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Halloween: every Fall it Rises!

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The anniversary of Antinous’s death (October 30, 130 AD) seems remarkable in its proximity to Halloween, and I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that even today we are still dealing with the fallout from a war between sex and religion started long, long ago.

Part Three: the Fall and rise — of sex

(Readers who are interested may click here for Part One and here for Part Two of this series.)

Sex and prayer…..

At first blush, these two things would not seem to have much in common. But in the identity politics-driven world of modern America, sex and prayer have a very important thing in common.

They are political.

Politicization of sex is not new, of course. (More links.) Neither is politicization of prayer — although I hate to see it becoming a new form of “conservative” identity politics.

Halloween is being similarly politicized, and the way things are going, I would not be surprised to see all official references to it eliminated.

This whole late October/early November season is ridden with pagan as well as Christian overtones:

October 31 – Goddess month of Samhain begins
– Samhain or Halloween or All Hallows Eve – commemorates the onset of a darker, introspective time of year when the veil between the otherworlds is thin and access to these other worlds is easier
November 1 – Cross-quarter day, the first day of winter in the natural year
– Festival of the Dead – Samhaim, light fires in memory of the dead and to commune with the underworld, building hope for the future
– All saints Day, a day to honor dead saints
2- All Souls Day, a day to honor all departed spirits
3- Day of St. Malachy – an Irish prophet of medieval times
– In the Celtic tradition, start new enterprises this day for success. Day to bring cattle down from the highlands for winter
5- Guy Fawkes Night, burn effigies of evil spirits and bad memories to allow the new year to unfold into happier days

By any standard, there are enough religious references present above to offend most fundamentalist Christians, most Muslims, many atheists, and even pagans. In fact, some pagans are upset about certain forms of Halloween celebration deemed degrading to Wiccans.

How did Halloween, originating as it did with the pagan celebration of Samhain, ever become standard fare in Christian countries? The general consensus is that Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to coopt local customs and holidays by folding them into the Catholic Church.

Ditto for the later cooptation of Aztec traditions into the Day of the Dead.

This continued an earlier Roman tradition of melding holidays of conquered peoples into the Roman pantheon (the Church coopted cooptation itself, from the experts):

By 43 A.D., Roman armies had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. During the course of the following 400 years that Rome ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first of these was known as Feralia, a day in late October when Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second Roman festival to be incorporated into the Celtic Samhain festivities was one which honored Pomona, Roman Goddess of Fruit and Trees.

And I guess that takes me back to Antinous, and the age-old struggle between religion and sex.

The cult of Antinous was extremely problematic for the early church, because not only did if offer life after death, and resurrection through the spirit of a idealized young man, but the sexually attractive nature of Antinous presented problems not easy to coopt, and which would not go away.

Some readers may find this as unbelievable as I did, but there was a serious attempt to transform the stubbornly resilient Antinous into a Christian icon! This Fourth Century statue (scroll down a bit) depicts Antinous holding a Christian cross. Not only that, but the city built to honor Emperor Hadrian’s lover, Antinoopolis, became a major center for Christian monastic life, and remained so right up until the Muslim conquest.

And as I discussed previously, Antinous persisted as a major influence on Western art and culture, helping to define male beauty through the centuries, and even influencing Christian iconography to this day:

Antinous also had an effect on the shaping of early Christianity. The early church fathers, deeply disturbed by the resemblance of the dying savior god Antinous to the dying savior god Jesus, went to great pains to create some significant distance between them. Thus, Antinous influenced not only early church writings, but perhaps also the iconography of Jesus himself. (195) There is also some evidence that devotees of Antinous were among the last pagan holdouts as Rome converted to Christianity.

Cultural icons like this are tough to stamp out by any standard, even by determined church authorities. Even I was touched to read about how the statues were considered too beautiful to be destroyed, and were carefully preserved in the Vatican. (Hell, I even saw one at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville! Sadly, I must refuse to say exactly where it is located, or provide any link to the hotel, lest some misguided Christians show up and demand the statue’s removal. Such dangerous beauty is best left undisturbed and unsuspected….)

I have cooked up a crazy theory of my own, and most of the time when this happens, I find one scholar or another has beaten me to it. But this time, nothing. At least, nothing on the Internet. (Pssst! Someone want a Ph.D. thesis?)

