Happy Saturnalia!

I've wished a few people a happy Saturnalia recently, and discovered some don't know what it is. So here is a quick run down on the real celebration for this time of year.

Saturnalia was the Roman festival in honor of...you guessed it...Saturn, the god of the harvest. The festival sits more or less on top of the winter solstice, if you happen to be in the northern hemisphere, when winter turns and crops soon begin to grow once more.

During Saturnalia friends would give each other presents. There was much merry-making, partying, eating and drinking. Sound familiar?

It was the time of Misrule. Slaves were allowed to dress and behave as freed men, even permitted to drink and gamble. They could lounge around the house and give orders to their owners. The slave owners served a banguet to their slaves. You can imagine how much the slaves would have enjoyed that.

Common sense dictates the slaves did not make too much of their one week of lordship, because if they did, their masters would have the next 51 weeks to exact revenge. Chances are it was, fundamentally, an official holiday for all slaves. Not that the owners would have noticed; they would have been too wiped by their own celebrations.

Saturnalia began on December 17th and went for a week. It was only a couple of days originally, but the festival just kept getting longer and longer because everyone loved it so much. It reached the point where two Roman Emporers even tried to reduce the holiday, but everyone ignored the boring old guys and kept partying.

Saturnalia did not include Christmas trees, by the way. Christmas trees originated in pagan Germany, associated with the winter solstice festival Yule, and seem to have spread into the English speaking world via marriage between the English royal family and German nobility in the late 1700s. Subsequently during the Peninsular War, Wellington's forces included the King's Own German Legion, German cavalry fighting for England, who probably spread the custom to the commoners.

The Greeks, weirdly, had no equivalent celebration I know of for the winter solstice. The closest were the Lenaea, which was held at the beginning of winter and included a major arts festival, and the Kronia, which was held on the 12th Hekatombaion, which was in Spring or Summer. Despite the radically different date, the Kronia was the exact equivalent of Saturnalia. It included master/slave role reversal and was in honor of Kronus, the Greek harvest god.

Experts (which means not me!) seem to believe Jesus was actually rather unlikely to have been born at Christmas, plumping mostly for some time in Spring. As Christianity became the dominant religion, people remained unwilling to give up the immensely popular Saturnalia, so the date was adopted for Christmas.

So as you celebrate Christmas this year, spare a thought for the poor god Saturn, who's mostly out in the cold these days.

Io Saturnalia!

Things are getting weird

That post on anal impalement got SEVEN TIMES more page views than anything else I ever did.

I'm seriously worried about you people.

Anal Impalement

One of the more gruesome - and therefore fun - parts of writing crime is learning the different ways you can die. So, today's post is going to be about: anal impalement. Warning: this post may be upsetting to some.

If you got here on a Google search for a more salacious type of anal impalement, you're going to be disappointed. Anal impalement was not a good way to relax. It was a popular means of state execution across the middle east. The Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians all practiced it.

The picture is a detail from a neo-Assyrian frieze in the British Museum, which shows Judaeans being impaled after a siege.

There were several variations of impalement. The pole might be pushed through someone's body, as appears to be the case in the picture on the left, or through the vagina, or anus. Going through the body was generally a fast death, so that version was probably only used for displaying a corpse. The vagina system was only available for half the populace, and therefore the most common system was probably anal impalement.

You're probably imagining a sharpened wooden spike being pushed up, but you'd be wrong. You wanted the pole to be blunt, to avoid piercing any organs and killing the victim too quickly. The entire point was to give the victim plenty of time to regret his or her crimes. Here's how it worked:

A smooth, thick pole with a narrowed, but blunt, top end would be embedded in the ground. If you think of a width you can barely get the fingers of both hands around, you're probably about right. The height of the pole is carefully adjusted so the top is slightly higher than the victim's behind, when standing on tiptoes. It's a bit like hanging, where you adjust the rope length for the weight of the victim, but in this case we adjust the pole for height.

The pole and the entry point are then smeared with fat or grease. The victim is held above the pole and placed down on it. If the width doesn't quite fit, that's not a problem; simply use a knife to slit from the anus towards the genitals until we have a snug fit. Now the victim is lowered down until they can stand on their own feet on tiptoes.

