Delphi – Walking Sacred Ground

Happy New Year everyone!

Welcome to a new year for Writing the Past and Eagles and Dragons Publishing. We’re so glad you’re here to share in our love of history, archaeology, myth and legend.

In many posts on this blog I have mentioned some of the great sanctuaries of antiquity such as Delos, Olympia and Nemea. I have touched on the special feeling one gets when walking around these places, the sense of peace that washes over you.

Today, we’ll be taking a short tour of one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world: Delphi.

Delphi was of course the location of the great sanctuary of Apollo whose priestess, the Pythia, was visited by people from all over the world who came to seek the god’s advice and wisdom.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Delphi a couple of times, and I do hope to return there someday soon. The first time I was there, the mountain rumbled throughout the night. Unused to earthquakes, my brother woke me to say that he thought there was a ghost in the room because his bed (he had the smaller one) was jumping up and down. Looking back, it’s funny that ghosts were a more logical explanation for us. Too many movies, I suppose.

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

But, despite frequent earthquakes, Delphi is indeed a place of ghosts. They are everywhere, the voices of the past, of the devoted, great and small.

There is something about Delphi that draws you in, that makes you want to go back again and again. Despite the throngs of picture-snapping tourists along the Sacred Way, or the hum of multi-lingual tour guides wherever you step, the sense of peace at Delphi is unmistakable.

For those with the ability to see and hear beyond the bustle, it is as though a smoky veil rises from the ground to block out the noise, leaving you with the mountain, the ruins, the voices of history.

Delphi is located in central Greece in the ancient region of Phokis. Perched on the slopes of Mount Parnassos in a spot one can well imagine gods roaming, it possesses a view of a valley covered in ancient, gnarled olive groves spilling toward the blueness of the Gulf of Corinth.

Though the site is always associated with him, Apollo did not always rule here.

Kylix from Delphi showing Apollo pouring a libation

Long before the Olympian god arrived, Delphi was the site of a prehistoric sanctuary of Gaia, the Mother Goddess and consort of Uranus.

It was after Apollo, urged on by his mother Leto, defeated the great python in the sanctuary of Gaia that Delphi came under his protection.

Apollo slaying the Python

A new era had dawned and after Apollo’s slaying of the Python, barbarism and savage custom were discarded. In place of the old religion came a quest for harmony, a balancing of opposites. Apollo was worshiped as a god of light, harmony, order and of prophecy. His oracles communicated his will and words.

If one approaches Delphi from the East and the town of Arachova, the first thing you pass is another important sanctuary, that of Athena Pronaia. ‘Pronaia’ means ‘before the temple’. This sanctuary would likely have been visited by pilgrims first.

Tholos in the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi

The sanctuary of Athena is farther down the mountainside from that of Apollo and located in a quiet olive grove. In its time, it contained two temples dedicated to Athena, the earliest dating to 500 B.C. There were also two treasuries, altars, and of course, one of the most picturesque ruins of ancient Greece, the round tholos temple. The latter is 13.5 meters wide and had twenty Doric columns with metopes portraying the Battle of the Amazons and the Battle of the Centaurs, the remains of which can be seen in the Delphi museum. The exact use of the tholos is uncertain though many believe it was consecrated to the cult of deities other than Apollo or Athena.

Between the two sanctuaries is the sacred spring of Kastalia, the water of which was intimately associated with the oracle. Water from here was carried to the sanctuary of Apollo and it was also here that priests and pilgrims cleansed themselves before entering god’s domain.

As part of her ritual too, the Pythia bathed in the Kastalian spring before entering the Temple of Apollo.

The peaceful sanctuary of Athena Pronaia

When the Pythia was prophesying, Delphi must have been bustling, for she was not always there. In fact, in its early days, the oracle performed her function once a year on the 7th day of the ancient month of Bysios (February-March) which was considered Apollo’s birthday. Later, the Pythia prophesied once a month, apart from the three winter months when Apollo was said to spend time in the land of Hyperborea far to the north.

I won’t describe all the remains of the sanctuary of Apollo in detail here. There is far too much to cover and it is all fascinating. I will say that it is one of those places that every lover of history must visit.

When I think of history, the study of it, this place is what it’s all about.

On your way through the sanctuary you pass many remains, one of the most interesting being the Athenian treasury which held many rich votive offerings from the ancient polis. It is well preserved and some of the most interesting things are the inscriptions of the Hymns to Apollo and carvings of laurel leaves upon its walls.

The Sybil’s Rock

On the left, once you leave the Athenian treasury, there are two large boulders. They look to be nothing more than rocks but these were of utmost sanctity thousands of years ago. The smaller of the two is called Leto’s Rock because it is believed that that is where Apollo’s mother stood when she urged him to slay the python. The larger rock is called the Sibyl’s Rock as that is where the first oracle (‘Sibyl’ is another name for Apollo’s oracles) stood when she came to Delphi and gave her first prophecy.

Ruins of the theatre that overlooks the Temple of Apollo

Each time I walk the marble of the Sacred Way up to the Temple of Apollo, the theatre and the stadium beyond, I am in awe. The sun seems more brilliant here, the colours richer. The buzzing of cicadas in the pine and olive trees are sounds ancient pilgrims would have been familiar with. It would have been crowded during the time of prophecy, and the line must have wended its way down the mountain to Kastalia and the sanctuary of Athena.

