Sunday, 16 December 2018

Advent 3 : Arriving Late To The Party

I said in the previous Advent articles that the early Christians didn’t observe the birth of Christ with parties or celebrations for several hundreds years, only with prayer and worship, but the phrase used as today’s title could easily be applied to one of the alleged pagan origins of Christmas, as it was a festival that was actually created after Christmas.

In the 18th century scholars began learning more about an ancient Roman festival to the sun god Sol Invictus from rediscovered documents and archaeology. Because the festival was celebrated on December 25th and that Sol Invictus was a monotheistic (one god) cult like Christianity those scholars assumed this was the origin of Christmas. They didn’t look for evidence. It wasn’t until later that January 6th date was rediscovered as the original date for Christmas.

The Sol Invictus festival was a rebooted celebration of a previously minor cult. When Aurelius became Emperor of Rome in 270 Christianity was becoming more than a minor cult. It was developing into an empire-wide network, and even though Christians were still being persecuted Roman citizens were turning away from their traditional gods to join them.

Bearing in mind that emperors were often declared gods themselves you can understand why Aurelius was a little worried. In order to stop his empire falling victim to Christianity Aurelius invented that monotheistic cult of Sol Invicitus. He chose the festival of Sol Invictus on 25th December 274 to declare that his new god was the only god. It was also his intention to begin a mass persecution of Christians but he was assassinated the following year before he could start. So, the alleged origin of Christmas in the monotheistic Sol Invictus festival on December 25th is wrong. Christmas was already in existence. It “arrived late to the party”, you could say.
A coin of the Emperor Aurelius: heads - Aurelius himself; tails – Sol Invictus.
Aurelius’s Sol Invictus cult was influenced by something other than opposition to Christianity. He was a follower of an earlier minor Sol Invictus cult. He simply reused the name for his “rebooted” version. The full name of that earlier god was Sol Invictus Elagabal.

“Elagabal” is one of the variant names adopted by the Roman Emperor Elegabalus (c.203-222). In “The MeteoriteThat Became a God” I wrote about how this teenager was the hereditary High Priest who worshipped a large stone that fell from the sky as a gift from the Sun god El-Gabal. The fate of the meteorite and the gay escapades of Elegabalus are given in that article. He merged the cult of El-Gabal with that of the Roman sun god Sol Invictus to create a new supreme cult, one more important than any other in Rome. But it wasn’t a monotheistic cult like that later cult created by Aurelius.

After Elagabalus was assassinated less than 4 years later the cult of Sol Invictus Elagabal waned and its followers returned to the old gods. This is the background to Aurelius’s monotheistic re-booted Sol Invictus cult in which all of the old gods were officially abolished. Just like Elagabalus’s version Aurelius’s didn’t last long after his death in 275.

The monotheistic cult suddenly returned when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the only religion of the Roman Empire in 324, though he permitted citizens to continue to worship their own faiths. Constantine brought back Sol Invictus as a Christian symbol. It was Constantine who decided to choose one date for Christmas that would replace several being observed by various Christian groups. As I’ve said before, the reason was not to celebrate with big parties and drunkenness but with a day of prayer.

To sum up what we’ve learnt over these past three Advent Sundays:

Before the year 200 the Egyptian gay-sex advocates, the Gnostics, chose January 6th as the birthday of Christ (with prayer, not parties). The European Christians centred on Rome didn’t celebrate birthdays which were seen as pagan.

It wasn’t until too many non-Gnostic Christians began observing January 6th (still no partying) that the European church tried to persuade people away from the Gnostic date with their own. They adopted a date which placed Christ’s conception on the Roman New Year, March 25th, and his birth on December 25th (and still, prayer not party).

Emperor Aurelius, worried about the growing number of Christians in his empire, created a monotheistic cult in 274 based on the Sol Invictus Elegabal cult established by the gay boy-Emperor Elagabalus.

In the 4th century Emperor Constantine made Christianity the empire’s main religion and co-ordinated the churches to get them to decide, among other things, on one date for the birth of Christ. They favoured December 25th but also acknowledged the Gnostic January 6th, popular in eastern churches, and created 12 dedicated days of prayer – the 12 Days of Christmas.

