Wheels on Fire

06 23 john the baptistToday it is Saint John’s Eve, the day before the feast of Saint John the Baptist. John was cousin to Jesus and the Bible tells us that he was six months older. So, we have his feast day now, around midsummer, because we have Christmas around midwinter. But most of the traditions associated with the celebration seem to have little to do with a desert-dwelling saint. Like some of our Christmas traditions, its pagan roots are definitely showing.

Saint John’s Eve was quite a significant celebration in Europe up until the nineteenth century. As Christmas replaced the Winter Solstice, the feast of Saint John was placed around the time of the Summer Solstice. We know that these days were significant in ancient times because many of our stone circles and burial chambers are aligned with the sunrise on those days.

06 23 saint john's eve fireCentral to the Saint John’s Eve festivities was the bonfire, which was often built at the top of a hill. It was thought to offer protection from evil spirits who were generally on the loose at this time of year. In Sweden, for example, it was thought that, on this night, the mountains cracked open and trolls were set free. According to a thirteenth century monk from Winchcomb Abbey in Gloucestershire, the fires were built from bones instead of wood. Indeed the word bonfire is most likely a corruption of bone fire. The idea of building a fire of bones was to create as much foul-smelling smoke as possible. This, he says, was necessary to drive away dragons which it seems were a particular problem at this time of year. The whole difficulty with dragons at midsummer, was that this was the time that they gathered in the air to mate. This caused them to drop their ‘seed’ into rivers and wells which poisoned the water which was clearly awful. Though I would have thought that a dragon, of all things, would have been used to the smell of burning bones. Maybe they weren’t the fire-breathing kind.

A second tradition mentioned by the monk was rolling a wheel down a hill. The wheel, he tells us, “is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.” These kind of events feature in the Saint Johns Eve celebrations all over Northern Europe and sometimes the two were combined. If we skip to the sixteenth century, in the village of Konz, in the Moselle Valley, we find people rolling their bonfire down a hill. A wheel would be covered in brushwood or straw and set on fire at the top of the hill. It would then be guided down the slope by a couple of brave souls. The aim was to roll it into the river. It wasn’t easy as there were plenty of vineyards to negotiate on the way. If they succeeded, they were entitled to a wagon load of wine. If they failed, their cattle would be attacked by fits of giddiness and convulsions and would “dance in their stalls”.

Like other ceremonial fires, the smoke from a Saint John’s Eve bonfire was thought to protect livestock and the ashes were supposed to have protective qualities too. They could be taken away and buried it the fields to protect crops or placed in the eaves of a house to protect it from lightening or from fire in the following year.

06 23 larkspurFlower garlands were often an important part of the celebrations too. In some places they were cast onto the bonfire, in others they had to be rescued from the flames. I found that, in several areas of Germany, people believed that looking at the fire through a garland of flowers, particularly larkspur or mugwort, was supposed to protect one from eye diseases in the following year. I really can’t explain why protection against eye diseases in particular, should be a feature of this festival. The problems with dancing cattle and poisonous dragon sperm are equally opaque, but they don’t seem to have much to do with the story of John the Baptist.

Re: Joyce

06 16 ulyssesToday, along with many other people around the world, I am celebrating Bloomsday. Bloomsday is named after one of the central characters, Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’.

The events of the novel are firmly placed between 8am on June 16th 1904 and 2am the following morning. Which was, for Joyce, a commemoration of the day that he and his future wife Nora Barnacle first ‘stepped out’ together. The structure of the novel closely follows the events in Homer’s Odyssey, which describes the journey of Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), as he travels home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. But Joyce’s characters are ordinary citizens of Dublin having an ordinary day. Each of the eighteen episodes is written in a different style. It is a large and complex novel. Joyce wrote a couple of schemata for friends to help them understand his work. He ascribed each episode a meaning, a colour, a bodily organ. If you were thinking of reading it and want to get a handle on it first, you can find one of his schema here. Or if that puts you off, you could listen to Stephen Fry enthuse about the beauty of its language here.

Joyce wrote his novel between 1914 and 1921 and, between 1918 and 1920, an American magazine called the Little Review began to publish it in serial form. But publication was halted in 1920 when it became the subject of an obscenity trial. It was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922. This first edition is said to have contained over two thousand errors. Other editions have tried to make corrections but just wound up making more, so the first edition may still be the most accurate.

Bloomsday was first commemorated in a small way in 1924, twenty years after the events in the book. Joyce was in hospital following an eye operation. His friends sent him a bunch of blue and white flowers, which were the colours of the cover of his novel. Thirteen years after Joyce’s death, on June 16th 1954, three Irish novelists; Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin met with artist and critic John Ryan and Tom Joyce, a dentist who was Joyce’s cousin. They began at the Martello Tower at Sandy Cove which features in the opening scene. After hiring two old fashioned horse drawn cabs they intended to visit all the sites mentioned in the novel ending in what used to be the brothel quarter of the city. It didn’t start well. O’Nolan turned up drunk and there was a bit of an altercation when he and Kavanagh decided that they had to climb the tower. O’Nolan was eventually bundled into one of the cabs and they drank and sang their way around the city until they arrived at the Bailey pub in Duke Street, which belonged to Ryan. They never completed their odyssey, once there, they drank so much that they could go no further.

Bloomsday is now a massive event in Dublin. Many of the celebrations are organised by the James Joyce Museum which can be found at the Martello Tower mentioned above. People follow the route taken by Leopold Bloom in the novel. They often dress up as the characters from the novel, in Edwardian costume. There are readings and dramatisations of scenes from Ulysses. Pubs are crawled and special meals are served. The Bloomsday breakfast is popular. People like to eat the same meal enjoyed by Bloom, which is surprising as this is how Joyce describes it:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Personally, I would prefer the Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy he has for lunch. For hardcore fans, there are complete readings of the novel which can last for up to thirty-six hours. In 1982, Irish radio station RTÉ broadcast a complete reading and in 06 16 james joyce2004. To mark 100th anniversary of the events in the novel 10,000 people were served a special Irish Breakfast. In 2011, a global attempt was made to tweet the novel. Its organisers were not sure if it would produce something beatific or be a complete train wreck. I’m not sure how it went but it was certainly a magnificent idea.

Joyce was, at first, unsure whether June 16th would, in the future, be of any significance to anyone at all. He was rather bemused when he met people who loved it. One fan begged to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses. He laughed and said: “no, that hand has done a lot of other things 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.

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.

Io Saturnalia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.