Blood, Gens, Genius: familiar rites in ancient Rome

di Marco Maculotti
(article originally published on The hour of Air,
on February 13, 2017, and revised here)

We want to analyze in this essay the beliefs of the ancient Romans on the esoteric value of blood and, in full, those key concepts such as genius, gens, the sacrificial action (from Lat. sacer do, “Make sacred”, “sacralize”) and domestic cults strictly connected to the family sphere. Let's start by saying that the ancient Roman civilization, as well as numerous other traditional cultures, saw in the blood something more than the mere blood liquid considered from the purely organic-material point of view: we tended, so to speak, to perceive in it a vector of the numinous powers, as it was believed that the genetic inheritance (i.e. of the gens), which can be defined as the subtle influence of genius of the lineage that reverberates from generation to generation.

So writes Andrea Pasino in his recent study Blood Offspring Initiation [p.6]:

“Blood carries and transmits genes and virtues, but, just as it is a simple physical vector, there is a more subtle reality, a symbol, a spark that silently acts on the physical support. In history and in practice, blood itself rises to an object of power or salvation, regardless of the fact that, perhaps, it is only the appearance of what must be understood and transmitted. The blood is therefore vital force transmitted and, with the extinction of life, this force is transformed and sublimated into another essence, destined for more spiritual worlds. This force therefore does not die out, on the contrary it perpetuates itself. Just as the strength of genealogy is perpetuated from father to son, in the same way the subtle strength is not exhausted, but remains for all those who belong to that same bloodline. "

This type of cult is connected, according to Julius Evola [The tradition of Rome, p.175]:

"... to the ancient Roman awareness of the mystical forces of blood and race, to the lineage, that is, considered not only in its bodily and biological aspect, but also in its" metaphysical "and invisible aspect, but not for this" transcendent ", in the narrow dualistic meaning that has come to prevail for this term. The single individual, atomic, uprooted, does not exist - when he supposes a being for himself, he deludes himself in the most pitiful way, because "his" he cannot even call the last of the organic processes that condition his life and his finite consciousness. The individual is part of a group, of a lineage or people. He is part of an organic unity, whose most immediate vehicle is blood, and which extends both in space and in time. This unity is not "naturalistic", it is not determined and called to life solely by natural, biological and physiological processes. Rather, these processes constitute the external side, the necessary but not sufficient condition. There is a "life" of life, a mystical force of blood and people. It exists beyond the forces of life of the individuals who dissolve in it at death or are given by it through new births: it is therefore vitae mortisque locus—Place that encompasses life and death and which for that very reason is beyond both. "

A religiosity of this kind, as you can imagine, had little in common with the public cults dedicated to the most famous divinities, being rather comparable to the mystery rites of antiquity: it was in fact a vision of life and the Sacred prior to the birth of large urban centers and the cosmopolitan Empire, deriving from the most archaic substratum on which the Latin peoples could be founded before the expansion of the city and the rise of Rome to Caput Mundic. It was, in other words, a religious complex of an exquisitely nature Pagan, wanting in this sense to reconnect to the very etymology of the term "pagan", deriving from pagus, "village". It was therefore a cult proper to a village, observed by a circle of people closely linked by genetic characteristics (that is, they belonged to the same gens) who carried out their actions within a social structure closed to the outside.

So writes Mircea Eliade about private worship in ancient Rome [History of religious beliefs and ideas v. II, p.120]:

“Until the end of paganism, private worship — directed by the paterfamilias—It maintained its autonomy and its importance alongside public worship ... Unlike public worship, which underwent constant changes, domestic worship, carried out around the hearth, does not seem to have undergone significant changes during the twelve centuries of Roman history. It is undoubtedly an archaic cult system, as it is attested among other Indo-European peoples. Just as in air India, also in Rome the domestic fire was the center of the cult ... the cult was aimed at the Penates and the Lares, mythical-ritual personifications of the ancestors, and the genius, a kind of 'double' that protected the individual. "

Representation of the Genius, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.
Il Genius

Among the gods who honored themselves in these domestic rites were the patres (i.e. the primordial ancestors), the Mani, the Lares, the Penates and, of course, the Genius, considered tutelary deity of the lineage embodied in the last chief o paterfamilias. The latter, in other words, during the priestly functions of the domestic cult, appeared to the other members of the family as the vehicle through which the Genius of the lineage was manifested to his descendants: through the paterfamilias, which during the rite was infused by the very strength of Genius, it was considered possible to perpetuate the lineage not only from a physical-generative point of view, but also from a subtle, spiritual point of view. And if men could rely on their own genius individual, a kind of guardian angel ante-litteram which followed the individual throughout his life (similar in all respects to the "double of light" of Iranian Sufism) [cf. Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism], for their part, women were protected by junones o junones, female counterpart of genius [Pasino, p.52].

