Sunday, October 9, 2011

On the Altar of the Gods

Temple of Capitoline Triad
Jupiter, Juno and Minerva
Thugga, Tunisia
One of the most fascinating aspects of ancient history for me is religion. I’m particularly interested in the smaller day-to-day religious practices of people. Ancient warfare holds the most interest for me and so, naturally, the beliefs and superstitions of soldiers are some things that I can’t read enough about.
Soldiers in the ancient world often dealt with and faced death on a daily basis. How did they find the strength and courage to get up in the morning for another march to another battle? The horrors witnessed, and committed by, soldiers of every rank must have been terrible, even to men who (let’s face it) were of much sterner stuff than we are today.

Mithras Slaying the Bull
Louvre Museum Collection
Soldiers were notoriously superstitious, as were most people in the ancient world. I say ‘superstitious’ but really, I suppose that is just another way of saying that people’s faith in the ancient world was worn more on their sleeve, so to speak, than beneath their shirts. Devotion to certain gods was lauded openly from small household shrines and larger-than-life statuary to magnificent temples that make up some of the wonders of the ancient world. Today, most people are more embarrassed than proud of their religious or spiritual beliefs, whatever they might be.

If one thing can be said of religion in the ancient (and medieval) worlds, it is that it inspired magnificent art, much of which is the source of our historical, architectural and social knowledge. For soldiers in the Roman Empire, the religion of choice was Mithraism. Mithras was originally a middle-eastern god that was adopted by the men of Rome. Rome may have been violent but it certainly was open to, and embraced, other religions – so long as the believers of other faiths did not stir up trouble (Christians certainly had a hard time in the beginning!).

Recently Discovered altar at
Musselburgh, Scotland
The cult of Mithras is shrouded in mystery, just as the Elefsinian mystery religion of ancient Greece. Why did soldiers in particular gravitate to this eastern god? As a god of light, Mithras shone through the darkness in which they often found themselves. Mithraism was a close brotherhood as well with varying grades of initiation. Initiates shared a very close bond and one in which all arguments were to be set aside, perhaps similar to the Masonic brotherhood as it later developed. A temple to Mithras was called a Mithraeum and was usually located underground or in a cave. Ceremonies were carried out in near-darkness.

Through ancient art, two of the most well-known scenes of Mithraism are the image of Mithras slaying the bull in a cave (in darkness) and, Mithras at banquet with the god Sol. Anyone who has seen the HBO series ROME will remember the first episode when Attia, Octavian’s mother, is drenched in the blood of a bull that is sacrificed above her. In this scene, Attia is praying to Magna Mater (the Great Mother) but in reality, the practice of sacrificing a bull (called tauroctony) and letting the blood pour over oneself was a key part of Mithraism. The scene in ROME, dramatic as it was, was a bit of dramatic license on the part of the director and writer.

Relief carving of Sol with hollowed-out
eyes, mouth and sun rays
Musselburgh altar
I read an article not long ago about the discovery of two Mithraic altars found in Musselburgh, Scotland. The altars are extremely well-preserved with bits of paint yet remaining on the relief. They are the most northern discovery related to the cult of Mithras and the first Mithraic discoveries in Scotland. Side panels on the first altar depict items involved in offerings to the god such as a jug and a bowl for pouring libations. The panels also show a lyre and a griffin. On the front is a dedication to the god Mithras by a centurion. This discovery sheds light on the Roman occupation of Inveresk. The second altar stone bears a depiction of the god Sol, surrounded by female faces depicting the four seasons each wearing ornate headdresses. The fascinating thing about the depiction of Sol is that the eyes, mouth and rays of the solar crown are all hollowed out so that lamplight from behind could illuminate the face of the god. What a fantastic find!

The Four Seasons on
the Musselburgh altar
I used to despair from time to time in my studies (especially archaeology class) that there really was not any more left to discover. Happily, I was wrong. There is a lot more to discover about the ancient world.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wassail! Wassail! Arrgh!

No, I do not have a cup of hot, mulled cider in my hand at the moment but as we get deeper into autumn that does indeed sound yummy.

Where am I going with this? A few weeks ago, my family and I were in Michigan where we were visiting relatives and also where we spent a day at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. I did indeed hear people going about shouting “Wassail”, tankard in hand, sword at their side and covered from head to foot in leather and velvet. “Wassail” was a middle English cheer for good health in the English southwest but also a sort of wake up call for the apple trees at harvest time. In truth I don’t think the folks at the Renaissance Festival were drinking mulled cider; more likely a tankard of anything from the King of Beers to Guinness. There were also pirates aplenty, whence the “Arrrrrgh” thrown in at the top.

I know, some of you are thinking, Man, this guy has lost it. Geek! To that I say, ‘Ho there! Wait!’ Before you go bashing Renaissance fairs let me just say this. As far as living history, some aspects of them are pretty neat. Ok, I know that they are not exactly accurate depictions, attendees’ costumes being a mash-up of various historical periods from the Vikings to the Tudors to the Three Musketeers. People are going about mi-lording this and mi-ladying that with really bad accents. It is more the sense of a bustling marketplace that grabs one at a Renaissance fair, of people letting go for a day and haggling their through the marketplace.

And let me say that the Michigan Renaissance Festival has everything from woollen cloaks, swords and leather armour to incense, garlands and decorative glass. You can buy a didgeridoo and fairy dust or a bit of leather gear for the more kinky-minded among you. This place is, after all, about pretending. The best thing is that all of the items are made in North America so buyers are supporting small business and local artisans – an important thing in these difficult economic times.

There is beer, and lots of it but there is also that other Renaissance fair staple, the smoked turkey leg. I may not have been dressed up for the occasion but I did sink my teeth into more meat than I could possibly eat. I did think about hitting the gyros or sushi stations but those just didn’t seem authentic enough for me. What can I say? I’m picky.

There are also many troupes of performers at the Festival – acrobats, jugglers, fire eaters, belly dancers, musicians (folk and period) and actors. For those who have a mind, you can also try a little knife and axe throwing. I myself enjoyed the archery and didn’t do too badly if I do say so myself. I even had my own little cheering section.

The jousting was fun, though it lacked a certain realism for me. I mean, come on guys, you could swing those swords a little faster! I suppose that if it was too real, someone would have lost a limb or their life. It is, after all, entertainment. The horses for the joust were provided by a woman (dressed as a lady of the court) who rescues horses from destruction. Always a good cause.

This is not just a one-off festival. There are similar festivals across North America. If you really want to get involved, you can join the Society for Creative Anachronism ( which has divided North America into nineteen kingdoms. There may be a local chapter near you!

But, what can the writer get out of attending a Renaissance fair besides a nice set of ceramic crockery and a full belly? Inspiration can come from many places and a busy market smelling of wood smoke and roasted meat as good a place as any. Also, if your prose includes battles scenes, in any period, you should always make sure you have a good sword to make sure the moves you are describing are feasible. Just make sure you have enough space in your living room!