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.

Yule

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seven Wonders Of The Ancient World

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Great Pyramid at Giza

GREAT PYRAMID AT GIZA

The Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed between 2584 and 2561 BCE for the Egyptian Pharoah Khufu (known in Greek as `Cheops’) and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4,000 years. Excavations of the interior of the pyramid were only initiated in earnest in the late 18th and early 19th centuries CE and so the intricacies of the interior which so intrigue modern people were unknown to the ancient writers. It was the structure itself with its perfect symmetry and imposing height which impressed ancient visitors.

The hanging gardens at Babylon

HANGING GARDENS OF BABYLON

 

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, if they existed as described, were built by Nebuchadnezzar II between 605-562 BCE as a gift to his wife. They are described by the ancient writer Diodorus Siculus as being self-watering planes of exotic flora and fauna reaching a height of over 75 feet (23 metres) through a series of climbing terraces. Diodorus wrote that Nebuchadnezzar’s wife, Amtis of Media, missed the mountains and flowers of her homeland and so the king commanded that a mountain be created for her in Babylon. The controversy over whether the gardens existed comes from the fact that they are nowhere mentioned in Babylonian history and that Herodotus, makes no mention of them in his descriptions of Babylon. Diodorus, Philo, and the historian Strabo all claim the gardens existed. They were destroyed by an earthquake sometime after the 1st century CE.

Statue of Zeus at Olympia

STATUE OF ZEUS AT OLYMPIA

 

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was created by the great Greek sculptor Phidias (known as the finest sculptor of the ancient world in the 5th century BCE, he also worked on the Parthenon and the statue of Athena there in Athens). The statue depicted the god Zeus seated on his throne, his skin of ivory and robes of hammered gold, and was 40 feet tall, designed to inspire awe in the worshippers who came to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.  He has shown Zeus seated, but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof the temple.” With the rise of Christianity the statue was carried off to Constantinople where it was later destroyed, sometime in either the 5th or 6th centuries CE, by an earthquake.

Model of the Temple to Artemis

TEMPLE OF ARTEMIS AT EPHESUS

 

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor, took over 120 years to build and only one night to destroy. Completed in 550 BCE, the temple was 425 feet high, 225 feet wide, supported by 127 60 foot high columns. Sponsored by the wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, who spared no expense in anything he did the temple was so magnificent that every account of it is written with the same tone of awe and each agrees with the other that this was among the most amazing structures ever raised by humans. On July 21, 356 BCE a man named Herostratus set fire to the temple in order to achieve lasting fame by forever being associated with the destruction of something so beautiful. The Ephesians decreed that his name should never be recorded nor remembered but Strabo set it down as a point of interest in the history of the temple. On the same night the temple burned, Alexander the Great was born and, later, offered to rebuild the ruined temple but the Ephesians refused his generosity. It was rebuilt on a less grand scale after Alexander’s death but was destroyed by the invasion of the Goths. Rebuilt again, it was finally destroyed utterly by a Christian mob lead by Saint John Chrysostom in 401 CE.

Lion from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

MAUSOLEUM AT HALICARNASSUS

 

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was the tomb of the Persian Satrap Mausolus, built in c. 351 BCE. Mausolus chose Halicarnassus as his capital city, and he and his beloved wife Artemisia went to great lengths to create a city whose beauty would be unmatched in the world. Mausolus died in 353 BCE and Artemisia wished to create a final resting place worthy of such a great king. Artemisia died two years after Mausolus and her ashes were entombed with his in the mausoleum. The tomb was 135 feet tall and ornately decorated with fine sculpture. It was destroyed by a series of earthquakes and lay in ruin for hundreds of years until, in 1494 CE, it was completely dismantled and used by the Knights of St. John of Malta in the building of their castle at Bodrum. It is from the tomb of Mausolus that the English word `mausoleum’ is derived.

Colossus of Rhodes

COLOSSUS OF RHODES

 

The Colossus of Rhodes was a statue of the god Helios (the patron god of the island of Rhodes) constructed between 292 and 280 BCE. It stood over 110 feet high overlooking the harbor of Rhodes and, despite fanciful depictions to the contrary, stood with its legs together on a base and did not straddle the harbour. The statue was commissioned after the defeat of the invading army of Demetrius in 304 BCE. Demetrius left behind much of his siege equipment and weaponry and this was sold by the Rhodians for 300 talents (approximately the equivalent of 360 million U.S. dollars) which money they used to build the Colossus. The statue stood for only 56 years before it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BCE. It lay in impressive ruin for over 800 years, according to Strabo, and was still a tourist attraction. According to the historian Theophanes the bronze ruins were eventually sold to “a Jewish merchant of Edessa” around 654 CE who carried them away on 900 camels to be melted down.