Every part of the sanctuary would have been adorned with bronze and marble statues, tripods, altars and other offerings from around the world. The smoke of incense and sacrifice would have weaved among it all to please Apollo and other deities who also had altars about the temple, such as Zeus, Poseidon, and Hestia, whose immortal flame was never extinguished.

The Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Apollo itself occupies a magnificent position and though not much remains, it is still a place of awe due in large part to the surroundings. The layout is not known exactly due to damage over time, but archaeologists have discovered that there were two cellae (temple chambers), an outer one where priests and pilgrims remained, and an inner one.

The inner cella is believed to have been the subterranean chamber where only the Pythia herself was permitted. This chamber was where she prophesied. It contained another sacred spring, the Kassiotis spring, from which she drank, a crack in the earth from which fumes emanated, the oracular tripod in which she sat, and the sacred omphalos, or, ‘navel of the earth’.

Details of the temple’s foundations

The Pythia would chew laurel leaves, inhale the fumes from the earth, and go into her trance. She would deliver her prophecy in riddles which were delivered to pilgrims.

To a modern mind, the ancients might seem absurdly superstitious, naïve even. But, in the ancient world the respect and awe with which the oracle of Delphi was viewed cannot be overestimated.

The truth of the oracle was never doubted for matters great or small. Cities, peoples, peasants and kings all sought the wisdom and guidance of Apollo through the oracle.

Apollo and the Pythia who uttered his prophecies to mortals

When I reach the top of the site and look out over the sanctuary to the valley and sea beyond, I feel that I do not want to leave. From the top of the third century B.C. theatre, or in the quiet of the stadium that once held 7000 spectators for the Pythian games, I reflect on my own journey, and on the myriad journeys of those who have come here before over the millennia.

The Stadium farther up the mountain from the sanctuary was the site of the Pythian Games and seated up to 7000 spectators

As a writer, I find people fascinating. What brought each of them to this place? What questions might they have asked? How did they receive the answers given by the oracle? I touch on this through my characters in Killing the Hydra.

Delphi was not just the site of some quaint, ancient, superstitious practices as some might see them today. This was a place of power, of beauty, refinement and of hope. In some ways, it still is.

The Pythia is gone, the sacred games long-since banished by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I. The temple and the treasures of the sanctuary have been looted, and what is left lies in romantic ruin, or on display in the museum.

However, if your path ever leads you to this ancient place on the slopes of Mount Parnassos, you may just hear the pilgrims’ prayers to the gods, the melodic utterings of the ancient hymns, and the hushed voice of the Pythia, beyond the veil of this world, as she passes Apollo’s words on to generations of mortals seeking his wisdom.

Thank you for reading…

 

Have you ever visited Delphi? If so, tell us what your impressions were in the comments section below.

Ramp leading up to the Temple of Apollo

 

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part VII : Ancient Demons – The Battle between Light and Dark

Welcome to the seventh and final part of this blog series on The World of The Carpathian Interlude.

In this post, we’re going to explore the some aspects of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest ‘revealed’ religions in the world (though this is debated) and from which sprang the mystery religion of Mithraism that so captivated the men of Rome’s legions.

The battle between the Light and the Dark is at the heart of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, just as it is in most religions. One could say it is a part of our own souls, our various beliefs as human beings, no matter our cultural background.

It’s also at the very core of the story of The Carpathian Interlude and the characters who inhabit that world.

Ahura Mazda – from the ruins of Persepolis

…May Right be embodied full of life and strength! May Piety abide in the Dominion bright as the sun! May Good Thought give destiny to men according to their works! (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 43.16)

In Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia which is still practiced in parts of modern Iran, Ahura Mazda is the supreme deity. It is he who created Mithras, a lord of Light and the all-seeing Protector of Truth, and Guardian of Cattle, the Harvest, and other divine aspects.

For more on Mithras himself, you can read the first part of this blog series.

According to the ancient scriptures, Ahura Mazda and Mithras are Yazads (or yazata), good divinities who are immortal in essence and inseparable from their bodies.

The oldest texts of Zoroastrianism, the Yasna Haptanghaiti (written in prose) and the Gathas (hymns written in verse) are attributed to Zoroaster himself, who is believed to have lived sometime around 1200 B.C. These texts were written in the language of Old Avestan, the language of Zoroastrian scripture, which has its roots in the Indo-European language group.

The hymns, which to me feel similar in nature to the ancient Greek Homeric Hymns, are believed not to teach people, but to invoke and glorify Ahura Mazda. They are not systematized and dogmatic. Their main messages are of the struggle between Good and Evil, of truth, friendship and benevolence versus greed, arrogance and non-truth.

Light versus Dark.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple

As the holy one I recognized thee, Mazda Ahura, when Good Thought came to me, when first by your words I was instructed. Shall it bring me sorrow among men, my devotion, in doing that which ye tell me is the best. (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 43.11)

When writing The Carpathian Interlude, I wanted Mithras and his Roman miles, those on the side of Light and Truth to be facing a very ancient evil, an antagonist that was much older than Rome itself.

I turned to the ancient texts of Zoroastrianism and there found the evil I had been looking for, the Darkness.