Partying began to creep into Christmas during the early Middle Ages as societies dropped their old traditional pagan winter celebrations. These were turned into celebrations of Epiphany on January 6th. Some elements, like the topsy-turvy role-playing of many pagan festivals like Saturnalia, remained popular.

Centuries later, in 1038, it was finally given the name Christmas after it was considered important enough to have a special Catholic Mass created for it (it’s previous name was just “Day of the Birth of Christ”).

Today people have difficulty separating Christmas from parties, over-indulgence, Santa Calus and shopping. None of these are part of the Christian observance though they are an integral part of our 21st century Christmas.

So far all of these events that have created our 21st century Christmas have been influenced by religious leaders, popular culture and historians. On the last Advent Sunday next week we’ll look at the first scientific attempts to establish the date of the first Christmas and the gay men who made them.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Out of Our Neanderthal Trees

Original Neanderthal skull. Photo Don Hitchcock,
Family history research has come a long way since I began looking into my own ancestry in 1978. In those days the only resources accessible were parish registers in records offices or microfilm copies in large libraries. Today there’s the internet and many records are reproduced online. Family history research has never been so easy - or so easy to get wrong. Too many inexperienced researchers rely on false information that other inexperienced researchers assume to be correct rather than look for themselves.

One innovation of the 20th century is becoming increasingly popular – DNA testing. People can now discover where their ancestors were living before there were written records. DNA has also helped to identify new species of prehistoric human, or hominid. Before DNA the most well-known ancient hominid was Neanderthal Man, and in recent years Neanderthal DNA has been found in us. This has led to the obvious conclusion that our early ancestors interbred with Neanderthals.

While it’s something that is still being researched we should give a nod to the openly bisexual Swedish scientist who was the first to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome. His name is Dr. Svante Pääbo (b.1955).

In his book “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes” Svante chronicles the long search for Neanderthal DNA. He includes events in his personal life that occurred along the way, making it a sort of autobiography. A handful of references mention his sexuality and falling for the wife of a colleague and eventually marrying her.

Whether genetics influences a person’s choice of career in doubtful, but Svante has the right scientific family background to become a geneticist. His father was Sune Bergstrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1982. His mother was Karin Pääbo, an Estonian chemist.

Svante studied medicine and biochemistry at Uppsala University, helping research into human DNA and the immune system and the effects of diseases, not unlike the HIV research being carried out by Dr. Devin Sok. But it wasn’t medicine and biochemistry that took Svante to Uppsala. It was archaeology. It was after two summers of unexciting excavation work that he decided on a change of subject. Inspired by his father he turned to medicine.

With the intention of becoming a medical practitioner Svante joined the lab of a professor who had been leading the way in cloning DNA of molecules in immune cells. His doctoral theses was on the subject. Yet throughout his work Svante retained his life-long interest in archaeology, particularly Ancient Egypt, and one thought struck him – could DNA survive in ancient Egyptian mummies?

Spurred on by this thought Svante rummaged through libraries and academic journals to find out if anyone had found ancient DNA. They hadn’t. So, like a red rag to a bull, Svante set off on a hunt for an Egyptian mummy. He obtained several pieces at a museum in Communist East Berlin and took them back to Uppsala.

With some excitement Svante discovered enough DNA to offer science the possibility of reproducing a whole ancient Egyptian genome in the future. He published his results in 1985. By being the first to publish research into pre-modern DNA Dr. Svante Pääbo had “invented” the science of palaeogenetics.

In 1990, with his own lab and professorial position in Munich, Svante embarked on the search for even older human DNA. By this time other scientists had joined the hunt. Some even went further and looked for DNA in prehistoric insects trapped in amber millions of years ago. If you’re a fan of “Jurassic Park” thank Svante Pääbo for kickstarting the whole dinosaur DNA thing (not that he approves of the idea himself).

In 1991 Svante “met” someone I wrote about several years ago, Ötzi the Iceman. Unsure of how old Ötzi was – did he die 100 yeas ago of 1,000? – Svante’s lab was asked to sample the Iceman’s DNA. They discovered that Ötzi’s DNA confirmed suspicions based on the object found with his body that he lived over 5,000 years ago.

