I don’t know if it is coincidence or not (and I’m not sure I believe that “coincidence” actually happens–!?!), but it seems that people seem like they’re a little bit “off” these days, and it really started to happen hot and heavy as of December 17th, when Saturnalia began. Saturnalia is one of the great “feasts of reversal,” so to speak, when the Golden Age of humanity returns again, kings serve slaves, slaves are crowned as kings, and all sorts of mirth and games are afoot.
And, apparently, people lose their minds, too.
Whether one ascribes it to our mania of over-commercialization and the holiday excesses of food, money, and enforced family gatherings and the dramatic stresses they create, or the secular-skewering-religious-while-religious-tries-to-skewer-back overculture’s general atmosphere at the present time of year, or just the weather and the season, or the Roman festival’s arrival, it’s a very strange time of year. I will not say it’s the “Most Wonderful Time” by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ll say that even less the more that song gets played; but, I find myself looking at my festival calendar, and there’s all sorts of things going on from a variety of different traditions.
In the Ekklesía Antínoou, there are various threads to follow–Greek, Roman, and Egyptian, for starters. We honor the Roman by celebrating the seven nights of Saturnalia themselves (and some other Roman festivals that fall within that time), as well as the birth of Sol Invictus on the 25th–on which more in a few moments. Saturn, Ceres, and Bacchus were all honored during the wider period of Brumalia, a Winter Solstice festival that could commence as early as November 24th, and each of them are honored during our Saturnalia feasts. Some of us honor the Greek tradition by a modern nine-night festival called Heliogenna, but for me it comes forth most in the Graeco-Thracian festival of Nyx, Mother Night, which is on Winter Solstice itself. Further, the main syncretism of Antinous to Dionysos is also celebrated on Winter Solstice, and a further Graeco-Egyptian dimension is brought in by honoring him as syncretized to Harpocrates on that day as well.
But, from my various Celtic practices, there are further dimensions about these days. The birth of Cú Chulainn also happens on Winter Solstice (gosh, EVERYONE wants to be in on that one, don’t they?). And, one of the only Gaulish festivals that we have record of in Roman practice, the Eponalia, happens on December 18th, since she was eventually incorporated into Roman practice after the long period of conquest and then colonization of Gaul as a mother goddess and a goddess beloved of the cavalry. While this could just be a random date chosen by the Romans to honor this foreign goddess, I suspect there may be more to it than that. In my own personal musings on the timing of this date, I am reminded that Cú Chulainn had strong connections to horses as well as hounds, and his comparanda in other Celtic cultures were likewise mothered by horse goddesses, and so perhaps there is more at work here than can be discerned with certainty by the source-aware eye.
Undoubtedly, there will be lots of people–both in paganism and in the wider culture–that will be talking about how Christmas is just a Christianization of an older pagan solar festival, and usually Mithras comes into the discussion at some point as well. It is one of the points of the year where Christians are willing to concede that many of their own most beloved practices are the results of early syncretisms of their movement with what was going on in the wider Roman polytheistic world. (Indeed, decorated trees at this time of year probably come from Saturnalia practices.) That’s certainly true of Christianity, and illustrates the irony that many religions which have historically been most opposed to syncretism have often been extremely good at doing it themselves, especially in their earlier periods. But, on this particular score, it doesn’t seem to pan out on closer scrutiny, which few people actually want to engage in on these matters, whether they are on the pro-pagan side or not.
The Romans used to honor a god called Sol Indigenes, the “Native Sun,” who had a feast on August 9th, and may have also been the recipient of the Agonalia sacrifice of a goat on December 11th. There was no major or active syncretism, however, of Sol Indigenes to the Greek Helios that is visible to archaeologists or scholars of religion.
Then there was that whole thing with Elagabulus, the teenage Syrian Roman Emperor (whose comics, action figures, and films you should eagerly watch for!) of the Severan Dynasty, who brought the cultus of the Syro-Roman Sol Invictus Elagabulus to Rome, and attempted to impose a kind of pagan monotheism with it in the early 3rd century CE. That left a very bad taste in the Romans’ mouths for a few decades after his assassination, though probably as much from his rather excessive and hedonistic lifestyle and his disregard for other Roman social customs than the specific matters of religion.
