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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fight the Bad Meme - Blog Edition

  I've started a new thing on my social media page, which I call "fight the bad meme", because it seems like every single pagan holiday that rolls around sees an influx of poorly researched memes purporting to 'educate' people about the real history of that holiday and it's traditions. Usually most to all of the information presented in the meme is utter bollocks. So after I've seen the bad info going around enough to think its probably catching on as urban legend-ish fact I'll research the actual history and then post a little educational blurb. After some thought I decided that its worth sharing that information here as well, because really the more the accurate information is spread the better. 

- No, Horus wasn't born on Christmas Day. Neither Horus nor Osiris were born on or around December 25th. As far as I know the major deity births in the Egyptian pantheon were celebrated in early August and were tied to the cyclic flooding of the Nile. There are however more than a dozen figures named Horus in Egyptian mythology so it is not entirely impossible that one could have been celebrated on December 25th but it would have been an odd time given the way the calendar system worked - lunar based would have meant timing to a specific day each year in general would be unlikely*. I have found a reference to one Horus being born on December 25th but I can't date it back earlier than a 1907 book whose purpose was to connect Horus to Jesus so I just don't find it at all credible. I'll keep looking but as of now unless someone can show me actual evidence of an ancient pagan Egyptian festival on that date, I am standing by my statement that Horus was born on an epagomenal day, one of the five extra days in the Egyptian calendar year which occured in late August. Also Horus wasn't born of a virgin - since there's a story about a golden penis being involved in his conception its pretty clear on that point - Horus wasn't baptized, didn't have disciples, didn't raise a dead guy, wasn't crucified, and didn't have all the same epithets as Jesus. Horus does have some very interesting mythology, you should read up on him if it interests you.

- Kissing under the Mistletoe isn't a pagan holdover. Kissing under the mistletoe as far as I can find is a later practice, referenced in print to the 1800's, and is neither specifically Druidic nor Norse. Mistletoe was seen as sacred by the Druids, but we have no sources indicating it was hung up or used in fertility rites, although it was seen as having properties relating to fertility. It was hung in the middle ages by several western European cultures to ward off witches and baneful magic, but again no kissing underneath it. In Norse myth it was the plant used to kill the God Balder, and may or may not have become associated during the pagan period as symbol of peace (I can't track down anything definitive). Only during the Victorian period did a story emerge as far as I can find of Balder not dying/being resurrected and the mistletoe being a symbol of Frigga's joy at his return. And we all know what I think of the Victorians rewriting the myths. What is clear is that it was during this period that it became a Christmas practice to hang mistletoe and kiss beneath it, with a berry being removed for each kiss given, until all the berries were gone.


- There is no Scandinavian fertility God named Yule - Yule, in Norse Jol, is the name of the midwinter holiday and is applied to deities like Odin as byname, as in "Jolfadr" but is not itself the name of a God.


- The Oak and Holly Kings don't pre-date 1948. The oak and holly kings are thoroughly  modern and neither ancient nor Celtic, although they are based on older motifs. The idea for the two kings comes from Robert Graves book "The White Goddess", not from pagan Irish or Celtic culture.
  *I'm editing to clarify for those who may not be understanding my larger point here - I am not contesting that the motif of seasonal rulers fighting for dominion of portions of the year exists historically. However my point remains, and I stand by it, that the Oak King and the Holly King as named personages do not pre-date Robert Graves book. There are multiple memes circulating that claim explicitly that they do, and arguing that a modern creation based on older motifs is itself ancient is akin to arguing that since modern paraffin candles are based on older theories paraffin candles are ancient, even though paraffin wasn't invented until the 1850's. 


- Christmas Trees are a 16th Century Protestant Christian Tradition - I hate to ruin everyone's "they stole our pagan traditions" fun but the Christmas tree as it is today is a Christian thing developed in Protestant Germany circa the 16th century. The practice of bringing in evergreen boughs and such to decorate is far older and can be found in cultures from China to Egypt to Europe, and seems to represent a basic human urge to be reminded that life still exists in the depths of winter. It is also clearly true that trees in general were sacred in several pagan faiths and specific sacred trees, groves of trees and the concept of a world tree can be found in both Celtic and Norse pagan religions, as well as the use of carved God posts or God poles. But the killing an evergreen tree and decorating it at midwinter thing simply has no evidence to back it up prior to about 500 years ago. This does not however diminish the sacred symbolism of trees in paganism, or the value of the practice in modern paganism
I suspect it was a conflation of the older pagan veneration of trees and the practice of decorating with evergreen boughs with the later Christian practice of bringing in a tree and decorating it that caused the confusion with this one.