If Ahura Mazda and Mithras, the divine Yazads, were Goodness and Light, then it was the Daevas, wicked and uncaring gods, who embodied Evil and Darkness. These evil gods were something akin to demons.

ye Daevas all, and he that highly honors you, are the seed of Bad Thought — yes, and of the Lie and of Arrogance, likewise your deeds, whereby ye have long been known in the seventh region of the earth.

For ye have brought it to pass that men who do the worst things shall be called beloved of the Daevas, separating themselves from Good Thought, departing from the will of Mazda Ahura and from Right.

Thereby ye defrauded mankind of happy life and immortality, by the deed which he and the Bad Spirit together with Bad Thought and Bad Word taught you, ye Daevas and the Liars, so as to ruin (mankind). (Ahunavaiti Gatha, 32.3,4,5)

Ancient Persian manuscript showing a Daeva

The Daevas were the enemies of the Yazads, but they were still divinities. Then I read about another group known as the Usij.

The Usij were the false priests of the Daevas, those who worshiped them, the beloved of the Daevas. It is the Usij, or rather one in particular, who is the ultimate antagonist in The Carpathian Interlude. As a man, the Usij is mortal, immortal in essence but separable from the body. He is everything that is bad about men, and seeks to tear down the gods in any way he can.

Have the Daevas ever exercised good dominion? And I ask of those who see how for the Daevas’ sake the Karapan and the Usij give cattle to violence, and how the Kavi made them continually to mourn, instead of taking care that they make the pastures prosper through Right. (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 44.20)

Artist impression of Zoroaster

Parts of the Yasna text suggest that Zoroaster himself often debated with the Daeva-worshipping priests who were devoid of goodness of mind and heart, and full of arrogance.

It has been theorized that the defining religious theme of Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Darkness, may have originated in ancient Zoroastrianism (which still has a minority of followers today in Iran) and then been absorbed by other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

So…

How do the Yazads, Daevas, and Usij fit into the world of The Carpathian Interlude?

You need to read the book to find out. However, as is illustrated in the ancient Gathas and Yasna of Zoroaster, where there is Good there too is Evil. Where there is Light, there is also Darkness.

These ideas are as old as the world itself, and they are at the very foundations of storytelling.

In The Carpathian Interlude, I’ve tried to explore the theme of Light and Dark in what I hope is a unique, thought-provoking, and entertaining way. If you read this story, I hope that you enjoy it, that it provokes some thought about this eternal struggle, and that you are inspired by it.

Thank you for reading.

Only when fear is at its most intense can true heroism come into the light.

For ages, an ancient evil has been harboured in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, an enemy of the god Mithras, Lord of Light.

In A.D. 9, when three of the Emperor Augustus’ legions are slaughtered in the forests of Germania, it becomes evident to a small group of experienced veterans that something more sinister than the rebellious German tribes is responsible for the massacre.

It falls to Gaius Justus Vitalis and a few warriors favoured by Mithras to hunt down and destroy the forces of undead spurred on by this ancient evil. Summoning all of their courage, they must wade through horror and rivers of blood to bring Mithras’ light into the darkness, or else see the destruction of Rome, the Empire, and all they hold dear.

The adventure begins with the appearance of a young refugee beneath the walls of a distant legionary base…

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Writing Ancient Religion

Mithras

Why is it that a lot of writers steer clear of ancient religious practices in fiction?

Is it because it’s awkward and clashes with their modern beliefs, religious or otherwise? Or perhaps it’s because they don’t feel comfortable writing about something so strange, practices they really know very little about?

There is a lot of good fiction set in the ancient world and I’m always trying to find new novels to entertain and transport myself. One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to the religious practices of ancient Greeks and Romans, they are often (not always) portrayed as half-hearted, greeted with a good measure of pessimism. It might be a passing nod to a statue of a particular god or goddess, or a comment by the protagonist that he or she was making an offering even though they didn’t think it would do any good.

There is often an undercurrent of non-belief, a lack of mystery.

A relief of Demeter at the Elefsina site museum

Now, I’m not full of religious fervour myself; it’s difficult for anyone who has studied history in depth to be so. However, I see the value of it and respect its meaning for people across the ages. Religion is not necessarily at the forefront of our thoughts in modern, western society, but, in the ancient and medieval worlds, faith was often foremost in people’s thoughts.

It’s easy, blinded by hindsight, to dismiss ancient beliefs in the gods and goddesses of our ancestors.

As a writer, why would I want to dismiss something that is so important to the period in which my novels take place, something so important to the thoughts and motives of my characters?

The Door to Hades – part of the sanctuary of Elefsis, where the Elefsinian Mysteries were carried out

People in ancient Greece and Rome (for example) believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses who governed every aspect of life. From the emotions one felt or the lighting of a family hearth fire, to the start of a business venture or a soldier’s march to battle, most people held their gods and goddesses close. Indeed, there was a god or goddess with accompanying rituals for almost everything.

Religion enriches the ancient world in historical fiction and sets it apart from today, transports the reader to a world that is foreign and exotic. And the beauty is that there is so much mystery, so little known, that the writer can spread his or her creative wings.

Mars – Roman God of War

Of course, it’s always important to do as much research as possible – if the primary texts don’t tell you much, then look to the paintings on ceramics, wall frescoes, statues and other carvings. If you can get to the actual sanctuaries of the ancient world, even better, for they are places where even the most sceptical person can feel that there is (or was) indeed something different going on.

