June & Juno, Queen of Goddesses

Black and white engraving for June from Kalendar of Shepherds.
Kalendar of Shepherds. Title page for June

June is, probably, named after Juno, the leading lady of Olympus, sister and brother to the Great God Jupiter (Jove). In Welsh, it’s ‘Mehefin’ – Midsummer. In Gaelic, ‘An t’Og mhios’ – the Young Month. In Anglo-Saxon, ‘Litha’, the month of the Midsummer Moon.

The picture above is from the Kalendar of Shepherds, with its 15th Century French Illustration. It shows shearing as the main occupation for the month but set within a flowery summer scene. In the roundels are the Gemini twins and the Cancer Crab, the star signs of June.

The text of the Kalendar of Shepherds gives a lyrical view of the joys of June:

From Kalendar of Shepherds, 17th Century Text Wellcome Library
From Kalendar of Shepherds, 17th Century Text Wellcome Library

June might come, not from Juno’s name, but from an Indo-European word for youth or vital energy. Ovid in Fasti, his poem about the Roman Year, lets Juno make her own case:

O poet, singer of the Roman year,
Who dares to tell great things in slender measures,
You’ve won the right to view a celestial power,
By choosing to celebrate the festivals in your verse.
But so you’re not ignorant or led astray by error.
June in fact takes its name from mine.
It’s something to have wed Jove, and to be Jove’s sister:
I’m not sure if I’m prouder of brother or husband.
If you consider lineage, I was first to call Saturn
Father, I was the first child fate granted to him.
Rome was once named Saturnia, after my father:
This was the first place he came to, exiled from heaven.
If the marriage bed counts at all, I’m called the
Thunderer’s Wife, and my shrine’s joined to that of Tarpeian Jove.
If his mistress could give her name to the month of May,
Shall a similar honour be begrudged to me?
Or why am I called queen and chief of goddesses?
Why did they place a golden sceptre in my hand?’

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved

In the previous Book (on May), Ovid told another story that June was named for young men.

‘So I deduce that the elders gave their own title
To the month of May: and looked after their own interests.
Numitor too may have said: ‘Romulus, grant this month
To the old men’ and his grandson may have yielded.
The following month, June, named for young men’
Gives no slight proof of the honour intended.’

The Latin for ‘Young men’ comes from the Latin iuvenis, “youth”)

But let’s not go into Indo-European roots, and let’s simply accept the most wonderful month is named after Juno, the Queen of Goddesses, the deity of marriage and women. Probably most famous for hating the Trojans – she had a grudge against Paris, as he ruled against her in that famous divine beauty competition. And more seriously, what other reaction can the Deity of Marriage, have to the man who showed such disregard for the sanctity of marriage that he ran away with the already spoken for Helen.

The Judgment of Paris 1700 by Daniel Purcell. Houghton Museum (Paris, Venus, Juno, Minerva)

‘A sweet season, the senses perfume and the spirits comfort.’

First Written in June 2023 and revised June 2024

There were some spelling and image errors in the email for my past (re)post so have a look at the revised page here, and spare my blushes.

Roodmas, the True Cross and the Coronation May 3rd

Rood screen in St. Helen’s church, Ranworth, Norfolk by Maria CC BY-SA 3.0

Roodmas is celebrated on May 3rd and September 14th, although the Church of England aligned itself with the Catholic Church’s main celebration on September 14th.

Rood is another word for the Cross. Parish Churches used to have a Rood Screen separating the holy Choir from the more secular Nave. This screen was topped with a statue of the Crucified Jesus nailed to a Rood.

The two dates of Roodmas reflects that it commemorates two events:

The Discovery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in 326 by Queen Helena, wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great. In Jerusalem, Queen Helena found the Cross with the nails, and the crown of thorns. She authenticated the Cross by placing it in contact with a deathly sick woman who was revived by the touch of Cross. She had most of the Cross sent back to the care of her son, Constantine the Great.

