Sunday, November 11, 2012

Holidays and Heresies


As I discard the last of the Halloween candy (I thought of donating it, but who needs donated candy?), I found myself thinking about holidays and ancient heresies.  Though we live in a modern world, we keep old pagan notions closer at hand that most of us are aware of.  

Halloween was not always Halloween.  The Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve began as the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Throughout Ireland and Scotland, bonfires were lit to mark the moment when the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest, and the souls of all those who died during the year could pass through.  

When the coming of Christianity, the good Celts were not keen to give up their traditions, so the holiday was reassigned, made a Christian holiday.  But it’s still Samhain deep down.

The Spring festivals honoring the fertility goddess Eostre were similarly re-imagined. The Saxons would invoke Eostre using the egg as a symbol of birth and renewal.  Often depicted with a rabbit at her side, Eostre moved into Britannia with the Anglo-Saxon invasion, finding a fertile new home.  

But converting pagans is never light work, and the cults of Eostre were not going to give up their long-held traditions and beliefs.  The Christians had little choice but to allow the worship to continue, so they created Easter, modifying the name only slightly, and reassigning it a Christian meaning.

Perhaps the toughest pagan holiday to dislodge was Saturnalia, the wine-fueled orgiastic festival that gave praise to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.  The Christians were just going to have to find something else to do with December 25.

Not to be forgotten, Saturn still lives on in our western concept of time - we honor him at the end of each week with his own day - Saturday.  

Lest the gods of the Vikings feel left out, the most powerful among them, Odin, gets his due every Odin’sday or Wednesday as we pronounce it.  Odin’s wife, the goddess Frigg, gets her due on Friggjardar, or Friday.

So as the grocery stores stuff away their Halloween wares, briefly replacing them with Thanksgiving themes, before the arrival of Santa Claus (a pagan Icelandic figure who rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, for whom children left food by the chimney), I’ll be thinking of what to get my wife for Christmas.  

I still have time.  Besides, it’s only Thursday (Thors-day, named for the Norse god of thunder, the mighty Thor.)



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16 comments:

Jewel Amethyst said...

Great post. Quite informative. That leaves Monday and Tuesday... any pagan God association there?

This goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun and cultures constantly borrow and build on each other.

William Doonan said...

Monday is the Old English Moon's-Day, and on Tuesday we honor Tiw, the Norse god of war.

Charles Gramlich said...

thor's day is my favorite.

Patricia Gligor said...

Interesting post, as always, William.

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Patricia. Looking forward to your new book!

Augie said...

William, this was great. So quickly we accept things because of familiarity and other times laziness...but I'm thankful to know the days of the week, the months as well as the holidays, where would we be without those honors? Augie

p.s. you keep us on our toes, thank you.Have a fantastic holiday and week.

Carmen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Doonan said...

Thanks, Augie. I'm fascinated by the way the past stays with us, even if we can only see it out of the corners of our eyes.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

Very interesting! love mythology but hadn't heard of Eostre or the eight-legged horse.

William Doonan said...

Eugenia, Yeah, the eight-legged horse is believed to be the inspiration for the eight reindeer - less frightening for the kids!

KeVin K. said...

That Passover and Eostre fall on the spring equinox is a coincidence, two faiths adopting the same day as important. The name Easter is an adoption, of course, and I blame Roman Emperor Constantine.

I think Constantine's conversion in the 4th century was one of the worst things that could have happened to Christianity. He declared the whole Roman Empire Christian, overlooking the fact 99% of his subjects had no idea what he was talking about. Completely muddied the waters and led to all sorts of theological mash-ups as folks who had no clue tried to reconcile the new order with local religions. Mostly they were efforts to be inclusive - honor the local gods alongside the new one, etc. - rather than hostile take-overs. Moving Christmas to the winter solstice, when the whole sheep-in-the-fields thing makes it clear Jesus was born in the spring, is a good example. Or all those cathedrals guarded by local gargoyles.

First century Christians would never have recognized what their little pacifistic, communal faith had become by the first millennium. There's no question they'd be horrified by Christianity's history since the Emperor's military mindset became a guiding principle.

Fun - and thought provoking - post as always, William.

William Doonan said...

KeVin, right on! We should drink a beer some time and talk history. I couldn't agree more with what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

I sure wouldn't mind celebrating Saturnalia the old fashioned way.

William Doonan said...

Anonymous,
When in Rome...

Liane Spicer said...

Fun and informative post, William. So that's where the Easter bunny originated...

If you think the large-scale mash-ups are, well, strange, you should see what happens in little corners of the world where disparate religions collide. There's a 'saint' day that's celebrated here in Trinidad by Christian, Hindu and Carib (Taino) devotees who all join in a procession behind a single effigy that has a different symbolic meaning to each.

Maybe all the myths are indeed one myth...

William Doonan said...

Liane,

I spent three years of childhood in Puerto Rico, so I remember some of the Taino mythology, but I like the idea of an effigy that can mean different things. I think we could use that here at a national level.