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October 21, 2021

Famous Feasts and Festivities: A History of Hazardous Events

Humans have been planning grand events as far back as we've recorded history—and though it may seem like things have changed a lot, they really haven't. We still eat a lot of food, drink a lot of drinks, and dance ourselves into the next day.

When we think of event planning, we think of modern venues, guests, and occasions—but in actual fact, humans have been meeting up for extravagant and monumental occasions for millennia. Our current endeavours to gather together are a far cry from those of old—modern-day networking event would likely not include a banquet akin to those of ancient times. One thing we take for granted about virtual events is the smaller opportunity for things to go wrong. The high-stakes events of the past had a wider scope for disaster—and, what's more, a higher chance of death if you happened to be the cause.

The world of luxurious spending has taken quite a different turn of late—and it would seem that the banquets and feasts of the past have fallen out of fashion. Ornate décor and lavish dress remain an integral element of these expressions of wealth, status, and hospitality—festivals are still for the masses, but noble feasts have given way to magnificent balls, and from there, the humble dinner party. Despite all this, things haven't changed as much as you'd expect—so, let's take a look back on some of the most notorious parties, events, and occasions throughout history.

The Festival Of Drunkenness (15th Century BCE)

It's hard to tell exactly when our love of grand celebrations was borne, but "archaeological research at the Temple of Mut in Luxor" suggests that ancient inhabitants of the Nile River Valley partook in an unbridled "Festival of Drunkenness". Step aside Oktoberfest, you weren't the first, and you almost certainly won't be the last occasion dedicated to excessive drinking.

During the reign of Hatshepsut in the 15th Century BCE, the festival was thought to have been held once a year. Shrouded in religion and mythology—the event was inspired by Sekhmet, a bloodthirsty warrior goddess who intended to wipe out the whole of humanity before drinking too much beer and promptly passing out. As a way of re-enactment, the Egyptians would get blind drunk at a debauched party to celebrate their salvation. Although this was around 35,000 years ago, it's not a far cry from events that take place present day—maybe we're closer to our ancient ancestors than we'd first thought.

The Olympic Brawl (4th Century BCE)

When we think of The Olympic Games, we tend to overlook its paganist origins. As the National Geographic puts it, this "romanticised image with gentlemanly behaviour and chivalry" was concocted by Victorian scholars, and a far cry from the rowdy nature of the original event. In actual fact, the Ancient Olympic Games were dedicated to the God Zeus, where sacrificial offerings "and rituals [took] up as much time as the sports."

With the spread of Hellenism, a great many city states wanted to compete, and so there had to be a moratorium on war during game-times. This "sacred truce" allowed participants and attendees to travel safely to and from the games. However, like many truces throughout time, it occasionally dissolved. In 364 BCE the organisers got involved in politics, and so were no longer allowed to run the event. Due to the religious nature of the games, this meant that the city state, Elis no longer presided over the Sanctuary of Zeus—instead, neighbouring Pisa now had control.

In a bid for vengeance, the usurped organisers attacked their successors at the games in the middle of a wrestling match. The fight descended into a colosseum-like battle, with the audience jeering and applauding like fans of opposing teams. Fortunately for us, modern-day event planners do not have to battle royale for the right to plan a party—in fact, that privilege is rotated every 4 years, so clearly we've learnt something from our ancestors. This occurrence was certainly not the last time politics has interfered with the games though—with wartime being a persistent cause—however the UN renewed the truce in 1993, so here's hoping it never happens again.

The Banquet of Cleopatra (1st Century BCE)

As if the Olympic Games weren't lavish enough, there comes a tale from another Hellenistic state, starring the last active ruler of Egypt: Cleopatra, and her legendary banquet. According to Pliny, in his Natural History, Cleopatra bet Marc Antony, a Roman general for Caesar, that she could "host the most expensive dinner in history."

To impress her decorated guest, and therefore, the Roman Empire, Cleopatra had a pair of earrings brought to the table—each containing a large pearl. As though the lavish feast, décor, and entertainment had not satisfied her hunger, Cleopatra crushed one of the pearls, dissolved it in a goblet of wine, and gulped it down.

