As solstice and the Christmas holiday fade to the rear, we approach the New Year’s celebration. It’s not much of a holiday, really; for many of us, our spiritual calendars are aligned differently from the Julian reckoning appointed January 1 the New Year. Outside, there will be lots of fireworks, gold streamers, cork-popping and assorted drunken whoopie by those who don’t normally exceed their limits. (In AA, we call it Amateur Night.) As the holiday which marks the passing of the old year into the new, for many it is a time of reflection and resolution-making, clearing away the detritus of a difficult 2020 in the hopes that 2021 will be of a different order, ken and boon. Fingers crossed for all of us — all of Earth, too.
Our New Year’s k is usually modest at best; my wife and I wake briefly at midnight hearing all the local fireworks, kiss and wish each other a Happy New Year, and turn back to our Otherworld perambles. Black-eyed peas, short ribs in sauerkraut, collard greens and shortbread may be the order for dinner on New Year’s Day. The Christmas tree will probably come down, too, and head for the curb; the wreath on our front door, brown for weeks now, departed the morning after Christmas.
When the moon was closer to the earth, tides would wash hundreds of miles back and forth; every year the moon gets a little more distant, the insanity of moonlight diminishes, the tides grow more gentle. (Tides creep inland more now not because of the moon but because the oceans are overfilling with glacial melt.) Do our human festivals ebb too, or am I just getting old?
Certainly, Twelfth Night has faded to a dull, distant lustre: how much, I wonder, can its ghosts yet bestir and betide us?
Let us see …
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Human society is held up by strong rules of order, but the very nature of those bonds means we must be able to imagine beyond them, to experience how human society plays in reverse. Perhaps the only way to embrace the rules of order is to recall the chaos of disorder. Saturn may have ruled the Golden Age, but his Titan family were primordial gods, trapped in the chthonic underworld after the Olympians took to Heaven, and their passions (and cruelty) were primal.
There is a long sacred history of anointed misrule. In ancient Athens, the Anthesteria was one of four festivals of Dionysos through the year, usually at the January or February full moon. During a three-day feast wine stored at the previous vintage was uncasked and the social order was inverted, with people dressing up as figures from the god’s entourage, the dead walking among the living and slaves (and the dead) invited to the feast.
The Romans picked up the idea in their week-long Saturnalia festival from December 17 to 23. It was also a celebration of dead, resurrecting Saturn from Tartarus and bringing back the Golden Age for a week — a time out of time. Misrule was decreed, guilt-free revelry ensued. Priests offered sacrifices to Saturn with their heads uncovered (usually verboten), courts were disbanded, drunkenness and gambling were approved of and slaves were free to revile their masters. Gifts of tiny import were exchanged. A Lord of Misrule acted as master of ceremonies for the mayhem; chosen by lot, s/he would make all manner of capricious demands, bidding this one sing naked or that one get spanked. To mark the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun god Sol Invictus, trees were decorated with ornaments. Groups of revelers went door to door singing “carols,” usually of a profane nature.
Pagan Germans celebrated Yuletide in the three days preceding the winter solstice. Like the harrows before Samhain on Halloween, the doors to the otherworld spring open. The god Odin led a Wild Hunt of the dead through the sky (on Dancer!), animals were sacrificed to the Mothers and great Yule logs were burnt (turning night into day).
In the Christian era, Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas lasted from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The earlier Advent season was seen as sober and reflective preparation for this festival. Elements of Yuletide were adopted (the Yule log survived) as well as remnants of Saturnalia, with festivity and sport. The medieval romance Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is set at Twelvetide, and Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night is named for the culminating event.
Part of the festivities was the Feast of the Fools, normally on Jan. 1 or the Feast of the Circumcision. In it roles were reversed, with the higher and lower clergy exchanging places and a Lord of Misrule a peasant or lower clergy put in charge of Christmastide festivities, which included all sorts of drunken mayhem. (In Scotland, he was called the Abbot of Unreason.)
Christmas folly stuck around for a long time. A 17th century Anglican priest complained, “men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.” Puritans in America banned Christmas altogether from 1659 to 1691. (So contrary to the way we hear of it today, the War on Christmas has its roots in religion’s right wing.)
Today, the festivals of foolery are mild, perhaps because there is much more permission for individual excess. There’s Carnival, Halloween, April Fool’s Day: The antics there seem childish, not of any adult substance or import. That doesn’t mean people aren’t crazy today with deadly seriousness. That’s the problem, I guess. there’s nothing sacred about foolery, just literal reiterations: farty frat-party pranks .
Why these celebrations of reversal? One idea is that ordered societies need a safety valve to vent repressed energies. A French cleric once wrote, “We do these in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels.”
However, it may be that all that repressed and dead and dark material lives in the vast unconscious substratum, and it’s perilous to get too far from it. Religion gets its deepest sources from there, and the priests know it. Consider how the Delphic sibyl became possessed by the god and ranted incoherently; the priests then “translated” that into the semblance of cryptic oracle.