Finding Neanderthal DNA was the next step. The first Neanderthal bones were discovered in 1856. They belonged a new Homo species and evolved from a common ancestor to us – Homo sapiens sapiens – about half a million years ago. The Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago. Svante was actually allowed to test a sample from one of those first Neanderthal bones, such was his reputation in this field of work. Headlines appeared around the world when the news was released in 1997 that DNA had been successfully extracted from a Neanderthal bone.

Nine years later Svante was ready to replicate the genome of a Neanderthal. I followed the story at the time, palaeontology being one of my other interests, so I was very pleased to find in my files the article (below) which proclaimed that Svante had successfully reproduced a Neanderthal genome in 2009.

What took Svante and geneticists by surprise was that 2% on European and Asian DNA contains Neanderthal-specific genes. In Svante’s words “Neanderthals were not totally extinct”.

But Svante’s work hasn’t stopped there. His team were asked to test a finger bone that had been discovered in the Denisova Cave in Siberia. It turned out to be a previously unknown Homo species that was named Homo denisova. It showed that three human species – sapiens (us), Neanderthals and Denisovans – co-existed in Siberia 30,000 years ago. Further research found that Denisovan DNA survives in 5% of human DNA in people in the area between Burma and northern Australia.

Svante Pääbo’s pioneering palaeogenetic research has led to a new understanding of human origins. It now seems that some early humans who migrated out of Africa interbred with Neanderthals of eastern Europe, and with Denisovans in central Asia, passing parts of their DNA down to you, me and almost everybody with European-South Asian ancestry.

One intriguing future direction for palaeogenetics is research for a cure for HIV. The Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in humans carries left-overs genes from ancient viral infections. About 90% of all DNA, even ours, is “junk” – it isn’t used to produce anything, it just sits there in the genome waiting to be passed on to the next generation.

Those ancient viral remains are part of this “junk”, However, they belong to the same virus family as cancer and HIV. Very occasionally several pieces of junk-virus combine to produce cells which in turn produce cancer cells. Some HIV patients have a higher risk of developing cancer, for reasons that was not fully understood. Perhaps the answer is in their genes. Perhaps a way of totally deactivating the junk-virus DNA will lead to a treatment to slow down the development of cancer.

So we have come full circle. Svante Pääbo began his scientific career researching into viruses and their effects on the human immune system, and because of his pioneering palaeogenetic research scientists can now look at ancient Neanderthal DNA to discover a treatment for HIV and cancer patients.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Advent 2 : A Topsy-Turvy Bean Feast

Last Sunday we looked at how a 2nd century Christian sect called the Gnostics encouraged same sex activity as a means of saving the world and were the first to choose a date to observe the birth of Christ on January 6th. The date spread, but it wasn’t a time to party. It was a religious observance and a time of prayer.

In the 3rd century a man called Sextus Julius Africanus wrote down what I think is the best theory of why December 25th was chosen as Christmas. The Roman Christians didn’t approve of the Gnostics or their beliefs and tried to discourage people from using their date to observe Christ’s birth, so they came up with their own preferred date. They placed the conception of Christ (a feast now called The Annunciation) on Roman New Year’s Day – March 25th. That put his birth 9 months later on December 25th. Even when they’d done that, there was still no partying.

However, people had got used to the Gnostic date and found it hard to change. The solution the Roman Church arrived at was to use January 6th as the last day of the religious observance of Christmas, specifically to commemorate the arrival of the “Three Kings” at the Nativity. The Gnostic name of Epiphany was retained, but it also gained the popular name of Twelfth Night. That’s how we got the 12 Days of Christmas.

Among most communities across the whole of the Christian world at this time there were folk traditions of celebrating winter, hang-overs from pre-Christian times which the Church didn’t officially approve of. During the 12 Days of Christmas the Church preferred people observed the religious aspect and leave the celebrations and partying until January 6th. Most of our Christmas celebrations originate from Twelfth Night parties, including the Christmas cake. By the Middle Ages partying was common throughout the whole Christmas season, even though the Church preferred otherwise.

