The Chthonic King of Christmas
"Roman priests knew the same truth psychotherapists know: deep desires and ancient drives cannot simply be consigned to the underworld."
This essay was first published in 2019.
Several years ago, I found myself wandering through the crowded, raucous streets of Dublin on Christmas Eve, staring in disbelief at the scenes before me.
Neither the subtle, laughing warnings from my host nor the more direct accounts of others had prepared me.
“Christmas Eve is...different here” my host had said.
“You heard of piss-drunk?” an acquaintance had laughed.
But none of this had really meant much to me until, trudging a bit intoxicated myself back from a drag show, I tried to make my way through the throngs filling the streets.
To get home, I had to cross one of the many bridges across the river Liffey, and the most direct was the Ha’penny bridge (so named because it once cost that much to cross). So I made my way across it, but slowly, finding my gait constantly interrupted by throngs of perhaps the drunkest people I’d seen in all my life—and I once worked at a bar.
It was while crossing that bridge I saw what my acquaintance had meant, but even still didn’t quite believe what I was seeing. It’s a habit of many gay men—and perhaps not the safest habit sometimes—to find ones gaze occasionally directed towards the crotches of other men. And usually it’s the briefest of unconscious glances, taking in the entirety of a person as you pass by them, but at that moment I found myself unwillingly staring at several men.
Not, mind, for what I imagined hidden in their jeans, but rather because their trousers were soaking wet.
I looked away quickly, shaking my head. I figured no doubt the men I’d noticed were probably quite embarrassed at the fact they’d pissed themselves, and I didn’t want to contribute to this. Walking on, though, with my gaze instead averted at the ground, I began to notice they’d not been the only men to have suffered from an apparent incontinence. The trouser legs of several others were wet, and I moved even quicker through the crowds to get back home.
Not far from my host’s home, however, I came upon one last group, all men, all very loudly drunk, all laughing with one of their companions who, to my morbid fascination, was currently pissing himself. There was no shame or ridicule in their laughter, nor did their companion even try to hide what he was doing. Getting “piss-drunk” on that holy night was apparently just another part of the celebrations. My host and my acquaintances had certainly been correct, though. Christmas Eve in Dublin was certainly different from what I’d come to expect of it in the United States.
“Threading the Eyeless Rocks…”
The circumstances which had brought me to Dublin were even weirder than that, however. The summer before, my host had told me of a strange day where he’d thought he’d seen me multiple times walking around in Dublin. I wasn’t there, though—I was 7,000 miles away at the time, in Seattle, and I’d never been to Ireland before. The weirder thing was that the next day, when visiting the Brú na Bóinne site, he’d found himself prompted to put my name into a lottery to be one of 50 people selected to enter Newgrange during winter solstice. His account of the mistaken sightings of me didn’t actually feel so strange, and though he warned that being selected for that lottery wasn’t really likely, I remember shaking my head a bit and thinking, “oh—that will be a thing, huh?”
And it was. I was picked out of 30,000 entrants, and found myself scrambling to find a way to get to Dublin. Aided by quite a few generous people, I soon found myself on a plane there, and after visiting a close friend and some sites sacred to me in Wales, I took a ferry back to Dublin to go to Newgrange.
Newgrange is one of a myriad of ancient structures aligned with one of the solstices. As John Beckett notes, the solstices are likely the oldest holy days in the world, being based not on human calendars or localized shifts in seasons, but on an astronomical event triggered by the earth’s axial tilt, creating a phenomenon observable anywhere in the world.
The passage tomb called Newgrange is at least 5200 years old, making it older than most other structures that we’ve come to view as ancient, including the Pyramids in Egypt or the ancient temples of Greece. Specifically, it pre-dates “civilization” and Empire, and is itself a little older than Stonehenge. We tend to forget—and our modern “enlightened” manner of thought has forced us to deny—that before emperors and monotheism, humans had the ability to create structures perfectly aligned with the stars and sun. More so, we (or pre-civilization “we”) built them to endure much longer than many other things.
