New Year. Or is it?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHooray! We’ve all made it (safely I hope) into another New Year. So firstly, I wish for you more of the things you enjoyed last year, and less of the things you didn’t like, in the year ahead. New Year is a time for new beginnings, for letting go past enmities and troubles and making a fresh start. Perhaps you opened your back door on the stroke of midnight to make sure the old year made a swift exit. In my family, the 1960s and 70s found my dad standing outside the front door clutching a piece of coal and a silver coin waiting to be let in as a ‘first-footer’. We needed a dark-haired man to be first over the threshold on New Year’s Day to bring luck for the following year and, fortunately, he fitted the bill perfectly. The coal represented warmth, the coin, fortune. It is an old, and predominantly northern tradition that can sometimes involve a piece of bread to represent food and some greenery to ensure long life for everyone.

New Year has not always been on January 1st, but it has always been a time for taking stock of your life and starting anew, as you mean to go on. In Ancient Babylonia the year began at the spring equinox. It was an eleven day festival that involved the king being stripped of his regalia and slapped around by a priest until he cried, just to make sure he respected the gods and didn’t get too above himself. Sadly, this ritual has now fallen from favour. It might have been fun to see Trump stripped to his underwear and slapped around Washington National Cathedral by its bishop as a sort of pre-inauguration ceremony. I have no idea weather the bishop would be up for this, wikipedia has little to say about the bishops political leanings. In fact, it has very little to say about her at all, but it’s a cheery thought to begin 2017.

Ordinary people would try to placate their gods by making promises to them, typically, to return borrowed farm equipment. We also often make promises to be better people, in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. Though, if the Ancient Babylonians were as good at sticking to their resolve as we are, there were probably plenty of farmers who never saw their ploughs again.

01 01 janusIt was the Romans who fixed New Year’s Day as January 1st. They made it sacred to their god Janus. Perhaps the whole month of January is named after him. Janus is the god of gateways, of beginnings and of transitions. He has two faces, one looking forwards and the other backwards. He looks to the future but also the past. So he sits quite well at the threshold between one year and the next. The Romans believed that the beginning of anything held omens for the whole. So it was important to greet everyone cheerfully and to give and receive small gifts. If you want to follow their lead, you should also devote a little time to your usual work. Not too much, don’t go overboard and leave the house or anything.

In England the date on which the New Year started has been confusing. Although most people considered New Year’s day to be January 1st, Samuel Pepys certainly did, the year legally did not begin until March 25th. Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, it began on December 25th. Then, there was the liturgical year, which began on the first Sunday of Advent. Most of Europe began to accept January 1st as the beginning of the New Year in the sixteenth century. Scotland adopted it is 1600 to keep in line with other “well governit commonwealths” in Europe, which probably explains why they’re so much better at New Year than we are. They’ve had more practice. In England we stuck with March 25th until we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. It must have been difficult. In the days surrounding Christmas and New Year, it’s hard enough to know what day it is, without wondering what year it is as well.


07 21 artemis of ephesus 2Today, I want to tell you something that is, on the face of it, not brilliant. On this day in the year 356 BC, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned to the ground. But it does give me a chance to tell you about the Artemis of Ephesus, and she’s quite unusual. Here she is, on the right. The Greeks were a bit like the Romans. As they expanded their territories, they met with new gods. But rather than try to replace them with their own, they chose a god from their own pantheon that they thought it most resembled, and renamed it. Artemis was their goddess of the hunt, of animals, of the wilderness and also somehow of both childbirth and virginity. There are certainly lots of animals in this image, but I can’t see her doing much hunting in that frock. Having a column instead of legs isn’t really that uncommon in Greek statues, but those things all around her torso are a bit more mysterious. They have been interpreted variously as breasts, eggs, bulls testicles or some sort of elaborate jewellery. But we don’t really know what they’re meant to be. We know nothing about her cult before the arrival of the Greeks. I can’t even tell you her name.

Artemis, like the two saints I mentioned yesterday, did not have much time for men. It seems she was once in love with Orion, but then accidentally killed him. The river god, Alpheus, loved her but she didn’t love him. He tried to capture her, but she disguised herself by covering her face in mud. There are a couple of other stories about mortal men who tried to rape her. One, she shot with poisoned arrows and the other, she turned into a little girl.

The temple of Artemis was huge and it was famous. It was the most magnificent building in the city and possibly the first Greek temple ever built from marble. It had been built to replace a previous temple which was destroyed by a flood some time in the seventh 07 21 amazons 1century BC. The first temple was reputed to have been built by the Amazons. Not the ones from South America though the, possibly mythical, tribe of warrior women. It was dedicated to their goddess, who later became identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. Little has been found of the original temple, but some gourd shaped drops of amber have been recovered, which may be the breast shaped ornaments that decorated her original statue.

