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Category Archives: Traditions

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A Toast To The Ancients

by August 30, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Wining and dining — and philosophizing — is the way the Ancients celebrated life. In fact, wine was a cultural staple for the ancient Greeks. Considering that their civilization is the foundation for much of western civilization, wine becomes an important part of our collective heritage.
Archaeological digs that have unearthed extravagant, presumably once wine-toting goblets dating as far back as the Mycenaean era of Greece. Such artifacts included gold and silver goblets that demonstrated that the people of the Mycenaean era were not only fierce warriors, but also people of sophistication who were aware of wine and respected it greatly.
Vase illustration of Greek drinking

Ancient Greek Symposium

One artifact of particular interest is the Cup of Nestor. This Golden goblet was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 in the ancient civilization of Mycenae. It is believed to have belonged to the ancient king Nestor of Pylos, who was a prominent character in The Iliad.
Homer describes the goblet of Nestor as follows:
“There were four handles on it, around each one a pair of golden doves was feeding. Below were two supports. When that cup was full, another man could hardly lift it from the table, but, old as he was, Nestor picked it up with ease.” — The Iliad
Nestor's Cup

The Cup of Nestor or dove cup is a gold goblet discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann in Shaft IV of Grave Circle A, Mycenae.

It is commonly held that large scale production, distribution, and consumption of wine began on the prominent island of Crete. Depictions of primitive wine presses can be seen on the walls of Minoan tombs dating as far back to 3000 BCE. Clay goblets and carafes have been uncovered across the island, including in the ancient palace of King Minos in the city of Knossos.
It is believed the craft of wine making began on this island and slowly made the transfer to the mainland of Greece. The ancient Greeks traded wine as a commercial product for centuries across their regions.
Indeed, Greek wine was traded throughout the entire known ancient world. Wines from islands such as Crete, Rhodes, and Lesvos were especially popular. Homer himself writes about the wonderful supply of wine found in cellars outside the city of Troy. The Aegean was so saturated with wine trading ships that Homer would refer to it as “the wine-dark sea”.
Wine dark sea

Were the wine-dark seas from wine?

In order to accommodate high demand, the ancients developed new wine storage techniques that enabled it to be transported long distances without spoiling. Before the time of air-tight glass bottles, wine left in a regular barrel would be exposed to oxygen and spoil quickly.
The ancient Greeks began the practice of sealing these wine barrels with pine resin to prevent it from spoiling. The resin helped make the barrels air-tight while simultaneously adding a distinct pine aroma to the drink.
This distinctive taste is still alive today in the form of “Restina”, a modern white wine that emulates the flavor of ancient times.
Restina

Restina… not everyone’s cup of wine…

An interesting anecdote claims the use of pine resin was for a very different reason. According to this theory, Roman soldiers would regularly plunder the cities of Greece and make off with their stores of wine. The Greek citizens became so angry that they began using pine resin to add a bitter aroma to their wine. The Roman invaders would try one sip of this distinctive wine, taste the bitterness and assume it was spoiled.
In this way the Greeks would keep their wines and the invaders would be none the wiser. This idea would seem to lead to the thought that the Greeks would take measures to protect their wines while the invaders would make off with their women and treasures. At least they had their priorities straight…??
Wine in ancient Greece was of enormous cultural significance. The ancients drank wine to praise the gods and expand their minds. They studied it intently to decipher it’s presumed health benefits and risks.
It was a nutritional staple, a religious experience: indeed, the production, distribution, and consumption of wine is so deeply ingrained with the culture of ancient Greece, that you simply can not have one without the other.

