Monday, 19 March 2018

Easter and paganism. Part 1

Easter is regularly charged with being derivative from pagan traditions. How much truth there is in that? The short answer is: a little bit, in some respects, but definitely not enough to sustain the general claim. As far as non-Christian influences go, there’s a much bigger impact from astronomy and 18th-19th century marketing practices than from any pagan religion.

You might assume that the ‘Easter is pagan’ claims come from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. They’re certainly happy with the idea. But really it’s some brands of Christianity that are the most fervent proponents: the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sure, but also a number of very small but very vocal fundamentalist groups (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4).

The thing that bothers the Easter-mythbusters isn’t (usually) Christians’ belief in the resurrection of their central deity. It’s more about how the festival is celebrated: eggs, rabbits, and so on. Individually, some of these elements may possibly have been influenced by some form of pagan religion. I’m not here to declare that Easter is definitely non-pagan: just that we don’t have evidence for pagan origins, and in many ways, no good reason even to suspect pagan origins. Imagining a link to pagan religion is easy. Finding evidence for that link is another matter.

Incidentally, I did a post on ‘Easter and its supposed pagan origins’ two years ago, but it was a bit jumbled, and fresh research for me. This is an updated and better-organised version. (Also long, so I’ll split it over two posts.)

Kristin Chenoweth as Easter/Ostara (American Gods TV series, 2017)

Claim #1. The name ‘Easter’ comes from ‘Eostre’, therefore Easter is pagan

Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday’s square grey hand. ‘I’m telling you,’ she said, ‘I’m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name.’
-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001), chapter 11
The English name for Easter is the only thing about the festival where there’s direct evidence to support a pagan origin -- and only in two languages, English and German (Easter and Ostern respectively). Sure, those are important languages. But the festival didn’t originate in England or Germany.

We have exactly one piece of testimony about Eostre. It is a tract on time reckoning by Bede, a Christian monk writing in Northumbria (northern England) ca. 730 CE. Bede discusses local month names and tells us:
...Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.

...and ‘Easter-month’, which is now interpreted as the Paschal month, since it had the name from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre, and they celebrated her festival in that (month); now they give the Paschal season a nickname after her name, referring to the joys of the new solemnity with a word customary for the old observance.
Some people genuinely seem to be under the impression that the Easter festival in the 2nd century Mediterranean was derived from Eostre worship 600 years later in northern England. The absurdity of that should be obvious. Still, just to be explicit:
  1. Easter had existed for centuries prior to Bede, just not with that name. Easter was a part of the Christian calendar in Rome and Anatolia as early as pope Anicetus.
  2. The name ‘Easter’ isn’t just late, it’s also a localised anomaly. The vast majority of languages use a name derived from the Hebrew Passover or Pesach via Greco-Latin Pascha: Romance Pâques, Pascua, Paşti; Germanic Pasen, påske, Peaske; Finnish pääsiäinen, Russian Paskha, Welsh Pasg, and so on. Most Slavic languages (except Russian) instead call it a variant of ‘Great Day’ or ‘Great Night’.
  3. Even if the above points weren’t true, it’s bonkers to imagine that ancient Christians in far-flung places like Constantinople, Syria, and Ethiopia based their most important festival on a very obscure Northumbrian goddess.
It’s utter tosh. The modern English name ‘Easter’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess. But nothing else does -- not the event it’s supposed to celebrate, not the theology, not the eggs, not the rabbits. The name ‘Easter’ is late, localised, and anomalous. This claim of pagan origins would be obviously nonsensical to anyone who speaks any other language.

Side-note: ‘Ostara’. Some especially keen mythbusters insist that even Bede’s testimony for Eostre can’t be trusted. (See Sermon 2008 for more discussion.) Personally I’m inclined to give Bede the benefit of the doubt: he’s generally reasonably reliable in reporting what he knows. He may be wrong, but I think it’d be tendentious to assume he’s dishonest. Still, it’s true that if you take Bede by himself, the evidence for Eostre is weak. If we take him in conjunction with other factors, though, as Jacob Grimm did, the evidence is stronger. It still allows for some interpretations that Grimm didn’t account for.

