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.

Solar origins of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Christianity.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

Roman era iconographic depiction of Apollo in mosaic, Tunisia. The similarity to later depictions of Jesus in both the Eastern and Western traditions is striking.

The number twelve has a strange significance in the reckoning of time:

There are twelve solar months, corresponding roughly to twelve zodiacal houses along the sun’s ecliptic path. In the Christian myth, Christ is followed by 12 apostles.

There are traditionally twelve ‘hours’ of daylight, as reckoned by sun-dials, and hence we derive our twenty four hours of daylight and night which comprise our unit of one solar ‘day’. This is known as ‘apparent solar time’, as compared to the clock-time we tend to keep in modern times, known as ‘mean solar time’.

There is a difference of roughly twelve days between the old ‘Julian’ and newer ‘Gregorian’ calendric systems in use in Europe and Asia Minor. These changes were instituted to prevent the celebration of Easter (calculated based on the Jewish Lunar calendar) from creeping further away from the Spring Equinox into summer.

There are twelve days marking the traditional European and Eastern ‘Christmas’ or ‘Yule’ festive midwinter period… These were sometimes each looked upon as representing a separate month of the solar year in many pre-modern European cultures. Yuletide began at the winter solstice (approx. 22nd December) and finished on the 3rd January, whereas Christmastide was from 25th December to 6th January (Epiphany).

Origins of Christmas Day:

The establishment of the date of the Nativity festival on the 25th December in Christianity was not in fact formally agreed upon for hundreds of years after the era of Jesus’ supposed life and death. In the late pagan Roman Empire, the 25th day of December was celebrated as Natalis Invicti – the rebirth of the deified ‘Unconquerable Sun’ – Sol Invictus. Although introduced as a late Imperial Cult under Aurelian in 274CE (250 years or so after the death of Jesus) the cult of Sol Invictus was probably in response to the profusion of mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire which employed the iconography of a youthful solar male god, seemingly derived from the older depictions of older gods such as Apollo, Adonis and Attis. Adonis, etymologically at least, appears to have a Semitic origin (compare Adonai – ‘Lord’). These had their origins in the principles of Solar godhood attached to the great ‘static’ or ‘official’ mystery cults of the 1st millennium BCE: Those of Delian Apollo, Apollo at DelphiEleusis, Samothrace and the mysteries of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia, among others. Such cults generally relied upon visitation of geographical loci – fixed cult sites – and the participation in initiatory ritual for the purposes of either receiving oracles, healing or higher knowledge. They themselves may have developed from popular extensions of the originally more closely-guarded inner mystery ritual traditions surrounding the elite classes of kings and religious hierophants of the earlier ‘palatial’ cultures (Minoan and Mycenaean), themselves copying the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, which are the oldest for which we have evidence, and were in continuity until at least the start of the 1st millennium CE.

Wars with Carthage and the great movements of the ‘barbarian’ Celts during Rome’s Late Republican Era (c.3rdC BCE) led to the importation of ‘foreign’ mystery religions such as that of Cybele and her ecstatic priests into Rome during the late Punic wars. Another popular ecstatic religious mystery cult was that of the Bacchanalia (Dionysia) from Greece. The Celtic fanaticism towards the solar god Apollo (whom they knew as Belenos) caused them to actually invade Greece and sack Delphi in 179BCE! These events, along with Rome’s increasing expansion and cultural interaction led to the surge in popularity of mystery religions in general during the late Republican era, such that by the 1stC CE  Roman Emperors were themselves visiting Eleusis and Samothrace to become initiates. These cults purported to explain the secrets of the sun, the moon, the planets and stars and the deepest mysteries of nature, death and regeneration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the life-giving Sun was a key part of this, and became part of a new ‘elementalism’ and drive towards simplification and ‘portability’ of mythology.

As the Roman and Greek cultural polities expanded and prospered, initiatory mystery religions became less an indulgence of the elites, and also less attached to fixed geographical locations, developing into a plethora of mobile ideological ‘franchises’ enjoyed by more ordinary persons. These almost certainly plagiarised the secrets and mythological frameworks of the older ‘official’ mysteries whose (often wealthy) initiates and suppliants were supposed to keep their secrets on pain of death or spiritual torment, and such mysteries were gradually bought out into the open and discussed and theorised over. This process was aided by the diffusion of literacy and the spread of and development of the ideas of the ‘Philosophers ‘of classical and Hellenistic era ‘Magna Graecia’ who sought to analyse the constancies and truths behind ancient orally-transmitted mythology.

