Beware the Ides of February: Cupid, Eros and St Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine's Day.  Happy Valentine's Day!

St Valentine in a spot of bother

St Valentine in a spot of bother

As an author of murder mysteries I feel I must point out that February 14 is Valentine's Day because it was on this day that the real St Valentine was beaten with clubs, stoned, and then had his head cut off. Not perhaps the most auspicious beginning for a day to celebrate love.

Oil Flask showing Eros as he plays the  aulos

Oil Flask showing Eros as he plays the aulos

However that was during the Roman period and I am an author of classical Greek mysteries.  There is a surprisingly strong connection between Greek mythology and our day of Love.  It comes via Cupid, the little fellow with the arrows, who we see on so many Valentine's Day cards.  

Cupid is the Latin name for the Greek god Eros.  Here he is, from a vase at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The wings for the little god of love were there right from the beginning.  It's not shown here, but the bow and arrow are original equipment too.  Some early pictures show the god blindfolded as he shoots his arrows, hence the meaning that love is blind, a common saying which is thousands of years old.

The earliest mention of Eros is, incredibly, from Theogeny, a book written by Hesiod in about 700BC.  It was the first ever attempt to describe the Greek Gods.  Eros gets a major mention.

Hesiod listed Eros among the very first of the gods, right at the start of Creation.

In the beginning there was Chaos.  From out of the chaos came Gaia, the Earth, the foundation of all things.  Then came dark Tartarus, the Underworld.  And then came Eros, the god of Desire, who is fairest of all the deathless ones.

So Eros, our god of falling in love, is one of the most primordial of all deities.  Zeus doesn't even appear for another two paragraphs. 

Eros then reappears a little later in Theogeny, emerging from the sea behind his mother Aphrodite.   Yes, I know that's a paradox.  Eros arose before the Olympian Gods, but Aphrodite is his Mum.  Welcome to Greek Mythology.

That, then, is the little deity who appears on our Valentine Day cards.  Oh, and he helped start the Trojan War.  But that's another story.


The catharsis of Delos

In classical times, it was illegal to die on the sacred isle of Delos.  It was also illegal to give birth there.

Delos was the birthplace of two gods: Apollo and Artemis.  That made the tiny island incredibly holy.

There had been a sacred sanctuary on Delos since Minoan times.  There had also been a village of priests and priestesses who served the temples.  The priestly village was on the coast right next to the sanctuary, which was natural enough.  That made it a short walk to work.

But then some time around 540BC, something interesting happened.  The Athenians, who supported Delos with gifts and supplies, took it into their heads to remove all the dead people from around the sanctuary.  Nobody knows exactly why they decided to do this, but it's too weird to have been anything other than an oracle received, either from Delphi or maybe from Delos itself.

Either way, the Athenians turned up at Delos en masse.  They dug up every body in the village cemetery and relocated the corpses to a new cemetery on the other side of the island.  (This must have been fun.)

Then they dismantled the village and relocated it to the other side of the island too.

This was a catharsis.   We use catharsis for plays and books, but the original meaning was ritual purification. 

From that moment on, it seems, it was illegal to die or be born on Delos.  Fortunately the much larger island of Mykonos was not far off, so if you felt one event or the other coming on, then you could be ferried off the island.  For emergencies there was an even smaller islet called Rhenia, so close by you could almost wade there. 

You're probably wondering what the penalty was for dying, and so am I.  Presumably things couldn't get much worse for you anyway.  Alas we'll never know.

But we're not done yet.  In 426BC, the Athenians decided their ancestors of a hundred years ago hadn't done a good enough job.  They returned to Delos, dug up the bodies from the new cemetery, and carried them off the island completely. 

At that point there was not a single corpse left on the island (except for the two Hyperborean women), and this odd game of move-the-bodies ended.  Delos remained ritually pure until after the death of Alexander, when people became less fussed about such things, and a thriving community moved in.

The Gods of P.I.E.

I've previously written about the Proto-Indo-European family of languages.  Pretty much all the European languages, plus Sanskrit in India, plus a lot of languages across the Middle East, are all descended from an incredibly ancient language, called Proto-Indo-European, usually shortened to PIE.  There are people who've reconstructed PIE by comparing all the descendant languages and looking to see what they have in common.

The first PIE speakers originated somewhere north of the Black Sea (probably), some time about 4,000 BC, and then spread all over Europe, the Middle East and India.  They carried their language with them, and everywhere they went, PIE supplanted whatever languages were already there.  There's something about Proto-Indo-European that makes it particularly well suited to human brains.

Greek is a PIE language.  The Linear B tablets of Minoan and Mycenaean civilization are extremely early, archaic Greek, thus making Greek the earliest known PIE language for which there's a decent written record.

The PIE speakers also carried their religion with them.  The religion has proven chancier to reconstruct because names and deity relationships have changed more easily than the language.  Even so, some common elements have been found that surely must spring from the original religion.

If you know Greek, Roman, Norse or early Indian gods and goddesses then you already know the basic structure.

