Monday, February 9, 2009

The Genius

The Genius is perhaps the most difficult conception in the Roman religion for the modern mind to grasp. It has been spoken of as the 'patron-saint' or 'guardian-angel,' both of them conceptions akin to that of the Genius, but both far too definite and anthropomorphic: we shall understand it best by keeping the 'numen' notion clearly in mind and looking to the root-meaning of the word (genius connected with the root of gignere, to beget). It was after all only a natural development of the notions of 'animism' to imagine that man too, like other objects, had his indwelling spirit—not his 'soul' either in our sense of moral and intellectual powers, or in the ancient sense of the vital principle—but rather as the derivation suggests, in origin simply the spirit which gave him the power of generation. Hence in the house, the sphere of the Genius is no longer the hearth but the marriage-bed (lectus genialis). This notion growing somewhat wider, the Genius comes to denote all the full powers, almost the personality, of developed manhood, and especially those powers which make for pleasure and happiness: this is the origin of such common phrases as genium curare, genio indulgere, meaning practically to 'look after oneself,' 'to indulge oneself.' Every man, then, has this 'spirit of his manhood' in his Genius, and correspondingly every woman her Iuno, or spirit of womanhood, which are worshipped on the birthdays of their owners.

No doubt later the Genius was accredited with powers over the fortune and misfortune of his possessor, but he never really developed anything like the independence of a god, and remained always rather a numen. The individual revered his own Genius, but the household cult was concerned, as one would expect, with the Genius of the master of the house, the pre-eminent Genius of the family. Its special locality was, for the reason just noticed, the marriage-bed and its symbol, the house-snake, kept as a revered inmate and cherished in the feeling that evil happening to it meant misfortune to the master.

The festival of the Genius was naturally the master's birthday, and on that day slaves and freedmen kept holiday with the family and brought offerings to the Genius domus. It is a significant fact, and may serve to bring out the underlying notion, that in later paintings, when anthropomorphism and sensuous representation held sway over all Roman religion, though the other gods of the household were depicted after the manner of Greek deities, the Genius is either represented by his symbolic snake or appears with the human features and characteristics of the head of the house, his owner.

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