You see why the pole height varies per person. The pole is in, and the victim can't step off because even on tippy toes, too much of the pole is inside, but to keep it from going further in, the victim has to stand there, and stand, and stand. For days. They can't keep this up forever. Eventually their feet slip a trifle, or they sag, and the pole slips further in. Because it's blunt, it pushes organs to the side as it penetrates. With every slippage, there's a tear and a little more blood loss, weakening the victim, making it harder to stand, so the pole pushes further in, and so on in a vicious cycle. The grease and fat and blood trickling down the pole would have attracted flies and other insects, which would have eaten their way into the wound to add to the torture.

Whingey, bleeding heart, soft-on-crime liberals began to complain that anal impalement was too cruel. (I can't imagine why). So they introduced the soft option of crucifixion. Crucifixion was an instant hit and eventually replaced anal impalement altogether, until it was revived centuries later by that well known traditionalist, Vlad the Impaler.

There is no record of the Greeks ever using impalement, though their mortal enemies the Persians were certainly using it in Classical times. However, the father of Pericles, a man called Xanthippus, did crucify a particularly obnoxious Persian officer during the wars. (The officer had it coming: he'd robbed a temple sanctuary, and when he was captured, tried to bribe his way out of trouble).

It's interesting to think that if Jesus had been born just a few hundred years earlier, today's most common Christian symbol would be missing its cross-beam, and much more wince-worthy.

The Fireman - Electric Arguments

Back in 1993, two anonymous musicians calling themselves The Fireman released an album of highly experimental electronic dance music through an indy label. The album was called Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest. It was well received but didn't make the slightest splash. Then in 1998 The Fireman reappeared with another electronic dance music album called Rushes. It was better received than the first, but also didn't chart, not surprisingly since it too was rather experimental. (Personally, I thought SOSF better than Rushes, but whatever).

Then The Fireman was outed as being Paul McCartney and a guy called Youth, who I'd never heard of. They'd just wanted to play around without any fuss. After all, McCartney doing electronica? Who'd believe it?

Okay, I admit to being a huge Beatles fan. This got my attention.

The Fireman released their third album last week, called Electric Arguments, and since there's no longer any point in hiding who they are, this album includes vocals, which the first two didn't since you could hardly hide McCartney if he's singing.

Electric Arguments is the best thing McCartney's done since Band On The Run.

I'd assumed Paul was done for after he released Memory Almost Full earlier this year. But then I thought, fair enough; the guy's 66 years old now and has (had) his personal problems. He's allowed to release something soporific now he's in his dotage.

Electric Arguments proves I was wrong. It's full of energy. It has a raw sound. Every track was completed in a single day. It's still a little bit experimental, but it's a lot more commercial album than the previous two. There were places where I thought as I listened, this is what the Beatles might have become.

The pick of the songs are Sing The Changes, Lifelong Passion, Light From Your Lighthouse, and Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight. Any of the four could have appeared on a Beatles album and not been out of place.

Lifelong Passion sounds like something that might have appeared at the back of Revolver, the album the Beatles did before Sgt. Peppers. Lifelong Passion has a beat and harmony that's mildly reminiscent of their Indian period. In fact, as I listened, I kept waiting for Harrison to chime in with his sitar. It also has a Beatley harmonica hidden in the background.

Sing The Changes is probably the most commercial of the tracks and is more Wingsy than Beatley, very uplifting, bouncy and optimistic.

Light From Your Lighthouse, sounds like one of those jokey Beatles songs that Harrison tended to go for. Very American gospel bluesy.

Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight sounds like it came straight off the White Album. In fact, I wish it had, because it would have been far better placed there than some of the stuff the Beatles were doing at that time. The song sounds like the playing and singing of a 20 year old. I hope I have that much energy when I'm 66. (Hmmm...When I'm 66...might make a good song title).

How on earth did McCartney go from the deadly Memory Almost Full to this? I think what's happened is, McCartney left to himself tends to polish things to perfection, and drains plasma from the music as he does it. Lennon is known to have been impatient in recording, so that McCartney had to finish a lot of the songs while Lennon egged him to move on. The balance came out right.

In Youth, McCartney seems to have found someone who won't let him rework something to death, so Youth is delivering the same sort of counter-balance McCartney got before, and that and the speed they're working at, and the willingness to take risk, *really* improves the music. Someone needs to give Youth a medal.

Summary: It's good! The best thing McCartney's done in a long time and worth a listen.