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Religio Romano: Introduction to Private Roman Worship
By Jenni Hunt

Roman Prayer

Preparation for Worship

Elements of Prayer

This article is the second of a series of articles outlining the basics of a Roman focus of worship and practice. Other topics may include Early Roman Gods and Goddesses; The Roman Calendar and Public Rituals; Basic Prayers, Devotionals, and Rituals and Roman Methods of Divination (and any other topics which may be inspired or requested). In this article, I will discuss how to set up a home worship space, and how to prepare for worship and compose suitable prayers, with some examples.


For those wishing to begin a Roman mode of worship, probably the best place to begin is in creating a suitable worship space -- the lararium and the hearth. The hearth in a traditional Roman home was the center, both literally and symbolically of the household. If not in the very center of the house, it was opposite the door, on the far side, or in a separate kitchen. Vesta, being the living flame, was worshiped in the home as the heart of the household. The lararium was more or less a shrine honoring the household deities. It usually depicted, at the very least, the household gods, the Lares and Penates.

Creating a sacred space in one's home for worship depends on individual preferences. Location is important, as ideally, the lararium should be the first thing one sees as one enters the home. This might still be possible for those who do not wish to display overt signs of their worship to visitors. A small cupboard, such as a curio cabinet or even a box with closing doors would be appropriate and can easily be passed off as part of one's decor, rather than a place of worship if necessary. Still, if this is not possible, make do as best as you can. Your lararium might be as simple as a drawing you roll up and store away when you're not using it or as elaborate as a separate room or garden with a hearth, statuary, and fountains.

My own lararium sits atop a bookcase immediately opposite my front door, with the kitchen behind it. I have figurines of two Lares, plaques depicting Ceres and Demeter, a statue of Venus, photos of relatives who have passed away, some Greek pottery, and what I refer to as my testudarium: a small cupboard which houses my collection of turtles. I can't really explain this quirk of mine, except that perhaps turtles are a sort of totem animal for me; I collect them and it seemed appropriate to include them with the other items of my lararium. I also have a reproduction of an ancient Pompeiian lararium which depicts two Lares on either side of a figure representing the family Genius. For an offering bowl I use an onyx turtle ashtray from my collection, while a soapstone one has holes for burning cone and stick incense.

The traditional center of the Roman household, the hearth would be either centrally located or at the far side from the door. The women of the household were responsible for keeping it burning (or banked) and tended on a daily basis. Nowadays, that just doesn't work; while desirable, it's hardly practical --and unsafe, even -- to keep a flame burning at all times. However, it would be appropriate to have some kind of fire going at least during the main meal of the day and during the morning devotion, preferably one you can burn things in later. Not many of us still have an old-fashioned cooking hearth, so we make do with what we have.

Basically, a modern day hearth could be wherever and whatever you decide is appropriate. Some folks, like myself, have decided that the real "hearth" of their home is the kitchen stove. If you have a gas stove, you even have a perpetual flame in the pilot light. My stove is electric, and establishing a hearth continues to be problematic for me. The best compromise I've found so far is to keep a candle burning on my stove top when I am home. It think it's a good practice to light your hearth flame from the stove, (even if it's electric) so that the two flames are connected. Fire offerings can be problematic if you have no way to burn them. If you have a fireplace, you might burn them on a weekly basis, but if you're like me and have no way to burn them, you'll have to use your creativity and innovation.

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Romans were notorious for their scrupulous attention to detail in composing prayers; they liked to cover all possible contingencies. A perfect example of a thoroughly well-constructed prayer, circa 80 B.C.E., comes to us in the form of a prayer vow written by the Arval Brethren and is worded extremely meticulously:

Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, if the emperor Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, pontifex maximus, holder of the tribunician power, father of his country, and Caesar Domitian, son of the deified Vespasian of whom we deem we are speaking, should live and their house be safe on the next 1 January that comes to pass for the Roman people, the Quirites, and for the state of the Roman people, the Quirites, and you preserve that day and them safe from dangers (if there are or shall be any before that day), and if you have granted a felicitous issue in the manner that we deem that we are speaking of, and you have preserved them in that present condition or better -- and may you so do these things -- then we vow that you shall have, in the name of the College of the Arval Brethern, two gilded oxen.

In many ways, these prayers resemble modern day legal contracts; not incoincidentally; they were, in fact, contracts between man and the gods. Romans felt that in dealing with the gods, it was best to err on the side of caution, and could be rather anal about their prayers by our standards. For instance, if any part of the prayer or ritual was omitted, interrupted, performed improperly, or attended by an improper person, it was necessary to start all over, at considerable expense and trouble. Not only that, but the second time around would probably necessitate the addition of a piaculum, a propitiatory sacrifice, as well. While perfection is a lofty goal towards which neopagans can all work, I think for now we simply do the best we can and improve with practice. If you're concerned and really want to cover all your bases, you could make a piacular sacrifice at every ritual, just in case.

