To honor the dead with prayers and ritual offerings is probably a universal spiritual practice. Praying to the dead for favors and blessings is also ubiquitous. So where did this idea come from? Was it prevalent in medieval Rome, too? Did Christians also believe in praying to their ancestors?
Guardians and Ancestral Deities
Let’s begin by exploring the distinction between the notion that one must pray for the dead and the many religious traditions that practice the worship and intercession of ancestors. The latter was a particularly strong feature of both Roman civic and domestic religions, which had a direct impact on early Christian ideas of sanctity and prayer.
In ancient Rome, the gods known as Lares were the shared ancestral deities who guarded public roads, rivers, boundaries, fields, and other fertile or liminal spaces. In the home, the Penates were the guardians of the hearth. Every Roman family, even the very poor, would have had a shrine dedicated to the household gods, those ancestors who had died and now watched over their living descendants.
Roman families of means would also commission death masks of their prominent male relatives. The Greek historian, Polybius, an admirer of Roman culture who wrote from personal observation in the 2nd century BCE, gives us a fascinating glimpse into this practice and its role in funerary traditions.
It is customary, on occasions when public sacrifices are offered, for these masks to be displayed and decorated with great care. And when any distinguished member of the family dies, the masks are taken to the funeral, and are worn by men who are considered to bear the closest resemblance to the original [ancestor], both in height and their general appearance and bearing. … It would be hard to imagine a more impressive scene for a young man who aspires to win fame and practice virtue. For who could remain unmoved at the sight of the images of all these men who have won renown in their time, now gathered together as if alive and breathing? What spectacle could be more glorious than this?
For the pious (male) Roman, emulation of one’s (male) ancestors was the highest possible virtue. On these occasions, which so impressed Polybius, these ancestors were mimetically resurrected by the young men who strove to embody them.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Hellenistic Belief in the Purification of Souls
Although there was no analogous practice in the Hellenistic world, the care of the body for proper burial, rites of mourning, and periodic commemorations of the dead were common to most cultures. And in the Platonic tradition, especially as it developed under the Roman Empire, philosophers taught that at least some souls would need to undergo a time of purification before being reincarnated on earth or advancing to a higher plane of spiritual existence.
For some Hellenized Jews, this Neoplatonic idea could be combined with ancient Hebrew traditions of commemoration and the Kaddish of mourning. However, there is no evidence of longstanding Jewish belief in ‘atonement for the dead’. The only explicit reference to this idea is a passage in the second book of Maccabees, which chronicles the revolt, by conservative anti-Hellenistic Jews, against the Seleucid empire in the 160 BCE. This text was written down (ironically, in Greek) around 124 BCE as was not a canonical text of the Hebrew scriptures.
Connection between Hades and the Celestial Realm
In the earliest Christian traditions, as documented in the Greek New Testament, a handful of passages were later interpreted as references to a space or time for the purification of souls. The most important, since it is found in the gospel of Luke and attributed to Jesus himself, is a parable about the fate of a rich man.
The rich man ignored the sufferings of a poor man, Lazarus, who lay starving and diseased at his doorstep.
Jesus tells his disciples:
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.
In this parable, the suffering rich man seems believe that there is movement, or at least a connection, between ‘Hades’ and the celestial realm where Abraham and other blessed souls reside, since asks that Lazarus reach out to comfort him. However, Abraham says that there is no way to cross from one to the other.
Common Questions about Rituals and Prayers for Ancestors in Medieval Rome
In ancient Rome, the gods known as Lares were the shared ancestral deities who guarded public roads, rivers, boundaries, fields, and other fertile or liminal spaces. In the home, the Penates were the guardians of the hearth.
Although there was no analogous practice in the Hellenistic world, the care of the body for proper burial, rites of mourning, and periodic commemorations of the dead were common to most cultures.
In the earliest Christian traditions, as documented in the Greek New Testament, a handful of passages were later interpreted as references to a space or time for the purification of souls.