Diving at Epiphany

Bulgarian men 'diving for the cross' at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

Bulgarian men ‘diving for the cross’ at Epiphany. Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

In Orthodox christianity, the ancient tradition of the Sanctification of the Waters at the festival of Epiphany (5th and 6th of January) is marked throughout the world by the popular custom of ‘diving for the cross’. The festival itself celebrates not just the ‘Theophany’ of Jesus to the gentiles but in particular among Orthodox Christians, his adult baptism by John the Baptist/the holy spirit (depending on which gospel tradition you go by).

Cross-diving usually follows the Epiphany mass and involves the priest casting a crucifix into a body of water, this being the cue for a crowd of eager young men to dive in, competing to retrieve it. It obviously echoes the baptismal theme of the Christian myth, but is there more to this tradition that predates Christianity?

As previously mentioned, there are many features which Christianity has borrowed from paganism for the festivities spanning from the winter solstice to Epiphany: the festivals of Saturnalia and the Dionysia being key donor traditions. Dionysia is the closest model for Epiphany, being the annual festival of the epiphany or theophany of Dionysus to the people. In western christianity, it is also remembered in the seemingly Dionysian celebration of the ‘Miracle at Cana’ at which Jesus supposedly turns water into wine. Diving into water, however is not a particular tradition of the Dionysia.

The Nativity of Aion:

We must look into the early 1st millennium Hellenistic world, and to Alexandria in Egypt to get more of a clue as to the origins of baptism at Epiphany. Christianity evolved in the Levant and Egypt among a seething sea of syncretistic pagan ideas, which under the influence of reductionist neoplatonic philosophy began to be intellectualised, combined and refined. At multi-ethnic Alexandria in the 1st-4th centuries CE, one of the chief gods worshipped among the Hellenised Egyptians was ‘Aion’ or ‘Aeon’ – seemingly a syncretistic youthful version of Kronos, compounded with Osiris, Dionysus and Apollo, and whose nativity festival was held on the 6th of January. The Alexandrian mythos claimed he was born to the virgin goddess Kore (also known as Persephone) on the night of 5th/6th of January. In gnosticism, Aion became the name or title of the series of historically repeating godhoods, one of whom was believed to be Jesus by some gnostics. The idea of the chain of prophets leading to the Messiah was of course originally a Judaic idea, and seems to be the root of the gnostic Aions. Aion, however, was originally a pagan idea:

Aion holding the 'wheel of the year' on a Roman mosaic.

Aion holding the ‘wheel of the year’ on a Roman mosaic.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403CE) wrote in his book Panarion:

“… Christ was born on the sixth day of January after thirteen days of the winter solstice and of the increase of the light and day. This day the Greeks, I mean the Idolaters, celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December, a feast called Saturnalia among the Romans, Kronia among the Egyptians, and Kikellia among the Alexandrians. For on the twenty-fifth day of December the division takes place which is the solstice, and the day begins to lengthen its light, receiving an increase, and there are thirteen days of it up to the sixth day of January, until the day of the birth of Christ (a thirtieth of an hour being added to each day), as the wise Ephraim among the Syrians bore witness by this inspired passage in his commentaries, where he says: ‘ The advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was thus appointed: His birth according to the flesh, then his perfect incarnation among men, which is called Epiphany, at a distance of thirteen days from the increase of the light; for it needs must have been that this should be a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and of His twelve disciples, who made up the number of the thirteen days of the increase of the light.’

How many other things in the past and present support and bear witness to this proposition, I mean the Resurrection birth of Christ!  Indeed, the leaders of the idol-cults, filled with wiles to deceive the idol-worshippers who believe in them, in many places keep highest festival on this same night of Epiphany, so that they whose hopes are in error may not seek the truth.  For instance, at Alexandria, in the Koreion as it is called – an immense temple – that is to say, the Precinct of the Virgin; after they have kept all-night vigil with songs and music, chanting to their idol, when the vigil is over, at cockcrow, they descend with lights into an underground crypt, and carry up a wooden image lying naked on a litter, with the seal of a cross made in gold on its forehead, and on either hand two other similar seals, and on both knees two others, all five seals being similarly made in gold. And they carry round the image itself, circumambulating seven times the innermost temple, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and hymns, and with merry-making they carry it down again underground. And if they are asked the meaning of this mystery, they answer and say: ‘To-day at this hour the Maiden, that is, the Virgin, gave birth to the Aeon.’

