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

As Mad as a March Hare March 28th

Hares Boxing in Yorkshire by yorkshireroestalking

The expression ‘Mad as a March Hare’ comes from the displays of hare boxing that takes place as the Hare mating season begins. And no, it’s not male hares fighting in the spirit of romantic rivalry, but the female hares fighting off unwanted attention from the males. Hares are solitary creatures, and the mating season is, perhaps, particularly difficult for them. The Country File website has more on the subject. www.countryfile.com

There are also March Kittens and March Chickens. Edward Topsell in his ‘History of Four-footed Beasts‘ 1607 says the best Kittens to keep are those born in March. ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened‘ 1669 says: ‘Keep a black cock hatched in March as a protection against evil spirits: his crowing terrifies them.’ He also give a recipe for Cock Ale:

Eight gallons of Ale, a boiled March Cock, four pounds of stoned Raisins, half a pound of dates, nutmegs, mace. Beat the ingredients in a mortar, add to two quarts of Sherry. Add to the ale. Stop it in a container for 6 or 7 days. Bottle it, drink after a month.

Very weird. I challenge my readers to try it and let me know how it goes?

The hare is a sacred animal, it was sacred to Aphrodite:

‘For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree. At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young.’

Classical Texts Library. Philostratus the Elder, ‘Imagines’ Book 1.1-15 c 3rd Century AD. Translated by Arthur Fairbanks.

Research reported by Exeter University suggests that hares were worshipped in pre-Roman Britain. Julius Caesar wrote:

The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose.”

‘The Battle for Gaul’ Translation by Wiseman, Anne, Wiseman, T. P. Published by Penguin Random House, 1980 ISBN 10: 0701125047 (TP Wiseman is my professor for Classical Studies at Leicester University)

In Neolithic Ireland hares were found buried with human remains at the Neolithic court tomb at Parknabinnia.

illustration of a hare from 1873 fom the London Illustrated Almanac
The Hare

Hares are thought to be the original Easter Bunny although finding good evidence before Germany in the early modern period is difficult. There is a tradition that witches can be scared away at Easter. Exactly, how this works is not clear, but it has been said that witches could take on the form of a hare, and so Hare Pie and hare meat was eaten at Easter to rid the land of the witches. Or you could have a jugged hare. Jugging is cooking a whole animal in a container over water. Here is a recipe for jugged wild hare. Remember, you are not allowed to shot or trap them on a Sunday or on Christmas Day! For a discussion of hares and folklore, click here:

A jointed hare’s foot was considered very lucky and a remedy against gout, stomach pains and insomnia. (The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore by Charles Kightly, which I have used several times in this piece.) You can buy one on eBay. (Don’t click the links, it’s not an advert but a picture of an advert). I remember friends having rabbit feet which they carried around with them often on key rings?

Advert for a hare's foot from ebay
Advert for a hare’s foot from ebay

First published in 2023 and revised March 28th 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.

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:

Leap Day & and the Roman Calendar February 29th

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

I have just come back from my very first Leap Year Walk, which I gave tonight for London Walks. It was one of a series of my walks, which are about the year through London’s History. So far, I have done, a New Year Walk, an Imbolc Walk (1 February, St Brigid’s Day), a Spring Equinox Walk, a May Day Walk, a Summer Solstice Walk, an Autumn Equinox Walk, a Halloween Walk, and a Winter Solstice Walk. All, at their core, have the subject of the year, how it is arranged, and celebrated in different cultures and different times in London.

I hoped to get this post done, today, but on arrival at home my burglar alarm was ringing, so had to get an emergency electrician out to pacify my neighbours, and tracking down the fault meant turning my house upside down. I rushed it out, with many bad proof reading errors and ommissions, And have now, on the dawn of a new month, and a new Season, updated it. Probably, knowing me, it still has a far few errors! Now, I am rushing to look after my Grandson!

So, the reason there is a leap year, is that the Sun and the Moon have different cycles, which cannot be easily aligned. And secondly, the solar year is not a fixed number, it is not 365 days, but 365 days and a bit.

Originally though, probably, most cultures lived their lives with time keeping controlled by time markers from their everyday environment, days and nights, the waning and waxing of the moon, the seasons, and the changes in the rising and setting of the Sun. Budding nature would have provided other markers as to when to sow, to harvest, to prune, to slaughter, to worship and marry.

