Because, of course, its name comes from the Latin for eight, which also gave us octopus and -plex, octagon, octuplets. In fact, our months include an odd little series that begins with September (seventh in the Roman calendar) and ends with December, the tenth. I won't bore you with the intricacies of how we ended up with the calendar and month and day names we have, other than to observe how religion and myth enter into them as well: Janus (January) was a two-faced god looking forward and back, Mars the god of war, and most of the days of the week are named after Norse gods.
In fact, older systems of knowledge and belief stud the modern world, although most of us happily ignore their presence. Here's a few test questions for you; you can score yourself on the degree to which you know that our cultural present is largely a collage of the past.
1. Why do we have 360 degrees in a circle, 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and days divided into 12 and 24 hours? After all, our arithmetic is 10-based, right?
Because we borrowed all these divisions from the Babylonians, who used a 6-based number system.
2. Why do pine trees and mistletoe accompany Christmas and New Year's celebration? There aren't any in the Bible!
The pine trees are a remnant of old Norse beliefs -- their evergreen nature symbolized rebirth, or eternal growth. The mistletoe is a parasitic vine that grows on oaks. Oaks were a major part of Druid tree-worship; in fact, they used to hold ritual orgies under the oak's spreading foliage. So "kiss me under the mistletoe" could just be the start of better things.
3. OK, while we're on this subject, what about chocolate bunnies and candy eggs for Easter? Both eggs and rabbits were Roman/pagan symbols of procreation and new life, so appropriate at a spring celebration. In fact, the rabbit's famed capacity for making more rabbits is why ol' Hefner chose a rabbit's head as the logo for Playboy magazine, and why he hired "bunnies" to staff his clubs.
4. All right, wise guy, why Hallowe'en? Isn't that a Christian festival? Only because its name comes from All Hallow's Even, a night when one paid respects to the departed. The ghost, fire and monster imagery of this festival, along with the custom of buying off visiting ghouls with candy to keep them from doing tricks, stems from pagan festivals like the Samhain fires of the Celtic world:. The Samhain fires, lit at the time when the veil between the living and dead was thought to be thinnest, celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of another. If the dead be abroad, it's a good idea to either a) appear like one of them, so they won't bother you or b) bribe them off with goodies.
5. And how about the superstition around 13?
Well, that one is mostly Christian. Triskaidekaphobia (morbid fear of the number) stems from two possible causes.
a) There were 13 people at the Last Supper, and within days two of them were dead (Judas committed suicide). b) Also, King Philip IV who attacked the Order of the Templars in order to reduce their poliitical power and grab their reputed treasure, issued his edit in a secret letter to be opened on Friday the 13th. Any good Dan Brown fan knows what happened to the Templars after that. If you live or work in a high rise, odds are, no matter how modern, 13 does not appear on its floor directory.
Have a nice, pagan, eighth-month- October.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace