B. Temporal markers of the sacred in Romeo and Juliet and previous versions of the tale
In applying the concept of the sacred marriage to our play, I want to look first at the temporal markers in the story, both as Shakespeare presents it and in earlier versions: At what time of year does the action of the play take place? People today often miss the reference, for they attach no significance to it. It occurs fairly early, in the play’s third scene, when Lady Capulet is talking to the nurse about marrying Juliet off. It is “a fortnight and odd days” before Lammas, Lady Capulet says (I.iii.15). Juliet herself will be fourteen “on Lammas Eve at night”(I.iii.18). .
i. The reference to Lammas: Christian and Celtic symbolism.
What is the symbolic importance of Lammas? Gibbons’ notes to the Arden edition of the play tell us that Lammas, August 1, is the time in the English church when the first harvest was celebrated. Loaves of bread were made and consecrated from that harvest. Gibbons calls attention to the association between Juliet and “early-ripening.” Juliet herself is ready for harvesting, so to speak. For the nurse, there may also be an association between Lammas and “lamb,” her pet name for Juliet. Gibbons tells us that there was a false belief that “Lammas” meant “Lamb-mass,” when in fact it meant “loaf-mass.” The association is meaningful even if false. Lambs in Britain were traditionally weaned on August 1-and so was Juliet, by the Nurse’s recollection, at the age of three (I.iii.24-26). Juliet now is about to be weaned in another sense. At the same time Juliet’s fate will be that of a sacrificial lamb. Gibbons points to one other association to Lammas: a commentator noticed the association between July, the month of Juliet’s birth, and her name. Since Shakespeare was given the name from earlier versions of the story, it is logical for her to have been born in July.
However I think Lammas has much additional significance, if we consider it from the perspective of Celtic myth. We know that Shakespeare frequently drew on the Celtic tradition. For example, later in the play Mercutio has a long speech about Queen Mab and her fairy doings (I.iv.33-94). And only two years before our play, he put on Midsummer Night’s Dream; the title refers to another special time for Celts, when fairies were said to appear to mortals. Apart from Shakespeare, Elizabethans had Ireland and its ways very much on their mind, if only because England was then actively subjugating that land.
Before the Roman conquest of western Europe, a holiday corresponding to Lammas was celebrated all over the Celtic world.. It is no coincidence that Emperor Augustus took August 1 as his cult-day, and that he initiated his cult in the Celtic city of Lugdunum, modern Lyon, named for Lugh, Celtic god of light (Curran 2000). The Romans called him “the Gaulish Mercury,” in keeping with their practice of identifying foreign deities with their own.
In Ireland, Lammas was the central day of Lunghnasadh, Lugh’s festival, which extended 15 days on both sides of August 1. It was said to have been started by Lugh in honor of the death of Tailtu, his foster-mother (Curran 2000). She was an earth goddess forced to clear her land by the conquering gods of civilization, an effort that killed her. People would go on hillsides and pick wild berries in honor of her, taking “flatcakes of oatmeal and milk” to eat, as an 85 year old woman in Donegal told an interviewer in 1942. The custom did not die out in her town until World War I (Smyth 1996, 105).
Lughnasadh was a time when people might begin “year and a day” marriages, a kind of trial marriage that might or might not be made permanent later. These were known as “Teltown marriages,” from the Anglicized name for the town which tradition held was the burial place of Tailtu (Crowley 1998), and where Lughhnasadh was celebrated grandly even in the 18th century. In pre-Christian times these marriages would have had Druidic blessing.
The time also honored one of Lugh’s marriages, to the goddess Naas. There is little information on her. The festivities suggest a goddess of the bountiful harvest. If we turn to images of Mercury in Roman Gaul and Britain, we find just such a consort, the goddess Rosmerta, meaning “the great provider,” often shown with a cornucopia or a purse (Green 1992, 180). A stone plaque found in Gloucester (Fig. 2; Green 1992, 181) shows her next to “Gaulish Mercury” (the cock is an animal sacred to Mercury) with a ladle in her hand above a big pot.