The part of the Holy Cross that was left behind in Jerusalem was taken by Persians but recovered by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 in a peace treaty.

Over the years, the Cross was shivered into ever smaller pieces as Emperors, Kings, Queens, Dukes, Counts, Popes, Bishops, Abbots, and Abbesses swapped relics with each other. The fragments were cased in beautiful reliquaries and had enormous power for those of faith and those who could be helped by healing by faith.

The Duke of Buckingham had a piece in his collection, which he kept at York House in the early 17th Century. How he got it, I don’t know, but I think he must have acquired it from the aftermath of the destruction of the Reformation. John Tradescant, who looked after the Duke’s collection (before Buckingham was murdered), had a wonderful collection of curiosities which he kept in the UK’s first Museum in Lambeth. Tradescant’s Ark, as his museum was called, also had a piece of the True Cross. Again, I suspect (without any evidence) that he got it from Buckingham. Did he acquire it after the murder? Or shiver off a timber fragment hoping no one would notice?

The Chapel that Shakespeare’s Father controlled as Bailiff of Stratford on Avon, was dedicated to the Legend of the True Cross, to find out more click here:

cutting from the Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

Last year, I was just finishing this piece when I came across this astonishing story in the Shropshire News!

It seems two pieces of the True Cross were given to Charles III by the Pope! They have been put into a cross called the Welsh Cross which took part in the Coronation Procession, and then the King is giving the Cross (I assume with the pieces of the Holy Cross) to the Church in Wales. Let the Shropshire News tell the story:

Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Part 2 Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

This is quite extraordinarily medieval, and fits in with the news that we were encouraged to take an oath of allegiance to the new King.

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/royals/swearing-allegiance-king-charles-its-29861318

It is a clear reminder that we are subjects not citizens and news, as a nation, we still set store by superstitions.

First Written on May 3rd 2023, revised May 3rd 2024

Floralia. Old Goats and an extraordinary Elephant April 28th

Flora on a gold aureus of 43–39 BC Wikipedia photot by АНО Международный нумизматический клуб

On the 28th of April until the Kalends (15th) of May the Romans, according to Ovid in the ‘Fasti’ Book IV, celebrated the Florialia dedicated to Flora, the Goddess of Spring, flowering, blossoming, budding, planting and fertility. She was one of the 15 Roman Deities offered a state-financed Priest. Her home in Rome, was on the lower slopes of the Aventine Hill near the Circus Maximus.

The Circus Maximus is the large long arena in the middle of Rome. Model Musee Arte et Histoire, Brussels, photo Kevin Flude

Celebrations began with theatrical performances, at the end of which the audience were pelted with beans and lupins. Then there were competitive games, and spectacles. The latter, in the reign of Galba, including a tight-rope walking – wait for it – elephant!

Incidently, Galba only survived for 7 months as Emperor – a little longer than Liz Truss’s 44 days but then she was not murdered by a rampaging mob at the end of her reign. It was the year known to history as the year of the 4 Emperors. (great description by Tacitus here:)

Juvenal records that prostitutes were included in the celebration of Flora by dancing naked, and fighting in mock gladiatorial battles. (there is a raging debate about the existence of female gladiators: a burial in Southwark has been said to be one such and Natalie Haynes has her say on the subject here🙂

Hares and goats were released as part of the ceremonies, presumably because they are very fertile and have a ‘salacious’ reputation! (Satyrs were, famously, obsessed with sex and were half man half goat. A man can still be referred to, normally behind his back, as an ‘old goat’).

Written in 2023 revised April 2024

The Moon on the Aventine Hill, Rome March 31st

Cycle of the Moon, sketched from photo.

The Moon rules the months: this month’s span ends
With the worship of the Moon on the Aventine Hill.

