Thursday, November 19, 2015

Winter Solstice Celebrations: Roman Saturnalia and Modern Christmas

Winter Solstice Celebrations: 
Roman Saturnalia and Modern Christmas
(Photos and images from except as noted.)
This is the second blog-article about Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture. See the first blog-article at: The Persistence of Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture
While the celebration of Christmas is clearly associated in some manner with the winter solstice, why does it occur a few days after the solstice? And why is there an informal seven day period of celebration between Christmas and New Year's?
"Myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten. The history of religion is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice."
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1922.
I asked myself these questions and a month later after going down many roads on the information superhighway, I believe I found much of the answer. But in order to do that, I had to research ancient astronomy, Roman festivals and Christian traditions along with a detailed understanding of different calendars and also the continuing Roman legacy that is still part of our daily lives.

I also was curious about this time because it is a pivotal moment when one year ends and a new one begins. On Christmas Day almost all stores and businesses close in the US, for example -- even Walmart. In addition there is a profound feeling that this time period is different from any other point in the year, an emotion that is hard to define but nevertheless quite real.

But to really understand I felt I needed to put myself in the shoes of Romans thousands of years ago -- away from our modern scientific instruments,  precise clocks, electric lights, centrally heated homes and ample food at the local supermarket. 

Why did I focus on Rome, you might ask? Our winter holiday season comes directly from Rome. For example, the date for Christmas was officially decreed by a pope in 350 CE. 

"In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date" for Christmas.

Furthermore, prior to the Roman adoption of Christianity, there was a Roman winter solstice celebration that lasted about a week and involved gift giving.

When I did imagine myself in Roman shoes, I saw Rome as a very dark city at this darkest time of the year -- almost pitch black when the moon was not out. It was a city and culture that was ruled by a number of gods with mysterious powers. In addition the Roman experience, even their perception of the solstice, was quite different from ours.


The calendar we use today is essentially the same Roman calendar that Julius Caesar created over 2000 years ago. 

This innovative solar calendar was quite remarkable for the time as it ignored the cycles of the moon and instead created a way to stay in perfect sync -- well almost perfect as Pope Gregory XIII had to tweak it 15 centuries later -- with the seasonal movement of the sun and the solstices and equinoxes. This was very different from the earlier moon based lunisolar calendars when the months drifted from year to year until a leap-month was added to bring the calendar back in line with the sun's position. 

In addition because the Julian calendar was solar based, it emphasized the sun -- making the sun central to the Roman culture. 

And it was also clear to me, that just as temples in Rome were holy places, in a culture that was centered around the sun (and even the worship of the sun at times) the solstice period -- when the sun almost disappeared -- was considered a sacred point in time.

In fact most of our time keeping comes from Roman culture: all our months have Roman names and the point at which the old year ends and the new year begins was decided by the Romans -- as this transition could have occurred at any point during the yearly cycle.  In addition the words solstice (Latin: solstitium = sun still) and equinox (Latin: aequinoctium = equal night) for the four key points of the year are Latin based. Virtually every town of any size in the US has a clock with Roman numerals for the hours. So it should be no surprise that our modern end of the year festival would have Roman roots, as we have inherited our time keeping from Roman traditions. For a more detailed explanation see notes at the end of this blog.

Then I remembered something that our local TV weather man pointed out. While scientifically the solstice occurs on a specific day, the days just before and after the solstice are almost the same length. This means that, on average, there was a week long period of the shortest days, ones that are only a few seconds apart in duration. In a civilization without a quite accurate way to measure time, these days would have appeared to be the same length.

To get exact data, I looked up the length of the days during the solstice at Rome's latitude to see how the declining winter sun would have been seen. You can see the length of the days for the current winter solstice in 2015 in the chart below.
Screen grab of the chart of daylight hours in Rome 
during the winter solstice in 2015 from the URL listed next.

You can see it for yourself at this URL for the current winter solstice in 2015.

And this brings up a crucial point. According to my research the Romans could not determine the exact day of the solstice in real time, but only after the fact. However, because they were able to pinpoint the exact day after the fact, they could affirm the accuracy of their calendar. At the end of the year they would, however, know that the solstice did occur within their celebrated week-long time period -- and that was all they needed to know.


It is important to note that at the winter solstice (Latin: brumale solstitium) the sun does not move, in fact the word solstice means just that. It comes from the Latin 'solstitium' meaning "point at which the sun seems to stand still" ( While modern science says this happens only on one particular day and after that the days get longer, this is not quite true. The length of the shortest day and longest night remain almost the same (within a few seconds) for about week at the latitude of Rome.

"...the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and change little in position during this time."

