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.


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.

Pagan of the Good Times

05 01 john collier queen guinevere's mayingToday I am celebrating May Day, Beltane and Walpurgisnacht. The beginning of May is a time of year when, supposedly, the warmer weather comes and everything begins to blossom and grow. Festivals have been held at this time throughout Europe for centuries. When I wrote about the founding of Rome in 753 BC, I mentioned the festival of Parilia, which involved driving a flock of sheep through a bonfire to purify them and give them protection through the following year. This is not unlike the Beltane celebrations that we find in Scotland and Ireland. In a later period the Romans held another celebration called Floralia which was dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fertility. It was a six day festival covering the end of April and the beginning of May and is probably the origin of the ‘May Queen’ tradition in England. But the Roman festival was known for its licentiousness and pleasure-seeking atmosphere. It was a festival enjoyed by the common people of Rome. Prostitutes particularly made it their own. They performed naked in the theatre and perhaps also fought in the gladiatorial arena. This doesn’t sound so much like our English festival.

In England, the May Day festival is celebrated with dancing around a maypole, crowning a May Queen and, of course, Morris dancers. What could be more English than Morris dancers, right? The word ‘morris’ is an odd one but it is thought to derive from the word ‘Moorish’. The Moors, came originally from Morocco and settled in southern Europe in the eighth century. The term is first recorded in the fifteenth century and there seem to be comparable words in other European languages. So Morris dancing is not specifically English at all. The maypole is likely a remnant of tree worship originating amongst Germanic tribes. The dancing with ribbons is a more recent Victorian addition. It was all part of their vision of ‘Merry England’, a utopian paradise that never really existed. The crowning of a May Queen celebrates youth and new life and, as I said, probably Roman.

In Ireland and Scotland we find Beltane, which is principally a fire festival. Early sources suggest that two fires were lit and livestock were driven between them in order to provide protection for the following year. Possibly the first May bonfires were lit to drive away predators that might otherwise prove a danger to animals that were being taken to their summer pastures. Then, the fire became a ritual that would drive away all danger both natural and supernatural. Burning embers from the Beltane fire would be taken home and used to kindle a new fire in the hearth. Its ashes also had protective powers. They could be sprinkled on crops, on animals, on people. Some rituals seem to contain a memory of human sacrifice, such as leaping over the bonfire. There is an account from Scotland, mentioned in ‘The Golden Bough’, that describes a ritual in which the gathering pretended to throw someone onto the fire and afterwards spoke of him, for a while, as if he were dead.

Another feature of both May Day and Beltane was the gathering of yellow flowers to be placed at doors and windows and the construction of a May Bush. A thorn tree was be decorated with bright flowers, ribbons and painted shells. This could either be for a single household or a community endeavour. Competition between rival districts became strong, sometimes people would resort to theft. The problem of everyone trying to pinch everyone else’s bushes became so great in Ireland that the ceremony was banned in Victorian times.

In Northern Europe they celebrated Walpurgisnacht or, Hexennacht (witches night). It was celebrated on the evening of the 30th April and into the dawn of May Day. Fires were lit to drive away witches that were said to gather in the mountains on that night. In the Hartz Mountain region of Northern Germany, Walpurgisnacht celebrations sometimes gave rise to a phenomenon known as ‘the Brocken Spectre’. The Brocken is the highest peak in the Hartz mountains and almost always lost in fog. The spectre appears when a bright light casts the shadows of the observers onto the fog. It makes the shadows look enormous. They are often surrounded by a rainbow halo and generally a bit weird. The Hartz Mountains was one of the last regions in Germany to be converted to Christianity. The name Walpurgisnacht sounds like a brilliant Pagan word, but is in fact named after Saint Walpurga and is just another case of Christians spreading one of their saints all over an earlier festival. Saint Walpurga herself is disappointingly uninteresting apart from her name.

photo credit: brocken inaglory, licensed under creative commons

May Day celebrations are generally pastoral in nature and, as our country became more industrialised, they gradually fell out of favour. By the twentieth century they were almost gone but, due to an interest in pre-Christian religions, they have recently undergone something of a resurgence. The oldest surviving festival is the ‘Obby ‘Oss Festival in Padstow, Cornwall and probably the most notable revival of the Beltane festival has taken place at Calton Hill in Edinburgh since 1988.

image credit: stephan schafer, lich. licensed under creative commons



04 21 capitoline wolfThis day in 753 BC is the traditional date for the founding of Rome… or it might have been a different year but everyone seems pretty sure that it was definitely 21st April. It was a day sacred to the Roman deity Pales, who looked after shepherds and livestock. No one is certain whether Pales was male or female, or even a pair of deities. At the festival in honour of Pales, Parilia, a shepherd would drive his flock through a bonfire to purify the animals and offer prayers to protect them from evil during the coming year. Over time, as the population became more urban, it turned into a celebration of the birth of Rome.