The site was certainly an important one, as archaeological evidence shows that it has been occupied since the Bronze Age. Also, people kept building there despite the fact that it was clearly prone to flooding. The building of the new temple began around 550 BC and held a wooden effigy of the goddess. If you’re wondering, as I was, how a marble temple got burned up in a fire, I understand the roof beams were also made from wood and it possibly contained a library. The whole building was about 377 ft long and 115 ft wide. It was an impressive building that was visited by sightseers, merchants and kings, many of whom paid homage to the Artemis. Ephesus was a large and prosperous city, and it was all due to the protection of their goddess

So when it burned down, it was a disaster. But, even worse than that, someone had set fire to it on purpose. Worse still, he wasn’t sorry. He set fire to his city’s splendid temple because he knew it would make him famous. Afterwards, he went around telling everyone he had done it. He was sentenced to death for his crime, but that was not his only punishment. The Ephesians didn’t want him to be remembered at all. They forbade anyone to ever mention his name again, on pain of death. I’m rather with the Ephesians on this. People who do such things are still a problem to us nearly two and a half thousand years later. Someone who does something spectacularly wicked just so that they will be raised from anonymity deserves to have that snatched from them. Mentioning them over and over and putting them on the front page of every newspaper only encourages others. Unfortunately, not everyone was governed by the laws of Ephesus and it’s perfectly easy to find out his name, but I’m not going to tell you it.

Instead, I’ll tell you that the Ephesians built themselves an even bigger temple. It was around 450 ft by 225 ft and 60ft high. They commissioned a new statue of their goddess from a sculptor named Endoeus, who was a apparently a pupil of Daedalus, the man who built a labyrinth for the Minotaur and made a pair of wings for his son Icarus. So there’s one in the eye for the unmentionable pyromaniac. The new temple was so magnificent that it became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

07 21 temple of artemis

Of the Seven Wonders, all are now gone, except the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were all destroyed by earthquakes. The statue of Zeus at Olympia was taken to Constantinople and perhaps lost in a fire. No one is completely sure whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon really existed. The Temple of Artemis seems to have fallen into disuse with the arrival of Christianity. Perhaps it was destroyed by the Goths. If we believe early Christian sources, it was John the Apostle. He prayed there and cast out all the demons. The altar exploded and half the temple fell down. But if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it is to take the stories told to us by the early Christians with a pinch of salt.

Ephesus, which had once been a thriving port, became less important after the river there silted up. By the fifteenth century, it had been completely abandoned. It is now far from the coast. The temple was probably dismantled to build other things. Some of its columns were taken and used in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the sixth century. So they became part of a Christian church which was made a mosque in 1453. The temple of the Lady of Ephesus, whoever she was, has time travelled from the ancient Greeks, through the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman one. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum.


05 15 mercuryToday is the Ides of May. You’ve probably heard of the Ides of March but there was an ‘ides’ in the middle of every Roman month. On the Ides of May there was a festival in honour of the god Mercury called Mercuralia. Mercury is really the Roman version of the Greek god Hermes. His mother was Maia, and it is after her that the month of May is probably named. His father was Jupiter, who frankly got around a bit. We know that Mercury is the messenger of the gods and that he wears a winged helmet and sandals. He carries a caduceus, a magic, winged staff with two serpents twined around it. Beyond that he’s rather hard to pin down. Mercurial, if you will. He is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication, travellers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves. That’s quite a diverse range. Though there probably is a link between financial gain and eloquence, luck and trickery. The name Mercury and the word ‘merchant’ probably come from the same root.

All his wings allowed him to travel quickly between the upper and lower worlds. As well as being a messenger he is credited with being a ‘psychopomp’ which is a marvellous word and it means that he guided the souls of the dead to the underworld. A bit like our ‘grim reaper’, but probably a bit more upbeat. His caduceus is a symbol associated with messengers in general and probably pre-dates both Mercury and Hermes. You can see them in images dedicated to the Mesopotamian god of the Underworld dating from the twenty-first century BC. The caduceus belonging to Hermes is supposed to have been a gift from Apollo that had once belonged to his blind prophet Tiresias. Tireseas used his staff to kill one of a pair of copulating serpents a was turned into a woman as a punishment. But that’s a whole other story, that I’m probably not going to have time to get round to. Also as it is sometimes seen as a staff which is dividing two fighting snakes and representing skills in negotiation.