It was not until the principate of Aurelian in the mid-3rd century CE that a state-sponsored cultus of Sol Invictus, stripped of any specifically Syrian associations, was commenced, and continued for the rest of late antiquity, and began celebrating his birth on December 25th. The first high priest of the cult was one Virius Lupus, interestingly enough (though I’m not named after him, but an earlier person of that name who was a governor of Britannia during the reign of Septimius Severus…which is another story!). You can read more about all of this in Gaston Halsberghe’s book The Cult of Sol Invictus (Leiden: Brill, 1972).
A few decades before the time of Elagabulus, however, Tertullian of Carthage–one of the important Christian church fathers–reported that the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated on March 25th. The Annunciation is the occasion of Jesus’ conception by Mary, and thus nine months from then would be the reasonable time to expect that Jesus would be born. Thus, some Christian churches were potentially celebrating his birth on December 25th decades before the birth of the Sun–native or otherwise–was marked by the Romans. It is important, when facts like this are known by polytheists, to admit and acknowledge them without any major fuss. It does our traditions no good at all to always cloak them in the authority of hoary antiquity when it can sometimes be proven that such is not the case. To disabuse oneself of the notion that “older” = “better” where all things polytheistic are concerned is a very good step. Doing so, likewise, helps to shed some of the objectifying tendencies we have toward our own traditions, to think of them as “pure” and “ancestral,” and in doing so thinking of them in manners half-a-step short of the distorting and romantic notions of the “noble savage” who did things prompted not by history and its often political and social circumstances but instead by nature and the “timeless” existence of ancient peoples as well as still-living indigenous cultures.
And Mithras? There is no evidence that his birth was celebrated on December 25th or anywhere near it. Of the various relics left to us by the cultus of Mithras, a cult calendar was not one of them. It is only via his apparent mythic narrative connections to and occasional syncretism with Helios in early iconography, understood at later periods to be “the same as” the Roman Sol Invictus (even though Mithras’ cultus in the Mediterranean exists at least three centuries before that of Sol Invictus), that such suggestions come about. These get erroneously misunderstood by those who aren’t aware of the actual chronologies involved. This suggestion was especially made in scholarship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when much was made of the “rivalry” of the Mithraic cultus to Christianity and the supposed similarities between the two–many of which were entirely invented, and which are still used by atheists to discredit Christianity’s “originality” despite there being no substance to them at all. It behooves us to know the specifics on these matters so that the discussions of both atheist and Christian interlocutors can be corrected when such points are raised either for or against their particular theological positions, or our own.
Rather than ending this multi-syncretistic reflection on the holy tides of different cultures at this time of year with a set of good wishes to all, no matter what they celebrate–which is what you’d expect, isn’t it?–I’ll instead make a suggestion in line with what I’ve just outlined. Saturnalia is a time of reversals. so it is said. Those of us who make our livings at educational institutions usually enjoy a break–however long or short it may be–between our scholastic or collegiate terms at this time of year, when the last thing we might want to be doing is reading and studying. Enjoy the holiday parties and rituals, and hold some of your own, I’d advise those who are in a similar boat. And, for those who are not used to making friends with books and libraries and the spirits that haunt them? Make it a point to take a few moments when you’re indoors (from the dark and cold of winter in the Northern Hemisphere; or, a few moments out of the sun and in the shade in the Southern Hemisphere!) to pick up a book or a trusted and vetted internet source and find out more about the specifics of whatever holiday tradition you celebrate, whether of ancient provenance or of more modern vintage, and understand that holidays and the history of them happen in real time, with real people under real circumstances deciding to commemorate the turning of the seasons and the gods associated with them in particular ways. Holy days, not unlike syncretism generally, happen with real people in real historical situations, and it can be a wonderful and indeed important way of honoring the ancestors of your spiritual tradition to find out not only what they did, but what historical circumstances lead them to begin doing so in the ways of which we are now aware so many centuries (or smaller spans of time) from their origins.