When I write, I try to do something different by having my main characters in close touch with the gods of their ancestors. Since it is historical fantasy, I can get that much more creative in having characters interact with the gods who have a clear role to play and are characters themselves.

The beautiful thing about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome is that they are almost human, prone to the same emotions, the same prejudices, that we are. From a certain point of view, they’re more accessible.

The Pythia

Despite this however, their worship, be it Apollo, Venus, Magna Mater, Isis, Jupiter, Mithras or any other, is still shrouded in mystery, clouded by the passage of time. Thousands and thousands of ancient Greeks and Romans flocked to Elefsis to take part in the mysteries dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, but little is known because devotees were sworn to secrecy. Oaths then were ‘water-tight’ as the saying went. Also, at one point, most of the Roman army worshiped Mithras, the Persian Lord of Light and Truth. Do we know much about Mithraism? Some, but there is still much that is not known and perhaps never will be.

In one of my books some of the characters pay a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was still revered in the Roman Empire. Today, if you watch a documentary on Delphi, you will hear about how the oracle was used by politicians to deliver fabricated answers to those seeking the god’s advice. It is true that politics and religion in the ancient and medieval worlds were frequent bedfellows, but one can not dismiss the power of belief and inspiration. If the Athenians had not received the famous answer from the Delphic Oracle about being saved by Athens’ ‘wooden walls’, then they might not have had such a crushing naval victory over the Persians at Salamis.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

There is a lot of room for debate on this topic and many, I suspect, will feel strongly for or against the exploration of ancient religion in fiction. If we feel inclined to dismiss ancient beliefs, to have our characters belittle them, to explain them away, we must ask ourselves why.

Do we dismiss ancient beliefs because we think they are silly, quaint, barbaric or false? Or do we stay away from them because we just don’t understand? Taking an interest in them, giving them some space on our blank pages, doesn’t mean we dismiss our own beliefs, it just means that we are open-minded and interested in accurately portraying the world about which we are writing.

Kylix from Delphi showing Apollo himself pouring a libation

I like my fiction to be vast and multi-hued. Like the Roman Empire, all gods and goddesses are welcome to be a part of the whole and it is my hope that, being inclusive, my own stories will be more interesting, more true to life, more mysterious.

I suppose, at the end of the day, we each have to decide whether to take that leap of faith.

Thank you for reading.

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Peloponnesian Eyrie – The Temple of Apollo Epikourios

Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.

If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family – Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.

After Olympia, we drove back into the mountains of the Peloponnese. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.

Temple of Bassae in 1966 (McGill University archive)

“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”

“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”

“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word.

Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was also starving at that moment!

So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.

Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.

Plan of Bassae temple (Wikimedia Commons)

The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing.

In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a ‘succourer’ or helper to the Phigalians.

In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae.

This was no small thing. In Classical Greece, Ictinus was an A-list architect – he was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.

Apollo

In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:

Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)

When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.

However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.

Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.

We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.

The ‘tent’ covering the temple at Bassae

“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure.

We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old café frappé.

The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Doric columns in front of temple wall

Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.

But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site, and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.

Steps leading up to temple platform

Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.

One of the things that make this temple unique is the incorporation of all three of the classical orders of columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.

Fanciful reconstruction of Bassae interior by Charles Cockerell (Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.

I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at.

Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.

Amazonomachy – Bassae Frieze

After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in the Peloponnese and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.

Sunlight filtering into the cella of the temple

Outside the cicadas were louder than ever, but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.

We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.

These mountains are a place for gods.

I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.

* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai

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Mars – God of War and…Agriculture?

One of the things that fascinates me the most about studying the ancient world is the vast array of gods and goddesses. They all played an important role in the day-to-day lives of ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and others.

There were many deities associated with agriculture in ancient Rome, Ceres and Saturn, for example. Many gods and goddesses, major and minor, could affect crops, agricultural endeavours and the subsequent harvests.

When you hear the name of Mars, agriculture is not the first thing that comes to mind. When I think of the Roman god, Mars, I think of one thing.

WAR.

The Roman God of War was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.

The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.

Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.

“On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)

Artist impression of temple of Mars Ultor (the ‘Avenger’)

People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.

In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.

Mars was a very different god from Ares. He was a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.

Mars was the God of War, true, but he was also a god of agriculture.

Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks, and their lands.

War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.

In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, a lustratio.

Relief of a Suovetaurilia ceremony

The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.

It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars.

The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.

Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:

Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…

(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)

Cato the Elder

This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.

The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.

Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.

But the prayer above was to Mars, he who held Rome’s enemies, the enemies of its lands, at bay.

In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.

Thank you for reading

If you want a clearer understanding of the suovetaurilia ceremony, and the meaning of this interesting Latin compound word, here is a very short presentation: https://youtu.be/pz1KiILdW2s

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Samhain at the Gates of Annwn

scan-12

It’s the end of October, and as it is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain I thought it would be a good idea to look a place that is both mysterious and iconic: Glastonbury Tor.

To most, the mere mention of Glastonbury will likely conjure images of wild, scantily clad or naked youths and aged hippies. You’ll think of thousands of people covered in mud as they wend their way, higher than the Hindu Kush, among the tent rows to see their favourite artists rock the Pyramid Stage.

