Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jubilee: a short history of a long tradition

The Queen of Pentacles

From the 2nd to the 5th of June, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years of reign, a landmark anniversary that is cause for celebration in the United Kingdom. We would also be amiss if we didn't note that the Astrologer Royal was doubtless consulted when selecting the spectacularly auspicious end date of the festivities, the same day that Venus, "the Queen of Heaven," begins to transit the face of the sun, which last occurred in 2004 and won't occur again for another 113 years.

In one of nature's boundless displays of beauty, Venus's orbit when seen from earth traces a pentagram over an eight-year cycle known as the grand quintile, succinctly elaborated at; they also created the excellent graphic below (you may need to click on the image to enlarge it for clarity).

The pentagram traced by Venus is actually a fractal one, and when plotted graphically (below) reveals a nexus of symbolic meanings: the five petalled rose (the English rose), the lily (the royal fleur-de-lys) and the alchemical quintessence, the fifth and pentultimate of the classical elements (earth, wind, fire and water), the æther. In short, we are being invited to witness a royal apotheosis, and I for one am expecting a jolly good show.

The Good Sumerians

The celebratory ceremony of the jubilee is as old as civilization itself, a tradition that stretches back through medieval Christianity to ancient Israel and ultimately to Sumer and First Dynasty Egypt, whereupon it is lost to recorded history.

The first recorded ruler to proclaim a jubilee is Enmetena, king of Lagash, an ancient Sumerian city-state. His proclamation of "freedom" (ama-gi, written in cuneiform above and literally translated as "a return to the mother") is documented in a tablet dating from ca. 2400 BC:
A remission of the obligations (ama-gi) of Lagash he instituted.
He returned the mother to the child
and returned the child to the mother,
and a remission
(ama-gi) of interest-bearing barley loans he instituted.
Some fifty years later, a successor king of Lagash, Urukagina, also declared a universal pardon and is the first ruler known to institute reforms to fight inequities and corruption, detailed in surviving tablets such as the following excerpt from a praise poem of his reign. The poem recounts man's eternal subjegation to taxes and takings and is profoundly depressing when one considers that it was written four and a half millenia ago, yet begins with the words:
From time immemorial, since life began,
in those days, the head boatman appropriated boats, the livestock official appropriated asses, the livestock official appropriated sheep, and the fisheries inspector appropriated [fish].... These were the conventions of former times!

Egypt: Run for your throne! Run for your life!

Though adapted over time, the Egyptian Heb Sed, or royal jubilee, was a codified test of the pharaoh's fitness to rule. After 30 years' reign, pharaohs were to prove their physical and mental acuity and stamina by running, singing and performing ritualized dances and ceremonies intended to renew their authority, vigor and divinity.

(Below: a view of the Heb Sed courtyard at Saqqara. In the foreground is the socle representing the double throne of Upper and Lower Egypt, with the Heb Sed pavilions and the famed stepped pyramid of Djozer rising behind.)

During the Heb Sed ceremonies, the pharaoh also raised the djed pillar, a phallic fertility symbol, from which derives, I believe, the English-language double entendre of "raising the dead." Thereafter the festival was repeated every three years until the ruler's death. What scraps of information remain concerning the ceremonies indicate nothing concerning those elements of the Heb Sed not directly involving the pharaoh, so we do not know if pardons were involved as well. However, if we go back to the earliest known incarnation of the Heb Sed, pharaohs who failed the test were ceremonially put to death—indicating that society ultimately governed the pharaoh and not the reverse.

"And on the seventh day He rested"

The Jewish jubilee (from the Hebrew yobhel, or ram's horn, blown on the Day of Atonement) was based on a seven-year cycle of crop rotation; in the Torah, Jehovah commanded Moses that fields and orchards were to lie fallow every seventh year, the sabbath year, or shmita. The jubilee year was celebrated at the end of the seventh year of the seventh shmita cycle, or every 50th year. All debts were erased, all sins forgiven, all foreclosed land returned to its prior guardians and a universal pardon was proclaimed.

This article of Mosaic law is detailed in Leviticus 25: 9-10 (KJV):
Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on... the day of atonement... throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

All roads lead to Rome

Pope Boniface VIII, much more economically stingy than Jehovah but spiritually much more indulgent, proclaimed the first Christian Jubilee on the 22nd of February in the year 1300. In return for 15 days of visits to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul for pilgrims and 30 days for native Romans, the penitent faithful (above) received complete absolution of sin.

No debt relief came with purity of soul, and in fact pilgrims indebted themselves to undertake their journeys; nonetheless, the pope's gesture was enthusiastically received throughout Christendom and began a tradition—initially at fifty year intervals, then for a time 33, reverting again to 50, and finally, with Paul II's proclamationin the late 1400s, settling upon a 25-year interval—that continues to this day. In 2000, John Paul II greatly liberalized the requirements for receiving a Jubilee indulgence, though confession, Communion, prayer for the Pope and freedom from all attachment to sin remain mandatory prerequisites.

The British Jubilee

The tradition of the British monarchy celebrating royal jubilees began with the anniversary of George III's 50th year of reign on 25 October 1809, which was celebrated thoughout Britain and the colonies. A private service was held at Windsor and a grand fete and fireworks were offered at Frogmore.

Queen Victoria, the longest reigning British monarch, also celebrated Gold and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897. Two days of pomp, feasting, processions and fireworks were attended by foreign monarchs and administrators from across the Empire, and witnessed by massive crowds. Of her Diamond Jubilee carriage ride, the Queen wrote in her diary, "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those 6 miles of streets... The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified."

"What would Jesus do?"

Which brings us to the present day: a world engulfed in The Depression that Dare Not Speak its Name and rising calls, amid vertiginously rising national and world debt that has reached truly Biblical proportions, for a Biblical response equal to the problem. For those fond of asking, "What would Jesus do?", it is well worth noting that the only time Jesus ever became violent was when driving the money changers from the temple—literally with a whip. Makes one stop a moment to ponder, doesn't it?

Caveat Victor

Throughout history, human societies have recognized the need for renewal, cleansing and release—a reset button, if you will—to resolve inequities and to relieve injustices and imbalances that would otherwise destabilize them and eventually cause outright collapse. The imperative was so strong, in fact, that the jubilee became enshrined as an essential societal regulator and was sacralized as the Word of God as received by Moses. Whatever one's political persuasion, it cannot be denied that the world today is not only in social, political and financial turmoil, but actual distress.

The causes are far too complex to ever outline here, but if we take a few steps back and consider the proverbial Big Picture, it becomes obvious that long unchecked and exponentially accelerating debt creation, coupled with a steadily increasing concentration of wealth and power, threatens the very fabric of society itself.

Of course, those who have amassed most of the marbles won't like giving some of them back, and other inequities will certainly be engendered in doing so. But if we stay with the game metaphor for a moment, has anyone ever finished a game of Monopoly in peace and harmony, or finished the game at all? Inevitably, when the endgame comes into view, dissension arises and a handswipe—or worse—finishes things off. No one plays things out until there is an actual winner.


  1. The first papal jubilee year declared in 1300 AD must have been an amazing event. Think of the millions of pilgrims crowding into Rome, needing spiritual enrichment.... As well as hotels, meals, boots and every other commercial outlay.

    Will the Jubilee in the UK this year be as successful?

  2. Hels funny you mention that aspect, I'd been thinking of commenting on the economic/tourism aspect of the pope's declaration for Roman businesses as well!

    As for this year's Jubilee, if they want to ensure a real corker, they might want to at least forgive something--traffic tickets at least?