In 1835 Grimm argued that Eostre was an English form of a conjectural Germanic goddess which he called ‘Ostara’ (1835: 180-2; cf. English translation). The evidence for Ostara can be summed up as follows:
  1. English ‘Eostre’. That is, Bede’s reference to Eostur-monath and his statement that it is named after a goddess.
  2. German ‘ostara’. The Christian Easter festival was called ostara in Old High German: a form of the name appears in the earliest extant German manuscript, the Abrogans (ca. 790 CE: St. Gallen Stiftsbibl. Cod. Sang. 911, f. 226, line 2), and the month of April was called ostarmanoth in Charlemagne’s calendar (Vita Caroli Magni §29). (Forms derived from this also appear in Old Dutch, Old Saxon, and some mediaeval Slavonic languages.)
  3. Comparative evidence. Linguistically, Eostre and ostara appear to be reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *h2eusṓs, ‘east, sunrise’. This root furnished the names of dawn goddesses in several pantheons: Roman Aurora, Greek Eos, Lithuanian Aušra, and Vedic Ushas (see further West 2007: 217-227).
This isn’t exactly compelling. The biggest weakness is that Old High German ostara consistently refers to the Christian festival, not to a pagan goddess. And -- you might want to grab hold of something for this bit -- it may be a British export. Sermon (2008: 341-2) points out that the christianisation of Germany was dominated by English missionaries like St Boniface, well before the earliest appearance of ostara in the Abrogans. It’s entirely possible that they brought ‘Easter-month’ over the Channel with them. If so, point 2 disappears.

So ‘Ostara’ is a very weak conjecture. But point 3, the comparative evidence, still stands as reasonably compelling corroboration -- not for Ostara, but for the Northumbrian Eostre. There’s a decent likelihood that Bede was telling the truth and talking about an authentic pagan goddess.

Conclusion. Assuming Bede’s story is true, we know (1) Eostre’s name; (2) that she existed as a goddess in Northumbria sometime before the 8th century; (3) that she had a festival in spring; (4) and, on linguistic grounds, that she may have been a dawn goddess.

However, we know basically nothing else. We can’t say how far Eostre-worship extended, how long it lasted, or anything else about her or her cult. (And we certainly don’t have rabbits, eggs, or hot cross buns linked to her.)

Incidentally, we may as well take a moment to dispose of the idea that Easter has anything to do with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, as is often claimed by certain very vocal people (*cough* Richard Dawkins *cough*). To argue that you have to have a really reckless disregard for reality. Ishtar had her heyday in Mesopotamia in the 2000s and 1000s BCE, and her name is linguistically Semitic; the name ‘Easter’ first appears nearly two thousand years later in northern England, and is linguistically Indo-European.

There’s dying-and-rising-gods, and then there’s dying-and-rising gods. The Greek divinities Aphrodite and Adonis (Attic lekythos, ca. 410 BCE; Louvre)

Claim #2. Jesus is a dying-and-rising god, and that’s pagan

I won’t deal with this at length because I wrote a post on it back in February 2017, and it’s a bit complicated. The upshot is this: resemblances between Jesus and other ‘dying-and-rising gods’ have been greatly exaggerated.

It isn’t really the Easter-mythbusters that latch onto this claim: it’s more interesting for ‘Jesus mythicists’ -- people who refuse to believe that cult-leaders were a real thing in antiquity, and who often rely on the weird belief that we have copious official records of court-cases and executions from 1st-century Judaea. Still, let’s spare a moment to summarise.

Most supposed ‘DRGs’ either move annually between the underworld and heaven (the Greek divinities Persephone and the Dioskouroi), or the whole point of them is that they die and stay dead (Egyptian Osiris, Greco-Phrygian Attis). A couple of gods don’t fit into tidy pigeonholes (Greek Adonis and Dionysus). Gods within each of these groups have much more similarity to each other than to other groups. Moreover, ancient believers were happy to equate some of these gods with each other, but definitely not all. We find ancient cults happily equating Dionysus with Osiris, or Adonis with Osiris. But some other equations are later impositions on those cults. No pagan worshipper ever equated Adonis with the Babylonian Dumuzi/Tammuz, for example: that equation was made up by early Christian biblical interpreters. Equations between any of these gods and Jesus are a recent invention, imposed by 19th century thinkers.

In any case, in the very earliest days of the Jesus cult there ought to have been a time when Jesus’ followers did not think of him as divine. (That’s certainly the picture that the gospel of Mark tries to paint: Mark 2:6-7, 3:12, 3:21-22, 4:40-41, 6:2-3, etc.) If so, that would rule out looking at Christianity as a cult derived from dying-and-rising gods. It is reasonable to assume that it took a non-zero amount of time for Jesus’ followers to stop thinking of him as a human and to start thinking of him as God. One possibility that’s been suggested is that the transition occurred after his death: he may initially have been considered to be a mortal who underwent apotheosis -- ‘god-ification’ -- exalted to divine or near-divine status like Enoch, Moses, or Elijah, who were all bodily assumed into heaven according to various traditions. The biblical episode of the Transfiguration strongly implies that at one point Jesus was grouped with these figures: see the earliest version in Mark 9:2-8. (For an accessible statement of this view see Ehrman 2014, chapters 6 and 7.)

Still, even if everyone genuinely, historically, regarded Jesus as divine the instant they saw him, the best parallels for him -- as a divinity who dies once and rises once -- are stories like the Hittite story of Telipinu or the Sumerian story of Inanna’s trip to the underworld. They’re 1300 to 2000 years too early.