Lighthouse of Alexandria (artist’s rendition)

LIGHTHOUSE OF ALEXANDRIA

 

The Lighthouse at Alexandria, built on the island of Pharos, stood close to 440 feet in height and was commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter. Construction was completed sometime around 280 BCE. The lighthouse was the third tallest human-made structure in the world (after the pyramids) and its light (a mirror which reflected the sun’s rays by day and a fire by night) could be seen as far as 35 miles out to sea. The structure rose from a square base to a middle octagonal section up to a circular top and those who saw it in its glory reported that words were inadequate to describe its beauty. The lighthouse was badly damaged in an earthquake in 956 CE, again in 1303 CE and 1323 CE and, by the year 1480 CE, it was gone. The Egyptian fort Quaitbey now stands on the site of the Pharos, built with some of the stones from the ruins of the lighthouse.

Myth Busting Classical History

 

The Giza pyramid complex.

MYTH: The pyramids were built using slave labor.

TRUTH: It’s unlikely that the Egyptians made wide use of slaves to construct the pyramids. Hieroglyphs and archeological sites suggest that it was actually a potentially society-wide network of skilled ancient workers who were paid relatively well.

#Myths #AncientEgypt #Pyramids

The infamous Trojan Horse

MYTH: The Greeks used a Trojan horse to sack the city of Troy.

TRUTH: The only places that the Trojan horse is mentioned in antiquity is in the Aeneid, an epic poem written by Virgil hundreds of years after the supposed events; and The Odyssey, an epic poem written by Homer. Likely, this infamous subterfuge never actually happened.

#TrojanHorse #Troy #Homer #Virgil

The Spartans

Myth: Just 300 Spartans held off the Persian at Thermopylae for three days.

Truth: Indeed, there were only 300 Spartan soldiers guarding the pass at Thermopylae, but they had support from neighboring allies numbering over 5,000 soldiers. It is true however, that the Persian army was tens of thousands strong, perhaps even 100,000 in number. So a three day stand with less than 6,000 soldiers is still impressive.

#Spartans #Thermopylae

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Colossus of Rhodes 

Myth: The Colossus of Rhodes straddled the Greek harbor of Rhodes.

Truth: The Colossus of Rhodes was an authentic statue, but it did not straddle the harbor of the Greek isle of Rhodes. The 100-foot high statue of Helios was erected adjacent to the harbor in 280 BC. Artistic recreations showing the statue straddling the harbor are simply wrong. The giant statue toppled over during an earthquake in 226 BC, and its legend remains today.

#ColossusOfRhodes #ArtistRepresentations

Viking warrior

Myth: Viking warriors wore horned helmets

Truth: It’s difficult to tackle this because the image of the Viking warrior with his ax, dragon-headed boat, and horned helmet is one of the most iconic in European history. Almost every popular representation of a Viking has the horns. Unfortunately, there’s a problem… there were no horns!

#Vikings #HornedHelmets

Droit de Seigneur

Myth: Droit de Seigneur

Truth: Did lords really have the right to spirit newly married women away on their weddings nights, as Braveheart would have you believe? Well, no, not at all. This was a lie designed to slander your neighbors, and most probably didn’t exist at all, let alone in the way the film shows.

#DroitDeSeigneur #Slander

Nero throwing Christians to the lions

Myth: Nero Threw Christians to the lions.

Truth: There were a lot of crazy shows Romans saw at the Colosseum. The ones best remembered today are the gladiator fights and Christians being thrown to the lions. However, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that Christians were ever executed in the Colosseum, by lions or otherwise. The idea was spread mostly by Renaissance artists and writers.

Just to be clear, there have been Christians sentenced to damnatio ad bestias(condemnation to beasts). There have also been people who were killed by animals in the Colosseum. There just is no reliable proof that the two overlapped.

We know for a fact that Nero never did this for a simple reason: The Colosseum didn’t exist when he was emperor. Nero reigned until AD 68, and construction of the Colosseum didn’t start until four years later under Vespasian. Nero is often the emperor most associated with the act because, according to contemporary historians, he was the first Roman emperor to persecute Christians. Tacitus said that Nero blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. However, Tacitus wrote that Nero had Christians killed by burning, crucifixion, or being mauled by dogs. He makes no mention of lions.

#Christians #Nero #Colosseum

Gladiators

Myth: All gladiators were slaves

Truth: While it’s true that most gladiators were captives who’d been forced into this dangerous occupation, the lifestyle attracted plenty of freeborn citizens as well—including women. The appeal was plain to see: Like modern wrestlers, successful gladiators frequently became celebrities. A few of them even amassed small fortunes, since winning a big fight could mean taking home a cash prize.

Those who willingly became gladiators were usually impoverished people who sought the financial security that the profession offered. A good number of ex-Roman soldiers signed up as well. To receive training, they’d join what was known as a ludus—gladiator troupes that doubled as rigorous combat schools. The typical ludus was owned by a wealthy politician or former gladiator, who’d rent out his fighters for use in organized shows. Julius Caesar himself once ran a troupe which may have contained up to 1000 gladiators.

Eventually, the government cracked down on freeborn combatants. To help keep young aristocrats out of the fighting pits, the Senate issued an age requirementin 11 CE. This made it illegal for free men who were younger than 25 and free women who hadn’t yet turned 20 from joining a ludus. A subsequent ruling enacted in 19 CE barred all upper-class ladies from becoming gladiators. Then, in 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus officially turned this into an all-male sport.