So Rome began with twin brothers called Romulus and Remus… or just Romulus… or maybe someone completely different, a Trojan named Aeneas. The Romans had two completely different foundation myths; the one about Romulus and Remus is from Italy, the one about Aeneas, clearly Greek in origin. Aeneus is a mythological figure who was half human and half divine. His mother was Venus, if you’re and ancient Roman, or Aphrodite, if you’re an ancient Greek. Aeneus and a band of followers fled Troy after it was attacked by some Greeks who had been hiding out inside a giant horse. After much wandering and adventures, they wound up in Italy. Aeneus married the daughter of the king of that country, whose name was Lavinia, and their son Ascanius founded a city called Alba Longa, about twelve miles south east of Rome.

The Romans liked the idea of the founder of their people being part god and, in order to reconcile the two myths, they recorded a long line of legendary kings which show Romulus and Remus to be direct descendants of Aeneus. The Emperor Augustus would enjoy claiming kinship to the gods through Romulus. Incidentally, this is not just a Roman thing. Our English mythological King Arthur was also supposed to be descended from Aeneus.

04 21 romulus and remusRomulus and Remus, as you know, were abandoned at birth, in the way that heroes often are. This was either because their uncle was a king who had been told they would overthrow him when they grew up, or because their mother, niece to the king, was a Vestal Virgin who was impregnated by the god Mars… or Hercules… or her uncle…They were either exposed as infants… or thrown in the Tiber to drown… or left on the river bank in a basket and carried away by a flood. They were found by a she wolf who suckled them… or by a wolf goddess named Luperca. They were also fed by a woodpecker. The woodpecker usually gets left out of tthe story, but you can see him in this painting. The twins were found and raised by a shepherd and his wife, Acca Larentia.

Now let me tell you some things about Acca Larentia. She might have a shepherd’s wife. She might have been a beautiful woman with a notorious reputation who was won by Hercules in a game of dice. She may, after that, have married someone rich, inherited all his property when he died and bequeathed it to the Roman people. Or maybe she was neither of those, but a prostitute who bequeathed all her earnings to Rome. It is interesting to note that Romans called their prostitutes ‘Lupa’, which means she-wolf. So maybe there was no real wolf at all.

Anyway, when Romulus and Remus grew up they decided to build a city. Romulus thought the Palatine Hill would be a good place to start but Remus thought the Aventine Hill would be better. They fell out about who was right, who had seen the most auspicious birds and who had seen them first. Then Remus told Romulus that the wall he was building was rubbish and jumped over it. That was when Remus somehow died… or was hit in the head with a spade.

So Romulus won and the city was named after him. He ruled for thirty-seven years and no one really agreed on what happened to him after that. He disappeared, or died in a mysterious way, or ascended to heaven or something…

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.

The End of the Beginning

03 15 eid marToday it is the Ides of March. In 44 BC, a soothsayer warned Julius Caesar that harm would come to him before the Ides of March. When March 15th came, everything seemed fine and passing by the soothsayer he remarked “The Ides of March are come”. “Aye Caesar,” replied the soothsayer, “but not gone.” As you probably know, he was the victim of an assassination plot. He was attacked by as many as 60 people, was stabbed 23 times and died. It was one of the events that led the transition from Rome as a republic into Rome, the empire.

So today, I really wanted to have a look at the Ides of March, what is so significant about it and what it has to do with ends and beginnings. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the early Romans did not have their New Year celebrations in January, like we do. Their New Year was in March. Their year was divided up mainly into months of either 29 or 31 days as they considered even numbers unlucky. Only February had an even number of days, but as they believed that the final month of their year was beset by demons anyway, they perhaps thought the even number couldn’t make things much worse.

The Romans had an odd way of numbering their days. You’d think counting the days sequentially from the beginning of the month to the end would just be the obvious thing to do, but the Romans counted backwards from fixed points in the month. The first fixed point, the first day of the month was the Kalends, the next was the Nones at either the 5th or the 7th and the dates in between were numbered according to how many days it was before Nones. The second point was the Ides, the central point of the month at either the 13th or the 15th. So the days between Nones and Ides were numbered according to how many days it was until the Ides. All the days after that were a countdown to the next Kalends. It’s very confusing, but I suppose numbering the days that way means you’re always looking forward to something.