Anyway, like I said earlier, the Easter-mythbusters aren’t usually interested in the resurrection itself, but more in the supposed paganism of Easter customs. So let’s move back to those.

If calendars were easy to organise, and one solar year were the same as twelve lunar months ... well, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion.

Claim #3. The date of Easter is linked to the equinox and moon phases, and that’s pagan

‘Since pre-historic times, people have celebrated the equinoxes and the solstices as sacred times,’ University of Sydney Professor Carole Cusack said. ... ‘There’s a defined period between March 25 and April 25 on which Easter Sunday must fall, and that's determined by the movement of the planets and the Sun.’
The date of Easter is not fixed, but instead is governed by the phases of the moon – how pagan is that?
-- Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010
This claim is meant to conjure up visions of Neo-pagan druids gathering at stone circles on the solstice. Contrary to popular belief -- and remarkably, for a claim that comes from a Religious Studies professor at a respectable university -- the idea that equinoxes or solstices have always had deep meaning in pagan religions is total hogwash. Equinox and solstice festivals were not a dime a dozen in pagan antiquity.

In particular, the Romans -- who we’re especially concerned with here -- had no equinox or solstice festivals at all. Until Easter came along, that is. Then, as now, it was astronomers that took the most interest in the motions of the sun and moon.

The fact that Easter is linked to lunar and solar events simply reflects the state of the art for calendars of the time. All ancient calendars were lunar or lunisolar. The first truly solar calendars appeared only a few decades before Jesus’ lifetime: the Julian calendar, instituted at Rome in 46 BCE, and the Alexandrian calendar in Egypt around 30 BCE. The Hebrew calendar, which determined the date of Passover and so influenced Easter as well, remained lunar until Hillel II led a switch to lunisolar in the 300s CE.

Easter was being celebrated by Christians in Rome by the mid-100s CE. In the 150s there was a dispute between the Roman Christians, led by pope Anicetus, and an Anatolian group called the Quartodecimans, led by Polycarp. The disagreement was over whether Christians should celebrate the crucifixion according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, at the Jewish Passover (on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan: quartodecimani = ‘14th-ers’). The Roman Christians, who were predominantly gentiles, preferred to have Easter fall on the right day of the week. Anicetus and Polycarp didn’t settle the matter, but they agreed to disagree.

So already in the 150s Christians were deeply interested in the relationship between liturgical observances and the calendar. Many of them were keen to adopt contemporary standards, not stick with ancient traditions. The algorithm we use today for setting the date of Easter is a compromise, putting Easter on a Sunday while preserving some of the lunisolar elements of the Hebrew calendar. It was set down by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, but it reflects a long period of head-scratching that goes all the way back to Anicetus.

(Incidentally, there’s been more talk recently about simplifying the algorithm set down at Nicaea in 325. The question continues to be pressing because some Christian denominations still use the Julian calendar, which puts everything out of synch. Apparently the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches have come to a preliminary agreement that would simply put Easter on either the second or third Sunday in April. If it’s finalised, this new arrangement could even be put into practice before 2030.)

Next time:
  • the Easter Rabbit (can be traced back to 17th century Germany),
  • hot cross buns (18th century England), and
  • Easter eggs (10th-13th century western Europe).


Saturday, 10 March 2018

New Year's Day and the Roman calendar

Happy New Year! In early Rome, anyway. Well, maybe ... actually maybe not. Can’t be sure.

‘Date’ and ‘calendar’ are ambiguous words. They can refer to how we label years, but also to how we label days within a year.

But historically, these two things -- year labels and day labels -- haven’t had all that much to do with each other. The date of Julius Caesar’s assassination is the 15th of March, 44 BCE. The Romans called it the 15th of March too (or the equivalent, in Latin) -- but they didn’t call it 44 BCE.

We label years with a number, using the CE/BCE or AD/BC system. This system came into use with 7th-8th century English historians like Bede and Alcuin. It was based on chronological work done by Christian calendrical-liturgical scholars who put a lot of effort into reconciling several different calendar traditions, such as Dionysius Exiguus (‘Dionysius the Puny’) in 525, and going back at least to the 100s.

But we label days within a year using a slightly modified form of the Julian calendar, a system that was introduced under Julius Caesar’s dictatorship in 46 BCE. So these are two independent things.

Just to make things worse: even after both of these systems were in widespread use, from the 700s onwards, 1 January wasn’t necessarily the start of the year. New Year’s Day could be a variety of different days depending on when, where, and whom we’re talking about.

In England before the Norman invasion, the New Year began on 25 March or 25 December -- so the day after 24 March 1050 was 25 March 1051 in the calendar of the time. After 1066 the New Year shifted to 1 January, but was put back on 25 March on the accession of Henry II. It stayed there until switching to 1 January again in 1751. France and Italy also used 25 March or 25 December up until the late 1500s, when they too moved to 1 January. Russia used 1 September up until 1700; that’s still the New Year in the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar. In the Catholic church the calendar starts on 1 January for some purposes, but for others (like in lectionaries) it begins on the first Sunday of Advent, at some point in the period 27 November to 3 December. The tax year is out of synch with the calendar year in plenty of countries too. But all of these systems use, or used, the Julian/Gregorian calendar for telling which day it is.

And then we have the Romans. In the past we’ve looked at the myth that the Romans used an ‘AUC’ system for specifying the year (only after the time of Varro, and only rarely). Now let’s talk about the other calendar -- the one for telling which day it is.

The last four months of the year are based on Latin number words. One of the most common complaints about the month-names that we’ve inherited from the Romans is that they’re the wrong numbers:

Month Month number Meaning of name
September 9 septem = 7
October 10 octo = 8
November 11 novem = 9
December 12 decem = 10

A fair number of people have heard a story that these months were originally the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months of the year. That’s what the Romans themselves believed. It may even be true. But there’s quite a lot of misinformation floating around as to how and when it changed (if it did change).

Inscription dating to ‘the 17th day before the Kalends of Germanicus’ (CIL XI 5745 = ILS 6644)

Myth #1: July and August

One myth I’ve seen around is that the Roman calendar had 10 months up until the inventino of the Julian calendar, and on that occasion Iulius (July) and Augustus (August) were added, named after Julius Caesar and Augustus respectively, to make a total of 12.

That is where the names July and August come from, but it’s false that they were added. They were just re-named: the republican calendar had 12 months too. July had been called Quintilis or Quinctilis, but was renamed after Caesar’s death, partly to honour Caesar himself (whose birthday was in July) and partly because of the new solar calendar that he had instituted in 46; Augustus himself did the renaming of Sextilis, probably in conjunction with another small calendar reform to correct how the Julian calendar was implemented.

If you know your Latin, you’ll spot that these follow a similar pattern to the other ‘number’ months, just with ordinal numbers instead of cardinals:

Month Month number Meaning of name
Quintilis 7 quintus = 5th
Sextilis 8 sextus = 6th

Some later rulers in the principate tried to rename months after themselves too. Thankfully, they never stuck. Gaius (Caligula) renamed September Germanicus, after one of his surnames; Nero renamed April, May, and June all after himself, as Neroneus, Claudius, and Germanicus; Domitian renamed September and October as Germanicus and Domitianus; Commodus renamed all twelve months after his various adopted names. Shudder. (Still, if any of these had stuck, there’d be a bright side: imagine celebrating Nero Fool’s Day on the 1st of Neroneus.)

A passage from one of Cicero’s letters to his brother Quintus, written in 56 BCE, mentioning a few dates: highlighted is K. Quintilis (1 July).

Myth #2: January and February

January and February were put at the start of the year at some point. But we don’t have any real idea how, why, or when, except that it was pretty early.

Roman tradition held that the mythical king Numa, the second of Rome’s legendary seven kings, added them onto a pre-existing 10-month calendar. But even if Numa was ever a real person, which is vanishingly unlikely, the Romans certainly didn’t have any records of any kind from that period.

They didn’t have records from anywhere near that period. There’s no authentic Roman history at all before the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king. Even after that point, it’s more myth than history up until the 300s BCE. (As for Priscus, the only reason we suspect he’s real is because of the criterion of embarrassment: we assume that people don’t like inventing embarrassing stories about themselves, and Priscus was a potential embarrassment because he was Etruscan, not Roman.)

Livy, one of Rome’s best known historians, tells us himself that no written records survived from before the 300s. He guessed that the records were all destroyed in the Gaulish sack of Rome, traditionally dated to 390 BCE. More likely, no records ever existed. If Numa had existed, he’d have been in the 700s BCE: four hundred years before any actual written records. For stories set in that period our default assumption has to be that they’re all completely false.

That includes the stories about Numa reforming the Roman calendar. And it also includes the idea that there were originally 10 months in the calendar.

Now, the story that January and February got added to the start of the year looks intrinsically reasonable. First, there ought to be an explanation for the number-names of Quintilis to December; the January-February story explains it nicely. Second, the idea that they were originally intercalary winter months -- adjusted each year to make the dates come out in synch with the seasons -- fits well with the fact that intercalation in historical times was done in February (and still is today). So it looks very plausible that they have a separate origin.

When we see Roman writers coming up with the same story, it’s not because they had access to some kind of secret knowledge from the 700s BCE: it’s because it’s a good theory and they thought of it too. It doesn’t follow that anything else they say about the early calendar is true.

So while it’s completely plausible that January and February were added on, we know nothing at all about how they were added, and nothing about how the early Romans compensated for their absence beforehand. Roman writers tell us stories of extra intercalary months in winter; stories that January and February were originally at the end of the year, after December; stories that the early Romans just lived with having only 304 days in the calendar and as a result it was sometimes summer in December. We can’t draw any conclusions from those, because they’re all just guesses.

