Seasonal cycles in ancient southern european pagan religion

The mysteries of the ancestors and the seasonal cycles were pre-eminent features of the lost north European ‘Atlantic Religion’. They also still pervaded the popular culture of the ‘Olympian’ system of gods that ruled the worlds of the ancient Greeks and then the Romans who largely copied much of their religious ideologies. The main difference between the southern and northern pagan religions appears to have been the belief in reincarnation popular among northern Europe’s barbarians – the Gauls and Britons in particular. The belief that human souls followed a regenerative cycle similar to that of the returning year appears to have been a fundamental aspect of this ideology. However, many of the Greek mystery religions appear to have kept hold of this idea – what little we know of their secrets suggests strongly that this was the case.

The Greek ‘Eleusian Mysteries’, for example, were founded upon divine personifications of the seasonal regenerative cycle. In these, The fertile spring and summer was portrayed as a daughter – Persephone – stolen away annually from her mother Demeter (the earth-mother, queen of harvests) during the winter months, and periodically allowed back to the world each year. The abductor was the cthonic lord – Hades – who ruled over the dead (believed in Greek and Roman religion, and its successor Christianity to have passed beyond life). Hades was known by the epithet Ploutos – ‘the wealthy one’ – because death and decay were responsible for fertility of the earth and regeneration. This was exactly the same seasonal drama that the Atlantic peoples employed and remembered in their later christian-era personifications of the Cailleach and Bride.
Roman-era accounts of the pre-conquest Atlantic peoples (the Gauls and Britons in particular) suggested that they believed that the dead were reincarnated and – like Persephone/Kore – lived again in another cycle.

The Eleusinian rites appear to have originated in the Mycaenean Bronze Age and continued down into the 4thC CE – covering a period possibly in excess of 2000 years until they fell into abeyance with the Christianisation of The Roman Empire. These rites were one of the most popular public pagan religious cults in the ancient world, and attracted people from across the Greek and Roman empires, until Eleusis was eventually destroyed by Alaric and his army of Arian Christian Visigoths as they surged through the Balkans on their way to Rome during the 5th century.

The Roman festival of Saturnalia – celebrated for a week around the time of the winter solstice – invoked the fertility of Saturn who reigned over the supposed ‘Golden Age’ of the ancestors: a time when plenty reigned, an inverted world where the slaves were the freemen and the rulers bound in chains. This concept appears to have been a direct echo of the Celtic/Atlantic concept which was later to state that the ancestral beings of the Otherworld (‘fairies’ or ‘sith’) lived in a plane of being that was inverse to our own. It is possible these beliefs were a Romanised continuity of pan-European ideas, although we have little evidence of this. More likely, as elsewhere, is that the ideas of paganism emerged spontaneously – coming out of the land itself with no written authority, only the absolute authority of nature.

The Anthesteria of the Greeks echoed the Saturnalia of the Romans, but is believed to have been celebrated during the January/February full moon. The Romans were largely responsible for imposing the solar months, yet everyone else in their Empire recognised the lunar time divisions – even the Anglo-Saxons who provided the English word for month: Monath, meaning ‘Moon’… The Ancient Greeks held this festival in honour of Dionysos: the god of stored abundance, particularly wine! He was therefore equivalent to the Roman Saturn (Kronos) and the Saturnalia in which societal roles were also interchanged…

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