#Gladiators #NotAlwaysSlaves #Women

Myth 2: Gladiator fights were to the death.

Truth: Historian Georges Ville has calculated that during the first century CE, out of 100 fights (and 200 gladiators), 19 gladiators died, giving a death rate of around 10 percent (approximately 20 percent for the loser). By the year 300 CE, however, these confrontations became deadlier. In Ville’s estimation, half of all the man-to-man gladiator fights around that time ended with the loser’s demise.

Even so, those odds still might seem low to contemporary movie fans—after all, in “sword and sandal” flicks, gladiator fights almost always result in at least one fatality. However, Ville’s numbers make a lot more sense when you consider the real-life economics involved. Gladiators were expensive, and if one died in combat or was permanently disabled, the venue paid a steep fine to the owner of his ludus. To help keep the body count down, fighters might receive first-rate medical attention after leaving the arena.

But with that said, the crowd often demanded death. Throughout Roman history, most gladiator duels concluded when one party was rendered too weak or injured to keep fighting. Defeated athletes could surrender by throwing down their weapon or shield, or the loser would extend one arm and point upward. At that point, the bested fighter’s fate would be decided by the presiding event chairman, or editor. Generally, his verdict could be expected to appease the audience, whose cheers and jeers helped determine if the fallen warrior lived to fight another day.

#Gladiators #MedicalAttention #SurvivalRate

Roman galleons

Myth: The romans made slaves row their war vessels.

Truth: In an iconic sequence from BenHur, we see a group of slaves being forced to row a Roman galley ship at increasingly demanding speeds. While a war beating drum sets the relentless tempo, wandering soldiers mercilessly flog those poor souls who collapse from fatigue. Though the scene is definitely compelling, it’s also inaccurate. Roman galleys were actually powered by paid and well-trained freemen unless absolutely necessary. Frankly, handing this job over to slaves would have been foolish—if a ship were captured, enslaved oarsmen might well side with the enemy and attack their masters.

#RomanGalleons #Slaves #PaidFreemen

Roman Theater of Palmyra

Roman theater of Palmyra, part of the building was destroyed by ISIS.

A UNESCO World Heritage site. As described by UNESCO,

“An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

First mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC, Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria.  It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world. A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres’ length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments including the Temple of Ba’al, Diocletian’s Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters. Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city’s walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises.

Discovery of the ruined city by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in its subsequent influence on architectural styles.

Criterion (i): The splendour of the ruins of Palmyra, rising out of the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus is testament to the unique aesthetic achievement of a wealthy caravan oasis intermittently under the rule of Rome from the Ier to the 3rd century AD. The grand colonnade constitutes a characteristic example of a type of structure which represents a major artistic development.

Criterion (ii): Recognition of the splendour of the ruins of Palmyra by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries contributed greatly to the subsequent revival of classical architectural styles and urban design in the West.

Criterion (iv): The grand monumental colonnaded street, open in the centre with covered side passages, and subsidiary cross streets of similar design together with the major public buildings, form an outstanding illustration of architecture and urban layout at the peak of Rome’s expansion in and engagement with the East. The great temple of Ba’al is considered one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century AD in the East and of unique design. The carved sculptural treatment of the monumental archway through which the city is approached from the great temple is an outstanding example of Palmyrene art. The large scale funerary monuments outside the city walls in the area known as the Valley of the Tombs display distinctive decoration and construction methods.

Integrity (2009)

All the key attributes, including the main colonnaded street, major public buildings and funerary monuments, lie within the boundary. The tower tombs and the citadel are vulnerable to minor earthquakes and lack of conservation. Since the time of inscription, the population of the adjacent town has increased and is encroaching on the archaeological zone. Although traffic has increased, the main road that passed through the site has been diverted. Increased tourism has brought pressure for facilities within the property.

Authenticity (2009)

The key attributes display well their grandeur and splendour. However the setting is vulnerable to the encroachment of the adjacent town that could impact adversely on the way the ruins are perceived as an oasis closely related to their desert surroundings.

Protection and management requirements (2009)

The site was designated a national monument and is now protected by the National Antiquities law 222 as amended in 1999. A buffer zone was established in 2007 but has not yet been submitted to the World Heritage Committee.

The regional strategic action plan currently under preparation is expected to provide guidelines to expand and redefine the site as a cultural landscape, with respect to the transitional zones around the archaeological site, the oasis and the city.

There is an on-going need for a conservation and restoration plan to be developed that addresses fully the complex issues associated with this extensive multiple site and  will allow for coordinated management, clear priorities and a cultural tourism strategy and address the issues of expansion of the nearby town.”

~ UNESCO

The destruction by ISIS:

The Arch of Triumph in 2006.
The Arch of Triumph on March 27, 2016.
The Temple of Bel in 2008.
The Temple of Bel on March 27, 2016.