Saturday, December 9, 2023

Io, Saturnalia! (And the Contemplation of the Eternal Return and the Wisdom Therein)

Saturn with a scythe
Round and round we go. We watch the pendulum swing, back and forth. Sometimes the swing is swift and sometimes the interval takes longer, but always and everywhere it (events, history, life, death, growth, regress, etc.) repeats.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius noted this a few times in his Meditations (2014).

"a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future" (11.1).

This same translation of Meditations makes a note and commentary on Book 2.14, which is related to this thought. 

"see the same things: The eternal sameness of things is another frequent theme in the Meditations, taking two widely disparate forms. One (as here) derives from the belief of orthodox Stoicism, evidently accepted by Marcus, that from eternity to eternity the world goes through an endless succession of identical cycles (so that all that happens has happened before, and will happen again): see especially 9.28, and also 5.13 (and note), 5.32, 6.37, 8-6, 9.35, 10.7.2, 11.1.2, 12.26. For the doctrine of everlasting recurrence see LS, 52; Sandbach, pp. 78-9. The other is the expression of a world-weary and often dismissive view that 'there is no new thing under the sun' (Ecclesiastes 1:9) in human life, behaviour, and depravity: with a few years' experience (in 7.49 and 11.1.2 Marcus puts it at forty) you have 'seen it all'. See also 4.32, 4.44, 6.46, 7.1, 8.25, 9.14, 9.33, 10.2.7, 12.24 ('monotony and transience')" (2014).

This time of year (December to early January) usually prompts a lot of introspection for me. I reflect on the year, I try to indulge in the festivities, I recall Christmases past and I plan for the future - revisiting and revising plans, taking account of the current situation in life and evaluating options for the future, and then making course corrections as needed.

This year, as part of this introspection, I decided to research and learn a bit more about the Roman festival known as Saturnalia. While I've always known something about it, I searched for meatier content about what it was like and from whence it was formed. For this, the book entitled The Christmas Encyclopedia provides a very adequate explanation and summary.
A pre-Christian harvest and winter solstice celebration held throughout the Roman Empire in honor of Saturn or Saturnus (from the Latin satus, “to sow”), god of agriculture, who reigned during the so-called Golden Age of Rome, a time of peace and prosperity. Originally celebrated for one day on December 17, the festival under the Caesars extended through December 24, in which the spirit of gaiety and frolic prevailed, recalling that Golden Age. All work, businesses, schools, and matters of court were suspended, criminals received reprieves from punishment, war was not waged, and no humans were sacrificed to Saturn; the lighting of numerous candles in his temple symbolized such mercies.

Instead, festivities began with the sacrifice of a young pig in the temple. Each community selected a Magister Ludi (Master of the Games) or a Saturnalicus Princeps (Chief of the Saturnalia), a mock king, who supervised the feasting, revelry, singing, and dancing. He was chosen by lots, sometimes as the one who found the coin hidden in servings of pudding. Masters and slaves traded places, with masters serving their slaves, who could bid the former to perform any task and could exact ludicrous punishments should they fail to execute them. Class distinctions were suspended as well, as a spirit of humanity seized everyone to do good unto his neighbor, including dispensing money to the poor. Transvestism was common and, in keeping with the tradition of masquerades, in northern provinces, Germanic tribes often donned masks in the likenesses of horned beasts and hideous creatures, symbolic of spirits which were believed to inhabit the winter darkness.

Statues of Saturn, as well as homes, were decorated with holly, sacred to this god; with evergreen wreaths, symbolic of the sun; and with evergreen garlands, symbolic of the renewal of life at the approaching winter solstice, December 25 on the Roman or Julian calendar. (In the Christian era, these evergreens would come to symbolize eternal life through Christ.)

At the conclusion of the festival came the exchanging of gifts: signillaria (clay dolls) for the children and strenae (olive branches honoring the woodland goddess Strenia) or cerei (wax tapers or candles) for the adults.

The festivities were essentially repeated for three days at the January Calends, beginning on the first day of the new year (January 1). This was especially the time when the populace presented the emperor with votae(gifts).

Although the Saturnalia was not the sole winter solstice festival of the Roman Empire (among other festivals, a feast on December 15 honored Consus, god of the storeroom; one on December 17 honored his consort, Ops, a mother goddess), it was by far the most important in terms of its traditions and symbols, many of which the early Christian Church adopted into the Christmas season. The lighting of candles, decorating with holly and evergreens, giving of gifts (the Wise Men that visited the manger had no monopoly on gift-giving), holiday charity, and the unrestrained merrymaking all were most recently derived from the Saturnalia.

The basis for these traditions actually originated some 4,000 years before the birth of Christ in the land of Mesopotamia, which included Sumer, later corresponding to Babylonia; through northern and western routes, the customs reached Greece, Rome, and other parts of Europe. The equivalent Sumerian and Babylonian celebrations, respectively, were the Zagmuk (“Beginning of the Year”) and Akitu (“New Year's Festival”). The Sumerian festival was semiannual, held in the fall (month of Tishri) and in the spring (month of Nisan), commemorating the two principal solar points of the year (winter and summer). Akitu, however, occurred only at the first new moon after the spring equinox.

