Poltergeists, etc.

On a rural bus down here, you can hear conversations in soft West Country voices. One of these was between two women who suddenly mentioned a person I knew: a Classicist who was a member of the nearby religious community. I knew that he was occasionally asked—reluctantly—to perform exorcisms, for which he was designated by the Bishop. The conversation went like this.

“So…they realised they’d got one o’ them pol’ergeists…know what I’m on about?”
“Yair.”
“So, they got Father John from the Abbey to come and circumcise it.”
“And did he?”
“Yair. They din’t have no more bother after that.”
“What did he do?”
“Well, he ’eld up this cross, an’ read some stuff in Latin from a book, and then he splashed water in all the rooms with a sort of brush thing.”
Having to get off the bus, I heard no more.

Poltergeists are sometimes assumed to be the spirits of dead people who have not quite managed to vacate the places where they once lived.  The response of a Christian priest is to command the spirit, whatever it is, to return to the place where it ought to be, and to bless the house. This is similar to what Romans in classical times did regularly in the ritual of the Lemuria, which took place in May. It was apparently performed by the paterfamilias, and involved an offering of black beans to the Manes, thrown with eyes averted as he asked them to leave: manes exite paterni.

But to Romans there were spirits who were welcome in the house: the Penates, who guarded the family, and the Lares, who were the spirits of the house itself. They were bringers of prosperity and delight, and their importance to a family was such that, long after the Christian emperors forbade all pagan cults, many people apparently continued with this one: it was too joyous to be easily relinquished.

The Lares, however, could get annoyed if they were not properly venerated, and they also took exception to bad behaviour in the house: see the Prologue in Plautus’s Aulularia.

Nowadays it is a commonplace in the Society for Psychical Research that when a poltergeist is reported, it is often associated with the presence of a teenager in the house, more often girl than boy.  One colleague suggested that this was predictable:  some teenagers, he said, could be so annoying that their behaviour would try the patience of any indwelling spirit.

On that reckoning, if in an ancient Roman household, some geist started raising a polter by slamming doors or throwing crockery around, or if one’s son or daughter were frightened by something that went bump in the night, then an obvious explanation would be that some person in the house had offended the Lar.

See also earlier post:
Home: Lar & Di Penates