Father Sky is the easy one.  Zeus pater in Greek, Deus pater in Latin, which contracts to Iu-pater = Jupiter, Dyaus pitar in Sanskrit, who appears in earlyVedas but is later supplanted.  If you're wondering how Zeus/Deus/Dyaus managed to turn into Odin in the Norse version, so is everyone else.  I wasn't kidding when I said the deity names changed more than any other part of the PIE language.  And in fact Father Sky is the name that's changed least.  The other gods and goddesses have to be reconstructed by their relationships or domains.

An Earth Mother.  Like father (pater), mother (mater) in various forms is also incredibly ancient.  No surprises there.  The Greek version is Demeter.

Sun God.  Usually drives the sun around on a chariot.  Which is interesting because chariots came late in PIE time.  There must have been an earlier system.

A God of Thunder.  Thor and friends.

The Divine Twins.  Castor and Pollux.  Gemini.  Closely associated with horses, especially in Greek and Roman vase paintings.  In Vedic religion they're the Ashvins, divine twin horsemen.  The PIE speakers definitely rode horses; equus, iquo, ippos, hippos and its variants are an original, very early PIE word.

And some standard themes common across the PIE speaking world.

The Tree of the World.   The world is held up by a giant cosmic tree.  (No, it's not turtles all the way down).  Sometimes the tree is threatened.

A Battle Against a Snake.  Amazingly common theme across the PIE regions.

An Underworld guarded by a dog.  Cerberus and friends.

Conspicuous by their absence are the other divine twins: Apollo and Artemis, also Poseidon, Hades, Persephone, Dionysos, Hecate and Aphrodite.  Which isn't to say they weren't very early, but there's nothing to suggest they arrived with the Proto-Indo-European speakers.  They were probably already in place.

The Fates, Moirae, Norns or whatever you want to call them are an interesting case because, although they're a common theme across a wide region, there's no obvious connection to the rest of the pantheon. It's almost like there was a second mythology spread by the same people.

There's obviously a lot of mixing and matching involved, with a lot of linguistic analysis and the assumption that coincidences don't happen.  The earliest known good documentation about this are the Vedas in  Sanskrit and the Theogeny, written by Hesiod at about the same time as Homer was writing the Iliad.  But the Vedas are a pure religious text and Hesiod, Europe's first non-fiction author was writing about 3,300 years after his ancestral PIE speakers exploded across three continents.


Sabazios sounds like a name that should belong to a composer of classical music, but he is in fact an ancient Phrygian god. The cult of Sabazios made it into Athens some time in the mid-400s BC.    Which we know for sure because by the end of the 400s Aristophanes had written a play (now lost) in which Sabazios is ejected from the city.

The odd thing is that although the Athenians were extremely tolerant of other religions, they disliked this particular cult.   The orator Demosthenes once attacked a political enemy by claiming he partook in rites to Sabazios.  The clear implication was that anyone who worshiped Sabazios was a disreputable crackpot.

Demosthenes also says the rites involved frenzied dancing while holding snakes and chanting, "Euoi saboi!  Euoi saboi!"

The -zios part of Sabazios is cognate with the Greek Zeus and the Latin Deus. Despite which, the Greeks associated Sabazios with Dionysos.  Herodotus refers to the Phrygians worshipping Dionysos in contexts where he clearly means Sabazios.

The most viable explanation is that in Phrygia, Sabazios was a god of the harvest and of barley in particular, thus probably with beer making.   Aristophanes in one of his comedies refers to "the sleep of Sabazios" to mean guardsmen who've drifted off after drinking.  While in Athens, Dionysos was the god of the harvest and of wine. 

There are problems with this though. Archaic images of what's believed to be Sabazios show him on horseback and carrying a staff, which isn't particularly agricultural.  Even well into Roman times, the rites of Sabazios continued to involve orgiastic dancing while holding live snakes. While this sounds like fun, the snakes are not even remotely agricultural.

Finally, every shrine to Sabazios had its own Hand. The Hand was always a sculpture, shown upright, in a pose of benediction that might look familiar to modern church goers. Here are some hands of Sabazios:


These are from the British Museum, Harvard, and the Walters Museum.  The Hand of Sabazios usually holds something, an acorn or a snake or sometimes even a small figure.

Bunnies, eggs and Easter

It seems to have become a tradition that every year at this chocolatey time I talk about what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The answer is, nothing at all!   The word Easter comes from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. It just so happens that the month we call April, the people who spoke Old English called Eostre's Month.

The first mention in history of the original Easter festival comes from no less than the Venerable Bede, a brilliant monk who lived in England in the 600s AD. Bede was a major player in the hot subject of his day: how to calculate when the death and rebirth of Jesus should be celebrated. He wrote a book about it called De Ratione Temporum which means On Calculating Time.

Bede's calculation landed the Christian event in Eostre's Month (April!). Bede commented in the same book, in an almost offhand way, that Eostre's Month traditionally saw the locals hold festivals in honour of the pagan goddess Eostre.

Bunnies are particularly good at doing the fertility thing, and eggs have the obvious meaning.  Bunnies and eggs therefore are the symbols of the German fertility goddess.  This all got mixed up with the Christian event and since no one in their right minds turns down chocolate, I don't think they'll be separating any time soon.

I went looking for a decent translation of Bede's original comment and the best I could find was from, who in turn got it from a translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54.
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.  

Happy Eostre / Ostara / Easter !