The Brutality of Citizen Wives

by July 24, 2019

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Thesmophoria, the feminine fertility festival, dedicated to the Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, was literally for women only. Citizen males of ancient Greece were unconditionally restricted from attending any portion of the three-day long event, though they were responsible for its expenses. Further, men who spied on, or interrupted, the Thesmophoria were subject to life threatening and disfiguring acts of violence perpetrated by the Thesmophorians themselves.
Ancient Greek women illustration

Various Ancient Greek costumes; right to left – One female flute player and the rest are women’s everyday costumes. Date: circa 500 BC

There are some noteworthy examples demonstrating this extensive retribution, straight from ancient sources.
First there is the lore that the hapless King Battos of Cyrene—famed for founding Cyrene—was cruelly castrated by the furious disciples for surreptitiously observing their sacred and secret rites.
Then there is the tale related by Pausanias (110 CE- 180 CE) of the legendary Messenian hero Aristomenes, who was celebrated for his victories with the Spartans. He unfortunately captured the female disciples in the midst of their clandestine celebration, only to be “knocked senseless” by their sacrificial knives and spits.
Painting of Aristomenes

A girl saves Aristomenes by Franc Kavčič

Next, there is the legend of unlucky Militiades, who, while in battle to secure the island of Paros, leapt over the wall leading to the Thesmophorian shrine. Once there, he was so overcome with terror that in jumping back over the wall he sprained his thigh, from which he developed gangrene and later died. Herodotus (484 BCE- 425 BCE) recounts this as an admonishment, and warms that this mournful outcome was due to his breaching the sacred sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros.
Then we have Plutarch’s (46 CE- 120 CE) narrative of Pesistratus (562 BCE -527 BCE), the tyrant of Athens, and the Athenian statesman Solon (638 BCE-558 BCE). They pulled a trick on the Thesmophorians celebrating in Megara by enlisting two beardless men to impersonate the disciples.
Illustration of Athenian tyrant

Illustration from 1838 by M. A. Barth depicting the return of Peisistratos to Athens, accompanied by a woman disguised as Athena, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus

Once discovered, the Thesmophorians brutally attacked the wretched mimics.
Finally there is Aristophanes’ comedic satire Thesmophoriazusae or “Women of the Thesmophoria.” In it Aristophanes casts his colleague Euripides as the character for whom the Thesmophorians want revenge.
“Today at the Thesmophoria the women are going to liquidate me, because I slander them,” cries Euripides.
The premise is that the rebellious disciples seek to kill Euripides for characterizing women in his plays as villainous. While the women are mocked in terms of their democratic assembly and their ritual, Aristophanes’ depiction of the Thesmophorians as uncontrollable and violent is in keeping with the androcentric mindset towards the festival.
vase painting of play

Apulian krater with scene from Thesmophoriazusae, c. 370 BC

The brutality of these stories demonstrates that men’s profound uneasiness with the Thesmophoria was in direct proportion to their wary respect for it. Though suspicious, pious citizen males could not obstruct it, as it was deemed both holy and integral to the health and well being of the polis. Indeed, the citizen males considered the Thesmophoria to be at once both threatening and reverential. Why else, but for the power to increase fertility, would the males in patriarchal ancient Greece comply with the wishes of the obviously inferior sex? In a society where men set the rules, the Thesmophoria turned the dominant paradigm on its head.
Kept from all activities in the public sphere, citizen wives were only granted a watered down citizenship, which simply allowed them to bear citizen males.
Disenfranchised from participating in the political life of the polis, women were similarly as powerless in any acts of societal sacrificial violence. For example, women usually had no access to instruments of sacrifice such as the all-important knife, kettle or the spit. However, archaeological and literary evidence suggests that full-grown sows, killed in a sacrificial manner employing a knife, were discovered at various Demeter sanctuaries throughout Attica.
Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone

Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone

Indeed, most scholars now concur that the Thesmophoria was unique in being one of the only feminine festivals where sacrifices were performed, meaning that the women of the Thesmophoria had rare access to the violent instruments of death.
Meeting outside the androcentric social constructs of family; the disciples were at liberty to become autonomous individuals without concerns for their family, as they once were in pre-patriarchal times. It also empowered a united feminine community without male restrictions—a possibly dangerous and subversive combination for the dominant male culture of ancient Greece. Indeed, enfranchised men were afraid of the anger of the subjugated female. And they should have been – for the women at the Thesmophoria, independent and armed at their secret cult festival, were a force to be reckoned with.