Mercury/Hermes is a clever character but not entirely trustworthy. In Greek mythology, it seems that when he was just four hours old he killed a tortoise, made its shell into a musical instrument, thus inventing the lyre, and learned to play it. Later the same day he stole some cattle belonging to his half-brother Apollo. He managed to cover his tracks by putting the cattles’ hooves on backwards before he drove them away. When asked about it, he denied even knowing what a cow was. Seriously, don’t trust this guy. Hermes and Apollo later made up. Hermes gave Apollo his lyre and Apollo gave him the caduceus.

The Romans adopted a lot of their gods from the Greeks and, as their empire spread, they also got very good at reinterpreting other people’s gods to fit in with their own pantheon. In Gaul and in Britain they encountered a god named Lugh who was similarly represented as a multi-talented fellow who was also a bit of a trickster. So they decided he must be Mercury too. It didn’t really matter that this god had three faces and three penises. The Romans were pretty tolerant like that and they wanted him anyway.

In Rome, the festival of Mercury was celebrated by those connected with commerce. They prayed to him for forgiveness for all the lies they had told in the past and also to ask for success in all the lying they were going to do in the future. If you want to celebrate Mercularia today and you own a ship, merchandise or indeed a head, what you need to do is this… Take some water from the holy well of Mercury, (there is one at Porta Capena in Rome, but maybe you can find another) and dip a laurel branch in it and sprinkle it over your stuff or yourself. If you deal in mainly in electrical equipment though, probably stick with pouring it over your head.

Your Kingdom for a Horse

04 24 burning of troyA couple of days ago, I talked about Rome and mentioned briefly that one of its supposed founders, Aeneas, had fled from Troy following the Trojan War. Well, today is the traditional date given for the fall of that city, in the year 1184 BC. The Trojan War is a massively important event in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. It involves so many gods from the Greek pantheon and so many beings that are half human and half divine that for hundreds years nobody really believed that it had happened in the first place. Now, we think that it does contain at least a grain of truth. I’m not going to tell you any events of the war in great detail, because there are too many names, too many different versions and it would get confusing.

So, the Trojan war supposedly happened because Zeus thought there were far too many people in the world. Particularly, far too many of his demi-god children. Zeus had become king of the gods by overthrowing his father Cronus, who had become king by overthrowing his father Uranus. He did not want the same thing to happen to him. There was also a prophecy that one of his lovers, a sea-nymph called Thetis, would give birth to a divine child that would overthrow him. To stop this from happening he had her married off to a human, a king called Peleus. It was at their wedding that the trouble really started.

04 24 wedding of peleus and thetis

All the gods and goddesses had been invited except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Keeping discord out of a wedding is, of course, desirable but not always possible. She turned up and was stopped at the door, but she still managed to throw in her wedding gift, the Apple of Discord. It carried an inscription which said it was a gift ‘to the fairest’. Of course, then there was a huge row about which of them was the most beautiful. Having narrowed it down to Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, they asked a human too choose. They chose Paris, who was visiting from Troy. Athena offered him wisdom, Hera offered him power and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. He chose Aphrodite and she offered him Helen. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Helen was already married to King Menelaus. But Aphrodite was angry with Menelaus because he had promised, when he married Helen, to sacrifice a hundred oxen to the goddess, but then forgotten about it.

Of course the gods get what they want, so Helen fell in love with Paris and, after some adventures, he took her back to Troy. Loads of men in Greece loved Helen, many had wanted to marry her, but when Menelaus was chosen, they swore to protect her. So that was when 1,200 Greek ships set sail for Troy to get her back. Some tried to break their promise. The king of Cyprus had promise fifty ships, but sent only one real ship and forty-nine made out of clay. Odysseus, who had just got married himself, tried to convince everyone, unsuccessfully, that he was mad by sowing his fields with salt. Then there was Achilles, he was the son of Thetis and Pelius. His mother disguised him as a girl so he wouldn’t have to go. But Achilles was quite the warrior. He wasn’t very good at being the sort of girl that was expected of him and soon gave himself away.

04 24 achilles

Achilles’ mother knew about the prophecy that had bothered Zeus and she tried very hard to make him divine. In one story, she smeared him with ambrosia and held him over a fire to try and burn away the parts of him that were human. Her husband caught her and stopped her. Apparently she had already killed several of her sons this way. In another, she dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, but he still had one weak point where she held him by the heel. His Achilles Heel.