From the two terms derives the corresponding divine couple formed by Janus and Juno, or by Janus e The door (Diana), namely the deities of the doors of entry and exit from this world. According to the authoritative opinion of Georges Dumézil [The archaic Roman religion, pp. 315-316], which is inspired by Walter F. Otto, the pair Genius (Giano) / Juno is very ancient and originally represents on the one hand (genius) "Strength, the specific power of the male" and on the other (junones) "Female nature" and especially childbirth. The Genius so here gignit, “He who generates”. The French scholar continues [p.317]:

"The Genius appears in this picture not as a god of procreation ... he is ... the deified personality of a man, who came into the world, arisen from a series of other men, each of whom had his own Genius, and called to bring into the world, through the children, another series, each term of which will also have its own genius. The consecration of the wedding bed to the Genius of the current representative of the series, and the homage paid to the Genius by the one who was chosen to continue the series, should not be understood from the sexual point of view, but from the point of view of gens, of the continuity of generations, which is therefore also the continuity of the Genii. "

For its part, Evola writes that for Genius distinctly meant the hidden and divine force that generates, a "real power that acts behind the physical generation, in the union of the sexes… for which the nuptial bed also had the name of lectus genialis (genius bed) and any offense to the sacredness of patrician marriage and blood was considered a crime first of all in the face of genius of the lineage"[The tradition of Rome, p.178].

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According to RB Onians [The origins of European thought, p.157], the genius it was originally considered the analogue of the psyche, understood as "vital spirit active in procreation, dissociated and alien to the conscious ego located in the chest": It was believed that it resided in the caput, in the center of the forehead. Thus Horace was able to affirm that there is a genius "for each head, a god with a changing face". Add to this the belief that the genius manifests itself in the form of a snake, similar to the psyche for the Greeks.

More: how can you read about it The experience of time of the Jungian pupil Marie-Louise von Franz, for the ancient Hellenes also the term aion originally indicated "the vital fluid present in living beings and, consequently, the duration of their life and the destiny assigned to them"[P.10]. It was believed that this fluid continued to exist even after death, taking the shape of a snake. Finally, it should be noted that, for the ancient Mediterranean peoples, the vital fluid present in man's intimate manifested itself, as well as in the serpentine form, also in the concepts of "fire" (connected to the domestic hearth) and "seed", intended both in a naturalistic sense that as a male generator sperm. We will have the opportunity to better analyze these suggestions in the next paragraphs; for the moment a brief analysis of the other numinous powers honored within the domestic and noble rites by the first Romans is necessary.

An example of an altar to the domestic and noble gods.
Hands, Lares, Penates

The other deities honored during domestic rites are generally considered numinous powers linked to the afterlife, to the world of the departed. However, if i Manes (lit .: the "good gods") collectively denoted the indistinct mass of the dead (a concept similar to Pitara of the RigVeda) [Dumézil, p.321], i Lares were considered more precisely "genes and souls of the deceased", that is to say the souls of single individuals, now deceased, of the people, raised almost to gods, and therefore worshiped as tutelary deities linked to the existence of the entire family. A similar role also had to play the patres, a term that many scholars consider synonymous with Lares.

Regarding the latter, Evola states [The tradition of Rome, p.184] that the term "Lare" derives from the Etruscan home ("Prince" or "chief") and this would be reflected in a widespread tradition among the ancients that identifies the Lares to the Heroes, in the Hellenic sense of semi-gods, "men who have transcended nature and participated in the indestructibility of the Olympics"(Equivalent to Arya Indo-Iranian). Hence, the idea that each gens would have honored the respective Lar familiaris in the mythical figure of his mythical ancestor, prince (o principle) of the lineage.

According to a well-known testimony of Macrobius (Saturnalia, III, 4) the Lares were "the gods who make us live: they feed our body and regulate our soul”—A definition which, as we shall see, allows us to understand why they were often confused with the Penates. However, the most ancient documents on the cult of the Lares present, as already mentioned, the divinity in the singular in the denomination Lar familiaris, the only and ideal father of the same stock. Evola [The tradition of Rome, p.177] cites Saglio's opinion according to which this denomination "it does not mean that it materially created the race originally as an ancestor, but that it is the divine reason for its existence and duration". The Lare of the family was therefore initially father ("prince") and transcendent root ("principle") of the family and of the gens, in this confusing himself with the Genius, who however, as we have seen, was considered embodied only in the person of the paterfamilias current, which thus acted as a mediator between the world of the living (the living people who constituted the gens) and that of the dead (the souls of the ancestors of the lineage who were honored in domestic rituals).