It’s a great party, but to me that’s not the real Glastonbury.

This small town in southwest Britain is an ancient place. The real Glastonbury is a place of mystery, lore and legend. It is a place that was sacred to the Celts, pagan and Christian alike, Saxons, and Normans. For many it is the heart of Arthurian tradition, and for some it is the resting place of the Holy Grail.

Today, Glastonbury is a place where those seeking spiritual enlightenment are drawn. The New Age movement is going strong there, yet another layer of belief to cloak the place.

I lived in the countryside outside of the town for about 3 years and I never tired of walking around Glastonbury and exploring the many sites that make it truly unique.

From where I lived on the other side of the peat moors, I awoke every morning to see Glastonbury’s majestic Tor shrouded in mist.

My morning view of the Tor across the Somerset levels

My morning view of the Tor across the Somerset levels

Tor is a word of Celtic origin referring to ‘belly’ in Welsh or a ‘bulging hill’ in Gaelic. Glastonbury Tor thrusts up from the Somerset levels like a beacon for miles around. Every angle is interesting. On the top is the tower of what was the church of St. Michael, a remnant of the 14th century. Before that, there was a monastery that dated to about the 9th century A.D.

However, habitation of this place goes much farther back in time with some evidence for people in the area around 3000 B.C. But it was not always a religious centre. In the Dark Ages, the Tor served a more militaristic purpose and there are remains from this period.

In Arthurian lore, the Isle of Avalon is a sort of mist-shrouded world that is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat or secret path. In fact, during the Dark Ages and into later centuries, until the drainage dykes were built, the Somerset levels were prone to flooding. This flooding made Glastonbury Tor and the smaller hills around it true islands. With the early morning mist that covers the levels, this watery land would have been a relatively safe refuge for the Druids, and early Christians, Dark Age warlords and late medieval monks.

The Tor surrounded by flooded levels - Avalon!

The Tor surrounded by flooded levels – Avalon!

In Celtic myth, Glastonbury Tor is said to be the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Faery King and Lord of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld.

Gwynn ap Nudd is the Guardian of the Gates of Annwn. He is an Underworld god. It is at Samhain that the gates of Annwn open. This was also the place where the soul of a Celt awaited rebirth. (Quick hint: We delve into this in the upcoming Eagles and Dragons novel, Warriors of Epona!)

If you are on the Tor at Samhain, you may hear the sound of hounds and hunting horns as the lord of Annwn emerges for the Wild Hunt of legend.

The Wild Hunt 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo

The Wild Hunt 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In Arthurian romance, there is a tradition of the wicked Melwas imprisoning Guinevere on the Tor. Arthur rides to the rescue, attacks Melwas and saves Guinevere. This particular story mirrors an episode in Culhwch ac Olwen, one part of the Welsh Mabinogion, in which Gwythyr ap Greidawl attempts to save Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, whom he is supposed to marry, from Gwynn ap Nudd himself.

Another even more fascinating Arthurian connection can be found in a pre-Christian version of the ‘Quest of the Holy Grail’, called the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ which was found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’. In this tale, Arthur and his companions enter Annwn to bring back a magical cauldron of plenty. In this, some say that ‘Corbenic Castle’ (the ‘Grail Castle’) is actually Glastonbury Tor. It isn’t just Herakles and Odysseus who journeyed to the Underworld!

Glastonbury Tor is not only associated with Celtic religion, myth and legend. It is also said by some to be a place of power or a sort of vortex in the land that lies along some of the key ley-lines, including what is called the St. Michael ley-line. The majority of sites associated with St. Michael, the slayer of Satan, along the ley-line were indeed places of power and belief of the old religion.

But this is nothing new. Christians built on top of sites sacred to the pagans they were eager to overcome. What better way to symbolize your ‘victory’ than to build right on top of a site and make it yours.

‘Gates of Annwn and Gwynn ap Nudd? Let’s build a church of St. Michael on top of it! That’ll show ‘em!’

Artist impression of Gwynn ap Nudd at the hunt

Artist impression of Gwynn ap Nudd at the hunt

But myth and legend persist through story and place, and the Tor is a prime example of how successive traditions do not overcome each other, but rather combine to make up the various aspects of that place.

If you ever get to Glastonbury, the Tor is a definite must. Walk to the top and sit awhile. Look out over the landscape and watch the crows and magpies dive in the wind around the steep slopes. Close your eyes and listen. While you’re there, you can decide whether you are sitting on a natural formation, a ceremonial labyrinth, a hill fort, a sleeping dragon, the mound where Arthur sleeps until he is needed once more, or the doorstep of the Gates of Annwn itself! The Tor is all of these things and more.

However, no matter what you believe, one thing is certain: Glastonbury Tor remains a site of extreme beauty and mystery that is well worth a visit, even if it is just to watch the sun sink in the West.

Have a safe and happy Samhain.

samhain-bonfire

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The World of Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn without scaffold

I can’t believe the holidays are upon us already. Where did autumn go to? It seems that the festive time of year always manages to creep up on us.

And that’s a good thing! It certainly is time for a bit of a break, some good cheer, and a few helpings of my homemade wassail.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful posts from my fellow authors during the Holiday Historical Fiction Blowout event from December 1-8th. It was a very busy eight days, but we had a great time, met some new readers, and picked up some great books!

