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Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

Originally posted on Man of Roma:

Dafna asked me to write about the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in honour of Saturn.

“Inspired by Richard’s musing about Christmas – she said – I just discovered the term: ‘Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time ….’ Sounds like fun.”

So here we are Dafna, although my mind is blurred by all this saturnalian revels, starting in Italy on Dec. 24 and ending with the Epiphany, Gen. 6.

Quite a long time isn’t it.

Ma poi ecco l’Epifania
che tutte le feste si porta via.

Saturn & the Golden Age

Saturn, the Roman god of seed and sowing, very ancient according to sources, had his temple built at the foot of the Capitoline hill. It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe and whose feet bound…

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Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

Dafna asked me to write about the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in honour of Saturn.

“Inspired by Richard’s musing about Christmas – she said – I just discovered the term: ‘Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time ….’ Sounds like fun.”

So here we are Dafna, although my mind is blurred by all this saturnalian revels, starting in Italy on Dec. 24 and ending with the Epiphany, Gen. 6.

Quite a long time isn’t it.

Ma poi ecco l’Epifania
che tutte le feste si porta via.

Saturn & the Golden Age

Saturn, the Roman god of seed and sowing, very ancient according to sources, had his temple built at the foot of the Capitoline hill. It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe and whose feet bound with woollen threads were released only in the days of the Saturnalia – Dec. 17 onward.

The temple was rebuilt three times and today’s eight-column remnants (see the image below) represent what is left of its last remaking.

It is no coincidence, I believe, that the temple also housed what was most precious in Rome (coins, ingots etc.,) ie the city treasury or aerarium. Why?

Because to the Roman mind Saturn – who defeated by his son Jupiter had found refuge in Latium, on the Capitol – had brought to the Romans and Latins the mythical Golden Age (Aurea Aetas,) an era of bliss when men were equal, laws not necessary, spring eternal, earth spontaneously offering its blonde corn and rivers of milk and nectar marvellously flowing.

The temple of Saturn in the west end of the Roman Forum. Only the front portico with its 8 columns is now left standing. Click for attribution and to zoom in.

Words from the Past

Mario: “Wow, the Golden Age. Were men of solid gold too?”
MoR: “Possibly. Yes, if I well interpreted Lucian’s Saturnalia.”

Let us then listen to the arcane words of Ovid just to catch glimpses of it all (Metamorphoses, I, 89 & ff.)

aurea prima est aetas
(the Golden Age is first)
sponte sua sine lege fidem rectumque colebat
(which spontaneously, without laws, the true and the good nurtured)
nec supplex turba timebat iudicis ora suis, sed erant sine vindice tuti
(no crowd of suppliants fearing their judge’s face: they lived safely without protection)
mollia peragebant otia gentes
(in soft peace people spent their lives )
ver erat aeternum
(Spring was eternal)
per se dabat omnia tellus … fruges inarata ferebat
(by itself earth gave all … wheat, unmanured, bore)
flumina iam lactis, iam flumina nectaris ibant
(sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar)


Re-enacting a Lawless Age

Now it is clear that the Saturnalia was a sort of re-enactment of such primordial, lawless age when men lived in equality and abundance of all.

During Saturnalia the rich gifts of the earth were celebrated with feasts and banquets where celebrators, heated with wine, were allowed to trans-gress unto higher (sometimes lower) states of mind which could include wild games, spirituality, esoteric acts, gambling, sexual promiscuity, exchange of gifts, and where slaves were given the broadest license which reminded the ancient rule of equality amongst men. Many similar ancient collective ceremonies (like the rites of Dionysus known in Rome as the Bacchanalia) were often referred to by the Greek term ὄργια or the Roman term orgia.

[Note that the old terms are only partially connected with the modern term 'orgy', if only for the fact that they had a religious character]

Unlike the cult of Saturn almost unknown outside Latium, Saturnalia became the most popular festival in every province of the empire relished by the people of any social condition until the triumph of Christianity.

The Christians couldn’t entirely abolish Saturnalia so they absorbed it into Christmas and this pagan festival survived also in other disguised forms as we shall see (in Italy, England, Germany, France etc.)

Let us try to better understand. A few aspects of Saturnalia may in fact sound weird to us modern people.

maschera_carnevale_venezia

Cycles and Rites of Passage

Saturnalia belonged to those rituals typical of the most ancient agricultural cultures all the over world.

Such cultures had a cyclic more than a linear view of time.

Universe, history repeated themselves in an eternal return to mythical ages in a way that the end of a cycle (light, sun, year, moon or season cycles) coincided with a new beginning; that dissolution coincided with regeneration; that chaos, lawlessness and transgression transmuted themselves into a new order where people felt renewed and ready to get back to norm.

