Freedom From Religion Foundation
We are not very far into the current calendar year — a good moment to dwell on how our contemporary calendar has been distorted due to patriarchal religion.
Once upon a time, calendars were based not on the sun but on the moon, which goes through 13 complete phases per annum. This provided a very tidy calendar of thirteen 28-day months, each month having four weeks of seven days apiece. This made a total of 364 days in the year, so one day was added at the end. That is why so many folk tales talk of “a year and a day” as an important period, and why the number 13 was once considered sacred by pagan communities, which is why the later church condemned it as evil or unlucky. The more generous “baker’s dozen” of thirteen loaves harks back to the earlier idea; bakers were assumed to follow the peasants’ rather than the church’s system.
Because women’s menstrual periods were viewed as corresponding with phases of the moon, the lunar calendar was associated with matriarchal goddess figures. The original Mother Goddess preceded the Father Gods, who were not recognized as important until the discovery of fatherhood, which came fairly late in human cultures. Since it was obvious that children emerged from women’s bodies and not from those of men, and sexual relations were usually random, primitive peoples believed that mothers created their babies from their own blood, and bones from their own ribs. Thus, “blood” relationships originally meant families founded by the matriarchs. The mothers of many of the early savior gods, such as Mithra, were always virgin mothers because they needed no mates. Mandatory marriage came only after it was discovered that men could be fathers if the mothers could be kept monogamous.
Solar calendars began when the discovery of fatherhood associated this function with the sun gods. Although there were primary sun goddesses in some places, like Japan, the sun and moon were usually designated yang and yin, male and female. The early Catholic Church therefore mistrusted all lunar associations since it detested any hint of female divinity, and thus forbade lunar calendars altogether, insisting on breaking up the 13th month and scattering its days. The old Mother Goose rhyme still records the battle between pagan and Christian views: “How many months be in the year? There be 13, I say,” followed by “How many months be in the year? There be but 12, I say.” The two incompatible systems seem to have coexisted for a few centuries.
The peasants, or pagani (“country folk”), retained their attachment to the Goddess Luna and her counterparts in various charms for planting and insuring the food supply, protecting their homes, and proceedings “in the name of” sundry ancestral deities. The days of the week in English still honor heathen divinities: after Sun-Day and Moon-Day come Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day and Saturn’s Day. The months still bear pagan names: Janua, Februata, Martius, Maia, Juno. The Romans added two months, July and August, honoring Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar. This threw their count off, as shown by the last four: September, October, November and December are Latin words for seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th, even though they are now counted as ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th.
January originally honored the Goddess Janua, otherwise known as Uni, or yoni, the physical “gate” to natural events like birth and death. Titled Antevorta and Postvorta, she looked both forward and backward to both future and past. She was later masculinized as Janus, the two-faced god of gateways, and still later canonized as the totally mythical St. Januarius, allegedly also a guardian of gateways, when the Roman Church seized his shrine at Naples and converted it into a church.
In ancient Rome, February was sacred to Juno Februata, the Goddess in her annual febris (fever) of sexual passion. Its festival was the Lupercalia, a day for magical encouragement of fertility in the coming season. Young men would draw “billets” (cards) inviting women to be partners in dating games and sexual activities that were believed to help the crops. The Church condemned all this, and rededicated the day to a dubious St. Valentine, who had several different, mutually contradictory biographies. One of the more popular sources seems to have been the second-century Gnostic Christian leader Valentinus, whose sect regarded sex as a sacrament rather than a sin. They retained the Goddess in the form of Sophia, “Holy Wisdom,” and ritually celebrated her union with the Redeemer. It is hardly surprising that “St. Valentine” remains the official patron of lovers.
March was dedicated to the war god Mars, because it was the season in which Romans prepared for their military campaigns. They chose to do battle in the more comfortable months of spring and summer, rather than marching through ice and snow. Mars was not originally a war god, but the divine father of King Latinus, legendary ancestor of all Latin tribes. Sacrifices were offered to him on the Campus Martius, “Field of Mars.” He became associated with war because Roman legions carried his emblem and prayed to him for victory. Christianized nations now know the major March figure as St. Patrick, said to have lived in the ninth century and given the title of Patricius, meaning a father-figure or a priest.
