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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Patara and Saturnalia

What does Patara have to do with Saturn? 

Nothing... and everything!  The little village of Patara had a major impact on many of today's democracies.  But Patara has had another major impact. What is Patara's link to a festival in honour of the Roman god Saturn, after whom we have named a day of the week (Saturday), a planet and a car.

Patara's Most Famous Citizen

Patara had one famous citizen that everyone knows. Born on 15 March 270 CE, several legends abound about his charity ‒ but who knows which are true. Perhaps the most well-known was his anonymously helping a man who did not have a dowry to marry his three daughters. In those days if you did not have a dowry, they would not have married but would have become prostitutes. 
Knowing the father would not accept charity, he left a bag of gold in the man's house for each daughter as they came of age.  To avoid being found out he dropped the second and third packages down the chimney.  One variant said the bag fell into shoes ‒ or was it stockings being hung to dry?
He became bishop of the city of Myra (called Demre today). He helped convene the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which formulated the New Testament, and later was made a saint.  Patara was the birthplace of Saint Nicolas. Our present day name comes from Sinterklaas, Dutch for Saint Nicolas.  He is known to us as Santa Claus.  So Santa Claus has a Turkish origin ‒ wow!  


Harvest Festival
In fact, Christmas is not Christian in origin.  The Roman festival of Saturnalia celebrated the harvest and the end of ever shorter days, the winter solstice.  Saturn was the god of agriculture and wealth.  The Temple of Saturn in Rome was the treasury of the Roman Empire ‒ food was wealth in ancient times. 
Saturn (or Cronus in Ancient Greek) was the god of agriculture.  One of his main symbols is the sickle of Father Time, which is not only an agricultural tool but a remnant of Cronus, which means time.  That is because delineating the seasons (time) is very important to agriculture. 

Saturnalia consisted of gift-giving, partying, drinking, and singing in the streets.  Romans even served supper to their slaves and gave them gifts. Homes were decorated with wreaths and greenery.  It was a Festival of Lights except that candles were used.  People spent weeks preparing and buying for Saturnalia.  Sound familiar?  Conspicuous consumption is not a modern invention. 

This festival was so popular it grew from one day to one week, taking in the winter solstice on December 24th (after the calendar was adjusted) and ending with Sol Invictus on December 25th.   As this was the beginning of longer days it is apropos to think of this as the re-birth of the sun god, Apollo, whose influence we have already seen in the Didyma and the God Apollo post.
Nativity Scene, Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, Rome

In the year 375 CE, Pope Julius I declared the birth of Jesus as December 25th.  Was this done to align it with the birthday of Apollo? Perhaps, but it is more likely to align it with the most powerful alternative religion, Mithraism.  

Saturnalia was just too popular to stop. It was easier to convince pagans to convert to Christianity by recasting Saturnalia as Christmas. This policy of cultural assimilation is reinforced by how many pagan temples became churches.  The Vatican itself was built on the ruins of a Mithraic Temple.  Why not build churches somewhere else?

Thotsakan, the Green Giant, Wat Arun
If you are still skeptical, just look at how often this happens around the world.  Look at how the Buddhists incorporated spirits and superstitions in Thailand and Burma.  So demons like Thotsakan in the photo of Wat Arun (Bangkok) became defenders of Budhha.  He is the King of the Demons from the epic Hindu story, the Ramayana.  Buddhism included major aspects of Hinduism into their religion.  This was a strategy for converting people to their faith.  It is very common to all human culture.

Pantheon, Temple of All the Gods
In order to convert the pagans, the early Christians in the Roman Empire took over many pagan customs, festivals and temples.  They reinterpreted these customs so they became a vital part of Christianity Thus the people could continue the festival of Saturnalia that they loved so much, which became Christmas.    
The pagan mother goddess became Mary.  The most famous and still in use building of Ancient Rome, the Pantheon, or Temple of All the Gods, became the church of St. Mary, Mother of God.  An ancient festival of the dead became Halloween.  All Popes use the title Pontifex Maximus, the title of the chief priest of the Ancient Roman religion. 

The Pantheon was also the first use of concrete in the world!!! 

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