We’ve been celebrating pagan holidays a long time

Some things have always been worth celebrating.

  • Some lost ancient holidays aren't really so lost after all.
  • All of us celebrate at least some pagan traditions whether we know it or not.
  • There are two things that tend to bring humans together: crises and holidays.

One of humanity's greatest advantages is our propensity for community — we can accomplish together what no one can pull off alone. It's not something that happens automatically or even all the time, of course, and we can be fractious. There are, though, two things that tend to bring us together: crises and holidays.

Going back to time immemorial we've come together for holidays that celebrate our commitment to one another in the face of both difficulties and achievements. We enjoyed holidays that celebrated shared joy at the completion of common tasks such as harvests, and reaffirmed our resolve to get through, say, a hard winter together.

In Europe many of these ancient celebrations reflected worldviews that were displaced by Christianity spreading across the region after about 200 CE. Christianity largely replaced the focus on the individual experience with the celebration of the life of Christ. Some millennia-old holidays disappeared, as others were co-opted by the Church. And yet, many not completely lost, and their echoes underscore how human understanding changes, evolves, and goes back and forth over time. The big questions remain. Answers come and go.

Life in all its messy glory

Stonehenge sunrise. Photo credit: Tony Craddock on Shutterstock

Ancient holidays tended to depict the experience of everyday people, in some places personified by major and minor deities, animals, or natural phenomenon. While each civilization enjoyed a holiday calendar that reflected its own beliefs, there were certain events that were largely universal: Holidays that marked changes of seasons, represented by different positions of the sun in the sky. Signs whose significance has been understood for a very, very long time.

  • Winter solstice: December 20–23
  • Vernal equinox: March 19–22
  • Summer solstice: June 19–23
  • Automnal equinox: September 21–24

Spring by any other name

O jovem Baco e seus seguidores ("The young Bacchus and his followers"). Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

As one would expect, the expression of these events varied from place to place. For example, during what we consider Spring:

  • The Persian holiday Nowruz marks the start of the new year with a clearing away of the old at the vernal equinox. It dates back some 3,000 years to the Zoroastrianism religion.
  • Also celebrating the new year with the onset of spring were the ancient Mesopotamians, whose 5,000-year-old Akitu festival occurred during the first month of the Babylonian calendar, likewise in the March/April time frame.
  • In ancient Greece, March brought with it the dramatic festival of Dionyisa that honored of the Greek god of wine.
  • In pre-Christian Rome they had a similar idea, though their god of wine, Bacchus, was a somewhat more colorful, extravagant, fertile — okay, sexual — figure, and the celebrations are believed to have reflected his demeanor

What’s a pagan?

The Triumph Of Christianity Over Paganism. Wow. Painting by Gustave Doré

"Pagan," from the latin word paganus, originally described followers of a particular, pre-Christian polytheistic religion. Over time, though, its meaning broadened. The Oxford Dictionary awards it two very different meanings. The first reflects its use as a perjorative (see painting above):

"Belonging or relating to a religion that worships many gods, especially one that existed before the main world religions."

Today, the word often carries less of a sting, and in fact has been adopted proudly by some of the many people who believe that a naturalistic view more accurately represents their view of the world around them. Oxford's second definition:

"Belonging or relating to a modern religion that includes beliefs and activities that are not from any of the main religions of the world, for example the worship of nature."

Proud pagans of the 21st century

(Big Think)

Modern pagans, in a fitting echo of the original different civilizations from which their holidays have sprung, recognize a diverse range of annual celebrations throughout what they commonly view as the Wheel of the Year.

As always, the seasons rank high in importance among contemporary pagan holidays, and they have ancient-sounding names.

  • Yule: The word "Yule" is probably a Germanic version of the Scandinavian winter solstice holiday's name, Juul. As the world turned the corner toward longer days, pre-Christian Scandinavians paid tribute to Thor (pre-MCU) with the burning of the Juul log.
  • Ostara: The vernal equinox is celebrated with a holiday named after Ostara, the Germanic goddess of Spring. (Her name is also the basis for "Easter.") Ostara was represented by the hare and with eggs, both symbols of fertility. Ring a bell?
  • Lithia: The fire festival of Lithia marks the sun's longest, and thus symbolically, most powerful day of the year. The Celts lit celebratory fires that burned from sunset the night before Lithia until sunset of the holiday. "Lithia" is the Latin name for the June and July months, at least according to an 8th-century monk, Bede, who said so. (We're unable to confirm this in modern Latin.)
  • Mabon: The holiday name "Mabon" goes all the way back to… the 1970s. It's not an ancient pagan holiday, but a modern one. Mabon was the son of Welsh mythology's Mordred, who was either the son or brother of King Arthur, he of the Table Round. It's not clear.

Quarter holidays for modern pagans are typically Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain, a story in and of itself.

How a pagan holiday is reinvented: Christmas

Image source: GJones Creative

As Christianity took root, some pagan holidays were so popular that they were simply absorbed. The symbolism of an original celebration sometimes survived — as with Easter's rabbits and eggs — or a new meaning was superimposed over pre-existing festivities. Christmas is a good example.

Christmas has something to do with the birthday of Jesus, though the connection is not as direct as it might seem, and, in fact, may actually not have anything to do with him.

The earliest record of Jesus' birth puts it at January 6, though it's not entirely clear why. (The earliest Christians didn't celebrate his birth.) According to Religion Facts, the January birth was based on his crucifixion date of April 6: It may have been "a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception."

The festivities had shifted to December 25 by 273 AD, perhaps to take advantage of longstanding, well-attended pagan solstice celebrations. As far as their symbolism goes, the 1922 revision of Sir James George Frazer 's The Golden Bough contains this eye-popper:

"In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, "The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!" The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers."

Sound familiar? Eventually, the existing solstice story may have simply been re-written as Jesus' nativity, his presumed birth date of January 6 being rechristened the Festival of the Epiphany. (Washington Post has a great article about Christmas' origins.) If the Star of Bethlehem is factual, though, it appears his birthday would have actually been in June or October, depending on the year in which he was born, which experts believe was not 1 AD.

Old stories, good stories

Some things are just obvious if one lives at a latitude where there are seasons. For as long as understanding of what it all means remains elusive, we might as well at least come together to celebrate now and then. That seems to have been the conclusion, anyway, of ancient humankind. It still seems a pretty good plan today.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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