Suicide: A Hero’s way out?

by June 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

The debt we owe to the Ancients is almost impossible to measure. They gave the western world maths, theatre, wine, democracy, the Olympics, history, wine, libraries, roads, wine, philosophy, sanitation, universities, pizza and even wine (for a more comprehensive list see Monty Python’s Life of Brian).
We have much to thank our forebears for and a whole lifetime would not be long enough to fully comprehend the bounty they have bestowed upon us.
However, one area in which the teaching of antiquity is best left to the theoretical is the ultimate pro-life/pro-choice one… suicide.
The taking of one’s own life was not exclusively the refuge of the hopeless, the weak or the mentally unstable. Indeed, mors voluntaria (voluntary death) was not automatically laden with any negative connotation in the same way suicidium later came to be.

The Death of Dido, Joshua Reynolds, 1781

In fact, the latter term was not in general use until the 12th century AD, by which time its meaning had become bastardized. So much so, that if you mentioned suicidium to a Roman c.50 AD he would have presumed you were talking about killing pigs!
Etymology aside, the methods, malice or merits of suicide were still quite tricky concepts to clearly understand.
Defeat in battle, loss of (female) chastity, sickness, old-age and selflessness are documented reasons for ancients wishing to take the final, irreversible step.
“When arising from shame and dishonor, suicide was regarded as appropriate; self-sacrifice was admired; impulsive suicide was less esteemed than a calculated, rational act” (Miriam T. Griffin).
Death of Cleopatra

Roman painting from the House of Giuseppe II, Pompeii, early 1st century AD, most likely depicting Cleopatra VII, wearing her royal diadem, consuming poison in an act of suicide, while her son Caesarion, also wearing a royal diadem, stands behind her.

Slavish, plebeian or feminine ways of checking out, like jumping from a height, drowning or hanging, were totally reviled. If one wished to end it all in an heroic, manly fashion then the only way to do it was by using a weapon.
Therefore, the classic image of a disgraced or defeated Roman opening his veins in a hot bath (referenced in Godfather II) was not merely dramatic license on the part of Hollywood.
One downside of suicide (besides the obvious) in most modern, monotheistic societies was seemingly not relevant for the ancients, i.e. prohibited entry into the afterlife.
In Homer’s Odyssey we see the great Achilles standing shoulder to shoulder with Ajax – the wretched King of Salamis who took his own life at Troy.
Ajax suicide Vase

Exekias’s vase depicting the suicide of Ajax

However, his wretchedness was not simply ascribed to his suicide, but the unheroic causes of it. Ajax killed himself in a fit of pique – he didn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that he was the Greek’s greatest living warrior and his selfish action could have lost them the Trojan War.
Conversely, Leonidas’ kamikaze mission in delaying the Persian army’s advance with only ‘300’ soldiers was seen as a noble and worthy act – a feat truly worth giving one’s life for.
Having said that, in general, the Greeks were not very pro-choice.
Aristotle, who considered the act a social injustice, stated that “taking one’s own life to avoid poverty or desire or pain is unmanly… or rather cowardly”.
Plato was slightly more ambiguous when he said that “what ought a man to suffer if he kills that which is most truly his own… if he takes his own life”? Going on to explain that “crimes against the state are crimes against the gods, and vice versa. When a man kills himself without good reason… he is committing a crime.” Though he does concede “intolerable shame” can justify the act.
Death of Socrates

Was Socrates’ death suicide?
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

A similar caveat is begrudgingly part of Epicurean doctrine – though in their instance, the case for life can be decided using a simple pleasure versus pain equation.
Socrates also had something to say on the topic… as one might expect from a man forced to commit suicide by a jury of his peers. He believed a man should not take his own life “until the god sends some compulsion upon him”.
Therefore, while we can see Leonidas as more of a martyr than a suicide victim, it’s safe to make the generalization that the Greeks distrusted, disliked or disapproved of suicide.
And so it was up to the Romans to give mors voluntaria a whiff of romanticism.
Indeed the mentality of Ajax, a mighty soldier shamed by the actions of inferior warriors, would have been much better understood by the proud and passionate Latins.
The civil war (that of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Brutus, Octavian/Augustus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra i.e. the setting for HBO’s Rome) produced no end of dramatic and heroic suicides.
Brutus killed himself after his eventual defeat to Octavian at Philippi, Cato refused to acknowledge that Caesar had the authority to pardon him and instead opted to disembowel himself, and Antony and Cleopatra famously fell to sword and asp respectively.
Painting of the death of Cato

