It was mentioned to me over the weekend that tomorrow, December 13th, is one of the most celebrated days of the year in Sweden; it is the feast day of Sankta Lucia, or St Lucy. This, I suspect, is a little known fact in this country, yet it is one which ties together both Assembly talks of the last week. On Monday, I spoke about the Saints, and how one of the early criteria for such a promotion was martyrdom. St Lucy was said to have lost her life in the Roman persecutions of Christians in the 3rd Century AD, after bringing food and aid to fellow Christians hiding in the catacombs – underground chambers just outside Rome. She is said to have worn a wreath of candles on her head to light the way to the catacombs, so that she could leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Coincidentally, perhaps, her feast day was once said to have coincided with the Winter Solstice; so her feast day is now not only considered as a Festival of Light, but is considered symbolic in heralding the advent of the Light of Christ at Christmas time.
So, a story with a meaning; not entirely unlike Miss Betterton’s talk on Friday in Assembly, which imbued well known fairy tales with morals that we can infer from their telling. But not exactly the same. The dividing line between myth and history is notoriously hard to define. In St Lucy’s case, her feast day was in fact only adopted by the church over 200 years after her death – and though our earliest evidence of the story as history is more contemporary than that, it is scant in its detail. The history of St Lucy has become mixed with mythology and ritual and it is through ritual that it has become ensconced in Sweden’s psyche.
There have been scholars who have argued that all mythology has a ritualistic base and there certainly seems to be some truth in that for many myths, not least those of the earliest human societies. But it is probably not right to explain the nature of myths simply as rituals. All societies have dealt in mythology in one way or another, and another way of looking at them is that their origins are often taken from natural phenomena. Most people in here, even today, will know the Ancient Greek myth of the one-eyed cyclops called Polyphemus, whom Odysseus so brilliantly tricked in his cave by sending him into a drunken sleep before poking out his only eye with a stick. Polyphemus chased Odysseus in a blind rage back to his ships, before hurling great rocks at him as he set sail and left for home. A seemingly great adventure; but surely it was no coincidence that Polyphemus lived on the side of Mount Etna, that mountain with a single deep crater, still today spitting forth rocks at those who venture towards it.
Similarly, myths may be used aetiologically – that is to say that they provide the reason for something you can see, but do not necessarily have an answer for. Again, most of you will have heard of the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the Underworld, much to the anguish of her mother Demeter, who was the goddess of crops and fertility. So upset was Demeter as she searched for her daughter that all the crops on the earth dried up completely, causing great hardship to the human beings. Zeus was begged to intervene, which he did, but unfortunately Persephone ate a pomegranate in the Underworld, which meant that (on account of the fact that she had eaten food whilst there) she could only partially return to her mother. For six months each year, Persephone resided with her mother; in summer all was well, and crops flourished, as Demeter was happy to have her daughter home; in Autumn the crops started to die, as she feared for her daughter’s imminent departure back to the Underworld; winter was terrible, as Demeter grieved and all crops were dead. And then finally Spring, and optimism, as Demeter prepared for Persephone’s return.
This then, is in one sense an aetiological myth, one which explains something we can see today – namely, the seasons. Which brings me back to St Lucy. Was it actual fact that her death fell on the Winter Solstice? And is it not interesting that her feast day did not move from the 13th December, the date of the winter solstice in the old Julian Calendar, to the 21st December, the date of the winter solstice now under the current Gregorian Calendar?
So, if any of you are looking for an EPQ, or a BSIP later in your time here, do consider the study of myth vs history vs fact vs fairy tale. There is a rich and enjoyable source of material to work with. And if you like mythology either for the fun of it or for its epexegetic fascination, I recommend for holiday reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses in translation – a fabulous collection of the best known, and some of the least known, myths in classical antiquity, tied together under the single theme of change.