Snakes and Altars

For a few months, I’ve been jamming with Agathos Daimon. Agathos Daimon has a complicated history as far as human expressions of practice go, but I have found myself most drawn to AD in their trans-planetary, more universal aspect—even trans-celestial. Some expressions of AD focus on the Helios aspect: Agathos Daimon as an expression of the Sun as the source of light and life in our solar system. I have done the Helios Consecration Ritual—PGM IV.1596-1715 (check out Sam Block’s very ornate adaptation of the ritual)—with some rather powerful results. My cat seemed curious but also was warned off by the spirits involved.

Serpents and Lararia

Although Agathos Daimon has been represented in humanoid terms, I have found myself exclusively experiencing AD in their more serpentine form, typically a crowned serpent. While some scholars hold that this being “began” as a “household spirit,” there’s a far more archetypal aspect going on, and the Theban sorcerer who compiled the PGM obviously had access to traditions in which Agathos Daimon could extend to being the sun and more.

I have done the Agathos Daimon hymn found at PGM XII.238-69 far more often than the Helios Consecration. In this hymn, part of a larger consecration of a phylactery ring, AD is hailed as

you from the four winds, god, ruler of all, who have breathed spirits into persons for life, master of the good things in the world…The daimons, hearing [your name], are terrified—the name [NN]…and of it the sun, of it the earth, hearing, rolls over; Hades, hearing, is shaken; rivers, sea, lakes, springs, hearing, are frozen; rocks, hearing it, are split. Heaven is your head; ether, body; earth, feet; and the water around you, ocean, O Agathos Daimon. You are lord, the begetter and nourisher and increaser of all.[1]

This Agathos Daimon is no mere household god, unless your household is the entire cosmos. I have often used this hymn before McTaggart Power of Eight intention exercises as a “consecration” of said intentions and in several of my own operations. I was doing my own adaptation of Khi Armand’s Ancestor Elevation Rite a few weeks back, and I would often pause to intend (Power of One style) “Ancestors elevate.” While doing so on one day, I felt the pull to do the hymn on behalf of my ancestral lines, almost as if this cosmic serpent—existing beyond the stars and the decans at the edges of the cosmos—encircled and uplifted my ancestors. I figured, well, in a world where powerful families played The Game of Saturn, I might as well try to catch up, but with the Good Spirit instead. These experiences and more have had me wondering about the nature of ancestry and how we relate to them and that idea, especially after coming across this article (h/t Gordon White) about a lararium uncovered in Pompeii.

Lararia were typically household or community shrines dedicated to the Lares in ancient Rome. Who precisely the Lares are seems to have been lost since the classical period. Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price offer a helpfully academic definition: “The Lares (usually translated, all too automatically, as ‘household gods’) were ancient but obscure deities, seen by some ancient writers as the deified spirits of the dead.” At one extreme, the Lares Augusti became the “emperor’s ancestors” while the Genius Augusti was “the Spirit of Augustus himself.”[2] I will come back to the Lares Augusti and Genii shortly, but I want to focus for the moment on the Lares more generally.

At a domestic level, we might take the family’s Lares and the domestic lararia as akin to modern western notions about ancestors and ancestral shrines:

The Roman house itself was the centre of family and private religion. In richer and middle-ranking houses, a common feature was a shrine of the household gods—now conventionally known as a lararium…Commonly found in the central court…of a house…these shrines contained paintings or statuettes of household gods and other deities; they might also include (in a wealthier house) commemorations of the family’s ancestors.[3]

Lares, protecting spirits of place, were worshipped in various contexts: in the house, at the crossroads, in the city (as guardians of the state)….appealed to as the protectors of [the household’s and presumably state’s and roads’] safety and prosperity.[4]

A recurring motif in these shrines—and which caught my attention in the Pompeii lararia I have since seen—is a serpent figure or figures, often “moving towards offerings of fruit etc., on a small altar”: “Serpents are a common motif on lararia, probably symbolizing the earth’s fertility, and so the prosperity of the household.”[5] The fertility association I find insufficient and probably an overemphasis from the nineteenth century perspectives on anything “pagan” or pre-Christian, where most everything is about “fertility.” Yes, fertility is involved and is one of the results of these kinds of forces, but too often we say “fertility” in an unexamined and reductionist manner that belies just how much our predecessors and other cultures actually understood the world.


