Modern Christmas is family-oriented and religiously solemn, while New Year’s is more festive and we tend to spend it with friends rather than relatives. But it has become so festive that we have largely forgotten how serious a matter New Year’s was when the holiday first evolved. Nevertheless, much of this important and meaningful ancient mythology underlying New Year’s is still reflected in our New Year’s customs.
Ancient cultures set their New Year based either directly on astronomical phenomena (e.g., solstices, equinoxes) or on the cycles of human agricultural activities (e.g., before sowing, after the harvest) which likewise relate to the cycle of the solar year. Both approaches thus had a cosmic basis, as does our own New Year, set right after the winter solstice when the sun has reversed its decline and is becoming noticeably brighter.
Most ancient cultures tied the New Year to the original creation of the cosmos and celebrated it as such. These creation mythologies portrayed the ordered cosmos as emerging from some form of primordial chaos. The coming around of the sun and the stars each year to the same position marked an ending and a new beginning in cosmic terms. In the most ancient thinking and mythology, what ended and began again on New Year’s was nothing less than the cosmos itself, the idea being that if the same cosmos were continuing in linear fashion there would be no such repetition. The New Year was not simply a memorial to the creation but actually was an annual renewal of the cosmos. This scheme implies that the end of each old year is characterized by chaos, which was undesirable, even evil. People looked back at the year just ending in terms of all the bad things that had built up during its course, which must and will be eliminated when the New Year arrives.
Conceiving of this transition from the old year to the new in terms of the cosmogony enabled ancient peoples to locate themselves, during the holiday transition period, outside of everyday, profane earthly time and space and instead in a holy realm. During this holiday, they were in touch with the gods in another, higher reality during the most important and sacred event that has ever happened. New Year’s was the prime example of what Mircea Eliade called “the myth of the eternal return.” Thus, the New Year’s rituals did not so much memorialize or reenact the creation as replicate or repeat it in the experience of the participants.
Since the chaos of the old year had to be eliminated to make way for the New Year, the archetypal New Year’s rituals entailed various forms of purifications and purgations of the environment, holy sites, communities of people, and individuals, including:
- Sweeping and cleaning temples and cleaning of cult statues of key deities.
- Use of fire to burn away evil and frighten away evil spirits.
- The use of incense or censers to produce smoke that purifies the air.
- Sacrifices of animals to purify places and expiate evil, and also placate deities who could remove evil and keep it away.
- Scapegoat rituals to carry away the evil that had settled on the community during the old year.
- Raising a din (especially rattling and banging noises) to scare away evil spirits and ghosts.
- Smearing doors and doorframes with particular substances, or hanging certain plants over them, kept evil spirits out.
- In the case of individuals, confession of sins, washing, and undergoing deprivations such as fasting.
This sacred period of transition was a liminal time, when there was greater access to deities and more ability to see into and affect the future, so this was a time for augury and divination. Evil spirits and ghosts were also active at this time, and they had to be placated and/or driven out to make way for a successful New Year. In Europe, this was often ritualized by holding fights or other contests between opposing teams representing good and evil, with good always winning. Finally, the idea that the time immediately preceding the New Year was one of chaos was reenacted in pre-New Year’s festivals and rituals of “dissolution,” in which the social, political, and even religious order was symbolically broken down or reversed, entailing not only drunkenness but in particular role reversals (masters serving slaves, a political or religious ruler temporarily losing his powers, etc.).
The above patterns can be seen in the New Year’s rituals and underlying in mythology of the ancient civilizations that preceded our medieval and modern world. Examples include:
Babylon. The Babylonians celebrated New Year’s near the spring equinox just before sowing, in the 11-day akitu (originally from the Sumerian meaning “barley sowing”) festival. The first few days were spent performing various purification and scapegoat rituals while the creator god, Marduk, was deemed to be incarcerated with criminals the underground realm of chaos, darkness, and death. Marduk was then liberated to fight and defeat the chaos monster Tiamat again, as in the Babylonian creation myth, after which he was restored to his throne and he decreed destinies for the New Year. The king also went through a humiliation and restoration ritual so that his reign was purified and renewed. The Babylonians considered that the cosmos really was being recreated during this sacred time, after which the sowing could begin.
Egypt. The Egyptians celebrated a religious, symbolic, and royal (as opposed to the civil) New Year at the end of the inundation of the Nile, when sowing of the fields could begin. This annual emergence of the land from the floodwaters was responsible for the Egyptian creation myth in which a primal mound emerged from the primordial waters of chaos; that day marked the creation, and so the end of the annual inundation and beginning of the sowing season (called prt, meaning “coming forth” in reference to the new sprouts of vegetation) became the religious New Year. In the days before New Year’s the Khoiak festival was held, in which Osiris was interred underground (likened to the planting of seeds), and then a djed pillar was raised symbolizing his resurrection and the growing forth of vegetation. This ritual ensured the well-being of Egypt during the coming year. New Year’s Day itself was a royal celebration called the Nehebkau feast, after the god whose magic had brought about this annual coming forth.
