Lemurs and Larvae


I love learning something new and strange.

Today, I was reading the fifth chapter of the newest Dresden Files novel, Ghost Story, and the author mentioned a group of mythological creatures I’d never heard of: lemures.

A lemur--today.

Ok, I’m a fairly well-read guy and I know a lot about myths and monsters, from Persian djinn to the Greek hekatoncheires, to the nagas of the Hindus or the Mexican chupacabra; I even knew about the Navajo yee naaldlooshii (gotta love double vowels!)… But I’d never heard of a creature named a lemur except for the cute ring-tailed monkeys from Madagascar. Never a malevolent spirit.

Have a hekatonkheir on me, my friend.

So time for my brief history lesson.  It’s an ancient Roman term (to keep yourself from laughing, you should probably pronounce it like the Romans would — “lay-moor”). And it was, indeed a malevolent spirit, as distinct from the good spirits (the manes). Ovid states that lemur is a corruption of the name Remus, who was killed by his twin brother Romulus, and whose spirit had to be appeased thereafter.

There was a freaky (by today’s standards) observance associated with the lemures. Every May, on the 9th, 11th, and 13th of the month, the head of each household would walk backwards and barefoot around their house at midnight, casting black beans over their shoulder and announcing nine times that the spirits have now been fed and appeased, and the house has been reclaimed. Then the rest of the family would then bang on pots and pans and shout “Ghosts of my Fathers and Ancestors, Begone!” to chase the lemures out of the house. This was called Lemuralia, and it continued into the 600s before it was replaced by the Pope, with a more-Christian All Saints’ (Martyr’s) Day observance.

A chupacabra.

As an aside, this holiday is why, for millenia, it has been considered very bad luck to get married in May. The Romans said Mense Maio malae nubent (“They wed ill who wed in May”), and believed that anyone who wed during this time would die an untimely death.

Larvae is another term that means “ghosts” or in later Latin, “the masked ones” because many believed that ghosts wore masks of flesh or wood to appear in this world.

"Naga Kanya" (the snake woman)

Fast forward 1500 years, to the famous Swedish taxonomist and classifier Linnaeus.  He chose Lemur as the name for those spooky nocturnal Malagasy monkeys, with their blackened eyes and strange nighttime howls. He also chose the name “Larvae” for any creature in its prepubescent state, because, well, ever looked at a caterpillar’s face up close? Definitely looks like a ghost mask.

The face of a giant silk moth larva. Ew.

St. Augustine uses both terms, Larvae and Lemures, to describe the fallen immortal spirits that were cast from heaven.

The Romans called the good spirits manes, and celebrated Paternalia each February, to keep these ancestral ghosts in their homes.

Carolus Linnaeus. What a very silly hat.

So, this was my brief history and linguistics lesson. I’m no scholar of Latin, but I was still surprised by my gap in knowledge. I love learning something new, don’t you?

OK – this is the end of my lingua-nerd moment. You can go on about your lives.

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