The Sacred Household: Rites and Mysteries

The Sacred Household: Rites and Mysteries

Author: Ian Elliott

To Joseph Brazauskas, a true pagan

The Threshold

The sacred household in ancient and more recent indigenous cultures bears certain analogies to the human body. The front door is similar to the eyes, the hearth to the heart or solar plexus, and the central supporting pillar to the spine. Shrines or altars at these locations were guarded by spirits who were linked with internal spirits in each family resident, and the proper worship of the household guardians involved being on familiar terms with their inner analogues and tending their inner shrines.

This study of the sacred household uses the names of Roman household spirits, but it is based more broadly on a number of other cultures. We no longer live in Roman houses, so some latitude must be taken in locating household shrines; and we are not all of Roman descent, so some attention must be paid to the forms of piety practiced by our ancestors from other lands.

It is not enough to study household rites and set up modern versions of ancient shrines. Our early conditioning separates us from some pre-verbal modes of awareness, by teaching us to ignore certain readily available perceptions; these must be recovered if we are to properly install our internal shrines and so link them with those of the household. I have called practices that open up these perceptions ‘mysteries, ’ because having been forgotten they have become secret things.

The Roman god of the threshold was Janus, who has two faces, one looking outside and the other inside the home, as well as forward and backward in time. To enter a house, as H.J. Rose pointed out in Religion in Greece and Rome, is to begin something, and so household piety always began by honoring Janus at the threshold. His annual festival was on January 9th, and offerings at his shrine were made on the Calends (the day after the dark moon of the lunar calendar) , as well at the beginning of any endeavor, such as a journey; also on one’s birthday.

The Romans, even after they came under Greek influence, were by preference an aniconic people; that is, they preferred worship without images. Perhaps this was because they focused on the link between the inner and outer shrines and found external images a distraction. I keep my own threshold shrine simple, hanging a god-face about a foot and a half above a small offering shelf, the shelf set next to the front door a little above eye-level. On the shelf is a candle, a stick incense holder, toy-sized dishes for water and salted grain.

Upon crossing the threshold one always steps over it, never on it, and one should touch the doorpost as an acknowledgement of the threshold guardian and to receive his numen. We can tentatively define numen as liberating and empowering energy that is unknown or at least unfamiliar.

My prayer when offering to Janus is the same as the one I used when setting up his shrine:

Honor and thanks to you, O Janus,
for guarding the threshold of my home.
May only harmonious beings enter here,
and may the discordant depart!
Please accept these offerings of salted grain, water, light and scent,
Open this week [month, journey, etc.] for me on blessings,
and teach me to look out and in at once as you do,
so I may guard the threshold of my inner home;
for I, too, am a threshold guardian.

The god-face for Janus looks straight in, as I prefer to imagine his head imbedded in the wall, with his outer face guarding the outside of my doorway.

The Inner Threshold

This ability to look out and in at the same time holds the clue to Janus’ mysteries, to the pre-verbal mode of perception that will give us the ability to look in the same manner, outward and inward simultaneously. To do this we must ‘stand in the doorway, ’ and Douglas Harding provided the best description of this in his important little book On Having No Head. Harding was hiking in the Himalayas and one morning he suddenly saw the world differently:

“…I stopped thinking…Past and future dropped away. There existed only the Now, that present moment and all that was given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.”

This nothing, however, was filled with everything: mountains, sky, valleys below, extending to the horizon. Harding felt light and liberated. He had ceased to ignore the sensations of his own headlessness, ending a habit acquired in infancy when told that ‘the baby in the mirror’ was merely his own reflection. In addition to his headlessness, he was now attending to the limits of his perceptual field. Consequently, he wasn’t tracking on this or that object, as we spend so much of our time doing, using our eyes as searchlights for our impulses and desires. Instead, he was looking at his whole visual field at once, and the lightness he felt resulted from dropping the burden of his eyes from incessant tracking, and of his mind from incessant thinking.

