrines, but vesuvioweb.com, an Italian website, has compiled a gallery of lararium photos from PompeiiInPictures.com, and it’s fascinating to try to decipher them. The most common image is a snake, which represents some sort of deity presiding over the individual house or, according to some sources, the fertility of the land surrounding it. The snake is often shown under the floor level of several figures who are making a sacrifice to it. The underground location reminds me of the idea of a household deity dwelling under the threshold, which, apparently, is why brides are carried into to their new homes. It also makes me think that the snake is an “infernal” deity, related to the dead, rather than the greater gods of the sky. Maybe it somehow represents the family ancestors.
The word lararium is derived from the Lares, twin deities with obscure origins, whose statues are usually displayed in the household shine. Although they look like they’re dancing and joyful, the Lares also seem to have a connection with the dead. According to the poet Ovid, their mother was Lara, a nymph whose tongue was cut out as punishment for revealing Jupiter’s secrets. Mercury escorted her to the underworld, but along the way, he impregnated her, resulting in the birth of the Lares. Roman minds may also have linked the Lares to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome — reinforcing the connection to ancestors.
The website vroma.org notes that in the scene above from a Pompeian lararium, a pig is about to be sacrificed — the proper offering for the Lares — and that the snakes are approaching an altar with eggs on it. Am I the only one who thinks this could be why we have a tradition of having ham and decorated eggs on Easter?Tweet this