Israel. Israel’s Canaanite agricultural heritage produced a New Year’s festival after the autumn harvest called the Feast of the Ingathering where people built leafy booths in vineyards and celebrated there. When official, centralized Temple religion became dominant, this holiday was turned into the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) in Jerusalem; the booths now marked the Exodus and the Hebrews living in tents (booths) in the Wilderness. The festival featured various purification rituals over several days leading up to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), culminating in the famous scapegoat ritual called for by Leviticus 16. The New Year was associated with the original creation, so there seems to have been a liturgy associated with the creation myth in Genesis 1, ending with the enthronement of Yahweh after the creation was complete (Walton 2009).
Greece. New Year’s in Athens was a festive, political event during the first new moon after the summer solstice deemed to be the city’s birthday, and featured athletic competitions. But leading up to that day were several preparatory festivals over several weeks that served to purify the community. These included a scapegoat ritual (Thargelia), ritual cleansing of the city’s statue of Athena (Plynteria), a ritual for placating evil spirits and ghosts for the coming year (Arrephoria), and two festivals of dissolution (Skirophoria and Kronia).
Rome. Rome had a traditional New Year on March 1, and a newer, civil New Year on January 1. January, and hence the new year, was named after Janus, an ancient Italic (perhaps Sabine) god who was a god of transitions, seeing into the future and past, hence his portrayal as having two faces looking forward and behind, signifying also awareness. According to Ovid (Fasti 1:102-114), Janus was a primordial force and the substance of what would become the cosmos, originally in “just one heap,” but which self-evolved into the cosmos and also into the god Janus himself, much as the Egyptian god Atum had done. Janus presided over New Year’s as well as other events of transition (marriage, births and deaths, journeys, exchanges, etc.), and was also a god of omens and auspices and served to ward off evil. His name meant “door,” and indeed he guarded the doors to heaven. The more traditional March 1 New Year transpired much like that in Greece, with a series of preparatory purification festivals over the preceding month, named February after items (called februa) used in these purification rituals. These festivals included the placation of the ghosts of ancestors (Parentalia), sacrifices and other rituals to chase away evil spirits (Lupercalia and Feralia), and cleansing of the community (Regifugium). New Year’s itself was a festival in honor of Mars, after whom March is named, featuring tending the Vestal fire, the hanging of laurels, a militaristic dance of priests, a procession through the city, and finally an elaborate banquet; rituals were also held in honor of Juno at her temple focusing on her role as goddess of childbirth, representing new life (the Matronalia).
Many of our own modern New Year’s festive traditions come from these more serious ancient rituals based on ancient mythology, including the following:
- Our general notion of the New Year as a new beginning is ultimately grounded in ancient creation myths.
- Our tradition of excessive drinking on New Year’s Eve reflects the ancient tradition of ritualizing a period of dissolution (chaos) at the end of the old year. While the festivities may continue on New Year’s Day, the idea is then different: It is no longer dissolution but a true welcoming and celebration of the successful beginning of the New Year.
- Our traditions of blowing horns and other noisemakers on New Year’s Eve and ringing bells at midnight to welcome the New Year come from the ancient ritual of raising a din to scare away evil spirits and ghosts.
- Our tradition of New Year’s resolutions comes from the ancient notion that New Year’s is a liminal time for augury and divination, which also makes it more possible to determine one’s future.
- Our New Year’s tradition of football games comes from the old practice of staging contests between teams representing good and evil, in order to drive away evil for the New Year.
- Our tradition of New Year’s babies has roots in ancient festivals such as the Roman Matronalia. Here Father Time representing the dying old year is succeeded by new life.
Happy New Year!
Sources Cited and Bibliography:
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. John Raffan, trans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (1985).
Cohen, Mark. The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press (1993).
Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1991).
Harrison, Jane. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed. (1922). Repr., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Lambert, W.G. “The Great Battle of the Mesopotamian Religious Year – The Conflict in the Akitu House (A Summary),” Iraq 25:189-90 (1963).
Parker, Richard. The Calendars of Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1950).
Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press (1981).
Shorter, Alan. “The God Nehebkau,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21:41-48 (1935).
Spalinger, Anthony. Three Studies on Egyptian Feasts and their Chronological Implications. Baltimore: Halgo (1992).
Walton, John. The Lost World of Genesis One. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press (2009).
Wensinck, Arent. “The Semitic New Year and the Origin of Eschatology,” Acta Orientalia 1:158-99 (1922).
© Arthur George 2015