I hope many of you were able to take advantage of the fantastic .99 cent deals.

Time for a new blog post.

During this time of year, with the run-up to Christmas, talk of yule logs, wassail (drink and carols), I always tend to gravitate toward my Medieval interests.

Summer makes me think of ancient Greece and Rome, but the time of the Winter Solstice sets me firmly in the Middle Ages. Perhaps it’s the songs I imagine being sung in soaring cathedrals, or the glow of bees’ wax candles among fresh strands of cedar and pine. I have a bit more time at home, and it becomes my castle, a place where I can sit, read one of my antiquarian books of Arthurian tales, and think back on the year with gratitude.

After digging up the Christmas ornaments last weekend, I was going through one of many boxes of old photos that I have from my studies and travels, and came upon a packet of prints from a visit to a truly amazing place – Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel covered in scaffolding during my first visit there in 2000

Rosslyn Chapel covered in scaffolding during my first visit there in 2000

Having lived in St. Andrews, Scotland for a couple of years, I had the opportunity to visit new and interesting sites all of the time, from Melrose and the Roman fort at Trimontium in the Scottish borders, to Inverness and Eilean Donan castle, and everything in between. It was something new every weekend. You can visit prehistoric sites, Pictish hill forts and Roman remains, of which there are many.

The great thing about living in Britain is that there are more medieval sites to visit than you can possible see in a lifetime.

One of the most interesting sites that I did visit during my time in St. Andrews was Rosslyn Chapel.

I was fortunate enough to have done this in the pre-Da Vinci Code days of publishing after which, I am certain, hordes of eager tourists turned the quiet chapel into a virtual marketplace of symbology. I’m not trashing that as I’m sure the major influx of funds helped Rosslyn Chapel to complete the restoration which finished in 2013. When I visited the chapel, there was scaffold everywhere, along with piles of stone that were to be used in the work.

But oh, what a place! And what a treat for me and my three friends to have it all to ourselves at the time.

North Aisle of Chapel

North Aisle of Chapel – picture from the site guide book

Rosslyn Chapel lies just south of Edinburgh and has been known as many things throughout its history – the Chapel of the Grail, a key to the secrets and treasures of the Templar Knights, the survivors of which were absorbed, some say, into the Masonic order. Certainly, many authors and historians have contributed to theories that go beyond the boundaries of conventional academia. And why not? It makes for fascinating fiction as well as some perfectly viable historical theories. A few book mentions later on.

Carving of a Knight

Carving of a Knight

Rosslyn Chapel  was founded in 1446 (a few years after the founding of St. Andrews University in 1410, my alma mater) by Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair Prince of Orkney, who was buried in the chapel. It took some forty years to build what remains today and even that was not what was intended, for the original plan called for a larger structure. Evidence of this was found in an early excavation when the archaeologists discovered foundation walls that went well beyond the existing walls. Not everyone perceived Rosslyn as a sanctuary, a work of art, or marvel of mysticism. Many, especially protestants, labelled Rosslyn as a house of idolatry, no doubt disconcerted by the images staring at them from every corner of the intensely ornate chapel.

The St. Clair crest with 'engrailed' cross

The St. Clair crest with ‘engrailed’ cross

I will not go into the long history of Rosslyn Chapel here as this is more of a short pictorial tease. However, this place was not awarded the respect that was due to such a work of art. In 1650, during the Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell’s troops were besieging St. Clair Castle (only about 100 meters away), the English horses were stabled in the chapel. In 1688, pro-Protestant villagers from Roslin entered and damaged the chapel because it was “Popish and idolatrous”.

It was abandoned until 1736 when James St. Clair repaired the windows, roof and floors. If you have read a great deal about Rosslyn, the Templars and/or Masons, you will know that the name of St. Clair (or Sinclair) figures prominently.

In April of 1862, Rosslyn Chapel was rededicated as a place for worship and has undergone various stages of repair over the years, including when I visited in 2000.

Outer wall of Rosslyn Castle

Outer wall of Rosslyn Castle

It is, unfortunately, easy to get taken up with picture taking in such a place. I know that at first, I certainly did, but once I ran out of film (yes, before digital was common!) I was able to sit quietly in that place and admire it for a while. I remember it being very quiet, and there certainly was a feeling of constantly being watched (and not by CCTV cameras!). No, there was definitely a feeling to the place, unlike any other.

Yes, you do have some of the usual religious iconography and stained glass, but there is more of the unusual and mysterious. Questions certainly abound. For instance, the appearance of American vegetation such as aloe or Indian corn! There is a plethora of mythical creatures, dragons especially, of unusual angels such as the one playing the bag pipes, or another carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce (could it be the Black Douglas who was to take the Bruce’s heart to Jerusalem?).

Angel holding heart of Robert the Bruce

Angel holding heart of Robert the Bruce

One of the most famous works in the chapel is the Apprentice Pillar. This twisted pillar, based with eight coiled dragons, is a true masterpiece and the story goes that when the master mason was away, his apprentice continued to work and created something that far surpassed that of the master. The master mason was so enraged with jealousy that he killed the apprentice with his mallet.

The Apprentice Pillar

The Apprentice Pillar

I think however, that the most striking thing for me was the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel. At one point, you look up and there above is an intricate pattern of alternating daisies, lilies, flowers, Roses and stars.

Numerous books have been written about this place, countless pictures published on-line, but there is no substitute for actually visiting it and interacting with it.

Barrel-vaulted Ceiling

Barrel-vaulted Ceiling

Rosslyn has quite a story to tell, no matter what your perspective. You can gaze at it for hours and not see it all.

Here are a few recommended reads that touch on Rosslyn, but also on the Templars and Masons. If fiction is your thing, check out Jack Whyte’s Templar Trilogy in which the St. Clairs make an appearance. Oh, and why not check out Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – it may not be literary fiction, but it is highy entertaining and has caused millions of people to pick up a book and read who might not otherwise have done so. Besides, he fictionalizes some quite interesting theories put forward by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as well as other alternative historian/detectives.

Lucifer - the fallen angel

Lucifer – the fallen angel

A couple of non-fiction recommendations that I have are Rosslyn, Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins and secondly, The Sword and the Grail by Andrew Sinclair. The latter is a very interesting exploration into the Templars and the possibility that they travelled to North America more than ninety years before Columbus’s journey of discovery. I know, it sounds mad, but it’s truly fascinating and besides, the Vikings discovered Newfoundland some five hundred or so years before Columbus! For you alternative history buffs out there, you’ll already have made the link to the carvings of Indian corn and aloe on the walls or Rosslyn Chapel.

Bag Pipe-playing angel

Bag Pipe-playing angel

Well, that’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Be sure to check out the Rosslyn Chapel website for more information.

As ever, thank you for reading.

Also, do check out this 4-part BBC documentary on Rosslyn Chapel hosted by art historian, Helen Rosslyn – yes, the chapel has been in her family for hundreds of years!

 

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Harvest Time – From Eleusis to Avalon

Wheat

The Autumn Equinox has come and gone, and a giant ‘Blood Moon’ made its round of the earth. From the photos I’ve seen, it was spectacular.

Harvest time is here.

However, in the city, it’s a bit difficult to feel a connection to harvest, our rural roots having been eclipsed long ago by fast, urban living.

In a small effort to reconnect with the earth and our western ancestors who were bound to it, I thought I’d mention a couple of traditions around what has been, for thousands of years, an extremely sacred time of year.

Of course, this is the time of year for Thanksgiving (earlier in Canada than in the USA) when we sit around the table en-famille and stuff ourselves like the turkeys that grace our tables. And wine, oh yes, and lots of it for the oenophiles among us.

blood moon

But where does all this come from? Not the pilgrims, I can tell you that.

Apart from this being the time of year when summer gives way to fall, when the length of days is equal to that of nights, this time of year is when crops were harvested and preparations made for the coming winter.

In ancient Greece it was the month of Beodromion and the festival Apollo, and the time for one of the most sacred rites: The Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were of course, in honour of the Goddess Demeter who was associated with crops, fertility, harvest and the protection of marriage. The Mysteries also honoured Persephone, Demeter’s daughter who would go to spend half the year in the Underworld with Hades. The time of harvest is associated with the death of agriculture and Persephone’s time away from her mother, the time Demeter would weep, wintertime.

Demetra (Elefsina museum)

The Goddess Demeter – Eleusina Museum

“Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of
good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has rapt away
Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart?  For I heard
her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was.  But I tell you
truly and shortly all I know…

(from Hesiod’s Hymn to Demeter – Hecate to Demeter)

…But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the
heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the
dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the
gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of
men, disfiguring her form a long while.”

(from Hesiod’s Hymn to Demeter)

The cult of Demeter and Persephone existed for over one thousand years and Eleusis, one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece, was where the highly secretive ceremonies would take place in September and October. Sparse details about the ceremonies include bathing in the sea, sacrificing a piglet (not a turkey!), various sacred, secret objects, and a procession from Athens to Eleusis.

Symbols of the Harvest at Eleusis

Symbols of the Harvest at Eleusis

The site of Eleusis is itself an amazing archaeological site that is well worth the visit if ever you have the opportunity. Apart from the vast complex of temples, and other remains, you can see the cave where Persephone supposedly descended into the Underworld, a door to Hades’ realm. Facing the dark entrance is a well, known as the “Tears of Demeter”, thus named because of the goddess’ weeping in that spot. It’s a very moving place.

The 'Gate to Hades' at Eleusis

The ‘Gate to Hades’ at Eleusis

Let us not dwell too long in ancient Greece however, for our Celtic ancestors in Europe also revered this time of year. To the Celts, harvest time was also known as Alban Elfed (Welsh for ‘Light of Autumn’), and the Feast of Avalon (Feast of Apples) among other names.

apples

To the Celts, this was the time of year when the acorns fell from the sacred oaks and the last sheaf of wheat was cut by a young maiden. It was a time of reverence and thanks for the Earth’s bounty, a time to harvest once more, and to slaughter animals before the onset of winter. An offering of apples would often be placed on burials to symbolize rebirth, hence the Feast of Avalon, Avalon of course being the ‘land of apples’.

Harvest time, to the Celts, also preceded the sacred festival of Samhain which marked the end of the light of summer and the beginning of winter’s dark. Again, the cycle of light and dark, birth and death is an ever present arch-type, a cycle of which our ancestors were keenly aware and for which they had a deep respect.

