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.

Mercurial

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.

solar_glory_and_spectre_of_the_brocken_from_ggb_on_07-05-2011
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.

edinburgh_beltane_fire_festival_2012_-_red_beastie_drummers
image credit: stephan schafer, lich. licensed under creative commons

 

Vague

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.