The Greeks besieged the city of Troy for ten years. Loads of Heroes died, sometimes they were killed by their own side. Everyone got very fed up and then Odysseus had his idea about the horse. The horse was the symbol of Troy so they quite liked them. The Greeks built a giant horse, then they burned their camps and pretended to go home, leaving the horse and a single soldier called Sinon to explain that was a gift for Athena. A couple of people were quite suspicious of the horse. There was a man called Laocoön who said that he didn’t trust any Greeks, even if they did bring presents. He tried to stab the horse with a spear but the god Poseidon sent a sea serpent to strangle him. Then there was Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy. She had been blessed with the gift of prophecy and tried to tell everyone that the horse would bring about the downfall of the city. Unfortunately she was also cursed. Her curse was that no one would ever believe her. Both these things were very unfortunate for the Trojans, as there were actually thirty soldiers, incuding Odysseus hiding inside the horse.

04 24 trojan horse

They dragged the horse into the city, gave it a big party and then went to bed. That was when Odysseus and his soldiers climbed out and let the rest of the Greek Army, who hadn’t gone home at all, into the city and they completely destroyed it. They captured Helen and took her home. She and Menelaus didn’t really live happily ever after. In fact, he was pretty sorry about the whole thing. During the attack on Troy, the Greeks had behaved appalingly, they burned loads of temples and the Gods were very upset. They wreaked their revenge and hardly any of the Greeks involved in the Trojan War ever made it home. Or if they did, it took them a really, really long time. Some were killed, some founded other colonies elsewhere. Many european rulers have claimed descent from the survivors of the Trojan War. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, the Habsburgs, even our own Royal Family.

But, by the 1870s, pretty much everyone thought that the whole thing was complete made up nonsense and there was never even any such place. But then, a man called Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of a Bronze age city exactly where Troy was supposed to be. Since then, several cities have been identified on the same site. Troy has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. But at some point, possibly in the thirteenth century BC, it certainly looks as though it was destroyed by a war.

From a Land Far Away

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday is the first day of the Ancient Roman festival of Bacchanalia. It was held in honour of Bacchus, the god of wine. The festival seems to always have been a pretty wild occasion, but by the time it became popular in Rome, things had got rather out of hand. Bacchus was very much the same entity as the Greek god Dionysus and his cult arrived in Rome via Southern Italy some time around 200 BC.

The Greek Dionysia was originally a rural festival, celebrating the cultivation of vines, which was held in the month of Poseideon. It seems to have involved a large procession through the countryside, with people carrying vessels of wine and water, baskets of fruit and also, oddly, men carrying long poles with fake penises attached to them. Also, women wearing gloves made out of flowers who were pretending to be drunken men. Many of the participants were dressed in animal skins and were playing the parts of Pan and other satyrs. All were garlanded with vines and ivy and they were accompanied by pipes and drums. It all sounds a bit raucous but basically harmless.

Over time the celebrations seem to have become more and more debauched and by the time the cult arrived in Rome it was also rather secretive. The Romans really managed to make the whole thing much worse. To begin with, they decided rather than having an annual celebration, they would have a Bacchanalia five times, every month, and they would have them at night. We cannot be sure exactly what went on. The historian Livy gives an extremely colourful and lurid account of the ceremonies when he wrote about the time they were banned in 186 BC. But what we need to know is that Livy was pretty down on anything that he perceived as ‘foreign’ and also that he was writing 200 years after the events he describes. According to him the screams of the initiates were barely drowned out by the drums and cymbals that accompanied the rites. He tells us that only those under the age of twenty were admitted, as they were thought more pliable. He goes on to say that the initiation rites involved violent sex acts which were often performed on men by other men and that those who refused to take part were killed. This is probably not true at all.

03 16 thomas couture romans during the decadence

Livy didn’t like anything that he perceived as degenerate. What he particularly didn’t like was the idea of free-born Romans of both sexes meeting at night and drinking lots of wine. As to the awful foreignness that he feels is to blame, there is really no evidence that the Romans were very bothered about it. It was always pretty much a cornerstone of their foreign policy that they embraced and assimilated the religious beliefs of other countries and it worked quite well for them. Bacchanals continued to happen but with smaller groups of people. Eventually Bacchus had his festival combined with that of another Roman god of wine Liber.

03 16 maerten van heemskerck triumph of bacchus

It seems Bacchus has always been thought of as a god who came from somewhere else. Even in Greece, when he was Dionysus, he was thought to have come from either the east, in India or the south in Egypt. He is often represented triumphantly and chaotically arriving from some far off destination beyond the limits of the known world. He brings with him a procession of wild women and satyrs. He is a protector of those who do not belong to conventional society. He represents freedom. All the wine, the music and ecstatic dancing associated with his cult freed people from self-consciousness, from fear, from care. But he also represents everything that is chaotic, dangerous and unexpected and there are lots of stories about people who got on the wrong side of him. My favourite at the moment is one about the time he hired a pirate ship to take him to Naxos. But instead they tried to take him to Asia so they could sell him as a slave. He turned the masts and oars into snakes and filled the ship with ivy and the sound of flutes. This drove the pirates mad and they jumped into the sea and were turned into dolphins.

