Celebrating Saturnalia


In Ancient Rome the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia began today, December 17.  It was a festival that lasted for seven days.

Created to honor Saturn, the father of the gods, it was interestingly celebrated by suspending discipline and a reversal of the usual order.

It was said that this was the time to suspend grudges. Businesses, courts, and schools were closed. Some accounts say that even warfare was suspended for the week.

Want to celebrate Saturnalia? If you need another reason to have a party, here are some suggestions from the Romans.  Masquerades were common. Traditional gifts were real or imitation fruit (fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (small symbols of pagan solstice bonfire celebrations).

Saturnalia celebration

I have read that a mock king would be chosen. It would probably be a slave or criminal. It sounds like a good thing since this king was able to run wild for the week, but unfortunately, the king was usually killed at the end.

As with much of the Roman empire, Saturnalia degenerated into a week of debauchery and crimes. Today the word “saturnalia” means a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

You can go out this week and look at the sky and see Saturn. In the Northern Hemisphere, if you look at the constellation Gemini which rises above the eastern horizon, a bit west of Gemini is the brilliant planet Jupiter looking like a star to most people.  Just before sunrise, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury appear above the southeastern horizon.

On The Nature Of Things

illustration from Stephen Greenblatt’s piece in The New Yorker about Lucretius

I finished reading Stephen Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, this week.  It inspired this morning’s poem on my daily poem project, Writing the Day.

Reading Lucretius

this twenty-first century morning makes me

a Roman meditating a thousand years ago

On the Nature of Things, a universe

without gods, made from very small particles,

eternal motion colliding, swerving in new directions.

And Lucretius inspires this weekend entry because, like Greenblatt, encountering the story of Lucretius and his writing did make me marvel at the modernity of thought from this man of the first century.

De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is his long poem in which he tried to explain Epicurean philosophy to his Roman audience.

lucretiusLucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) and the poem is written in the “heroic hexameter” used in both Greek and Latin, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It is divided into six untitled books.

What is marvelous to me is that it is really what we would call today a book on physics. It covers atomism, the mind and soul, sensation and thought and celestial and terrestrial phenomena.  And it’s a poem!

What was shocking for his time is that his universe operates according to physical principles (he calls them fortuna) and not the divine intervention of any gods – whether they be Roman or Greek deities or any other variation.

You can read Lucretius’ book online  and you can get many versions of the book.  But I would never have found his work at all if I had not heard Stephen Greenblatt interviewed and bought his retelling of Lucretius in The Swerve.  I did get a copy of the poem from the library and read portions of the original, but I preferred the more modern path into the poem. After all, that was what Lucretius was also trying to accomplish with his book.

Titus Lucretius Carus wrote On the Nature of Things sometime around 60 B.C.E  This was not a philosophy of his own invention. He was repackaging the tenets of Greek Epicureanism, which dates back to 300 B.C.E., to his Roman audience.

He sets himself the task of explaining the nature of everything. It seems an impossible task. And yet, many have tried since, including Albert Einstein and others wanting to find a unified theory that would “explain it all.”

He didn’t get all of the “science” correct, which one would expect. But the ideas that are there, are quite amazing for his time.

He considers the atomic nature of matter – that everything is made from very tiny particles that we cannot see that operate under rules that are beyond man or gods. This philosophy questions that there are gods and considers that religion may be more harmful than good. Consider how just those two ideas are still charged with controversy today.

He considers astronomy and life on other planets, conception and death,  heredity and even a kind of evolution and speciation. He gets into areas we would call psychology, such as the senses and perception, sleep and dreams.

Nor to pursue the atoms one by one,
To see the law whereby each thing goes on.
But some men, ignorant of matter, think,
Opposing this, that not without the gods,
In such adjustment to our human ways,
Can nature change the seasons of the years,
And bring to birth the grains and all of else
To which divine Delight, the guide of life,
Persuades mortality and leads it on

The importance of his writing was not its originality, but its presentation. You could go back four centuries earlier to Parmenides (520-450 BCE), a Greek philosopher who described all things as being singularly composed of a fiery aether. He said that matter could not be created or destroyed.

And there was  Pythagoras’ numerical formulations to describe the nature of things.

Empedocles (490-430 BCE) had four basic elements to compose the universe: earth, water, fire and air. He  perceived attractive and repulsive forces between the elements (see gravity, van der Waal, and electromagnetism) which he referred to (charmingly, I think) as Love and Strife.

Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE) believed that every substance has an elemental form that is composed of some small fraction of every type of element.

Democritus (460-370 BCE)  arrived at an atomic model that survived for 2000 years. with little alteration. Plato and Aristotle were not fans of his philosophy, but Epicurus and Lucretius believed it and passed it on.

Lucretius writes that he will “explain by what forces nature steers the courses of the Sun and the journeyings of the Moon, so that we shall not suppose that they run their yearly races between heaven and earth of their own free will (remember that the planets were gods themselves) or that they are rolled round in furtherance of some divine plan.”  That kind of thinking could get you into a lot of trouble  – then and today.

And the swerve? Determinism doesn’t live harmoniously with the idea of free will.  Lucretius wants free will in his physicalistic universe. He suggests that there is an indeterministic tendency for atoms to swerve randomly. This indeterminacy allows for the “free will which livings things throughout the world have.” That indeterminacy is what caused Einstein to say that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Einstein was uncomfortable with some of the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.  Of course, Einstein was using “God” in a non-religious sense.

And it looks like “god” does play dice with the universe at the quantum level. Lucretius would be pleased to know this.