In the Middle Ages scholars began linking Christian religious observances with those ancient festivals based purely on dates, not continuity. The most common belief was that Christmas was based on the Roman festival of Saturnalia held from December 6th to 21st. Because they were scholars, people believed them, even the Catholic Church. A lot of people still do. But as we have seen Christmas didn’t originate in December, so couldn’t be based on Saturnalia. However, some of the party aspects of Saturnalia were common to most winter festivals across Europe, and were introduced the celebrations in the Middle Ages (centuries after festivals such as Saturnalia had been forgotten). One aspect was the idea of gender and role swapping. That idea still survives in the traditional British pantomime (more of that in ten days time).

To illustrate and another topsy-turvy Christmas tradition I’ll bring in the gay King Edward II of England (1284-1327). He loved Christmas, and we know exactly what he was doing every Christmas of his 20-year reign because they’re all recorded in court documents. He and his court spent at least part of the Christmas season here in Nottinghamshire at least five times. His Christmas routine in Nottingham probably the same as any other year in any other place. He would gamble on Christmas Eve (probably dice), go to church on Christmas Day, and go hunting on December 26th (in Sherwood Forest).
A Medieval Feast
One topsy-turvy Christmas customs began in the Middle Ages in France in which bishops chose a boy chorister to become Boy Bishop for part, or all, of the Christmas period. This boy would perform services and preach sermons and be treated exactly like his adult counterpart. He would be paraded around the diocese and receive gifts from landowners. Even the king had to treat the boy as a proper bishop and give him a gift.

In 1315 and 1316 King Edward, his queen Isabella and the entire court spent Christmas at the royal palace at Clipstone, just over 19 miles due north of Nottingham. On the second occasion it is recorded that Edward gave a gift of money to the Boy Bishop of his chapel there, a boy called John, son of Alan de Scrooby. This was on December 6th, the traditional date on which Boy Bishops were chosen. By December 28th King Edward was at Nottingham Castle where he gave another gift to the Boy Bishop of St. Mary’s Church, the main parish church in Nottingham.

Also in 1316 Edward gave gifts to another topsy-turvy character called the King of the Bean. It’s customary in the UK to put a coin in the Christmas pudding (if you’re baking it yourself and not buying one from a supermarket). The person who finds the coin when eating the pudding is considered lucky. Originally the coin was a bean. At large Medieval communal festivities, and small family ones, the person who found the bean in his pudding was treated like a king for the day – the King of the Bean. This was a traditional event for Twelfth Night, January 6th. Some of us “up north” in the UK still call a big party a “bean feast”.

At King Edward’s celebrations on 6th January 1317, ten days after meeting the Boy Bishop of St Mary’s, one of his courtiers, William de la Beche, became King of the Bean. This meant he was allowed to take on King Edward’s role as leader of the festivities. Edward gave him a gift of a silver-gilt basin. The following year, at the Twelfth Night party in Beverley, Yorkshire, King Edward gave gifts to a young squire who became King of the Bean.

During the 19th century these age-old celebrations of Twelfth Night moved to Christmas Day itself, probably because in 1834 the British parliament created Christmas Day a public holiday, which meant that for the first time in history people didn’t have to go to work that day.

These topsy-turvy celebrations which originate in European-wide winter festivals, including Saturnalia, weren’t the only non-Christian festivals that have been suggested as the “true” origins of Christmas. As we shall see next Sunday there’s one alleged origin which didn’t even exist when the Gnostic Christians began observing Christmas Day. In fact, in a topsy-turvy kind of way, it was created because Christmas had already become too popular.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays: Part 34) Burning Desires

Previously on “Another 80 Gays” : 70) Count Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764) was involved in a love triangle with 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762) and 72) John Hervey, Lord Hervey (1696-1743), who was satirised as a Roman emperor’s boy husband called 73) Sporus (c.49-69).

When Alexander Pope satirised 72) John, Lord Hervey, in “An Epistle from Mr Pope to Dr. Arbuthnot” in 1735 he chose to identify him as 73) Sporus very deliberately because of Hervey’s openly effeminate, flamboyant, bisexual “macaroni” behaviour which made him an obvious target. In his turn Lord Hervey wrote insulting comments about Alexander Pope, mocking his physical deformities and his non-aristocratic background.