So at the beginning of March, the Romans were celebrating their New Year. The celebrations went on until the Ides of March and the feast of a goddess called Anna Perenna. Her name is related to our words ‘annual’ and ‘perennial’, so it represents both a thing that lasts a year and a thing that lasts for many years. We don’t know much about Anna Perenna, but the name probably says it all. A new year, lasts for twelve months, but there is always another one after that. Anna Perenna seems to have been presented sometimes as young and sometimes as very old. In one story, she is the sister of Dido. Aeneas invites her to stay with him much to the dismay of his wife Lavinia. Anna is warned of her jealousy, by her dead sister, in a dream. She runs away and either falls or deliberately jumps into the River Numicius and is drowned. But then she becomes a water nymph and is given the name Perenna.

In another story, she is a very old woman. The god Mars, who is in love with the goddess Minerva, enlists the help of Anna Perenna to persuade Minerva to marry him. Anna pretends to go along with this but, even up to the point when Mars thinks he has married Minerva, in fact, it has been Anna in disguise all along. When he lifts up her veil on their wedding night, he sees the old lady and she just laughs in his face. It might sound like a dangerous thing to do, upsetting the God of War, but that’s the thing with old ladies, they do what they want and they don’t care.

In the third story we have about Anna Perenna, she is again an old lady, but this time human and living in the town of Bollivae. It is set in the year 494 BC. The plebeians, the common people of Rome, were tired of paying taxes, of being drafted into the army and of having no say in government. So they just left the city and headed for the hills. There, they found themselves with no means of sustenance. Anna Perenna baked them cakes and kept them fed while they negotiated with the Senate back in Rome for a better deal. For this reason she became a bit of a hero for the ordinary and downtrodden people of Rome and her feast day was pretty popular.

So, in Anna Perenna, we seem to have a figure that provides both water and food for the Roman people so she’s probably some sort of nature goddess. But, to get back to 44 BC, On her feast day, the Ides of March, most of the common people of Rome would have left the city for a celebration beside the banks of the Tiber. They would have been lying about on the grass. They might have put a tent up, they might have built themselves a little hut out of branches and leaves. Also, they would all have been very drunk. In a toast to Anna Perenna they would drink one cup of wine for every year they hoped to live. In honour of the trick she played on Mars, they would also sing bawdy songs. I found lots of references to this but, disappointingly, could not find a single example. So, on that day, with the city relatively deserted, it would have been much easier for the conspirators to carry out their plan unopposed. Although I can’t approve of anyone’s life ending so violently, looking at the bigger picture, perhaps a time of New Year celebrations is the right time to end something and to begin something new. It worked out pretty well for the Romans in the end.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

I’m thinking about ends and beginnings today because I started writing this blog a year ago, over on tumblr. So  after 366 daily posts, my work there is done. Here on WordPress, I still have lots to tell you, so I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you all about another Roman festival Bacchanalia.

One Giant Leap

02 29 leap yearToday is a leap day. If today is your birthday then, congratulations, you are a leapling which sounds like a joyous thing to be. February 29th is mostly added to the calendar every four years to make up for the fact that it actually takes our planet a little under 365¼ days to orbit the sun. It may seem to us that it absolutely comes round every four years without question, but that is because of the period in history we are living in. It is not actually the case. Having a leap year every four years makes our calendar drift off by about three days every four hundred years. So leap years do not happen in any year that is divisible by one hundred, unless it is also divisible by four hundred. So, for us the year 2000 was a normal leap year. The last time the leap year was skipped was 1900, which was a very long time ago, and the next one will be 2100, which needn’t trouble many of us.

This might be a little more complicated than you thought, but it is nothing compared to what the Romans had to put up with before Julius Caesar swept in and reformed the calendar. In the early days of Rome, the calendar was only ten months long. It covered the period from March to December. You can still see a remnant of this in the names of our months; September, October, November and December. Septem, octō, novem and decem being Latin for seven, eight, nine and ten. Nobody was very clear what went on in the rest of the year, where we have January and February. But as they were an agricultural people, they didn’t really need to do anything then, so it didn’t matter.

As the population became more urban, they really needed something that would cover the whole year. According to legend, the months of Ianuarius and Februarius were added by Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, in around the seventh century BC. This was a bit better, but it left the Romans with a year that was 355 days long, which is way too short. So, rather than having to add an extra day like we do, they occasionally had to add a whole extra leap month. That month was called Mercedonius. To make it even more confusing, it was created by lopping a few days off the end of February and cramming a few more in. So, when this happened, it gave them a year that was 377 or 378 days long.

The decision about whether the leap month was needed lay with the Pontifex Maximus who was the High Priest of Rome. He was supposed to keep an eye on the seasons and decide if they were drifting out of line but unfortunately this is not what happened. The Pontifex Maximus generally had an interest in politics as well, so he could insert the extra month to keep someone he liked, who was in a government position, in office for a bit longer. If he wanted them out quickly he could withhold Mercedonius for another year. Also he might make it a last minute decision, so you never knew if the leap month was coming or not. If you lived anywhere outside of Rome, you had little hope of knowing what day it was. Add to that the fact that Rome was often at war and might forget about Mercedonius all together for a few years and you can see how difficult it all must have been for everyone.