The following method was almost certainly used by the Romans and was how Ptolemy and ancient astronomers could determine the exact day of the solstice after the fact, but not in real time.
"It is most likely, then, that equinoxes and solstices were determined by observing noon solar altitudes for a series of days before and after the events. [ED: my emphasis]"
"When the Sun is crossing the meridian at noon, it is relatively easy to measure its altitude, and then knowing the geographical latitude, to compute the declination. From the declination, it is easy to compute the Sun’s position on the ecliptic (the longitude), and we know that Hipparchus knew how to do it. But it is only at noon that such an easy determination is possible. It is then fairly straightforward to estimate the time that the Sun’s declination reaches some specific targeted value: 0° for an equinox, and maximum or minimum for a solstice."
"That series of daily altitude measurements were used to determine the time of cardinal events can hardly be doubted...Especially for the solstices, it is essentially the only viable option for achieving ¼ day accuracy. [ED: my emphasis]"
Dennis Duke, Four Lost Episodes in Ancient Solar Theory, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 39, (2008)  
"The solstice time is not easy to determine. The changes in Solar declination become smaller as the sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, the declination speed is less than 30 arcseconds per day which is less than 1/60 of the angular size of the sun...This difference is ... impossible [to detect] with more traditional tools like a gnomon or an astrolabe [ED: ancient tools the Romans would have used]. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes. Those accuracy issues render it impossible to determine the solstice day based on observations made within the 3 (or even 5) days surrounding the solstice without the use of more complex tools. [ED: not available to the Romans]"

In our modern scientific age, we understand the laws that govern planetary motion, so that we are certain the sun will return each year from its lowest point at the winter solstice. But to the ancients this low ebb in the sun's travel must have been quite frightening. It is believed that Neolithic people, for example, felt the need to help the sun return with rituals during which they used sympathetic magic, such as lighting fires, to aid the sun in its return.

So when I looked at the numbers -- the length of the days before and after the day of the solstice -- I arrived at a probable reason for the week-long Roman festival. The period of short days lasted about a week every year -- and because the day of the solstice can vary from December 20-23, it meant that the festival would have always included the precise day of the solstice no matter what.


Now that leaves the question of why December 25 was so important.

According to Roman tradition December 25 was usually the first day after the week-long solstice period when days began to noticeably lengthen and this could be determined in real time with the existing Roman science. To the ancients it would have been seen as a mythical rebirth of the sun and because of this the day was treated with great reverence. After a week-long period of short solstice days when the sun was at its lowest ebb, the clearly visible lengthening of days and reversal of the sun's movement was a time for great celebration and rejoicing.
This is similar to the way the new moon was treated by ancient peoples. Scientifically the new moon is when the moon is in full shadow ("when the Moon and the Sun have the same ecliptical longitude"). However, "in non-astronomical contexts [ED: e.g. religious contexts], new moon refers to the first visible crescent of the Moon, after conjunction with the Sun...the first crescent marks the beginning of the lunisolar calendars such as the Hebrew calendar."
"December 25 was commonly indicated [ED: in Roman times] as the date of the winter solstice [ED: which the like new moon discussed above had a different meaning in ancient times], with the first detectable lengthening of daylight hours."


Having done the math for the winter solstice, I then wanted to understand the Roman mythical rituals that were related to the winter solstice.  So I researched the annual Roman solstice festival known as Saturnalia which was celebrated during this period. 

When I started this article I was aware the Romans held a festival at the time of the winter solstice that included the practice of gift giving and some other similarities to our contemporary Christmas. Yet, to my surprise, there were at least fourteen similar customs and symbols -- so many it is highly improbable the similarities are coincidental.

Roman depictions of the god Saturn, an old man with a full beard, who is, among other things, the god of time. He holds a sickle which is a symbol of harvest and bounty and also death and destruction. Bas-relief, 2nd century CE.

The festival was named after the Roman god Saturn, the god of time. The theme of time was key as the solstice marked a critical point when the sun was at its lowest ebb. This time must have been frightening and auspicious to many ancients as it appeared that the sun might disappear entirely. A number of activities occurred during during the solstice period at the Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple of the Roman Forum.

In this 18th century depiction of the god Saturn, the sickle has turned into a scythe, as that had become the normal tool for harvesting grain. Saturn now had wings, as wings had become a symbol for time. Nevertheless, Saturn was still seen as an old man with a full beard.

The Latin phrase "tempus fugit" or "time flies" is something we still say today. 
This photo is of a graveyard fixture with an hour glass surrounded by winged time.

The Temple of Saturn is on the right and is the oldest temple in the Roman Forum.
Because there had been an ancient alter even before 497 BCE, 
it is probable that this festival was much older.
"It was among the oldest cult sites in Rome, and had been the location of "a very ancient" altar even before the building of the first temple in 497 BCE."  
The Roman Saturnalia festival in late December was the most important festival in Rome and went on for almost 1000 years, starting in 497 BCE -- about 500 years before the beginning of  Christianity and about 800 years before Christianity became the official Roman religion. Saturnalia was celebrated throughout the Roman provinces and the empire. Most historians say it ran from December 17-23 or 24 -- a period which, as I have said, usually included several days before the astronomical date of the winter solstice and a few days after.