In the city of Petra also – the metropolis of Arabia which is called Edom in the Scriptures – the same is done, and they sing the praises of the Virgin in the Arab tongue, calling her in Arabic Chaamou, that is, Maiden, and the Virgin, and him who is born from her Dusares, that is, Alone-begotten of the Lord.  This also takes place in the city of Elousa on the same night just as at Petra and at Alexandria … “

Unfortunately Epiphanius was none the wiser as to what happened in the crypt of the Koreion, and it is for us to speculate that it may have involved some form of immersion in water. This ancient Alexandrian celebration of nativity and epiphany on the 5th/6th January survives still in the most ancient Christian denomination – the Armenian Church. The prime divinity among the pre-Christian Armenians was the Persian goddess Anahit (Anahita) who was analogous to the Hellenistic ‘Kore’ and therefore to Isis. She was also linked to Ishtar, Aphrodite and Artemis. Anahita was a mountain goddess representing waters – a theme of some importance in the pagan world.

The drowned god who came back to life:

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

Bas relief image from Philae showing Isis resurrecting and embracing Osiris. Note the historic damage caused by Islamic iconoclasts.

The myth of Isis and Osiris is at the core of ancient Egyptian mythology, and became influential throughout the Roman Empire from the 1stC BCE, when Isis became one of the favourite goddesses of what I call the ‘syncretic era’. The myth of the death by drowning and the resurrection of her brother and lover Osiris is intimately tied up with water. The reborn Osiris – like Phrygian Cybele’s consort, Attis – was summoned from death by the goddess and the new era (Horus) conceived by an act of mystical intercourse. The descent of the statue of Kore into the basement of the temple at the Hellenistic ?gnostic nativity festival of Aion was obviously designed to reflect the Egyptian myth, and also its Eleusinian and Dionysian counterparts. Indeed, examination of this myth demonstrates that it was a theme with vast and far-reaching provenance in ancient paganism.

So … the mysteries of Epiphany are tied up in the many older pagan legends of a dying and reborn god. There is much more that I could say about this topic which involves the Celts of Atlantic Europe, but I will save this for another post for now, except to quote from Florus’ Epitome of Roman History which suggest that the cross-diving tradition may have an older provenance in Bulgaria…

”  … After the Macedonians (heaven save the mark) the Thracians, former tributaries of the Macedonians, rebelled and, not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters. Throughout the period of their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to the gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mothers’ wombs by torture. The cruellest of all the Thracians were the Scordisci, and to their strength was added cunning as well; their haunts among the woods and mountains harmonized well with their fierce temper… ” Lucius Annaeus Florus – The Epitome of Roman History (Trans. E.S. Forster)

Aubrey Beardsley's beautiful depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of 'Dame Du Lac'. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.

Aubrey Beardsley’s evocative bookplate depiction of Bedevere casting Excalibur into the hands of the ‘Dame Du Lac’. The Arthurian legends were a late survival of an important pagan mythic tradition among the Celts. Many of their legends extend into the heady days of the Belgic warbands, of whom the Thracian Scordisci were direct ancestors.





Europe’s midwinter ‘wild man’ traditions

The Christmas period in Europe is marked by some fairly bizarre and decidedly un-Christian traditions, although given that this has been a festive period long before christianity hit the scene these are perhaps unsurprising. Although sometimes savage and alien, they give an insight into the world of spiritual empiricism which formed ancient indigenous cultural and religious philosophies and practices. The fact that many of these traditions enjoy a plasticity and interchangeability of date and can run anywhere from Hallowe’en (31st October) through to Epiphany (6th January) demonstrates perhaps that they are first and foremost midwinter festivals, with roots seated deeply in the ancient pagan world and its beliefs about ancestors, cyclicity and divine manifestation.

The traditions generally involve people dressing up in wild, frightening or outlandish costumes and performing processions and plays in honour of the festive season and of mythologies connected with it. Here are a few examples:

Swarte Piet and Sinterklaas:

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas...

Saturn and his Satyr? Swarte Piet and Sint Niklas…

The ‘Christian Santa’ is based upon St Nicholas of Myra – an early Christian saint from what is now modern Turkey. His festival is attached to the 6th December on the Gregorian calendar, yet by the Julian calendar it lies on the winter solstice. That he became a popular saint all over Europe is indicative of the ability of his traditions to supplant pagan ones, and in the Low Countries he became known as ‘Sintiklaas’, from which we get the name ‘Santa Claus’, and he had an elfen helper – Swarte Piet or Black Peter, who became a character accompanying St Nicholas in the religious festival processions typifying the festival in the Netherlands. The character is immediately identifiable as he has his face blackened. Those following my blog or knowledgeable in ancient Greek history and mythology will recall that the male satyroi celebrants of the midwinter Dionysia in Greece during the 1st millennium BC would blacken their faces with wine lees at the procession of the god’s epiphany, and this appears to be a continuation of such a practice. Like the Dionysian satyrs the purpose is entertainment and the bestowal of gifts. Piet and his boss generally arrive in their processions from a far off land, by boat – another link to Saturn and Poseidon, as well as to Dionysus.

