The King of Chaos: Part 1
By the time I arrive at the Temple of Saturn, a large crowd has already started to gather outside. An excited thrum buzzes around the people who are dressed in a wide palette of vibrant colour, garments usually considered too garish for daytime wear, though acceptable, even encouraged on a day like today. I am swept into the crowd almost as soon as I bank the periphery between the columns. Before I know it, I am awash in a human ocean which presses forwards like the incoming tide. The grand altar in front of the temple acts as the shingle upon which the mass of humans laps. So packed is the crowd that some members are pressed against the raised stone platform which is carved with intricate patterns. I glimpse them squirming as I stand on the tips of my toes and push my head and shoulders out of the crowd, using the men in front of me to heave myself out. My supports shrug me off, briefly muttering something in my direction before remembering themselves and resuming their gaiety. I look behind to notice we are being sealed in as more and more people cascade into the square, desperate to see the start of the festival. A blessed breeze breathes over the mass and our unified sigh follows its flow as we are relieved from the brink of panic this kind of press incites. The cold eyes of an ancient god watch the scene playing out below, delighting in the maelstrom he observes. A priest steps towards the god and removes the bindings from his feet. Today, the god of chaos roams free.
At once, animal noises fill the air and the excitement intensifies. The clopping of hooves blends with the cacophony of stomping sandalled feet and they become one. I can just make out hot air blustering through flared nostrils over the din. The crowd recognises the sounds and their murmurs become rapturous calls. The beast, visible now over the waves rising from the surface of heads makes no attempt to escape, it’s as if the creature is completely unaware of the exultant crowd which bays and shouts and clamours before him. His eyes are vacant, lids drooping; his gaze almost tranquil if it weren’t so empty. The priests tell us that if it were not the god’s will that this beast should die, he would rear up, aghast with terror as the reality of what would soon befall him grips him and wrenches him into action. The creature’s protestation would deafen us, and we would feel his heart hammering against his ribcage as life grips to his body and implores him to flee before it is too late. He would cast down the men who hold him, gore them with his gilded horns to the vengeful clanging of the bronze discs that adorn him. He would break for the crowd and cleave his way through using his mighty heft to which none of us are a match. He would divide us, from an indominable mass into quivering individuals and he would crush any who shook in his path as he drove towards freedom. Yet that animal fight has been taken from him, not through years of captivity and acclimatisation dulling those senses into dormancy as my brothers and I have been subjected to, but by a single sedating dose, as terrible and insidious as the former, yet far faster acting; infinitely more convenient for the god who cannot move than to attempt divination of an animal which can accept its role as the sacrifice for our prosperity with such celestial composure.
The doped bovine lumbers forward, blissfully numb and I wonder to myself if he dreams. Whilst the priests remove a tuft from his hide perhaps he is imagining this is all a trick of his mind, that he will waken in his pasture surrounded by his family. As the acrid stench of his own hair being burned surrounds him, maybe he muses that he will laugh with his family in their unperceivable way about the strange fantasy he had had of the men who wished to slaughter him and cast his blood onto their kin in worship of their elder god. I hope he is capable of such thought, that some comfort will come to him in his final moments; or at least that he is still capable of some lucidity, that he will not go into the abyss an unthinking slab of bone and flesh.
The bald-headed priests remove the decorations from the animal’s back and anoint it with grain from the land to ensure a fleeting winter and beckon a prosperous spring. The wielder of the knife traces a line down the spine of the sacrifice with his instrument and asks the animal if it is ready to accept his death in a tongue the creature could not possibly comprehend. He waits for the neck to relax in acceptance. The creature puts up its final act of resistance, waiting just a little too long to nod in permission of its own killing. The assistant notices the animal’s oblivious reluctance and gives the nose ring attached to the ground the slightest tug. The animal doesn’t respond, so the assistant pulls until the muscles give in the sacrifice’s lulling neck. It bows to the earth and with serene unknowing gives itself to these men as a gift for the hard god watching with an eternally fixed gaze from his pedestal.
The celebrant gives the order and the executioner brings his hammer down upon the sacrifice’s skull with a sharp crack, sending the defeated beast onto its knees before the altar. What little life there was behind those eyes goes out like a flame in the wind. The head is drawn back, exposing the neck, and the knife is drawn across leaving a gaping wound through which the animal’s life spills into the crowd. They cheer for him. They thank him and bless him for what he has done, for what he has so selflessly, and unwittingly, allowed.