As an addendum to this there's a particularly atrocious meme going around with a festive Christmas tree picture that claims to explain the Pagan origins of the Christmas tree:
* First of all it claims that a tree was brought in so the wood spirits would be kept warm during the cold winter months. A. Why would you kill a tree to do this? I mean you basically just destroyed their home and killed the spirit of the tree. This is not how animism works. B. Wood spirits living in your house is Not A Good Idea. Seriously there's reams of folklore on how to keep this from happening, why on earth would you think people would do it on purpose? C. Also seriously, why do wood spirits need human hep to be kept warm exactly? Also what about prior to December when its cold? Do you keep the tree rotting in your house until spring?
* Next, it says food and treats are kept on the tree to feed the spirits. Awesome, congratulations old school pagan you're pre-modern technology home now has mice. Well, probably more mice anyway. Out in the open, crawling on this tree to get to the exposed food. Which is what mice do.
* Next it says bells were hung to chime when an appreciative spirit was present. I'm goign to ignore the assumption that bells were common enough to even have to do this with and just point out that in most folklore bells are a protection *against* spirits. So you're covering your tree spirit house in anti-spirit charms. Yeah, this is probably not going to work very well.
* Finally it says a five pointed star called a pentagon is placed on top to represent the five elements. Okay, first a pentagon has five sides, not five points, that's a pentagram. Second not all cultures used five elements, and in particular the Celtic and Norse didn't. So the cultures that had evergreen trees that could have been brought inside, wouldn't have used a five element system.


- Pagan Women Were Equal to Men. This isn't holiday themed but I keep seeing it pop up so I may as well address it. No. Pagan women were not equal socially to men before Christianity took power because every culture was different. We might argue that Pagan Irish women had a pretty good deal but pagan Roman women certainly didn't, so we can't make a broad general statement. 

*the calendar was lunar and also tied to the heliacal rising of Sirius, but neither of these would support the idea of Horus being born on December 25th. 

  References:
Horus:
http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/glossary.aspx?id=148
https://web.eecs.utk.edu/~mclennan/BA/FDOT.html
https://www.academia.edu/1826559/Egyptian_Religious_Calendar-CDXIII_Great_Year_of_Ra_Wp-renepet 
Mistletoe: (ignore references to Balder being resurrected, that's newer myth) 
http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/why-do-we-kiss-under-the-mistletoe
http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2010/12/whats_the_deal_with_mistletoe.html

http://www.livescience.com/32901-why-we-kiss-under-mistletoe.html
The Oak and Holly Kings:
http://www.maryjones.us/jce/whitegoddess.html
http://www.manygods.org.uk/articles/festivals/wheel.shtml
Christmas trees:
http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees
http://www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/education/historyofchristmastrees.aspx
Folkard, P., (2015)  Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom
Fraser, J., (2002) The Golden Bough
Chamber, R., (1939) Chamber's Journal
Pagan Women:
http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/women_in_ancient_rome.htm
http://www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland/III-XV-2.php
http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wedding.shtml

7 comments:

  1. Thank you 3x! Now I finally know where this strange idea of Yule being Odin's son's comes from...Jolfadr, so he must be the father of Yule. Hahaha. Interesting though, that folks who come up with new Gods automatically assume it's a son, not a daughter. 1000s of years and no learning curve as to how terrible such genderassignment could turn out to be...

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  2. Thank you for taking the time to fight the never ending disinformation that is circulated & has me grinding my teeth at every festival!

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  3. Please take your bow to my acclamations!! I've already explained to our kitty why we do not have a tree (yes, my life is that interesting -- these conversations would make great children's books). I am sometimes convinced (paranoid, much?) that wiccans and neos do attempt to belittle the polytheists on Patheos -- even when we are being good and explaining things. Thank you again.

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  4. Wait! what? Are you suggesting that Unicorn Rain wolf's meme is somehow inaccurate? next you'll be telling us that Ishtar isn't the real source for Easter. <>

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    1. Please note the copious quantity of snark in the preceding comment!

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    2. Ishtar isn't the real source of Easter? YOU LIE! I saw it on the internet!

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  5. I agree that many pagan women in Rome especially may not have been equal to men socially but there seems to be evidence in queens positions, leadership roles, etc. even burials found, that if a woman had the ability/skill, she had equal position in Celtic society. the Christians even had to make it illegal for women to fight in battles.

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