Monday, 31 December 2018

On Days, Months and Names

A close-up view of a calendar, showing the number of each month as well as its name in six languages, and the days of the month corresponding to days of the week with their English names. Each week is also sequentially numbered. The month of September is fully visible, while October and November are visible in part.
Early Friends quickly shed the common names for days of the week and months of the year, instead referring to them by number. Sunday was “first day”, Tuesday “third day”, and so on. Likewise, July became “seventh month”, November “eleventh month”… you get the idea.
The usual explanation given for this is that the names themselves were of pagan – that is, pre-Christian – origin, giving regard to, variously, Germanic deities (like Woden and Thor), heavenly bodies (like the Sun and Moon), Roman deities (like Janus and Mars), and deified Roman “emperors” (Julius for Julius Caesar, not technically an emperor, and Augustus for his heir, generally recognised as the first emperor). I suspect the last four months, as named in English, would meet with early Friends' approval – except they were misnamed, and naming them in English is much more in line with plain speaking. It would be interesting do delve into early Quaker sources and try to get to the bottom of the practice, but for now we will accept the usual explanation as enough to be getting on with.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Three Marriages

Marriage is an important idea to many people. Whether as a matter of recognition of commitment, and the importance of equal access to legal recognition, or as a vital spiritual experience, it is important. Even for those who reject the concept, it is important in that rejection. One must acknowledge that there are some who consider it an utterly irrelevant idea, but that does not alter the fact it is important to others.
What is marriage, though? It has so many interconnected ideas, so much history – indeed, so much divergent history – and so much individual interpretation, that it is hard to form a coherent and consistent idea of marriage.
It has struck me, however, that there are three basic elements or dimensions to marriage. In fact, while these three do relate to one another and impact one another, they may also each stand entirely on their own. As such, we might consider them independent sorts of marriage, though in many marriages all three will be present.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

A Quaker Yule

A neatly-made bonfire with a wide circle of people around, hands linked, processing around the bonfire in a clockwise direction.
Even thirty years ago, the word Yule would not have been completely foreign to English-speaking ears. After all, we've used the word Yuletide to refer to the Christmas period for some time. Indeed, the cognate jul exists as a modern word in the Scandinavian languages to refer to the Christian holiday of Christmas.
These days it's not unusual for people to be aware of the pre-Christian roots of the word, referring to a midwinter festival or holiday in the Germanic world. The exact practices among Germanic pre-Christians varied; while their languages and cultures, and indeed religion, shared common roots and themes, there was considerable cultural variation. We know, or at least think we know, of the dísablót and álfablót of the Norse, the public and private sacrifices that took place (as best we can tell, in some periods and some places) around the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. The first honoured, perhaps placated, the dísir, a range of female spirits and gods, and the Valkyries; the latter the elves, mythic and folkloric figures attributed a great range of impacts of daily life. As the names suggest, each of these was a blót, an act of ritual worship generally involving a sacrifice, generally of an animal (though the similarity of “blót” and “blood” is generally understood to be coincidental). Some sources and evidence indicate that there was also human sacrifice, though evidence that is not questionable generally points to this being exceptional, and generally associated with war.
So far, so much interesting (if hideously simplified for brevity) history. What does it have to do with the world (or society) today, and especially what does it have to do with Quakers? We are not, after all, Germanic pre-Christians.
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