Myth #3: the names of the other months

So months 5 to 10 had names based on Latin numbers: ‘fifth-ilis’, ‘sixth-ilis’, ‘seven-ber’, ‘eight-ber’, and so on. What about the other months?

Month Meaning of name
Ianuarius (January) ‘door month’ (ianua ‘door’)
Februarius (February) ‘month of the februa’ (related to Lupercalia)
Martius (March) ‘month of Mars’
Aprilis (April) probably Etruscan: ‘month of Fortune’ (from Etruscan afr, apru(n))
Maius (May) ‘elder month’ (mai- ‘older, greater’)
Iunius (June) ‘younger month’ (iuni- ‘younger’)

January. Popularly thought to be named for the god Janus, but there’s no real basis for that. There was a very minor festival called Agonalia on the 9th of January that some sources claim was in honour of the god Janus -- but Agonalia also took place on the 20th of May and the 10th of December. It looks pretty obvious that the link to Janus was invented in hindsight.

February. Not ‘month of fevers’ (febres), as I vaguely remember being told when I was younger, but month of the februa. These were purification offerings for the festival of Lupercalia, on the 15th of February. For the same reason we also occasionally see Lupercalia referred to as ‘the februated day’ (dies februatus).

March. Mars was always absolutely central to Roman state religion. He was one of the Big Three along with Jupiter and Ceres, and intimately tied to Roman foundation myths. His place here doesn’t need much explanation.

April. Ancient writers liked to think that Aprilis came from the Greek goddess Aphrodite (originally pronounced Ap‘roditē), and this story is still in circulation. But it’s obviously guesswork, and a late idea: Romans in the time of the principate may have liked to think of Latin as a Greek dialect (wrongly), but the early Romans certainly didn’t use Greek like that. Another possibility (De Vaan 2008: 48) is suggested by the fact that Aprilis shares a suffix with two number-named-months, Quintilis and Sextilis. Aprilis could in principle be another one: it would come from an early compound of Latin ab/ap- ‘away from, off’, as in the verb aperio ‘to open’: *ap(e)rus could be then be an ordinal, ‘the following, second in sequence’, with Aprilis as a month-name based on that. But most probably the name is a borrowing from Etruscan. We have the names of some of the months in the Etruscan calendar, and April happens to correspond to Etruscan apru, aprun, or apira. The Etruscan name is based on the word afr or apher ‘fortune’, indicating the meaning ‘month of Fortune’ as a divinity.

May. Maius is sometimes linked to the Roman goddess Maia (not to be confused with the Greek Maia, who was one of the Pleiades and mother of Hermes -- though the Romans eventually came to identify them with each other). That’s the reason we sometimes see Maia equated with the bona dea (‘good goddess’), whose festival was on the 1st of May. But more probably May and June are a pair: May ‘elder’, and June ‘junior’. This too is an ancient theory -- it’s Varro’s idea -- but unlike many ancient attempts at etymology, this one looks pretty likely.

June. This one is often linked to the goddess Juno, but as we just saw it’s pretty likely to mean ‘younger’, paired with May ‘elder’. If the name had come from Juno it would have to be Iunonius, not Iunius. Some sources (like the Oxford Classical Dictionary) suggest that the name is Etruscan -- Juno’s Etruscan name was Uni, and it’s a lot easier to see Iunius coming from that -- but that theory doesn’t hold water. First, Juno is an Indo-European name: the Etruscans borrowed Uni from Iuno, not the other way round. Second, we know what the Etruscans called the month of June, and it ain’t related to Uni: they called it acale or acle.

May and June are still connected to Maia and Juno, just indirectly. The names are cousins, not parent and child. That is to say: Maia doesn’t come from Maius, but they do both come from the same origin. And it’s the same story with Iunius and Iuno. Presumably Maia would originally have meant ‘greater (goddess)’, and Juno must have been ‘goddess of youth’ at some point.

Just to finish off, here’s Ovid, with a nice mixture of myths and accurate etymologies:
These were the things that Quirinus [= Romulus] paid attention to
    when he gave his laws for the year to the rustic people.
The first month belonged to Mars, the second to Venus [= Aphrodite];
    she was the author of the race, he its father.
The third got its name from old people, the fourth from the young,
    and the crowd that followed were known by number.
-- Ovid, Fasti 1.37-42
Ovid knew his Varro. So he’s got March, May, and June right; but he’s wrong about April, and we just don’t know if he’s right or wrong about March being the first month.


  • De Vaan, Michel 2008. Etymological dictionary of Latin and the other Italic languages. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Paying the iron price: Spartan money

We do not sow! Game of Thrones, HBO, 2016
(... that’s because sowing is the helots’ job)

Welcome to 2018! Our first topic for this year may not actually be a myth. When modern people hear it, they often think it’s a myth, because it sounds pretty daft. But it’s actually pretty plausible that the early and Classical-era Spartans really did use iron spits as a kind of money. It’s just that there are some solid, sensible reasons why they might have done so.

