Posted on December 18, 2014
Yesterday was the beginning of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a solstice and festival of lights that spans from the 17th of December until the 23rd of December. Those interested are more than capable of finding information about the holiday itself. I started this writing yesterday, when it occurred, but was distracted by a nasty cold and other work. So I never got around to really writing this out.
I’m not a “religious” man. It seems strange to say, especially since this blog is focused on religious expression, but it is pure recognition of a fact of my life at the present. I don’t really partake in religious customs. I have beliefs, and I have faith. But my expression of religion is next to nothing. I have no community to celebrate religious festivals with, so they end up being days that I give a nod to and then allow to pass by. In fact, most of the local community groups are frustrating. I have a shrine where I make offerings, and I pray nightly. But that’s about it, in all honesty. I don’t have the space, currently, to have a relatively “active” practice, since fortune has me slumming off of a couch at the present.
My faith is a majority of Heathen. Jokingly, it is at least 85% Heathen, with 15% focus on Cultus Deorum Romanum. Probably even less than that, since I have a small cultic focus on Minerva and a few other Roman deities. But for whatever reason I can’t seem to bring myself to care about the few true “heathen” festivals that we have. I find myself paying more attention to Roman civic festival and what days are which for what deity and what is appropriate – insofar as being more willing to check on the Roman calendar that Cultus Deorum Romanum uses to see what is attested for which day, at least.
Sitting down to think about this, I wonder if it is because the majority of Roman religion is based on civic mindfulness and cultural duty and not simply on an agricultural passage of time. There are far fewer attested holidays within Heathenry than there are within the Roman religion. Ancient heathens did not leave much in the way of information of their practices, the sources that we have attested are from post-conversion peoples. Reliably, we can say that they “probably” followed traditional seasonal observations that other agricultural indigenous European peoples did. That is, reliably we can say some of the following were most likely observed at some time:
- May Day
- Winter Nights
Bede gives bare mention of a few things in his De Temporum Ratione when he describes the Anglo-Saxon calendar and attempting to reconcile certain problematic dates (notably Easter) between the Julian and local calendars. He doesn’t really go in depth to it. It must be remembered that Bede was a Northumbrian, so much of his influence comes from his local regions. It is a reason why I don’t believe “Eostre” was a Heathen-wide holiday, and why I’ll dispute people’s attempts at claiming that Eostre was a universal deity. I also recognize that Christians gave more emphasis on certain aspects in order to better combat them. But those are other writings.
The rest of the “Heathen Holidays” as they are penned are either appropriations of other agricultural systems or, worse in my mind, American secular holidays that are given religious emphasis. In my mind, this shows a need for “civic” cultural holidays and emphasis, even in a religious context.
What do I mean when I say that the Heathen holiday cycle is “simply an agricultural passage of time”? I mean that it is a calendar that focuses almost exclusively on agrarian themes. This is a failing that I feel the Celto-Wiccan calendar shares. The emphasis on the Equinoxes and Solstices, the emphasis on the harvest festivals, an emphasis on local and regional earth fertility all point to the needs of an agrarian society. It is understandable that traditions that develop are based on the needs of the community, and on individual needs.
Remember, I am speaking for myself in this writing. I am not a farmer. I am not an agrarian. I barely keep a garden. Growing up, my mother grew tomatoes for canning, but even when we had more than a bare acre of land it was not a focus of our family. I am several steps “removed” from the agricultural process, despite growing up in what is considered “rural-suburbia”. For better or worse if I need food I can go down to the grocery store whenever I desire it and purchase what I need.
Does this mean that agricultural and harvest festivals and holidays based on fertility have no importance? Absolutely not. Our food still needs to come from somewhere. It’s important to keep the land in mind when we’re doing what we can to ensure the survival of our peoples.
But in my experience, my involvement with these rites and holidays feels hollow. And I think it’s because I’m not “connected” to the cycle of the land as much as others are.
Now the Roman holidays? The holidays of a multicultural and cosmopolitan empire? There are holidays for everything. There had to be. There were no weekends. There was no respite from the work and toil of day to day life. Holidays of deities of civic need in addition to agricultural festivals. Holidays for the veneration of the founders of Rome, with games and athletic events, holidays and festivals for the Gods of other lands which focus on everything from love, to fertility, to civic mindfulness, victory in battle, and even the sweet smell of fresh air.
Saturnalia. Lupercalia. Minervalia. Paganalia. Festivals for praising the triumph of the Empire’s victory over other peoples. Solemn remembrances of grievous losses in the past. Effectively memorial days and days celebrating veterans. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Rome, for all it’s cosmopolitan nature, was still based on agrarian themes, and I recognize that. Saturnalia began as an early festival honoring Saturn for the bounty of the world, as well as perpetuating a mythical “golden age” of egalitarianism. It became something more as the Republic and then Empire grew and expanded.
I wonder if I pay more attention to this calendar cycle, not because I feel that the Roman deities are “more important” than my Heathen ones. Not that I feel that the Roman calendar is “better” than a Heathen or Anglo-Saxon calendar. But because it is more familiar to my needs as someone who grew up in secular Western American culture, with no special emphasis on the cycles of the world and on the fertility of the land. I’ve not been a farmer or a horticulturalist. I really have no intention of becoming one, especially with the price of purchasing anything viable towards that end these days.