Dark knowledge is topsy-turvy, infernal, diabolical: all that can’t abide in the light flourished in the dark. It is to see and think as my patron St. Oran, who said up from the grave to St. Columba, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all.” Columba had Oran promptly re-buried, but he also made him the tutelary guardian of the Iona abbey graveyard, saying, “no one my access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” So order and disorder are faces of the same agency, and we had better pay attention to disruptive voices — the dead, fools, asses and imps.
Modernity recognized this. “Wisdom consists in keeping the soul liquid,” Emerson wrote in his journal of 1842. “There must be the Abyss, Nyx, and Chaos, out of which all things come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connection between any of your works and this dread origin, and the work is shallow and unsatisfying.” But it’s hard to imagine Ralph Waldo out dancing with the dead.
It may also be that in the human heart, the dead never leave us. Festivals of reversal gave the dead our living due. Ancestors were invited to the Saturnalia feast, and at Celtic Samhain it was believed that dead ancestors came home for once a year and must be welcomed (or else). Stonehenge and New Grange, both megalithic monuments for the dead, were constructed to align precisely to the winter solstice, their doors open to eternal light. (And what are to do with all those ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Do they belong to the past, or our future?) While there are societal reversals such as slaves served the feast by their masters or the rabble partying down at the lord’s manor, the ultimate reversal is when the dead take the place of the living.
And let’s not forget the centerpiece of this seasonal freakshow, the fool—nature’s wiseguy, the king’s shadow, hallowing the night with witty utterance and Bronx cheer. Society’s spectre, the medieval mind’s trickster, the fool was the ultimate buffoon and critic, both dumber and brighter than the lot. Originally the poet was in this position in ancient Celtic Britain, both anointer and satirist, king-maker and -breaker: But as the power of words (and poets) began to recede, the fool stepped in. Everything about the fool’s costume was in jest —clothes cut short, in motley colors (yellow and green were colors of disorder), belt hung with bells and fool’s-head mounted on a stick, used as the straight man in their comic routines. Physical features of marginal ability— the hunchback and long nose, the ass ears and prominent bump on the forehead (called the “stone of folly”) — all were part of an ancient ritual invocation of disorder, nature turning upside down to bare its ass at polite society.
Shakespeare’s fools are the brightest bulbs in his plays — Feste, Falstaff, Touchstone, Lear’s Fool, the memory of Yorick now a skull in Hamlet’s hand —: The best wisecracks come from them, as well as the most sublime statements. They are the essence of life — mercurial, profane, to the point and endlessly robust. They were beaten mercilessly for sport, suffered miserably without patronage, and fooled without end at the living margins of the world.
As civilization allowed more private license, perhaps the need for collective release has waned. Order is like the gravity of the moon, its extremes wane the farther the two orbs are from each other. The dead stay dead, clowning has become stand-up where there isn’t all that much to laugh at. As a result, there is little to speak truth to power, not from the edges where they are most potent. I suspect too that the center has faded greatly, losing much of its centrifugal power. Some reversal is afoot. No one goes mad in moonlight, but kings are frequently insane. (America’s outgoing president is driving his country insane.) Maybe Columba must now go into the footers so that Oran may build his dark chapel.
It may also be that the human center is dissolving, opening up greater possibilities of trans-species and extra-human relations to muster. We need the brooding gaze vultures who know everyone’s time comes up, the smash of whaleflukes to right-size our vanitas for whale-watching and the microbial flourish at the bottom of every whalefall.
For this challenge, invite your dead to the feast. Stage your own masque. Appoint a Lord of Misrule—a climate migrant, say, one of society’s lowlies. Quest for a Green Chapel and exchange heads with a Green Knight. Visit Saturn (or Dionysos or Odin or Father Christmas) in his Otherworldly abode and describe the thing you have brought back — sword or cauldron, squashes from the garden of Priapus or fanny-pack of Aphrodite Kallipygos.
But let’s go further and make this a Feast of Earth Fools. That’s what this whole party is about, right? The “complicate amassing harmony” Wallace Stevens wrote about speaks to the inside of life. Our job, as Robert Bringhurst wrote in his poem “Occupation” “… is not / to change the world / nor even to keep it from changing.”; rather, our “only” task is “being changed.” We are already in the midst of a massive masque.
According to Thom van Dooren, this bids us write not from the outside looking in — a dead-end human trope on individual consciousness — but rather to embody and embrace
… a form of witnessing that is from the outset already seized, already claimed, by an obligation to those whose stories we are attempting to tell. This is particularly the case when our stories play the role of witness or testimony to the suffering and deaths of others … In the context of extinction, these kinds of stories are not an attempt to obscure the truth of the situation, but to insist on a truth that is not reducible to populations and data: a fleshier, more lively, truth that in its telling might draw us all into a greater sense of accountability (Flight Ways, Columbia University Press, pp 9-10)
So transform! Mix your human essence with another living entity, be it frog or palm or eel: Sing as frog-man, palm-woman, eel-king. Bring an extinct species back for a seat at the banquet. Make them “thick” with life.
I think that is something to celebrate, and why I’m calling this challenge A FEAST OF EARTH FOOLS. Humantide’s passing is upon us: the doors are opening for the extinct and the marginalized to enter our walled city and turn things upside down. For a poem, at least.