The main piece of ancient testimony comes from Plutarch, a 2nd-century-CE essayist, biographer, and priest:
For first, [Lycurgus] voided all gold and silver coinage, and decreed that they should use only iron; and to this he assigned only a small price for a large weight and volume, so that a value of ten mnai required a lot of storage in the home, and a pair of oxen to transport it. When this was ratified, many kinds of crimes disappeared from Lacedaimon. For who was going to steal something, or take bribes in it, or steal it, or take it by force, when it wasn’t possible to conceal it, to possess it jealously, or even to make a profit by cutting it up? For the red-hot iron was quenched with vinegar, it’s said, so that the hardening took away its usefulness and value for any other purpose, making it weak and unworkable.
Now, Plutarch’s story is certainly distorted. Most of the stories of Spartan exceptionalism that are still popular today -- about the Spartan agōgē, killing ‘defective’ babies, military supremacy, and so on -- were shaped by centuries of myth-making, long after Sparta’s actual heyday. Some of them are pure fiction. Plutarch is one of the most unreliable sources we have for classical Sparta.

So you’d think there’s good reason to raise eyebrows at Plutarch’s story. And yet, there may be a kernel of truth in it. Pre-classical and classical Sparta may have used iron to store value. But it wasn’t a novelty introduced by the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, and in context, it makes complete sense.

Plutarch’s biggest mistake is that coinage wasn’t invented anywhere until the 6th century BCE, when Sparta’s military dominance was already at its height. That’s when coins were first developed in Lydia, a kingdom that dominated western Anatolia. A few decades later, Greek states like Aegina and Athens started making their own coinage.

Lydia doesn’t have a big public profile nowadays, but there are still two names from ancient Lydia that are pretty famous: king Midas, who really was a historical figure, even if we take it as read that the story about turning things to gold is fictional, and king Croesus, who was famous for being wealthy, and for losing his kingdom in the most ironic way possible, and who still survives in the proverbial saying ‘as rich as Croesus’. (The saying is a bit out of fashion now: maybe it’s better known via the parodic version in Terry Pratchett’s 1988 novel Sourcery, ‘as rich as Creosote’.)

Anyway, by the time coinage arrived in the Greek world, myths of Spartan exceptionalism were well on the way. The oddity of Sparta isn’t that they adopted iron currency: it’s that they held off on adopting coinage for a few centuries, until the 200s BCE. That delay ended up being built into the self-image of later Sparta, which was fixated on nostalgia for a distant past that was largely fictional.

As to the use of iron, rather than silver: it was completely normal to use base metals to store value. Anyone who has ever read the Homeric Iliad or Odyssey (mid-7th century BCE) will have noticed that when people give each other wealth, it’s often in the form of metal household utensils: namely, tripods. These tripods were metal stands used to support braziers and the like. And it’s not just Homer: tripods are a frequent subject of interest in the surviving Linear B tablets from Mycenaean Greece. Homer and the Mycenaeans had a real thing about tripods.

Possibly not the best person to burgle: Herakles gets caught red-handed stealing a tripod from the god Apollo (Attic hydria, Madrid Painter, ca. 530 BCE, Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Spain)

That isn’t because of a fetish, and it’s not because they’re made of valuable materials. (They’re normally bronze: even baser than iron.) It’s because
  1. Metal utensils are fungible. They’re interchangeable commodities which will have a similar use-value and exchange-value everywhere.
  2. Metal utensils don’t degrade, they’re hard to damage, and they’re easily transportable. All of these things make them a hell of a vehicle for storing value.
We do see other measures of value in early Greek history, too, like clothes, barley, and oxen: they had fungibility too, but not all the advantages that metal had. Grain spoils; oxen die. Transporting them poses various challenges. On the other hand, they had other advantages: grain and oxen can produce more grain and oxen. So they were strong measures of productivity, more than ownership.

For stored value, metal tripods were the most prestigious unit. But a tripod is a pretty big object, and they have to come in whole numbers. You can’t buy an item for half a tripod, or a twelfth of a tripod. Tripods are for rich people: they’re the $1000 note of the ancient world. What did people do for smaller values? Did they pay bills in bags of grain? Were there shops that sold trinkets for, say, a hat and one shoe? Could a poor girl have a time-share in a cow as her dowry?

All of those are very feasible. But they may also have used smaller metal utensils. And the leading candidate for the utensil of choice is the spit -- the kind used for roasting things over a barbecue. The value of spits wasn’t just tied up in their metal content: they had potential ritual and social functions, which could make them good not only for storing value, but also for exchanging small values. If bronze tripods were the ancient $1000 bill, metal spits were the ancient payWave.