Death of Cato, painting by Johann Carl Loth

Each of these ends exuded an aura of honorable defiance or heroism. This reflection was accentuated by Nero’s pitiful ‘suicide’ in 68 AD.
Trapped in a villa four miles outside Rome, realizing his end was nigh, the disgraced emperor headed for the most dignified exit left open to him. However, such was his poltroonery that he couldn’t go through with it himself, instead he ordered his secretary to perform the gruesome deed.
As a feeble cop-out, all we can really say is that ancient attitudes towards suicide were ambiguous. In one breath it could be venerated and in the next compared to murder.
Death of Nero. Smirnov V.S.

Death of Nero, By Smirnov V.S.

It took Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century AD for the ancient world to be euthanized of its uncertainty.
Soon it would become clear that the decision to end life was no longer in the hands of man, nor of the gods, but of God.
So, if you wanted to kill yourself in antiquity, it was much better to do it in pagan Rome than in Greece, as the former was more likely to bring you a reputation for valor. However, any type of mors voluntaria in Christian Rome was likely to cause many more problems than it solved.
Perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind the words (rather than the deeds) of the Roman philosopher, Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”.
In short… don’t kill yourself. And if you do, please don’t cite this article in your suicide note.

The Mysteries of The Orphics

by June 24, 2019

By John Mancini, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Orphism art

Orphic mosaics were found in many late-Roman villas

Of the many belief systems circulating in archaic Greece, Orphism was perhaps the most significant. The state-sanctioned religion of Hellenism may have intermingled with all aspects of daily life, but archaic Greece was also a mixture of superstitious magic and philosophical cults. There were rational beliefs such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, as well as sects with mystical tendencies like Pythagoreanism and later, Orphism, the adherents of which developed the Eleusinian Mystery Festivals, an annual celebration that captivated Athenians for nearly two thousand years.
Unlike the state-sanctioned rituals of Hellenism, of which it was a part, Orphism was guarded by educated elite. Those who followed Orphism were called Orphics, and they held their yearly mystery festival on the Eleusinian plains west of Athens in celebration of Demeter and Persephone – as well as their mysterious consort, Dionysus, who played a key role in this religion.
Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

The Orphic religion, as well as their texts, was said to have been associated with the literature from the mythical poet, Orpheus. In the myth of Orpheus, his wife Eurydice suffers a fatal encounter with a snake. By journeying to the Underworld and composing a song that softens the heart of Hades, Orpheus is able to win his wife’s resurrection, but on one condition: he mustn’t turn back to look at her on his way out. Of course, he can’t resist one last look, and he immediately loses his love a second time. From then on, Orpheus can only recall Eurydice’s ghost through song.
There is an unhappy version of the Orpheus myth as told by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. Similar to the ending in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Aeschylus’ play describes Orpheus dismemberment by the Bassarai (the Bacchants in Ovid). However, his head goes on singing and makes its way across the sea to Lesbos where it is venerated by Apollo.
orpheus

orpheus

Orpheus’ death in this myth as well as in the Metamorphosis can be seen as an allegory for peaceful societies inevitably succumbing to barbarism. Ovid claims that Dionysus punished the Bacchants for killing Orpheus, but in contrast, Aeschylus’ play has Dionysus sending the Bassarai to punish Orpheus for not paying him tribute. This is an interesting distinction that differentiates Orphism from earlier orgiastic cults. The Orphics were enemies of the orgiastic praise of early Dionysian rituals – and the fundamental point of the Orphic poems was the dismemberment of Dionysus at the hands of the Titans.
In the Orphic verses Dionysus is Zagreus, son of Persephone and Hades/Zeus. Hera convinces the Titans to tear him apart, but Zeus is able to save Dionysus’ heart, and he destroys the Titans with a lightning bolt. From their ashes man is born – hence man’s “Titanic” nature.
Egyptian myths exerted a lot of influence on Greek myths, especially during the 6th century when Greek merchants frequently visited the country. The Greeks would have been aware of the Egyptian Cult of the Dead, which influenced the Cult of Adonis and Dionysus, whose dismemberment at the hands of the Titans also mirrors the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In an ancient epic by Alcmaeonis, Dionysus-Zagreus is equated with the night, thunder and the earth. He is the “highest of all gods.” For Dionysus was originally a god of the Underworld. The Egyptians equated him with Pluto. In fact, Heraclitus said that Hades and Dionysus were one and the same.
Dionysus