Fasti by Ovid

The Aventine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome, named after a mythical King Aventinus. It is the hill upon which Hercules pastured his cattle. According to Virgil in his Aeneid, the monstrous Cacus lived in a cave on a rocky slope near the River Tiber, and stole Hercules cattle. So, Hercules killed him. The worship of Minerva also took place on the Hill. You can take a Google Earth fly past if you follow this link – also some nice photos, and a link to Wikipedia.

Aventine Hill, Rome Google Earth

The Hill is famous in the mythology of Rome because it is associated with Romulus. He and his twin Brother Remus, were born to the vestal virgin, Rhea Silvia, in the pre-Roman City of Alba Longa, not far away. Rhea was the daughter of former King Numitor, and in her sacred grove she was seduced by the God Mars, and gave birth to the twin boys. They had to be hidden from the wrath of their Granduncle, who had usurped the throne from their Grandfather. The boys were saved by the River God Tiberinus and then by being suckled by a Wolf in a cave called the Lupercal, which is/was at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome.

When they grew up, they helped their Grandfather reclaim the throne (being the children of the War God they were obviously excellent at the art of war). They decided to found their own City, but they could not decide upon which hill to build it or who to name it after (accounts vary!). Remus favoured the Palatine, Romulus the Aventine (some accounts say vice versa). They decided to let the Gods decide. Remus claimed to have won when he saw a flight of 6 auspicious birds but Romulus saw 12 and declared himself the winner. So, the City was named Rome in his honour, and it was founded on the Palatine Hill, with the Aventine originally outside the circuit.

The two fell out and Remus was killed. The story was first written down in the Third Century BC, and it was claimed that Rome was founded in 753BC. The stories continue to be told and celebrated in a way that we have forgotten in Britain as we ignore our creation myths of King Brutus, relative of Romulus and Remus, merely because they are unlikely to be true!

For more on Selene, see my post:

First written in 2023 and revised March 30th 2024

Stone of Destiny on display in Perth March 30th

Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.
Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.

The Stone of Destiny is, today, on display again at the reopening of the redeveloped Perth Museum, in Scotland. This is near to its ‘original’ home at the Palace of Scone.

The Museums Association reports that it is a ‘£27m development project ….funded by £10m UK government investment from the £700m Tay Cities Deal and by Perth & Kinross Council, the museum is a transformation of Perth’s former city hall by architects Mecanoo.’

As well as the Stone of Destiny, the Museum has Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sword and a rare Jacobite wine glass, which are on public display for the first time. This is the first time the sword has been in Scotland since it was made in Perth in 1739. https://perthmuseum.co.uk/the-stone-of-destiny/

Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny
Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny

Before Perth, the Stone was in London under the Coronation Chair for the Coronation of King Charles III (6 May 2023) . Before that, it was on display at Edinburgh Castle after being sent back to Scotland by Blair’s Labour Government as a symbol of the devolution of power from Westminster to the restored Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in November 1996. Before that, it was under the Coronation Chair from the time Edward I stole it (1296) from Scone as part of his attempted subjection of Scotland in the late 13th Century. So, virtual every English and British King has been crowned upon the Stone of Scone.

However, the Stone had a brief holiday in Scotland in 1950/51 after four Scottish students removed it from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950. After thee months, it turned up at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. It was briefly in a Prison Cell, then returned to Westminster for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

I’m guessing the-would-be liberators of the Stone, thought Arbroath was suitable, as the Declaration of Arbroath is the supreme declaration of Scottish Independence from England. Following the Battle of Bannockburn, and Robert Bruce’s leadership, the Scots wrote to the Pope of their commitment to Scotland as an independent nation. They said:

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”

The Pope agreed and Scotland remained independent until voluntarily joining England in the United Kingdom in 1714.

Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)
Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)

Before Edward 1 stole the Stone, it was at Scone Palace, upon which the Kings of Scotland were crowned, including Macbeth (August 14, 1040).

Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)
Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)

Those who attended the coronation traditionally shook their feet of all the earth they had brought from their homelands, and this over the centuries grew into Boot Hill, aka Moot Hill. So the mound represents the sacred land of Scotland. 42 Kings were crowned upon its soil on its Stone.

Before Scone, it was, possibly, in Argyllshire where the Gaelic Kings were crowned, Their most famous King was Kenneth MacAlpine and he united the Scots, Gaelic people originally from Ireland, the Picts, and the British into a new Kingdom which was called Alba, which became Scotland.

MacAlpine was the first king to be crowned on the Stone at Scone in 841 or so. He made Scone the capital of his new Kingdom because it was a famous Monastery associated with the Culdees who followed St Columba to Scotland. MacAlpine brought sacred relics from Iona to sanctify the new capital. And Scottish Kings were by tradition crowned at Scone and buried on the holy Island of Iona.

Before that, legend has it that the Scots bought the Stone from Ireland when they began to settle in Western Scotland (c500AD). The Scots, it is said, got the Stone from the Holy Land where Jacob lay his head on it and had a dream of Angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Jacob used the stone as a memorial, which was called Jacob’s Pillow (c1652 years BC).

But, questions about the Stone remain. Firstly, an angry Edward 1 failing to conquer the Scots makes a spiteful raid on Scone, but would the Monks meekly hand over the stone, or do they hide it and give him a fake?

Secondly, was the Stone brought to Scone from Western Scotland in the 9th Century?

These questions of doubt are based on the assumption that the Stone is made of the local Scone sandstone. If it were brought to Scone from somewhere else, it would be in a different type of stone, surely? So, either it was made in Scone, possibly for MacAlpine’s Coronation or the Monks fooled the English into taking a copy. So the English would then have been crowning their Monarchs on a forgery.

Ha! Silly English but then the Scots have spent £27m on the same forgery.

Historic Environment Scotland have recently undertaken a new analysis of the stone, which confirms: ‘the Stone as being indistinguishable from sandstones of the Scone Sandstone Formation, which outcrop in the area around Scone Palace, near Perth‘. It also found that different stone workers had worked on the stone in the past; that it bore traces of a plaster cast being made; that it had markings which have not yet been deciphered and had copper staining suggesting something copper or bronze was put on the top of it at some point in its history.

So it seems the Stone of Destiny was made in Scone.

 

The Beginning of the Universe as We Know It; Birthdays of Adam, Lilith, & Eve; Conception of Jesus, Start of the Year March 25th

Lilith is shown coming her hair and looking in a mirror
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia)

March 25th is the Annunciation—the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. (to see some very fine paintings of this meeting, look at my other March 25th post here)

March 25th is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.

Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logically structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. It is also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).

Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus probably because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods, but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia. December 25th might have been chosen by the pagan religions because it is the time when the Sun begins to rise, to the naked eye, further north each day, lengthening the day, increasing light and the promise of warmer weather.

So, Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he must have been conceived approx. 9 months earlier, which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun (because the Sun does not circle the earth in 365 days, or in 365 and a quarter days, but 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes which makes Calendars hard to align with the Sun). But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing my two posts on March 25th. And since writing that sentence I have had another revelation. But be patient.

So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being, so she would send the Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people, Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.

So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days, and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? Right? So March 25th.

This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).

Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember, Easter is a lunar festival, so its date varies each year. Births and deaths, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.

It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, I have just worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not the Equinox, March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.

Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. So, they got that wrong.

The Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:

  • Day 1: Light – March 20th
  • Day 2: Atmosphere / Firmament – March 21st
  • Day 3: Dry ground & plants – March 22nd
  • Day 4: Sun, moon & stars – March 23rd
  • Day 5: Birds & sea creatures – March 24th
  • Day 6: Land animals & humans – March 25th
  • Day 7: The Sabbath of rest – March 26th
  • For more information www.bibleinfo.com

So there you have it! Adam, Lilith, and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.

And that, dear Reader, is the very first time anyone has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this, but it is very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me, I have done a lot of reading about calendars and not spotted an explanation.