By the time Julius Caesar reformed the calender in 46 BC things had gone very wrong indeed. As Julius Caesar was also Pontifex Maximus he was able to add the extra month, but it wasn’t enough. He needed to make a giant leap. To bring the calendar year back into alignment with the solar year he needed to add a whole extra two months between November and December which are sometimes referred to as Undecember and Duodecember. 46 BC was 445 days long. It is called ‘the last year of confusion’.

In addition to this he sprinkled an extra ten days throughout the year, bringing the year up to a much more manageable 365 days and added a single leap day every four years. Everyone must have been extremely relieved. So relieved that, after he died in 44 BC they changed the name of Quintilis (the fifth month) to Julius instead. Which is why we now call it July.

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

Running With Wolves

02 13 altar of mars  and venus massimoToday is the first day of the three day Roman festival of Lupercalia. It is a very ancient festival that dates back to the founding of Rome, some time around 753 BC. Possibly even further. It was pretty popular up until the end of the fifth century, when it was banned by the Pope. As that means it was celebrated for around 1200 years, it’s not so easy to get to the bottom of what it was all about. I don’t know which god, if any, they were honouring but I do know that the Romans really liked it. I also know that it involved lots of naked, drunk, oiled-up noblemen running around the city.

Back in the eighth century BC, February was the last month of the year, not the second. The calendar began in March, not January. So it seems likely that is was once a festival connected with the start of a new year. The Roman historian Plutarch, writing at the end of the first century, thought that the festival had its origins among shepherds and that it probably had something to do with the Greek festival, Lykaia. The names of both festivals are related to the Roman and Greek words for ‘wolf’.

02 13 wenceslas hollar romulus and remusThe celebrations began, in a private ceremony, in a cave beneath the Palatine Hill called the Lupercal. Traditionally, it was the place where infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were found being suckled by a she-wolf. The Lupercalia began with a ritual performed by two groups of priests, collectively known as the Luperci, the brothers of the wolf. The Quinctilii, who were descended from the followers of Romulus and the Fabii, who were descended from the followers of Remus. They would sacrifice a goat, perhaps two goats, and maybe a dog as well. Two young men would be chosen, one from each priesthood, to represent the city’s founders. They would have their foreheads smeared with blood from the sacrificial knife. This would be immediately wiped off with sheep’s wool dipped in milk. The two men were then both expected to laugh loudly. It’s hard to say what this meant, but perhaps the blood represented death, as in the old year, and the milk, the birth of a new one.

02 13 annibale carracci study for lupercaliaAfter that, they would make a feast of their sacrifice accompanied by plenty of wine. If this was all there was to Lupercalia, it would be a pretty normal occasion. But it wasn’t. They then cut the skins of the animals into strips and fashioned themselves whips. Next, they took off all their clothes and, perhaps wearing masks, set off out into the city. They ran right around the walls of the Palatine, the hill in the centre of Rome where the city was traditionally founded. As they went, they used their strips of animal hide to whip the spectators. Specifically the women. To be whipped by one of the Luperci was thought to bring fertility or, to those who were already pregnant, easy childbirth.

The Luperci came from noble families. We know that in 44BC, Mark Anthony ran with them. He was part of a new group of priests introduced to the ceremony by Julius Caesar called the Julii. Clearly by creating a sect named after himself, he was equating himself with the founders of Rome. It didn’t go down to well, and a month later he was murdered. Cicero describes Mark Anthony as: “nudus, unctus, ebrius”, naked, oiled, drunk. Plutarch thought that the reason the participants were naked was to help them run faster, maybe the oil was supposed to help with that too.

By the fifth century, the celebrations had degraded somewhat. Nobility no longer took part. They left it to ‘the rabble’. They must have still enjoyed the spectacle though, because the Senate really didn’t want to see it go. But the Pope told them that if they really wanted it, then they should take part and be prepared to run around naked themselves. It was outlawed in the 490s.

Many have suggested that our Valentine’s Day has its origins in the feast of Lupercalia. This is probably not the case. Some will tell you that part of the festival involved girls writing their names on strips of paper to be put in a vessel and drawn out by young men. That they would be paired off for the rest of the festival. This appears to have been made up by Alban Butler in 1756. It definitely has everything to do with wolves though. The Greek festival, Lykaia, which may be the origin of the Lupercalia, took place every nine years and involved human sacrifice. There was a feast where a single piece of human entrails was mixed up with those of an animal. Whoever ate it would be turned into a wolf by Zeus. If they could restrain themselves from eating human flesh before the next Lykaia, nine years later, they would become human again. If not, they would remain a wolf forever.

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.