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March 25 – The Hilaria: The Festival of Joy

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As a famous ancient Roman proverb says, “Don’t worry, be happy”. Well, not really, but that was the general feeling in Rome every March 25th. Why? Because this was the date of a festival called the Hilaria. If this word looks similar to “hilarious”, you wouldn’t be that far off. The word Hilaria means “the cheerful times”, although I think that it could be better translated as “the Festival of Joy”, the reasons for which I shall explain further on. It was a day dedicated to the goddess Cybele, and it was described as a feria stativa, meaning that there was to be no work this day. The courts were closed, shops were shut, school was cancelled, and everybody was given the welcomed luxury of having a day off (“Origins of April Fools Day”; “Hilaria”).

Flavius Vopiscus says that at the Hilaria festival, “everything that is said and done should be of a joyous nature” (Flavius Vopiscus, Historia Augusta, Book 25 – “The Life of Aurelian”, chapter 1). Certainly the children had cause to be joyous with class cancelled for the day, but why was this day in particular supposed to be one where happiness reigned? According to Roman mythology, March 25 was the day of the resurrection of Cybele’s lover Attis after being dead for three days – does this sound familiar? To Catholic Christians, a festival taking place in early Spring dedicated to the resurrection of a divine being who had been dead for the past three days should ring a bell.

So, let’s party! Everyone was required to be in a good mood on this day. No kill-joys or wet blankets were allowed to bring down everybody’s upbeat feelings, and certainly no arguing or fighting. The Hilaria was a public street fair full of dancing and music. A statue of the goddess Cybele was carried in procession through the streets accompanied by numerous banners, artwork, flower garlands, and precious jewels. Incense was given away for free to anyone who wanted some. People dressed in masks and costumes, and danced and partied all along the way. Picture a combination of Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, the Indian festival of Holi, the Gaelic festival of Wren Day, and the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and that should give you a good idea of what the day’s festivities were like (Flavius Vopiscus, Historia Augusta, Book 25 – “The Life of Aurelian”, chapter 1; Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 10, verse 5; book 1, chapter 11, verse 1).

Our best description of the activities that took place at the Hilaria are found in the writings of Herodian of Antioch. In his History of the Roman Empire, he explains…

“Every year, on a set day at the beginning of spring, the Romans celebrate a festival in honor of the mother of the gods [Cybele]. All the valuable trappings of each deity, the imperial treasures, and marvelous objects of all kinds, both natural and man-made, are carried in procession before this goddess. Free license for every kind of revelry is granted, and each man assumes the disguise of his choice. No office is so important or so sacrosanct that permission is refused anyone to put on its distinctive uniform and join in the revelry, concealing his true identity; consequently, it is not easy to distinguish the true from the false” (Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 10, verse 5).

“As we have discovered by research, the Romans are devoted to this goddess for the following reason – a reason which it seems worth while to relate here, since it is unknown to some of the Greeks. They say that this statue of the goddess fell from the sky; the exact material of the statue is not known, nor the identity of the artists who made it; in fact, it is not certain that the statue was the work of human hands. Long ago it fell from the sky in Phrygia (the name of the region where it fell is Pessinus, which received its name from the fall of the heavenly statue); the statue was discovered there” (Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire, book 1, chapter 11, verse 1).

Another person who provides some rather questionable information regarding this day is the 19th Century writer Samuel F. Dunlap. His pseudo-academic ramblings on religious conspiracy theories remind me of the sort of thing that you’d see nowadays on the History Channel or in a supermarket tabloid, so his words need to be taken with an entire barrel of salt. He essentially claimed that Jesus went through several manifestations in human history, not just one, including the god Hermes, the hero Hercules, and the mythical figure of Attis or Adoni. In spite of his weird rantings, he does provide a few small snippits of info, though where he got this information from isn’t clear, and personally I think he made it up. In his book Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni, he says that the Hilaria was a resurrection festival dedicated to the Unconquered Sun, also known as Bromius the god of joy, who was the divine son of the sky god and the virgin daughter of the Phoenician hero Cadmus. On this day, people scattered violet flowers on the earth and put flowers in their hair, and there was plenty of flute-playing and singing (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 127, 129). I can’t say much for Dunlap’s logic, but I can definitely see the Romans tossing flower petals around and putting flowers in their hair while singing and dancing to flute music.

I’d like to conclude this article with the following: Somebody (I can’t remember who) once said “In order to be sane, you need to go insane once in a while”. So lighten up, loosen up, and cheer up. Life’s short and it should be enjoyed as much as possible during the time that you have.

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