03 16 pirate ship

Dionysus/Bacchus was the last god to be admitted to Olympus and the only one to have a human mother. The circumstances of his birth are unusual. Perhaps his father Zeus rescued his unborn body from his mother, who was blasted into oblivion by the sight of an undisguised god in all his splendour. Alternatively, he was torn apart as a baby by a race of giants called the Titans. After that, they boiled him and then roasted him. It is a story that reminds me of some of the tales I’ve read about early Christian martyrs. In the second version, his father managed to rescue only his heart. Zeus then sewed the baby, or his heart into his own thigh until the child was either ready to be born or had been remade. Either seem equally plausible. It is the sort of story that Lucian was making fun of in his ‘True History‘ that I mentioned last week.

Drink to the Future

800px-Sileno_(Museo_del_Louvre)Well, today has been difficult. I have spent most of the day researching a person only to find that Wikipedia had lied to me about a date. Never mind, I didn’t really like him anyway. But, by happy chance I’ve also spent part of the day talking with a friend about a character from Greek Myth called Silenus. He was much more fun, so I’m going to tell you about him instead.

Silenus was the foster father, companion and tutor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. His origins seem to be very old indeed. He has no mother but Gaia, the earth herself, and sprung fully-formed out of the ground. He’s a sort of man of the forest, who is sometimes described as having the ears, tail and perhaps legs of a horse. You can often see him in paintings of Dionysus and his companions. The one thing you need to know about Silenus, is that he is always drunk. So drunk that he can’t really walk very well. He will be the one sitting on a donkey, falling off a donkey, being supported on a donkey by some satyrs or generally being held up by someone.

02 19 silenus di cosimoRemarkably, he is also very wise. When intoxicated, which as I mentioned is all the time, he possesses special knowledge and the power of prophecy. His favourite things are wine, music and sleep. If you can catch him sleeping and surround him with flowers or chains, he would be under your spell and he might sing for you, tell you a story or foretell your future. That is probably how he came to be at the court of King Midas. Either Midas tempted him with a fountain full of wine, so that he drank it and went to sleep, or some shepherds found him, put a crown of flowers on him and brought him to the king.

For five days, Silenus entertained the king and his court with stories. He told them about a vast continent, far beyond the known world that was peopled by happy and long lived giants, who, by the way, enjoyed an excellent legal system. Once, ten million of them had sailed to our lands but they thought it wasn’t very nice, so they went back again. He told them of a giant whirlpool that no traveller may pass and of two streams nearby. There were fruit trees on the banks of the streams. By one stream, the fruit made people weep and pine away, but eat the fruit on the bank of the other and your youth would be renewed. In fact, you would start living your life backwards, getting younger and younger, until you finally disappeared. Silenus wasn’t keen to tell Midas his fortune though. After being plagued about it for quite some time he said: “… why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune…” he went on to say he thought it was better for humans not to be born at all. Actually, we all know what was going to happen to Midas. When Dionysus caught up with his friend, he was so grateful to the king for looking after Silenus, that he offered Midas any gift he would like. Midas chose the gold thing. It did not go well.

Euripides, a playwright from the fifth century BC, wrote a play called ‘Cyclops’ which is a sort of burlesque on Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus arrives on the island of the Cyclops, Silenus and his satyrs are already there, captives of the giant. The story is basically the same but a lot more chaotic. There is a bit where the Cyclops is so drunk that he takes Silenus off to his cave because he thinks he is a beautiful young boy. Silenus also claimed that he helped out at a battle between the gods and a race of giants who lived on the earth long ago. He slew the giant Enceladus and frightened the rest of the giants away with his braying donkey. Cyclops is the only surviving Greek play that is neither a comedy or a tragedy, but a satyr. As far as I can tell it’s almost exactly like a tragedy, except with a bunch of hairy satyrs in the chorus making it silly and rude.

Spreading the Love

02 14 valentine 1876Today is the feast day of Saint Valentine who was one of two, possibly three men named Valentine who are said to have been martyred on this day, but most accounts seem to agree that he was a bishop. He may have died in north Africa. He may have been martyred in Rome for marrying Christian couples. Or perhaps he was a bishop in Umbria who restored the sight of a blind girl and was later arrested and beheaded. These are just the ones who are associated with February 14th. There are at least eleven others. So we don’t really know who he was. Nor do we know how he became to be associated with love. He is also patron saint of epileptics, plague (presumably he’s against it) and bee keepers.

