Literary Archeology: Forgotten Festivals

 

Jon Black

“Frost Fair of 1814” by Luke Clenell

Last fortnight’s post dealt with, in part, the Frost Fairs … periodic London revelries occurring whenever the Thames froze solid. A semi-regular part of London life in the 16th – 19th centuries, the Frost Fairs stopped when the global climate warmed and the Thames stopped freezing. Since writing that post, I’ve been curious about other lost or forgotten holidays and festivals that might make a colorful backdrop for historical fiction. Here are five:

Akitu/Zagmuk (Ancient Mesopotamia)

Marduk and Tiamat

The Mesopotamian New Year Celebration, it was known as Akitu in Akkad and Zagmuk in Babylon, its celebration is attested to at least 4,000 years ago. Lasting 12 days and culminating on the Spring Equinox, Zagmuk celebrated the victory of Marduk, god of the city and civilization, over Tiamat, the embodiment of primordial chaos. The centerpiece of Zagmuk was a passion play reenacting Marduk’s triumph, with the role of Marduk played by city-state’s king. In some versions, Marduk was slain by Tiamat on the festival’s first day and resurrected on the 12th day (with obvious similarities to the story of Osiris in Egyptian mythology).

This passion play was accompanied by daily religious rites and pageantry as well as feasting and drinking by the rest of the populace.

Traditionally, planting began on the first day after the conclusion of Zagmuk. Some scholars have suggested that aspects of Zagmuk/Akitu can still be found today in Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Festival of Drunkenness (Ancient Egypt)

Harvesting Grain for Beer

This annual (or possibly biennial) revelry gets points for honesty and cutting to the heart of things. At the end of the day, isn’t this is a big part of what most festivals are really about?

Yet at its heart was the serious purpose of commemorating humanity’s salvation from destruction. To make a long myth as short as possible: the gods were angry with humans (again) and sent the goddess Hathor (in some versions, Sekhmet) to wipe them out. At the last minute, Ra took pity on humanity. He commanded 7,000 jars of beer to be brewed and mixed with hematite so it resembled human blood. Seeing the ruddy beer poured out in a field, Hathor mistook it for human blood (Why? Who knows?) and consumed it all. Becoming intoxicated, she fell asleep and humanity was saved.

To commemorate their deliverance, at the festival Ancient Egyptians would emulate the goddess by getting absolutely sloshed and falling asleep. Other participants would dance wildly with torches in hopes of receiving an ecstatic vision from Hathor. The following morning, revelers were awoken by musicians playing drums and horns (not, I expect, to everyone’s great delight).

Some scholars suggest the festival has its roots in an older agricultural celebration; its biennial occurrence corresponding to the harvesting of summer and winter crops along the Nile.

Plough Monday (England)

Plough Monday

Up through the early 19th century, Plough Monday, celebrated on the Monday of the first full week in January, marked the beginning of the English agricultural calendar. While that might sound relatively dull, many traditions surrounding Plough Monday were not. Villages hosted processions led by a young boy dressed as an old woman (called Bessy) and an old man dressed as an animal (simply known as The Fool). Accompanied by musicians, Bessy and the Fool dragged a plow from house to house while asking for gifts and money for the harvest (It has been suggested that, originally, such gifts were intended as offerings to secure a bountiful harvest).  Celebrations continued until the next morning with drinking and dancing. Some dancing was ritual, in the fashion of Morris Dancing, including a very specific variation, Sword Dancing.

St. Crispin’s Day (England)

Now known primarily through Shakespeare’s Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day (October 25th) once served as a vehicle for social sanction in communities throughout England. In traditions persisting until the 1880s in some areas, on St. Crispin’s day villages fashioned an effigy in the image of a resident who was particularly ill-behaved or notorious over the past year. The dummy would then be hung from a tree, signpost, or other high point as way of expressing communal displeasure with that individual. The effigy was left hanging until November 5th (which happens to be a Guy Fawkes Day, another holiday in which an effigy plays a significant role … so I can’t help wondering if there is a connection).

Evacuation Day (New York and Surrounding Areas)

Let Your Freak Flag Fly (Evacuation Day 1783)

The curiously named Evacuation Day was an annual celebration of British soldiers’ November 25, 1783 withdrawal from New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day was celebrated with parades, martial displays, flying flags, formal dinners, and speeches by local officials.

A more unusual aspect of Evacuation Day, flagpole climbing contests, had its roots in an apocryphal story that the British had left their flag flying over New York but greased the flagpole in hopes of making it impossible for the Americans to remove their banner. After several failed attempts by others, a young man succeeded in shimming up the pole, removing the Union Jack, and raising the Stars and Stripes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Evacuation Day waxed in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of Thanksgiving, another late November holiday. It’s a shame about the flagpole climbing contests, though.