Pagan Roots: Saturnalia, Yule and Christmas

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“It’s a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism. you’d be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.”

~ Ronald Hutton, Historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom.

“Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term pagan.”

~ Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K.

Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.  Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism.  It’s obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it’s also something they think is worth remembering. It’s what their ancestors did.  That’s why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England’s Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter.

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The two most notable pagan winter holidays were Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia. Christian missionaries gave these holidays a makeover and they are now known to us as Christmas:

Saturnalia was a lawless, drunken time in Rome where literally anything was okay.  This was the original Purge, in which laws were suspended for a brief stretch of time.  Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, liberation and time, was celebrated at what is perhaps the most famous of the Roman festivals, the Saturnalia, It was a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry. (i.e.: gender-bending sex, drinking, telling people off, trading gifts and doing whatever you want).  After solstice, the darkest night of the year, the renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.

Scholars have connected the Germanic and Scandanavian celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. Yule-tide was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January.  Nordic countries use Yule to describe their own Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Present-day customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from the original pagan Yule, but are used in Christmas celebrations now, especially within Europe.  As leaders were baptized and converted, they shifted their traditional celebrations covertly, as not to upset the Chieftains. Yule was traditionally celebrated three days after midwinter, but shifted to reflect Christian dates.  Modern Wiccans and other neopagan religions often celebrate Yule as well. In most forms of Wicca, it’s celebrated at winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. Some celebrate with their covens while others celebrate at home.

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Why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it’s a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there’s nothing left to be done in the fields. It’s a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life. It’s also a period when, frankly, everyone needs cheering up.  The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, could be lightened with feasts and decorations.

“If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong.”

~ Ronald Hutton

“Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, even now, it’s a very powerful season.”

~ Stephen Nissenbaum, Author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Battle for Christmas”

Without a Biblical directive to celebrate Jesus’s birthday and no mention of it in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn’t until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday. At this time many people had turned to a belief the Church found heretical: That Jesus had never existed as a man, but as a sort of spiritual entity.  If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being, not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what better way to think of him being born in a normal, humble human way than to celebrate his birth?”

Midwinter festivals, with their pagan roots, were already widely celebrated, and the date had a pleasing philosophical fit with festivals celebrating the lengthening days after the winter solstice.

“O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born.

~ Thaschus Cæcilius Cyprianus (c. 200 – September 14, 258 AD) Bishop of Carthage

In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism. This likely had something to do with the “raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion” in which Christmas was celebrated.  In England under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas and other saints’ days were banned, and in New England it was illegal to celebrate Christmas for about 25 years in the 1600s. Forget people saying, “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  If you want to look at a real ‘War on Christmas,’ you’ve got to look at the Puritans, they banned it!

While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year’s Day.  They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends. It wasn’t until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria’s children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armor. In 1841, Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in 1859, she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Let’s take on some of the traditions:

Almost every culture has someone like Santa Claus. He’s primarily based on St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey. One story says that he met a kind, impoverished man who had three daughters. St. Nick presented all three of them with dowries so that they weren’t forced into a life of prostitution, as dowries were expected to “pay off” families to take on the daughters.  Sinterklaas is the Dutch figure and Odin is the Norse god that Santa resembles. It wasn’t just Santa or men who did the gift-giving in those myths. There’s also the legend of La Befana, a kind Italian woman who leaves treats for children on the “Good” list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.

While people rarely show any excitement around the fruit-laden cakes these days, they were a real treat in times of yore. The cakes actually have origins in Egypt and were later disseminated by the Romans as they conquered parts of Europe.  Those cakes of Egypt were just about as dense and long-lasting as the brandied, fruit-studded cakes of today. Egyptians placed cakes of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones so that they’d have something to munch on in the afterlife. Romans took similar cakes into battle made of mashed pomegranates and barley. Christians went into the crusades with honeycakes.  Fruitcakes are everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

Caroling actually began as the Germanic and Norse traditions of wassailing. Wassailers went from home to home, drunk off of their asses, singing to their neighbors and celebrating their “good health.”  The traditional wassail beverage was a hot mulled cider, spiked with alcohol or fermented.

Mistletoe was considered a magical plant in Europe, especially among the Druids and Vikings, and holds significance in Native American cultures. Mistletoe is no modern quirk of Christmas, even Romans partook in fertility rituals beneath the mistletoe. Mistletoe stood as a neutral ground for feuding Norse tribes, who laid down their weapons in order to negotiate beneath the peace plant. The Druids thought it could protect them from thunder and lightning, as well.  Whether you’ve got the urge to make out, hide from a storm or talk it out, beware as mistletoe is super poisonous.

Romans loved wreaths and decorated everything with Laurel. Holly, ivy and evergreen are the more popular modern options today, and each one holds significance. Egyptians didn’t have evergreens, so they used palm fronds to celebrate Winter Solstice.  Christians love holly because the red berries symbolize the blood of Christ and the pointy leaves symbolize the crown of thorns. However, the advent of holly decor was around long before Christianity. Pre-Christian pagan groups believed that the Holly King did battle with the Oak King. They also thought holly could drive off evil spirits.  Romans, of course, were into laurel wreaths, but laurel was not easily procured throughout the northern reaches of the empire. Instead of laurel, they used evergreens.

All of this gift-giving and revelry, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups upset. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth. In some ways excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown.   There’s always been a push and pull, and it’s taken different forms.  It might have been alcohol then, and now it’s these glittering toys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Egyptian Games: Hounds and Jackals

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The statues and pyramids, the Nile river and the desert, the hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone get all the press, but the ancient Egyptians enjoyment of play and especially games from athletic demonstrations of strength to board games which we’ll focus upon the most popular one here.  They had toys made of clay and wood and fashioned balls out of leather. They loved to dance and also loved to swim in the Nile River. Board games and pictures depicting people dancing in circles have been found in tombs dating back thousands of years.