The months were given by the cycle of the Moon, which also gave us tides and menstrual cycles. The months were given names, which were often associated with the weather. The trouble was that the Solar year did not align with the Moon, soon the months would get out of kilter with the seasons. So over time, the society would find it was winter in June, or summer in December. (which is OK if you live in Australia).

Society dealt with this in a number of ways. It could be ignored, why shouldn’t it be cold in June, why should June always be in Summer? Another way was to add in extra days, or months, every so often to make sure June remained in the Summer. This is what Egypt, the early Romans and the Celts did. They kept their months aligned to the actual movements of the Moon, and aligned their Solar Year with it by the addition of extra days or a month or two. or a combination of both.

I reported on this in my post on the Terminalia for February 23rd. As I wrote:

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. February was the last month of the original Roman year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month every so often, called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years, the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year. (For more on Terminalia look at my post for February 23rd on Terminalia-god-of-the-boundary)

Now, as the Roman Republic became more sophisticated, the intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage, and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons.

Caesar spent time with Egyptian Astronomers, trying to understand their solution to the problem. They identified that the year was not 365 days long but 356.25 days, so JC ‘fixed’the issue with a leap day every four years. Based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. The new calendar was inaugurated on the Kalends of Januarius 709 AUC, or as we would call it I January 45 BC. It became, in time, something the Romans were very proud of – rationalising, measuring, time itself. Romans counted their dates from the time their City was founded by Romulus in what we call 753 BC or 753 BCE. So, 45 BCE in our reckoning is 709 ab urbe condita (AUC ‘from the founding of the City) as the Romans saw it.

I prefer not to use BCE because it seems ‘dishonest’ to me. The idea of AD BC was made up based on a guess as to when Jesus was born. Changing BC to BCE may rid the date of an explicit Christian identification but masks the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘Common Era. What the Common Era is, is the idea made up in the Late Roman period guessing when Jesus was born/ So I think call a spade a spade, even if it’s a broken meaningless spade that is not fit for purpose, either replace it with something rational, or real or call it what it is.

The interesting thing is that Caesar put the leap year in on the 24th February. Why? Because February, being the month of death, was the end of the year. March 25th was originally the beginning of the Roman year (Caesar moved it to January 1st). Why March 25th? Because it was the Spring Equinox. If you look at my post for March 25th you will find out it is the date of the creation of Humanity, the Birthday of Adam, the conception of Jesus, and until 1752, the day the year number changed in Britain.

The other strange thing about the new leap day was that it was not called February 25th. It was not given a number. Rather, February 24th was two days long. This continued in Britain until the date February 29th started appearing in calendars in the 15th Century, although the legendary Lawyer, Edward Coke (1552 – 1634), refers to the two days of February 24th, but the two day 24th was completely replaced by February 29th in the 16th Century.

One slight complication to the story of February 29th was that February 29th did exist before the Julian reforms. When February was not interrupted by the intercalary month, as described above, it was 29 days long. Julius Caesar made the months alternate 30 and 31 except for February which was 29 days long. When the Senate gave Julius the honour of having the 7th Month named after him, things were OK, but then Augustus wanted the same thing. The Senate duly gave him the next month, which became known as August, but it only had 30 days. This could not be allowed! So they made it up to 31 and stole the 29th from February and made February only 28 days long. This change also meant that there were now three 31 days months in a row, so they reduced September from 31 to 30, boosted October to 31, reduced November to 30 and boosted December to 31,

Hence, we can no longer remember Caesar rational allotment of days in the month, and we need to hum to ourselves:

Thirty days have September
April, June, and November
February has twenty-eight alone.
All the rest have thirty-one.
Excepting leap year – that’s the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.

But Caesar had not solved the problem of the shifting year, he had just minimised it. By the Council of Nicea in the early 4th Century (and not yet called AD!) the small error had changed the date of the Spring Equinox, from March 25th to March 21st. So, when Constantine convened the Council to bang the heads together of the Church leaders to unify their religion, particularly in regard to the date of Easter, and whether Jesus was equal to God. They fudged the complex issue of the date of Christ’s death, and used March 21st as the foundation of their calculation on the moon-based festival of Easter (more of which at Easter!)

It wasn’t until the 16th Century that Pope Gregory, solved the problem of the inaccuracy of Caesar’s solution. They resynced the days to the seasons by removing days from the Calendar. And they stopped the drift by fine-tuning the leap year system, by not having a leap year in those centurial years which were not divisible by 400. So 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 is not. This allowed the systems to align correctly to this day. (although there is of course a little more to it than this). But for that level of detail, you will love ‘The Calendar’ by David Ewing Duncan, or just look it up on Wikipedia or wait for me to compile various references to the Gregorian Calendar into a unified post on the subject.