The April Fool was a ubiquitous figure in folk traditions dating from his early appearance at the head of Roman springtime ceremonial processions, where he represented those who worshipped the Moon Goddess Mania. They performed “antics,” meaning ancient dances like the notorious “antic hey.” They were sometimes called Moonstruck or Lunatics. The April Fool was called such things as Foolish Man, Folly, the Jester, the Joker; but he was supposed to be actually wise, hiding under ridiculous behaviors the worship of primitive ancestors called the Manes.
May was named for the Goddess Maia, virgin mother of Hermes, who was almost certainly a derivative of the very ancient Maya, virgin mother of Buddha, and other names like Mara, Mary, Maria, Mana, and Mai taken from the Sanskrit basic mother-syllable MA, supposedly uttered by the primal Goddess as she gave birth to the universe. In Europe, Maya became the Maiden Goddess of spring, worshiped by the Wearing of the Green in honor of the Earth Mother’s new garment, and by ritual fornicating in plowed fields to promote the growth of crops. May was called a “honeymoon” of sexual license throughout medieval Europe up to the 16th century. The important festival was May Day, featuring a “divine marriage” between the May King and the Queen of the May, who was also described as “the Roman Goddess Flora.” The chosen couple impersonated Frey and Freya, or the Lord and Lady, or some other comparable divine pair.
May Eve was the springtime equivalent of Halloween (or All Hallows Eve). The Church regarded it as a festival of witchcraft. Decorated processions and dances around the Maypole (a giant phallus) were meant to celebrate fertility and overt sexuality, always a red light for churchmen. Despite all ecclesiastical opposition, however, the May Eve festivals, “May ridings” and Maypole dances continued unaltered for many centuries.
The month of the summer solstice, or Midsummer, was dedicated to Rome’s imperial Goddess Juno, who was actually much older than Rome and probably descended from the Etruscan Uni, one of many prehistoric female universe-creators. Juno’s numerous appellations demonstrated an enormous versatility and were sometimes viewed as separate goddess figures; she was Queen of Heaven, Mother of the People, Goddess of Fate; Juno Martialis, virgin mother of Mars; Juno Februa, Goddess of erotic love; Juno Lucina, Goddess of Celestial Light; Juno the Preserver. The titles were endless. Her “marriage” to the male creator Jupiter was a very late revision.
In Rome it was said that every woman had a juno or inner spirit, corresponding to the genius in a man. Note that the word “genius” was preserved throughout the patriarchal period, while “juno” is no longer understood.
Two equinoxes and a solstice: Easter, Halloween, Christmas
Back in the days when our modern electricity-generated city skyglow was unknown and the Earth’s air was clearer, all the stars were visible, all night. People paid a lot of attention to the skies because they thought celestial events bore intimate relations to various aspects of human life. Solar cycles were of particular importance because they announced the timing of the seasons, and thus dictated human preparations and behaviors.
The date of Easter varies because it is still a lunar holiday, just as in antiquity when pagan astronomers calculated it. It is still celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter’s dating system has nothing to do with Christianity but is a direct descent of thousands of years of pagans’ reckoning.
As the spring equinoctial sowing festival, it was an important time for hopeful fertility rituals. In ancient times people were always preoccupied with the subject of fertility. One summer of insufficient crop yields could mean a winter of starvation. Spring rituals of sympathetic magic mimed the proper burial and resurrection of essential plants, often represented by the Green Man: a face surrounded by leaves, still seen carved in a number of old churches. He also became the Green Knight of Arthurian romance, or the “Green George” later canonized as the mythical St. George still worshiped on Easter Monday.
In England, the name of Easter came from the Saxon Goddess of Fertility, Eostre (or Ostara), possibly evolved from earlier middle-eastern names like Astarte, Ishtar, and her Hebrew equivalent Esther. One of Eostre’s symbols was the egg, honored as the source of bird life just as the womb of animal life and the seed of plant life.