These passages were celebrated in festivals where “such dissolution – Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini argues – we notice in the overturning of social hierarchy and in sexual promiscuity, a way to achieve fertility; we notice it in Sacaea, a festival in Babylon or in Pontus in honour of the goddess Ishtar or Anaitis which included, among the rest, a king disguised as servant; in the Zagmuk celebrated in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the year and comprising both sexual license and a symbolic dethroning of the king; in the Kronia [in Athens and Attica, MoR] and in the Roman Saturnalia [Roman Saturn and Greek Kronos sort of merged] but also in women-only festivals like the Greek Thesmophoria [in honour of Demeter] or like the Bona Dea rituals in Rome [of which a description is in our Sex and the city (of Rome) 2] where women were offered a chance to indulge in some excess in their own way.”

Traces in Modern Minds

Now I believe this whole spiritual past (plus the evelasting effects of nature changes) left deep traces in today’s minds. We still feel this deeply emotional (and sometimes distressing) end-beginning of something during the Christmas / New Year festivities, like a seismic shift that takes hold of us a bit. And at the same time we feel the family sweetness and Christian religious vibrations.

Which brings us to Christ’s birth.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun.) Silver, Roman artwork, 3rd century AD. From Pessinus, Asia Minor. British Museum. Click for attribution

Saturnalia, the Sun God & Christ’s Birth

Given the popularity of Saturnalia the founders of Christianity desiring to win the pagans to the new faith absorbed the Saturnalia into the celebrations of the birth of Christ.

Saturnalia started Dec. 17 and ended Dec. 25, day of the winter solstice according to the old Julian (Julius Caesar’s) calendar (12/21 according to ours, the Gregorian.)

Now, when was Christ born? No one knew exactly – although some biblical evidence suggests Spring.

It was Pope Julius I who in 350 CE chose Dec. 25 (winter solstice according to Caesar’s calendar.) Which proved a wise decision not only because of Saturnalia end date but also because in that same 12/25 the birth of Mithra / Sol Invictus, the sun god, had long been celebrated – the winter solstice being in fact the death-rebirth of the sun.

And, it must be said, the sun god in all his forms was very popular. Before it was gradually replaced by Christianity Sol Invictus was actually the official cult of the late Roman empire.


Extropian:
“According to Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) “few Christians today realize that in the 5th century CE [so 4 centuries after the birth of Christ!] pope Leo the Great had to tell Church members to stop worshipping the sun.” “

Mario: “I read something in a forum: this “rumour that the Saturnalia generally degenerated into a big party with orgy and drinking … it’s ironic in that Christians use this day to celebrate the birth of their Saviour who came to save them from such sins.”

MoR: “Well, as I have said, we all feel – a Westerly universal feeling – like a strange conflict during these holidays: between holiness and fun, excess and good-will, religious /family feelings and pagan consumerism.”

MoR: “A conflict generated perhaps by that old compromise – eg the adaptation of Pagan rites to Christian rites – and absent probably at the times of the Saturnalia, when trans-gression and religion (trans-gression in the original sense of ‘going beyond’, from Latin trans + gradior) were not always separated as they are today. On the contrary, they at times coincided. τὰ ὄργια or orgiae, characteristic of mystery cults, were a supremely mystical & ethical experience, which is incomprehensible today, after almost two thousand years of Christianity.”

ψ

Read part 2:

Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

Basilica di San Clemente, Nero’s Domus Aurea and the Mithraic Mysteries

Posted on

San Clemente, named after Pope Clement I, 3rd successor of St Peter, is located in via San Giovanni in Laterano, called 'Stradone S. Giovanni' by today's Romans (see 2 pictures below.) Click for credits and to zoom in.

Mostly Otium (little Negotium)

As I said in the previous post (1) we are having some rest although (2) we are obliged to take care of our company a bit plus (3) I’m having fun musing upon ancient texts I try to read in the original.

Moreover (4) my walk paths about Rome will also follow a tentative list of archaeological places I want to visit much more attentively than I ever did before.

As a Celtic unspoilt-heart poet once wrote:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

[Btw, 1, 3, 4 are called otium in Latin (leisure, sort of), while 2 is called negotium (business, sort of.) The on-line magazine Otium from Uchicago may be worth glancing through]

 

Caelian hill with San Clemente on the right, the Coliseum on the left, via di San Giovanni with 'Gay Street' at its left end right on top of Gladiators' Ludus Magnus. Above, the Domus Aurea villa area on the beginning Esquiline slope where I take my walks (Google Maps)

A Jewish Freedman: Pope Clement I

Now, as an appetizer I have just been to a place nearby, the Basilica di San Clemente as I told Paul Costopoulos.

One of the greatest places in Rome for archaeology history and religion, this basilica was named after Pope St Clement, the third successor of St Peter.

According to recent research Clemens was a Jewish freedman who belonged to the household of the martyr Titus Flavius Clemens, great-nephew of the Roman Emperor Vespasian.

[It is known freedmen or liberti - also called libertini, nothing to do with libertines - took the family name or their own master's name though we'll see Roman naming conventions another day]

 

San Clemente on the Stradone or Via San Giovanni in Laterano. This is where we buy bread and eat the true Neapolitan Pizza. Direction is towards the bigger Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. Photo by MoR, public domain.