So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are numerous things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).

So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles, and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).

I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to March 25th until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year’s Eve on 31st December. So January 1st was the New Year, but the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.

December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But, today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year, and its festivals, is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st (or the Kalends of January as the Romans would have called it) would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice. Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult, and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival, much to our perennial confusion.

Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts.

Lilith

The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this, and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.

The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is gradually modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, let’s call them out, the Patriarchy. Lilith cannot be equal to Adam so she becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to propose that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is, therefore nor equal, but subservient to him. Lilith is now a significant figure in feminist folklore circles.

I wrote about more about eras and ages in my post which you can see her: Greater Cycles and the Six or Seven Ages

Attached to the watercolour of Lilith by Rossetti (at the top of the page), was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

The model is Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later, but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini which you can see here.

I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.

For more on the Annunciation, look at my other March 25th post here.

Beware the Ides of March March 15th

shows an image of Brutus stabbing Caesar with 'funny'  bubbles:
Caesar says 'Brutus, whats that loud pelting noise on the roof' and Brutus replies,  about to stab Julius Caesar 'Hail, Caesar'
With Apologies. From Facebook

SOOTHSAYER: Caesar!
CAESAR: Ha! Who calls?
CASCA: Bid every noise be still; peace yet again!
CAESAR: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry ‘ Caesar!’ Speak. Caesar is turned to hear.
SOOTHSAYER: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What sayst thou to me now? Speak once again.
SOOTHSAYER: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

This year there are many vital elections around the world; often involving populists like Julius Caesar. I rank Caesar with Napoleon as one of the Dictators who was, personally, an intelligent, reasonable man, who, in some ways, ruled ‘wisely’ but who was nonetheless willing to sacrifice millions of people for his personal ambition. Today, the world is faced with the more run-of-the-mill populists who are geniuses only in their own, often, deranged minds. I know, we as humans, might think, if only X would drop dead, how much better it would be? Brutus, being an honourable man, took action upon his thought. But, as often is the case, what seemed the ‘right thing’ to do, turned out to be a disaster for the Roman Republic which the plotters were trying to save. So, perhaps, still those assassinary thoughts, read this article in ‘History Today’ about the impact of Julius Caesar’s murder and do everything you can do to use democratic means to defeat egotists to whom truth means nothing.

Now, what the heck are or indeed is the Ides of March?

A Roman month was divided into three, first the Kalends, then the Nones and finally the Ides. These three days were the important days of the year. The Kalends is the 1st of the Month, the Nones the 7th of the Month and the Ides the Fifteenth of the Month. It is said to go back to the early days of Rome and a lunar calendar, The Kalends being the first tiny sliver of a crescent moon a couple of days after the New Moon; the Nones the first quarter of the Moon and the Ides was the full moon. But of course, it doesn’t really make that much sense as the full moon is 28 days after the new Moon not 15, and the three divisions, divide up the first half of the month, and leave the second half undivided.

How did you use it? When talking about a day in the future month you might say I’ll meet you on the 5th day before the Kalends. Debts were supposed to be paid on the Kalends and that is where we get our word calendar from. These public calendars were called Fasti, and this is the name of Ovid’s great Almanac Poem, the Fasti, which I often quote from.

This is a very bad photograph of a drawing by Herbert E Duncan Jr of a 1st Century Calendar
This is a very bad photograph of a drawing by Herbert E Duncan Jr of a 1st Century Calendar

I’ve never really understood this system, despite a few attempts, until I saw this drawing of a Roman Calendar. The first column, on the left, with the letters from D downwards represent the letters A – H which is a recurring cycle of 8 market days, running in tandem with Kalends, Nones etc. The second column begins with the Letter K for Kalends, (reading across then MART for March, then NP which means the Kalends is a day for public festivals). Back to the second column, below the K for Kalends, the days are counted down to the upcoming Nones, so the next one after Kalends is VI, meaning the 6th day before the March Nones. Then V, IIII, III, and PR means the day before Nones. Below and to the right of the PR are the letters NON which is, as you might hope, short for Nones.

