B2 High-Intermediate 22 Folder Collection
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Imagine a world where, once a year, the rules are turned upside down and lawlessness reigns.
People are free - even encouraged - to act out their darkest desires; otherwise law abiding
citizens terrorize their neighbours, vandalizing, thieving, even raping and murdering with abandon.
If that sounds to you like something straight out of a horror movie, well, you're not
entirely wrong.
The blockbuster horror franchise The Purge did steal - er, borrow - it's terrifying
plot from a very real historical purge ritual.
The ancient festival of Saturnalia was the real life “The Purge” - and the movies
have nothing on the real deal.
In case you've been living under a rock for the last 7 years, The Purge is a wildly
popular horror movie franchise set in a dystopian future world where, for one day a year, lawlessness
During the Purge all crimes are legal and people are encouraged to satisfy their darkest
For 24 hours, chaos reigns as friends and neighbours turn on each other, and otherwise
orderly citizens commit robbery, home invasion, rape, assult and murder with abandon.
If the concept of a lawless purge sounds to you like something that could only come out
of the modern movie industry, then you might be surprised to learn that the idea is actually
rooted in a very real ancient tradition.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia goes back thousands of years, and some aspects of the
celebration bear an unsettling resemblance to the films' premise.
The jolliest and most popular holiday in ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was a week-long
celebration where the only rule was that there were no rules.
Everything was fair game during Saturnalia, and people could indulge their every whim
without fear of consequences.
Saturnalia is mentioned in Roman sources as far back as the 5th century B.C., but it was
likely inspired by even older traditions.
Pagan farmers had long been celebrating the end of the darkness of winter and the coming
of the longer days of spring with feasts and festivals honoring the winter solstice, the
shortest day of the year.
As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, this pagan solstice tradition was incorporated
into the Roman culture and mythology, and it evolved into the festival of Saturnalia.
In keeping with its roots as a farmer's festival, the early Roman version of Saturnalia
was associated with the religious cult of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.
The latin word satus means “to sow” or “seed”, and we can also thank Saturn for
the name of everyone's favorite day of the week - Saturday.
Early Saturnalia lasted only one day, and was celebrated with feasts and sacrifices
at Saturn's temple.
The Temple of Saturn in the Northwest corner of Rome's Forum was the ceremonial centre
of Saturnalia festivities.
To kick off the celebrations, a young pig would be sacrificed in the temple, and the
statue of Saturn, which normally had its feet bound with wool, would be ceremoniously untied
to signify his liberation - and to free him to join in on the fun and mischief.
Early Saturnalia was a time of celebration and indulgence, but it was not yet the ancient
Purge that it would later become.
Things would soon get much darker.
As the Roman Empire grew, the ruling class began to realize that festivals and celebrations
were a valuable tool for controlling and pacifying the masses, and Saturnalia underwent yet another
transformation - Saturnalia was on the verge of becoming the real life Purge.
By the year 120 AD, the festival of Saturnalia had grown from a single day of feasting to
an entire week of festivities from December 17th to the 25th.
As the celebrations grew longer, rulers began granting a holiday reprieve from certain social
norms, and before long, Saturnalia had become a week long free-for-all.
Under later Roman rulers, Saturnalia was a time when the populace was encouraged to act
out their every desire without fear of retribution, so it's not that surprising that it was
the most popular holiday in ancient Rome.
The celebration wasn't an entirely benevolent gesture, though - it was thought that this
“holiday from the rules” would give people a chance to release any pent up resentment,
rage and frustration on each other, leading to lower crime rates during the rest of the
year, and a lower chance that the people would revolt against their rulers.
And, since it was not uncommon for the celebrations to take on a violent edge, it would also give
the people a taste of what life would be like without law and order.
For the ruling class of Romans, Saturnalia was a not-so-subtle reminder to the populace
that life was better under their rule.
During the week-long celebration, all seriousness was barred.
Dress codes were relaxed and people dressed in loud, bright colours.
Businesses were closed and all work was cancelled.
Executions were postponed and rulers refrained from declaring war during Saturnalia.
The courts were closed, which effectively meant that you either participated in the
festivities, or you were on your own.
Even slaves were freed from their duties and allowed to participate in the festivities.
One of the most exciting elements of the Saturnalia celebrations was the complete reversal of
the social order.
Children were encouraged to disobey parents and cause mayhem; the wealthy were expected
to feed and pay rent for the poor; masters even traded places with their slaves, swapping
clothing and places at the table.
If you were lucky enough to be chosen as the Saturnalian Monarch, you would be in for an
extra special treat.
The lowlier members of the household, usually children and slaves, would throw dice or hide
coins or other small objects in a cake to choose the lucky winner.
That person that got the lucky piece of cake would be treated like a King or Queen for
the entire week.
The Saturnalian Monarch would eat like a king, dress like a queen, and was the “Lord of
Misrule” responsible for causing mischief, insulting guests and reigning over chaos.
Families would decorate their homes for the Saturnalia celebrations with laurel wreaths
and green trees lit up with candles.
Friends would exchange small gifts like dolls, caged birds, and candles to signal the return
of light after the darkness of winter.