As the animal lies bleeding out onto the stone, the team of priests set to work. They slice into the belly and send the creature’s entrails pooling out to mingle with the spreading blood. Steam rises off the muddle of organs, up past the god made of stone and into the sky. The celebrant plunges his hands into the hot flesh, dragging out the intestines for inspection. The stone god inspects the offering through the priest’s eyes, searching for any imperfection that would render the sacrifice insufficient. The crowd’s cheers quieten, eyes widening as one, breath shallowing in unison. A look of relief spreads across the celebrant’s face and he raises the entrails into the air. Once more, rapturous celebration takes the crowd they leap as one, pulling me upwards with them in their exhilaration. A call goes up, the origin unclear, though every crowd member knows their part: “Io Saturnalia! Io Saturnalia! Io Saturnalia!”
The call marks the start of the festival, the beginning of good times for all. The crowd is awash in jovial spirit, embracing, excited faces all around, grins spread wide. Their jubilance is spreading like panic in a stampede, I even feel it lift my heart somewhat, though I will never allow myself to enjoy the measly offerings this place makes.
If you ever need confirmation of how close we are to the beasts we consider so far below us, I urge you to take note next time you find yourself in a mass gathering of humans. Individually, we are fascinating, emotional, even intelligent. It is only when viewed as a herd, protected by our number, that our true nature is revealed. The same mentality which drives men who call themselves civilised to commit such horrors upon their fellow man during war spreads through crowds like a plague. Those around me are but a sniff of ultra-violence away from carnage. They would tear out each other’s throats for a taste of the gold the other has in his pockets, needing but one reassuring smile from their fellows to know what they are doing is acceptable. These men who consider themselves so cultured would rape and steal and pillage if it occurred to them all at the same time, if the situation were appropriate. War allows for this; there, cruelty is so far spread, so universal that it ceases to be abhorrent. When the victors return, they exact their malice in more ingenious ways and satiate their bloodlust on beasts. And they make men beasts too, beasts to be sold, traded, owned. But today they say I am free, if only for a short while. What strange creatures these civilised men are.
The crowd watches in awe as the animal is taken apart. The priests, encouraged by the good omen of disease-free innards, have resumed their work with added enthusiasm. They expertly tear the flesh from the bone, saw and sever, flay, carefully setting aside the offering to their ancient stone god who presides over the festival. He watches, satisfaction spread across his still face, as the organs, which have been cooled by the air, are set aside along with the bones and the last of the good meat is removed from them, ready for the pot. Once they have cooked, they will be placed at his feet, to be consumed in a way only the divine can, the way all things on this planet are eventually consumed; rot.
I feel as though I’m in a trance. As I watch those around me kiss and hug and smile, I almost wish I could be a part of it. But these thoughts only serve to make me feel the true injustice of it all. In essence, my wishing to truly be a part of their system, their culture, is as futile as wishing to change one’s species. Impossible. They are one, I am another, not meant for this land but bound to it through servitude. I am beneath them for they are the chosen, or so they would have me believe. And they would call me insane for not enjoying this festival; the one time of year my servitude is relinquished, the one time of year we are all equal. A reveller grabs me by the shoulder to hug me. The smile evaporates from his face as our eyes lock. I suppose I must not be smiling. He reels off, disturbed. I watch him go. I see him quickly forget the man with the dark expression he just crossed paths with as he takes another by the shoulder and hugs them boisterously. To his joy, the hug is reciprocated by the new reveller.
I am not sure how long I have been standing here daydreaming as the party swirls around me. I look back up to the altar and see the priests filing out of the temple, they must have disappeared inside without me noticing. They walk between the great columns from the inner-sanctum two-by-two, carrying on their shoulders the namesake of Saturnalia, or at least some carpenter’s best interpretation. The stone god, with his offering congealing at his unbound feet, watches enviously as the priests heave his wooden doppelganger down the steps and towards the crowd. The wooden twin reclines luxuriously, as if resting in a summer meadow, not exuding the same ferocious power as his stone kin, instead a benevolent relaxation; the kind of the relaxation that must come with being the universally popular host of the festival of the year.
The crowd parts, with some difficulty, and the priests squeeze through. The cohorts amass behind the wooden god as he leads the way through the streets, the press resuming, as before, only redirected to follow the wooden god. In legions, the people march through the streets of Rome like an invading force. Commanded by their general, Saturn, this army of citizens and slaves alike will reclaim the streets in the name of chaotic revelry, indoctrinating all they pass.
Those around me cannot know I am a double agent. They must not discover that I do not believe in this farce, that I can see through the pageantry to the putrid core of this festival. I must not allow them to see my hatred or disgust. They do not want to know what I know, that much is clear. Worse still, some of them, perhaps even most of them, do know the truth. But truth can be inconvenient and cruel. Usually it is simpler to ignore it, put your head down and follow the party, lest you be accused of ruining the fun for everyone else.