In the second column below this is the number VIII which means the next day is the 8th day before the Ides of March. The fragment of stone from which this drawing comes does not continue down to the Ides, unfortunately.

Complicated, huh? It gets worse. The third column has a series of letters in it: F C C C NP NON F C C. We already know that the NON is short for Nones, The F means it’s a fastus, a permissible day when legal action can be taken. The C means C comitialis which on fasti days the Roman people could hold assemblies. We have already seen that NP marks days for public festivals. An N would mean days when political and judicial actions were prohibited, although there is not one here. The small unreadable text to the right is information, I believe, about holidays and historic events to be marked in the calendar. This is, in fact, a Roman Stone Almanac.

This confusing system survived Caesar’s major calendrical reforms when he transformed the Roman system, which was rotten at the core, to align it with an almost accurate calculation of the time the Sun takes to circle the earth (or the other way around!) to create the almost correct Julian Calendar.

But the Kalends, Nones, and Ides did not survive because, in the Imperial period, this strange division of time was replaced by the familiar 4 fold division of the month into our 7 days of a week. So, for the first time, you could work 24/7.

I will deal with Julius Caesar’s reforms in great depth on another occasion.

St Gregory.  Punster Extraordinary March 12th

Gregorius I is known as Saint Gregory the Great. Pope from 3 September 590 to his death on 12th March 604. So 12th March is traditionally his feast day but this was changed to September 3rd, the date of his elevation to Pope, because 12th March was often in Lent.

He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers, because it is traditionally believed he instituted the form of plainsong known as Gregorian Chant. He was also a formidable organiser and reformer and made changes that helped the Catholic tradition survive Arian and Donatist challenges.

In the UK he is venerated with St Augustine for bringing Christianity to the largely pagan Anglo-Saxons. The caption to the illustration above tells the story of how he came to send a mission to the pagan Angles in Briton and tells the story of his two most famous puns, riffing on the similarity of the words Angles/Angels and Aella/Alleluia. But in between these two he also punned on the name of Aella’s kingdom – Deira in Northumberland, saying he would save them from the wroth of God which is ‘de ira’ in Latin.

After this incident he sent St Augustine to Canterbury to convert the Germanic peoples of the former Roman Province of Britannia. Canterbury was chosen because its King was the ‘Bretwalda’ of Britain – the most powerful King and he, Ethelbert, was married to Bertha, a French Princess already a Christian. This established a safe haven for St Augustine’s mission. And the King was baptised, shortly, after in Canterbury.

Stained glass window showing Baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by St Augustine watched by Queen Bertha. In St Martins Church, Canterbury
Stained glass window showing the Baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by St Augustine watched by Queen Bertha. In St Martins Church, Canterbury

The mission came with a plan to recreate the ecclesiastical arrangements set up in the Roman period, with archbishops in the two main capitals at London and York. After Kent was converted, St Ethelbert’s nephew, Sæberht, King of Essex, received a mission from St Mellitus who established St Pauls Cathedral in London. St Paulinus was sent to convert Northumbria and established a Cathedral in York. Unfortunately, for the plan, when Sæberht died his sons returned to paganism and Mellitus was kicked out, returned to Canterbury, and ever since we have had an Archbishop of Canterbury and York and never had an Archbishop of London.

Photo of St Martin's Church - where the Church of England began. showing Roman tiles in the wall.
St Martin’s Church, Canterbury – where the Church of England began. Note the Roman tiles in the wall.

It is possible to argue that Gregory’s encounter is why we are called English, because St Augustine was sent to set up the Church of the Angles, not the Church of the Saxons. Saxon was the normal name used by the Romans for Germanic barbarians. As the name of the Church, the term Anglish/English became a relatively neutral term that the various shades of Germanic peoples in Britain could unite under in the face of the later Viking threat.

