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10 Lesser Known Roman Gods

by Ben Gazur
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

To the pagan Roman mind, the world was full of gods, goddesses, and spirits. Some of these are well known, such as Jupiter with his thunderbolts, Mars with his spear who ruled over war, and Venus with her voluptuous nature. But the big names of the pantheon are just the deities who claim the most attention. Everything from trees to rivers to the hinges of a door could have gods and goddesses with a special responsibility for them.

Here are ten gods and goddesses that you should consider offering up a prayer to.

Related: 10 Unresolved Questions about Ancient Rome

10 Mutunus Tutunus

Roman cults and weird symbols!

The first scholars to explore the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii were scandalized by many of the objects they discovered. They had been primed by their studies to expect a dignified landscape decorated by elegant statues, but they found that almost everywhere they looked were images and carvings of large phalluses. The cult of the penis was hard to ignore.

The Greek god Priapus is fairly well known and has proved a popular deity on the internet thanks to paintings of him with an absurdly engorged phallus. The Romans proved fond of him, too, but there was an earlier Roman god known as Mutunus Tutunus, who was even more phallic. Some sources claim that Mutunus Tutunus was simply represented by an enormous penis without any hint of a body attached.

The temple of Mutunus Tutunus was located on the Velian Hill and was supposed to be one of the most ancient cults in Rome, but not much has survived on how exactly he was worshipped. Christian writers, who were horrified by the whole idea of the penis, described worship of Mutunus Tutunus in the most lurid details. According to them, the night before a woman wed, they would go to the temple and straddle the god’s “shameful phallus” and, in effect, squander their virginity on a statue. In fact, it was probably a ritual to bless the marriage with fecundity.[1]

9 Lares

Roman Household Spirits ~ (Roman Myths) (Roman Household Gods) (Ancient Roman Religion)

Every Roman household had its own special protective gods whose duty was to watch over the home and family. Known as Lares, these gods were often represented by small bronze or clay statues that resided in a shrine in the house. Offerings would be made to them, and they might even be brought out to sit at the table during family meals to ensure that their contribution to the family’s safety was maintained.

It is unclear how the idea of the Lares arose, and they may be among the most ancient gods of the Roman world. Some trace the origin of the Lares to the worship of ancestors. In the earliest times, dead members of the family would actually be buried in the home so their spirits could watch over the living—this is a practice discovered in many ancient cultures. When Roman law banned burial in the house, the Lares took over the role. The worship of the Lares was meant to prevent the family from dying out. When a family moved to a new home, they would take the statues of their Lares with them to bring protection into the house.

The Lares could become involved in family life. According to one myth, the sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius, was conceived when his mother was tending to the fire, and a phallus rose from the ashes and impregnated her. According to some sources, this penis belonged to a Lares.[2]

8 Liber

Unique and Lesser-Known Gods and Goddess of Roman Mythology

Liber was a god particularly revered by the plebeian class of Rome as he was the god of freedom, as well as wine and male fertility. Should the patricians ever become too tyrannical in their rule over the plebs, then it was to Liber that the put-upon poor would turn. As a god of liberty, he reminded the Senate that the plebs could simply refuse to follow their orders.

The Leberalia festival was one of the major festivals of the Roman religious year and was greatly enjoyed by the poor. A large phallus was paraded through the streets with much merriment, and riotous and ribald songs were sung. At the end of the procession, the phallus was crowned with a wreath of ivy. Liber looked after not only human fertility but also the fertility of the land. Over time, Libera, the female counterpart of Liber, was also celebrated at the Liberalia to bless women with fertility.

Male Roman children wore a bulla, an amulet worn around the neck, which protected them from supernatural harm. When they became men and wore their first toga, they would take this bulla off and place it on an altar during the Liberalia.[3]

7 Mefitis

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Not all Roman gods were sexual. You might hope that Mefitis has nothing to do with your sex life anyway—she was the goddess of noxious gases. No, this is not about a Roman god of farts (though Christians alleged there was one called Crepitus) but the unhealthy gases that rise from underground caves and bogs, which the ancients believed could cause diseases.

The miasma theory of disease associates bad smells with infection. This is not a crazy idea, as rotting bodies, sewage, and fetid wetlands can be breeding grounds for illness. So, the Romans turned to Mefitis to ward off the bad effects of bad aromas.

At first, Mefitis might have been a purely helpful goddess who was associated with healing springs of warm water, but these are often accompanied by a strong smell of sulfur, which she also became associated with. At particularly malodorous locations, shrines could be erected in honor of Mefitis. One such location in Rome was also home to shrines dedicated to the gods of fevers and bad luck. Hundreds of objects dedicated to Mefitis have been discovered, suggesting she had a wide following.

At some locations in Italy, volcanic gases rise from the ground, which can suffocate any animal that gets too close to areas where they pool. It has been suggested that sacrifices to Mefitis were made by driving animals into these places to kill them.[4]

6 Annona

ANNONA: How did you feed Ancient Rome?

During the early years of the Roman Empire, Rome was the largest city in Europe. With a population of around 1 million, the metropolis was always on the verge of a crisis caused by its inability to feed itself. Unless there were regular and plentiful supplies of food brought into the city, the people would quickly starve. Bread riots were common in times of scarcity. As the writer Juvenal recognized, the Roman people could be kept happy as long as there were “bread and circuses.”

