Saturday, March 15, 2014

Beware the Ides of March

Why do we say "Beware the Ides of March" when March 15th is approaching? The short answer is, "Shakespeare." The long answer has to do with the ancient Roman calendar. Let's take a look at this expression and where it came from.

The Romans called the Ides of March Idus Martii or Idus Martiae, says the Wikipedia entry. Before the Julian calendar, March - the month dedicated to the war-god Mars - was the first on the Roman calendar. The ancient Romans practiced a number of religious rites, many of them related to New Year celebrations, around the Ides of March.

"Ides" indicates the 13th day of most months, but the 15th day of March, May, June, and October. This observation was based on the lunar calendar, and in ancient times, the Ides of March would have been the night of the first full moon of the new year.

Since the month belonged to Mars, a military parade would have been part of the celebration, according to a Christian Science Monitor article. The ides of any month was usually used to celebrate the god or goddess of that month. February belonged to Juno Februata, so the goddess of marriage would have been celebrated on the 13th, and this probably contributed to our modern holiday of Valentine's Day on February 14th.

Ancient Roman rituals associated with the Ides of March included the sacrifice of a sheep to the chief Roman god Jupiter, the feast of the new year goddess Anna Perenna, and, in later times, a festival known as Mamuralia in which an old man dressed in animal skins, representing the old year, was symbolically driven out. Also in later antiquity, the period between the Ides of March and the Vernal Equinox was sacred to the goddess Cybele and her lover Attis (a version of the Mother Goddess and the Annually Dying God myth). In his Metamorphoses, the poet Ovid identified Anna Parenna as the sister of Dido, the queen of Carthage who appears in The Aeneid of Virgil.

Historically, the Ides of March became associated with ill omen when Julius Caesar was assassinated on that date in the year 44 C.E. The assassination was written about in ancient times by Plutarch and Suetonius, who both report Caesar had been warned by a soothsayer that he would be harmed no later than the Ides of March. Suetonius identifies the soothsayer as Spurinna, which is an Etruscan name, and the Etruscans were known for using the entrails of sheep for divination.

The historical accounts of the time inspired William Shakespeare as he wrote his play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare put the words "Beware the Ides of March" in the unnamed soothsayer's mouth.

According to this article, Czar Nicholas II of Russia had a very bad day on March 15, 1917, when he abdicated his throne after his army's defeat by Germany in the First World War. It's interesting to note that the Russian word "czar" is directly related to the Latin word "Caesar." Nicholas II was eventually executed, but not until July 1918.

On his blog Twilight Language (having nothing to do with the Stephenie Meyer book series, alas), learned Fortean researcher Loren Coleman mentions the site on which the soothsayer is said to have made the dire prediction to Caesar is marked by an obelisk. Obelisks, Coleman goes on to say, are linked to ancient Egypt (of course), Free Masonic symbolism, and also "sexual magick." (When "magick" is spelled with a "k" like that, it usually directly or indirectly has something to do with the early 20th century philosophies of Aleister Crowley.)

Unfortunately, the exact connections are not explained in any detail. Maybe the sex magick rituals have to do with the ancient celebrations of Cybele and Attis? Encyclopedia Mythica says, "Along with her consort, the vegetation god Attis, Cybele was worshiped in wild, emotional, bloody, orgiastic, cathartic ceremonies."

This article says initiates into Cybele's cult stood under a wooden grate. A bull was sacrificed on top of the grate, showering the initiate with the blood. (Ew.) Attis was said to have been driven to castrate and kill himself by Cybele's jealousy. Where his blood drops hit the earth, the first violets grew. Cybele's priests, the Gallai, would castrate themselves and afterward assume the social identities of women. Cybele's rituals were actually led by priestesses, though, who had the much less gruesome task of leading ecstatic drumming and dancing.

Turning to my old standby reference book, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker, I learn:

"Egyptians knew the obelisk was intended to represent a giant phallus. It was called the benben-stone, or begetter-stone, similar to the Petra, "the rock that begat thee," as the Bible says. Usually the obelisk was regarded as the erection of the earth god Geb in his perpetual eagerness to mate with the Goddess of Heaven."

The "Goddess of Heaven" whose body literally forms the sky is Nut. She looks like this:
Consciously or unconsciously, Beyonce seems to be imitating the Egyptian goddess in one of her many outfits for her Mrs. Carter tour. But I digress.
According to Walker, Egyptian pharaohs, who thought of themselves as gods, sometimes claimed descent from Nut. As Ancient History Encyclopedia will tell you, Julius Caesar himself was said to be descended from a Roman goddess, namely Venus. Venus seduced Prince Anchises of Dardania, an ally of the Trojans. They produced Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid. Aeneas's descendants founded Rome and the family line Julia, Caesar's family line.

So here again we have god-goddess pairings: Caesar is a descendant of Venus, killed on a day sacred to Venus's lover Mars. The day is also sacred to Anna Parenna, the goddess who is the sister of Dido of Carthage, the lover of Caesar's ancestor Aeneas.

In her entry on Venus, Walker writes, "Venery used to mean hunting; for, like her Eastern counterpart Artemis, Venus was once a Lady of the Animals, and her Horned God - Adonis, both the hunter and the sacrificial stag - became venison, which meant 'Venus's son.'"

I don't think the suggestion was that the Romans ate Julius Caesar literally (ew), but religious Romans may have thought of his murder as a symbolic sacrifice. "Venery" is now used to mean "sexual indulgence," by the way - which I suppose is a different form of "hunting."

Walker's entry on Adonis makes the following associations:

- Adonis was the same god as Anchises, who was castrated after his mating with Venus.

- Adonis was castrated by a priest of Venus in the guise of a wild boar.

- Where Adonis's blood drops hit the earth, red anemones grew.

- The castration myth is symbolic of the reaping of grain at harvest time.

About Attis, Walker writes that:

- The cult of Attis and Cybele was brought over to Rome from Phrygia (modern Turkey) in 204 BCE.

- Cybele's temple was located at what is now Vatican Hill. She was worshiped by Augustus Caesar, of whom Julius Caesar was a great-uncle on his mother's side.

- The "passion" of Attis was celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before his December 25 birth.

- March 25 was also the day the great goddess Juno was said to have given birth to Mars.

- Attis rises from the dead three days after his sacrificial death, celebrated by the Carnival-like (which is to say, Mardi Gras-like) Hilaria festival.

- Ultimately, the Indo-European cultural roots of the springtime Hilaria festival may be the same as the Hindu festival of Holi.

Ancient Euro-Africo-Asian mythologies: what a tangled web. Fascinating, though.

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1 comment:

Erin O'Riordan said...

Note: After I wrote this, I learned why Barbara J. Walker's historical associations are to be taken with a large grain of salt.