Occurring at the time the grain was cut and the fields burned, the holiday was also associated with ritual sacrifice by cutting and burning. It is unclear how often human sacrifice was performed by the ancient Celts; Roman writers implied that it was frequent event. Lucan, Julius Caesar, and Strabo wrote about a giant “wicker man” that was burned at harvest-time with victims locked inside. In or around Shakespeare’s day, illustrated books popularized the wicker-man; e.g. the Britannia Antiqua of 1676 (Fig. 2a; Curran 2000, 237), and farmers still burned small straw figures at harvest. ).
In the Roman accounts, the human sacrifices and the wicker-men were not made to satisfy Lugh, but rather other sky gods, Taranis or Essa (Green 1992). Apparently more than one harvest god was honored on August 1. Scholars today do not mention any Roman accounts of myths connecting these gods to the day or to Lugh. However I think we can make some educated guesses, at least for Britain and Ireland.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, folklorists wrote down pagan folk-tales remembered by Irish villagers; MacNeill (1962) has assembled many of them. A god or lord of the harvest, honored around August 1, was recalled by many, associated with the ritual sacrifice and burning of cattle. His name was Crom Dubh, the stooped black one, stooped from bringing the first sheaves of wheat to Ireland. Bad as he was, he was still the one who gave the people “the light of day, darkness of night, and the change of the seasons” (MacNeill 1962, 597). Moreover, “It was he who taught them to sow and reap, and when the weather would be good or bad” (595).
MacNeill (1962, 409ff) thinks that this god was not Lugh, but an older god who had to be appeased to prevent ruined crops and diseased animals, perhaps corresponding to Balor, Lugh’s grandfather, in the written legends. These devout Catholic informants recalled stories that anyone who saw the hilltop bonfires still lit by “witches” would be struck dead. This sounds like the “evil eye” that was Balor’s chief weapon. Likewise, any children wandering about at night were likely fall into the earth. Various sink-holes were said to be the lair of the god, now in the form of a giant snake, driven there by St. Patrick, whom MacNeill thinks in these stories is the Christian monks’ popular substitute for Lugh.
In the official legends, written down in Latin by medieval Christian for their own use, Lugh is portrayed as belonging on his father’s side to a race of warrior-gods more civilized than the harsh and unpredictable native ones. His mother was the daughter of the native chief god Balor, but the gods, like their Celtic worshipers, identified themselves with their father’s tribe. Lugh eventually killed Balor with a sling-shot aimed at his dreaded eye. (In the stories collected by MacNeill, he is sometimes not killed but either driven underground or converted to the new religion (Christianity, in the substitution of St. Patrick for Lugh).0
The English had an example in their not too distant past that suggested a re-enactment of the slaying of Balor. The second Norman king of England, William, the Red, was supposedly an inept king with many enemies. History said that he died on August 2, 1100, a day conspicuous by its ritual significance. It would have been especially significant to kill a a king with red hair, corresponding to blood and to color the grain started to take when it was ready to harvest. Moreover, the death was said to have been the same way as Lugh’s grandfather’s, through the eye; William died by an arrow through the eye (Brittania 2000).
Although I have not found scholars making the comparison, Lugh and Balor are reminiscent David and Goliath, here become warrior-champions of the enlightened and more primitive indigenous tribes of deities. These Celtic gods, however, were not simply immortal, as were the Greek and Roman Olympian gods, or the Judeo-Christian father-god Jehovah. The Celtic harvest-gods die and are reborn each year, according to the rhythm of the farming year. Balor must be honored to protect the crops and the health of the crops; and although he is defeated at the harvest, when Lugh kills Balor and marries the land, Balor still operates in the sky and in the Land of the Dead, and he must be appeased to protect the grain and the animals from disease. Moreover, Lugh in turn is killed on November 1, not to be reborn until the light begins to grow longer again.
To me the cycle is reminiscent of the tale of Persephone, daughter of the Graeco/Roman grain-goddess Demeter or Ceres. The grain-maiden is taken underground by the Lord of the Underworld and made his wife at the time of the fall planting, mid-September when the Eleusinian Mysteries are conducted. She is not rescued and returned to her mother for a third of a year, 4 months, when the crops start appearing above ground. The rescuer is Hermes, the Roman Mercury, with whom the Romans identified Lugh. She returns underground again in September and the cycle repeats Lugh’s killing of Balor on August 1 becomes in the Mediterranean world the rescue of Persephone from Pluto in January. Or so it seems to me.
