In ancient Rome on 17 December and for the following seven days the people celebrated in honour of Saturn - not the planet - the god of sowing and husbandry. The goings-on during that wild week of debauchery would probably make even our 21st century hair stand on end! Oh.....I don't know though, maybe not. I came across this SATURNALIA cartoon strip from the mid 1990s the other day. It's not for the faint-hearted, there's nudity, sex, and historical narrative which could well be considered blasphemous....so if any of that would make you feel queasy, "Don't look Ethel!" The cartoonist responsible was Patrick Farley.
Yes, I was kidding myself when I wrote that Rome's December debaucheries would make our hair stand on end. Our 21st century western society has devolved into a kind of savage burlesque, and is quite possibly even now travelling the same road on which the Romans met their fate.
Anyway, on a more scholarly and sedate note, here's what Sir James George Frazer, British anthropologist (1854-1941) wrote about Roman Saturnalia in his famous work The Golden Bough:
§ 3. The Roman Saturnalia
At last the good god, the kindly king, vanished suddenly; but his memory was cherished to distant ages, shrines were reared in his honour, and many hills and high places in Italy bore his name. Yet the bright tradition of his reign was crossed by a dark shadow: his altars are said to have been stained with the blood of human victims, for whom a more merciful age afterwards substituted effigies. Of this gloomy side of the god’s religion there is little or no trace in the descriptions which ancient writers have left us of the Saturnalia. Feasting and revelry and all the mad pursuit of pleasure are the features that seem to have especially marked this carnival of antiquity, as it went on for seven days in the streets and public squares and houses of ancient Rome from the seventeenth to the twenty-third of December.
....................masters actually changed places with their slaves and waited on them at table; and not till the serf had done eating and drinking was the board cleared and dinner set for his master. So far was this inversion of ranks carried, that each household became for a time a mimic republic in which the high offices of state were discharged by the slaves, who gave their orders and laid down the law as if they were indeed invested with all the dignity of the consulship, the praetorship, and the bench. Like the pale reflection of power thus accorded to bondsmen at the Saturnalia was the mock kingship for which freemen cast lots at the same season. The person on whom the lot fell enjoyed the title of king, and issued commands of a playful and ludicrous nature to his temporary subjects. One of them he might order to mix the wine, another to drink, another to sing, another to dance, another to speak in his own dispraise, another to carry a flute-girl on his back round the house........................................
Roman soldiers at Durostorum in Lower Moesia celebrated the Saturnalia year by year in the following manner. Thirty days before the festival they chose by lot from amongst themselves a young and handsome man, who was then clothed in royal attire to resemble Saturn. Thus arrayed and attended by a multitude of soldiers he went about in public with full license to indulge his passions and to taste of every pleasure, however base and shameful. But if his reign was merry, it was short and ended tragically; for when the thirty days were up and the festival of Saturn had come, he cut his own throat on the altar of the god whom he personated.
Below: Romans of the Decadence by Thomas Couture (1815-79).
Let's haul ourselves back a century or several to acknowledge the source of my post title - though it's nothing at all to do with Saturnalia: Merle Haggard, as he was in his younger days sings "The Roots of My Raising":