The first written record we have of Valentine being associated with love is in a poem by Chaucer from around 1375. In it, he suggests that February 14th is the day that birds choose their mates (and humans too). He seems to be talking about an already established tradition, but his poem was written in celebration the first anniversary of the King’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia, so perhaps it’s just something he made up.

As I mentioned yesterday, Alban Butler, is his ‘Lives of the Saints’ was of the opinion that Valentine’s Day was a Christian replacement for the Roman festival of Lupercalia. He told us that Roman women used to put their names into a lottery to be drawn by the men. There is no historical evidence for this, but we know that in seventeenth century England, they did something similar. But there were two draws, one where women drew out men’s names and one where men drew out women’s names. So everyone had two Valentines. We also know that married people were not exempt from the draw. In 1667, Samuel Pepys tells us about someone called Will Mercer being his wife’s Valentine, that she had drawn his own name and that he in turn had been drawn as Valentine of ‘Mrs Pierce’s little girl’. As someone’s Valentine, you might draw a picture for them, compose a little verse or give a gift. So it wasn’t necessarily anything to do with romance. It was just a bit of a game where everyone got a present.

By the eighteenth century, people had started to believe that the first unattached person they saw on Valentine’s day was destined to be their wife or husband. So, someone who was expecting a visit from their favoured person might stay in bed and hide under the blankets until they arrived, just to make sure. I also came across a couple of things you might do to make sure you dreamed of your future spouse. You could pin five bay leaves to your pillow, one at each corner and one in the middle. Or you could boil an egg, take out the yolk, fill it with salt and then eat it whole, shell and all. After that you mustn’t speak to anyone or drink anything before bed.

Towards the end of the century, a sort of early Valentine card began to be produced by printers. They were known as ‘mechanical valentines’. Things rather snowballed from there, with mass produced cards overtaking hand written notes in the nineteenth century. The one pictured above is from a collection printed in 1876. You can see a couple of Chaucer’s love birds in the top right hand corner. The baby with the arrows is, of course, Cupid. Cupid is the Roman god of desire and erotic love and he didn’t always look like this. The wings and arrows are de rigour but he used to be a lot older. He has two sorts of arrows, those made of gold which make a person fall in love and those tipped with lead which make you want to run away. He had a lot of fun deploying both in the same situation.

02 14 françois edouard picot cupid and psycheHe generally features as a minor character in Roman myths, but the story of Cupid and Psyche is worth a mention. Psyche was a human princess who was so beautiful that the goddess Venus was jealous of her. She deployed Cupid to generally ruin her life, but Cupid accidentally scratched himself with an arrow and fell in love with her. He took her to his palace but only visited her in the night. She wasn’t allowed to look at him, which led her to believe he was a hideous monster. The story is from ‘The Golden Ass’ the only complete novel in Latin that we have. It probably dates from the second century. In the tale of Cupid and Psyche, you can see the roots of both Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. There are also quests involving a talking tower, a journey to the underworld and a kindly ant. All are undertaken by Psyche, and all whilst she is pregnant with Cupid’s child. So, something for everyone.

I also have a bonus fact for you. Today is the anniversary of the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ photograph being taken. It is a photograph of the Earth that was taken from 3.7 billion miles away by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990. I could tell you about it, but I couldn’t put it more eloquently than Carl Sagan does here. Happy Pale Blue Dot Day.

02 14 pale blue dot

Light and Shadow

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESToday is Candlemas and, in the northern hemisphere, we should be over the worst of the winter. At least in terms of unacceptable day length, there could still be plenty of cold weather ahead. Today we are half way between the solstice and the equinox. All the candles that will be used in services throughout the year are brought into church to be blessed at Candlemas. It also commemorates two events. The presentation of the infant Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem and the ritual purification of Mary forty days after giving birth. Women were considered unclean for forty days after giving birth to a son. If Jesus had been a girl, she would have been unclean for sixty days.

Like most Christian festivals, it’s roots are much older. In Ancient Rome, February 2nd was commemorated as the day that Pluto, the god of the underworld carried away Proserpene (in Greek, Persephone). Her mother Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her female attendants searched everywhere for her with torches and candles. When she was found in his kingdom, Pluto agreed to let her return to her earthly home, but first he made her eat six pomegranate seeds. Anyone who ate the food of the dead, could not return to the land of the living in any permanent way, 02 02 frederic leighton the return of perspephone (1891)so Proserpene could return to her mother for six months of every year, the other six months she must spend in the underworld with Pluto. This is clearly a myth about the changing seasons. In Spring, Ceres welcomes her daughter and everything begins to grow. But when she has to leave again everything dies and we have Winter. In Rome, the event was celebrated annually with a procession of torches and candles. Also, in this month, they had a festival called Februa, after which this month is named. They carried candles to all parts of the city in a ritual act of purification. So it’s easy to see how the stories of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary fitted in well with an existing tradition. Whether you are welcoming Jesus as the Light of the World, or searching for the returning spring; celebrating the purification of Mary, or driving out some lingering spirits left over from the old year, a candle or two wouldn’t go amiss.