The Isle of Avalon - Tor and flood (photo by Lynne Newton)

The Isle of Avalon – Tor and flood (photo by Lynne Newton)

So, as we sit to our laden tables this autumn, perhaps we should tip a bit of wine to the goddess who wept for her daughter’s departure into darkness, and for the end of light. When the harvest moon shines down on us in all its luminescence where we live in a world of concrete floors and steel girders, think of our forest and field-dwelling ancestors. They looked up at that same moon for ages from the dark circles of their sacred groves, and gave thanks for all they had.

Thank you for reading.

 

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Hatra – The Sad Death of an Historic Site

Hatra Temple

My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.

The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.

But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.

Hatra.

Hatra details

Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.

Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.

The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…

Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.

Emperor Trajan

Emperor Trajan

It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.

In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.

The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.

The Great Temple

The Great Temple

I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.

There are no words, really.

Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.

For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.

In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.

Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…

…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.

(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)

Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.

All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.

Hatra columns

You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.

Thank you for reading…

What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…

For further reading, click HERE to see the UNESCO pages on Hatra.

Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city:

 

 

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Dancing Priests and the Month of Mars

Mars - God of War

Mars – God of War

We’re finally into the month of March and Spring is in our sights.

If we were living in ancient Rome, this would have been a very exciting time. Mars’ month, or mensis Martius, was almost entirely taken up with various celebrations to honour the Roman god of War.

The festival of Mars included the Equirria, a horse-racing festival at Rome, and the Tubilustrium, the day when the sacred war trumpets were purified. The festival of Mars also coincided with the Matronalia, the festival of Juno, mother of Mars, to whom prayers were offered. During the latter, husbands gave gifts to their wives, and female slaves were feasted by their masters.

One of the fixtures of the Festival of Mars were the dancing, or leaping, priests of Mars known as the Salii.

Artist impression of Salii

Artist impression of Salii

Throughout the festival, the Salii would process through the streets of Rome wearing military dress and armour, and stop at certain places along the way to perform ritual dances and sing their ancient hymns known as the Carmen Saliare, sung at the beginning (March) and end (October) of the military campaign season. Here is a small fragment:

Sing of him, the father of the gods! Appeal to the God of gods!

When thou thunderest, O God of light, they tremble before thee!

All gods beneath thee have heard thee thunder!

but to have acquired all that is spread out

Now the good … of Ceres … or Janus

In the Roman state religion, there were no full-time, professional priests. Most were taken from the aristocracy, including the Salii who were supposed to be patricians with both parents still living.

Artist impression of theTemple of Mars Ultor

Artist impression of theTemple of Mars Ultor

But where did the order of Salii come from?

Legend has it that Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (715 – 673 B.C.) created them in order to protect the sacred shields of Mars, called the ancilia, which the Salii carried in their processions, and which were stored in the Temple of Mars. Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates the legend:

Among the vast number of bucklers [the ancilia] which both the Salii themselves bear and some of their servants carry suspended from rods, they say there is one that fell from heaven and was found in the palace of Numa, though no one had brought it thither and no buckler of that shape had ever before been known among the Italians; and that for both these reasons the Romans concluded that this buckler had been sent by the gods. They add that Numa, desiring that it should be honoured by being carried through the city on holy days by the most distinguished young men and that annual sacrifices should be offered to it, but at the same time being fearful both of the plot of his enemies and of its disappearance by theft, caused many other bucklers to be made resembling the one which fell from heaven, Mamurius, an artificer, having undertaken the work; so that, as a result of the perfect resemblance of the man-made imitations, the shape of the buckler sent by the gods was rendered inconspicuous and difficult to be distinguished by those who might plot to possess themselves of it.

(Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Roman Antiquities)

King Numa instituted twelve Salii to guard the sacred shields and perform the rites for Mars, and his successor, King Tullus Hostilius, is said to have instituted another twelve Salii, bringing the number to twenty-four which became the norm for generations.

Salii carrying the sacred Ancilia

Salii carrying the sacred Ancilia

It must have been quite a sight to see these patrician priests dancing through Rome’s streets, carrying the sacred shields while singing, and dancing or leaping before the crowds.

We should remember that this was not some clown-like activity. Mars, war, and the rites to honour both were extremely sacred to the Roman people. When the Salii came into a square, or stood before a temple, I can imagine a hush falling over the people of Rome as they watched the dances and listened to the ancient hymns. Or perhaps the crowd chanted and stomped their feet along with the Salii, all of them honouring the god who had helped to make Rome the superpower it had become?

This dance they perform when they carry the sacred bucklers [the ancilia] through the streets of the city in the month of March, clad in purple tunics, girt with broad belts of bronze, wearing bronze helmets on their heads, and carrying small daggers with which they strike the shields. But the dance is chiefly a matter of step; for they move gracefully, and execute with vigour and agility certain shifting convolutions, in quick and oft-recurring rhythm. (Plutarch; Numa)

Artist impression of the Salii performing the ritual dance to honour Mars

Artist impression of the Salii performing the ritual dance to honour Mars

I love learning about ancient religions not only for what they tell us about ancient cultures, but also for the uniqueness of the rites themselves, the origins and mythologies of the beliefs, and the glimpse they give us of what life was like in the ancient world.

Armed and dancing priests during the month of Mars? Who doesn’t like that?

Thank you for reading.

Ruins of the Temple of Mars Ultor

Ruins of the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the ‘Avenger’)

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