The Xmas Story Part 2

This is from "Heathen Holidays" by Denise Snodgrass - part2

The Zagmuk

To the Mesopotamians, New Year's was a time of CRISIS. They believed their chief god Marduk had created the world and man, but to create the world he had to fight the monsters of chaos. He had built out of a "world without form and void" an orderly world, and had created man. But the order remained an uneasy one: it ran down, so to speak, during the year; toward its close, after the crops had been harvested. The empty brown of the fields told that life was dying. So then Marduk again had to do battle with the monsters of chaos, so that death might not become complete. And thus he renewed the world every year. It was a grim battle, fought in the regions below, and every time Marduk almost lost his struggle.

It was the duty of man, in his puny way, to help as well as he could; and much of the festival of the New Year constituted his lowly support of his god. His leader and commander was the king, who held his power and his title by the grace of the god.

As the Mesopotamians saws it, in the struggle of the New Year man faced a threefold problem: to purify himself of the evils which his sins of the past year had brought upon him; to renew the strength which the year had drained away; and, if possible, to find a substitute who could take the consequences of the sins which he had committed.

The first and last problems were solved by the notion of a "scapegoat."

The "scapegoat" in this case was a substitute for the king.

Let us see what happened to the Babylonian king in this crisis when the world was dying. The New Year's festival lasted twelve days, as our Christmas season is supposed to do; in it the king repaired to Marduk's temple, to the court of the gods. The chief priest stripped from him his insignia of rank, and thus disposed of his power, he knelt before Marduk's image and swore that he had done nothing against the god's will. The chief priest, speaking for Marduk, said comforting words; and in the name of the god he re-invested the king, in token that the kingdom was restored to him by the grace of the god.

A very important part of the festival lay in the story of the Creation--how Marduk had created the world and its order. The drama of the Creation epic was re-enacted. In theory, the king must die at the end of the year, for he should then accompany Marduk into the underworld and battle at his side, while a new king took his place on earth. But here enters the idea of a substitute or "mock" king, which saved the life of the real king. A criminal, real or fancied, was dressed in royal garb. He was given all the homage and indulgence which is the king's right, while the people about him held celebration. Soon his mock reign was over; he was stripped of his kingly trappings and slain in the place of the real king.

At last, as the festival went on, came the moment when Marduk began to prevail. The people, who had been supporting and encouraging him in the battle, turned to rejoicing. They drew wagons down the great avenue. They launched regattas on the Euphrates, and the custom of exchanging visits and gifts took place.

This was the ancient Babylonian "Zagmuk" festival. Another festival, which both Persians and Babylonians celebrated, was called the "Sacaea."

All peoples learned from this tremendous land of Mesopotamia, which is called the Mother of Civilization. Everything happening there was in the course of time imitated by its neighbors--imitated, yet never copied exactly. Thus it traveled westward--through Greece to Rome. But it also took another road which led from Asia Minor through the Balkans, up the Danube Valley into the heart of Europe. So the idea of this festival, originating in Babylon, reached the Roman Empire through Greece and penetrated the Northland through at least two different routes; Rome and the Danube.

In Greece there was an old god, Kronos. He is, by the way, Father Time. His festival was the old "sacaea" gone westward. In ancient Babylonia it was Marduk who conquered the monsters that lived before our world was created; in Greece it was Zeus who fought and overcame Kronos and his Titans. The figures in the drama changed, the incidents also; but the plot remained.

The Romans believed in an ancient god of seed-time, Saturn, who had ruled their country ages before their own day, before he was overthrown by Jupiter. Whenever the Romans thought that one of their gods resembled a Greek god, they concluded that the two were the same. The Romans then took over the forms of worship which the Greeks already had observed. So Kronos came to Rome; the "Sacaea" entered into the "Saturnalia."


Let us try to visualize the Roman Empire before Christianity became its official religion. The city was wholly given over to idolatry. The first day of the Saturnalia began on December 17 and continued through the Kalends of January, beginning on January 1. The Kalends of January ushered in the new year. together they converted the closing and opening of the year into one continuous and uproarious carnival.

The approach of the feast was hailed by Romans in the Empire with wild joy, and began when a pontiff standing in front of Saturn's temple exclaimed, "Ho Saturnalia! Ho Saturnalia!" Sandwiched in between the Saturnalia and the Kalends of January was December 25, the day, as the Romans calculated, when the sun was at its lowest ebb, ready to increase again and impart its strength to the growing things of the earth.

-to be continued-

Return to Xmas Menu