Indigenous peoples are aware of the difference between these two ways of looking at the world. When the psychologist C. G. Jung visited an Indian pueblo in the American Southwest years ago, he had a conversation with the local chief, Ochwiay Biano (his name means Mountain Lake) .

“The white man’s eyes are always restless, ” the chief told Jung. “He is always looking for something. We think he is mad.”
Jung asked him why they thought that.
“He says that he thinks with his head.”
“Why of course, ” answered Jung. “What do you think with?”
“We think here, ” he answered, indicating his chest.

There are two potential errors in assessing what Ochwiay Biano said. One is to take his words sentimentally, as if he were merely speaking of ‘heartfelt thinking.’ The other error would be to dismiss his words as expressions of a primitive, pre-scientific physiology. The Pueblo chief would not have been troubled to learn that Western science has determined through experiments that we think with our brains. This would have seemed to him irrelevant to what he was talking about, namely the sensation of where the thinker seems to be located in the body. We feel we are located in our heads because of certain muscular tensions around the eyes from tracking, and in our foreheads from ‘knitting our brows, ’ and performing other social cues indicative of taking thought. But these external muscular contractions, though spatially closer to the brain, are nevertheless external to it and involve muscles on the outside of the head. The feeling we get from them of being ‘in our heads, ’ therefore, is no more scientific than the feeling the Pueblo chief evidently got of being in his chest.

When we look at our headlessness, our chests come into view as the closest part of the body that is completely visible; and when mental talk quiets down as a result of tracking being replaced by restful awareness of the whole available visual field, words are employed only as and when necessary for external communication. The rest of the time one simply looks, listens and understands, and this quieter form of awareness allows feelings to come to the fore since they are no longer drowned out by incessant mental chatter. For these reasons, Ochwiay Biano felt that he thought in his chest, or solar plexus.

The Hearth

The ancients associated this part of the body, including the heart, with the hearth, and regarded it as the seat of memory. The hearth was the center of the home as well as the place of contact with ancestors. It was the place where the family gathered and traded experiences of the day, recalling in the process the words and deeds of the past. Without memory there is no family, even if the people living together are all related, as we know now that the hearth has been replaced by the television or computer as the central focus of the house, especially if meals are taken individually in the living room.

In the old days, the hearth gave heat and light to the home and was also where food was cooked. Nowadays some are fortunate enough to own a house with a fireplace, but they usually have a stove as well, so that the functions of the ancient hearth have become divided, and it is difficult to decide where to place the hearth shrine.

I have no fireplace where I live now, so my hearth shrine is near my stove. My stove is electric, but I keep a large candle in the shrine and light that, together with stick incense, when I want to awaken the hearth guardian. Additionally, I keep there somewhat larger versions of the offering dishes described above for the threshold shrine.

The hearth guardian is both a goddess and the hearth fire itself. In ancient Latium she was called Vesta. She accepts offerings for herself and also passes on some of them to the ancestors, godlings and blessed immortals. Because I cannot maintain a perpetual flame, I have a picture of her in my shrine, and close to her picture is a statuette of my family lar. The lar familiaris is an ithyphallic youth pouring wine from a wineskin into a chalice. He symbolizes the vigor and luck of my family line, and as such forms a link back to the ancestors, and onward to posterity. If I want to honor and pray to another deity, I can conveniently place his or her statue in the shrine for the occasion. This saves on shrines.

At the shrine or close by are photos of my parents and maternal grandmother. These are the ancestors who were my caregivers when I was small, and with whom I still share a bond of love. The Romans and other ancient peoples represented their ancestors by small clay figurines on the altar, as seen in some recent films.

When my offerings are laid out, I light the candle saying “Honor to fire, honor to Vesta, honor to the hearth.” Then I light the incense. Then I pray: “Holy Lady, please accept these offerings of salted grain and pure water, light and scent for thine own dear self, and pass on some to the lares and penates, the di manes, daimones and blessed gods, thanking them for their good regard for me and my family, and asking for a continuance of their favor.” To this basic prayer I add anything special for other deities.