5200 years later, the sun still shines through a small window near the entrance to this tomb, for only three days each year, and illuminates the inner chamber with a lance of sunlight. The only deterioration in the structure is that previously this shaft of sunlight was larger; time has caused the entire structure to sink a bit, but for something 50 centuries old, it’s doing quite well.
So five millennia ago, the solstice was celebrated in grand tombs and stone circles; five millennia later, it’s celebrated with vapid music and too much shopping in most places, and getting piss-drunk in others, or celebrated by neo-pagans wearing silly clothes (or none at all).
Somewhere in those 5000 years, we lost the thread a little bit.
But not really. Like Newgrange and other ancient monuments that have survived these aeons, the past literally still stands among us in the present. And there’s actually something both in the piss-drunk and the gaudy gifts that whispers of something ancient, inviolable, and perennial.
Most pagans—or most people, really—probably have heard that the modern celebration of Christmas is somehow related to a Roman feast called Saturnalia. The more studious point out that the celebrations then (the exchanging of gifts, the lighting of votives) seem to continue on into the modern traditions of Christ’s Mass, and the liturgical choice to place Christ’s birth on 25 December seems to have been a direct attempt to displace the pagan celebrations of Saturn occurring close to the same time (17-23 December).
It’s a little more complicated than that, of course—for instance, 25 December was actually the feast of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) in Rome, and it was more likely this day the early Church chose to supplant.
Rarely do we read much else of this story, how the subsequent priests actively preached against the continuation of Saturnalian celebrations throughout the early medieval history of Europe (much more recently than we’re let on to believe). A few have done great work to explain how modern Christmas came about, but even still much is lost in this telling, particularly regarding the actual meaning of Saturnalia itself.
Saturn is a peculiar Roman god, one of a number of older, “foreign” deities brought into worship by the priests, possibly through the process known as evocatio. For all its rather awful imperialist faults, the Roman Republic (and later Empire) had a deep acceptance of the gods of others, and had prescribed rites to court a foreign god’s favor. This process differed from what is called the interpretatio, by which the Romans merely assimilated the gods of others by re-naming them as one of their own, or adding the name of one of their gods to that foreign god. Thus, we find the Gallic Brigantia renamed Victoria (or sometimes Minerva), Maponus assimilated with Apollo (himself a god initially foreign to the Romans), and Lugus named as Mercury (Hermes in the Greek pantheon).
Saturn may have arrived in Roman worship 2 or 3 centuries before the common era, though none of this is quite clear. The stories of other similar gods somewhat match Saturn’s: for instance, the Greek titan Kronos, murdered by his son Zeus, is usually seen as the same god as Saturn, despite his holy days being held near midsummer. Enough of what was written about Saturn suggests maybe this is the case, as both Saturn and Kronos represent much older understandings of gods and, like The Furies (don’t say their name aloud, really) or Hecate, are seen to be from more ancient orders.
While modern religion tends to see it as quite an easy thing to displace an older god with a newer one, we know both from ancient history and modern that it’s never a complete process. A brief glance at the countless number of saints in European churches is enough to complicate this idea. St. Brigid and the Irish goddess Brigid are too directly analogous to be accidental, the popular Saint Expedite is quite clearly Mercury/Hermes, and Saint Denis (one of the patron saints of France) is undoubtedly a contorted continuation of the god whose name he bore (Denis is early French for Dionysus). The Romans were at least more honest about this process than the Catholics ever were.
The older order of gods to which Saturn (and Kronos, Hecate, etc) belong is usually called chthonic, meaning originally “of the earth” and only later “under the earth.” Chthonic gods are known to be “underworld” gods, dealing with the dead and more primal forces, a sort of shadow category into which ancient deities not directly involved with human civilization are shunted. Saturn was not a god of emperors or empire, but rather a god from before empire. Just as Kronos was displaced by the god-king Zeus, it was Jupiter an emperor would call upon to enlarge his power, not Saturn.