On the final day of Saturnalia, friends would exchange small terracotta figurines called
sigillaria, small dolls with moveable limbs that may have been meant as stand-ins for
the human sacrifices in the more primitive traditions that existed long before Saturnalia.
While there were plenty of wholesome traditions, Saturnalia was really all about one thing
- partying.
Many of the more serious citizens looked down on the inebriated masses, but most Romans
looked forward to letting go of their inhibitions and indulging in a week of debauchery.
For most, it was relatively harmless fun - the streets would take on a Mardi-Gras atmosphere,
and the drinking, gambling, singing and dancing in the streets would carry on until the early
morning hours every night of the week.
Of course, when the alcohol is flowing things can easily get out of hand - and during Saturnalia,
they usually did.
Drunken injuries and even accidental deaths were to be expected during the week-long binge.
Emboldened by booze and a lack of consequences, partiers accomplished all sorts of mischief,
from vandalising homes and public buildings to petty theft and nasty pranks.
No festival dedicated to indulging one's deepest desires would be complete without
plenty of drunken fighting and...ahem, fornicating.
Partying and mischief may have been mainstays of Saturnalia, but the festival wasn't all
fun and games.
Just like in the movies, when bad behaviour is encouraged and there are no consequences,
things can quickly take a dark turn.
Drunken fights would frequently devolve into outright murder.
Saturnalia was the perfect time to exact revenge on someone who had wronged you, or to intimidate
- or even eliminate - a rival.
Thieves would take advantage of the celebratory atmosphere and lack of law and order to burglarize
the homes of partygoers.
Even those whose deepest desires were truly deplorable had free reign to indulge them
during Saturnalia, and unfortunately brutal rape and murder were the unfortunate consequenes
of this “holiday from the rules”.
With the courts closed and law-and-order off duty, there was nowhere to turn for help.
It was every man for himself, and law-abiding Romans just hoping to enjoy a well deserved
break from work were at the mercy of the inebriated masses.
Of course, this is exactly what the Roman rulers had in mind - a nice little reminder
that life is better under their laws than without them.
And it's not like this was just “a few bad apples” - the officials were in on it,
Early sources shed light on a particularly gruesome Saturnalia ritual.
In a horror-movie version of the tradition of the Mock King of the house, communities
would select a special victim - er… “winner” - who would be King or Queen for the day.
They would drink and feast like royalty during the day, and indulge in other “pleasures”
all through the night, before they were brutally slaughtered on the steps of Staurn's temple,
a sacrifice to the god and a symbol of the destruction of the forces of darkness and
The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 AD spelled the beginning of the end
for Saturnalia.
As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, the Church moved to ban
any pagan rituals that might threaten its authority.
Saturnalia didn't disappear altogether - it remained a popular carnival as late as 449
AD - but it's place as the most popular Roman holiday was usurped by a new, Christian
holiday celebrating the birth of their savior - a little thing called Christmas.
Hmm...between the December 25th date, the greenery decorations, and the exchanging of
gifts, we almost have to wonder if Christmas might have “borrowed” a few traditions
from the ancient Romans!
Saturnalia was not the only ancient celebration that gave people a “holiday from the rules”.
There are many parallels between the ancient Roman and Greek cultures, and this is no exception
- the Greek festival of Kronia was remarkably similar to the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Kronos was the Greek god of agriculture, and his festival, Kronia, originated as a farmer's
harvest festival and evolved into a tradition of inverting the social order - all work was
cancelled, and for one night, slaves were allowed to dine with their masters.
Ancient sources have noted that the celebrating slaves “made riotous noise during their
feast and time off, creating chaos throughout the city”.
The ancient Egyptians had the Tekh Festival - the Feast of Drunkenness - which was a celebration
of the time that, according to Eyptian myth, humanity was saved from a bloodthirsty god
Yepp, beer.
So it's not surprising that this holiday, which was most popular around 1500 B.C., was
celebrated by getting rip-roaring drunk and passing out in the temple.
Now that you know that The Purge movies were inspired by the ancient festival of Saturnalia,
you might be wondering if something like that could actually happen today.
Well, you might say that it already has...kind of.
In 2016, an Indiana teen was arrested for kidnapping a woman and was later charged with
killing 2 people.
He claims to have been inspired by the movies, and he told his girlfriend “You better go
on Facebook and watch the videos of me shooting people.
I Purge every night now.”
Okay, so that was one insane person, but could we ever see a world in which purges are a
real thing?
And could that possibly be a good thing?
The justification behind a purge - both the movie version and the real Saturnalia one
- was to give the population a “release valve”, which would theoretically improve
the economy and reduce violence and crime during the rest of the year.
According to Forbes Magazine, though, a purge would only serve to increase the socioeconomic
inequality that is already rampant in our society, since only the wealthy could afford
to protect themselves.
Even worse, it would increase habituation towards violent behavior and destroy the economy
as the insurance industry, real estate market and small businesses collapsed.
Perhaps this is a tradition best left to the past.
Once again, it turns out that real life is even more unbelievable than the movies.
The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was one part real life The Purge, one part jolly,
Christmas-y celebration, and a whole lot of chaos!
Now go check out “How Did A Whole Village Disappear?”, or this other one instead!
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The Purge Used to be a Real Thing

22 Folder Collection
Summer published on September 15, 2020
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