In many countries, a sneeze that occurs after making a statement is often interpreted as a confirmation by God that the statement was true. No word on whether more truthtelling occurs during cold and flu season.
In 400 BCE, the Athenian general Xenophon gave a dramatic oration exhorting his fellow soldiers to follow him “to liberty or to death” against the Persians. He spoke for an hour, motivating his army and assuring them a safe return to Athens, until a soldier underscored his conclusion with a sneeze. Thinking this sneeze a favorable sign from the gods, the soldiers bowed before Xenophon and followed his command. Their battles were a resounding success. Xenophon’s record of the entire expedition against the Persians and the journey home was titled Anabasis (“The Expedition” or “The March Up Country”). It is worth noting that the Anabasis was used as a field guide by Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia.
Another divine moment of sneezing for the Greeks occurs in the story of Odysseus. Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar and talks with his waiting lover Penelope. She tells him that Odysseus will return safely to challenge her suitors. At that moment their son sneezes loudly, and Penelope laughs with joy, reassured that it is a sign from the gods.
So here is a New Year’s sneeze for you, a sign from the gods that the year will be wondrous, healing, and prosperous for all of us:
That said, I still feel that starting a new year on January 1 is the height of artificial construct. Although most cultures saw the year as beginning at the spring equinox, January assumed its position as the first month in 153 BCE simply because Rome’s consuls, or constitutional heads of state, were elected on January 1. The reason for this shift of the new year into the dead of winter was to allow the new consuls to complete the elections and ceremonies upon becoming consuls, and still reach their respective consular armies by the start of the campaigning season.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, the new year began on Christmas Day, with January 1 being designated the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (Jewish law mandated that boys be circumcised eight days after birth, and January 1 is eight days after Christmas). The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 fixed the start of the new year as January 1, but the religious feast days stayed the same.
Circumcision predates recorded human history, with depictions found in stone-age cave drawings and ancient Egyptian tombs. Circumcision was variously seen as a form of ritual sacrifice or offering, a sign of submission to a deity, a rite of passage to adulthood, a mark of defeat or slavery, and an attempt to alter aesthetics or sexuality.
So why does the Torah require circumcision precisely on the eighth day—even if that day falls on the Sabbath? The number seven symbolizes that something is complete; eight, then, is the number of new beginnings: new not only in the sense of fresh or unspoiled, but new as in strange, unknown, revolutionary. Noah saved eight persons from the Flood to start rebuilding life on earth. The inauguration of the Tabernacle as the new dwelling place for the presence of God took place on the eighth day, after seven days of preparation. When Israelites were healed of leprosy, they were to present themselves in the Temple on the eighth day as the beginning of their new life.
The number eight is a potent symbol in many cultures and traditions. It’s the basis for much of Chinese yin-yang philosophy. Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, its Eight Auspicious Symbols, and its Eight Worldly Dharmas. Hinduism has its eight-pointed Star of Lakshmi, representing the eight kinds of wealth that the goddess Lakshmi imparts. The planet Venus was also represented as an eight-pointed star (“the Star of Ishtar”), because it returns to the same position in the sky every eight years.
Every eight years, the winter solstice sun falls on the day of a new moon; this is the shortest amount of time that lunar and solar calendars were in approximate alignment. The eight years from one such “meeting of sun and moon” to the next were called a “Great Year” and measured the life span of the sun, because at each of these “meetings,” the old sun died and the new one was born for the next cycle. Consequently, in many ancient cultures (particularly Greece), kings, for whom the sun was an apt symbol, served only for eight years at a time, after which their kingship had to be renewed. (The Greek mathematician and astronomer Meton of Athens introduced a more accurate nineteen-year lunisolar calculation, now called a Metonic cycle; an even more accurate alignment occurs every 334 years.)
Robert Anton Wilson—essayist, philosopher, psychologist, futurologist, anarchist—wrote a marvelous piece called “The Octave of Energy” which looks at the repetition of the number eight throughout human history, arguing that it’s actually hardwired into our DNA. As Antero Alli put it,
A message is the ordering of a signal. This message is the framework of an alternative education system, one which arranges living planetary signals into meaningful messages. These signals come in octaves, or cycles of eight. Languages throughout history have translated these signals as: The Overtones of Music Theory, The DNA Code, The I Ching, Computer Binary Notation, The 8 Mayan Calenders, The Game of Chess and other interpretations of the universal law of octaves.
To that list I would add the Medicine Wheel as a map of the human psyche. Many of Wilson’s ideas are based on The 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness proposed by Dr. Timothy Leary. I’ll be returning to discussions of their work, and similar approaches by Alli, Gurdjieff, and even Gene Roddenberry, in future posts.
So we start January with nods to brain circuitry, genital modification, religious symbology, and sneezing pandas. Not a bad way to start.
The ancient Saxons called January wulf-monath, or Wolf Month. According to Verstegan’s 1605 book with the delicious title A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most noble and renowned English Nation, Wolf Month was so named “because people were wont always in that month to be more in danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season else of the year, for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, those ravenous creatures could not find beasts sufficient to feed upon.”
May this year keep the wolf in your heart, but away from your door.