In any case-although I have yet to find a single work on Shakespeare to point this out--the mention of Lammas would have evoked for Shakespeare’s audience a time of both non-traditional, even sacred marriage and sacred death, and a day sacred to goddess as well as god. More specifically, Lord Capulet, if fused with his nephew Tybalt, is reminiscent of Pluto and Balor. Juliet, born at night on Lammas-eve, a day sacred to two Celtic goddesses of wealth and plenty, merges with these goddesses, one the wife of the god of light, the other dead as a result of being forced to do something against her heart. Romeo’s killing Tybalt and marrying Juliet is reminiscent of Lugh’s killing Balor and marrying the grain maiden, or Mercury rescuing Persephone. Later Lugh dies and the grain-maiden goes underground; so also Romeo and Juliet die in the crypt. But Romeo will meet and rescue Juliet in the next performance, and so will the gods repeat themselves in the next year.
We cannot expect that Shakespeare’s audience would have appreciated all these parallels. But they would have known enough for the story to resonate with their cultural unconscious. More importantly, the parallels suggest that a story is being told that reflects broader human experience and the human situation generally. Gnostics, too, went beyond the myths of particular places and times to describe the archetypal unconscious level.
ii. References to the Christian calendar in Brooke and Bandello.
Earlier versions of the Romeo and Juliet story also contain references to sacred marriage and death, but in terms of orthodox Christianity rather than Celtic belief. Shakespeare’s immediate source, a narrative poem by Brooke, starts the action at Christmas time (Brooke 1957, l. 155) Then the action drags out. Romeo spends months looking up at Juliet’s window before he risks talking to her. He kills Tybalt on the day after Easter (l.960); so the marriage must have been a short time before. Then toward the end, Juliet’s marriage with Paris is set by her father for September 10 (l. 2072). The symbolic significance of these times will be clearest if we go back two more versions of the tale.
Brooke’s source was a story in French, which was a translation, with moralizing comments added, of one in Italian, by Bandello. There were two other versions before that, but Bandello’s is the one that puts in the references to the Christian calendar. For Bandello, Romeo first sees Juliet "soon after Christmas" (Bandello 1992, 55). In other words, the love between Romeo and Juliet is born at the time of year of Christ's birth. Then they agree to marry during "the time of Lent" (63), which is traditionally the time for the lover of God to focus on Jesus. Our lovers, correspondingly, focus on each other. We are not told exactly when the marriage is, although we know it is on a Friday (63), and that it is before Romeo's killing of Juliet's cousin, which occurs "at Easter time" (65). The marriage-date, Friday during Lent, brings to mind, of course, Good Friday. The marriage is consummated in "a certain garden" (64), suggesting the Garden of Eden, the garden of the Song of Songs, and Gesthemene. Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hand, followed by Romeo’s flight to Mantua, suggests Christ's conquest over Hell after the crucifixion, followed by the renunciation of the body implied by the Ascension. Finally, Juliet's arranged wedding with Paris is set by her father for mid-September (71). She visits the friar and gets the sleeping potion on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption (71). The association between Juliet and Mary as Queen of Heaven could hardly be clearer. When Romeo hears of Juliet’s apparent death and returns secretly to Verona, he arrives at the hour when “Ave Maria” is sung (83), another association to Mary.
This time scheme is not only significant from a Christian perspective, but also from Jewish and pagan ones. Easter in northern Europe was the time of spring fertility rites, a survival of which is our “Easter bunny,” the reproductively vigorous rabbit that lays eggs. The very word “Easter” is cognate with “Estrous,” the time of fertility. It was harvest time in the eastern Mediterranean, when the first grain was made into sacred bread and the lambs were sacrificed in Jerusalem (Leviticus 23:9-14). Mid-September, the time set for the marriage with Paris, is the start of the planting season in the eastern Mediterranean, also the time, as I have mentioned, of the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, which commemorated the abduction of the grain-goddess’s daughter to the underworld and her subsequent marriage to its god. Similarly Romeo and Juliet reunite in the underworld of the Capulet vault..