European paleo-religion: Mater Larum, Holda and Huldra

Ancient Italic religion before christianity is often associated with the hierarchical and immanent-polytheist Olympian model of gods introduced with the economic, cultural and military expansion of the Greek states during the first half of the 1st millenium BCE. This followed closely with the increasing focus of power and settlement upon towns and cities, and a new emphasis upon commoditisation which would reach its zenith with the growth of Rome and its famous Republic, and fall apart after 400 years of Empire. However, the religion of ancient Rome had its roots in a more simplified, animistic and rural spirit and ancestor-based religion common to much larger swathes of Europe extending far into the north and back into the 2nd millenium BCE and beyond…

The traces of this more ancient animistic faith are seen clearly in the form of the disincarnate spirits known as Lares, Manes and Lemures (otherwise Lases, Genii, Daimones, Nymphs, Naiades, etc) whose immanence permeated all households, roads, boundaries, buildings, natural springs, lakes, trees and groves, rocks and bushes in the minds of everyday people. With the growth of powerful city-states, these spirits underwent various phases of promotion, demotion, conflation, renaming and reinvention and added to the already bloating pantheon of divine and semi-divine legendary personages and deified humans that would eventually mark the ultimate collapse of paganism in the face of the stripped, portable and reductionist literal religious philosophies flowing back from the Hellenised Near East. However, the belief in immanent spirits and ancestral gods seemingly refused to die even though the major gods fell away, leaving Europe with rich parallel traditions of animism in the form of folklore about fairies, elves, ghosts, mysterious wild females and man-beasts which persisted alongside monotheism until modern times.

In the literate and artistically creative milieu of the Italic peninsula of the archaic and classical periods, we are lucky to have literary, epigraphic and depictional evidence relating to these animistic beliefs, and in particular to the disincarnate spirits known as Lares or Lases who were at the core of the ancient domestic religion, based in the independent, subsistence tribal cultures of the past. These, like the more modern European ‘fairies’, developed various synonyms and identities based upon their status in relation to individual families, tribes, ethnic groups, places and shifts in power and cultural influence. As regional versions of them amalgamated some became demoted in status, while others grew in stature, this process becoming anchored in the power of the Roman Republic. This produced, from a number of anciently more important divinities, an Olympian hierarchy (important to expression of state power) with a subservient ‘rustic’ pantheon of lesser spirits.

A Lare was what we might call a genius locus – a spirit with a specific haunt. In the ancient world, a spirit was an incorporeal living creature made of what the Greeks called aither or aether, which could be known only by the mind. Gods were deemed the same, and therefore gods and spirits were a philosophical system for describing the mechanisms by which the corporeal elements were excited into life and motion. In Mediterranean immanent polytheism, it was therefore possible for all phenomena to have a god or spirit attached to them. In Roman culture, the Larvae and Lemures were restless and dangerous forms of Lares, whereas Lares themselves were usually spirits in a state of helpful and benevolent equilibrium with mankind. They were ancestral spirits of humans, also known as Dii Penates or Manes, who maintained a presence among the haunts of the living: a form of collective memory, representing the skill and knowledge of ancestors, passed down among the living. Households had shrines to them, and these must have evolved into tribal group-expressions as Lares also had communal shrines encountered in rural and urban districts, at crossroads and along highways. They also had formal worship as part of the greater state-religion, of which more shortly. Festivities associated with these immanent ancestral spirits included the famous Saturnalia and associated Compitalia, the Liminalia, Feralia, Ambarvalia and Lemuria, as well as other rustic celebrations such as the Robigalia. These aspects of the tutelary and protective ancestral genius locus seem to underpin some of the agrarian Etruscan legends I have commented on in other posts. This aspect of italic paleo-religion may have been preserved in Roman culture in the form of the ancient priestly collegia known as the Fratre Arvales (Arval Bretheren) as well as the Augurs and Haruspices. The Arvals held solemn annual rites designed to sanctify agricultural production, ensuring the feeding of city dwellers and thus ultimately the wealth and power of state. This was a chthonic cult appealing to the earthly forces, among whom the dead traditionally resided: a connection to the ancient paleo-religion with its emphasis on death and regeneration. This was such an important tradition that during the period of the Roman Empire, the Emperor himself was always one of the 12 Arval priests, the others being selected patricians who held their office for life. As these priests were not trained specialists like the Augurs, their temple preserved inscriptions of aides-memoires of some of their ritual chants, from which we know the following (Old Latin) ‘Carmen Arvale’ :

Enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate

neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe!

