Leap years, ill-Fated Years?

2020 is a leap year, but I don’t like that confident about it and do you know why? Because I am Italian and in these latitudes leap years are believed to be bad luck. Of course, there must be a reson that gave origin to this common belief and we have to go back to Roman times to find it .

A year is said to be a leap year, when instead of lasting 365 days, it has one more day, exactly in February, which therefore counts 29 days in all. The reason for this change is to be found in the exact duration of the solar year, that is, the time taken by the Earth to make a complete tour around the sun. History traces the origin of this ancient practice to the time of the Ancient Romans: Julius Caesar in 46 BC already knew that the calendar year actually lasted 365 days and 6 hours. So every 4 years in his calendar, he had added one more day immediately after February 24, a date that was pronounced in Latin “sexto die ante Calendas Martias“, that is ” six days before the first day of March”. The extra day was called “bis sexto die“, that is ” the sixth day for the second time”, that is why the Italian word for leap year is “bisestile” (bis-sexto).

But, why is a leap year associated to bad luck? Well, in Ancient Rome February was the month dedicated to funeral rites, the commemoration of the dead and penance. The 21th of February was also the day of “Feralia” which means “bringing” (in Latin: fero) gifts to the dead.  Roman citizens brought offerings to the tombs of their deceased ancestors, which consisted in the delivery, over a clay pot, of flower garlands, ears of corn, a pinch of salt, bread soaked in wine and loose violets. Even if additional offerings were allowed it seems that the dead were appeased only with ritual offerings. These simple offerings for the dead had been introduced in Lazio perhaps by Aeneas, who had poured wine and violets on the tomb of Anchise. Ovid narrates that once the Romans had neglected to celebrate Feralia, because they were engaged in a war, so,  the spirits of the dead had come out of the tombs, screaming and wandering the streets angrily. After this episode, reparatory ceremonies had been prescribed and the horrible manifestations ceased.

February was therefore commonly considered a bleak and fatal month and the extra day of a leap year made it ever more so. Another hypothesis is that for the ancients, everything that was anomalous and not rational, was to be considered a bad omen, therefore, also a year with an extra day. That is why after many centuries we keep believing that a leap year is not a good thing and how could I think it otherwise, since I woke up the 1st of January with a cold? And if this is just the beginning and 365 more will have to come like this, oh my!!

Narcissus’s selfie

nar1It’s time to spend a few words on the “selfitis“, that modern virus that keeps on infecting many people all over the planet day after day, making them slave of the vision of their self . Social networking sites have proved to be actually the most contagious spots, where this “self” addiction takes place. The question is: what drive makes you pull out your smart phone and snap a shot to post it? Exhibitionism? Ostentation? Boredom? How can such a fascination be explained? Maybe the Latin poet Ovid may help us as he narrated in the third book of his Metamorphoses the story of the first “selfie” ever: Narcissus‘s selfie.

nar8Narcissus in Greek mythology is the son of  the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephissus. Cephissus, having fallen in love with the beautiful nymph, enfolds her with his waves and seduces her. From their union a boy of an uncommon beauty was born: Narcissus. Her mother consults the blind seer Tiresias to know the fate of her child and his prophecy is, as all prophecies, ambiguous: the boy would enjoy a long life as long as he never knew himself. Liriope was relieved by such a prediction. At the age of sixteen, Narcissus had become a proud and disdainful man. He was so amazingly beautiful that anybody fell in love with him, but he rejected all his suitors (men and women) as he believed nobody was worthy of him.

nar2One day, while Narcissus was deer hunting, the nymph Echo stealthily followed him in the woods. She was yearning to speak to him, but she couldn’t, as she was allowed to repeat only the last words of what was spoken to her. That was the punishment inflicted by the goddess Juno for having engaged her in a long conversation, thus enabling her adulterous husband to escape. So, when Narcissus sensed he was being followed, he shouted “Who’s there?” and Echo replied “…..here?”.  Narcissus was bewildered and yelled  “Come!” and Echo replied “Come!”. Narcissus called once more: “Why do you shun me?… Let us join one another.” When Echo heard Narcissus utter those words, she was so overjoyed  that she ran towards him and threw herself upon him, but he stepped away and told her to leve him alone at once. Echo was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her.

nar9When Nemesis,  the goddess of revenge, learned about the story, she decided it was the time to punish such a selfish, unfeeling creature. One sunny day, Narcissus came upon a pool of water, when he caught a glimpse of what he thought was a beautiful water spirit. He looked in amazement for a while and as he did not recognise his own reflection, he immediately fell in love with it. He tried to bend down his head to kiss that vision, but as he did so, the reflection mimed his actions. Taking this as a sign of reciprocation, Narcissus reached into the pool to draw the water spirit to him, but then he seemed to be gone. Every time he tried to touch him, he disappeared. Only after a while he eventually recognised the image of himself in that pool and lay there gazing in to the eyes of his vision for hours. When he eventually realized that his love could not be addressed, he committed suicide piercing his chest with his sword. From the soil blood soaked with his blood, a white flower with a red corolla came out: a narcissus. It seems that when Narcissus crossed the Styx,  the river of the dead, to enter the Underworld, he looked out on the muddy waters of the river one last time, hoping to once again to admire the reflection of his self.

Tiresias’s words offer a key of interpretation of this story and provide a possible answer to the questions above. The seer doesn’t say that Narcissus will die when he recognizes himself, but rather when he knows himself. In that obsessive gazing there is the mystery and wonder of our being. Modern selfies, just like that pool, reflect our image for sure, but in those pictures we instinctively try to seek, to know ourselves; it’s this search that charms our mind and dazzles our eyes.

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