Saturnalia Celebrations

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn (eight columns to the far right) as seen in 2010, with three columns from the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (left) and the Arch of Septimius Severus (center).

Today would mark the beginning of the seven-day celebration of Saturnalia in ancient Rome. For the winter festival, the Romans made and exchanged gifts, decorated their homes with holly and ropes of garland, and carried wreaths of evergreen branches to honor the god Saturn and celebrate the solstice.

By the beginning of December, writes Columella, the farmer should have finished his autumn planting and at the time of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival.

The Saturnalia officially was celebrated on December 17 and , acccording to Cicero, it lasted in his time for seven days, from December 17-23. Augustus limited the holiday to three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than necessary. Partygoer Caligula extended it to five.

Saturnalia was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed which included sacrifices to Saturn and Kronos.

The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which tied the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god.

After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which probably included an image of Saturn placed in attendance, as if a guest.

The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year and it sounds like it was quite a party. Catullus describes it as “the best of days,” and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures.”  Pliny the Younger, not so much the toga party animal, writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice.

Time for Purification

Februa (or Februatio) was the Roman festival of purification that was commonly referred to and associated with the celebration of Lupercalia. The month of February honors that festival.

Traditionally, it was performed on the 15th day of the month and used for deep personal and household purification – cleanse your sacred space, and self.

The festival lingered on in modern custom as “spring cleaning” and is also associated with the cleansing spring rains.

According to Ovid, Februare as a Latin word for purification from washing or water comes from an earlier Etruscan word referring to purging .

The Roman month was called Februarius (“of Februa”). A later Roman god Februus personified both the month and also purification, and is named for them.

Lupercalia was a much older, pre-Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 13 through February 15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility.

In Roman mythology, Lupercus is the god of shepherds, sometimes identified with the Roman god Faunus, who is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan.

Lupercalia was also celebrated in Rome to worship the she-wolf who suckled Romulus & Remus the founders of the city of Rome.

It sounds like it was quite a party and not very connected to purification.

It started with a group of specially appointed priests gathering at the Lupercal, a cave at the bottom of the Papatine Hill in Rome. The priests would offer a goat in sacrifice, and anoint the Lupercii (young male participants) on their foreheads with the blood. The blood was wiped away with milk by other priests. The men skinned the sacrificed goat and ripped the hide into strips which they tied around their naked waists. They then got drunk, and ran around the streets of Rome striking everyone they met with goatskin thongs. Young women who were touched in this manner were thought to be specially blessed, especially in regards to fertility and procreation.

I suggest you wait till the 15th and start your own personal and household purification. Don’t go sacrificing any goats.

The First Full Moon of the Year Is the Poet’s Moon


It’s January, from the Roman god Janus who had two faces and ruled over beginnings and endings and the past and the future. To start the new year right, you should leave the old and outdated in your life and make plans for new. I’m not sure if Romans made new year resolutions, but it would make sense.

The Holiday Moon is a name used in China where this is considered a time for settling debts, honoring ancestors, and having family reunions. Paper images of dragons are carried through the streets and fireworks are used to chase away evil entities and misfortune.

This month’s Full Moon on the 26th is often called the Wolf Moon for the howling of hungry wolves that once gathered outside villages and native encampments. It is also known as the Winter Moon, Hunger Moon, Old Moon, Moon After Yule, and the neo-Pagan Ice Moon.

This is the also the time of the year that is the first arrival of the Morning Star in the east. The Morning Star isn’t a star but just the name given to the planet Venus when it appears in the east before sunrise. The Greeks referred to “Phosphorus” (“Light-Bringer”) or Heōsphoros (“Dawn-Bringer”) when speaking of Venus in its morning appearance.

The Druids consider our January to be their Llianth, their fourth month of the year. This full moon is known as the Poet’s Moon. It is a good time for creativity and inspiration.

Let us not forget the many Native American names for this moon based on where the tribe was located.  For northern tribes, this might be the Cold Moon (called Unolvtani in Cherokee celebrations) or Cooking Moon, Moon of the Terrible, Moon When Trees Pop, Moon of the Raccoon, Full Snow Moon marked the start of the season for personal and ritual observance, fasting and personal purification. It was a time to prepare for planting by repairing tools to be ready for the next season which would begin with the Windy Moon in March. It was the time for the Cold Moon Dance, and for community fires to be put out and new ones to be made by the holy men of certain clans.


The Night of Hecate

Hecate Sculpture


The goddess Hecate had many celebrations throughout the year, but November 16 was known as the Night of Hecate.

Hecate is part of the most ancient form of the triple Moon goddesses as the Crone of the Dark (New) Moon. Artemis was the Crescent Moon, and Selene was the Full Moon.

Most of Hecate’s worship, and especially on this night, was performed at a three-way crossroad at night. Food was left there as an offering to her.

She ruled the passages of life and transformation, birth and death. She was associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, fire, light, the Moon, magic, witchcraft, a knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, necromancy, and sorcery.

November was the ninth month in the oldest Roman calendar. Hecate closely parallels the Roman goddess Trivia, with whom she was identified in Rome.

Today Hecate is one of the ‘patron’ goddesses of many witches, who in some traditions refer to her in the Goddess’s aspect of the “Crone”. But other traditional witches associate her with the Maiden and/or with the Mother as well, for Hecate has three faces, or phases.

Modern worshipers honor this tripartite goddess as the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. A modern writer, Robert Graves, wrote about her in The White Goddess.

Historical depictions and descriptions show her facing in three different directions and later Greek references say she had the heads of animals and refer to her as the “Mistress of Animals.” Her chosen animals were the toad, the owl, the dog and the bat.