JULY 2020

JULY   2020
Everything Old Is New Again!


Friday, December 11, 2015


I don't know if you know this, but the Christmas carol started out as a dance, and then became a song. Whereas wassailing started out as a libation and then became a song and then darn near disappeared. Both traditions suffered their original metamorphoses for the same reason – Puritan kill-joys. The carol was revived and survives as a gentle Victorian anachronism. Still, most of the music and some of the words remain recognizable. But if somehow you could transport a 12th century English Celtic villain into a modern wassailing, the first words out of their mouth would be the medieval equivalent of “where is the booze and the broads?” Call it the cost of Christianity, or progress, or even just the march of time, but clearly we've lost some things in reaching the 21st century. And one of those some things was wassailing. Song
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.”
During the 2nd century C. E. when you the walked into any Inn or Public House in that far flung corner of the Roman Empire called England, you were greeted by your fellow vandals with the phrase, “Waes hael”, or “good health”. And your proper response would be “Drinc hael”, or “A drink to your health”. And what the Celtic holi-poloi would be drinking might be Mead, made from fermented honey, or a fermented version of whatever else grew locally – beer in rye growing areas, or in the hilly west counties, where the Celts grew apples, hard cider. Everybody drank these concoctions because the alcohol killed most the pathogens in the local water supply. That's why we still call consuming alcohol, drinking. Getting bombed was just a happy side effect.
“We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors' children
Whom you have seen before.”
The Inn keepers kept their mixture in a large “wassail bowl” as a centerpiece on the common table, so after dinner the paying guests could use their now empty food bowls to dip themselves an after-dinner drink. It is an oddity of these original pubs that the food cost money but the drinks were free. As the food supply increased, this pricing scheme would be reversed. On special occasions, the Mead would be added to the beer or cider, which improved the flavor and the alcohol content. And so taking a holiday drink from the wassail bowl became “wassailing”.
“Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.”
All of this was ancient enough to be a Celtic tradition long before Rome was Christian. And about a month after the winter solstice the pagan Celts were even wassailing in their fields and apple orchards. They called it in Old English La Mas Ubhal (mangled into modern English as, “lambs wool”), or as perhaps the celebration of the apple. On the Twelfth Night of Christmas (see these pages for Twelve Days of Christmas) apple farmers would lug a large milk container filled with cider and cider soaked cakes into their fields. In the dark and the cold they would build a fire, drink and eat and dance. In song the men would threaten the trees and the women would plead the tree's defense, all to encourage them to produce apples in the coming year.
We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.”
It was called “An Apple Howling” or a “Luck Visit”. In Devonshire, standing under each tree, the farmers would sing “Stand fast, root! Bear well, top! Pray God send us a good howling crop: Every twig, apples big; Every bough, apples now! Hats full! caps full! Bushel-bushel-sacks full, And my pockets full, too, huzzah!” The cakes were placed in the forks of the trunk, baked apple splices were tossed into the crown, and cider splashed on the bark. It seems as if the farmers were trying to give the trees the idea of what they were supposed to produce come spring.
“Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.”
And then midway through the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons defeated the native Celts at the battle of Crayford, and over the next 600 years these invaders squeezed the Celts back into the Welsh highlands and the far west counties, which, by chance, included the apple growing regions. So, wassailing in Wales and Devon became associated more with cider, while in Anglo-Saxon England, beer and ale were what filled the wassail bowls, and the post- solstice celebration morphed into a fund raising venue. Originally, the English village leaders went house to house, singing a Wassail song at each door and offering the residents a drink from their Wassail bowl. In response, the residents were expected to make a donation to the poor. Eventually, the leadership lost interest in the process and the poor themselves stepped in to fill the vacuum. You can imagine how happy the wealthy were to share their money with a bunch of dirty, young “urban types”, who came begging at their front door, something forbidden the rest of the year. Wassailing door-to-door became frowned upon, mostly by those best able to donate.
“God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.”
In 1066, King Henry and his Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England. The Normans not only brought the French words to the island, but they also brought a militant brand of Christianity. And that religion would prove to be wassailing's most determined foe. We know wassailing was still popular in 17th Century London, because just after New Years in 1625 the anal retentive Sir John Francklyn made a notation in his account book of the one pound 6 pence he paid for “the cup”
“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.”
But after the Puritans chopped off the head of Charles I in 1649, they began to remake Britain in the their image of God. And it was a dull, dull God they envisioned. The Puritans were suspicious of wassailing, of all that drinking and dancing in the dark, and they disapproved of peasants directly asking their “betters” for money. So laws were passed, and punishments metered out. Some who celebrated the pagan days were even burned at the stake. The impact of their moral divide survived even until the end of the 20th century, as evidenced by the laws allowing advertising of wine and beer on television, but restricting the same for the sacrilegious “hard” liquors.  So if, at your next Christmas party you should find a wassail bowl bubbling away on the stove, dip a cup, and enjoy. It is a tiny taste of our shared pagan past, a harmless reminder that before Christianity, there was a god in every tree and apple, as well as every soul.
"Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail
Wassail, wassail as white as my finger nail
Wassail, wassail in snow, frost, and hail,
Wassail, wassail that never will fail.”
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Sunday, December 06, 2015


I wish I had been in the Alexandrian suburb of Eleusis, in July of 169 B.C. when for a few brief moments the past and future were divided by a line in the sand. On one side stood the royal egomaniac Antiochus IV, whose army was just four miles from capturing the Pharaoh of Egypt. Standing in his way was one old man, the Roman ambassador, Gaius Popillius, armed with just a piece of parchment - a decree from “the Senate and the People of Rome”.  It ordered the upstart Syrian to turn his Slecuid army around, and go home. Antiochus IV was infuriated, and bluntly told the old Roman he had to consult his advisers.  Probably he intended on riding back to his cavalry and ordering them to run the old man down.   But Gaius would have none of that. Grabbing a stick the old man drew a circle around the King and insisted, if Antiochus stepped over the line without first agreeing to turn his army back,  it would mean war with Rome. It was the original line drawn in the sand, and for one of the few times in history, it actually worked.  Antiochus IV went home. It came to be called the “Day of Eleusis”, and because of that day, we celebrate a holiday – just not the one you're thinking about, probably.
Antiochus IV was King of the Slecuid Empire, centered in Syria and stretching from India on the east and now to the border with Egypt on the west. He was called Epiphanes, “God Manifest” on his monuments, and Epimanes behind his back - “The Mad One”. And as he sullenly retreated eastward across the Sinai, he got madder and madder. You see, some jackass in Judea had spread a rumor that Antiochus IV had been  killed in battle. Maybe the Romans had spread the story to weaken Antiochus in his rear, and maybe Antiochus had spread it himself, to flush out any trouble makers among his conquered peoples.  But whoever spread it, the hottest hot head in Judea, a religious fanatic named Mattathias ben Johanan, was eager to believe the rumor. With about a thousand of his followers, Matthathias came charging out of the hills to capture the temple in Jerusalem and drive the high priest Menelaus into the wilderness
Now, few people in Jerusalem would miss Menelaus. He had become high priest because his brother Onias had been high priest before him. But when Onias had sent Menelaus to deliver the yearly taxes to Antiochus IV,  Menelaus had included a little extra from himself, a bribe, and suddenly Onias was no longer high priest, Menelaus was. So you can see why Antiochus IV tended not to think very highly of the high priests of Judisiam, and now, neither did the people of Jerusalem.  Menelaus slipped a little more in public opinion when his brother Onias died while cleaning his sword -  bad luck. So the Jews of Jerusalem were not really sorry to see Menelaus running for the hills.
But Antiochus IV(above) was sorry. Menelaus might have been a sniveling bottom feeder, but he was the King's sniveling bottom feeder. And then there was that whole “got to show them whose the boss” dynamic going on. And Antiochus IV had an army which  had been expecting a rich sacking of Alexandria, which the Romans had put the kibosh to. So in the dog days of August 169 B.C., everything was pointing toward a very bad day for Jerusalem. And it came.
It seems – oops - somebody had left the city gates open. So the Slecuid army marched right in, as the trouble maker Mattathias slipped out the back door. First the Slecuid  soldiers stripped the Jewish temple of everything of value -  everything not already sold to pay taxes to Antiochus IV, or stolen earlier by the Babylonians and the Egyptians when they each sacked Jerusalem.  Really there couldn't have been that much left to steal. But whatever was left, Antiochus IV took it. And then, according to the holy text, Second Macabbees, “And he commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly every one they met and to slay those who went into the houses.”.
The primary non-religious source for what happened was the Jewish radical turned Roman informer, Josephus. He says that over three days Antiochus IV murdered 44,000 people in Jerusalem,  and sold another 44,000 women and children into slavery. Antiochus IV then built a citadel right next to the Jewish temple, which he stocked with a permanent garrison. Then he had the Jewish temple re-dedicated. On the altar where Menelaus had sacrificed goats to honor Yahweh, the Greek priests now sacrificed pigs to honor Zeus. Antiochus IV also issued a decree forbidding circumcision - (who was the lucky guy who got to check on that? ). It seemed the Jews had finally ticked off one King too many. Surely they had learned their lesson.
But, a year later human nature, or maybe it was Yahweh,  intervened. In 168 BC, the rising empire of Parthia captured the Afghanistan city of Heart (Hair-it). This was an important because  the region around Herat was the bread basket of  Slecuid empire, and sat astride their primary  trade route with India. We're talking a major loss of taxes, here.  So Antiochus IV had to turn eastward to deal with the upstart Parthians. But he did not forget the troublesome Jews.  He ordered his governor of Syria, a nobleman named Lysias  “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation."