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Preparation for Worship

Rule number one of Roman worship is to be well-prepared. It should suffice to know what you want to accomplish, what you want to say, and what you want to do during a simple ritual. Write out a prayer ahead of time and memorize it, if at all possible. Have all your incense, lighters, offering bowls, and other paraphernalia ready before you begin.
Rule number two for Roman rituals is to be clean. In ancient times, some were turned away from public rituals or sent to wash up because they didn't pass muster. The act of cleaning or purification is known as lustration (from luere, which means "to loose," as in freeing from sinister influences) and is a necessary factor for effective Roman worship. All participants and objects used in a ritual must be casta ("clean" or "pure"). Bathing or washing is only the most obvious means of cleansing, one of the simplest means of lustration being to draw a circle around whatever it is that needs purification. Such lustrations were extremely common in Roman ritual observances, including the ancient festival of Ambarvalia, where folks would lead a procession of a bull, sheep, and pig thrice around the boundaries of the fields, then sacrifice them to Ceres. A similar practice involving "beating the bounds" still survives in Britain at Ascension-tide in May (Ogilvie 88).

The best time of day, I find, for prayer and ritual is early in the morning, just after I've showered. By beginning early, I have less of a chance for ill omens to occur and ruin my ritual before I even begin. Romans, having been known to be rather superstitious, were quite serious about avoiding unlucky words, accidents, or coincidences prior to or during a ritual. Frequently, they would hire a flutist to play during the ritual to cover any inauspicious sounds. I like to have soft music playing and a pleasant scent lulling all my senses with a suitable ambience. Romans also performed rituals capite velato (with head covered) for the same reason. These are customs easily adapted, even for solitary practitioners, by wearing a veil or head covering for solemn rituals and playing some soothing recorded music during a ritual. I always ensure the phone is off the hook before I begin. If necessary, put a "do not disturb" sign on the door if there is any chance of an ill-timed interruption -- whatever might be necessary to keep unfavorable omens from interrupting your sacred moment.

Romans would hire a priest to assist the celebrant by prompting the celebrant word by word (called praeire verba: "to anticipate the words), much like a modern teleprompter aids newscasters and orators to speak effectively in public. Likewise, it is perfectly acceptable -- perhaps even preferable -- to bring notes with you so that you don't stumble over the words of your prayer or forget a line. Of course, it would be best to memorize your prayer in advance, but it still doesn't hurt to have a cheat sheet just in case.
While there are several different types of prayer and sacrifices for different purposes --thanks, entreaties, vows, and fulfillment of promises, for example --for the purposes of this article, I'm going to stick with asking a blessing.

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Elements of Prayer

The first part of a prayer is the invocation, the purpose of which, in essence, is to get the attention of the god or goddess you are addressing. First and foremost, you should know and use the correct name of the deity(ies) being addressed. Romans felt that the deity's complete name was needed to be used or their prayers might go unheard. Therefore, you might want to list all the possible names and variations for that deity. However, if you suspect this is not feasible for you, there are some outs. A formula to add to the names you do know would be, sive quo alio nomine te appellari volveris ("or by whatever name to would like to be called"). If you don't think you know the name of a particular deity, you can address your prayer to "the responsible deity." Another formula common to Roman prayers used to avoid offending a god when you really mean to pray to a goddess, for example, is sive Deus, sive Dea ("whether thou be God or Goddess").

Having gotten the god's attention, you next need to convince the deity that what you request is reasonable. Horace, perhaps, did so in the humblest manner: "to enjoy what I have in good health -- nothing more do I ask.". Such phrases as "by your majesty," "just as you have done for me before," or "by the mercy of your godhead" also serve to convince the deity that such a request is within his or her power to grant.

Before you explain what you would like, you need to explain what you will do in return for what it is you're about to ask. Never demand anything from the gods; it is always up to them to decide whether to assist you or not, and they just might not. Until you've convinced them of your piety, you might not begin to feel a bond with the deities to which you are praying at first. Eventually, however, they will hear you, however, and appreciate your piety.
As you speak the words of your vow, make the offering and speak your request -- almost as an afterthought, although not so much so that they miss the point. It's a question of subtlety and humility. The phrase Macte esto! ("Be thou increased") was quite common and is always an appropriate formula to speak while making the offering. The idea is that the offering you are making will increase the numen (i.e., power; holiness) of the god and cause the bond between you grow. What offering you make depends on the deity to whom you are praying; for example, sky gods get burnt offerings; Underworld gods get libations or buried offerings; nature or agricultural gods get grain, For daily lararium rites, a bit of incense is okay -- a bit of wine, juice or maybe a coin or two.

Once you seem familiar with the basic elements of prayers, experiment with different words and offerings. You needn't speak Latin to address the Roman gods and goddesses; however, one might consider Latin to be their native language and therefore they might be more liable to pay attention to you and be flattered by your efforts to please them. Learn as much as you can about the deities to whom you seem drawn and speak to them, with offerings, whenever you can, and you will begin to develop relationships with them.

Every household could stand to adopt a daily ritual or prayer to the household gods Vesta, the Lares, and Penates. Invite them into your home, your life, and your family, and they will protect you and keep your home safe from harm. Most Roman households did so as a matter of tradition, regardless of religious piety, and the Romans survived and prospered for centuries. They must have been doing something right.

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Works Consulted and Cited:

Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Edwards, H.J., trans. Cato: De Re Rustica. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944.

Ogilvie, R.M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969.

Orr, David G. "Roman Domestic Religion: The Evidence of the Household Shrines," Aufsteig und Niedergang der Römushen Welt II:16:2, 1978.

Ovid. Fasti. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Rose, H.J. Ancient Roman Religion. London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.

Scullard, H.H. A History of the Roman World 753 to 146 BC. New York: Routledge, 1980.

Traupman, John C. Latin and English Dictionary. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

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