Saturnalia was one of about forty festivals in Rome -- so that fact that it was the most popular and was celebrated for seven days is quite significant. Read more about these festivals in this link:

Drawing from the Roman Calendar of Philocalus, dated 354 CE, 
depicting the month of December with Saturnalian activities.  


Like today schools, businesses and government offices closed. Now, for example, Christmas Day is the only day that Walmart is closed.

And like today people exchanged gifts, children were given toys, candles were lit, special foods were prepared, and people sang and ate too much. Flamboyant dress was allowed along with wild parties (think of ugly Christmas sweaters and today's wild Christmas office parties or those at New Year's).

There was even a customary greeting or shout (not unlike 'Ho-Ho-Ho', 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy New Year').
"The phrase "io Saturnalia" was the characteristic shout or salutation of the festival...The interjection is pronounced either with two syllables (a short i and a long o) or as a single syllable (with the i becoming the Latin consonantal j and pronounced yo). It was a strongly emotive ritual exclamation or invocation..."

Even decorations were similar to those of today.
"Saturnalia decorations consisted of great swathes of evergreen and holly. Gold and silver star and sun symbols were hung throughout the house and used to decorate outdoor trees."

Like today, this period was a festival of lights.

"Macrobius (5th century AD) presents an interpretation of the Saturnalia as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice."

And frantic holiday preparations were similar.
"It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle...Everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business."
Seneca, Epistolae

Many Romans felt it was the most wonderful time of the year.
"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." 
Statius, Roman author, 1st century CE
And today?
Lyrics to the popular Christmas Song:
"It's the most wonderful time of the year
(Most wonderful time)
With the kids jingle-belling
And everyone telling you
Be of good cheer
It's the most wonderful time of the year"


Why did Saturnalia die out and its traditions become part of our holiday season? Quite simply, it was banned and that ban was strictly enforced.

About 40 years after Pope Julius I made December 25 the official date for Christmas in 350 CE,  all pagan Roman religious holidays were prohibited by the decrees of Emperor Theodosian. At the same time many temples from these earlier religions were destroyed.
"Between 389-391 he [ED: Emporer Theodosius I]  emanated the infamous "Theodosian decrees," which established a practical ban on paganism; visits to the temples were forbidden, remaining Pagan holidays abolished, the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum extinguished, the Vestal Virgins disbanded..."
Later the penalties became even more severe: people who practiced the customs of the old religions could have their property seized and they could be executed. So this ban ended any overt or public practice of the old traditions, forcing these practices to go underground or to find expression as part of a Christian ritual.
"Emperor Marcian decreed, in the year 451, that those who continued to perform the pagan rites would suffer the confiscation of their property and be condemned to death. Marcian also prohibited any attempt to re-open the temples and ordered that they were to remain closed."
Yet folk and older traditions when banned have a way of going underground without really going away. This can be seen in China today. The government has recently allowed the practice of Chinese folk religions after more than almost two centuries of discrimination. Suddenly the numbers of people involved in these customs have tripled to almost a billion and traditions -- that were perhaps thousands of years old and were never forgotten but passed down in private for hundreds of years -- reemerged. Read more about this on Wikipedia at:

Virtually every authority I have read believes that many of our modern traditions during Christmas come from Saturnalia but they are celebrated in a Christian context. The week long Roman Saturnalia celebration before December 25 has now turned into an extended celebration during the days after December 25, a time period that is more in harmony with Christian thinking, for example.

Saturnalia "has left its traces and found its parallels in great numbers of medieval and modern customs, occurring about the time of the winter solstice." 
William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, 1899.
"Saturn’s great festival, the Saturnalia, became the most popular of Roman festivals, and its influence is still felt in the celebration of Christmas and the Western world’s New Year.
 Encyclopedia Britannica


The fact that earlier rituals merged with later customs should not be surprising. We know, for example, that the tradition of the Christmas tree came from non-Christian beliefs.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
"The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year..."

From a Biblical Website:
"More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs...The Christmas tree, for example...
From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs."

A contemporary church with Christmas trees inside the church.


