Sunday, December 17, 2017

Io, Saturnalia! The Pagan Roman Winter Solstice Festival


Saturnalia, the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar. Dedicated to the Roman god Saturn. In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age. In the Greek myths, Kronos (Saturn) was the Roman Deity of Time and an ancient Italian Corn God known as the Sower.

The Saturnalia festival has an astronomical character, referring to the completion of the sun’s yearly course, and the commencement of a new cycle. Saturn, represented by the sun at its lowest aspect at the winter solstice. The earth is cold, most plants are dead, and it was believed that the sun might also be approaching death. 

Saturnalia celebrated the sun overcoming the power of winter, with hope of spring when life would be renewed.

Originally celebrated on December 17, Saturnalia was extended first to three and eventually to seven days. Remarkably like the Greek Kronia, it was the liveliest festival of the year. 


Saturnalia festivities began with ritual and sacrifices in the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, signing, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, slaves were given temporary freedom to say and do what they liked, and certain moral restrictions were eased. A mock king was chosen (Saturnalicius princeps); the standard greeting during this period was “Io Saturnalia!”. There is a theory that Santa Claus’s ‘Ho, ho, ho’ has its origins in this cry of “Io”.

Many of the decorations involved greenery - swathes, garlands, wreaths, etc - being hung over doorways and windows, and ornamenting stairs. Ornaments in the trees included sun symbols, stars, and faces of the God Janus. Trees were not brought indoors (the Germans started that tradition), but decorated where they grew.

People were just as likely to be ornamented as the trees. Wearing greenery and jewelry of a sacred nature was apparently common, based on descriptions, drawings, and the like from the era. 


Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival is pieced together from several accounts dealing with various aspects. 

The Saturnalia was the dramatic setting of the multivolume work of that name by Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity who is the major source for information about the holiday. 

In one of the interpretations in Macrobius's work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun", on 23 December.

The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, many of its customs were recast into or at least influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.




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