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  • Letting Off Steam November 26, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    All societies need moments when kings, citizens and slaves let off steam. The police in the United States allow adolescents to get away with things on Halloween that would land them in a jail cell every other night of the year. The Romans had Saturnalia when masters had to serve their slaves the dinner and society was, momentarily, turned on its head. Carnival in Brazil or Mardi Gras in the States sees a momentary loosening of sexual conventions: an agape where anything goes, at least for the hours while the drum is beating. Then, the normally upright Gnostics had their sex orgies and wine-drinking  Greek women allegedly ripped the heads off men in some of their Dionysian rites: Euripides’ Bacchae remains, over two thousand years later, one of the most terrifying reads in the western canon.

    These are festivals but there are also institutions  that have allowed the young, especially young men to take two or three years off from conformity. We have visited before in this place the Fenian bands, where young Irish men went off into the wilds, typically for a year or two, to fight the society that had raised them. The legend of Robin Hood is arguably a British memory of a similar way of life. And even today in Western cities from Los Angeles to Berlin, many young men typically leave society for half a dozen years to become gang-bangers or football hooligans, only returning to the fold in their mid twenties to raise families and hide their tattoos.

    Even the strictest societies, perhaps especially the strictest societies, allow surprising acts of rule bending under special circumstances. One medieval witness from the Persian Gulf describes how a woman ‘pretty and with unveiled face’ came before the Sultan of Oman.

    ‘She stood before him and said to him, ‘O Abu Muhammad, the devil is in revolt in my head.’ He said to her ‘Go and drive out the devil.’ She said I cannot and I am under your protection, O Abu Mohammad.’ Then he said to her ‘Go and do what you want’.

    The traveller was told that this was a ritual exchange that allowed ‘debauchery’. Presumably the young woman knew that she was about to embark on an affair and did not want to be stoned to death by her family. Now she was under the Sultan’s protection she was permitted to do anything and he would protect her from the consequences.

    Any other examples of planned rule-breaking of this kind? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    26 Nov 2011:  KMH offers this beautiful idea: ‘You might want to add to your list the Refrigerium, a notion mentioned in a book by C. S. Lewis called “The Great Divorce” and derived from the Catholic Church father  Prudentius. The Refrigerium, or refreshment, is the idea that the souls in Hell are given days off every now and then to visit Heaven or Earth. I find the idea particularly appealing even though it may be at odds with reality for our times. The corresponding practice on earth  may be the sabbatical, (or even the holiday) but it normally lasts much longer.’ Thanks KMH!


    28 Nov 2011: Invisible writes in, ‘Your letting off steam post naturally suggested the custom of electing boy bishops (sometimes conflated with the Feast of Fools). The object was to subvert the normal order of things and ‘put down the mighty from their seats’. Here’s a rather tame article on boy bishops.  Things often got very profane, with old shoes or excrement being burnt for incense, animals being brought into church (I think I recall a donkey being goaded to “sing” the responses), and young men drinking and exposing themselves. Your post also suggested the Amish teenage rebellion period, called by some Amish rumspringa or “running/jumping around.” This is a time for the young Amish to “sow their wild oats” before they commit to the Amish life by adult baptism. I have seen articles about young Amish men being arrested for driving their buggies while intoxicated.’ thanks Invisible!