  • Why the winter solstice does not always happen on the same day
As with the June solstice, the December solstice's varying dates are mainly due to the calendar system. The Gregorian calendar, which is used in most western countries, has 365 days in a common year and 366 days in a leap year. Since a year is actually 365 1/4 days, the date of the solstice will move a bit in relation to the calendar. Read more about this at:

The exact astronomical time for the winter solstice could/can take place on a number of December days, from Dec. 20-23 -- although most often on December 21 or 22. Since the date for the week-long Saturnalia festival was generally listed as December 17-23, this was very smart as it meant that the winter solstice occurred during the festival no matter what. Also Romans could be reasonably sure that December 25 would be a date when the days began to lengthen.
  • The solar calendar and fixed dates
Because the Julian calendar was solar and the same every year (unlike a lunisolar calendar), it meant that certain annual dates became 'fixed' even though there might be some astronomical variation. For example, December 25 might not always be the day with the  "first detectable lengthening of daylight hours" but on average it was -- so this day was designated and became a date that people could count on and plan for.
Also because the Julian calendar was a 'solar' calendar, it emphasized the movement of the sun and ignored the phases of the moon. This meant that the winter solstice would have been especially important to a culture that used the sun as its point of reference.
  • About the term 'solstice' for historians and researchers 
There can be some variation in the meaning of the word 'solstice' in Roman times. The word solstice may have meant the time period of the astronomical solstice and/or the first longer day after the sun's standstill -- just as the 'new moon' has two different meanings depending on the context (see explanation above). So when looking at Roman sources this should be kept in mind. In addition before the Julian calendar, a lunisolar calendar was in use, so any date from that time period is hard to pinpoint in relation to the Julian calendar. Also the Julian calendar itself was off by one day every one hundred years, so this 'drift' needs to be taken into account when researching the winter solstice, until the drift was corrected by Pope Gregory XIII in the 15th century.
  • Pagan elements that are part of today's world
Some people might be surprised that 'pagan' practices and ideas, such as the customs of Saturnalia, are still part of our modern celebrations. But there are many holdovers from earlier eras. The first six months of our calendar, for example, are based on Roman gods and festivals. For example, January is named for the Roman god Janus and June for the most powerful Roman goddess, Juno. And the last day of our week, Saturday, comes from the Roman god Saturn -- indicating an end of the work week, just as Saturnalia indicated the end of the year. 

Other days of our week are named for Norse gods who were equivalent to Roman gods in a manner known as interpretatio germanica.

Many mythical elements are very much part of the winter solstice and Christmas celebrations. Santa is a mythical figure who flies through the air -- and incorporates many of the themes found in Saturnalia and other ancient celebrations at this time of year.
  • Days of the week
"The Germanic peoples adapted the system introduced by the Romans but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as interpretatio germanica [ED: i.e., Germanic interpretation]."
This is the second blog-article about Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture. See the first blog-article at: The Persistence of Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ancient Beliefs in Modern Culture

The Persistence of Ancient Beliefs 
in Modern Culture
by Rick Doble
 All pictures are from unless otherwise noted.

A fairie from circa 1860 (left) and today's fairies, Silvermist and Tinker Bell at Pixie Hollow, Disneyland (right).

Look at this list of about 70 words and see if there are any you *DON'T* recognize (in alphabetical order):
Abracadabra, Apollo, Athena, boogeyman, brownies, Cupid, conjure, curse, demigod, demons, devils, divination, dragons, dwarf, enchantment, elves, Fates, fairies, flying reindeer, genii, ghosts, ghouls, giant, gnomes, goblins, gremlins, Grim Reaper, hobgoblins, hocus-pocus, incantations, Jupiter, leprechauns, love potions, magic, magic potions, mermaids, monsters, Muses, nymphs, occult, ogre, pixies, poltergeist, Grim Reaper, Santa Claus, sea serpents, sorcerer, spells, spirits, Sirens, supernatural, titans, tooth fairy, trolls, Venus, vampires, voodoo, werewolves, witches, witchcraft, wizards, Zeus, zombies
I would guess you probably know almost all of these. And most people know quite a bit of additional lore such as stories of pixie dust, silver bullets, and wooden stakes through the heart.

These mythical characters, gods, concepts, and rituals are well known and virtually all come from 'pagan' and ancient beliefs  -- the word pagan coming from the Latin meaning villager or rustic. The fact that we are familiar with them shows quite clearly that an understanding of them has never gone away. And while we might treat them with a wink and a nod and relegate them to fiction or childish beliefs, we, nevertheless, as adults have more than a superficial knowledge.

But interest in the supernatural goes even further. Today I see a wide range of popular movies and TV programs about the supernatural such as, Grimm, Once Upon A Time, Harry Potter, Lord of the RingsSupernatural and Charmed. In addition there are many Steven King type stories, dozens of vampire sagas, and a slew of horror movies about the Grim Reaper or an evil demon -- even through he may not go by that name -- along with the current obsession with serial killers who are a modern form of demons. But it does not stop there, because we also are offered tales about the 'good' fairies and mythical folk of Disneyland such as Tinker Bell along with the Disney movies of Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Dracula through the ages: 
Vampire attacking a Christian, 15th century (left). Killing a vampire, 1864 (middle). A modern Dracula, 1980 (right).
"The notion of vampirism has existed for millennia; cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demons and spirits which are considered precursors to modern vampires."

This interest is a continuation of TV shows such as Bewitched in the 1960s, the 40s movie I Married a Witch, the many silent movies such as The Golem series plus stories of vampires and witches that go back many centuries. And we can be quite sure that before that there was an extensive oral tradition of folklore that was passed down from generation to generation.

Now don't get me wrong. This is not a criticism, far from it -- it is an observation that our very human nature continues millennium after millennium. It continues even when prohibited by powerful governments and authorities. For example, in the Roman Empire after 451 CE performing rites in honor of the Roman gods instead of following the Christian faith was punishable by death. Yet old beliefs die hard and often reappear centuries later in different guises.

I believe the full spectrum of ancient beliefs in animism, animatism, polytheism and demigod heroes are still part of our psyches and lurking just below the surface.

See The Common Elements of Religion

In the small area where I live, there is a statue of Neptune, a number of buildings with classical Greek columns, and a central clock with Roman numerals.

In addition there are many holdovers from earlier eras. The first six months of our calendar, for example, are based on Roman gods and festivals. 
January: Janus, Roman god of doors, beginnings, sunset and sunrise, had one face looking forward and one backwards
February: On February 15 the Romans celebrated the festival of forgiveness for sins; (februare, Latin to purify)
March: Mars, the Roman god of war
April: Roman month Aprilis, perhaps derived from aperire, (Latin to open, as in opening buds and blossoms) or perhaps from Aphrodite, original Greek name of Venus
May: Maia, Roman goddess, mother of Mercury by Jupiter and daughter of Atlas
June: Juno, chief Roman goddess
Quoted from:
Also the days of the week were named in honor of Roman gods. Each day is named for a planet and each planet is associated with a Roman god. In the Romance languages the link is obvious as each day of the week clearly reflects the name of the planet and god. In English, however, equivalent Norse gods were used for the days of the week, although Sunday = Sun, Monday = Moon and Saturday = Saturn's Day for the Roman god are still obvious. Another day like Thursday is less obvious; it is named for Thor, the German god of thunder who is equivalent to the Roman god Jupiter, the god of thunder -- in French the day is called Jeudi meaning the day of Jupiter or in Spanish, Jueves with the same meaning.
How The Days Of The Week Were Named In English & German
"The Germanic peoples adapted the system introduced by the Romans but glossed their indigenous gods over the Roman deities (with the exception of Saturday) in a process known as interpretatio germanica [ED: i.e., Germanic interpretation]."
Quoted from:


While we may think we have defanged and tamed these ancient beliefs, that fact that they are still very much with us is a testament to their power. The current  popular series about Greek mythology, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, for young adults, the obsession with a fictional Zombie Apocalypse and the huge number of garden gnomes shows that these beliefs are still just below the surface.

Gnomes have been around with that name since the 16th century, but seem especially popular today. They are similar to dwarfs and generally defined as mythical small elemental humanoid beings who live underground and are associated with the earth.
"Able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air"... this "earth-dwelling, spirit has precedents in numerous ancient and medieval mythologies..."

I am certain advertisers are well aware that deep down many of us still believe in mythical beings -- as I see ads that feature helpful tiny animated brushes with eyes and smiles that busily clean your bathtub when you buy a cleaning product. Or talking bears that encourage you to buy a fabric softener or the childlike Pillsbury Doughboy who laughs and giggles and makes baking easy.
Wikipedia lists well over 400 advertising characters, many of which are animated.

 Characters in advertising: Bibendum also known as the Michelin Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy. and the McDonald's Officer Big Mac.

Breakfast cereals use animated characters aimed at children who are particularly susceptible to magic and animated depictions -- think of Tony the Tiger of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes or the Rice Krispies pixies, Snap, Crackle and Pop. These cereal characters are targeted to the children's market and advertised heavily on kid's programs and cartoon shows.

The evolution of ads for Corn Flakes and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes: From informational ads (left and middle) to a character based ad with the animated Tony the Tiger (right).

Many people, from young readers to classical scholars, have suggested that today's superheroes are reworked Greek gods because they have supernatural powers and are immortal. The popularity of these characters is world wide. This includes people identifying with them and even dressing up like them which is not unlike the Greek adoration of their gods.

"Siegel [ED: co-created of Superman] himself noted the influence of mythic heroes in the traditions of many cultures, including Hercules..." (picture left).

For example, Superman was about 20-some years old when he first appeared, i.e. when he was first invented in 1933. This means that today he should be about 100 years old, but he is always the same young age indicating that he is immortal.
"The point is, these modern myths [ED: i.e. comic book heroes] do resemble true myths... What does this say about modern culture? Probably that it is far more in touch with its ancient, primal roots that either fans or detractors of modernity tend to admit. Even that less has changed than we think. Human beings have always created myths and legends and we still do.... Magic has not left the world. Batman will be back."
And I can't resist asking: Who of us has not talked to our car, when it wouldn't start saying something like, "Come on girl, you can do it. I need you to help me now, let's get going."


When I was researching folk traditions, I was struck by the number of ancient  beliefs that have persisted in spite of the most difficult obstacles. It is remarkable that even after centuries of violent repression, death threats, incarceration, executions and deportations, traditional lore continued to be passed down from generation to generation often in oral form. And when the repression was lifted, these beliefs frequently experienced a rapid resurgence and wide spread acceptance. It appears the human psyche needs to believe, to participate in and to practice beliefs that are part of our ancient past.

The Return Of Chinese Folk Religion
Chinese folk religion was suppressed or outright banned for two centuries. But now that it is no longer being attacked, the number of participants has tripled in less than 20 years, from 300 million to about 900 million.

The Fire Ceremony In Lithuania
Over shadowed by Christianity for 600 years and violently suppressed by the Soviet Union, Lithuania folk rituals are now experiencing a major revival.
"Romuva is a contemporary continuation of the traditional ethnic religion of the Baltic peoples, reviving the ancient religious practices of the Lithuanians before their Christianization in 1387."
"The Lithuanian pagan movement was stopped by Soviet occupation in 1940. The Soviet Union forcefully annexed Lithuania in 1940 and renamed it the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Due to the nationalist nature of Romuva, the faith was suppressed during the Soviet occupation and many practitioners were executed or deported to forced labor camps in Siberia."
Candomblé Religion in Brazil
Based on African beliefs the imported slaves of Brazil created a religion that was a blend of African religion, Roman Catholicism and Indigenous American Indian traditions. Begun around 1550, but repressed from the beginning, it was violently and officially banned until 1970 -- after which it surged in popularity having always survived just below the surface.

We treat Halloween as a time for crazy fun, a bit of madness and weird costumes -- but it is nevertheless a time when we think about death and dying -- something that will happen to all of us and those we love.

I believe the growing popularity of Halloween is also part of this resurgence. Halloween dates back to our most ancient traditions. Yet today it is more popular than ever -- not just in the US but world wide. It generates 7 billion dollars in sales in the US, and is the fourth most popular holiday after Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, based on data from the Alliance Data Retail Services (ADRS).

No matter which tradition, Christian or Ancient, Halloween is about the death and the dead. Yet most scholars believe that Halloween in the US has its origins in prehistoric beliefs from Ireland and from ancient traditions derived from pre-Columbian roots in MexicoI would suggest that in the West at least Halloween is the one day when we let ourselves think about death, something we know for certain will happen to all of us -- so it is a day that we ritualize and celebrate.

There are also many aspects of Christmas and New Years traditions that reach much further back than 0 AD. But I will save that for another blog.


And just how far removed is our most modern achievement, science, from previous ideas about gods and goddesses?

Commenting on the Western fascination with science, Dr. Eugen Weber -- at the end of his 52 lectures entitled The Western Tradition -- pointed out the importance of Greek mythological ideas which have lead to today's obsession with modern technology. Weber believed that modern science is, in a sense, stealing fire from the gods and putting this power into our own hands.
"Really when you think about it, our patron saint [ED: meaning the patron saint of the modern world] is Prometheus who stole fire from the gods."
Eugen Weber, Professor of History, UCLA
Public Television Series: The Western Tradition
The TV program Space Patrol in the 1950s (left) inspired kids to think about traveling through outer space, like Greek gods who could fly through the heavens. Aimed at a young audience the program offered a number of space related toys (right) along with an Official Space Patrol Membership from Ralston-Purina's Chex cereals so that young boys felt that they were participating in the adventure.

Science -- which wants to see itself as rational, reasonable and objective -- may, nevertheless, be driven by mythic forces, such as the Myth of Prometheus, because in a very real sense science has stolen the secret of fire and many other things from the gods.

And ironically today's hi-tech media can now make the supernatural more real than ever via computer games, animation, special effects, and 3-D film.

So I believe the full range of spiritual beliefs -- from animism to polytheism to monotheism and today's organized religions -- is fundamental to human nature even in our rational, modern, civilized, scientific, hi-tech world.

"The Child is father of the Man," Wordsworth wrote and Freud observed that our childhood forms our personalities as adults. In the same way of thinking, we might say our ancient beliefs are the foundation for our modern beliefs.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Environment & War Technology


Before we can come to terms with today's environmental crisis, we need to understand how it came about. 

I believe that much of it happened for a very simple reason. Technology developed faster than our ability to understand the consequences. And this happened because of three world wars (I include the Cold War) that gave the development of superior technology an urgency it would not have had otherwise -- along with a need to mass produce. 

This US poster from WWII egged companies and employees 
to produce more of everything for the war effort.

Many people have pointed out that war speeds up the development of technology. This is almost an obvious point, since each side wants to get an edge. During wartime the full resources of a country are committed to getting the upper hand, such as: cracking the enemy's code, for example, with computers, as the British did with the German Enigma code. Or building massive weapons such as the atomic bomb. Or adding wireless radio communication between tanks to allow coordinated attacks such as the Nazis did with their Blitzkrieg tactic. Or the development of the jet plane and the development of rockets with warheads, as Germany did in World War II.

Beginning with World War I in 1914, the conflicts that followed can be seen primarily as conflicts of technology -- as it was the development of superior technology rather than manpower that gave each military the upper hand. Technology allowed a military to leverage its manpower -- so that a few soldiers operating a machine gun emplacement or a pillbox, for example, had the same fire power as a hundred soldiers in the past. Relatively few sailors in submarines could sink vital supply ships and starve an entire country into submission -- something the German's came close to achieving with Great Britain in WWII.

So the research, development, improvement and manufacturing were often seen as more important than the number of soldiers and the size of the military. For example, Germany with a smaller army was certain it could defeat a much larger Russian military because of Germany's superior technology. And when Russia finally did defeat Germany, it was due in large part to the superior Russian technology, the T-34 tanks which the Russians could produce in vast numbers along with the Soviet Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, for example.

This 'battle of technology' was a mindset for about 80 years until the collapse of the Soviet Empire around 1991. 

Yet the battle was not only about technology but about production. Massive production became the goal. In WWII, for example, the US greatly out produced Germany and Japan which gave the US a decided advantage. But when the war ended, a production system was in place that could then mass produce consumer goods, a system which continues to this day.


The following is only a partial list of the technologies that were rapidly developed due to the demands of war. Today these technologies form the core of our modern world and are also responsible for many of the environmental problems we now face.

Quantity has a quality all its own.
Joseph Stalin

In WWII the manufacturing of goods
was as important as soldiers firing their rifles.

The war was a battle about production as much as military might. The US proved, for example, that it could build ships faster than Germany could sink them.

Mass Production
Perhaps the most important and least understood technological development due to a century of war was the huge infrastructure and methodology that developed for the creation of planes, tanks, boats, guns, clothes, bombs, bullets, K-rations, fuel, Jeeps, etc. While the basis for this type of production already existed with, for example, Sears and the Sears catalog -- the war created a mammoth system unlike any that had existed before.

This colossal network relied on thousands of subcontractors who themselves relied on suppliers and who were spread out across the country. The technology required that all contractors could do precision manufacturing. When the parts from various subcontractors were assembled at a central plant, everything needed to go together properly -- such as the building of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. 

Once completed mass produced products had to be transported to the right military operation which usually involved crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific. Then clothes, bullets, rifles, K-rations etc. had to be distributed to individual units and individual soldiers. 

This system set into motion the infrastructure and systematizing of our modern day world -- where, for example, products made in China are shipped to the US and then put in thousands of Walmart stores in the right quantities and on time. And it is this massive manufacturing and distribution system that has contributed to our environmental problems today.

In 1903 the first Wright Brothers' plane flew (left). A later early design (right).

The Wright Brothers' first airplane few in 1903. Because of the pressures of war and the military, less than forty years later the highly advanced B-29 Superfortress bomber was tested and soon after thousands of these planes were flying in the Pacific. The pressures of war caused airplanes to be developed much faster than they would have developed in peace time. Planes, of course, have now become the main means of long distance transportation.
In 1939, total aircraft production for the US military was less than 3,000 planes. By the end of the war, America produced 300,000 planes. No war was more industrialized than World War II. It was a war won as much by machine shops as by machine guns. 

State-of-the-art B-29 Superfortress only 40 years after the first Wright Brothers' flight (left). Assembly plant for the B-29s which were produced in large numbers (right).

The development of sophisticated radar in Britain created an early warning system for attacking Nazi airplanes which was a major factor in the defeat of German airplanes during the Battle of Britain. Today radar is a critical component of air traffic control along with weather monitoring and prediction.

Computers were a key factor in the British effort to break the Nazi Enigma code. Without computers this code could not have been broken. Later during the American program to land a man on the moon -- which was really a "Space Race," a Cold War battle between the Russia and the US -- computers were also key. Today, of course, we now live in a world dominated by computers

Manufacturing the first antibiotic, penicillin, on a massive scale was a major war effort by the Americans. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, huge quantities were available. Today it is hard to imagine modern life without antibiotics. Just about everyone at some point has had an infection that required an antibiotic. Without this treatment they would have died or suffered from that untreated ailment for the rest of their lives.

Wireless Communication 
A key element of the very successful German Blitzkrieg -- lightning war that overran Poland and France -- was the new wireless radio communication between the tanks on the field and also with the tank commanders. Radio became another crucial component of war, as effective communication was often the difference between victory and defeat. Today wireless technology such as satellite communication, the Internet and wireless phones are an everyday part of our lives and the modern world.

