|Saturn, a cross between Father Time and Father Christmas|
There's an old Roman holiday coming up in a month or so, one which celebrates the ancient Italian god Saturn. He later gets conflated with the Greek titan Cronos, but he existed in the Italian mind before the Greeks arrived. He was the father of men, the provider of abundance, the ruler of a Golden Age. His captivity by the Olympian gods (Zeus-Jupiter and his gang) was symbolized by the binding of the statue of Saturn in the Capitoline temple in Rome. Once a year, the statue would be unbound, the social rules and stratification would suspended, and Romans would enjoy a riotous holiday. At the end of it, the statue would be bound up again and the class order restored.
|Goya's view of Saturn devouring his children|
By the 300s AD, there was a sinister addition to the celebration. James Frazier, whose book The Golden Bough is a classic of comparative mythology, describes it in Chapter 58, "Human Scapegoats in Classical Antiquity." One month before Saturnalia, a lottery would be held to determine who would serve as the Lord of Misrule. This man would be free to indulge all his appetites, however depraved, without any restraint at all. At the end of Saturnalia, he would of course be killed as a sacrifice. A month of unrestrained licentiousness, followed by a pious death. What more could a Roman soldier ask for?
Dasius, for one, wanted something less. Stationed at Durosturum, up on the Danube River, he won the honor of being the Lord of Misrule. He had successfully avoided martyrdom to this point, an achievement I find admirable. However, he could not willingly sacrifice himself to a pagan god. Instead, he declined to accept the title and month's indulgence. His comrades cajoled him, no doubt, and then shamed him. After he explained his position to the commander, they beat him. Still, he would not back down so in the end they beheaded him.
|The beheading of St. Dasius|
There are folks I know who would not distinguish between those options for death. To die for a god, whether Saturn or the Christian deity, runs counter to their respect for the gift of life. That's not a bad way of looking at things, to be sure, but it can set one on the path cling to life for its own sake, even at the expense of one's values and dignity. The offer to swap a month's licentiousness for your eternal soul is easy to reject. The offer to kill you now or kill you later is easily accepted. But the little variables and assumptions in between are what make our choices difficult. And interesting.