Di Inferi: The Underworld deities of the Roman Religion

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Di Inferi, the gods below, was the name used by the Romans to refer to the gods of the underworld as opposed to the celestial gods (Superi).

The mysterious Manes, a group of ancestor spirits, are sometimes referred to as inferi. Manus or Manis, which means “good” or “kindly,” and is more frequently used in Latin as its antonym immanis, is where the name Manes most likely derives from. This euphemistic term for the inferi was used to avoid their potential for damage or to inspire dread. Usually, communal meals were prepared as a consequence of animal sacrifices to gods of the higher world, with portions of the cooked victim distributed to both divine and human receivers.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

The list of the chthonic deities of the Roman religion

  • Dis or Dis pater (“Father Dis”), the Roman equivalent of Greek Pluto, presided over the afterlife as a divine couple with Proserpina.
  • Februus, the Etruscan god of purification and death, was absorbed into the Roman pantheon.
  • Hecate or Trivia (“three paths”), a form of the triple goddess, along with Luna and Proserpina, was adapted in Rome.
  • Lemures, the malevolent dead
  • Libitina, one of the indigitamenta connected to death and the afterlife.
  • Manes, the souls of the dead.
  • Mana Genita, the deity linked to the infant mortality.
  • Mater Larum (“Mother of the Lares”)
  • Mors, the personification of death
  • Nenia Dea, the goddess of the burial lament
  • Orcus, an ancient underworld deity
  • Morta, one of the three fates
  • Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres and queen of the underworld
  • Scotus/Erebus, god of darkness
  • Summanus, the deity of nighttime thunder
  • Vediovis, an archaic god

In contrast, the infernal gods were given burning sacrifices (holocausts), in which the sacrificed individuals were reduced to ash because it was forbidden for the living to eat with the deceased. This ban is also seen in funeral ceremonies, when the deceased’s entry into the hereafter is commemorated by a holocaust to his Manes at his grave while his family returns to the house to partake in a sacrificed supper where his exclusion from the feast was ritually declared. He was afterwards regarded as a member of the group of Manes and shared in the sacrifices made for them.

Hecate (Detail of Gustave Moreau's Jupiter and Semele)
Hecate (Detail of Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele)

Offerings of animals the Romans deemed inedible, such as horses and pups, signify a chthonic feature of the god propitiated, whether or not the divinity belonged fully to the underworld. Public sacrifice victims were often domesticated animals that were a regular part of the Roman diet. Puppies were a frequent sacrifice to underworld gods during secret ritual acts that were labeled as “magic,” especially to Hecate.

Di inferi were frequently referred to in binding spells (defixiones), which provide them with personal adversaries. On a few rare instances, human sacrifice in Rome was also offered to the hellish gods. The devotio rite, which was performed in honor of the Di Manes underworld gods, involved a general making a life commitment alongside the adversary.

Drawing of a Hekataion (source)

Scotus, Erebus, the god of darkness


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