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In Roman mythology, the lemures /ˈlɛmjərz/ were shades or spirits of the restless or malignant dead, and are probably cognate with an extended sense of larvae /ˈlɑrv/ (from Latin larva, "mask") as disturbing or frightening. Lemures is the more common literary term but even this is rare: it is used by the Augustan poets Horace and Ovid, the latter in his Fasti, the six-book calendar poem on Roman holidays and religious customs.[1]


Lemures may represent the wandering and vengeful spirits of those not afforded proper burial, funeral rites or affectionate cult by the living: they are not attested by tomb or votive inscriptions. Ovid interprets them as vagrant, unsatiated and potentially vengeful di manes or di parentes, ancestral gods or spirits of the underworld. To him, the rites of their cult suggest an incomprehensibly archaic, quasi-magical and probably very ancient rural tradition. Four centuries later, St. Augustine describes both the lemures and the larvae as evil and restless manes that torment and terrify the living: lares, on the other hand, are good manes.[2]

Lemures were formless and liminal, associated with darkness and its dread. In Republican and Imperial Rome, May 9, 11, and 13 were dedicated to their placation in the household practices of Lemuralia or Lemuria. The head of household (paterfamilias) would rise at midnight and cast black beans behind him with averted gaze; the Lemures were presumed to feast on them. Black was the appropriate colour for offerings to chthonic deities. William Warde Fowler interprets the gift of beans as an offer of life, and points out that they were a ritual pollution for priests of Jupiter.[3] The lemures themselves were both fearsome and fearful: any malevolent shades dissatisfied with the offering of the paterfamilias could be startled into flight by the loud banging of bronze pots.[4][5]

In scientific Latin[edit]

The Lemures inspired Linnaeus' Modern Latin backformation Lemur (denoting a type of primates). According to Linnaeus' own explanation, the name was selected because of the nocturnal activity and slow movements of the slender loris.[6] Being familiar with the works of Virgil and Ovid and seeing an analogy that fit with his naming scheme, Linnaeus adapted the term "lemur" for these nocturnal primates.[7] However, it has been commonly and falsely assumed that Linnaeus was referring to the ghost-like appearance, reflective eyes, and ghostly cries of lemurs.[8] In Goethe's Faust, a chorus of Lemurs who serve Mephistopheles dig Faustus' grave.[9]


  1. ^ Horace, Epistles 2.2.209; Ovid, Fasti 2.500-539.
  2. ^ St. Augustine, The City of God, 11.
  3. ^ W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the period of the Republic, MacMillan (New York, 1899) – available at Questia: see Mensis Maius, 106–10: [1]
  4. ^ Thaniel, G. (1973). Lemures and Larvae, The American Journal of Philology, 94.2, 182–187.
  5. ^ Beard, M., North, J., Price, S. (1998). Religions of Rome, Vol 1, 31, 50, Cambridge.
  6. ^ A.R. Dunkel, J.S. Zijlstra, and C.P. Groves, C.P. (2011/2012). "Giant Rabbits, Marmosets, and British Comedies: Etymology of Lemur Names, part 1" Lemur News 16 (2100/12) 64–70. ISSN 1608-1439.[2]
  7. ^ W. Blunt and W.T. Stearn, Linnaeus: The Compleat Naturalist (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 252. 978-0-691-09636-0
  8. ^ Dunkel et. al, "Giant Rabbits, Marmosets, and British Comedies," p. 65.
  9. ^ Goethe, Faust 11515-11611.