The (Re)Birth of Sol Invictus

It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. License is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations–as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day!
— Roman philosopher Seneca, ca. 64 C.E. ((“On Festivals and Fasting.” In: Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic (p. 40). Dover Publications.))

Sol Invictus in marble

In the pre-Julian, Roman calendar, December was the tenth and last month (the sun’s annual circle of travel completed). In the Julian calendar, accepted with minor adjustments to the present-day, the two most illustrious Caesars were commemorated with the addition of “July” and “August.” Nonetheless, December remained the final month–when Saturn, a kind of Father Time, finished consuming the preceding twelve months.

Late December was a time of rejoicing and celebration in ancient Rome, the Saturnalia (December 17-23) being a time of festivities, gift-giving, and carnival-esque reversal of roles. In this brief rebellion against the regularity of social norms and roles, Romans reveled in a brief period of dis-order: masters, for instance, adopted the role of slaves and served them at table. Yet this brief reversal only served to legitimate the cyclical return of the cosmically-sanctified social order at the winter solstice.

The Greek historian Plutarch (ca. 46-120 C.E.) tells us that the cult of Mithras, an Indo-Iranian god identified with the Sun, was thriving in Rome before the early Christians had attained any significant following. Mithras was soon assimilated into, or syncretically fused with, the cult of Sol Invictus, whose cyclical rebirth, like that of Mithras, was venerated on–December 25. In the Roman iconography of the time, Mithras is often depicted as sharing the offering of a slain bull with Sol Invictus. This date of rebirth, within their imperfect calculation of seasonal cycles, was joyously affirmed as the “(Re)birth of the Unconquerable Sun.”

After the late autumn harvests, the Sun of course would noticeably begin to wane, decreasing in power and duration as Saturn consumed the remaining weeks of the annual cycle. (Saturn also consumed every week; thus, even today, the final day is of course “Saturday.”) The long winter months meant hardship: cold, illness, and sporadic food shortages. But the Roman astronomers, in their crude calculation of the endless, inexorable cycle of Nature’s regenerative return, heralded December 25 as a rebirth. In a sense, Time was merely cyclical, not linear; the celebration of Natalis Invicti was the renewed birth, not of a Christian “messiah,” but of the life-giving forces of Nature itself.

The veneration of the Sun, as the endlessly regenerative source of all life, was of course much older than the early Roman empire. Possibly the first monotheistic ruler, the visionary pharaoh Akhnaten (reigning ca. 1353-1336 B.C.E) abolished all rival gods and celebrated the solar disc Aten as the source of all life and renewed fertility in his poetic “Hymn to the Sun.” (The elderly Freud, in his final book Moses and Monotheism (1938), even maintained, probably inaccurately, that Moses was actually an Egyptian who brought a revised monotheism–more ethnic-nationalist with an exclusive tribal god–to the subjugated Hebrew people.)

The Roman emperor Aurelian, as late as 274 C.E., proclaimed Sol Invictus as his primal state-god. But the cult of the Christians, after having suffered terrible persecution and torture for three centuries, finally attained a decisive triumph when the Emperor Constantine, around 313 C.E., officially announced his own conversion to the rapidly growing Christian creed, and mandated tolerance toward the religion and its followers. Ironically, within decades the newly-sanctified and officially supported Christians began a campaign of persecution against the now-fading Mithraic cult.

What was lost? A sanctified awareness, and daily affirmation, of the endlessly regenerative cycle of life-giving power, originating from the Sun. In that sense, despite the invalid Ptolemaic model of the motions of sun-and-earth, daily experience was grounded in a pre-scientific recognition of human dependence upon the life-giving Sun and its seasonal cycle of fertility and abundant flora and fauna, all of which co-existed interdependently. In short: an ecological consciousness.

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Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.