While the fire is lit in the shrine, I call on my ancestors and talk to them. I let them know how things are going in the family with me, my sons and grandson, our concerns, blessings, problems and plans, just as I would if they were still in the flesh. If any of them has appeared recently in a dream, I thank him or her for the visit.

At the close of the rite, I bid farewell to ancestors and deities and extinguish the candle, letting the incense burn down. I say the opening prayer in reverse order, ending with “Honor to the hearth, honor to Vesta, honor to fire.” In Roman houses the hearth shrine was decorated with fresh flowers and offerings made at least three times in the lunar month: on the Calends, that is, the day after the dark moon; on the Nones, the ninth day before the full moon; and on the Ides or full moon itself. In Caesar’s solar calendar the Ides was regularized as the fifteenth of each month, which would place the Nones on the seventh.

The Inner Hearth

When we practice ‘standing in the doorway, ’ we naturally do not do so all the time, and this provides us with a contrast between the two modes of experience, so that we begin noticing things that were formerly invisible to us because they were constant. Some of these things are external to our minds, such as shadows and clouds, and some are internal. One of the internal things is the synopsis or background summary we take to experience, the mental account we refer to offhand when answering the common question “How is it going?” The synopsis is more readily observed in dreams, because it is different for each dream-story or sequence, whereas in waking life it is ongoing and only changes gradually except in moments of crisis.

When we enter a dream-story we generally enter in the middle of it, provided with a ready-made background that tells us where we are and what we are supposed to be doing. We are provided with dream-memories, sometimes selected from previous dreams (as in recurring dreams) , and unless we become aware we are dreaming, we do not question it or the actions of other dream-figures.

Similarly, in waking life we are generally absorbed by the problems and affairs of the moment, as supplied by an ongoing mental summary or synopsis. From this we derive our sense of who we are in the present and what we need to do. The synopsis is based on a selection of memories, and these change gradually unless we are in the throes of a crisis, in which case we need to revise our orientation, sometimes on the basis of earlier memories, in order to cope with the situation. At times our synopsis can become so obsessive that we throw it over in a breakdown and temporarily become disoriented.

Standing in the doorway provides a milder sort of disorientation, as the contrast between it and our usual awareness brings the operation of the synopsis to the forefront of attention. Then, as in the onset of lucid dreaming (when we suddenly realize we are dreaming) , we become free to question who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to be doing in the present moment. The process of interpreting present experience in terms of our usual selection of memories is suspended, and earlier memories are able to surface, bringing with them earlier feelings of ourselves and of life, derived from past synopses. This is a familiar experience when we go on a trip, especially if we visit old neighborhoods we haven’t seen in many years, and perhaps explains why we like to take such trips after surmounting a difficult crisis.

Vesta’s power to call up the ancestors from old memories works in a similar way, and when our focus of awareness has moved to the chest or solar plexus, continual standing in the doorway can help her to perform the same feat for us at our inner hearth, especially if we augment our headless attention with another pre-verbal mode of awareness involving sound.

The first stage is to listen to all the sounds around us, without dividing them into ‘background’ and ‘foreground’. This comes about naturally once our visual attention rests on the limits of the visual field instead of tracking on this or that object. It is easy for the attention to waver, however, so the focus on sounds must be augmented by mentally copying sounds just heard.

Small children learn to speak by mentally copying sounds, and there is reason to believe that animals do something similar. Mentally copying sounds and associating them with specific situations would seem to have been a major part of humanity’s pre-verbal thought processes.

Once we learn to speak, and to speak to ourselves, mental mimicry of sounds is relegated to a minor role and generally limited to copying sounds for which we have words. When we begin ‘thinking with the chest, ’ like Ochwiay Biano, our minds become quieter and we become aware of feelings and images for which we have no words, not because they are ineffable, but simply because no words have yet been assigned to those experiences. Consider smells, for instance. We have many words for colors and quite a few for sounds, but our olfactory vocabulary is very limited. If a dog could be taught to speak, he would find himself at a loss to describe the many odors in his daily experience. If he invented words for the many different odors, we would find it hard to understand him, lacking referents because we are purblind in our noses.

In the same way, this particular sound I have just heard has no precise word describing it. We can say, ‘that is the sound of a car engine, ’ as we say ‘that is a tree, ’ and ignore sensory detail in either case. Our everyday minds can deal with such thumbnail descriptions without having to disturb the selection of memories forming a background to our moment-to-moment synopsis. But if we mentally repeat the precise sound of that car that just went by, our memory background is rendered more porous, as it would become in a crisis, so that feelings and images from past memories are able to emerge.

I tried mentally echoing sounds just heard as an experiment in 1972, while walking along a busy street in Encanto, California. I was also keeping my sunglass frames in view, an earlier version of ‘standing in the doorway’. I did this for an hour or more, and recorded the results in a journal:

“The result of this double exercise was three full days, not counting sleep, in silent awareness of total sensation…At one point the feeling of lightness became like a breeze flowing through my body from back to front. Everything seemed to take on a bluish tinge…By the third day, the breeze had risen to a light wind and was blowing through my memories. My personal history, the sense of who I am, was being shuffled like a deck of cards…By the end of the third day the wind set me down somewhere else in myself; that is, my store of familiar memories was completely revised and my feeling of myself permanently changed from that point on.”

After this experience, my dead grandmother began visiting me regularly in my dreams. I noticed that in many of these dreams I appeared to be younger, and to feel as I did when she was still alive, but my understanding was linked to the present. It was common to realize at the time that I was dreaming, if not at first then as the dream progressed, for I would remember that she had died. These earlier feelings of myself, and of my grandmother when she was alive, enhanced a feeling of harmony with her and allowed us to converse in close intimacy. However, as I had no unresolved issues with her, there was nothing specific to work through. I usually asked her how she was, and she said fine, but she felt tired a lot, and this probably came from memories of her as she was towards the end of her life.

My practices of the threshold and hearth continued over the next several years, and long after my father died I did have some serious issues to work through with him. This took about three years to get through, during which time I was periodically out of work (I was doing contract programming and moving around a lot) . In both dream and waking I agreed with my father to resolve certain problems for good with him in exchange for obtaining help in finding employment. On each of three occasions, I received job offers within twenty-four hours of these conversations. Skeptics may make of this what they will; but taking the view that I was in contact with the spirits of my ancestors, it makes sense that they would find it easier to relate to me after I had recovered earlier feelings of myself and of them, which I had when, they were still alive.

The Pillar

Before chimneys came into general use in the Renaissance, the old-style hearth was usually located centrally under the smoke-hole in the roof, and the central supporting pillar or pillars were set close to it. The main pillar in pagan times corresponded to the World Pillar, round which the heavens appear to revolve and which links the Underworld, Middle-Earth, and the heavenly realms of the cosmos together. It also corresponds to the human spine, and the subtle passage therein known to yogis as the sushumna. An upright person has a straight spine and thus a direct link to the vigor of the ancestors. He or she can stand before the ancestors unashamed, with a record of honorable conduct.

In the old Roman religion, every man was born with a guiding spirit called his genius, and every woman a similar spirit called her juno. These were inner spirits, with a meaning originally connected in some way with sexual vigor, but later they became mixed with the Greek notion of a personal daimon who guided one through life. The connection of the genius with sleep and dream is suggested by the lectus genialis, located in the atrium just opposite the entrance-door. Rose conjectures that in the days of one-room houses it probably served as the marriage bed, hence its sexual significance; but in later times it persisted as a sacred furnishing that was reserved for the genius of the paterfamilias and never used by the house’s human occupants. Presumably the lady of the house had a similar place in the women’s quarters dedicated to her juno.

While we must do without a pillar in modern houses, we can set aside a special area in the home for meditation, and include a shrine to a personal guiding deity, giving external form to our indwelling genius or juno in the shape of an image if we prefer. A staff can be set up in a nearby corner to represent the pillar, perhaps with alternate red and white bands spiraling clockwise around it from the top to the bottom, like a Maypole. The main thing, of course, is to sit there with an erect spine, the seat being raised by one or two cushions.

