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Wyrd Wednesday: Saturnalia

5 min read

Welcome to Wyrd Wednesday! This is a series I’ve dreamed up specifically for Our Own Worlds — it’s riffing off the series Mythology Mondays I do at my regular blog, dispatches from the loony bin. For my inaugural post, I’ll be talking about the ancient Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia.

Whereas Mythology Mondays as a series is more narrowly focused, Wyrd Wednesdays has some more play. The definition of wyrd that I like the best comes from Urban Dictionary:

The web of cause-and-effect that permeates the universe.

Aelswyth Alansdohter, UD

It’s etymologically related to the English word weird, but its meaning is broader than that. It also conjures up an aura of magic and mystery.

What else will I be covering in this series? Today is Saturnalia, and next week I plan on talking about the winter solstice. Other topics may include witchcraft, divination, the occult, folklore, and more!

Io Saturnalia!

The painting Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet.
Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet. Public domain.

Saturnalia is a Roman festival celebrating the god Saturn. A secular and religious festival, all work and school shut down for the days it was celebrated. Roles were reversed, gifts were exchanged, feasts were had, and candles were lit. Offerings were given to Saturn, a god of agriculture, wealth, and plenty, and free speech was celebrated.

Held from December 17th to 23rd, Saturnalia was a large festival in the Roman Republic and Empire. Originally just one date, after Julius Caesar reformed the calendar it moved — and so celebrations were extended to include the original dates as well. Any excuse for a party, right?

Many of Saturnalia’s customs are familiar to us today. Romans would give small gifts to each other, often accompanied by bits of verse or short poems. This is thought to be the origin of our modern tradition of exchanging greeting cards, especially around this time of year.

Saturnalia was also a celebration of light, and candles were a common offering to the god Saturn. The festival encompasses the winter solstice and the darkest night of the year, as well as December 19th, which was the Roman Opalia — a festival about storing grain. Perseverance in the face of looming darkness; the kindling of light within the gloom.

(Opalia was celebrated twice a year in honor of Ops, one of Saturn’s consorts and a grain goddess.)

A “king” of Saturnalia was also often chosen by lot, and would give capricious commands to revelers that they were bound to follow. This is similar to the Medieval Christian custom of appointing a “Lord of Misrule” during Christmastide. (This super-fun custom was mostly stamped out by Protestant reformation, sadly.)

(Yes, you’ll likely see many similarities between Saturnalia’s celebrations and Christmas’. No, that doesn’t mean Christianity “stole” a pagan holiday. People carry on cultural and family traditions even after they convert to different religions, and that is precisely what happened in most cases of similar customs across Pagan and Christian holidays.)

Throw off your woolen socks!

Saturn is a god of liberty who is kept shackled for most of the year: his statue would have its feet bound in wool, and those coverings were removed for Saturnalia. Similar to this and probably related, priests would do their rites with their heads uncovered during Saturnalia (usually Roman priests worked capite velato).

Liberty, agriculture, wealth and plenty…am I missing anything? Oh, right. The underworld.

This isn’t as weird as you might think! Underworld gods and wealth go hand in hand — where do you find those precious gems and metals? That’s right. In the ground.

“Underworld gods” tends to conjure up really scary images for modern people, and yes, partially they are scary. The other part, however, is very literal. Chthonic deities are often very connected to the earth. What grows in it, what can be mined from it, and yes — what can be buried in it. Death, wealth, abundance, and life all go hand in hand.

(I mean, you literally fertilize crops with death and decay. It’s a whole thing.)

One of the rites for this holiday involved “giving over” dead gladiators to the god Saturn. Gladiatorial fights were held during December, and the bodies of gladiators were offerings to the god.

This is seen as evidence of human sacrifice being part of Saturnalia at some point, but that and the other allusions to it might be a stretch, or an invention by later interpreters of Roman history and myth. There’s no hard evidence that it was part of the festivities. (So, you know…don’t engage in it if you decide to celebrate. Super frowned upon these days.)

You can see part of Saturn’s “dark” side in who he keeps company with as well: one of his consorts is Lua Mater, or “Mother Destruction.” Romans would burn the weapons of defeated enemies in order to honor her.

(There is speculation that Lua and Ops may have been the same goddess. We don’t know for sure. I think it’s more likely they were different, but that’s because it’s very common for ancient gods and goddesses to have many different consorts and partners.)

Festival of Contradictions

The contradictions Saturn espouses are common throughout myth and antiquity, and his festival is a celebration of them. With it we celebrate both the light and the dark, hierarchy and a lack thereof. Abundance and plenty, and memento mori — remember that we all die.

The contradictions of Saturnalia might be the influence for similar themes with Christmas in Europe — not only does Saint Nicholas bring gifts, but Krampus might put you in a sack and beat you with reeds. This idea might seem weird to North Americans, because Christmas changed so much when it came to this continent. But it has ancient roots.

Ancient pagan celebrations have been seeing a revival these days, and Saturnalia is no exception. My inspiration for this post actually came from a Wikihow article on how to reconstruct the holiday for a modern context. If you’re interested in celebrating it yourself, I recommend giving that article a read! (Don’t worry, it’s much shorter than this post.)

I actually learned a lot while researching for this post, and I’m going to put my learning into practice. I’ve been thinking about adding more festivities to the roster for this part of the year — I already celebrate the Solstice, Die Hard Night (my husband and I re-watch it on December 23rd along with our own private Christmas celebrations), Christmas, and Reunion (an Otherfaith holiday I might write about later).

Why not have more excuses to party?


Further Reading


Katje van Loon writes epic fantasy with pagan themes, portal fantasy about pagan gods, and poetry inspired by witchcraft and ancient traditions. Zie’s not sure if she’s an expert yet, but boy howdy does zie know a lot about mythology and paganism.

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