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Religion: Folk and Traditional Religions


Introduction: Animism was the dominant spiritual practice in ancient Italy, being the belief that all things, living and non-living, have a spirit. These spirits were recognized and respected and it was thought that they should be appeased to ensure good health, prosperity, and protection. Deceased ancestors were included in animistic beliefs, and their spirits were believed to be watching down on living relatives and thought to have the power to favorably influence human events.

Origin: Animism has been practiced in Italy since ancient times, and it predates the first century arrival of Christianity in the region. 

History: Animism has a long history that predates written records, with different ethnic groups developing their own variations of practice. As the majority of people within the Roman Empire worked in agriculture, they were inextricably tied to the land and nature in general. The natural world plays the leading role within animism.

Adherents: Animism was the dominant belief system throughout the country prior to the arrival of a polytheistic belief system, with which animism became entwined. Exact numbers of adherents today are difficult to estimate, as some people may practice animism or hold these beliefs alongside or as a part of other religions.

Belief System: Ancient Romans believed several deities oversaw various phases of sowing crops. Rivers, trees, fields, and buildings each had their own spirit, or numen. This word denotes a sacred force, and though it is impersonal it has a divine power. Spirits could be bad, good, or mischievous though they should be appeased through rituals and offerings to ensure things like good health, prosperity, and protection. Households had protective spirits—even fireplaces and food cupboards had designated spirits.

Practices: Animistic practices included offerings made at home altars. Prior to special family events, a portion of a meal was thrown into the fire as an offering to spirits whose blessings were sought. Crossroads were thought to be where spirits resided, and little shrines (compita) were placed there and made up of four altars, meant to honor the spirits in each direction.

Rituals, Events, Celebrations
  • Ancestor worship: Ancestors are believed to have the power to intervene in the lives of their descendants, and offerings are made to them to ensure their well-being.
  • Animal sacrifice: This was usually a pig, and was known to happen before a farmer wanted to thin out a forested area. The sacrifice was for the spirit of the grove in return for disturbing the area.
  • Offerings on family alters: Generally, it was the head of a household, usually the father, who would make a daily offering to the spirits that watched over the family. This may have taken the form of a cake or sweet, fruit, special libation, or incense.

Sacred Texts: Animism does not have a central sacred text, but rather relied on oral tradition, ongoing practice, and the transmission of knowledge through generations.

Places of Worship: Animism included specific places of worship, including home alters, alters at crossroads, or at natural features including trees, groves, and streams. Outdoor shrines, standing stones, or other natural features like hilltops were among places of worship.

Sacred Places: Many natural features were thought to be sacred in the ancient Roman Empire, including rivers, streams, and springs. These places were believed to be inhabited by spirits and were often the site of ceremonies and offerings. Forests were seen as the home of spirits, with trees including oaks, cedars, and ash worshipped in Europe. Home alters were also special and where offerings were made to household spirits or ancestors.

Leadership Structure: Animism does not have a centralized leadership structure, but rather relies on local community leaders and traditional healers.

Leaders (local) and Dates: Local leaders of animism include traditional healers, shamans who perform rituals, and community or family elders.

Role in Society: Historically, animism played an important role in Italian society, particularly among those engaged in agriculture. The belief and practices manifested in private homes as well, regardless of area of employment. Animism also served as a foundation for other cultural practices and beliefs, including polytheism and mythology. 


Introduction: Polytheism refers to the ancient religion of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire (800 BCE–400 CE), practiced before the first century arrival of Christianity. Polytheism is based on the worship of multiple gods and goddesses and lesser deities associated with different aspects of life, nature, and human experience. These beliefs became a fundamental part of Italy's cultural heritage, which lives on today through Roman mythology and a revival of polytheistic beliefs and practices.

Origin: Polytheism in Italy was heavily influenced by the polytheistic beliefs of the ancient Greeks, whose beliefs evolved from the earlier religions of the Minoans and Mycenaeans who lived in the region. Roman polytheism was influenced by the Etruscan religion as well. Prior to Christianity's arrival in the first century, polytheism was the dominant religion for centuries, recognizing several gods and goddesses who were associated with natural forces and human experiences.

