18 December 2010

Celebration of a Golden Age

And it’s now the second day of Saturnalia, that old-time Roman feast where masters and slaves changed places and presents and feasting were the order of the day. I had a piece partly written with those pedantic references to forgotten authors that you’ve come to expect, but my system crashed and nothing seems to be left of it. Sic transit and all that. I don’t know that I care, really; maybe next year I’ll manage to do something a bit more coherent. Or not. At this point I’m tired and I really don’t care.

According to Macrobius (I think it was) what was originally a one day festival (17 December) got expanded to seven days in part due to the calendar change introduced by Julius Caesar in 9955 HE (46 BCE) on the advice of the shadowy Sosigenes of Alexandria. You see, he expanded December from 29 to 31 days and thus threw off the date of Saturnalia, which was originally fixed at 14 days before the Kalends of January, but then changed to 16 days before the Kalends. Some people continued to celebrate the XIIII Kal Jan date, now 19 December, while others the XVI Kal Jan date (17 December), and with two dates for Saturnalia it’s easy to see how the 18th got thrown in as a kind of bonus, like the Friday after Thanksgiving in the good old USA. But this doesn’t explain the extension for another four days, unless maybe people just plain felt that after getting the autumn field work done, it was time for a party.

It matters not. Personally I don’t trust ancient explanations of ancient feasts; they all have the stench of ad-hocery about them. I doubt very much that the ancients knew that much more about them than we do; their origins were probably as lost to them as to us.

The thing about Saturnalia, though, is the evocation of a long-lost Golden Age, presided over by Saturn, where distinctions of rank did not exist, where the earth gave forth its abundance without the need of labor, where justice reigned. A time before Prometheus brought fire to man or Pandora opened that goddamn box.

In a way, I suppose, there was a golden age. Gold is one of the easiest metals to work, and one of the first discoveries in metallurgy must have been the magic of gold. It’s not the most useful of metals, but damn is it pretty. And it’s not like the other rocks. The discovery could even have been pre-agricultural, when hunters and gatherers roamed the earth, and division of labor was pretty much restricted to the gender division that humankind seems to have had from before the beginning. Distinctions of rank may have depended on who was the strongest, or who had the most success in the hunt, or the gather, or whatever. A golden age of sorts, though not exactly, well, Eden.

The mythical golden age is much cooler, and it’s hard to fault the attempts to recreate it with that peace-on-earth good-will-toward-men spirit that was the stuff of Saturnalia. Present-giving, candle-lighting, gambling, free speech, masters waiting on their slaves—good times, good times. But it isn’t real, and when Saturnalia ends, all that stuff goes back in the box till the next year. Still, as Statius observed:
For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue.

13 December 2010

The Self-Blinded Leading the Sighted

God, it’s St. Lucy’s Day already, meaning that the holiday season is considerably advanced, and I don’t have a thing to wear. St. Lucy—bah. You may remember Lucy as the psychotic medieval woman who ripped her own eyes out and sent them to an admirer as a gift. Apparently the guy said he liked them, or something like that. Those were the days, my friend. One of those gay little old-time legends that brighten the spirits in this dark time of year.

Well, my spirits were brightened, anyway, by this strange piece—an instance of the blind presuming to instruct the sighted on the meaning of color. Some Yakima lady named Kara L. Kraemer, it seems, was so incensed by somebody daring to observe that US law was not based on the Bible and never should be, that she set out to instruct him by delivering a few choice quotations from the Founders that she’d apparently dug up from some moldering trash heap somewhere, and—you guessed it, knowing me—she’s included a couple of familiar fakes among them. And, no surprises here either, those that aren’t fake are absolutely irrelevant to the point. Nice job, lady.

She’s got John Dickenson comparing the proposed Constitution to the Bible, in that both have come under attack; she’s got James Wilson repeating the old legal maxim (shot down by Jefferson) that Christianity is part of the common law, and James McHenry pleading for the establishment of a private Bible society in Maryland. She’s got Carroll of Carrollton arguing that people won’t be virtuous on their own without the threat of “wicked eternal misery” or the promise of “good eternal happiness” to goad them on. (He was taking a swipe at the excesses of the French Revolution, by the way.) She’s got Sam Adams comparing the American revolution to the Reformation: “Our Fore-Fathers threw off the Yoke of Popery in Religion; for you is reserved the honor of levelling the popery of Politicks” (a portion of the passage that she omits, incidentally). And she’s got two fakes and one dubious entry: the Washington “god and the bible” concoction, the Patrick Henry “religionists” misattribution, and the dubious Patrick Henry story about the Bible being worth more than all the other books put together that rests on third-hand testimony from an anonymous source. Not a good showing from somebody who pretends to be combating ignorance.

If I were to make a recommendation to Kara Kraemer, it would be that if she wants to combat ignorance she should start with the person closest to her—herself. But like St. Lucy, I’m sure she knows better.

[Update: The article linked to here has changed since I first wrote and then replied to a comment here. The original introduction read only:
In honor of National Bible Week and to combat Stiefel's statement of ignorance, I offer the following quotes from our founders in regard to the Bible:
This is what I was making fun of, not the present more elaborate introduction that gives a coherent (though flawed) explanation for the quotations that follow. The author has also corrected the information about the one Patrick Henry statement, though she has incorrectly attributed the fake Washington "God and the Bible" quotation to Paulding's book (which even if correct would not be a reliable source, what with it being an undocumented children's book and all). Had I first seen the article in its present state I wouldn't have responded as I did, or indeed at all. sbh]
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