A good example of such reductionist processes at their apotheosis are the ‘Hermetic’ and ‘Gnostic’ cults in Hellenized Asia Minor, Middle East and North Africa, of which Christianity was to emerge as an early branch within the fractious and millenarianist Hasmonean-era Jewish world with its significant diaspora. These employed Pythagorean, Platonic and Epicurean reductionist theories and a discourse involving the principles of the soul as a form of undying light in their prophetic religious narratives, barely hiding such ideas behind the character narratives of older mythologies.

Such explicit intellectualism was not to everyone’s taste, of course, and other more semiotic forms of mystery cults based upon ritual, myth and symbolism served the needs of those with more traditional (less orientalised) tastes. Orphism was perhaps the oldest and best-established of these traditions – possibly the ‘granddaddy’ of them all, with its origins in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE at least. Its initiates sought to ‘purify’ themselves in order to achieve a better afterlife. Mithraism was certainly the most popular of the newer cults, spreading from Asia Minor into the most northern and western extents of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. Similar popular mystery religions centred around the Thracian god Sabazios (a regional relative of Dionysus) and European syncretic cults involving the Celtic gods, such as that of the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ involving Epona in Eastern and northern Europe, and a profusion of others more poorly understood due to paucity of material evidence. These all had the common trait of emphasising the position of the characters of ‘Sol’ and ‘Luna’ in their iconography – almost as a ‘badge’ of their ‘mystery’ status.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

A Roman relief depicting the banquet of Sol, Luna and Mithras.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the 'Danubian Horsemen' and their central goddess... seemingly a version of Epona.

A plaque depicting the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ and their central goddess (Epona): Sol Invictus rides his quadriga at the top of the image, which deals with the imagery of the cult’s mysteries.

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

Sol and Luna stand above Sabazios in this cultic Roman plaque

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted to Christianity and took the Empire with him. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus.

A coin of Emperor Constantine I who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. The depiction on the obverse is of Sol Invictus – a vision of where things were heading?

The deified sun was conflated in this era with the older Greek  god Apollo, whose identity was favoured by the Romanised Celtic peoples from the Danube basin to the Atlantic northwest of Europe, in their own syncretic cults. Such cults throughout the Empire had displaced those of the older Capitoline and Olympian Roman and Greek deities among the general populations, although these still had a civic role to play.

Perhaps the most important, popular and long-running cult of the elder Greek gods was that of Dionysus, whose oldest festival – the Rural Dionysia – coincided with the period of the winter solstice whose Greek month was named in honour of the ancient sea god: Poseidonia. This was a festival of dressing up in the guise of the retinue of the god: men as satyrs or silenoi and women as maenads. It was also, significantly, a festival of the epiphany of Dionysus to mankind, which celebrated the god’s transubstantiation of water into wine and the mysteries of budding nature: themes obviously borrowed into later christianity. At Delphi, there was a tradition that Apollo left to live among the Hyperboreans during the month when Dionysus manifested among the people at this festival, at which there was much singing of popular songs by all classes in Greek society – a tradition surviving in the modern European Christmas singing festivities.

After the third century CE the rise of iconoclastic, literate, literalised and intellectualised religious tendencies in the Hellenized Eastern Empire and North Africa was increasingly to eclipse the western traditions of mysterious figurative mythology, which had been at the cornerstone of European religion for millennia. Apollo, Sol, Belenos, Attis, Dionysus and Adonis became ‘Logos’ – replaced by an intellectual man-god who claimed to be ‘the light of the world’, promising – in return for an oath of allegiance – ‘regeneration’ after death into a divine afterlife, safe from the confusion of life. The perfect model of benevolent Imperial power in fact…

Early Christian writers attest to the disagreement between the supposed Nativity day – one for which there is obviously no precedent in the ‘gospel’ traditions, yet which – as the temporal power of the Christian religion grew – became more important to establish, in order that the ‘church’ might exert leadership over the people and displace the pagan festivities.

The earliest Christian authors from whom we have records and quotations make no reference to a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Origen of Alexandria (245CE) and Arnobius (303CE) both scorn the idea that holy men should have their birthdays celebrated, and imply that this is a practice of sinners.

The earliest reference  from Rome itself to a Nativity festival for Christ held on the 25th of December (the festival of the Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun) is in a document produced for a wealthy Christian named Valentinus in 354CE (‘The Calendar of Philocalus’), of which only copies survive. However, there is evidence that the main focus of the Empire in the East at Constantinople was celebrating the nativity on 6th of January at this time, and it would not be until the advent of the 5th century that the 25th of December would hold sway across all of the main Christian patriarchies (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria), in the drive for Orthodoxy which followed the establishment of the religion as a state Imperial cult, as well as the religion followed by Christianised kings who established themselves in the ruins of Rome’s collapsed western Empire in Atlantic Europe.
It is interesting why the arguments often veered between dating the nativity on the 6th of January (still favoured by the Armenian Church) or the 25th of December: Other recorded early traditions even put the nativity closer to the summer solstice, although these were roundly dismissed in favour of the midwinter dating, corresponding to the solar rebirth festivals of paganism. One must remember that early Christianity was spread across the vast Roman Empire, and was well established at centres such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and Antioch before the pagan system was rejected by the Emperors. There was no formal agreement as to the structure of festivities, except where there was literal evidence from scriptures.