Fuller shot of the Lararium from the cover featured image, photo by Patricio Lorente (CC-BY-SA-2.5)

Let me return to the hymn from the PGM in making this point. Agathos Daimon brings “fertility,” but to reduce AD to being a “fertility snek” is idiotic. Consider the power of this form:

Who molded the forms of the beasts of the Zodiac? Who found their routes? Who was the begetter of fruits? Who raises up the mountains? Who commanded the winds to hold to their annual tasks? What Aion nourishing an Aion rules the Aions? One deathless god. You are the begetter of all and assign souls to all and control all, king of the Aions and lord, before whom mountains and plains together tremble, springs and streams of rivers, and valleys of earth, and spirits, and all things that are. High shining heaven trembles before you, and every sea, lord, ruler of all, holy one, and master of all. By your power the elements exist and all things come into being, the route of sun and moon, of night and dawn—all things in air and earth and water and the breath of fire. Yours is the eternal processional way of heaven, in which your seven-lettered name is established for the harmony of the seven sounds of the planets which utter their voices according to the 28 forms of the moon. Yours are the beneficent effluxes of the stars, daimons and fortunes and fates. You give wealth, good old age, good children, strength, food.

Yes, Agathos Daimon brings fertility, but also everything else. Or, Agathos Daimon affords humans (and other persons) a life line into the vitality that underlies, that forms, that is causal for the cosmos as a living and (re)generating organism itself. At that point, I would argue that the serpents included in lararia help provide an entry for that life line—are in fact those life lines—from the cosmos into a family’s ancestral and household shrine. Not only then are we seeing in Pompeii’s ruins the “spiritual” side of Roman era “ancestral” practice, but I would also argue that we’re seeing how the living persons of that world brought those spiritual and causal lines into their lives, for fertility and everything else. That is, they did not distinguish spiritual from material concerns in these matters: they are of the same stuff.

For me, early into my work with the PGM, I had a hypnogogic image of a terracotta tablet on my altar with a carved image of Agathos Daimon as a crowned serpent on it. I decided to follow up on this dream image, fashioning it and consecrating it and adding it to my altar. Once I saw the lararia images from Pompeii, I realized that I had seemed to tap into a live current that seems to have ancient provenance. I wonder how much those lararia serpents are individual serpents of families—family lines or serpents—but perhaps also the expression of that cosmic Agathos Daimon into each family’s lives.

Ancestral Lining

Beyond the domestic or familial Lares, the Romans had Lares of communities, the fields, roads, and more. Where precisely Lares blend into Genii seems nebulous, and it likely always was. Genii seem to be a Roman version of Greek daimons, and modern western scholarship seems to treat them as “protecting spirit[s],” but it’s perhaps better to view them in far more animist terms:

the genii are the powers which produce life (dii genitales) and accompany [persons] through [life] as [their] second or spiritual self, whereas the other powers do not begin to exercise their influence till life, the work of the genii, has commenced. The genii were further not confined to [humans], but every living being, animal as well as [human], and every place had its genius.

I find the idea that the genii of persons were, in a sense, those person’s spiritual selves interesting to consider, though they likely were rarely thought of in those terms. At the family level, it seems that individual families’ genii were figured as archetypal eruptions of Jupiter (as father and husband) and Juno (as mother and wife): that is, every father and husband was an instance of that divine, spiritual father and husband, and likewise for mothers and wives. I can imagine, then, that rites involving the lararia—as Lares and Genii blur together—involve petitions to the spiritual aspect of one’s roles in the family so that the spiritual presence supports the incarnate presence, and vice versa. Although we might see such a practice as curiously gener-ic, I’m sure that families often thought of their instantiations of these genii in more specific terms—or, at least, powerful and influential families like the Augusti certainly did, while colonizing the Empire with their domestic cult in the wards and precincts of cities.

