Before we understood that illnesses are caused by parasites, bacteria, viruses and sometimes by our own immune reactions, people were left to their own devices. Was illness caused by something in the air? Could it be left behind by a curse? They wondered. Anything was possible.
The Romans, an efficient and practical bunch, developed a niche in the human protection market. For protection against outside forces, they came up with household gods – Lares they called them. Lares took the physical form of small figures – animal or human – placed above household fireplaces. Lares were made from a variety of materials – terracotta and wood for the old-schoolers, bronze and even gold for the nouveaux. The mantelpiece above the fireplace was the place for these little protectors – called the lararium.
This is how the protection worked: the Roman man, woman and child rubbed their lar before they went out into the Roman world, ensuring their safety from illness, curse or disaster. Don’t piss off your lar… or incidentally stand too close to a sick person.
Why did they place them above the fireplace? Why not near the front door for better protection or even underneath their pillow? Well, fire was specially regarded as the best form of natural protection. Having a lar figure resting above it was a logical addition to this safeguarding sphere.
Thanks to the demonstrator on the third floor of the British Museum who let us touch her display lar while telling its amazing two-thousand year old story. Especially as it was so incredibly busy on this rainy, Wednesday in August. Focusing on the tiny, with good, old-fashioned superstition thrown in, was the perfect foil. The British Museum came into its own, maintaining a cerebral and welcoming calm.
As a side note – we really appreciated the Mesopotamia room. Turned out not too many visitors wanted to see chunks of stone used for milling flour or displays of combs carved from bone as much as they did the Egyptian mummies or the Rosetta Stone. We breathed a sigh of relief. Heady Euphrates farm beginnings. Must have been one long food party – until the first drought I guess.
Mesopotamia led into the Celtic Britons’ room. We found the Iron Age hill fort and swathes of Celtic torcs – twisted gold bracelets. Celtic relics have been dug up all over the British Isles. For us, the locations of these items were as interesting as the items itself. Ohh- Lincolnshire, Sussex. Can you imagine finding that bronze helmet in your garden, digging for carrots?
Many things, including a bronze and wooden shield – the Battersea Shield, were found just near the British Museum in the River Thames. Even now, the Thames still holds many treasures waiting to be found. Looking for them is an actual activity. It’s called mudlarking. A city full to the rafters with people and all the while running through its watery heart is a flowing treasure hoard. The British Museum its flagship store.
Thank you, dear reader. Now everyone rub their lar.