io saturnalia

Io Saturnalia

This is supposedly the cry on the lips of the slaves and plebes during the celebration of everybody’s favorite holiday dedicated to Saturn. Saturnalia is connected by ties of carnival and reversal to Matronalia, when the mistresses feasted the slaves, according to Livy. This is what Frazer says in The Golden Bough:

“WE have seen that many peoples have been used to observe an annual period of license, when the customary restraints of law and morality are thrown aside, when the whole population give themselves up to extravagant mirth and jollity, and when the darker passions find a vent which would never be allowed them in the more staid and sober course of ordinary life. Such outbursts of the pent-up forces of human nature, too often degenerating into wild orgies of lust and crime, occur most commonly at the end of the year, and are frequently associated, as I have had occasion to point out, with one or other of the agricultural seasons, especially with the time of sowing or of harvest. Now, of all these periods of license the one which is best known and which in modern language has given its name to the rest, is the Saturnalia. This famous festival fell in December, the last month of the Roman year, and was popularly supposed to commemorate the merry reign of Saturn, the god of sowing and of husbandry, who lived on earth long ago as a righteous and beneficent king of Italy, drew the rude and scattered dwellers on the mountains together, taught them to till the ground, gave them laws, and ruled in peace. His reign was the fabled Golden Age: the earth brought forth abundantly: no sound of war or discord troubled the happy world: no baleful love of lucre worked like poison in the blood of the industrious and contented peasantry. Slavery and private property were alike unknown: all men had all things in common. 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.”

That’s your progress right there, friend – effigies for human victims. Ho ho! And were it only so today! Unfortunately, effigies have given way to simulacra, as in watching people die on tv (it’s not true! they don’t exist!).

Ovid bemoaned what had happened to Saturnalia – or so says J. W. Binns in his book on Ovid, which analyzes an odd passage in the the Ars Amatoria, or Art of Love. It is a lovely and mysterious passage:

“Anyone who supposes that the observation of the seasons is the object only of those only who till the fields or sail the seas is mistaken. Just as you cannot entrust the seed to the treacherous soil at any season, or the curved ships to the dark ocean, so it is not always safe to be ever hunting for dainty girls; often, doing the same thing will be improved by doing it in a timely fashion. If it is her birthday that comes, or the merry Kalends, which joins Venus’s month and the month of Mars; or if the Circus shall be adorned, not with statues, as it was in the old days, but displaying items as though taken from the treasure troves of kings, delay your project; then ugly storms and the Pleiades prevail; then, the tender Kids are sinking below the horizon. Stay at home, then. anyone who trusts to the deep can, with difficulty, barely grasp the shipwrecked fragments of his dismantled bark. You may make a beginning on the day on which tearful Allia was stained with the blood of the Latian wounds; on the day, too, when the festival recurs, observed each seventh day by the Jews of Palestine, a day not suited for the transaction of business. You should view your girl-friend’s birthday with the utmost dread, and any occasion when a present is due must be accounted a black day.”

Of course, one should remember that Ovid was running with a rich crowd, which ultimately doomed him, and he surely was often stretched for presents. Binns remarks that the Circus statues used to be bought and given on Saturnalia until more rich stuffs replaced those simple tokens. Yes, Virginia, commercialization precedes Christmas.

On Saturnalia, we moderns should recall our sexpol forebears. This year, I’m remembering Otto Gross – who, like every soul that has crossed the Styx and left behind memorabilia, has a website consecrated to him. For those who can navigate the German, I’d recommend the essay, Die Kommunistische Grundidee in der Paradiessymbolik. Gross supposes that the Paleolithic times were when men and women first discovered alphabetical writing and painting and dance and lots of hot hot hot sex, and then came the era of repression for about four thousand years. But the Russian revolution signaled goodbye to all that:

The highest ideas of humankind have been reached by that primitive time over to the future. We contemporaries have become aware of them as things of the coming day, and of our will; the ancients felt them still as memories. As the value of the oldest human generation, that of the golden first time period, Ovid in architectonically simple measures outlined the ideal program of the furthest future:

“Vindice nullo
sponte sua sine lege bonum…”

(“Golden was that first age which unconstrained
With heart and soul, obedient to no law,
Gave honor to good faith and righteousness,
No punishment they knew, no fear…”)

So, anyway: what are the top ten songs you should have on hand for this Saturnalia? Here’s LI’s list.

1. Li’l Kim, How Many Licks? Bittersweet year for Kimberly. I admire her for standing up, going to prison, not squealing. But I can tell something more has been drained to the Man – since getting out, Li’l Kim has been letting her celebrity loa ride her too too much. Myself, I think she needs to have a heart to heart with Roxanne Shanté.
2. Brazilian Girls, Pussy Pussy Pussy Marijuana.Inspiration for the whole family! “Pussy pussy pussy/I hear the angels sing…”
3. Lords of Acid Gimme Gimme. You are going to have a Saturnalia party without LoA? I don’t think so. I love the way this video, too, makes sex seem much nastier than it could possibly be in reality. The bunny rabbit is a nice touch.
4. Lady Bitch Ray Du bist Krank (Frau Dr. Bitch Ray! Frau Dr. Bitch Ray! Bitte umgehend in die Notaufnahme!) This has been a good year for Reyhan Şahi. She probably received a thousand death threats; she starred on Spiegel TV, though the bastards censored her; and now she’s become a regular on talk shows about sex in Germany. Rappers in Germany have accused her of simply ripping off Lil Kim, but she is on a totally other channel. Li’l Kim is a royalist. She isn’t called the Queen Bee for nothing. Lady Bitch Ray is an anarchist. She revels in the tease of it all.
5. Hanin Elias Tie me to the Wall You say yes every time/you want to destroy what I create. - I love those lines
6. Scissor Sisters Filthy Gorgeous. An especially sentimental hymn to the season.
7. Miss Kittin. Frank Sinatra. The kind of song that would make Nick Tosches foam at the mouth. But fuck it, it’s Saturnalia!
8. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg 69 année érotique. Sorry, sometimes one has to bow to the inevitable. Serge Gainsbourg is to Saturnalia as Bing Crosby is to Christmas, no?
9. TLC. If I was your girlfriend. I’m supposed to resist TLC singing Prince songs? Who the fuck do you think I am?
10. Dandy Warhols Every day should be a holiday.

Happy Saturnalia, People! Pour some wine out, tomorrow, to honor the forces under the earth.


Brian said…
Did I read somewhere that the whole reason the current treacly "family" Christmas "system" was created was because during the 19th century, Christmas was a violent Bachanalia of orgies and mayhem?
roger said…
Brian, as a faithful reader of Thomas Hardy, I know that it was a time of drink and quires; Eustacia in Return of the Native boldly disguises herself in the role of the Turkish Knight in the Egdon Mummers play of St. George, by which she is able to meet the light of her life and her downfall, Clym Yeobright - ho ho. As for urban Christmases, I don't know. Oh, looking this up, I discover that Johann Gmelin, an eighteenth century traveler, claims that from Christmas to the Day of Kings, it is "difficult to find a man who isn't drunk" in Siberia. "You'd say they were celebrating the feast day of the devil". The "human Christmas" was celebrated by a buncha fin de siecle Parisian intellectuals. According to Jack Larkin's book, the Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840 in the U.S., the hardshell New England protestants traditionally ignored Christmas, while Southerners feasted and fiddled. But it was New Yorkers tht really put the holiday on the map for Americans, by giving presents.