We’ve been celebrating pagan holidays a long time

Some things have always been worth celebrating.

We’ve been celebrating pagan holidays a long time
Photo credit: Flickr user Christof
  • 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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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