One of the key benefits that the emperors brought to Rome was a secure source of grain, which they imported from Egypt and often subsidized. To celebrate their role in feeding the populace, the emperors embodied the grain supply as the goddess Annona. The role of the emperor in providing food was thus made holy and sanctified by the gods.

Annona was often pictured on coins. She could be seen holding stalks of grain in one hand and a horn of plenty in the other. Sometimes, she is shown beside the prow of a ship to show that she was blessing the many boats that ferried food into the city.[5]

5 Summanus

The Romans had so many gods that it could be hard to keep up with them all. The writer Ovid described a temple in Rome dedicated to the god Summanus, “whoever he may be.” Ovid might not have known who Summanus was, but we have a better idea—he was the god of nocturnal lightning.

Lightning was a terrifying and mysterious instance of divine intervention for many in the ancient world. Mostly, it was considered to be the weapon of choice for Jupiter, who would hurl thunderbolts at wrongdoers. Still, according to Pliny the Elder, there were up to nine gods who covered all the aspects of lightning. Summanus was the god of lightning when it struck at night.

There is some evidence that Summanus was sometimes almost considered equal to the more famous Jupiter. Summanus’s temple was erected after a lightning bolt blasted the head off of a statue of Jupiter one night. When lightning destroyed a sacred grove of trees, several animals were offered to Jupiter, but the same type and number of black animals were also sacrificed to Summanus.[6]

4 Verminus

At some point in the second century BC, an altar was erected to the God Verminus in Rome. It was ordered to be placed there by a member of one of the most influential families in Rome at the time, but when it was discovered in the nineteenth century, no one had ever heard of Verminus. The best that could be done was to examine his name and try to work out what Verminus had been in charge of.

Verminus, as his rather unpleasant name suggests, seems to have been responsible for pests and worms that afflicted crops and livestock. As a god of infectious critters, the agrarian Roman society would have had regular need to call on his aid. Animal diseases could easily lead to shortages, which would lead to starvation.

Recent work of Verminus has suggested that this altar to him was set up as a reaction to an epidemic, possibly of worms, which was sweeping through Roman animals and people at the time.[7]

3 Laverna

6 Roman Gods You’ve Likely Never Heard Of

The Roman poet Horace wrote about a person with a reputation for honesty who would loudly pray to Apollo or Janus as he sacrificed but under his breath would mumble:

“Good, Good Laverna hear me, grant me aid
For such a Cheat, let all believe me Good,
Let me seem just and honest to the Crowd,
And o’re my Cheats, and Forgeries spread a Cloud.”

Laverna was the goddess of theft, robbery, and all those performing illicit activities at night. Even criminals sometimes needed a little divine protection, especially if they wanted to keep their good name.

Appropriately, little is known about this goddess of hidden wickedness. There was an altar dedicated to her near one of the gates of Rome, which was named after her. Perhaps it was useful for those who were sneaking out to do a little naughty pillaging.[8]

2 The Emperors

How the Roman Rulers Became God-Emperors – Roman Religion DOCUMENTARY

The boundaries between the human and the divine were a lot thinner in the ancient world than they are today. Nowadays, it is rare for someone to be declared a god, but in the ancient world, as long as you could make people worship you then you were assured a place in the pantheon. For emperors and their families and favorites, it was almost guaranteed that you would become a god.

The Roman Imperial cult can be traced back to the earliest days of Rome. The founders of the city and heroes of the distant past were often considered to be both real historical figures and descended from gods. After their deaths, they were worshipped as gods themselves. By the time Julius Caesar gained mastery over Rome, he was loudly trumpeting his descent from the goddess Venus. After Caesar was stabbed to death, his successor, Augustus, saw to it that Caesar was believed to have become a god. This neatly allowed Augustus to say that he was the “son of a god.” When it came time for Augustus himself to die, he was duly declared to be a god, too.

The habit of emperors being deified after death became commonplace. When the emperor Vespasian was seriously ill, he was able to joke with those around him that he would die soon by saying, “I think I’m becoming a god.” Not all emperors were prepared to be worshipped only after death. The mentally unstable Caligula wanted to be thought a god while he was still alive.[9]

1 Cloacina

Cloacina: Goddess of Rome’s Oldest Sewer

Humans are rarely as vulnerable as when they are on the toilet. Perhaps that explains why the Romans had a goddess of toilets called Cloacina.

Cloacina was not exactly the goddess of toilets but rather the main sewer that ran under the city of Rome, known as the Cloaca Maxima. This “Greatest Sewer” was one of the proudest achievements of the Roman state because it channeled the polluting filth and floodwaters of the city away to the River Tiber and kept the city clean. The Romans thought the Cloaca Maxima was splendid—the Roman historian Livy thought nothing in his age could compare to this marvel built by his ancestors. So to protect the sewer, the Romans set up a shrine to Cloacina.

Classically minded writers of later eras liked to adorn their toilets with hymns to Cloacina. Jonathan Swift composed an ode for his friend’s bathroom.[10]

“Here, gentle goddess Cloacine
Receives all offerings at her shrine.
In separate cells the he’s and she’s
Here pay their vows with bended knees.”

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen