Here we are in December—and what a year 2021 has been. Let’s not even think about what we’ve survived—continuing pandemic, climate change, people with guns, violations of voting rights, the Orange T. Rex still at large. No no no. Let’s celebrate the coming holidays with the antique ancestor of the Feast of Fools. Let’s celebrate the Saturnalia.
Some background: Saturn, who was sometimes conflated with the Greek Titan, Cronus (who became a god of time), was an ancient Latin agricultural god whose name may derive from satur, “stuffed,” or sator, “a sower”; in either case, he stands for abundance. He was a working god who oversaw viniculture and farming and was the king of Italy during the golden age before the rise of imperial Rome. When Jupiter came to conquer him, he hid himself (latuit) in the region that came to be called Latium. The Romans soon proclaimed that Saturn’s body lay beneath the Capitol in Rome. Because his reign (and presumably his hidden corpse) brought prosperity to the city, the state treasury and the standards of the Roman legions were kept in his temple when the army was at home. Saturn’s statue was bound in woolen strips to keep him from leaving Rome. In addition to Saturn, the Romans honored Ops and popular gods like Sol Invictus, Mithra, Consus, Juventas, and Janus in their winter festivals.
The Saturnalia, which began on December 17, was originally a series of rural festivals—the sementivae feriae, consualia larentalia, paganalia, dies juvenalis, and others—that gained civic importance when a military defeat in 217 BCE inspired a religious revival. After the opening religious ceremonies came celebration, feasting, and bawdy merriment. Civic offices and courts and schools were closed, and commerce and warfare were halted. The Saturnalia thus eventually grew into the medieval Feasts of Fools during which ordinary people pretended to be foolish kings and popes and judges.
The Saturnalia is echoed in today’s holiday celebrations, religious rituals, honored figures (Santa Claus, Father Time), sacred flames (candles and bonfires), greens (the decorated tree, wreaths, garlands), time off from work, gift giving, feasting, and exuberant play. How many of us remember the spectacular displays in department store windows in the olden days? How often have we watched the good old movies about Christmas, like (for starters) Charlie Brown, the Grinch, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story (Yay, Ralphie!)?
Ops, who was celebrated on December 19, was Saturn’s consort and the goddess of grain, fruit, and harvest. She was also associated with the god Consus, ruler of the wealth of the grain that Ops brought to her people. We get our word “opulence” from her name.
It’s possible that worship of Ops and the idea of opulence have been misconstrued. Several years ago, I edited a book about “affluenza” in which the author said that advertising teaches us that shopping is not only a major pastime but also an almost religious rite/right. Today it’s a disease that has metastasized throughout the body of society. All we have to do is visit sites like Amazon and eBay and the social media to see that people would rather shop (online, which is still safer) than do anything else.
Affluenza isn’t a new idea. The Roman Senate passed sumptuary laws setting limits to what Romans could own (and show off). The laws were ignored. Medieval monarchs, including popes, were what I call selfish Opulists: rich and greedy. They also tried passing sumptuary laws, and we know that one motivation for the Protestant Reformation was to protest against the wealth and avarice of the Vatican and nearly every monastery in Europe. The robber barons of late 19th century were great selfish Opulists, too, and we see how their descendants, like those spaceship-building billionaires and certain politicians, are living today.
But moderate wealth is not bad We need money to make house payments or pay rent, to buy groceries and clothing and other things we need to live. But too many people lack the money to buy even the basic necessities. That’s one reason we need to vote for local, state, and federal government programs that help people in need. We can also remember the Feasts of Fools and speak truth to power whenever we can. We need to spend our own money wisely. I don’t know about you, but I don’t live on trust funds or stock dividends. I live on what I earn. That means I live thriftily. I bet everyone reading this post lives thriftily…and we all know about sharing.
For this holiday season, let’s remember Saturn and Ops. Let’s organize our own Saturnalias. We can sing pagan versions of Christmas carols—“Joy to the world/ The Light is born…”) and give gorgeous presents to our family and friends. We can light candles and sing praises to our gods and goddesses. We can fill our kitchens with good food and have lovely feasts. And we can share our wealth, whether it’s financial or spiritual.
Let us also be compassionate Opulists. We can start with small magical work. When I’m outside walking, I pick up any coin (usually a penny) I see lying on the sidewalk. When I get home, I lay the coin on my Dame Fortuna altar and say, “For those in need.” One penny isn’t much, but pennies add up. Ops was a goddess of grain and fruit. What other Opulistic work can we do? We can remember the people to whom the Light is not reborn. People who are living in the dark—hungry and homeless people, battered women and children, people in nursing homes and hospitals. We can donate food or cash to organizations that feed people. We can also pass along or donate old but good clothing and shoes (and maybe devices). We can share or donate books, CDs, and DVDs. Remembering that what comes around goes around, let’s be as Foolish-Generous as we can to bring the blessings of Saturn and Ops to everyone.
(Note: Yes, I also wrote about the Saturnalia in 2018. But after a year like we’ve just seen, who can resist an opportunity to join a Feast of Fools?)
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (barbaraardinger.com), is the author of Secret Lives, a novel about crones and other magical folks, Pagan Every Day, a unique daybook of daily meditations, and other books. She really enjoys writing her monthly blogs for FAR. Her work has also been published in devotionals to Isis, Athena, and Brigid. Barbara’s day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. To date, she has edited more than 400 books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her rescued calico cat, Schroedinger.