Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
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
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.
- 10 greatest ancient and pagan holidays - Big Think ›
- Slavic paganism: Life in a New Age Anastasian homestead - Big Think ›
- Could neo-paganism be the new 'religion' of America? - Big Think ›
Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.
Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?
Some scientists have studied near death experiences (NDEs) to try to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they've found is remarkable, a surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study out of the University of Michigan, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found they entered a hyper-alert state just before death.
Scientists are beginning to think an NDE is caused by reduced blood flow, coupled with abnormal electrical behavior inside the brain. So the stereotypical tunnel of white light might derive from a surge in neural activity. Dr. Sam Parnia is the director of critical care and resuscitation research, at NYU Langone School of Medicine, in New York City. He and colleagues are investigating exactly how the brain dies.
Our cerebral cortex is likely active 2–20 seconds after cardiac arrest. Credit: Getty Images.
In previous work, he's conducted animal studies looking at the moments before and after death. He's also investigated near death experiences. “Many times, those who have had such experiences talk about floating around the room and being aware of the medical team working on their body," Dr. Parnia told Live Science. “They'll describe watching doctors and nurses working and they'll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them."
Medical staff confirm this, he said. So how could those who were technically dead be cognizant of what's happening around them? Even after our breathing and heartbeat stops, we're conscious for about 2–20 seconds, Dr. Parnia says. That's how long the cerebral cortex is thought to last without oxygen. This is the thinking and decision-making part of the brain. It's also responsible for deciphering the information gathered from our senses.
According to Parnia during this period, "You lose all your brain stem reflexes — your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone." Brain waves from the cerebral cortex soon become undetectable. Even so, it can take hours for our thinking organ to fully shut down.
Usually, when the heart stops beating, someone performs CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). This will provide about 15% of the oxygen needed to perform normal brain function. "If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you'll gradually start to get the brain functioning again," Parnia said. “The longer you're doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they're just happening at a slightly slower rate."
CPR may help retain some brain function for longer. Credit: Getty Images.
Dr. Parnia's latest, ongoing study looks at large numbers of Europeans and Americans who have experienced cardiac arrest and survived. "In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of 'love,'" he said, "we're trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we're all going to have when we die."
One of the objectives is to observe how the brain acts and reacts during cardiac arrest, through the process of death, and during revival. How much oxygen exactly does it take to reboot the brain? How is the brain affected after revival? Learning where the lines are drawn might improve resuscitation techniques, which could save countless lives per year.
"At the same time, we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death," Parnia said, “to understand whether consciousness becomes annihilated or whether it continues after you've died for some period of time — and how that relates to what's happening inside the brain in real time."
For more on the scientific perspective on a near death experience, click here:
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.