One of the reasons for the antagonism between the two is that Pope was jealous of Lord Hervey’s friendship with 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu. In one of his letters Pope referred to Hervey and Lady Mary as “Lord Fanny” and “Sappho”.

Lord Hervey’s political career brought him into direct contact with the king and the royal family. Several modern government ministers are still hold of offices in the Royal Household. Lord Hervey was appointed Vice Chamberlain to King George II, a government appointment made by the Prime Minister. Hervey’s job was to report directly to the King on proceedings in the House of Commons every day. The current Vice Chamberlain is Andrew Stevenson, and openly gay Conservative MP, and his responsibilities are much the same. In 1740 Lord Hervey was “upgraded” to Lord Privy Seal, one of the highest offices of state in England, again a political government appointment, as it still is.

So, who was 73) Sporus? We don’t know much. What we do know comes from the last two years of his short life. He is said to have been about 20 years old when he died. Even his name isn’t his real one, but a nickname given to him by the man who married him, 74) Emperor Nero (37-68). Sporus is a name derived from the Greek word for “sowing a seed”, the inference of sex being deliberate.

Sporus may have been a freed slave. Whether Nero was his master isn’t known but Sporus certainly came to the emperor’s attention after the death of his wife Poppea.

Imperial politics was very complicated in Roman times. There was no properly defined laws on succession and many emperors died at the hands of their successors. One tactic was to marry into, or be adopted by, the reigning imperial family. That’s how Nero himself became emperor.

Although descended from several previous emperors himself Nero gained the throne through the machinations of his mother Agrippina, niece of Emperor Claudius. To ensure her son’s succession she married her uncle and, in due course, Nero became his successor.

Nero had several wives – and husbands. First was his step-sister, Claudius’s daughter. After executing her over false adultery charges Nero married his mistress Poppea in 62. In 64, the year of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero married Pythagoras (not the famous Greek mathematician), so now he had a wife and husband (Nero is known to have taken the passive role with Pythagoras). The following year Poppea died. It is usually said that Nero kicked her to death when she was pregnant, but historians now think she died in childbirth. Whatever the reason, Nero was devastated by her death. But with Sporus she could be with him forever.

Nero married Sporus in 65 because of his resemblance to Poppea. To give Sporus an unusually high profile in public life Nero had the boy castrated and demanded all citizens treat him as his empress. He was dressed in the empress’s royal regalia at public events. As for Pythagoras, non-one knows what happened to him. But Nero married yet again. In 66 he married Statilia Messalina, who wisely kept a low profile and outlived both Nero and Sporus.

Sporus seems to have actually loved Nero, even though there was a 12-year age gap. He was one of the few people who remained loyal to the emperor right up to Nero’s death in 68.

The Senate and the army eventually rebelled against Nero and he committed suicide. Sporus, however, was spared and treated as an imperial “wife” by two other Romans vying for the throne. However, when Vitellus became emperor in 69 Sporus was planned as the victim in a gladiatorial show. Thankfully, Sporus chose suicide was a less painful death.
Let’s go back to Nero and the Great Fire of Rome. In an earlier article on Nero I mentioned that he was in Antium when the fire took place. This is one of several locations where ancient writers place Nero at the time. One writer puts him in the Gardens of Maecenas. These were part of a villa on the Esquiline Hill in eastern Rome which came into the possession of the emperors after the death of the villa’s builder, a Roman statesman called 75) Gaius Maecenas (68 BC-8 BC).

Over the centuries Maecenas’s name has become a byword for a generous patron of the arts. He came from a wealthy, influential family and a glittering political career could have been his for the asking. Instead, he refused all invitations to become a Senator and spent his life and wealth in promoting the arts. He also built his villa which included the first heated swimming pool in Rome. It also had places where plays and songs were performed in a sort of theatre. It was from a temporary platform or stage that Nero is said to have watched Rome burn, dressed in his theatrical costume and singing of the destruction of Troy.

Maecenas was primarily a patron of the performing arts rather than the visual arts. He loved all types of performance, and he loved a pantomime performer called 76) Bathyllus (c.60 BC-pre 2 BC).

Next time : From Rome to Britain – the pantomime tradition gets an Oscar nomination.