Monday, December 17, 2012

Io Saturnalia!
Supposedly an image of Saturnalia, but I can't find a source

On December 17th, the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia.  It was the festival of Saturn, the god of agriculture and was held after the harvest and after the autumnal planting was completed.  The celebration in Saturn's honor was meant to evoke an earlier idealized time when Saturn ruled the earth.  By all accounts this was one of the most popular holidays of the Roman calendar and was celebrated by a cessation of work and governmental administration, public gambling, relaxed formality and reversed social order; masters waited upon their slaves, who were often seen in distinct peaked caps symbolizing that they were freed slaves.  The festival was marked by sacrifice (of the human variety), gift giving and continual partying.  Of course, this was only temporary; a liminal "time between times" where social hierarchies were temporarily dissolved or reversed and societal norms relaxed.

A popular interpretation of this holiday is that it was a festival of light leading up to the winter solstice, the supposed darkest days of the year.  In the later days of the Roman Empire, the solstice and new year were celebrated in the dies natalis of sol invictus, or the birth of the unconquerable sun, which was held on the 25th of December.

It is believed that the festivities of Saturnalia were later incorporated into the Christian celebration of Christmas and the Jewish Hanukkah celebrations which occur around the same time of year and have a lot of the same imagery and ritual.

My source for some of this information is Wikipedia, in which I'm always hesitant to put full stock, and the whole idea of projecting modern cultural phenomena on ancient practices often leaves a lot of room for inaccuracy, but it makes sense logically that some cultures, especially those which can trace a direct line to Rome, would light up the darkest days of the year and then celebrate when that threshold was passed and the days once again became longer.  It's also likely that this celebration did not spring from the minds of Rome, but it is probably a deeper and even more primal celebration of light over darkness, from a time long before we were able to electrically light our days and nights.  I thought that this was just a little something to ponder at a time which seems to be taken for granted these days.

1 comment:

  1. Rambling thoughts:
    1)I should have taken the day off to celebrate. Oh well, maybe next year.
    2) There was a section in Tom Robbins 'Jitterbug Perfume' which contained a celebration very much like the one described. Now I am wondering if it was indeed the same or was just based on it. Will have to look into this a bit more.
    3)There is also a lot of Historical evidence of the Christian empire usurping many older beliefs and traditions. This in fact made it easier to convert the peoples, as most people didn't care much whose god they worshiped (ex. the son of god or the sun god) as long as they still got to have the parties and traditions in which they so enjoyed.
    4)So whichever god or gods or lack of god one so chooses in this season of celebration, I like to say, as the great Bill and Ted (yes the ones who were so excellent) once said: 'party on...dudes.'
    5)Nice post.