In a previous post, I blogged about the cult of Sebastian, noting its homo-erotic aspects, and the controversy over the centuries:

Let’s move from Falwell’s sissy concerns to Saint Sebastian, a favorite theme in Renaissance art. There must have been hundreds if not thousands of versions of that particular martyrdom.

Here are some typical examples.

For more Sebastian iconography and its interpretation over the years, see this. Much has been made of the choice of Sebastian (favorite of the Emperor Diocletian) as a homo-erotic theme by furtively closeted Renaissance artists.

This, I think, is more of a commentary on Renaissance or even modern culture than Roman culture, as once again the Romans did not think in such terms. But then, religious themes have always been used as a “cover” for various works of art which might otherwise have generated controversy. (Cf. Bosch, Bruegel, et al.)

In the film “Carrie,” Saint Sebastian was featured as a statue in Sissy Spacek’s prayer closet. Carrie’s fiercely fundamentalist mom ended up pinioned by knives in almost exactly the same position, echoing a theme of Saint Sebastian as a sort of protest saint (if such things are possible). Protest saint or not, I see little evidence that Protestants ever cared much for Sebastian; I would not be surprised if Sebastian played a part in the development of Calvinist austerity.

Wow.

I really ought to do more research, because the above turns out to be more than my own speculation.

Seriously, I just learned that indeed, the Calvinists didn’t much care for Sebastian. When they found Saint Sebastian’s shrine, they trashed his bones, throwing them into a watery ditch! Similar fates were meted out to Rasputin by the Commies, and to Buddhist statues by the Taliban.

I didn’t stop to think about it at the time, but right now, the similarities between Sebastian and Antinous are more than striking. Why, Antinous could have been a model for Sebastian.

Now, let’s put ourselves in the place of an early Church leader. Applying Pope Gregory’s principle of cooptation, you discover a stubborn cult, and at first you attempt to coopt it by placing the Christian cross in the old god’s hand. Fine as far as it goes, but what about the presence of these statues everywhere, and the ineradicable historical evidence that the god was not only very handsome, but, apparently, celebrated homosexual practices?

Might the best solution lie in recognizing the pragmatic reality that there is a human ecological niche to be filled? That a sizable segment of the population wants to worship a beautiful young man? And, because for obvious reasons this cannot be the chief deity, nor the young pagan of uncontrolled sexuality, why not create a new one?

In every respect, Sebastian filled the bill perfectly. Consider the evidence:

  • Sebastian appeared on the scene at precisely the same time that problems with the Antinous cult were at their peak
  • he was said to be a “favorite” (not so subtle hint right there….) of the Emperor Diocletian, the last great persecutor of Christians
  • unlike Antinous, he defied the Emperor and died as a Christian martyr, so by definition he cannot be homosexual, because homos aren’t allowed in heaven, right?
  • his iconography built upon and helped immortalize the new male beauty ushered in with Antinous
  • he was not a god, but the next best thing, a Saint
  • Sebastian, while officially sexless, is penetrated by arrows fired into him by his former buddies (What would Freud say?)
  • If you ask me, this has all the hallmarks of a good psy op. I think it worked, for a time. The militant Calvinists saw through it, though. In their narrow minds, religion was supposed to be the implacable enemy of sex, and Sebastian (along with much of Renaissance art) was an impermissible compromise with dark forces of a sexually suggestive nature.

    The stubborn beauty of Antinous remains. So does the war between religion and sex, religion and pleasure.

    A war which, I hasten to add, should never have been fought, and which must be ended. War against sex is a war against human nature — even and especially when it claims to be fighting to uphold the very “nature” with which it is at war.

    That which was perfectly natural to the ancients was called unnatural, and those who were at war with nature declared their enemies to be at war with nature. Once natural interests were transformed into unnatural interests, the resultant madness lent itself perfectly to a reign of truly unnatural interests — a malignant inquisition into private sexual matters now being called “natural.” With lots of trouble since.

    (OK, so here come my slogans…..)

    End the war of Religion versus Sex!

    Restore Classical Values!

    HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

    NOTE: The above post can also be read at my blog.

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    About Eric Scheie

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