Dionysus

So while the cult of Dionysus, which originated in Egypt, was incorporated into the Orphic religion, it also lost some of its earlier vitality and impact. The central rite of Orphism was the animal sacrifice, a symbolic dismembering and eating of Dionysus. This rite is interpreted as a crime in the Orphic myths, in which the Titans are similarly demonized. Like mankind, the Bacchants are equated with the Titans, hence with the principle of evil, and their Dionysian frenzy was condemned by the Orphics.
The unhappy ending of the Orpheus myth is one of vengeance for turning the Maenads into criminals. Dionysus was a god of the Underworld, and Orpheus did not acknowledge him, but rather associated with Apollo-Helios, the sun god.
Orphism was built on old ideas, but the Orphics systematized these ideas in a practical way, creating an organized religion that was powerfully influential, especially to Christian Gnosticism with its emphasis on love.
Orphic Tablet

Gold orphic tablet and case found in Petelia, southern Italy (British Museum)

Orphism’s insistence on freeing the soul from physical bondage was also borrowed by Christianity, and in Orphism we can also find an origin of religious guilt and its resolution through purification rituals conducted by an elite few who claimed they could save people’s souls – which probably influenced other similar religious priesthoods that came later.
Plato may have thought the Orphics were swindlers, but they were very influential. The Orphics’ ultimate triumph was the concretizing of heaven and hell – of delineating good and evil and putting the work of preparing the human soul for death into a fantastically detailed religious practice.
 

The Oracle of Delphi: More than a legend

by April 17, 2019

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Centuries ago, from every corner of the Mediterranean, people traveled to Greece to get answers about their life and future by the Oracle of Delphi. It was there that the god Apollo, through different women named Pythia chosen by local priests, sent his messages to those who needed them… as well as to those who could afford them. This was how it happened for the 12 centuries the oracle was active.

Dephi

How was life at Delphi?
Delphi, along with Olympia and Nemea, was considered an inter-urban sanctuary but also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary: “they were located away from major cities, although they were under the administrative control of their nearby city-states or amphictyonies, they had an aura of neutrality”.
While at least four temples were built for Apollo at Delphi, there were many more around the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, Delphi was not even the only ancient city with an oracle, however it was one of the most significant.
Delphi

Delphi by Christian Hardi – pixabay.com

While the oracle was active, wealthy people and leaders from different territories occasionally paid to get to the front of the line to see the oracle. Indeed, there are records that state that the Pythia was sometimes forced to take her position on the tripod by the temple priests in order to satisfy rich clients.
At Delphi, there were always a lot of people waiting in line to see it. We know about them because the ones who paid a lot of money are immortalized in stone inscriptions.
Interestingly, these aren’t the only stone inscriptions… Despite wars, the rise and fall of different empires, two messages still survive to this day on the entrance of the temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much”.
Inscriptions at Delphi

Ancient Greek inscription on stone, near the Archaeological Museum. Main archaeological site of Delphi.

The Oracle and its messages
According to some records, the oracle delivered its pronouncements on an annual basis; the day chosen for the event was the seventh day of Bysios, Apollo’s birthday.
Other records state that nine times each year the woman went to the tripod, initiated the trance state, and gave Apollo a voice to deliver his messages. These sessions were held on the seventh day after each new moon in spring, summer, and fall. It did not occur during winter because Apollo was believed to have gone north to the land of the Hyperboreans (giants who lived “beyond the North Wind”).
Sculpture of Apollo

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares. Found in the late 15th century.

