Residents of Scotland mark the arrival of the New Year with particular passion in a holiday they call Hogmanay that draws on their history of Viking invasions, superstition, and ancient pagan rituals.
Hogmanay’s origins date back to pagan rituals that marked the time of the winter solstice.
Roman celebrations of the hedonistic winter festival of Saturnalia and Viking celebrations of Yule (the origin of the twelve days of Christmas) contributed to celebrations in Scotland around the New Year.
These celebrations and other ceremonies evolved over the centuries to become the Hogmanay holiday celebrated in Scotland today. During the Middle Ages, the pre-existing pagan winter festivals were overshadowed by the feasts surrounding Christmas, and the New Year was moved to coincide with Christian holy da
Following the reformation in Scotland, however, celebration of Christmas was discouraged, and so the gift-giving and celebration that accompanied Christmas elsewhere took place at New Year, giving rise to the uniquely Scottish celebration of Hogmanay.
The various local traditions found in Scotland relating to fires also hark back to the ancient past.
In the pagan winter celebrations, fire symbolised the newly resurgent sun coming back to the land, and was believed to ward off evil spirits dwelling in the darkness.
Fires still play a major part in Hogmanay celebrations, with torchlight processions, bonfires and fireworks popular throughout Scotland.
Another custom known as “first footing” dictates that the first person to cross a home’s threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve will determine the owner’s luck for the New Year.
The ideal visitor bears gifts—preferably whiskey, coal for the fire, small cakes, or a coin—and should be a man with a dark complexion.
Why? The answer goes back to the 8th century, when the presumably fair-haired Vikings invaded and caused mayhem.
Since medieval times, the village of Rocamadour in the Occitanie region of southwestern France has attracted pilgrims from across Europe for its historical monuments and its sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It is said that Saint Amator—thought to be the Biblical tax collector of Jericho, Zacheus—had lived and died here, shortly after he left Jerusalem.
Legend has it that after St Amator’s body was discovered, several miracles started to happen, and as the healing powers of Amator’s remains became known, the site began attracting pilgrims and donations from French kings and queens allowing the site to grow into a village with several shrines and places of worship.
Eventually, Rocamadour became an important stop on the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Campostela.
Rocamadour attracts visitors for another reason—its dramatic setting.
The village clings on to the cliff face of a canyon carved by the river Alzou. The buildings of Rocamadour climbs up the side of the cliff up to a height of 120 meters.
Flights of steps ascend from the lower town to the churches, a group of massive buildings half-way up the cliff.
The chief of them is the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame, rebuilt in its present configuration from 1479, containing the chief attraction of the site—a wooden Black Madonna reputed to have been carved by Saint Amator himself.
The small Benedictine community continued to reserve to itself the use of the small 12th century church of Saint-Michel, above and to the side. Below, the pilgrimage church opens onto a terrace where pilgrims could assemble, called the Plateau of St Michel, where there is a broken sword said to be a fragment of Durandal, once wielded by the hero Roland.
The interior walls of the church of St Sauveur are covered, with paintings and inscriptions recalling the pilgrimages of celebrated persons. The subterranean church of St Amadour (1166) extends beneath St Sauveur and contains relics of the saint.
On the summit of the cliff stands the château built in the Middle Ages to defend the sanctuaries.
For ancient Greeks, Delphi was the center of the world: a site sacred to the god Apollo, where all Greeks united to worship. But at its heart was a dark, strange place: the mysterious sanctuary where the priestess of Apollo prophesied.
The priestess, called the Pythia, sat above a chasm in the earth, which belched forth fumes.
She breathed deeply – some believe that the fumes possessed hallucinogenic properties – and slipped into semi-consciousness.
Her prophecies were opaque, often frantic. This was the Oracle of Delphi: the Greeks’ most famous and most feared window into the will of the gods.
It lay in “a cavern hollowed down in the depths” of the hillside, as the historian Strabo reported, underneath the great Temple of Apollo.
Today, the ruins of the Temple sit on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
It was destroyed by the Emperor Theodosius I, in 390 CE, in an attempt to eradicate the old pagan beliefs.
Few traces of the Oracle remain, but the site is still an eerie one: mist clings to the hills, and you can almost hear the ghosts of Croesus, Nero, and Alexander.
A spiral staircase in the Denfert-Rochereau section of the catacombs (all photographs by the author unless indicated)
Perhaps the most well-known “ruin” in Paris is the catacombs, a network of quarries that span around 200 miles under the city (in fact Parisians have been known to compare their city to a holey cheese there are so many tunnels dug out under the surface).
A small portion of the catacombs were renovated and turned into ossuaries when the original resting places for the bodies were no longer viable, giving it the reputation of being one of the world’s largest graves.
Since 1874, a section has been open on a regular basis for tourists. However, what a lot of tourists don’t realize is that this is only a small segment of the mass network of tunnels.
Upon entering the ossuaries, you are faced with this warning: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (“Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death”), whereupon you are met with the first of the remains of the six million people that are buried within the catacombs.
Le Carrefour des Morts (“The Crossroad of Death”), a part of the catacombs not open to the public (photograph by Adam Slater)
As a popular tourist attraction, the catacombs now often have an enormous queue snaking around the block, thus it is always advisable to be early and expect a wait, and dress in layers — it can be extremely cold or hot outside, but the catacombs maintain a fairly consistent temperature once you enter the quarry tunnels.
For the more daring, the museum is only the start of your potential journey. The tunnels extend far beyond what is available to see here, but nonetheless provides a fascinating visit. Though you might just find yourself bending the parameters of “easily accessible” and joining the cataphiles in order to seek out the rest.
Archaeologists have unveiled a restored colossal statue of Amenhotep III that was toppled in an earthquake more than 3,000 years ago at Egypt’s famed temple city of Luxor.
The statue that showed the pharaoh in a striding attitude was re-erected at the northern gate of the king’s funerary temple on the west bank of the Nile.
The temple is already famous for its existing 3,400-year-old Memnon colossi – twin statues of Amenhotep III whose reign archaeologists say marked the political and cultural zenith of ancient Egyptian civilisation.
The 12.92-metre statue stands west of an existing effigy of the king, also depicting him walking, which was unveiled in March.
“These are up to now the highest standing effigies of an Egyptian king in striding attitude,” said German-Armenian archaeologist Hourig Sourouzian, who heads the project to conserve the temple.
The world-famous twin Memnon colossi are 21 metres tall but show the pharaoh seated.
The restored statue now stands again for the first time since its collapse 3,200 years ago, Mr Sourouzian said.
Consisting of 89 large pieces and numerous small fragments and reassembled since November, the monolith weighs 110 tonnes.
It had lain broken in pieces after the earthquake in 1200 BC, Mr Sourouzian said.