This invocation of the Lares (using the archaic form ‘Lases’), Mars/Marmor and the ‘Semunis’ (fertility spirits?) in an important ritual to sanctify agricultural production (90%+ of provincial Roman citizens were agronomists) shines a fascinating light upon older Roman religion. You might ask, for instance: ‘Why Mars? Surely he was a war god?’… Well, for the Romans, Mars was as much a protector and stabiliser during the Republican and early Imperial eras, as he was a symbol for aggressive conquest (during the expansionist era of the Empire). Militarised Romans tended to associate the virile masculine element with warfare rather than that traditionally associated with aspects of nature and animal husbandry during the springtime (Mars’ month is known to us as ‘March’). For the Celts, this symbolism of the fertile war-god was illustrated in the form of the rutting stag or bull with adorned horns, such as is illustrated by the god ‘Cernunnos’ on the French ‘Pillar des Nautes’ and the medieval Irish accounts of the ‘Tain Bo Culainge’ with its ‘rutting’ warriors in their riverside showdowns etc.

The Arvals’ main cult of devotion was to the goddess called Dia or Dea Dia – apparently a female version of the masculine god-principle Dio (Zeus, Jupiter = Dio Pater), otherwise identified with Juno, and also known as Mater Larum – ‘Mother of the Lares’. Juno was, of course, Mars’ mother in Roman myth, so it is no wonder that the Arvals invoked him along with the Lares. This would make Juno (as ‘Mater Larum’) akin to the later Gaelic conception of the ‘Fairy Queen’, as the hypostasis corresponds so closely with later Celtic conceptions of fairies. However, this similarity with later folklore from the historically ‘non-Romanised’ north European world does not stop with the Irish and British Atlantic fringe, but that of the Scandinavians and Germans too:

The evidence for this link comes through a tale told by a single surviving Roman source – the great poet and mythographer, Ovid (1stC BCE/CE), who told a tale about the Mater Larum in his account of Roman festivals known as Fasti. He uses her synonym Lara, claiming her to have been a Naiad (water/spring/river) nymph conducted by Mercury to the gates of the underworld for the sin of betraying Zeus’ love secrets to Juno (of whom she appears to be a ‘hypostasis’). Jupiter apparently orders her tongue cut out as punishment, but Mercury falls in love with her and has intercourse en route to the chthonic realm, where she gives birth to twins (of unspecified gender) – the first Lares. Consequent to her punishment, she became known as Muta or Dea Tacita – the ‘silent goddess’ of the dead. The ‘silence’ is that of the grave – that great keeper of secrets – and her children are hidden in the secret recesses and crevices of liminal places: hearths, crossroads, storerooms (Penates) and so forth.

This account by Ovid of ‘silent’ Lara and her concealed children is curiously similar to the legends which persisted in the (unromanised) German and Scandinavian worlds of a female character known by various names: Holda, Hulder/Huldra, Holle, Hylde. She was the mother of the elves who (in Icelandic and Norwegian Christian tradition) hid her children from God, ashamed by their earthy dirty appearance… The following Christianised account is taken from ‘Icelandic Legends’ by Jón Arnason, (translated by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnusson) Pub: London, R. Bentley, 1864, pp.19-22:

‘The Genesis of the Hid-Folk’: Once upon a time, God Almighty came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him with joy, and showed him every- thing they had in the house. They also brought their children to him, to show him, and these He found promising and full of hope. Then He asked Eve whether she had no other children than these whom she now showed him. She said ” None.” But it so happened that she had not finished washing them all, and, being ashamed to let God see them dirty, had hidden the unwashed ones. This God knew well, and said therefore to her, ” What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” These unwashed children became forthwith invisible, and took up their abode in mounds, and hills, and rocks. From these are the elves descended, but we men from those of Eve’s children whom she had openly and frankly shown to God. And it is only by the will and desire of the elves themselves that men can ever see them.