The mythology surrounding Akitu held that as the year drew to a close, the world, created by the supreme Babylonian god Marduk, lay dying. During the festival, it was traditional for the king to perform rituals to atone for any sins of man against Marduk and to assist him in battling the monsters of chaos in the underworld, acts that would restore the world of the living for another year. To begin the rituals, the king entered the temple of Marduk. There, he suffered humiliation as the high priest stripped him of his regal vestments and beat him; then the king swore annual allegiance to Marduk, after which he was reinstated as king. It is likely that the king then symbolically “sacrificed” himself by appointing a mock king in his stead from the ranks of criminals (his mock counterpart is seen in the Master of the Games of the Saturnalia and Archbishop of Fools of the Feast of Fools). This criminal was then arrayed in regal raiment and sacrificed sometime during a 12-day celebration, which consisted of feasting, socializing, and gift-giving (a parallel is seen in the 12 days of Christmas). Wooden images depicting the monsters of chaos were burned to assist Marduk in his battle for life, and such images are believed to be the earliest precursors of the Yule log.

These, then were some of the world's earliest known plans for year-end festivals, which most modern civilizations have since adapted to their own cultures. (Crump, 2013 emphasis added).
Reading the above, I am struck by the switching of roles and parts in those ancient cultures. What must it have been like to be the master of the estate, and then for the better part of a month, turn the reigns and authority over to the servants? One day you're sitting at the top, and the next you're being told what to do by the lowliest of the classes. Would our current overlords (e.g. Prime Ministers, Presidents, Senators, CEOs, business owners, Principals, Mayors, etc.) ever be willing to do the same in today's day and age? It makes for a fascinating thought experiment.  Yet, this is what the ancients did!

While it seems impractical to put this ancient ritual into practice today, there are some aspects about this ritual worth contemplating in the vein of premeditatio malorum. Those in power and those who possessed fortune had those preferred indifferents taken from them during Saturnalia. While they thought they enjoyed sound footing and an unassailable point of advantage, it was taken from them. Do we think we possess a similar position in our lives in 2023? Could the home in which I live, and the job at which I work and the salary I am paid, and the health I enjoy - could one or all of those be taken on a whim? Absolutely. All of it could be taken upon death, or some of it could be taken due to circumstances and events beyond my control.

In fact, returning to what Marcus Aurelius wrote about a man of forty seeing it all, at the age of 47, I too have seen and heard many of these events in the course of my life. I have contemplated what it must have been like for my father's father to watch his entire ranch burn down, forcing the family to practically to start all over. I've read the account of my father's mother holding her young baby, while the doctor listened to his heart slowly stop beating, saying, "now, now, now" indicating when the baby's heart stopped.

I've contemplated the tens of thousands of young men, at the young age of 20 take one step off a boat to storm a beach in some distant land and die in a split second to a bullet to the head. I've wondered what it must have been like for my father who was about to be deployed to the Pacific in 1945, but then to not have to serve because the war ended after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I've wondered about the details of the story of my father's mother pleading with the officer in the army to discharge my father to help on the ranch, thus saving him from serving in the Korean War.

I've contemplated a man named Rich O'Conner, who worked for a major corporation for over 30 years, who interviewed me at the beginning of my career, and who just a few weeks before retirement, pulled into his driveway, suffered a major heart attack and died - who never fully enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

I've lived through a global pandemic and watched millions of people both die and suffer from the effects of COVID-19 as well as the effects of the vaccines administered to cure and prevent the virus. I've watched the world and culture fundamentally change in a matter of months and years due to the global lockdown from the pandemic.

I've contemplated my sister-in-law and her husband and how they lost their baby a few months after she was born, and then all the angst and anxiety they had to endure through two more pregnancies and births, wondering if the same fate would happen to those babies. I've contemplated the life of my father-in-law, who retired wealthy, but suffered from bankruptcy due to the housing crisis and great recession of 2008, and then less than a decade later, unexpectedly die at the age of 66. I've contemplated the death of my brother-in-law at the age of 49 - he was at the cusp of greatness in his career as a college professor and researcher, and a loving husband and father of four children.

I've contemplated the religion in which I grew up (Mormonism) and the debris and chaos left in its wake - the abuse they have facilitated and the lack of morals and failure in responsibility to help those women and children who suffered under the church's patriarchy. I've contemplated the unethical nature of the church's leadership in softly and harshly lying about its past and its dogmas. I've contemplated and stand in awe at an organization who preaches the gospel of Jesus regarding mankind cannot love God and Mammon both, yet it has amassed an ungodly amount of capital and assets and cash to the tune of close to $200 billion. I stand all amazed at the selfishness, corruption, egotistical and hypocritical nature of such an organization.