The mission was sent in AD 597 and Pope Gregory died in AD 604.

I am just returning to the UK after a visit to Amsterdam.  I’ve spent the last two days largely in the Rijksmuseum where I came across this painting which features Pope Gregory the Great on the left hand part of the Triptych. It shows Utrecht in the background.

Triptych of the Crucifixion.  Showing the vision of the Crucifixion that St Gregory had while celebrating Mass (left). Crucifixion centre.  St Christopher (right)

St Gregory is in green kneeling down. What is fascinating is all the paraphernalia of the Crucification above Gregory’s head.  You’ll see 30 pieces of silver, dice to decide who gets Jesus’  robes, flails and torture devices, sponge and spear etc.

Detail

Mothering Sunday & Simnel Cake March 10th

Strangely, very little to do with Mothers! Mothering Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Lent and is a day in which we are enjoined to visit our Mother Churches. It, therefore, became a day when people made processions to their Churches, and when servants and workers could go to their home parishes, and not only go to the Mother Church but also to say hello to their mothers. It was called Mothering Sunday when I was little but since then has morphed into the Americanism that is Mother’s Day.

In Church the Reading is often Isaiah 66:10–11

‘Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her; that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations.

Jerusalem is personified. here, as the Mother. Further associations with motherhood came from the Gospel for the day which is John 6:1–14, the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which led to associations with the bounty of Mother Earth.

In the medieval period visits to the Mother Church seem to have become fiercely competitive. The Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste decreed:

In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death.

(Letter 22.7 – Wikipedia)

Simnel Cake

It was also the Sunday in the fasting period of Lent in which the restrictions were relaxed, so you could eat what is called Simnel Cake.

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘Gainst thou goest a-Mothering
So that, when she blesseth thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

Herrick Hesperides 1647

Photo: James Petts from London, England – Simnel cake (wikipedia
Easter 2012

The Simnel cake is a fine flour light fruit cake (Latin simila, fine flour), with layers of marzipan in it. It often has 11 balls of marzipan on the top, representing the 11 (not Judas) apostles. The cake is first boiled for two hours and then baked.

Now, I know 95% of my American readers hate fruit cake, but believe me when I tell you – you are completely wrong! Its delicious, and here is the BBC’s recipe for you to try:

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/easter-simnel-cake

And I’m beginning to see that cake is an emerging theme of this Almanac of the Past.

Written in March 23, slightly revised in March 24

Nettles and the Grecian Spring March 10th

Image of web site for Hesiod's works and days, showing pandora's box an illustration by William Blake

In the early modern almanacs there is much weather and horticultural advice to be had (Weather Lore. Richard Inwards).

March damp and warm
Will do farmer much  harm

or

‘In March much snow
to plants and trees much woe

The store cupboards are getting denuded of the fruits, nuts, preserves, pickles, salted and dried foods saved from the summer and autumnal abundance. Of course this is alleviated by the reduced consumption of the Lenten fast.  (I’m currently giving up, giving up things for Lent). But nettles are budding. I’ve recently taken to a regular cup of nettle tea provided by the excellent Cowan’s tea emporium in the Covered Market in Oxford. But I’m running out and not due to visit Oxford for a month or two. So Charles Kightley in his Perpetual Almanac tells me that young stinging nettles are appearing, and perhaps, I might change up the tea for a nettle beer:

Take a gallon measure of freshly gathered young nettles washed well dried and well packed down. Boil them in a gallon of water for at least a quarter of an hour. Then strain them, press them and put the juice in an earthenware pot with a pound of brown sugar and the juice and grated skin of a lemon. Stir well, and before it grows cool put in an ounce of yeast dissolved in some of the liquid. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for four or five days and strain again and bottle it, stopping the bottles well.  It’ll be ready after a week, but better if left longer.