The English word ‘Hidden’ translates directly to Hylde/Huld etc in the Germanic tongues. It is immediately apparent that the folklore is immediately comparable to Ovid’s Roman account. It is possible that the ‘Romanised’ Germanic tribes may have introduced this myth into the streams of Scandinavian folklore over the subsequent centuries, but it would be hard to justify, given the obvious religious independence of these regions at the advent of the Christian Roman Empire. What is more likely is that the ancestral cult of the ancient Europeans was widespread and influenced the Italic peoples before the Etruscan and Roman cultures developed and flourished. It is possible that the two important ‘prophetic’ and ‘revelatory’ Etruscan ancestor-divinities, Vegoia and Tages, were the ‘children’ of Lara: Etruscan ‘Mars’ was called ‘Laran’ 😉

The ‘sacred twins’ conceived in a grove between a god and lesser divinity are a continuous theme of Greco-Roman religion: The mythological founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus were supposedly begat by Mars upon Rhea Silvia (said to be a sexually-errant Vestal virgin, but whose name evokes a Dryadic Titaness). Rhea Silvia cast the boys adrift on the Tiber but they were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf (the wolf was Mars’ animal), before being fostered by a woman with the name Acca Larentia, otherwise known as Dea Dia! Castor and Pollux/Polydeukes likewise had a similar furtive beginning when their mother Leda was accosted by a god (Zeus) disguised as a swan, and they seem to be connected – along with Romulus and Remus – to the origin-tale of the ancestral Lares as mentioned by Ovid. This suggests an amalgam of various versions of an older myth with aspects also seen in Irish and Scandinavian mythology. Another example would be the hiding by Gaia (Earth) of young Zeus from his devouring father, Cronus, on Rhea’s sacred Cretan mountain: Mount Ida – perhaps one of the older root-myths of the others…

Another aspect of the ‘Mater Larum’ that needs to be addressed in the form of the fascinating goddess known to the Greeks as Hestia, and to the Italics/Latins as Vesta: She was the virgin sovereign goddess of the domestic hearth, and therefore a candidate to be associated with the ancient domestic cult of the Lares. We know this because Cicero tells us the following (De Natura Deorum 2. 27 (trans. Rackham) – 1stC BCE) :

“…The name Vesta comes from the Greeks, for she is the goddess whom they call Hestia. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess, because she is the guardian of the innermost things. Closely related to this function are the Penates or household gods…”

Her cult was associated (as was that of the virgin Bridget at Kildare in Ireland in the 12thC) with the celebration of a hearth with an ‘eternal flame‘. This links quite closely to the Gaelic ideas of fairies/ancestors and the hearth in places like the Isle of Man which persisted down to the 19th/20thC CE. The ‘Getae’ (the Celtic Dacians, ancestors of the Romanians) conquered by Trajan in the 2ndC CE were said by Diodorus Siculus (1stC BCE) to worship ‘Hestia’. Ovid describes Vesta as the third sister of a triad including Juno (Hera) and Ceres (Demeter), implying that she actually represents the fire-cored Earth itself, hence her round domed temple in Rome which suggested the form of the globe of the planet. This copied the form of the Prytaneum at Athens, and was reflected in the design of the Pantheon. He further states that there were no statues of her at her temple – she being represented solely by the eternal flame kept burning there, tended by her famous virgin priestesses. Of interest to Gaelic folklore, is that Hestia or Vesta’s fire was re-kindled with a ritual of friction (an evocation of sexual intercourse) between two pieces of wood, similar to that apparently used for the May/Beltain bonfires (see elsewhere on the blog)… Herein lies a mystery about the ‘virginity’ of Vesta: Far from being a ‘chaste’ force, she is actually a representation of the full sexual potential of the feminine – the flames being a worldly allegory of unconquerable lust and fertile intent. The tales of ‘rape’ and ‘indiscretion’ concerning the genesis of the three sets of ‘divine twins’ at the core of popular Greco-Roman (and Irish, Welsh, Breton and Scaninavian) religious myths are simply an expression of the inevitable transgression of this ‘pure’ state of lust which characterises inevitable natural forces. Vesta or Hestia was therefore also the original ‘Mater Larum’, and actually one of the most fundamental and important goddess-aspects!

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