Of course, Britain refused to join a Catholic innovation for nearly 200 years but, religious prejudice at last gave way to reason, when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. In the process we lost 11 days, much to the horror of the London mob, who rioted against their loss.

See the following posts for the Roman Year:

Romulus’s 10 month year here

Roman Months here and more on the Ides of March here

St. Walburga and St. Ethelbert of Kent’s Day February 25th

engraving of St Walburga
St Walburga
(public domain)

Yesterday, was the Feast day of two very important Saints. Walpurga was the Abbess of Heidenheim in Germany. She was a nun at Wimborne in Dorset who, with her brothers St Willibald and St Winebald accompanied St Boniface of Crediton (in Devon) on his mission to convert the Germans to Christianity. They all became leading figures in the new German Church. Willibald set up the Monastery at Heidenheim, which was a duel monastery housing both Monks and Nuns, and his sister became Abbess of the Monastery in 761.

In 870, St. Walpurga remains were ‘translated’ to Eichstätt, which St Willibald had set up as the Diocesan centre of this part of Bavaria. This was done on the night of April 30th/May 1st and is now notorious as Walpurgis Night. This is the night of May Eve when witches are abroad up to all sorts of mischief, May Day being one of the main pagan festival days.

Walpurgis is the Saint for battling pest, rabies, whooping cough, and witchcraft. She was moved again in 1035 when she was enshrined at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga which was named after her and which ‘which continues to this day.[4][5]’ Terrible things happen on Walpurgis Night in Dracula by Bram Stoker and the night has now become a trope for Heavy Metal Bands, doyens of horror stories and the Satanic. More about this on April 30th perhaps?

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

St Ethelbert is responsible for welcoming the Augustinian Mission to the Angles sent by the Pope, St Gregory. This re-established Christianity in Easter Britain, and set up the Anglican Church or the Church of England as it became known.

I tell this story in this post:

Terminalia God of the Boundary February 23rd

Hans Holbein the Younger Design for a Stained Glass Window with Terminus. Pen and ink and brush, grey wash, watercolour, over preliminary chalk drawing, 31.5 × 25 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel.
‘Terminus is often pictured as a bust on a boundary stone,

Today is ‘Terminalia, the Roman day for setting land boundaries.

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. Ovid says that when King Tarquinus swept away the old Gods on the Capital Hill and Jupiter became the Great God, all the old temples were taken down except for that of Terminus. Jupiter’s Temple was built around it. It had a hole in the roof because Terminus had to be worshipped in the open air.

Terminus’s motto was “concedo nulli” which means “I yield to no one”. This was adopted by Erasmus as his personal motto in 1509.

The Terminalia was celebrated on the last day of the old Roman year. February was the last month of the year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year..

The intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons. It fixed the problem with a leap day every four years, based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. It was another 1500 years before that inaccuracy was corrected with the introduction of the Gregorian Year, by which time the year was another 11 days out of kilter.

The festival of Terminus was a pastoral outdoor festival marking the boundaries of towns and villages. It resembles the Beating of the Bounds tradition that we have in Britain, which is recorded from anglo-saxon times, and still continues in some parishes. I will talk about this on Ascension Day in May!

Here is what Ovid, in ‘Fasti’ says about Terminalis

Book II: February 23: The Terminalia
When night has passed, let the god be celebrated
With customary honour, who separates the fields with his
sign.
Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,
You have been a god since ancient times.
You are crowned from either side by two landowners,
Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.
An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself
Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.
The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,
And works at setting branches in the solid earth.
Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,
While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.
When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire
The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.
Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:
The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.
Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,
And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.
Neighbours gather sincerely, and hold a feast,
And sing your praises, sacred Terminus:
You set bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms:
Without you every field would be disputed.
You curry no favour: you aren’t bribed with gold,
Guarding the land entrusted to you in good faith.
If you’d once marked the bounds of Thyrean lands,
Three hundred men would not have died,
Nor Othryadesí name be seen on the pile of weapons.
O how he made his fatherland bleed!
What happened when the new Capitol was built?
The whole throng of gods yielded to Jupiter and made
room:
But as the ancients tell, Terminus remained in the shrine
Where he was found, and shares the temple with great
Jupiter.
Even now there’s a small hole in the temple roof,
So he can see nothing above him but stars.
Since then, Terminus, you’ve not been free to wander:
Stay there, in the place where you’ve been put,
And yield not an inch to your neighbour’s prayers,
Lest you seem to set men above Jupiter:
And whether they beat you with rakes, or ploughshares,
Call out: This is your field, and that is his!
There’s a track that takes people to the Laurentine fields,
The kingdom once sought by Aeneas, the Trojan leader:
The sixth milestone from the City, there, bears witness
To the sacrifice of a sheep’s entrails to you, Terminus.
The lands of other races have fixed boundaries:
The extent of the City of Rome and the world is one