In 167 B.C. Lysias dispatched four divisions to accomplish this task. As they marched on Jerusalem, Mattathias, who had reappeared,  now  organized the faithful.  However, because he was a religious fanatic, Mattathias insisted that all his soldiers strictly adhere to Jewish law - that's what they were fighting for, wasn't it?  Unfortunately the Slecuid army did not recognize the Jewish Sabbath, and on a Saturday they attacked the first Jewish village in their way. Following the law, and Mattathias' orders, the villagers refused to do any work on the sabbath, even refusing to lift a weapon to defend themselves. All 1,000 of them were slaughtered. After this Mattathias was replaced as leader of the revolt by his son, Judah. And under him, the Jews decided to compromise on the religious issues and fight, twenty-four, seven.
It turns out the new Jewish leader, Judah ben Mattathias was pretty good at it. In 166 B.C. Judah fell on the Slecuid supply base at Emmaus, killing its 3,000 man garrison, capturing a huge cache of weapons and food, and forcing half the Seleucid army to retreat. A year later he beat the other half of the Slecuid army at Beth-zur, forcing them, again, to retreat. It was battles like this that earned him the nickname of Judah the Hammer, or in Hebrew, Judah Maccabees. Shortly after this victory, word again arrived that Antioschus IV was dead. Except this time he really was. He'd been in Babylon, struggling to prepare a counter attack against the Parthians, when he suddenly dropped dead. He might have been sick, or maybe it was Yahwah's payback,  but I think it more likely, he'd been poisoned. In any case, his young son, Antiochus V, now inherited what was left of the empire.
Lysias immediately had himself declared Antioschus V's guardian, which put the Governor in charge of the entire empire. Lysias ordered an end to efforts to retake Heart, and in 165 B.C. he marched for a third time on Jerusalem. Third times the charm, right? This time Lysias came by the southern road, catching the Hammer off guard. This time Lysias actually laid siege to Jerusalem. This time it looked as if the clock had run out for the Jews. This time there was nobody to save them. And then out of nowhere appeared a guy named Phillip, (the royal governor of Babylon, actually), who had been with Antioschus IV when he died. Phillip claimed that on his death bed Antioschus IV had asked him, Phillip, to raise the king's son, now known as Antioschus V.  That would make Phillip the regent, not Lysias.  Lysias did not believe a word of it. Would you? But Lysias still had to deal with Philip’s army. And one morning Judah looked out from walls of Jerusalem, and saw...nobody. The entire Slecuid army had mysteriously disappeared. It was a miracle. As long as you did not notice the whole Slecuid civil war going on.
Judah Maccabees ordered a a new altar built for the temple, and declared 8 days of “sacrifice and songs” for its re-dedication. The pigs were out, Yahweh was back in. There was only one problem. Tradition said in re-dedicating the Temple required the temple's  menorah lamps to burn every night, all night, during the celebration. But there was only enough oil for one night. What to do?
Now if it was me, I would have ordered the nine lamps on the menorah to be publicly lit at sundown each night, as usual. And then a half hour after sundown,  after the faithful had gone home to bed, the priests would quietly extinguish the lamps. This way, instead of burning through all the oil in one eight hour winter's night, the lamps would burn for a about an hour each night, for eight nights. And I think that maybe that was what the Hammer did. But then, I am a non-believer. And priest are in the business of believing, even in miracles. And the truth is, miracles don't happen without a little help from somebody. Who that help comes from depends on who and what you believe in. Anyway....
It was the first Hanukkah, the first festival of the lights. Two thousand years later it is not a very important Jewish holiday, and about the only one in which women play a leading role. Each of the eight nights a woman first lights the “shamash”, the central candle or lamp, used to illuminate the entire ritual. On each successive night , the shamash is then used to light one candle more each nigh until all are burning. In each Jewish home they are displayed in a window or an exterior door, “to illuminate the house outside” the home. And as they do so, the women recite the Hanukkah prayer.
“We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them except for to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salivations.”
Lysias defeated and killed Philip in 163 B.C.. But in 162 B.C. Lysias was defeated by Demetrius I, who had been Antiochus IV's older brother and Antiochus V's uncle. Being the older brother, Demetrius was supposed to have been made King first. But when their father died, Demetrius was being held as the official hostage in Rome. So it turned out Antiochus IV had been a usurper, which made his defeat in 162 B.C.,  payback. Demetrius executed both Lysias, and the boy king Antiochus V. Demetrius then tried to reconquer the Jews, but the Fighting Maccabees  held him off for ten years, until Demetrius was killed by a new usurper in 150 B.C. It was the end of Slecuid empire.
The next empire to come marching down the coast road of Judea would be the Romans. And they and the Jews would have their own problems, strongly reminiscent of the ones the Jews and Slecuid's had shared. They say some people never learn. But I think most people never learn, certainly not in the middle east.
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