Over the centuries, the Lare was progressively used to protect, more than anything else, a well-defined place and all the inhabitants or workers who are in it: thus the paterfamilias that came in his uilla (ie in his country residence) had to "first of all take care to greet the Lar familiaris ”[Dumézil, p.303]. From arguments of this kind, scholars such as Wissowa and Jordan came to affirm, contrary to traditional theories, that "there are no Lares of people or groups of people… [but] the representation of the Lares is always connected to a place"[Dumézil, p.304]; and yet this, as we have seen, is a very late conception of the Lare, initially considered as a single deity. This change of perspective occurred only in imperial Rome, following the birth of a national conception of the Lares, hence the predisposition of the new cults to Lares militaris and Public lares, and finally of that to the Lares of the Emperors: Lares Augusti. He ended up considering the Lare a sort of "mystical force of the imperial race", Superhuman fluid mythically embodied by the various"demi-gods who founded the city and established the universal empire"[Evola, The tradition of Rome, p.182].

According to Georges Dumézil [The archaic Roman religion, p.302], the Lares were distinguished from the Penates (with whom with the passage of time they almost got confused) in that, while the latter were configured as "the protectors of the master and his relatives", the former indiscriminately protected all the free or servile population and the whole family understood in a broader sense, hence the name Lar familiaris. Personally, we are of the opinion that this conception of Lares both spurious and late, far from the traditional concept of Home as "prince" and "principle" of the lineage.

As far as the Penates are concerned, it should be noted that these entities derive their name from penus, place of the house where the reserves for the year were kept [Pasino, p.55]: in short, they were divinities of the third function, that of fertility and abundance, and in this regard, divinities such as Jupiter can be counted among the first Penates , Vesta for sowing, in addition to Ceres and the aforementioned Janus and Juno for mowing, and finally the rural Mars (ie Mars in his function as defender of the boundaries of the fields) for all the lustral prayers of protection [Pasino, p. 56]. However, according to Dumézil [The archaic Roman religion, p.311], it is likely that originally penus was intended as "the most intimate part, the bottom": consequently the Penate gods would not only watch over the conservation and abundance of supplies, but in general over the well-being of the house and its inhabitants, so to speak on the "original fund" of the lineage. It can therefore be noted how luck (in the Latin sense of "fate") of one gens, as well as its very existence, would seem to be connected in Roman thought on the one hand with the souls of the deceased belonging to that lineage or in full to the places where such gens lives, and on the other hand by a series of tutelary deities of agricultural work and therefore, in the final analysis - being the Latin society of the origins founded on agriculture and livestock -, of the wealth and abundance of gens same.

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To this is added, in conclusion, the belief in the fact that other souls of the deceased of the gens who had not reached the Olympic-heroic perfection and who were not confused with the indistinct mass of the Mani, by virtue of a wicked life or a traumatic death, were destined to become Larvae and Lemurs. Even for these "damned souls" the Romans prepared rituals of an inferno-chthonic character to appease their appetites post-mortem and to keep their negative influence away from living members of the lineage.

Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates, Ara Pacis, Rome.
Cult of the dead and cult of the living

But there is more. As Pasino states [pp. 140-141]:

“We find the need, on the part of the Latin peoples, to root the tradition of the cult of the Penates in even more remote times in the writings of Virgil in which it is well noted that it actually came from the tradition of the house of Aeneas. The family cult of the Mani, Lari and Penates was a practice reserved only for members of the family, even today little is known about how they took place: each family was jealous of their secrets. The members of the family were, so to speak, initiates, and could participate and preside over all the rites. The paterfamilias, normally he directed the works and handed down the practice to his children ... The entrance to these cults was therefore by birth (direct bloodline), by adoption or by marriage (one entered to be part of a different family from one's own). Each of these methods gave the possibility of being "children" and therefore consanguineous, descendants and, at the same time, initiated into family cults. "

It can therefore be seen that in reality the cult dedicated to the dead of one's lineage (whether they are Mani, Lari or others) is only one side of the coin, the other side being a "cult of the living", or rather a sacralization of the genetic link which united all the members, still alive, of the same one gens, who renewed the generative power of their own in rites of this kind gens, or better than the Genius of their lineage or of Lar familiaris. Let us refer once again to Pasino, who writes [p.148]:

"These revered entities identify themselves as those who keep alive the bond between the progenitor of the family and his descendants, a sort of pneuma, of subtle energy that pulsates in the blood of descendants. In this case the family cult becomes, in effect, a search, with the help of esoteric rituals, for the divine part that is well hidden within us. "

