In the Roman Empire the Saturnalia were the seasonal celebrations from 17th to 22nd of December, preceding the 'Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun' (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) on 23rd of December. No ancient record gives a complete descriptions of these celebrations from beginning to end; yet references to them are abundant and their influence continued long after their abandoning from the official calendar and all across the vast region of the Roman Empire.
The most marked characteristic of the Saturnalia was a ritualised liberation and social inversion: Masters were made to serve lush banquets to their slaves, for the duration of the celebrations private property was made public and the ranks of all people were made equal. Pottery or wax figurines were offered as common gifts - as their plain nature would not reveal social status but they were affordable to everyone. Games otherwise prohibited or frowned upon such as gambling or dice-playing were permitted even to slaves and nuts were commonly used as stakes. Usual social identity was hidden behind masks and role-playing, i.e. the temporary assumption of alternative identities formed an essential part in the status reversal during the festivities.
Our modern day interpretation of Saturn (silence, restriction, limitation, death, withdrawal, essence, structure, meaning) comes to the foreground in these wild celebration when we aim to understand what the Saturnalia meant to people in positions of social power: Suddenly they lost their status as masters, their sole access to their villas, their private property, as well as all their privileges and powers. - Taking possession of all things freely is great fun - unless they were yours already. In which case the Saturnalia do not hold the promise of gaining anything, but rather the one of losing everything.
It's here we come across an essential mechanism in which magical virtues, skills and powers are taught to humans. The Saturnalia simply picked up on this pattern of magical learning - and ritualised it in a public social setting. The underlying pattern, however, remained intact and is deeply connected to the forces of Saturn: Learning in the magical realm always happens the hard way. That means new skills or virtues are best trained through the experience of their extreme absence. Thus to the powerful the Saturnalia were a painful lesson in what it truly meant to hold power - through the experience of its (temporary, ritually regulated) absence.
Anything we learn the hard way follows the same pattern: We learn of its value by precisely NOT achieving it. We learn about the value of a resource or skill by experiencing the discomfort when it is not available and yet dearly needed. In light of this the Saturnalia, the period we are entering each year on the 17th of December is a wonderful opportunity to recall lessons on strength and power we learned through their absence. Here are a few reflections from my own journey during these dark days...
'Io Saturnalia' was the ritual cry the Romans shouted on the streets or when storming into the private chambers of their masters. It is also might have been the wail the gladiators uttered, right before their heads were cut off to be offered to the dark, chthonian father Saturn...
A lesson on Strength.
Learning about strength best begins with learning about the fleetingness of boundaries we thought we had erected around us safely. It best begins with learning about the frailty of the locks we hung before the things we feared to lose. It best begins with learning about the feebleness of the stone we came to mistake for our skin.
At the heart of all tough lessons on strength rests a very simple truth: Everything that needs to be taken from us will be taken. However hard we fight against it, however much we think we can defend against it. It doesn’t make the slightest difference. The fear that points us to protect is the exact opposite of the strength it takes to accept and adjust.
Saturn will walk over the ditches we erected between us and the world, however deep they are. Saturn will walk through the stones of our castles, however thick they are. And Saturn will walk in darkness through the labyrinth of memories we built over a life-time just to find the cup we kept buried in our hearts.
We all know we are walking towards our own death. The difference between our lives is how far we have come on this journey - and how happy we are while we walk on it. All the ideas of strength, of power and protection are meaningless once we make it to the end. Like clothes left scattered on our way, our strength will be taken from us gradually, piece by piece and bit by bit. Until there is nothing left of it. We finally will stand naked, unprotected, just like we started out at the beginning of the journey. - So if true strength cannot be measured in the breadth our ditches, in the strength of our walls and the depth of the labyrinths we hide in - how can it be measured then at all?
We all find our own answers to this. For now here is my best attempt: True strength isn't measured in how long we manage to adjourn defeat or death. True strength is measured in how calm and untroubled we remain while defeat is on its way towards us. True strength is measured in ounces of resilience. Much more than in our ability to expand into new territory true strength is measured in our ability to flexibly and nimbly adjust to the changing circumstances in the territory that is left for us. True strength is measured in our ability to experience happiness while suffering at the same time. It is a skill taught through paradox. It doesn't aim to resolve tension - but to comfortably live with it.
A couple of dear friends had to go through very difficult experiences over recent years. Most of them were diagnosed with severe illnesses; the type that don’t come and go like birds in a dovecot, but the ones that come to stay. Each of these friends have deeply impressed me with the way they are dealing with these experiences - and taught me about the nature of true strength. Each of them is losing and retreating from boundaries they had carefully erected over varying periods of time in their lives. And each of them needs to find a new dwelling on less ground that remains their own. As some ground gets taken by sickness and other by loss or age, the ground we can stand on firmly and ‘be ourselves’ vanishes slowly. Strength in this sense is a never ending exercise is nimbleness and agility, in humility and humour, in making-do with less and yet deriving more resilience and skill from precisely that.
Saturn teaches strength through giving up. By confronting us with poverty, weakness and insignificance Saturn invites us to stop fighting the forces that seem to threaten our riches and current state of wellbeing. In fact, Saturn invites us to giving up the very idea of safe-havens at all - and to fully expose us to the reality of standing naked in this world.
Most us will be familiar with the quote from the Bible, it was "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23). However, few of us might know the story told at least since the 15th century that the 'Eye of the Needle' actually referred to a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main city gate was closed at dusk. According to this story, a camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had all of its baggage removed. To enter the city of God one had to let go of one's accumulated riches. Or at least one had to carry them over the threshold oneself.
We just entered the Saturnalia of the year 2017. What a great time to reflect on what these mean for us individually?
If you see them as a short season of liberty, equality and for once sitting at the master's table - what does that tell you about your power and influence during the rest of the year? At the end of the day it were the people who were slaves during 358 days of the year who most fondly welcomed and enjoyed the seven days of liberty and social inversion...
On the other hand, if you experience the Saturnalia as a threat, as a short season of anarchy and loss of your well guarded property and wealth - what does that tell you about how much you'll have to lose once Saturn will visit your home (or body?) more permanently? What if all the energy, the worry and precautions you are spending to safeguard the things you 'earned' were spent in vain? After all, every season has its master - and measured against the decades of a life-time none of them last very long.
This is the thing with Saturn - none of us get to trick or escape him. Whether we chose to belong to the rich or the poor, to the powerful or the exposed. The only way we can prepare for the encounter with the old man with the scythe, is to train our nimbleness and agility, our ability not to hang on to anything and yet neither to disregard its value when it is available.
Here is what I suggest - mainly to myself, I guess: Rather than starving ourselves to death, so that once we have fallen our soul will passt through the needle, let's try something different altogether. Instead of attempting to squeeze through the eye of the needle, let's learn how to balance our weight on its pinhead. Then we might realise, it is not a needle at all that Saturn wants us to work with - but a fulcrum instead. And maybe here it is that the version of ourselves as an adept hides: standing naked but calm in the middle of the balanced scales.