History: Polytheism was the dominant religious practice in Italy for hundreds of years, until the fourth century CE when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Rome's Capitoline Hill was a major site for god and goddess worship, being one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was built. Worship of the Roman gods and goddesses gradually faded away, especially after Christianity became dominant. 

Adherents: Historically, polytheism was practiced by most of the Roman population. Cities had their own patron deities and specific practices. There is a modern revival of interest in polytheism in Italy, estimated to be practiced by a very small part of the population.

Belief System: Polytheism is centered on the worship of multiple gods and goddesses as well as lesser supernatural beings. These deities were associated with various aspects of life, nature, and human experience, such as love, war, fertility, wisdom, and the sea. Adherents believe that the gods and goddesses are real and could be contacted through prayer, offerings, and rituals.

Various places had their own spirits, including homes, crossroads, forests, caves, and water bodies, among others. Major gods included Jupiter, who was the sky god who oversaw everything and protected the Roman state. Juno was the goddess of marriage and childbirth, while Minerva was the goddess of war, though fought primarily for just causes. She also represented wisdom, learning, and the arts. Minor gods included Nemesis (revenge), Cupid (love), and Pax, god of peace.

Practices: Roman polytheism was practiced through a variety of public and private rituals, including festivals, sacrifices, and offerings. Ritual practices and celebrations occurred in groups or privately, either in homes or at public altars and temples. Processions and pilgrimages to sacred sites were important parts of the religion and occurred frequently. Gods and goddesses were worshipped in temples including the Parthenon and on Rome's Capitoline Hill.

Rituals, Events, Celebrations
  • Saturnalia: This was an ancient Roman festival held near the winter solstice and honored the agricultural god, Saturn. Feasting, gift-giving, and wreath and candle decorations were part of celebrations—traditions still seen in modern Christmas celebrations throughout the world.
  • Lupercalia: This festival held in mid-February honored the god Lupercus, protector of flocks and hunter of wolves. The festival focused on fertility, purification, and good health.
  • Floralia: This spring festival honored Flora, the ancient Roman goddess of flowers and fertility. Celebrants feasted, danced, and wore brightly colored clothing (as opposed to traditional white). Temples were decorated with flowers in her honor.
  • Veneralia: Held April 1, this festival honored the goddess of love and beauty, Venus. She was petitioned for love, fortune, and protection, with the day seen as a favorable one for getting betrothed. Her faithful followers took Venus's image from temples to bathhouses to be bathed and adorned with flowers, while home alters were cleaned and large meals enjoyed.

Sacred Texts: There was no sacred text to the Roman Empire's polytheistic practice. Traditions, myths, and rituals were passed on orally and through practice. 

Sacred Places: Temples and alters were sacred places for sacrifice and the worship of gods and goddesses. Temples housed statues of them, within which the deity's spirit was thought to reside. Rome's Capitoline Hill was the site of worship for the major Roman gods, JupiterJuno, and Minerva, who were worshipped together (the Capitoline Triad) in a temple. Capitoline Hill was the most sacred religious precinct in the city, and the temple to the triad was the largest and most lavishly decorated temple in Rome.

Places of Worship: Historically, polytheism had many dedicated places of worship, including temples and altars used for public rituals and offerings. Some of the most famous temples in ancient Rome include the Pantheon and the temple on Capitoline Hill to honor the Capitoline Triad. the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli was made to honor Vesta, goddess of Rome's hearths.

Leadership Structure: Polytheism does not have a centralized leadership structure or hierarchy. Historically, priests and priestesses performed rituals and had a special place in the culture. Modern practitioners are often organized into local groups or associations, which may have their own leaders or spiritual guides. 

Leaders: Polytheism was decentralized, having no central figurehead. However, priests and priestesses held a special place in the culture, as they kept the keys to temples, oversaw temple servants, and performed rituals.

Role in Society: Being the dominant belief system, polytheism played a central role in the culture of the ancient Roman Empire. Today, the practice is seen as a way of preserving the country's ancient traditions and values. It is also important for modern adherents, as they connect with their history, ancestors, and understand their place in the world.