If you offer to your patron or patroness (or directly to the genius or juno) as at the other shrines, ask for guidance or wisdom in both dreams and waking life. It is also good to do this before going to sleep. If you remember your dreams on awakening, take a few moments to ponder them and try to determine what the deity was saying to you. Even seemingly trivial dreams often contain a message if we take the time to examine them.

The Inner Pillar

As the World Pillar is the link between the realms of our cosmos and thus with the ancestors, so the inner pillar is our own personal link with them through memory. As we have seen, memory contains more than the record of events: Vesta at our inner hearth can recall past versions of ourselves, our feelings and impressions, our viewpoints, joys and fears, all the way back to birth, as well as that strange kind of nostalgia, with phantom images, associated with the distant past which we call far memory. Like the rings on a tree-trunk, these vital memories represent different stages of our growth-journey from the realm of the ancestors, and each is vitally available to the present moment.

It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that each man’s genius and each woman’s juno resides in the inner pillar of memory and has the job of guiding, not just our present selves, but each of these versions of ourselves, guiding all of them together. Thus, as Vesta calls back our previous selves and integrates them with our current self, the genius or juno shows us the path linking them, the plan our life has been following, and the living form of our self through time, of which our current self is the growing tip. For whereas the ancestors are concerned to help that growing tip, our current selves, with advice and vigor, our indwelling genius and juno are concerned with the growth of the whole plant, clear down to the roots. The journey down the inner pillar of memory, taken by the silent, inward-looking self, is not like a train-journey, which leaves behind each station as it travels to the next one. It is rather a projection of awareness from the present back through the past, uniting with the whole trunk of memory as it goes. As such, it is a preparation for the fuller integration that will take place in the Underworld after the death of the body.

In the Underworld the integrated soul will undergo further integration with its selves from previous lives. Thus, the answer to the question, “What age shall I be on the Other Side?” is “All ages to which you have attained.” This is expressed beautifully in the Lakota (Sioux) myth of Falling Star. It seems long ago there were two sisters who wished to marry stars when they grew up. Then, when they were about to go to bed, two men appeared outside the flap of their tepee:

“They were men, but they were not like other men, for they made the light they lived in, and there was no shadow where they stood. This light was soft and kind, and when the two men smiled, it spread about the sisters so that they were not afraid at all. Then they saw that one man was young and one was very old. The younger one was taller than any man the girls had ever seen; but the older one was even taller. I think he stood above the other like a tree, and the light which he made was that much brighter. He was old, old; but he was young too. I think he was older than the other because he had been young so much longer.”

Journeys down the inner pillar can take place in lucid dreams or in waking moments when inner silence begins to deepen on its own, spontaneously. The latter experience feels like being in an old elevator that has suddenly slipped its cable a little. There is a feeling of being lowered into deeper silence. Present sensations continue, but new senses open up, or perhaps feelings, for which we have no descriptions. These seem to be showing through the current landscape, if we are outside, that is. Time undergoes subtle changes as well, with the mind taking in more rapid details occurring, as it were, between successive instants of time. This continues until one has had enough and decides to re-surface into the everyday present.

Standing in the doorway and mentally echoing sounds just heard help to set up lucid dreaming. Additionally, after closing your eyes at night, instead of becoming immersed in thoughts, watch your phosphenes, the lights and shapes created by the pressure of the eyelids on the optic nerve. As we fall asleep, dream images will naturally become superimposed on our phosphenes; but if we fall asleep while watching instead of thinking, we shall watch the images in our dreams afterwards and be less caught up in the words of the dream-synopsis. When dream images become superimposed on phosphenes, it is like a door opening, and when it is fully open we are asleep and immersed in a dream. If we have watched our phosphenes change into dream-images, it is only a step further to realizing we are in a dream, when the journey down the inner pillar can commence.


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