Lemures, the Night Spirits of the Dead

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In Roman religion, lemures—”night spirits,” sometimes known as larvae, a word that means “ghost”—are the spirits of the dead; they are viewed as vampires—souls that cannot find rest due to their violent deaths.

According to myth they returned to earth to torment the living, haunting people to the point of insanity. Lemures are not confirmed by tomb or votive inscriptions because they may symbolize the roving and vengeful souls of individuals who were not given a decent burial, funeral rituals, or affectionate cult by the living. They are seen by Ovid as wandering, insatiably enraged, and possibly violent di manes or di parentes, ancestor gods or underworld spirits. He interprets the practices of their cult as belonging to a very archaic, mystical, and most likely extremely old rural tradition.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

Lemures were liminal and formless beings connected to the dread of the dark. May 9, 11, and 13 in Republican and Imperial Rome were set aside for their pacification in Lemuralia or Lemurian home customs. At midnight, the household’s chief (paterfamilias) would stand and fling black beans behind him while avoiding eye contact; the Lemures were believed to eat them. The proper color for sacrifices to chthonic deities was black.


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