Political extremists have recently made attempts to have Piet banned, claiming that he is an ethnic parody and denigrating the importance of the ancient tradition. The medieval conception of the man with a blackened face as a ‘blackamoor’ or ‘saracen’ always associates him with luck, and no negative ethnic connotations – a phenomenon recognised from across Europe where similar traditions occur. Perhaps the older origins of the face-blackening (the Dionysia of the ancient Greco-Roman world) have been overlooked, but in the very least the character is a positive celebration rather than having any negative connotations. The same might be said of our next winter character-performance:


December 5th (St Nick’s eve) and the first two weeks in December are associated with St Nicholas in Bavaria and Austria, and as in the Netherlands  the saint is accompanied in his processions by an outlandish sidekick, who is either his ‘helper’ or antithesis: Krampus.

A 'Krampus' character - devilish indeed! Half man, half beast - like the Greek satyrs

A ‘Krampus’ character – devilish indeed! Half man, half beast – like the Greek satyrs

Krampus or Perchtemn?

Krampus or Perchten?

Tradition holds that Krampus comes to punish the wicked (naughty children, in particular) and St Nicholas brings gifts for the good. It is a spectacle where children and the public in general get fun from a ‘scare’ from Krampus who brandishes chains, whips and bells and lears through his demonic and entirely terrifying mask. His northern German equivalent is Knecht Ruprecht – who plays a similar role but is of a much less terrifying persona, more human than beast, yet still with hints of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ in both name and deed. Krampus seems almost identical to the related:


Perchtenlauf processions are held just after Christmas in the period up to and including Epiphany (6th January or ‘Twelfth Night’). They occur in Southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia (where Mother Perchta is known as Pehta Baba). Like the Krampus traditions of early December, they involve the dressing up as masked characters, generally divided by their appearance and behaviour into the Schönperchten (“beautiful Perchten”) who wear mild-faced masks topped with floral or decorative crowns, and the (arguably much more popular)Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchten”) who correspond in appearance and behaviour to Krampus and delight in causing a good ‘scare’.

The mask of a Percht - typically worn at epiphany festivities.

The mask of a Percht – typically worn at epiphany festivities.

Badalisk and Bosinada:

Hailing from the Val Camonica region of the Italian Alps is an ‘Epiphany’ tradition corresponding to those of the Perchten further north and east. It involves a person dressing up as a wild creature called the ‘Badalisc’ or ‘Badlisk’ (i.e. – Basilisk) who is ceremonially ‘captured’ out in the countryside by a band of masked characters who parade it in the village of Andrista where it is ‘made’ to recount a rhyme containing humorous gossip and predictions for the coming year etc in return for its ‘release’ back into the wild. The event is marked by popular celebration and feasting and is an annual crowd-pleaser. It may be a remnant part of a wider regional (e.g. – Milanese) tradition of public performance or publication of satirical or excoriating rhyming poetry known as Bosinada, which offered a kind of pre-Epiphany ‘purgation’ of community woes – what might be called a ‘roast’ by contemporary American comics. Upon examination, it becomes apparent that such midwinter satire traditions appear in the ancient cultures all over Europe, and ultimately relate to the Rural Dionysia of ancient Greek culture!

The 'Badalisc' of Andrista, Val Cammonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Badalisc’ of Andrista, Val Camonica, north of Milan.

The ‘Basilisk’ of Greek legend was, by its name, the ‘King of Snakes’ and represented the figurative primal serpent often encountered in ancient European mythology. The Camonica valley was a Celtic region up until it Latinised in the 1stC CE with Rome’s northward expansion.

Wren Hunts:

The tradition of capturing a wren at midwinter and parading it tied to a pole is peculiar to Atlantic Europe and has been recorded in Spain, France (at Carcassone – former stronghold of Catharism) and (in particular) in Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man. The reason for this distribution is unclear, although it seemingly corresponds to historic sea-routes by which ancient cultural traits have been proven by archaeologists to have spread in this region.

'Wren Boys' procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

‘Wren Boys’ procession at Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

The Irish ‘Wrenboys’ who lead the procession of the bird wear outlandish straw suits and masks, primitively evocative of the shaggy Perchten of Austria, although not quite so fearsome. In the Isle of Man, such costumes were not recorded, although outlandish garb of some sort was known – boys would wear black coats in the early 20th century.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the DIonysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.

