Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jeudi: Great Spirits

When moderns think of Saturn our imagination usually brings up a picture of the second largest planet in our solar system; that cool one with all the rings.  Saturn, in fact, is a very ancient spirit and it is in him that we find the origin of our envisioning of “Father Time”.

Though Saturn was linked with the Greek god Cronus many millennia ago, he was originally an ancient Italian spirit, one of quite a few, who looked after the daily doings of earthly mortals.  Known to the Etruscans and the very ancient Romans as “Numina”, Edith Hamilton tells us that these spirits “… for the most part… were not even distinguished as male or female.  The simple acts of everyday life, however, were closely connected with them and gained dignity from them…”  In this sense, Saturn was originally the Protector of the Sowers of Seeds and his wife, Ops, was the Helper of the Harvesters.

With the dawn of the classical age in Rome, Saturn shouldered the mythos of Greek Cronus with all its bloody fringe.  He cannibalized his children, regurgitated them when confronted by his youngest, Jupiter, and then battled his own progeny for supremacy over the Earth.  Despite the best efforts of Saturn and his Titan brethren, Jupiter’s new band of gods won the day and it is here that Saturn’s mythology takes a different path than the gory trail of Cronus.

Rather than being cut to ribbons by his son, as Cronus was, Saturn quietly left the seat of power.  Taking up his scythe and sheaf of wheat, he travelled to Rome with the matronly Ops where they became King and Queen.  For centuries Saturn ruled over a Golden Age when peace, freedom, plenty and good health were secured for all.  Exactly when that delightful time ended is not told in myth but eventually Saturn and Ops returned to the land of the gods and humans tumbled slowly from the Silver, to the Bronze, to the despicable Iron Age.

It is in this sense that Saturn became associated with time and the movement from one “age” to another.  His scythe became a symbol not just of harvest but of cutting ties with the past.  He became the “Old Year” as we see him represented at the change to the “New Year”.

In Rome, the golden time of Saturn’s rule was remembered with the feast of Saturnalia which occurred over many days around the Winter Solstice.  In her classic Mythology, Hamilton says of this celebration:

The idea was that the Golden Age returned to the earth during the days it lasted.  No war could be then declared; slaves and masters ate at the same table; executions were postponed; it was a season of giving presents; it kept alive in men’s minds the idea of equality, of a time when all were on the same level.

It is certainly reasonable to argue that Christianity, with its true birthplace in ancient Rome, was heavily influenced by the Saturnalia holiday.  Our modern focus at Christmas time on both gift giving and “peace on Earth” probably have more to do with rites dedicated to Saturn than with anything written in the Bible.

Although old spirits are easy to forget, they are not so easily gotten rid of.  So it is that Saturn lingers on, bestowing gifts, encouraging peace, reminding us of the passing of time, and chilling in space as that really cool planet with the rings.

Header: Saturn with his scythe by Polidoro da Caravaggio


Timmy! said...

I wish there was "a Golden Age when peace, freedom, plenty and good health were secured for all" Pauline.

As usual, organized religion usurps the "pagan" ritual and makes them a part of it's own mythos, unfortunately...

Pauline said...

There is that, yes; plus Saturnalia actually sounds like more fun.

Capt. John Swallow said...

Ah, Edith Hamilton...hers was one o' the first books I owned/read on Mythology when I were a wee lad o' 8 or so...still have it (paperback). A grand reference!

Pauline said...

I had a very similar experience, Captain. I remember trying to make the beautiful chitons the goddesses in the illustrations wore out of old bedsheets. My copy is also a paperback and but it was a thrill to give my oldest a hardcover addition last Yule :)