There is also a pretty widespread superstition connected with Candlemas. The weather on that day is supposed to predict how long the winter will last. If the weather is fine, it means that winter is far from over and the crops that year will be bad. If it snows and the weather is terrible, it means an early spring. Robert Chambers gave us a lovely Scottish rhyme about it when wrote about Candlemas in his ‘Book of Days’ in 1864:

If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gave at Yule.’

He tells us that this belief existed throughout Europe and in Germany, on February 2nd, a shepherd would rather see a wolf in his stable than the sunshine. He also says that the Germans believed that the badger will look out of his sett on Candlemas Day. If it is snowing, he will come out and go hunting. But if the sun is shining, he will go inside and go back to sleep because he knows winter isn’t over. This same superstition crossed the Atlantic with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Only they don’t use the badger to foretell the weather. They have a groundhog. Today is also Groundhog Day. There are several weather 02 02 groundhogpredicting groundhogs in the United States and Canada. The most famous is probably Punxsutawney Phil. With great ceremony, he will emerge from his temporary home on Gobbler’s Knob, just outside the town of Punxsutawney. He will be attended by several gentleman in top hats. If Phil sees his shadow, he will return to his hole and there will be six more weeks of winter. If Phil does not see his shadow, he has predicted an early spring. The Groundhog Club, who attend him tell us that Phil speaks his prediction in a language called ‘groundhogese’ that only the president of the club can understand. The president then interprets it for the rest of the world. They further insist that there has only ever been one Punxsutawney Phil and that the same animal has been making his predictions since 1886.

In 2013, a man from Ohio issued an indictment against Phil when he wrongly predicted an early spring. He called for the death penalty. But no such indictment was issued against Ohio’s own prediction groundhog Buckeye Chuck, who also failed to see his shadow. Punxsutawaney Phil doesn’t always get it right. Probably he gets it right less than half of the time. But then, he does spend the rest of the year living in a library, so maybe he’s a bit out of touch.

Thomas Browne mentions the weather-lore prediction as well in his book ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ first published in 1646. He says: “…there is a general tradition in most parts of Europe, that inferreth the coldness of the succeeding winter from the shining of the sun on Candlemas-day”. It is a large and sprawling work with no index, so I haven’t been able to find what else he had to say about it. But as the book is alternately titled ‘Vulgar Errors’, I presume he thought it was all nonsense too.

Women Only

12 03 cornucopiaToday is the Ancient Roman festival of Bona Dea. The name just means ‘good goddess’ and her real name was so secret that nobody knows what it was. The rituals that were associated with the festival were also secret, but we do know that they were only attended by women. She seems to have been a mother goddess who was strongly associated with snakes and strong wine, but definitely not with the plant myrtle. She is often portrayed holding a cornucopia and with a snake wound around her arm. Roman historians have speculated her true identity. Some have suggested Maia, the universal earth goddess. Others have mentioned Fauna, who was either the wife, sister or daughter of Faunus (the Roman version of Pan) perhaps she was all three, Roman gods don’t seem that fussy. Fauna was beaten by Faunus with myrtle twigs either for drinking in secret or for refusing to have sex with him.

There was a temple dedicated to her in Rome which, unusually, had a wall around it and harmless snakes lived in its precincts. It seems to have been a centre for healing and kept a store of medicinal herbs. The only men allowed within its walls were those allowed by the goddess herself, and presumably they were not allowed into the inner sanctum.

Bona Dea had two festivals, one at the temple in May 1st, which was for the common people and another on December 3rd which was at the home of the magistrate and was for Rome’s elite. It was supervised by the Vestal Virgins. The only reason we know anything about the ceremony at all is because there was a massive scandal at the Winter rites in 62BC. It was during the reign of Julius Caesar, and his wife, Pompeia, was officiating at that year’s ceremony. It was being held at the house of a man called Clodius, with whom she may or may not have been having an affair.