We see this quite clearly in astrological and modern occult discourse. The planet Jupiter is seen as expansive, the giver of wealth and fortune, a planet of blessing and of rulers. Saturn, on the other hand, is a darker body, the enforcer of limits and the bringer of obstacles. We hear of the horror of one’s “Saturn Return,” the period of life each 28 years or so when Saturn stations again where it was when you were born, arriving to teach you you’re not as amazing as you thought.
Saturn has a spectral quality in magical discourse, a haunting truth one cannot ever outrun, so it’s no wonder that Saturnalia itself long haunted European Christianity as just such a spectre. The Church’s war against its continued celebrations was long fought and never fully won. As Rome did for gods, the Christians eventually let in the parts of Saturn’s celebrations that they could not fully eradicate. A truce, as it were: the candles could continue, and also the gift-giving, and in some places even the most curious and dangerous of Saturnalia’s rites.
The Spectre Haunting Christmas…
There’s something I should now make very clear about Saturn, a thing I’ve saved until now. But rather than tell you directly, I’ll let a 2nd century Roman historian do it:
“The first inhabitants of Italy were the Aborigines, whose king Saturnus is said to have been a man of such extraordinary justice that no one was a slave in his reign, or had any private property, but all things were common to all and undivided as one estate for the use of everyone. In memory of this way of life, it has been ordered that at Saturnalia slaves should everywhere sit down with their masters, the rank of all being made equal.”
The historian Justinius, then, ascribed Saturn to an indigenous people who lived in conditions we could quite easily call autonomous communism. No private property, no rank, no division of class, and no restricted access to the land and its wealth. Other Roman writers claimed Saturn the ruler of the “Golden Age,” a time before recorded history during which the land always provided food for people, labor was unnecessary, and humans were closer to the gods. Depicted sometimes with a scythe in hand, Saturn was the bringer of abundance from the land, sometimes named the father of agriculture (though more likely that of horticulture, rather than mass-scale farming). And most of all, he was the god of a time before slaves and masters, a propertied class and the landless, king of a time before kings themselves.
As such we can guess why Saturnalia’s most fascinating tradition was the most dangerous to the later Christians.
It was not only customary during the Roman rites of Saturnalia for slaves to be treated as equals, but also often enough for lords and masters to become temporarily their servants. During Saturnalia, slaves ate at the tables of their masters (and were often served by them), and were given the right to wear clothing only the free-born and patricians could wear, thus annihilating the public distinction between the two classes.
We see this part of Saturnalia continued throughout Christianized Europe in a raucous aspect of Christmas that involved the selection of a “Lord of Misrule” or a “child bishop.” During these rituals, a peasant was named king—or in France and Germany a child named bishop—and given powers to overturn the normal order of things. These “world turned upside down” celebrations involved profane marriages between donkeys and priests, crossdressing, mischievous social disorder, carnivalistic riots, and the pillaging of the food stores of nobles and lords.
Closer to the present, these celebrations continued into Britain and Ireland much longer than the Church or ruling classes were ever comfortable with. A particular ritual was greatly distressing to the powerful: caroling. As with modern caroling, groups of people would wander the streets singing songs. But the similarities end there: rather than singing hackneyed versions of “Oh Silent Night” in gaudy sweaters, carolers would chant bawdy, profane, and rather raucous songs at the doors of nobles who in return were expected to give the rioters at their gates cakes and brandy. Failure to do so meant the the carolers had the “right” to break into the manses and take what they wanted.
This part of Saturnalia continued even into the 19th century of the United States, so much so that laws were passed in New England against caroling and being publicly drunk on Christmas Eve, laws which the Church in Europe had never fully succeeded in enforcing. By this time, however, the new order of capitalism had taken enough hold that the Calvinist-Bourgeois values of commerce, the nuclear family, and the sanctity of individual wealth were able to supplant survivals of Saturnalian revelry in most places.