Black, bestial satyrs were the retinue of Dionysus in the Dionysia festival of ancient Greece. Image from an Attic vase 6th/5thC BCE.




The winter Dionysia

The ancient Attic Greek festival known latterly as the ‘rural’ or ‘lesser’ Dionysia was celebrated – like Saturnalia and Christmas – just after the winter solstice in the second half of the Greek month of Poseidoneia which spanned December and January. The so-called ‘greater’ Dionysia festival, the Anthesteria, was a secondary development of the Greek city polities such as Athens and occurred a month or so later at the end of winter when the weather was finer. As befits its metropolitan status, it was a grander version of the rustic winter festival involving great public events, theatre, music and competitions as well as private celebrations of the Dionysian ‘mysteries’. None the less, it was otherwise effectively the same festival, its date transposed to enjoy better weather.

The ‘Rural Dionysia’ seems to have had many parallels with the Roman festival of Saturnalia which coincided with the roughly the same period, and which in the Christian era evolved into the ‘twelve days of Christmas’, culminating in the Feast of Epiphany – itself a festival almost certainly based upon the Dionysia, whose climax was the epiphany of the God Dionysus among the people. This brings us to an interesting confluence of deities: Poseidon (whose month it is), Saturn (Kronos, whose Roman name is based upon the Greek word for phallus: sâthe, as in satyr) and Dionysus.

The Dionysia – like the Saturnalia – was a time when classes came together in order to celebrate their shared origins in the natural world. Class distinctions were – to a degree – temporarily suspended and opportunities for public satire were made conducive by the wearing of masks and costumes by participants in the celebrations. It is believed that this festivity was the origin of the theatrical tradition for which Greece became so famous.

The god’s entourage at the Dionysia consisted of the male-gendered satyrs and the female maenads, although there was apparently a good deal of cross-dressing among the performers in some festivities. These accompanied the image of the god, which in its most rustic and ancient form was represented by a giant phallic pole of pine (a ‘xoanon’ image), coloured red and decorated, which was carried on a cart or on the shoulders of the phallophoroi. This made a ceremonial entry to the village or polis preceded by satyrs and maenads wearing animal skins (fawn and leopard, for example) wielding the thyrsus wand, and carrying cult objects such as jugs of wine, pithoi and krater vessels, plates of figs and a sacrificial goat.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the 'Phallophorai' enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The Dionysian ceremonial phallus and the ‘Phallophorai’ enters the polis. The act of the epiphanic procession had distinct sexual overtones.

The ithyphallic satyrs, sometimes darkened their faces with wine lees and engaging in ribald and ecstatic celebratory behaviour in honour of the god and the image of the phallus, which they wore a representation of apparently in the form of a codpiece with a leather erect penis attached to. Women (sometimes men) dressed as maenads or nymphs to complete the thiasos or retinue of the arriving god and took part in equally disinhibited behaviour and special ceremonies of their own. The maenads were a form of ‘bodyguard’ corps of the deity, and in mythology (and scandalous Roman reports) were sometimes portrayed as a maddened and frenzied bloodthirsty girl-mob who would rend and devour the flesh of men and animals. The ceremonial rending of the sacrificial goat, and even the eating of its raw flesh  may be behind this opinion.

Special songs (dithyrambs) were composed and sung and, naturally, wine was drunk and sacrifices offered to Dionysus, the god of sprouting vegetation and urgent returning nature. Group-experiences, comedy, humour and jollity were the order of the day and inhibitions were temporarily cast aside.

Origins of the Christmas Tree: The Pine and the Phallus:

The display of the phallus was an important symbolic aspect of the rites of the Dionysia, as well as being prominent in the equivalent Roman festival of Liberalia (held in March near to the spring equinox). Records (including the drinking vessel pictured above) speak of the giant decorated totemic phallic pole (made of the hewn erect trunk of an evergreen pine tree) which was paraded with the ‘coming’ of the god, accompanied by men dressed as satyrs with erect phalli attached to their costumes. A pole bearing the same image (carved from fig wood) was also sported by celebrants in the thiasos. The thyrsus wand depicted as carried by Dionysus as his symbolic weapon and badge of office was also brandished by the maenads and was itself also a depiction of the phallus: it was typically made of a pine cone mounted upon a staff, sometimes wreathed with ivy.