Men were strictly excluded from the occasion. The house was ritually cleansed and there must be nothing masculine in it whatsoever. Not only did all the men have to leave, but any male animal was also turned out. They even removed all portraiture of men. Then the women made bowers of vine leaves and all sorts of other plants, as long as it wasn’t myrtle. They laid a banquet and prepared a couch for their goddess, her image was brought from the temple by the Vestals and laid on it, along with the image of a snake. They sacrificed a sow and drank strong sacrificial wine. Then, there was a women only banquet which went on through the night, there were female musicians, there were games. Nobody on the outside knew what they were because they only heard the revels from a distance.

In 62BC, Clodius disguised himself as a lute girl and tried to sneak in to the celebrations. He was rumbled by Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, after he declined to play the lute with her, which was rude. She questioned him about who he was and where he had come from and as soon as he spoke, he gave himself away. There was a terrible scene, everyone was horrified that there was a man there and the whole ceremony was ruined. Clodius was sentenced to death for his transgression, though he was later let off. Julius Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, though he later said that he didn’t really think she was guilty of adultery. When asked why it was, he replied it was because he thought the wife of Caesar should not even be under suspicion.

The whole affair called into question the reputation of the Vestal Virgins. Now that some of the details of the rituals had been revealed, men began to pruriently imagine all sorts of things about the women only celebrations. Suddenly no one was very sure that it was a good idea to let women drink strong wine and party all night. By the time the satirist Juvenal was writing about Bona Dea’s festival a hundred or so years later he called it an opportunity for women of all classes, most shamefully those of the upper class – and men in drag (“which altars do not have their Clodius these days?”) – to get drunk and cavort indiscriminately in a sexual free-for-all.

Hidden In Runes

09 23 snorri sturlusonA couple of days ago, I wrote about the Hobbit and mentioned that Norse mythology was a huge source of inspiration for Tolkien. Today I am celebrating the life of the author of one of those sources: Snorri Sturluson. He died on this day in 1241. Actually, he was killed in a cellar on the orders of a king who he had once written a fine poem about, but, as that’s clearly not brilliant, I’ll leave that aside.

In the 1220s Snorri wrote a book about Icelandic myths called the Prose Edda. It was intended to explain the meaning of ancient Icelandic tales about their Pagan gods. These tales can be found in an earlier book by another author, which is referred to as the Poetic Edda. The stories of the Poetic Edda are full of metaphors and allusions that we couldn’t hope to understand without Snorri’s explanations. At the time that he wrote his book, Christianity had really taken over as the major religion in his country and people were beginning to forget about the old stories and what they meant. Every line of verse, every name was full of meaning and Snorri didn’t want them to be lost forever.

The preachers of the new Christian religion were not interested in the old ways. More than that, they wanted them gone forever. Any books found about the old religion were considered threatening to the doctrines of the church and were burned, any of it’s followers would be burned too. You’d think that the Christians could have learned something about what it was like to be persecuted for you beliefs and been a bit nicer about it. Sadly though, it seems to be a thing that the more fanatical believers of an evangelising religion never learn. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda are the only survivors from this period of Icelandic history . The Poetic Edda survived as a single copy, referred to as the Codex Regius, which came to light in 1643. It’s contents had been considered so inflammatory that it was hidden away for around 400 years before anyone dared show it to a member of the clergy. Snorri’s Prose Edda survived for a different reason. He presented it as a historical work rather than a fictional one. He began with a prologue explaining that belief in the Old Gods was rooted in ancestor worship. He said that the Norse Gods had originally been human. That they were Trojan warriors who had left Troy to settle in northern Europe where they were revered because of their superior culture. That remembrance ceremonies at their burial sites had eventually become cults and the warriors had then become remembered as gods. The Christians were fine with the stories if they were looked at from this point of view. They could handle pre-Christian history, just not pre-Christian religion.

Snorri’s book is therefore a tool to help people study and understand the legends. Or, as he says: “ I wrote this book so that young students of poetry might understand that which is hidden in runes.” He wanted to keep his country’s poetic tradition alive and in doing so has given a great gift to later generations. Without his work the meanings of the stories in the Poetic Edda would be lost to us.

09 23 mead of inspirationMany legends of the Norse gods are found only in these two works. We found a great story about how Odin managed to acquire the Mead of Inspiration from some giants. The mead was made by dwarves from the blood of a very wise, half Trojan god called Kvasir which they mixed with honey. To get it, Odin had to transform himself into a snake, back into a god, spend three nights of passion with a lady giant, drink the wine, then transform himself into an eagle and fly away. He then vomited up the wine into some cups that the other gods had waiting for him. But some of the mead spilled out and it is from the spilled mead that poets gain their inspiration. That’s a pretty wild story. I’ve had an interesting day learning a bit about the Eddas, this morning all I knew about Icelandic Sagas came from this Monty Python sketch