Curiously, it seems that the people of the Empire recognized the potency of the Lares Augusti and the Genius Augusti far more eagerly than Augustus did, though he certainly took advantage of this situation. While we can now turn cynical realpolitik eyes on the imperial Roman cult, there’s an argument for such a cult being grassroots in origin, much like many saints’ cults—like Roch—arose from popular sentiment rather than recognized from the top down at first.

Beyond these immediately filial or personal contexts, genii extended to concepts like Romanness, Justice, and more. In a sense, the gods could all be considered genii (big genii) for different parts of life, from Wisdom to Fatherhood to War and so on. The Genius Augustus, the Spirit of Augustus, gained prominence as an Emperor like Augustus seemingly had to have some kind of spiritual presence that had accompanied and facilitated his rise to power. In the fullness of his political and personal power, he certainly had to have a political and personal presence, and I would wonder how much we can distinguish power and presence, and spirit and genius.


Augustus’s Genius, on display in the Vatican Museums

At the same time, Augustus was the result of a time-line of ancestral, cultural, and genii of place (genius loci) and abstractions (Empire) that produced Augustus and Roman Empire. While we can easily point to his obvious, lineal ancestors (and descendants), Augustus’s “ancestors” include all the causal factors, the fate, that led to him.

My point in going on about these ideas is that Rome—and I’m pretty sure Greece and the rest of Western Europe in this period—had a far more developed and nuanced perspective on “ancestral work” than we probably would imagine, and their perspective incorporated centuries of tradition about spirits of place and a Western European expression of animism. Indeed, if the ancient Egyptian conception of ka contained, as Naydler argues, an expression of ancestral forces conceived of at a country-wide scale and maintained through ceremony performed by the pharaohs, themselves the results of godly family lineages, then it seems as if versions of those Egyptian lines survive into Western European practice—or, more likely, originate in older, shared, conserved practices and cosmology.

Although Christianity sought to purge the cults of the Lares and Genii, I really feel like the people adapted these practices to the new Christian frameworks: patron saints, especially as saints served as intercessors for professions (genii of occupations), communities, persons (do you share a name with a saint?), heroes, healers, places (how many Black Madonnas and holy well saints are there?). Even that older association of fathers/husbands and mothers/wives with Jupiter and Juno becomes the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Or, even, Josephs and Maries (or perhaps Magdalenes and Marthas).

The threads are still there. They have just changed their faces and forms.

Agathos Daimon, then, seems to be a part of these forms waiting to be rediscovered. After all, in a sense, we’re all of us—humans, animals, plants, sneks, ideas—descended from primordial vitalities and processes and the cosmos itself as Creator and Creating. Agathos Daimon—or your preferred creator god and the succeeding generations of gods, spirits, angels, devils, animals, plants, places, cities, and humans are all our ancestors.

An Afterthought

I find myself sometimes bristling at the royal and kingly archetypes that seem baked into the arc of human cultures over the last however many thousands of years, especially when archetypal “republicanism” and “democracy” seem far less apparent—or has been rendered such. However, these divine kings had to perform ceremony and perform kingly enchantment well enough to keep country thriving, or else, and kingship typically required pacts of various kinds, or at least adherence to what I’ll call “natural law” for the moment. There were many attempts in the early modern to locate mythical foundations for non-monarchical forms of government, or at least a reassertion of the common weal(th) as an early modern expression of what we could call a kind of republic, but the common descent of humanity from Adam and the earthiness of his role—gardener—provided something of a leveling myth, even as that myth was too often a romanticized daydream of some “pristine” and “primitive” world.

Featured Image: Roman Lararium from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, photo by Patricio Lorente (CC-BY-SA-2.5).

[1] Adapted from the Betz translation.

[2] Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 185.

[3] Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 102.

[4] Ibid, 30-1. The Lares statues typically have a generic form, not differentiated, but there’s nothing saying that individual lararia statuettes didn’t take on individual personalities through family praxes.

[5] Ibid, 103.

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