Recreation of a Nazi V-2 rocket.
A crash Nazi rocket program succeeded in developing the V-2 rocket by the end of the war. The rocket was then perfected during the Cold War with ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles). Today, this technology is essential for the placement of satellites which modern phone, weather, GPS, television, computers and communication depend on.

The US Interstate Highway System was built in part 
so that Atlas nuclear missiles could be transported rapidly and efficiently.

Hitler built the Autobahn in Germany which was the first superhighway. President Eisenhower copied this idea and inaugurated the Interstate Highway System. These superhighways in the US have been a major benefit to trucking, shipping and to a nationwide distribution system. These highways were also designed with a Cold War military purpose: the high bridges and extensive network of roads were and still are used to transport nuclear weapons.

Synthetic & Other Materials
Because some countries did not have access to certain key materials such as rubber, a major war effort was made to develop synthetic materials that were as good as the natural material. For example, because the Axis Powers controlled almost all of the natural rubber, the US embarked on a major effort to develop synthetic rubber. By the end of the war, the US was producing more than twice as much synthetic rubber as the world production of natural rubber at the beginning of the war. This success led to a number of substitute synthetic materials being developed -- which are today a major part of the modern manufacturing ability. From the massive production of plywood, deemed an "essential war material" in the US, to the creation of synthetic gasoline and oil by the Germans, the war accelerated the development and manufacture of hundreds of everyday materials.

More than 100 million K-rations were produced in 1944. 
Some believe this was the beginning of modern fast food.

Landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The Wizard War
The success of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day was due as much to an electronic arsenal as it was to the ships, planes and men who landed. Using sophisticated all weather radar navigation systems, the ability to jam German communications and even an early GPS type of technology, the victory was achieved in part with state-of-the-art electronic and wireless technology that Churchill dubbed "The Wizard War." This sophisticated understanding of electronics led to the electronic world of today.
See the list of about 40 different ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS USED BY THE ALLIES ON D-DAY: 

For an overview of the use and development of technology
in WWII, see this page on Wikipedia: 

Virtually all of these military technologies listed above helped build our modern world. But because they were built with such urgency, attention was focused on their successful development with little thought about the consequences -- the by-products.
The environmental impact of the new war technology and a large manufacturing base was far reaching but I'll save a more detailed discussion for another blog.
However, the following is a brief overview. 

The environmentally-friendly consumer practices of WWII such as sharing rides, extensive recycling and home gardens known as "Victory Gardens" went by the wayside after the war. With a now established large manufacturing capability, company demands for higher profits  and huge demand from soldiers who were returning to civilian life, the austerity of the war years was gladly forgotten. For example, the practice of returning soda-pop bottles for a deposit gave way to convenience with a "use once and throw away" culture that has today created severe environmental problems. Ever increasing electronics has led to the construction of a large number of generating plants that are today principle contributors to greenhouse gases. And over the last century the average number of people in a household was halved yet the average home size more than doubled.
Yet occasionally the environmental consequences became so serious, they were dealt with -- such as the problem of atmospheric testing of atom bombs which was causing radiation to be spread around the world. This led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 under President Kennedy, for example.

But the subtler aspects such as the effects of mass production were not recognized. And today we are paying the price. For example, it was recently reported in 2015 that nearly every seabird, about 90%, has eaten plastic.

While I will need to do further research on this, I believe that during the war years a successful product was the most important consideration -- with little thought about by-products, pollution, toxic wastes, environmental consequences, etc. Winning the war was the overriding consideration, understandably. But once the war was over, these side effects needed to be studied and taken into consideration, which I do not believe they were.

Understanding the history of how we arrived at this environmental crisis may help us find a way out. And the problem in a way is quite simple: we are now playing catch-up.

If there had been no wars in the last hundred years, it might have taken two hundred years for our modern technology to develop. With that slower development -- with more time to focus on the production methods as well as the product, for example -- we might have had time to adjust our technology to be more in tune with the Earth's environment.

Today our system of technology and manufacturing -- a result of the technology wars of the last century -- is entrenched. It has been allowed to grow and flourish without much control or awareness, in part due to the urgency of war. And because it is now entrenched there is substantial opposition to changing the status quo. 

However, it is now becoming obvious that we have no choice. We must create a technology which is Earth friendly, rather than Earth disrupting. But perhaps there is hope. It seems likely that the next generation, born in the 21st Century, understands the environmental urgency and will do something. But it will be decades before they are in charge and in the mean time, we, the older generation, may have done irreparable harm.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Note to students and scholars: I believe a number of books could be written on this subject, perhaps targeting each industry or innovation. This might help us understand not only how we got into this situation but also how to tame the beast we have unleashed -- using the lessons of history.