Perhaps I have not seen all of it, but I have seen quite a bit of it. And what do I learn from it? I learn, what I think Saturnalia is attempting to teach: that it repeats and it can happen to anyone including me. One day I could be on the up-and-up, getting ahead in my career, and the next I could be assessed down and earning less. One day I could feel safe and secure in my home, the next I could be robbed and many of my possessions taken.  One day I could be playing basketball quite healthily, the next I could be injured and forced to never play again. One day I could be fast asleep in my bed, the next I could be waking up in the middle of the night receiving a call from the police about an accident or incident my child was involved in.

Saturnalia teaches us our lots can change on a dime. However, what is 'up to us' is our attitude and reaction to said change. Could we lose status, wealth, health, loved ones and still retain our equanimity? Could we still find a way to demonstrate a good moral character despite the "losses?" To me, this seems to be a worthy challenge. We need not be stuck in mourning our losses. Grieve we may and in some cases, we must, but to remain in in such a state does not demonstrate a good moral character. The challenge is to prove to yourself you can take the misfortunes and fortunes of life and retain your equanimity. Saturnalia gave the people a chance to practice this very virtue.

And regardless of misfortune or fortune, there are opportunities to practice a good moral character. Seneca notes this of Socrates, who survived and lived under the Thirty Tyrants. In his essay On Tranquility he wrote,
Can you find any city more wretched in any way than the Athenians’ city when the thirty tyrants tore it apart? They had killed thirteen hundred citizens, all the best men, but did not make an end of it; but their sheer savagery stimulated itself. In a city which held the Areopagus, that most scrupulous of courts, in which there was a senate and a people similar to the senate, the grim college of executioners met each day, and the unhappy senate house was crammed with tyrants: could that state repose in which there were as many tyrants as there were henchmen? Their minds could not even entertain any hope of recovering their freedom, and no scope for a cure appeared against such a powerful force of evils; for how could the poor city find so many Harmodii? Yet Socrates was openly out in public life and comforted the mourning fathers and exhorted men despairing of the state, and reproached wealthy men fearing the consequences of their riches because they came too late to regret the dangers brought on by their greed; he bore himself as a mighty example for those willing to imitate him, walking as a free man among the thirty masters. But Athens herself killed him in jail, and liberty did not tolerate the liberty of the man who had safely provoked the horde of tyrants; you learn from this that even in an oppressed state there is a chance for the wise man to put himself forward, and that in a flourishing and happy state envy and a thousand other evils dominate (2014, p. 191)
Therefore, regardless of any circumstance or event or fortune or misfortune, there are ways and opportunities to practice and live with a high, good moral character (virtue) - one can exercise one's volition to demonstrate excellence.

This is it - this is life. Once you realize this is the ultimate fate we face, Saturnalia can teach you the greater lesson of recurrence. Just as this festival has been around thousands of years in some form or fashion, perhaps we have lived this same life thousands of time before or perhaps we have lived some existence in a different state or status thousands of times before. Just as roles were swapped (status, gender, form, etc.) during Saturnalia, perhaps we have lived thousands (millions?) of different roles or forms previously. And if that is the case, would you act differently with others today?  If one day you were the master of the estate, and the next day during Saturnalia, your servants were master of the estate, would that change the way you act as the master?

Another lesson recurrence and Saturnalia can teach us is the reflex of retreat to sound ground. The moment we are born, we began to die. Through the course of life, we erect layers of knowledge around us, bank accounts, homes, walls, gates, savings, 401Ks; we build our reputations and deposit good acts into our account so we can withdraw from it in times when we face ill repute. However, try as we might, we must give ground. Life advances, misfortune strikes and if our reputation and wealth do not suffer first, then our mind and body will eventually succumb to disease, age and death. Will we anxiously cling to every scrap life takes from us, or will we learn the wisdom of accepting our fate, and retreating to solid ground - the sound logic that informs us the only thing we truly possess and control is our moral character; our virtue.  All else matters not. Anyway, why cling? Saturnalia and recurrence teaches us our fate will change and if we don't like it, soon enough things return to the way they used to be. So, in the meantime - in the present moment - act with justice, wisdom, discipline and courage.

To conclude, Marcus Aurelius eloquently sums these lessons - important ideas to contemplate during this season of Saturnalia.
Even if you were destined to live three thousand years, or ten times that long, nevertheless remember that no one loses any life other than the one he lives, or lives any life other than the one he loses. It follows that the longest and the shortest lives are brought to the same state. The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future - how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess?
So always remember these two things. First, that all things have been of the same kind from everlasting, coming round and round again, and it makes no difference whether one will see the same things for a hundred years, or two hundred years, or for an infinity of time. Second, that both the longest-lived and the earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have (2.14).


Aurelius, M. (2014). Meditations (M. Hammond, Trans.). Penguin Classics, An Imprint Of Penguin Books.

Crump, W. D. (2013). The Christmas Encyclopedia. Mcfarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca. (2014). Hardship and Happiness (E. Fantham, H. M. Hine, J. Ker, & G. D. Williams, Trans.). University of Chicago Press.