The Pythia was always a woman from Delphi, regardless of her age or social class. While she was serving as oracle, she lived in the sanctuary, abstained from sexual activity, and fasted on or before the days scheduled for oracular sessions.
During days of oracle activity, the Pythia would initially be brought by priests of the temple from a private residence and led through a series of purification and religious rituals before her performance. Eventually she was led down into the inner sanctum of the temple (the adyton).
Painting of the Pythia

Priestess of Delphi, John Collier, 1891

Rulers and wealthy citizens of the known world (as well as famous philosophers) made the journey to this mountainous site to make the most important decisions of their lives… and the lives of those around them. Indeed, war and peace were determined by these messages.
The Vapors of Delphi
The Pythia delivered their oracles on a tripod over the cleft in the ground of Apollo’s temple, which was constructed around 800 BCE on Mount Parnassus. Over the years different women would take on the sacred role and pronounce their prophecies, but they were always inspired by the same vapors.
Delphi with vapors

Detail from Archaeological Site of Delphi, Greece

For centuries, different researchers underestimated the theory of the cleft and vapors because they couldn’t find any geological indicators that led them to their location. However, ancient writers such as Plutarch, Homer or Euripides described the vapors and modern studies are finally validating their reports. Evidence from a chemical analyses of water samples and travertine deposits in the adyton have shown that the springs on site have in the past and continue at present to emit small volumes of hydrocarbon gases.
Fall of Delphi and its Oracle
Painting of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), as imagined by Eugène Delacroix

The Oracle started its decline in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. In 389 CE, Theodosius I started persecutions against Old Religion and prohibited the cult of Apollo and the celebration of the Pythian games in honor of Apollo. In 391 CE, Christianity was the exclusive state religion and older temples were closed.
Even though temples were shut down and the oracle was “silenced”, splendid structures still stand today, preserving the magnificent, if not fantastic, history of the Pythia and the Oracle of Delphi.

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December?

by December 26, 2018

By April Holloway, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The popular answer is that it is Jesus’ birthday. However, it is necessary to reconsider that belief, No records exist in the Bible, or elsewhere, suggesting Jesus was born on that date. If it was not the birth of Christ which set Christmas Day apart from others in the calendar, what was it? To find out, you need to take look at ancient Persian and pagan traditions.
Christmas Was Probably Not the Day Christ was Born
First, let’s take a quick look at why Christmas probably wasn’t Jesus’ day of birth. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia states “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). That being said, there are several reasons supporting the idea that Jesus wasn’t born in December. Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus’ birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Scholars tend to agree that it is highly unlikely that shepherds were out with their flocks in the cold winter month.
Mosaic of the Good shephard

“The Good Shepherd” mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century AD. ( CC BY SA ) Few scholars believe shepherds were watching their flocks overnight in December – it’s more probable they would have kept them under cover.

Luke 2:1-4 also claims that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census when Jesus was born. These censuses were not known to have occurred in winter – also making it improbable to link Jesus’ birthday with the day now called Christmas.
Pagan Festivals
Okay, so Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th. Yet other important events did fall at that time of year for ancient pagans. The most well-known of these celebrations were Saturnalia and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra.
Originally, Saturnalia was held on December 17th, though the festival eventually was extended until December 25. This celebration honored Saturn, the God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was linked to the rise of a new year and the return of light. Ancient Romans would celebrate this date with a public banquet, giving gifts, partying, and holding a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn.

Roman fresco of dice players from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii. ( Public Domain ) Saturnalia was a “time-off” for slaves when they were allowed to wear nice clothes, sit at the head of the table, and gamble.

Mithra’s Birthday?
Roman Pagans who worshipped Mithras believed he was born on December 25th – the most holy day of the year for many ancient believers. This was a well-known cult for the Roman military in the 1st to 4th centuries AD. But Mithras is a god who has his origins in Persia beginning around the 6th century BC. The proto-Indo-Iranian language calls him ‘Mitra’, but that name was later adapted into Greek as ‘Mithras’. Many scholars believe that Roman soldiers discovered this god while completing military campaigns in Persia.
The Mithraic New Year and Mithras’ birthday were celebrated on 25 December. The date was part of the Roman Natalis Invicti festival – a celebration linked to worshipping the sun in general.
Persian Sun God

Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840. (BigStockPhoto)

Uniting Pagan and Christian Beliefs
When Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he may not have imagined how difficult it would be to convert pagans into Christians. To ease the transition, the birth of Jesus became associated with pagan holidays which fell in December. As the Pagan holidays gained Christian significance, it was decided that the birthday of the Sun God should also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian stating, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…. Christ should be born”.