The Pilgrimage Road where Gay Street is now

 

Today’s basilica was built during the High Middle Ages (12th cent. AD) and despite some baroque maquillage it is still romanesque in its main structure. It is located on the ‘via di San Giovanni in Laterano’ pilgrimage road that led (and still leads) to San Giovanni in Laterano, the Roman Popes’ former residence until they moved to St. Peter at the Vatican.

The last 325-yard area of this road just in front of the Colosseum is today called Gay street. I think gays & lesbians feel protected right in the heart of pagan Rome, with (see the Google map above) the Oppian hill and Nero’s Domus to the right, the Coliseum in front, and just under their feet the Ludus Magnus, the greatest school of gladiators of the Empire (see a model of it.)

Popes or Pontiffs – can’t stop digressing – come from the Pontifices, singular Pontifex, a member of ancient Rome’s highest-ranking state priests’ Collegium (college), whose chief was the pontifex maximus.  Well, the Pope’s title is Pontifex Maximus too, therefore implying not only the actual Bishop of Rome but the survival (possibly) of such ancient magistratus. Majestic Julius Caesar was a Pontifex Maximus as well. I like the idea so much allow me.

Four Strata of History

High time now to tell the story of San Clemente, a tale made of 4 strata.

1) In the first century AD the area was occupied by insulaeapartment buildings for the indigent plebs – some plebeians were tho rich and belonged to the upper class -and for the Equites, middle class of knights (equestrians.)

Nero's Domus Aurea octagonal building (see below)

These houses were burnt in the famous Nero’s fire of Rome in 64 AD. Nero was only too happy to embody the area into his Domus Aurea (infos here too,) a marvellous portico villa with rooms sumptuously decorated and of various geometrical shapes, whose gardens covered parts of the Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian hills (so it possibly included the location of my house too: possibly the whole Google map above was Domus Aurea.)

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, equestrian and historian, called it a rus in urbe or ‘countryside in the city’ for its imaginative (and eccentric) man-made landscapes such as a luxurious (luxuriosus) pond where the future Colosseum will be built.

Axonometric Drawing of the DA, built by Severus and Celer in 64 AD, Rome. The central octagon with dome.

 

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

2) After Nero’s damnatio memoriae the gutted buildings were again utilized as foundation for further houses (1rst-2nd cent. AD,) at a level roughly corresponding to the Coliseum’s floor.

3) The third level – 4rth century, see image below – displays 2 buildings, communicating via a a narrow passage: one (on the right in the picture) is an apartment in whose courtyard we admire a Mithraeum (see the other picture under the first one); the other (on the left) is a magnificent rectangular area built on large tufa blocks supporting brick walls clad with light yellow travertine,  the house possibly of Titus Flavius Clemens, even larger than the nave of the actual Basilica.

4) The fourth level is the 12th cent. AD basilica which later had the baroque maquillage. We mentioned the pilgrimage road. Those were the times of the crusades and of the conflict with the Muslims, much more advanced than Europeans.

3rd levelFourth Century Church and Mithraeum (from E. Junient, Titolo di San Clemente)

The Mithraeum of San Clemente. See triclinii for ritual meal and the altar

Mithra, Šamaš, Μίθρας.
The Indo-European Bullshit

First of all let’s get rid of the Indo-European bullshit.

Mithra was the main god of polytheistic Iranians who were mainly Indo-Europeans, true, but the god stemmed from a complex process which includes at least 2 fusions (syncretisms.)

A. One started in Babylon, Mesopotamia [Μεσοποταμία, ie (land) 'between the rivers', today's Iraq,] which was and is Semitic. Out there the Babylonian sun god Šamaš was the common Akkadian name of the sun god in both Babylonia and Assyria.

[the everlasting relationship between Persia and Mesopotamia, ie Iran and Iraq, continues today with both exchanges and wars we all know ...]

B. Such process reached a second larger syncretism in Asia Minor [Μικρά Ασία or Aνατολή: today's Turkey] when the Persian empire collapsed under the conquest by Alexander the Great – Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος – in 330 BC. From that moment Mithraism became hellenized and especially romanized in terms of Platonic philosophy (the Greeks had suffered too much because of the Persian wars to fully embrace Mithraism.)

Mithra – see picture below – who slays the cosmic bull to generate life: from its blood sprang grain and grape, from its sperm the animals etc. With Hellenism he became the Platonic rational creator (demiurge) of the universe as we can read in Plato’s Timaeus – something to peruse to better grasp.

We’ll see all this in the next post. I’ll try to find inspiring passages, we need inspiration to understand.

Mithra about to slay the cosmic bull and to create the universe ... (click for credits and to enlarge)

Any Survivals of the Sun God?

While walking back home, while seeing roads in this city, statues, churches, inscriptions I’m starting to decipher a little bit better, I am asking myself:

Has this god of light & sun [θεός του φωτός και του Ήλιου] left traces or is he totally disappeared?

Well, you’ll be amazed by the list of survivals concerning the Western and Eastern mind I’ve prepared for you.

Just wait to delve a bit into the fascinating mythology, cosmology and worship of Mithraism!

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