One thing that’s always interested me about this transition is a particular story we all know too well, but whose meaning we tend to forget, that of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” As we moderns have lost the original meaning of caroling, the story seems merely a morality play, an admonition that the greed will leave you lonely. But remembering that caroling was a continuation of the rites of Saturnalia, Dickens’ point becomes clearer. Scrooge was an industrialist, part of the new bourgeois order of capitalists who, as Marx noted, had freed themselves from the aristocratic code of noblesse oblige. Re-distributing wealth to the riotous poor during Christmas was an unwritten part of that code in England and elsewhere, but Scrooge and the rest of the new capitalist class refused to recognize their duty.
We, Children of Saturn
Nietzsche described two tendencies within society, that of the Apollonian and that of the Dionysian. But perhaps instead the better dichotomy is that of Jupiter and Saturn. On the one hand we have Empire, the political regime of accumulated wealth and ordered civilization; on the other, the communalist urge of classlessness and abundance. The very modern Christmas we now know is a triumph of the imperial qualities of Jupiter over the more ancient and chthonic order of autonomous existence.
Of course, in some places we still see moments of that old Saturnalian urge, but the public disorder of piss-drunk Irishman on Christmas Eve is certainly a mere shadow of this. But they are still perhaps a bit closer than all the rest of modern Christmas’s trappings, except in one un-noticed figure we speak on but rarely think of.
While in Protestant/Anglo countries, Christmas is a one-day celebration (meshed in with many aspects of the Germanic Yule, though that itself was a longer Pagan celebration as well), Christmas is a much longer celebration in Catholic countries. Advent extends over many days, and ends on 6 January, the day of Epiphany (thus the “12 days of Christmas” most Americans have heard sung about, despite not knowing why there are 12). Christmas, then, includes New Year’s (the feast of Sylvester), during which we sometimes give a slight nod (and shove-off) to “old man” or “father” Time.
Here we should remember that Saturn’s other name is Kronos. And though Kronos and Chronos (the god of time) were not originally the same god, eventually they became folded into each other through their worship in the Orphic cults. This magical conflation extended to Saturn in Rome as well, and it’s here we can see why modern astrology and occultists fear Saturn as a god of limits and contraction: time eventually catches up to every empire, and nothing can continue expanding forever.
Perhaps there’s no more important truth for our civilizations now than this. The gods of empire have had their time. Capitalism may have been born of the monotheist god, but in the common Christian’s perception of him as a manly father-king located somewhere in the heavens, we see he’s mostly a less-rapey (excluding poor Mary, of course) copy of Jupiter-Zeus. Empire has won, humans everywhere divided by class and its modern variants. The abundance of the earth during its Golden Age is more than a distant memory, and now the land dies beneath us in our constant laboring.
Where, then, is that older god, Saturn? Relegated in modern astrology and occult to an unfortunate bringer of obstacles, forgotten otherwise except as the name of a car company or a neat oddity in the sky, his rites now a pale shadow of their former liberating ecstasy.
But Saturn’s not really gone. Christmas may no longer be a riot, caroling may no longer be a house-invasion, and humans may still toil in endless labor and even continued slavery, yet Roman priests knew the same truth psychotherapists know: deep desires and ancient drives cannot simply be consigned to the underworld. Sublimated urges live on still, quake through the illusory stability of our society, and resurface again to manifest their wills.
Perhaps as the icecaps melt, as the seas rise, as the air stifles and as the rivers die we are seeing the chthonic emerge again. Saturn as Kronos/Chronos heralds time’s limitations on human striving, and Kronos/Chronos as Saturn sings bawdily of the way things once were and might be again. It’s not such a stretch, really—5 millennia after it was built, the unconquered sun’s light still shines through the tomb of Newgrange.
The past is not so easily gotten rid of, after all.
So perhaps we are Saturn’s children, awaiting again the reign of the king-before-kings, who does not divide the humans between master and slave or between property and the property-less. He whose reign we once remembered, whose rites we once kept—perhaps he shall reign again as the Empire of Jupiter finally collapses upon its true nemesis: time.
Happy Yule. Merry Christmas. Good Solstice to you. And most of all, Io Saturnalia!