Within a religious vision of this type, of utmost importance was the symbol of fire, or rather of the central hearth of the house, representing at the same time the "flame" (that is, the subtle power, the pneuma) inextinguishable of the lineage, which was honored in the deity of Genius or the Lar familiaris, and the 'omphalos of the house that during the rites becomes a real temple, theAxis mundi which governs the three worlds, those of the Uranian-supernal gods, that of the living and that of the dead and of the inferno-chthonic divinities. In the next phase of the history of Roman civilization, in which public cults gained importance to the detriment of private ones, this eternal fire, whose flame was kept perpetually lit by the Vestals of the temple of Vesta, was considered as pneuma of the Roman lineage in full.

On the mystery of the fire of Vesta, we want to cite the authoritative opinion of Guido de Giorgio, who in his well-known work The Roman tradition stated [p.246]:

“Traditional 'fixity' implies… the inexhaustibility of applications since divine truth is a point towards which infinite paths tend due to its universal character which implies the totality of achievements. If the Temple of Vesta represents the traditional stillness, the fire that flames in it in multiple spirals of light, it means precisely the active, dynamic integration that each of us should make in his own heart purified from all human waste and matching the rhythm of the eternally creative universality. Fire therefore represents what we could call traditional dynamism, that is, the effective work that man has to do to realize the apparently static and monotonous formulas that are expressed by the traditional complex. Tradition applies to everyone without distinction, therefore it must assume a formulation devoid of any personal character; but each one has to assimilate the formula on his own account, awaken it with an inner fire, make it a vehicle of transfiguration, a progressive flashing that rises from the human sphere to the divine to return man to his true destination which is heaven. "

In the archaic phase of Roman civilization, the domestic hearth "sensitized and symbolized" the "presence" of the Genius, the Lare, the Penates and the Mani: it was therefore a symbol of the "sacred flame of the lineage", which "had to burn continuously in the center of the patrician houses, in the temple located in theatrium, place where the paterfamilias he celebrated the rites and in which the various members of the domestic or noble group gathered"[Evola, The tradition of Rome, p.179].

Thus, as the ancient Indians of the Vedas worshiped Agni, the Romans of the origins honored fire in its highest, Olympic, luminous aspect, and at the same time saw in it not a merely "transcendent" reality in the sense of Semitic monotheisms, but on the contrary they considered it immanent image of a higher, metaphysical principle, through which they lived belonging to a lineage as a sacred election: as a "call" of the Genius area of gens. Evola writes again [The tradition of Rome, p.180]:

“This fiery entity appeared to be the natural intermediary between the human world and the supernatural order. Starting from the idea of ​​the unity, realized in the blood and in the race, of the individual with a force that, like the genius or the lare, was already more than physical, ancient man was convinced of the real possibility of influencing, precisely for this reason. away, on his own destiny and to ensure that his forces and actions were helped by a transcendent influence which, through the mystery of blood and the race to which he belonged, special rites had to propitiate and ennoble. Its anti-universalism is a specific feature of the cult of the most ancient Arian societies. Ancient man did not address a God in general, the God of all men and all races, but to the God of his lineage, indeed of his people and his family. "

From what has been said, it is now possible to fully understand the meaning of the sacrifice offered, through the home, to the gods Lares, Penates and the Genius of the lineage. We have already underlined at the beginning how the Latin meaning of "sacrifice" implies the fulfillment of an action, supported by a precise awareness of the occult meaning of the same, by virtue of which the action is elevated to a more subtle level than that purely exterior. By means of the exemplary gesture foreseen by the rite, and above all thanks to a right and conscious attitude towards the numinous (the feet Latin), the moment was literally "made sacred": the divine power of Genius or the Lar familiaris could then descend into the domus and flow freely from the hearth to all participants in the rite. In this sense, we recognize in the doctrine of the Roman sacrifice the same conception of the Indians of the Vedas, for which, according to the lesson of Ananda Coomaraswamy [The doctrine of sacrifice, p.187]:

"The Sacrifice ensures the perpetual circulation of the" Current of Abundance "...: the nourishment reaches the Gods by means of the smoke of the offering in the fire, our nourishment comes down from the sky with the rain, and so on up to us thanks to the plants and to the cattle, so that the Sacrifice and his people will not die in misery. On the other hand, the supreme benefit obtained by the sacrificer, who has obtained a long and healthy life on earth, is deification and absolute immortality. This distinction between temporal and eternal riches corresponds to that clearly drawn by the Brâhmanas, between the mere fulfillment or patronage of rites, and their understanding. The simple participant only obtains the immediate fruit, while the Knower ... obtains the two ends of the operation at the same time (karma, the door).”