One of the most important venues that involved a large number of small transactions was the communal sacrifice. One relatively well-off person holds a sacrifice, and to spread the cost, invites a whole community to take part. Everyone likes this idea, because meat was a very small component of the ancient Greek diet: a sacrifice like this is where you get an awful lot of your protein. In exchange for a small payment, each participant gets a share of the meat and settles down with their family for a feast. The result is a combo of religious festival, picnic, and restaurant.

And in that context, what better way of paying the entry fee could there be, than the one metal utensil you’re actually going to need at the event? This function is suggested in the terminology: the Greek word for ‘spit’ is obelos, and in cities that adopted coinage, the word for a small-denomination coin was obolos. We’re a single unstressed vowel reduction away from a definite link.

A ‘handful’ of obeloi at the Numismatic Museum, Athens: could the Spartans have used these as currency?

(The larger unit, the drachmē worth six obols, is often thought to come from a dragma or ‘handful’ of spits. But it could also have an independent origin. Hesychius tells us that drax, another form of the same root, was a ‘handful’ in the sense of a quarter of a xestēs ‘pint’: that suggests a measure of grain rather than a handful of metal spits. See Hesychius δ.2319; similarly LXX 3 Kings 17:12.)

We don’t have 100% certainty (a) that this is how the word ‘obol’ came about, and (b) that when Plutarch reports a story about the Spartans using iron money, the story is actually about iron spits. That’s the theory that we find in some lexicographers, like Zonaras, but there’s no guarantee that they weren’t just guessing. But it does look plausible enough to treat it as the standing theory on the subject.

Even Plutarch’s more limited claim, that the Spartans prohibited silver and copper coinage, needs some careful interpretation. The Lycurgan ban is certainly fictional -- if Lycurgus was ever a real person, he died before coinage was first invented -- but Plutarch reports on another ban of other cities’ coinage in 404 BCE, which could well be historical (Plutarch Life of Lysander 17). Yet it’s a pretty common principle of ancient history that bans like that happened because the practice was actually going on fairly commonly -- that’s why the ban was needed. Moreover we have a report from a 4th-3rd century BCE writer, Dicaearchus of Messana (reported in Athenaeus iv.141c), that when Spartiates brought food contributions to their dining societies (syssitia) they also regularly brought a cash contribution of 10 Aeginetan obols. So even in times when there was a ban on other cities’ currency, Spartans may well have used it on the black market pretty regularly.

There’s no certainty here: we have no guarantees that the obolos ‘small denomination coin’ and obelos ‘spit’ are related, and that the Spartans really did use iron money. They may have simply used other cities’ coinage. But the weaker form of Plutarch’s story has something going for it: that the Spartans may well have used metal utensils to store value, as many people did in archaic Greece; and/or that there was a genuine ban on foreign currency in 404 BCE.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Top posts of 2017

A list drawn up purely for the sake of interest. Salt is popular, it seems. More strangely, so is Homeric textual criticism.
  1. Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt? (11 January). Roman soldiers weren’t paid in salt (that’s daft); there’s no evidence they were given a salt allowance (that’s an 18th century conjecture); and salt wasn’t expensive.
  2. West’s Odyssey (20 November). A few notes on the new Teubner edition of the Odyssey, with a list of deleted and bracketed lines as compared with the two other most recent critical editions.
  3. ‘Odysseus is not a hero, he’s a douchebag’ (8 December). Odysseus vs. the Cyclops: weighing up bad behaviour.
  4. Caesar’s birth and death (29 September). Big Julie wasn’t born by C-section, and he didn’t say anything memorable when he was assassinated. It’s possible his supposed last words are a carefully chosen quotation from a Greek Hellenistic-era poem, meant to cast Brutus as wanting power for himself rather than as a tyrant-slayer.
  5. Seven wonders of the world (27 November). The lighthouse of Alexandria wasn’t one of the wonders -- not in antiquity, anyway. The Colossus of Rhodes wasn’t next to the sea. And the most impressive thing about the pyramids, for ancient tourists, may have been the view from the top at midday.
  6. Dying and rising gods: are they a thing? (17 February). No, no they aren’t.
  7. Christmas reminder 2017 (16 December). Christmas didn’t arise out of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus, it was supposed to be on the day of the solstice, and it’s fairly likely to be 200 years older than usually claimed.
  8. Roman plagiarism of Greek gods (30 August). Roman religion didn’t plagiarise Greek religion much. Roman poets did plunder Greek mythology, though. In a sense.
  9. Getting the Iliad right (1 Mar.). When Lindybeige is good, he’s good.
  10. The library of Alexandria: vox populi (7 March). People’s preconceptions about the library. Most of them are artefacts created by Carl Sagan’s reliance on Edward Gibbon.
Also for interest: around 38% of hits come from the USA, 13% UK, 5% Canada, and 4% New Zealand. Also regular visitors, but low-key, are Germany and Ukraine. The most popular OSes are iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod: 42%), followed by Windows (28%), Android (11%), and Mac OS (10%).

