Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of January 18th - January 24th,  2002

The New Year

Columns Archive


   "The order of the calendar throughout the Latin year,


its causes, and the starry signs that set beneath the earth and rise again, of these I'll sing..."

   "But that you may not be unversed in the rules of the different days, not every morning brings the same round of duty."

   So opens Ovid's Fasti. The author lived during the height of Roman society and culture. Virgil and Horace, Propertius and Tibullus were all alive while Ovid was a young man in Rome. Entranced by these and other poets, he venerated them with a respect usually reserved for the gods. Lauded as one of the greatest poets of his time, he was over fifty and enjoying domestic happiness and literary fame when a sentence of banishment by Augustus brought his luxurious living to an abrupt end. When he was banished, the Christ Child would have been an adolescent. In truth, we don't know why Ovid came to be exiled to a barbaric outpost on the Black Sea, far away in a hostile environment. Ovid states that the real motive was an error and not, in his eyes, a crime. The closest he comes to letting us know about this transgression was when he asks in grief and remorse why he had seen something? Why had he been privy to some secret? He compares it to Actaeon's having been punished for unwittingly coming upon the Goddess Diana bathing naked in a pool hidden deep in the woods where he had been hunting with his dogs.


Ovid has him say he
was once known as Chaos

   When working with time and the calendar, the question often arises as to why the year begins in winter, as opposed to spring? Many middle eastern calendars continue to begin their year in the spring even today. In his Fasti, Ovid is being schooled by Janus, the two-headed Roman god who opens the year, looks both East and West (the horizons upon which risings and settings occur), and for whom the month of January is named. In the following exchange, Ovid is questioning Janus about this topic:


   "Come, say, why doth the new year begin in the cold season? Better had it begun in spring. Then all things flower, then time renews his age, and new from out the teeming vine-shoot swells the bud; in fresh-formed leaves the tree is draped, and from earth's surface sprouts the blade of corn. Birds with their warblings winnow the warm air; the cattle frisk and wanton in the meads. Then suns are sweet, forth comes the stranger swallow and builds her clayey structure under the lofty beam. Then the field submits to tillage and is renewed by the plough. That is the season which rightly should have been called New Year."

   "Thus quested I at length; he answered prompt and tersely, throwing his words into twain verses, thus: "Midwinter is the beginning of the new sun and the end of the old one. Phoebus (from Phoebus Apollo, the Sun) and the year take their start from the same point."

   Janus is describing the Sun's motion following the Winter Solstice, when the Morning Star reaches it's lowest point on the eastern horizon, and holds there for three days, beginning its ascent three days later, bringing additional light with the lengthening days, together with all that implies. While Christmas ceremonially sits atop the Solstice, the New Year commences in the first full week following this ancient, time honored festival.


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