24 November 2014

Pigs for Cronus, Goats for Dionysus


A
nd so as we wind down the road of darkness this year toward the inevitable winter solstice (at least those of us in the Northern Hemisphere) we come to the Roman holiday of Bruma, celebrated on this day in the time of Tertullian, a sort of bleak harbinger of the darker days to come. As time went on the Bruma was expanded to the Brumalia, a twenty-four day era ending neatly with the beginning of Saturnalia. I suppose in a primarily agricultural society you’ve got to invent things to do during the fallow times.
As there were twenty-four letters in the Greek alphabet each of the days could be correlated with one of them, and the custom was to throw a dinner for people whose name began with that letter. I don’t know how this worked in practice; it seems unlikely that a person would necessarily have only one friend with a name beginning with delta, for example. The prospect opens for slights and hurt feelings that could outlast the joyous season well into the darkness beyond.
But as far as I can tell the old pre-Byzantine festival was confined to this single day, and involved no such complicated scheme. I could easily be wrong; I’ve never looked at the primary sources on this thing, but have only accepted what standard reference works and stray scraps of forgotten papers have to say.
Sixth-century pop-historian John of Lydia tells us some interesting details of the thing. Farmers, he wrote, sacrificed pigs to Cronus and Demeter, civic officials would collect wine and honey and olive oil “and as many [products] of trees as endure and are preserved” for the priests of the Great Mother, and the vine-dressers—well, they had a bizarre custom. In honor of Dionysus they would kill goats, skin them, fill the skins with air and jump on them. Their excuse was that “the goat is the enemy of the vine”. It probably made some sort of sense at the time.
The festivities, he wrote, took place at night—not because the nights were long and the hours of darkness exceeded the hours of light, but because “in truth, the Brumalia are festivals of the subterranean daemones.” Nice to have a scientific explanation.

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