Hounds and Jackals is an ancient Egyptian game, which came into existence during the Middle Kingdom (circa 2135 – 1986 BCE).  It is a racing game, in the same category as Senet, Aseb, and the Royal Game of Ur.

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The game was originally discovered by William Mathew Flinders Petrie and published by him in 1890. Since then over 40 examples of the game have been found in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iran and around the Levant and Mediterranean.

The original name of the game is unknown. Petrie called The Game of 58 Holes, since the game board that he found contained two sets of 29 holes. Later, when Howard Carter discovered the fanciest known copy of the game, the modern name was invented,The Game of Hounds and Jackals, since the playing pieces had heads of dogs and jackals on them.  Carter found one complete gaming set in a Theban tomb that dates to the 13th Dynasty. A third, least common, common name for the game was Shen for the Egyptian hieroglyph which was written on some of the examples, around the big hole at the top of the game.

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The original rules for Hounds and Jackals are unknown. There have been many reconstruction attempts by historians and archaeologists. Gaming pieces are ten small sticks with either jackal or dog heads. The aim of the game was perhaps to start at one point on the board and to reach with all figures another point on the board. Players navigate their ivory pegs through the holes on the surface by rolling sticks, dice or knuckle-bones. To win, a player must be the first one to move all of their five pieces off the board.In the 1956 movie The 10 Commandments, Pharaoh Seti and Nefretiri are depicted playing the game.

 

 

 

Ancient Egyptian Games: Senet

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The statues and pyramids, the Nile river and the desert, the hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone get all the press, but the ancient Egyptians enjoyment of play and especially games from athletic demonstrations of strength to board games which we’ll focus upon the most popular one here.  They had toys made of clay and wood and fashioned balls out of leather. They loved to dance and also loved to swim in the Nile River. Board games and pictures depicting people dancing in circles have been found in tombs dating back thousands of years.

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Senet was the most popular game of the ancient Egyptians.  The oldest hieroglyph resembling a senet game dates to around 3100 BC.  The full name of the game meant the “game of passing” in ancient Egyptian.  One of the oldest known Senet board representations ever found was a painting from 2,686 B.C. in the tomb of Hesy-Ra. The board game had three rows of ten squares. Some of the squares had symbols which represented bad and good fortune. Two sets of pawns were used to play the game. The object of the game was to be the first player to pass into the afterlife unscathed by bad fortunes along the way.  People are depicted playing senet in a painting in the tomb of Rashepes, as well as from other tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (c. 2500 BC).   The oldest intact senet boards date to the Middle Kingdom, but graffiti on Fifth and Sixth Dynasty monuments could date as early as the Old Kingdom.

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At least by the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BC), senet was conceived as a representation of the journey of the ka (the vital spark) to the afterlife. This connection is made in the Great Game Text, which appears in a number of papyri, as well as the appearance of markings of religious significance on senet boards themselves. The game is also referred to in chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead.  Senet also was played by people in neighboring cultures, and it probably came to those places through trade relationships between Egyptians and local peoples.

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The senet gameboard is a grid of 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten. A senet board has two sets of pawns (at least five of each).The movement of the counters was decided by throwing four two-sided sticks or, in some cases, knucklebones.  Although details of the original game rules are a subject of some conjecture, senet historians Timothy Kendall and R. C. Bell have made their own reconstructions of the game.  These rules are based on snippets of texts that span over a thousand years, over which time gameplay is likely to have changed. Therefore, it is unlikely these rules reflect the actual course of ancient Egyptian gameplay.   Their rules have been adopted by sellers of modern senet sets.

Phryne the Thespian

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Phryne the Thespian:

Phryne the Thespian was a notable hetaira, or courtesan, of Athens, who has been remembered throughout the millennia for her dramatic trial which she won by baring her breasts.

According to Athenaeus, Phryne was prosecuted on a capital offense, and was defended by the orator Hypereides, one of her lovers. Athenaeus does not specify the nature of the charge, though some other historical sources state that she was accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Although there is great debate among scholars about what really happened that day in court, Athenaeus wrote that Hypereides tore off Phryne’s dress in the middle of the courtroom to show the judges her beautiful body. His reasoning was that only the gods could sculpt such a perfect body; thus killing or imprisoning her would be seen as blasphemy and disrespect to the gods.

What appeared to be an unfavorable verdict for Phryne turned into a glorious victory for her after the inspired action of Hypereides. Phryne walked out the court triumphant, and her story went on to inspire many works of art, including the iconic painting Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861).

#PhryneTheThespian #AncientGreece #Athens #Trial

Discovery Of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb

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The Knot To King Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Today in Egyptian history —> In 1915, George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, the financial backer of the search for and the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, employed English archaeologist Howard Carter to explore it. After a systematic search, Carter discovered the actual tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) on November 4th 1922.

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On November 26, 1922, Carter and fellow archaeologist Lord Carnarvon entered the interior chambers of the tomb, finding them miraculously intact.

Thus began a monumental excavation process in which Carter carefully explored the four-room tomb over several years, uncovering an incredible collection of several thousand objects. The most splendid architectural find was a stone sarcophagus containing three coffins nested within each other. Inside the final coffin, which was made out of solid gold, was the mummy of the boy-king Tutankhamen, preserved for more than 3,000 years. Most of these treasures are now housed in the Cairo Museum.