Rabbits were also connected with the festival because they reproduce in spring and were everywhere assumed to be the most fertile of animals. An early sacrificial rite involved the eating of rabbit meat, to ingest its reproductive magic, and afterward carrying the rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm. Now, of course, the rabbit is not sacrificed but transformed into the Easter Bunny, bringing candy eggs to the children, many of whom come to believe that rabbits reproduce by laying eggs.
All Hallows was the annual harvest festival for ancient European pagans, who evoked the ghosts of their dead ancestors to the feasts to honor them. It was widely believed that ghosts had occult powers and might play dirty tricks if they were offended, so at the festival they were all hallowed, praised and offered treats to share in the feast. Placating the supernatural, for fear of retribution, is an obvious and intrinsic part of all religious practice. It can persist even long after the original rationale is forgotten. At the festivals, there would be actors masked and dressed up to impersonate the ghosts and accept honors on their behalf. Children still carry on the trick-or-treat ritual even though it seems no longer necessary but merely cute.
The church took over All Hallows and claimed that all the honored dead were Christian St.s instead of pagan ancestors. But Halloween still bears its original meaning in the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, “Day of the Dead,” when there is picnicking in the graveyards as a way of communing with deceased ancestors.
The prominence of both Halloween (“Hallows Eve”)and Christmas Eve recall the ancient practice of celebrating the “Eve” as the heart of the festival, because the old moon calendar figured days from noon to noon instead of midnight to midnight.
It has become customary to think of the Magi as the first Christmas gift-givers. But few people have read their background story. The word Magi did not mean “kings of Orient” as the carol claims. It was the term for magician-priests of the Persian/Zoroastrian solar deity Mithra, who became the later Roman Empire’s most popular messiah (a Persian word for the annunciator of the apocalypse). Mithra performed the usual miracles: He healed the sick, made the blind see and the lame walk. He was called Light of the World, and his holy day was the Dies Solis: Sun-day. He had 12 disciples, representing the 12 signs of the zodiac. In Rome, Vatican Hill was occupied by a Mithraic temple where the high priest was known as the pater patrum, “Father of Fathers,” later shortened to “pa-pa” and then to “pope.” The temple was seized by Christians in the late fourth century C.E.
Ancient people worried that some year the sun might not recover its light after the Winter Solstice but continue to wane, so there were always elaborate birth ceremonies at that time to confirm faith in the new birth of the solar deity. A number of named savior gods of the ancient world had myths of a solstitial nativity, usually god-begotten and virgin-born. To the infant Mithra, whose birth was also witnessed by shepherds, three Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, officially symbolizing his light, wisdom and annual ascent to heavenly heights at the spring equinox.
Christians copied these popular traditions and claimed that the Magi traveled all the way from their native Persia to honor the Christians’ latter-day savior’s birth. But how did the Magi get to Bethlehem, which lies far to the west of Persia, by following a star in the east?
Imitating the “wise men” by giving gifts to children became an integral part of the celebration, rationalized as showing supernatural beings the necessity of providing food for the next generation. Also important were the typically pagan decorations, evergreens like pine boughs, holly and ivy, because they did not “die” but remained green throughout the year.
Holly was named for the Nordic Goddess Holle, or Hel, queen of the underworld and keeper of the dead. Her “hell” was not viewed as a place of punishment but simply the destination of all souls. Like other evergreens, holly stood for the hope of ongoing life, and the holly’s red berries signified her sacred blood. Wreaths of ivy were prominent in the Dionysian cult, signifying fertility and inspiration. Holly stood for the Goddess, ivy for the God. This female/male connotation continued into Christmas games up to the 17th century in England, when the holiday fun included a mock battle between master and mistress of the house.
Christian authorities objected to all pagan decorations. The Council of Bracara ruled that “no Christian should bring holly into the house, because it was a custom of heathen people.” People continued to use such decorations anyway, and eventually the bishops had to cave in and allow them even in church. The decorated pine tree was long popular in Germany but was accepted in England only after Queen Victoria’s German-born consort made it a Christmas custom.
Such are the complicated pathways by which we have arrived at our current calendar and celebrations.