A more sinister use is provided by William Coles who gives a method of detecting virginity.

Nettle tops are usually boiled in pottage in the Springtime, to consume the Phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of the winter have left behind. And it is said that if the juice of the roots of nettles be mixed with ale and beer, and given to one that suspected to have lost her maidenhood, if it remain with her, she is a maid, But if she’s spews forth, she is not.

William Cole’s Adam in Eden 1657.

Mrs Greaves in her ‘A Modern Herbal’ tells us that William Camden relates that Roman soldiers used nettles to heat up their legs in the cold of a British winter.  The 18th century poet Thomas Campbell is quoted on the virtues of nettles:

“I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”

Greaves tells us that when the German and Austrians had a shortage of cotton during the blockade of World War 2 they turned to nettles to replace cotton production believing it to be the only effective substitute.  It was also substituted for sugar, starch, protein, paper and ethyl alcohol. 

Pepys ate Nettle Pudding in February 1661 and pronounced it ‘very good’.  Nettles were added to horse feed to make their coats shine, and as a hair tonic for humans.  Nettle Beer was used for old people against ‘gouty and rheumatic pains’, and flogging with nettles was a cure for rheumatism and the loss of muscle power!

I can see I’m going to have to get out there and carefully pick myself some nettles! ( For Folklore of nettles look here). But this post was conceived as a piece on Spring starting with Hesiod!

The Works and Days is a farmer’s Almanac written for Hesiod’s brother. It has a mixture of seasonal good advice and moralising. He is, one of the first great poets of the western world, and near contemporary with Homer. He is an important source for important Greek Myths, and, for example, tells us that the story of Prometheus and Pandora is the reason the Gods cannot give us a simple wholesome life. He also talks about the ages of humanity which are: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and our own decadent Iron age. This system was borrowed by C. J. Thomsen at the National Museum of Denmark in the early 19th Century to create out modern Three Age System of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age. Our system is more optimistic with a progressive trend while the Greek system degenerates through successive eras..

Hesiod sees Spring as a time to begin trading by sea but he warns us not to put all our eggs in one vessel as Spring can bring nasty nautical surprises.

In Rome early March is taken up much with celebrations of the Great God Mars, the one who enabled the Romans to conquer most of the known world. For the Anglo Saxon their poetry saw Spring as a great release when the ‘fetters of frost’ fall off and allow a welcome return to sailing on the high seas .

The Seafarer

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
meadows grow beautiful the world hastens on;
all these things urge the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
….

So now my spirit soars out of the confines of the heart,
my mind over the sea flood;
it wheels wide over the whale’s home,

Poem from the Exeter Book known as the Seafarer, quoted in Eleanor Parker’s ‘Winters in the World a journey through the Anglo Saxon year’.

Hesiod ‘Works & Days’

‘Spring too grants the chance to sail.
When first some leaves are seen
On fig-tree-tops, as tiny as the mark
A raven leaves, the sea becomes serene
For sailing. Though spring bids you to embark,
I’ll not praise it – it does not gladden me.
It’s hazardous, for you’ll avoid distress
With difficulty thus. Imprudently
Do men sail at that time – covetousness
Is their whole life, the wretches. For the seas
To take your life is dire. Listen to me:
Don’t place aboard all your commodities –
Leave most behind, place a small quantity
Aboard. To tax your cart too much and break
An axle, losing all, will bring distress.
Be moderate, for everyone should take
An apt approach. When you’re in readiness,
Get married. Thirty years, or very near,
Is apt for marriage. Now, past puberty
Your bride should go four years: in the fifth year
Wed her. That you may teach her modesty
Marry a maid. The best would be one who
Lives near you, but you must with care look round
Lest neighbours make a laughingstock of you.
A better choice for men cannot be found
Than a good woman,’

HESIOD’S WORKS AND DAYS Translated by Chris Kelk

By the way none of this is good advice to follow!

I have more on Hesiod: