Io Saturnalia!

12 17 romans in decadence thomas coutureToday is the first day of the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia. It could last for three, five or seven days depending on how lucky you were and how your Emperor was feeling about it. It is a festival in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. He was said to have ruled the world in a golden age of plenty, when everyone was happy and well fed and no one had to work very hard. Its revelries reflected this lost, carefree existence. Saturnalia was popular all over the Roman Empire until the third or fourth century. Then, as Christianity took over, some of its customs became incorporated into Christmas and New Year celebrations. Holly, for example, was a plant sacred to Saturn and sprigs of it would be given as tokens to friends.

In the city of Rome, the statue of Saturn, at his main temple, normally had its feet bound in wool. This was removed for the festival in an act of liberation. A sacrifice would be made by a priest whose head was uncovered. Normally, during a ritual, he would be expected to have a part of his toga pulled up over his head to symbolise his holiness. Saturnalia is really a festival about turning normality upside down. Then, as the ancient Romans were wont to do, they took the image of their deity and placed him on a fancy couch so that he could participate in a public feast. It was a holiday from all forms of work. Schools were closed. No courts were in session, so no justice could be dispensed. War could not be declared.

People would greet each other with the salutation: “Io Saturnalia”. The ‘io’ part can be pronounced as a two syllable word or simply as ‘yo’, in case you want to use it yourself. It can be used as a ritual exclamation, an invocation, to announce a triumph or to punctuate a joke.

Saturnalia is a festival of role reversals and suspension of behavioural norms. Slaves were treated to a feast, perhaps served to them by their masters. They were also allowed to show disrespect, or at least pretend to, without fear of punishment. Men cast aside their togas in favour of something a bit more colourful, a Greek garment known as a synthesis. Apparently it was usually only worn around the house, but no one with any taste would be seen dead in it outside, unless it was Saturnalia. Also, Roman citizens would normally be bare-headed, unless they were doing something religious of course, but at Saturnalia they wore a conical felt cap called a pilleus, which was normally the mark of a freed slave. The slaves wore them too, even though they weren’t free. Everyone was a freed slave for Saturnalia. Gambling and games of dice were allowed for everyone too. Normally it would have been banned, or at least frowned upon. Everyone ate too much, everyone drank too much. It would have been unusual to find anyone who was sober. Saturnalia was everyone’s favourite festival.

In Imperial Rome a ‘Saturnalicius princeps’ would be elected within a household as a master of ceremonies. He would be appointed by lot, and you had to obey all his commands. He might ask you to stick your head into a bucket of cold water or sing naked and you would have to do it. The more ridiculous the order, the better it was. This is very similar to the medieval ‘Lord of Misrule’. The King of Saturnalia does not appear during the Republican period, so he might be a satirical reaction against the idea of having a single ruler, in the form of an Emperor.

Part of the festival also included a day of gift-giving. Presents could be either large or small, but the traditional gifts were small figurines made from wax or clay called ‘sigillaria’. I don’t really know why, and it seems the Romans forgot too. In the fifth century a man called Macrobius wrote a book about Saturnalia. In it, two characters argue about the significance of the figures. One holds that they represent a human sacrifice whilst the other maintains that they are just toys for children. Whatever the gifts were about, it seems that the practice of re-gifting was alive and well in the first century. We know because a poet named Martius gives us a list of all the gifts he sent out and then received back again.


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