Vestals around the sacred Fire of Vesta.
Fides, Dharma, Anamnesis

We want to conclude this essay with a excursus which seems relevant to us. We return once again to Julius Evola, who in his most famous work, taking the strings from the ancient conceptions of the Romans and other traditional peoples, came to relate the noble cults we have discussed here with his own ones, in ancient Rome as well such as in ancient India and China, to the different castes. In his opinion [Revolt against the modern world, chapter XIV, p.124]:

“The castes, in the order of a living tradition, represented, so to speak, the natural 'place' of unity here below of similar wills and vocations; and the regular, closed, hereditary transmission prepared a homogeneous group of propitious inclinations — organic-vital as well as psychic — in view of the regular development, on the part of individuals, of said prenatal determinations or dispositions on the plane of human existence. From the caste the individual did not 'receive' his own nature - the caste rather gave him the way to recognize or 'remember' his own nature and will, at the same time offering him a kind of occult heritage linked to blood to be able to harmoniously achieve this. 'last. "

Paraphrasing the Roman philosopher, the freedom of ancient man consisted in "being able to rejoin the deepest trunk of one's will, having a relationship with the mystery of one's existential 'form'"[revolt, p.125]. "Indeed—Continue Evola—what corresponds to the birth and the physical element of a being reflects what can be said, in a geometric sense, the resultant of the various forces or tendencies at play in its birth: that is, it reflects the direction of the strongest force"[Pp. 125-126]. This traditional conception, which is found in the Platonic doctrine ofanamnesi and in the Norse one, contained in theEdda and in Völupsá, of the "Source of Mímir", is also found in the two Greek maxims "Know yourself"(With its supplement:"Nothing superfluous") And "be yourself".

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The concept of fides, that is to say "fidelity to one's being", is the equivalent of the Vedic dharma, deriving from the Indo-European root dr ("Support", "carry or hold up"). This archaic idea that the perfection of human existence is not measured with a purely material or utilitarian criterion, nor with a moral evaluation stricto sensu, but rather consists of the fully and actively realize one's nature, Its dharma or, to use the terminology of the ancient Hellenes, his own telos, is also present in Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, who taught: "It is necessary that each be each one, that our actions are ours, that each one's actions belong to him, whatever they may be". It is therefore fully established that this conception of human existence is typical of all Indo-European traditions, from the Indo-Arî to the Hellenes, from the Romans to the Norsemen.

This conception could be summarized with two formulas used by Evola: "discover the dominant in oneself" and "fidelity to one's being". Thus the Roman philosopher argues about it in Revolt against the modern world [pp.126-127]:

"Discover ... the 'dominant' in itself on the trail of one's own form and caste, and want it, that is, transform it into an ethical imperative and, furthermore, implement it 'ritually' in fidelity in order to destroy everything that binds to the earth as an instinct, hedonistic motives, material evaluations - such is the foundation of the aforementioned conception ... Every kind of function and activity appeared in the same way - and only - as a starting point for an elevation in a different, vertical sense, not in the temporal order but in the spiritual one. Everyone in his own caste, in fidelity to his own caste, in fidelity to his nature, in obedience not to a general morality, but to his own morality, to the morality of his own caste, in this respect had the same dignity and the same purity of a other: a servant—çûdra—Like that of a king. "

Ultimately, in the light of what has been said, we wish to conclude by quoting a somewhat shared thought of Pasino [p.130], acknowledging with him that:

"The real theft perpetrated by science and religion ... is just that: having robbed the people of a private cult, the only true cult representing a direct relationship between God and Man, the only one who affirmed divinity in man" .

Representation of a domestic sacrifice to the Lares.


  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The doctrine of sacrifice (Luni, Milan, 2015).
  • Henry Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism (Mediterranee, Rome, 1988).
  • Georges Dumezil, The archaic Roman religion (Rizzoli, Milan, 1977).
  • Mircea Eliade, History of religious beliefs and ideas volume II (Sansoni, Florence, 1980).
  • Guido de Giorgio, The Roman tradition (Mediterranee, Rome, 1989).
  • Julius Evola, Revolt against the modern world (Mediterranee, Rome, 1969).
  • Julius Evola, The tradition of Rome (AR, 1977).
  • Marie-Louise von Franz, The experience of time (Teadue, Milan, 1997).
  • Rosalind B. Onians, The origins of European thought (Adelphi, Milan, 2011).
  • Andrea Pasino, Blood Offspring Initiation (Psiche2, Turin, 2014).