Not everything in the world has been insane this year: Internet Explorer users (2%) are heavily outnumbered by Linux users (8%). So there’s that.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Christmas reminder 2017

Happy holidays! Here is your annual reminder that Christmas isn’t actually pagan. Not even a little bit. It’s possible that some present-day customs now associated with Christmas have pagan ancestors. But we can’t even be sure of that: mostly the similarities look like they’re just patterns in the noise of historical data.
The tradition of Christmas was set up to replace pagan worship of the winter solstice. Just as Easter was set up to replace pagan worship of the spring equinox (the actual holidays/festivals were most likely yule and eostre/eostara)
-- social media (does it really matter where?), 9 Dec. 2017
Here’s the long explanation from two years ago. Today we’re just doing an abbreviated version. There’s one update: I’ve now managed to track down an obscure and spurious source relating to Pope Julius I.
  • Christmas isn’t based on Yule, and Easter isn’t based on Eostre. Yule and Eostre both appear in the historical record for the first time in the 8th century CE writer Bede. Christmas was being celebrated at least 400 years earlier (by 354 CE at the latest: see below), and Easter 200 years before that (in the time of Pope Anicetus in the 100s CE).
  • Christmas didn’t replace any Roman holiday, and it wasn’t adapted from one. Saturnalia continued to be celebrated, by Christians, alongside Christmas, for at least a century and probably a lot longer. Brumalia survived longer still. The festival of Sol Invictus on 25 December was confined to a single city (Rome), and it isn’t attested any earlier than Christmas anyway. One source dating to 400 CE explicitly contrasts Christmas with the secular New Year festival. And as for Mithraism, all of its purported similarities with Christianity are fictional and were mostly made up in the 1990s.
  • None of the modern trappings of Christmas can be linked to any Roman festival. Father Christmas seems to originate in a blend of St Nicholas (a Christian saint) and the Christkind, which Luther attached to Christmas in the 1500s in order to discourage the Catholic cult of St Nicholas and his feast day on 6 December. Decorated fir trees are first known in the 1600s. Advent wreaths apparently originate in colonial North America, Advent calendars in 19th century Germany, Christmas cards in 19th century England, and Santa’s flying reindeer in 19th century America. (If you really want to link the 19th century reindeer to the Wild Hunt, or to Cernunnos, you’d better dig up some pretty solid evidence...)
Les Saturnales by Antoine-François Callet (1783): nothing to do with Christmas
  • The 25 December date for Christmas wasn’t based on Saturnalia (that’s 17 December), it wasn’t reported by Hippolytus of Rome in the early 200s CE (that’s a mediaeval interpolation), and it wasn’t determined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 (that’s Easter). It’s possible that it was discussed in a letter supposedly written from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I around 349-354 CE, but the only evidence is a very suspicious-looking quotation in a 9th century letter attributed to John of Nicaea: no one really believes that the quotation is authentic (link 1 [see under ‘Z.’]; link 2). The earliest unequivocal evidence for the 25 December date is a catalogue of Christian martyrs’ feast days dating to 354 CE.
  • That doesn’t mean the date was first decided in 354. We know that Christian thinkers had been linking the date of Jesus’ death (Easter) to his conception, nine months before his birth, all the way back in the late 100s CE; and we know that earlier still, in the mid-100s, there was a dispute over the best way to relate Passover (in the Hebrew lunar calendar) to Easter (in the Roman solar calendar). The ‘classical’ canonical date for Easter and the Creation was 25 March. We can’t be absolutely certain that Jesus’ birth was already being observed on 25 December at that time, but we can be confident in tracing the origins of the observance, at least, to the time of the Quartodeciman controversy in the 2nd century.
  • Christmas and the solstice are linked -- indirectly. 25 December isn’t the date of the solstice nowadays, but it was as far as 1st century CE Roman writers were concerned (Columella De re rustica 9.14.12; Pliny Natural history 18.221). Even at that time they were wrong, because the Julian calendar gradually drifts out of synch with the seasons, slowly but constantly. Nonetheless, 25 December was the traditional date, probably because of astronomical records going back to the 4th-3rd centuries BCE: it’s likely that the Julian calendar was designed based on older records from that period. Be that as it may, the solstice isn’t the reason for the date of Christmas: the date of Easter is. (See above.)
  • Note that even though Easter was originally linked to the equinox, and Christmas to the solstice, that doesn’t mean that either of them is based on a pagan solstice/equinox festival. There weren’t any Roman solstice festivals, that we know of -- not until Christmas came along. Contrary to popular belief, ancient religions only occasionally took any interest in solstices. Then as now, it was mainly astronomers that found solstices interesting. (There was another solstice festival, Brumalia, but it’s late. It may well have arisen as a pagan counterpart to Christmas, rather than the other way round: it’s first attested in Tertullian, and it was never very important.)