Pagan Rome’s Empire and the Hellenized cultures it was enveloping generally exercised a policy of syncretism and acceptance of diversity, whereas the new literature-based Abrahamic monotheism was based upon inclusion/exclusion determined by active profession of faith and the purificatory symbolic act of baptism. Before its imposition as state religion within the Empire, Christianity was a religion of the faithful that need pay no heed to incorporating pagan ideas. As a state religion though, compromises were necessary and the religion ‘swallowed the blue pill’ in order to incorporate more peacefully with humanity and establish itself at the centre of power. Hence the use of the day of the Nativity of Sol Invictus as the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.

Solar aspects of Epiphany/Theophany:

The indecision between the significance of nativity and epiphany perhaps recognised the importance to Christians of ‘spiritual’ birth or ‘revelation of the godhead’ to the people over the material act of parturition, which after all involved vaginas, body fluids and loco-feminis – ideas considered ‘spiritually unclean’ and somewhat repulsive to patristic religions, and Abrahamic ones in particular. The ‘Epiphany’ represented the cultic dedication of the Christ child to humanity, in the form of his supposed unveiling to the ‘Magi’ in the nativity story. It was a retelling of the Greek myths of the hiding of the infant Zeus from his father Kronos who sought to destroy him, and the visiting of various divine beings to the cave which sheltered him.

Jesus’ circumcision – the Attis/Ouranos myth retold?

Another festival prior to Epiphany celebrated Christ’s initial dedication to the jealous tribal god of Judaea – Yahweh – whose introduction by the post-exilic elites of Judah to the polytheistic semitic world marked a watershed in the eventual decline in the religious diversity of the ancient world of the Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Yahweh demanded absolute obedience from birth, including the marking by genital mutilation of male children, and the circumcision of Jesus was celebrated on the 1st of January, the first day of the first month of a new solar year. This – in Jewish custom – is supposed to occur within 8 days of birth, and is usually accompanied by the child’s naming, so prefigures the development of ‘Logos’ (in the words of John: ‘…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…’ ) and the inevitable Epiphany. There are older precedents for it: in particular, the sacrifice of genitalia by a youthful solar deity was a religious theme not uncommon to more ancient mythologies: The Greeks told the story of the Titan proto-god Kronos (associated with the Roman Saturnalia festival) castrating his child-slaying father Ouranos (the personified sky) with a sickle to spare the children Ouranos had created, and the Phrygians told the myth of their male solar-God Attis castrating himself in a similarly fertile mystic self-sacrifice to the Earth goddess, Cybele. Perhaps the Greek myth of Apollon (Apollo) killing the great Python of Delphi has similar mystic origins, as do the ithyphallic Dionysian, Hermetic and Orphic traditions also popular at the time of the inception of Christianity.

Perihelion and lengthening days:

The period between 1st and 6th of January marks a time when the sun begins to show a definite change in elevation in the sky and days are perceptibly longer. This is also currently the time when the Earth is closest to the Sun in its orbit – the ‘Perihelion’ – when the planet’s southern hemisphere scorches and the northern is tilted into the depths of its winter.

The Solar-Oceanic gods:

This midwinter solstice period also corresponded roughly to the sixth month of the ancient Greek calendar: Poseidonia. Poseidon was one of the oldest Greek gods, being mentioned before the inception of the Olympians in the Linear B texts surviving from the Mycenaean era of the 2nd millennium BCE. He corresponds in this sense to the ‘elder’ god Kronos, who was father of Zeus in Hesiod’s archaic-era ‘Theogony’, and who was ruler of the Golden Age typically celebrated in Rome’s winter solstice celebration: Saturnalia.  The Kronides – monstrous children of Kronos who pepper Greek myths – are the typical adversaries of ancient Greek heroes venturing to the far reaches of the encircling world-river, Okeanos, and Kronos-Poseidon corresponds incredibly closely to the ancient Gaelic Solar-Oceanic god-character Manannán in this regard. As god of the afterlife he was a perfect hypostasis of the Solar Jesus, introduced so successfully and so early among the non-Romanised pagan Gael of the Atlantic West….