The pine tree was (like the vine and the fig) a totem plant of Dionysus. It evokes a similitude with the androgynous castrated Phrygian god Attis, who was likewise strongly associated in myth with the pine tree. Attis was consort of the great mother goddess Cybele, identified with Kronos’ wife Rhea in Greek mythology. Kronos, of course, castrated his father Ouranos. The pine is both evergreen and erect in habitus so is a fine metaphor for the phallus – its sticky sap a metaphor for semen.

It appears that Dionysus was actually a god of the ‘sap’, ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ stimulating life. Maximus of Tyre (perhaps commenting on the phallic totem pictured above) wrote in the 2ndC CE that:

“…the peasants honour Dionysos by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue…”

Plutarch  observed the contemporary belief that the god was a god of moisture – associated with life and vigour. One of the epithets of Dionysus was Dendrites – ‘of the trees’ – an indicator of his connection to branching life, and a metaphor of the familial tree of humanity. The tree was similarly a metaphor for rivers whose branching nature was morphologically similar. This links Dionysus to Poseidon who was god of waters – Okeanos (i.e. – the sea) being conceived of as a confluence of the world’s rivers.

Furthermore, the pine was a tree of the hot mountainside characterising the uplands of southern Europe, the Near and Middle East and North Africa. These wild places were a typical mythological resort of Dionysus and his retinue. The god’s birthplace was said to have been on a mountainside on the mythical Mount Nysa, nurtured by nymphs – the Hyades – whose stars form a cluster on the crown of the constellation of Taurus – the Starry Bull, representative of Asia and Europe’s wild Aurochs from which many of the world’s domestic cattle breeds are derived…

The mythical origins of mankind are often expressed in European folklore in the form of an ascent from oneness with the animal world. From the fables of Aesop (6thC BCE?) and further still into antiquity we see a tendency to illustrate the identity of humans with animals, just as in ancient Egyptian and Greek religion, the gods had a similar identity with the animal kingdom. Mythologically, the oneness occurs at the vanishing point characterised as the oldest period in a time without memory – a point firmly identifiable in ancient Greek mythology with Kronos, the Titans and Gigantes, and the ‘Golden Age’. This was an age when human heroes battled monsters in far-off realms and had no fixed era by historical reckoning, yet was typically used as a starting point in the reckoning of histories from the Classical period onwards.

This is the ancient, primal and even bestial ‘vanishing point’ which Dionysus (and humanity itself) appears to emerge from and to which the god mystically returns in his annual cycles of travel among humanity. Kronos (Saturn) and even Hades may represent his more distant self – forever marooned on the far shores of time at the limits of the great world-river Okeanos, or beyond in the shady realms of Elysium and Tartaros. These were all once believed to be linked by the earth’s waters. Indeed, this aquatic existence summons to us the identity of the third god in this apparent ancient triad: Poseidon, in whose lunar month the Greeks celebrated their oldest Dionysia.

Poseidon was the brother of Zeus and Hades, and together they formed a triumvirate who represented the dominion of the sea, the sky and the underworld respectively. Hades was celebrated as an important divine figure in the mystery religions, in particular the Eleusinian Mysteries – as the abductor and husband of Persephone (Kore), daughter of the goddess of the fruitful earth – Demeter. The seasonal drama of nature was said to depend on her annual passage into the underworld in the depths of winter when fruitfulness and vegetation dies back.

A curious identity exists between the gods Dionysus and Hades, hinted at by the ancient ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ – a versified account of the Eleusinian myth. This states that Persephone was abducted in the ‘fields of Nysus’, from which Dionysus appears to get his name (‘God of Nysus’). Dionysus was said in other legends to have been raised on a place called Mount Nysus by the nymphs known as the Hyades, daughters of the Titan Atlas whose stars form the crown on the ‘Starry Bull’ constellation, Taurus. Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5thC BCE) also stated that Hades and Dionysus were the same – a unification of opposites: One the god of indestructible quintessence of life and the other the lord of irresistible death, from which new life mystically arises through the fertilising processes of putrefaction. It is likely this was a key secret in the mysteries of Eleusis, and is part of a similar death<>life narrative encountered again in the story of Apollo slaying Python, and Perseus slaying Medusa. All such encounters occur in the murky Stygian regions – often characterised as lying in a misty place at the far reaches of Poseidon’s realm, characterised over all by the concept of the unifying waters – Okeanos.

The mysteries of life and death link in the cult of Dionysus, and remembered in the Roman Saturnalia: Both were eventually continued in the cult of Jesus Christ and ‘Christmas’. The traditions of dressing up as beast-men, collecting together to sing songs and enjoy the communal fantasy of theatre and dramatic entertainment, as well as the public expression of satire and comedy still mark Europe’s Christmas and Epiphany festivals. The Christmas Tree also has its origins in the Dionysia.