Lemures were in ancient Rome, ghosts of people who died without a surviving family, or a ghost evil in nature. The lemures were one of two classes of ghosts in Roman belief (see Lares), and were associated with larvae, or evil spirits.
The Romans considered it a curse to die without surviving issue. Thus, those who did so were doomed to become lemures. Other lemures included the spirits of those who had died prematurely and were trapped on the earth until their allotted lifespan was up; victims of murder and violent death; executed criminals; and drowning victims. To prevent a lemure from returning from the grave, the Romans burned black beans around the tomb as the body was interred. If a lemure succeeded in haunting the living, it was exorcised by banging on drums. Lemures were propitiated each year at a festival called Lemuria.
- Haining, Peter. A Dictionary of Ghost Lore. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
- Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
The Lemuria, oldest Roman commemoration of the dead, was held on three odd days in May—May 9th, 11th, and 13th. During these days, the dead walk the Earth and must be propitiated. The Romans called these walking revenants Lemures, hence the name of the festival in their honour. Lemures literally means ghosts or spirits of the night. They were understood as the angry, volatile, dangerous dead and so appeasement and protection was crucial. The Lemures and their festival are the reason why marrying in May is considered unlucky and dangerous: too much joy and celebration invites unwelcome attention from these resentful and powerful ghosts.
According to Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–circa 18 CE), the holiday derives from the death of Remus, whose death at the hands of his brother Romulus is reminiscent of the biblical Cain and Abel. Remus’ blood-stained ghost appeared to Romulus and demanded a festival in his honour. Remuria eventually became Lemuria. (Some scholars suggest that the festival predates the arrival of the Romans in the region and has its origins in an Etruscan holy day.)
There is a description of the festival in Book 5 of Ovid’s Fasti. The paterfamilias, the male head of the household, arose at midnight. He made the life-affirming gesture of the fig-hand (thumb between first and second fingers mimicking the sexual act) and then cleansed his hands in pure water. He walked barefoot through his home, spitting beans while saying “ With these beans I redeem me and mine.” This ritual was repeated nine times. At the conclusion, the paterfamilias ritually bathed, then banged on metal pots and pans proclaiming “Begone, ancestral spirits!” nine times. Lemures who did not go away but haunted the living were exorcised via rituals including drumming and percussion.
Lemures are the souls of the dangerous dead: drowning and murder victims and executed criminals. The Romans believed that those who died childless were among those cursed to become Lemures. Alternatively, those whose families no longer survived to placate ancestors were also so doomed. They could be prevented from rising by burning black beans around the grave during funeral rituals.
Lemurs, the primate species and the lost continent of Lemuria take their inspiration from the Lemures.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.