There is no competition between the two systems, of course. Polytheism is a beautiful system of pluralism. There’s nothing, theologically, stopping me from enjoying both systems of holidays. Culturally, they’re both reconstructed calendars. It is most assuredly not a problem of trying to juggle different holidays on the same day, save for a few very select cases.
But the end result is that I am more willing to pay attention, at least, to the Roman cycle of holidays than I am really to do the same thing for the Heathen calendar. Not because the Roman gods are “more important” to me, or because I’m “more Roman” than I am Heathen, but because I’m really just more familiar with the varied expression of the calendar.
And besides, I’ve already made a post about how it always seems like the beginning of the year was in March. So I guess this was always the case.
I’ll probably be thinking about this more and attempting to draft a personal holiday system for myself. Why not, right?
Thanks for reading.
I guess I look at this in the exact opposite way. It’s true that secular American holidays (Veteran’s Day, Independence Day, etc.), Christian holidays, and even Jewish holidays all celebrate things like the birthday of an important leader, or the anniversary of some historical event. In other words, they’re all centered around human beings. I don’t know much about the Roman calendar, so I’ll just take your word for it that it’s similar.
When I first discovered Wicca back when I was a teenager, when I found out they celebrate things like solstices, equinoxes, and moon cycles, that seemed so much *more real* to me. By then I knew Jesus probably wasn’t really born on December 25, and I wasn’t even sure if he really existed at all, and the Christians might have just made that whole thing up. But the winter solstice is still the winter solstice whether you believe in it or not, and there’s been a winter solstice for over four billion years, while there’s only been a Christmas for a couple thousand years at most.
But I don’t like humans anyway.
I can certainly appreciate that perspective. You’ve given me something important to think about regarding the cosmic significance (and not just the seasonal significance) of the solstices and the the greater-than-human-impacts of them.
I’m a historian by training, and my undergrad was spent splitting my concentration between ancient history and biological/paleoanthropology. So I’m very much concerned with the human aspects of my iteration of Paganism. I might not like people, but I like, appreciate, and perpetually inspired by humanity.
On the other, hand, I think we know so little about how ancient heathens celebrated these holidays (and that also varies a lot between where and when we’re talking about here: Iceland vs. Saxon England for example), there’s probably plenty of room for different interpretations. Heathen holidays could be tweaked to emphasize things that the Romans did. For instance, Saturn seems like a Vanic sort of god, and that fits with how a lot of Heathens honor Frey on Yule.
I think my blog theme doesn’t allow me to continue comment chains past the third comment, so I wanted to respond so I knew you would see it:
Definitely. I think there are commonalities across many of the traditional paganisms due to similar circumstances. Saturn (and Ingui-Frea and others) are agricultural deities, so the concerns of the people who petition them are going to be, within reason, emphasized similarly. Many of the Roman festivals were, at their base, a veneration of agriculture. But others were not.
I’m not an agrarian, and I’m really cloistered from the natural cycles. So holidays that seem to be exclusively set around them (or the solstices) kind of fall on deaf ears. My world isn’t set exclusively focused on them, so I think it’s a resonance issue.
I just get frustrated by many of these so-called “Heathen” holidays that are just American holidays “heathenized”.
I think you’re raising a very important point. One of the things I am continuing to find extremely difficult when engaging in religious practices, is to observe the “proper” holidays. They don’t fit well — I don’t farm, my garden is for rent, I live in a metropolis, I do not own livestock… the list goes on, and on, and on.
Furthermore: I live alone, the people who live closest to me are strangers to me, the people who’re closest to me do not follow the same religious “path”, if any at all. The people who follow a similar religious path on paper could not be more different and less desirable for me to engage with.
Furthermore: my life revolves around the intellectual, and the artistical. It revolves around algorithms and arias, so to speak. It is widely incompatible with any of the socio-cultural models we have of historical heathen societies.
Consequently: it is a lonesome thing that I do. It is “individual”, whaterver that means.
My Gods may not have primarily been recipients of individual worship, personal worship (in fact the one I adore most and first before any others may not have had any worship at all) — but that is nothing I can, or even want to change. My worship is what it is, and a religion that requires me to pretend I’m someone that I am not… is not a religion at all, but some form of elaborate reenactment or nostalgia. I think my Gods prefer actual worship, no matter how different it is from what it was back in the day.
I’m very much the same. I have no local group, and as you well know I do my networking through both blogging and the cadre of like-minded or similarly-minded polytheistic friends I have through Facebook. My devotional focus circles around (largely) Freo, with some petitioning of Minerva as appropriate. But they’re both for very specific purposes.
Further, I’m not very inclined towards holidays. It happens when you’re raised in a secular household. I also feel that it is part of the culture of American secularism, which is heavily influenced from Protestantism, which sort of de-emphases very religious understandings that might be found elsewhere around the world.
I don’t play well with others. Really. I’m not sure how to rectify it.