“Astonished, Antony declined his dinner—the matching pearl—and admitted she had won,” writes Ward. Pliny, who has oft been dubbed the world's first gemologist, "estimated the two pearls’ worth at 60 million sestertii, or roughly 28.5 million in today’s dollars". They were thought to be the largest recorded pearls in all history at that time. It's hard to imagine sourcing those for your modern-day extravaganza, but actually, these days, jewellery can cost you up to $250 million, so watch out for any guests with a hunger for the Hope Diamond.

Ball of the Burning Men (14th Century CE)

The Bal des Ardents or Ball of the Burning Men was a tragic event held on the 28th January 1393 in Paris. Charles VI of France took part in a dance with five members of the French nobility. The ball was thought to be held by Charles' wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, in "honour of the remarriage of a lady-in-waiting". Remarriages at the time were often cruelly mocked with raucous festivities—and this celebration was no exception. Evidence suggests that the dance itself contained elements of the traditional Charivari—which is not quite the refined dance we'd naively assume French nobility to perform. Instead, the dancers disguised themselves as "wild men, mythical beings often associated with demonology, that were commonly represented in medieval Europe".

A fire broke out, lighting the wild men, and burning four of the dancers so gravely that they met their untimely end. The cause of the fire was Charles' own brother, Louis I, Duke of Orléans—from a torch he had brought to cheer on the performance. Louis arrived late and drunk, and so was unaware of the strict prohibition of lit torches, to minimise the risk of the extremely flammable costumes catching fire. Ironically, the ball itself was one of many events that were held to entertain a young king, recovering from an "attack of insanity". Fortunately for those who planned the event, the blame fell directly to Charles—however their fate goes un-chronicled, and it's possible that others were punished behind closed doors. Nowadays, we still have our fair share of 'dances gone wrong', but with the added benefit of uploading it to the World Wide Web for all to see.

The Black Dinner (15th Century CE)

Many of these events have inspired art in all its forms—from paintings, to songs, and now even TV series. This next tale inspired the infamous Red Wedding in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, so skip ahead now if you don't want spoilers. The Black Dinner was a notorious event that occurred in 15th Century Scotland. James II, the 10-year-old King of Scotland, invited his friends William, 6th Earl of Douglas, and his younger brother David to join him for dinner at Edinburgh Castle.

The Douglas clan were on the rise, and a threat to not just rival families, but also the crown. As the young nobles dined, a black bull's head was placed in front of William, and the two Douglas boys were dragged to a kangaroo court style mock trial. The pair were accused of "protesting against the king, and named as traitors"—after which they were promptly beheaded. Reports vary on whether the boy king protested the killing—yet the party planners in question didn't seem to care much either way. Despite these claims of protest, 12 years later, King James invited William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas to Stirling castle "under the promise of safe conduct", before stabbing him twenty-six times for "conspiring to rival royal authority". History, it would seem, is doomed to repeat itself even in the short term.

Field of the Cloth of Gold (16th Century CE)

King Henry VIII is known for many things—one of which being his love of partying. If his physical size were not indicator enough, it's often said that he spent much of his time entertaining guests at extravagant feasts. In 1520, Henry joined King Francis I of France to host a summit in a valley near Calais, in a bid to foster good relations. The good-natured event soon descended into a competition—and after two and a half weeks of who can throw the grandest bash, the pair were squaring off in an impromptu wrestling match in which Henry was reportedly toppled over.

After this mad spree of drinking, feasting, jousting and archery, relations were no better than they were before. With both their treasuries drained, and their egos either boosted or knocked, they were on opposing sides of the battlefield just two years later. These tales make for such good stories, we can almost forgive their frivolity—but it's difficult to see the point of all this pageantry when it seems to make little difference.

If history is, as they say—doomed to repeat itself, then why do we bother writing it down at all, when we can just wait for it to happen once again? Well, actually, despite the patterns we notice, things have changed rather a lot in a very short period of time. Some say that every story has already been told, but they are wrong—yours is unique. So plan as many grand events as you like (and if your event's online, you know where to go, hint hint). We get one life on Earth (unless of course you believe in reincarnation, or the multiverse), so live it to the fullest, and do everything in your power to make it special. Eat pearls, if you want; and dance your heart out without fear of death; but most of all, learn from your mistakes, and the mistakes of our ancestors. Let's prove the naysayers wrong.

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