Translated by A. S. Kline copyright 2004

Metamorphosis, Crocus and Saffron February 19th

Snowdrop, Crocus, violet and Silver Birch circle in Haggerston Park. (Photo Kevin Flude, 2022)

Violets and crocuses are coming out. Apparently, in the UK 63% say crocuses and 37% use the correct Latin plural which is croci. And last year I used the incorrect crocii. Incidently, an earth shaking decision has been made at the Financial Times who have just updated their style guide to make the plural word data (datum is the singular form) take the singular form. So it is no longer ‘data are’ but ‘data is’. For example, it was ‘the data are showing us that most British speakers use crocuses as the plural’ but now ‘the data is showing us that 37% of British people prefer the correct Latin form of croci’. In 2018 they changed it to an option, but now it is mandatory to make data singular.

The crocus represents many things but because they often come out for St Valentine’s Day they are associated with Love ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ according to www.icysedgwick.com/, which gives a fairly comprehensive look at the Crocus.

Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metamorphoses. This poem is one of the most famous in the world, written in about 6 AD it influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Bernard Shaw and was translated anew by Seamus Hughes.

The mechanicals in ‘The Midsummers Night Dream’ perform Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Titian painted ‘Diana and Actaeon’. Shaw wrote about Pygmalion, and we all know the story of Arachne, claiming to be better than Athene at weaving and then being turned into a spider.

The stories are all about metamorphosis, mostly changes happening because of love. But it is also an epic as it tells the classical story of the universe from creation to Julius Caesar. It is about love, beauty, change and is largely an arcadian/rural poem in contrast to Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’ which I have long used for illustrations of life in a Roman town.

He tells us ‘Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers.’ But he chooses to pass by this and other stories. So we have to look elsewhere for more details. There are various version. In the first Crocus is a handsome mortal youth, beloved of the God Hermes. They are playing with a discus which hits Crocus on the head and kills him. Hermes, distraught, turns the youth into a beautiful flower, and three drops of his blood form the stigma of the flower.  In other versions, love hits Crocus and the nymph Smilax, and they are rewarded by immortality as a flower. In one version, Smilax is turned into the Bindweed, which perhaps suggests that she is either punished for spurning him, or that she smothered him with love.

Photo Mohammad Amiri from unsplash. Notice the crimson stigma and styles, called threads

The autumn-flowering perennial plant Crocus sativus, is the one whose stigma gives us saffron. This was spread across Europe by the Romans, and was used for medicine, as a dye, a perfume. It was much sought after as a protection against the plague. It was extensively grown in the UK and Saffron Walden was a particularly important production area in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

It was grown in the Bishop of Ely’s beautiful Gardens in the area remembered by Saffron Hill (home to the fictional Scrooge). This area became the London Home of Christopher Hatton, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1. It is on the west bank of the River Fleet, in London EC1, in the area now know as Hatton Garden. The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley.

But I did find out more about Saffron from listening to BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question time and James Wong.

The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley. a place where Saffron was grown. The Saffron crops in Britain failed eventually because of the cost of harvesting, and it became cheaper to import it. It is now grown in Spain, Iran and India amongst other places. But attempts over the last 5 years have been made to reintroduce it, This is happening in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex – the hot and dry counties. It likes a South facing aspect, and needs to be protected from squirrels and sparrows who love it.

Saffron Photo by Vera De on Unsplash
Morning Glory or Field Bindweed photo Leslie Saunders unsplash

Bindweed is from the Convolvulus family, and I have grown one very successfully in a pot for many years. But they have long roots and according to the RHS ‘Bindweed‘ refers to two similar trumpet-flowered weeds, both of which twine around other plant stems, smothering them in the process. They are not easy to remove.’ Medically, Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal says all the bindweeds have strong purgative virtues.

Viola odorata CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikipedia

Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.