Lares and Penates were two groups of Roman household gods that were frequently associated with each other. In fact, the terms were sometimes used interchangeably, and both terms came to symbolize “home.” These gods were often represented by small statuettes, which were displayed on a shelf or in a niche within the home.
Lares were gods who acted as guardians of the family. Originally either ghosts of the family’s ancestors or gods of the cultivated fields where the ancestors were buried, Lares came to be the center of each family’s religious activity. A prayer was said to the Lares every morning, and offerings of food were given to them at family festivals. Lares were also worshiped at the crossroads where a family’s fields adjoined those of a neighbor. As gods of the crossroads, Lares became the gods of travelers as well. There were also public Lares, who protected the state as a whole and were part of the state religion.
Penates, literally meaning “those who live in the cupboard,” were gods associated with the inner parts of the household. According to Roman mythology, the Penates were brought back to Rome by Aeneas after he conquered Troy. They were responsible for guarding the household food supply and the family’s welfare in general. Each family worshiped Penates privately at the household hearth, where a fire was kept burning in their honor, and food was sacrificed to them at every meal. There were also public Penates who watched over the state and provided an important focus of Roman patriotism. They were worshiped in the temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, where public officials made sacrifices to them. (See also Cults; Divinities; Myths, Roman; Religion, Roman; Ritual and Sacrifice.)