The Myth of Saturn in the Classical Era

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas; magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. Iam Redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia Regna, iam nova progenies caelo dimittitur alto. Tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo, casta fave Lucina: tuus iam regnat Apollo. [1]

Virgil, Bucolics, eclogue IV
Antoine Callet – Saturnalia (1783)

Published in: Proceedings of the 6th Turin Astrological Conference

Italian version

The Golden Age in Roman times

The Latin phrase “Per aspera ad astra” (through the hardships to the stars) from Seneca’s work [2] seems to reflect the human soul’s effort in facing tests and responsibilities symbolised by the saturnine glyph, which represents the most remote of the septenary planets in a horoscope. Saturn appears as a severe father god who tests us through suffering, which may seem excessive and incomprehensible. Our current relationship with Saturn reflects an existential and cultural model limited to Jupiter’s vast expanses, representing the ego’s systematic growth that annexes new territories of material and ideological conquest. The unknown, such as fate or accidents, is like a mountainous wall that is impossible to scale for most people.

Saturn has now returned to its original context as portrayed in its myth, carrying its symbolic weight of necessity. Hesiod tells us [3] that Cronus – Saturn for the Romans – is the strongest of the Titans generated by the union of Gaea, the mother earth, with Uranus, the starry Sky. Uranus is already a ruthless father who hides his newborn children in the depths of the world; Gaea, burdened by the weight of the situation, creates the essence of iron in her bowels and extrudes a sickle from it, instigating Cronus to castrate his father. Once his deed is done, Cronus marries his sister Rhea. Mindful of his father’s prophecy, which predicts the same fate for him, he devours the children he had with Rea for fear of being ousted. One of his sons, Zeus-Jupiter,  manages to avoid a terrible fate through clever tactics, ultimately de-throning and imprisoning the former ruler in Tartarus. The deed ushers in a new era of gods, bringing order to the chaos of the world and replacing the darkness of Hades with the light of the Olympic pantheon. While Zeus wields the power of divine lightning and can punish both titans and mortals, he only does so as a warning aiming to prevent further tragedy [4].

The Saturn myth reflects the human struggle to understand the unexplainable. Despite our attempts to rationalise our experiences, they often defy any logical explanation. The Olympic gods overthrew the Titans, representing primal and mysterious forces, ushering in an era of linear vision and thinking [5]. However, can we genuinely dismiss the influence of Saturn, or should we seek to reconcile with him and discover the obscured message he offers?

The myths presented by ancient authors often involve sudden changes in setting and character associations, which can be unsettling [6]. However, it’s essential to understand that these myths reflect the cultural conditions of specific times and places while maintaining their cosmological and metaphysical foundations. For example, Plutarch’s retelling of the Chthonic god’s story, hundreds of years after Hesiod’s theogony, begins with the god’s exile on the island of Ogygia, the “Ancient One” – Homeric theatre of the nymph Calypso, who detained Ulysses for seven years [7] –  rather than the desolation of Tartarus. Plutarch places the island in the North Atlantic, near a continent inhabited by ancient Greek worshippers of the god [8]. Here is a quote from Plutarch himself on the matter [9]: For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold — the sleep that Zeus has contrived like a bond for him —, and birds flying in over the summit of the rock bring ambrosia to him, and all the island is suffused with fragrance scattered from the rock as from a fountain; and those spirits mentioned before tend and serve Cronus, having been his comrades what time he ruled as king over gods and men. Many things they do foretell of themselves, for they are oracular, but the prophecies that are greatest and of the greatest matters they come down and report as dreams of Cronus, for all that Zeus premeditates Cronus sees in his dreams​ and the titanic affections and motions of his soul make him rigidly tense until sleep restores his repose once more and the royal and divine element is all by itself, pure and unalloyed“.

After a shift in perspective, Cronus is no longer seen as an exiled god but as a dormant god whose potential lies within a golden rock, symbolising royalty. To place the myth in an astrological context, we would see Saturn emerging from its diurnal House in Aquarius, facing the solar energy of Leo. However, Cronus is now restricted to the mineral world, evoking reality through dreams and serving the refined and disembodied souls of his former subjects. He holds dominion over the lunar world, whose light reflects a pale image of his past divine splendour. Some questions arise as the story progresses: Why is Cronus still revered by his former subjects and the Greek refugees surrounding his resting place, despite being banished from the earthly kingdom due to his unpleasant actions, his father’s castration, and lack of filial piety? What is the true meaning behind the gestures that led to his condemnation?

Plutarch’s style aligns with the pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Thales, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus, who believed that there is a connection between the science of nature and that of humans. Plutarch views divinity as inherent in natural processes and myth as a syncretistic language that explains phenomena by representing them in human form. Plutarch’s vision is anthropocentric but acknowledges that there are universal models beyond human comprehension. Plutarch’s culture of conciliation does not include the concepts of good and evil, as these are both necessary aspects of the Whole. Therefore, like Cronus, the Titans preside over the orderly unfolding of universal events [10].

The following step involves understanding the actions and roles of the Titan king. For this purpose, the chronicles of Macrobius provide the most insightful information: “Kronos (Saturn) and Chronos (time) are one and the same god. Mythographers have created fictional tales about Saturn, but physicists [11] aim to bring authenticity to his story. They suggest that Saturn severed Sky’s genitals and threw them into the sea, giving rise to Venus, who was later named Aphrodite from the foam it was formed [12]. Their interpretation is as follows: during the chaotic period when time did not exist, celestial revolutions brought about the birth of time from Sky. Thus, Cronos (Saturn) or Kronos (time) is born from Sky [13]“.

What occurred as a result of the paternal emasculation? In astronomical terms, the separation of heaven from earth establishes the obliquity of the ecliptic, signifying the start of measurable time and the breaking of the original equilibrium. Saturn, the first planet to appear in the fixed stars’ sky, governs the motion of the Universe. At the same time, the stellar fixity – a witness to the essence of Being beyond every change – is followed by the parade of planetary gods as an intrinsic expression of heaven’s silent will. Under Uranus’ aegis, the first-world generation ushered in an era of substantial equilibrium where harmony reigned supreme. However, “the father, the great Uranus, called the sons he generated Titans[14], which means “dilator” in Greek etymology [15]. The Titan distorts the measure of cosmic order and represents the astronomical upheaval that marks man’s detachment from the cosmos. At some point, the heliacal rising [16] of a constellation no longer coincides with the reference zodiac sign due to the phase shift induced by the precession of the equinoxes, marking the end of the Golden Age as represented in wise traditions of all times. From then on, time begins to shatter the eras of humanity, giving rise to empires and civilisations and ruthlessly dragging them into oblivion. Macrobius insists on the equivalence between Cronos and Kronos [17] because Saturn began time with his act. For this reason, Cronos devours his children since time leads to the consumption of what it gives birth to.

Macrobius tells us in great detail the myth of separation from heaven: [18]Just as the various principles of everything that took shape after heaven descend from heaven itself, and how the different elements that make up the world descend from these, as soon as the world was finished in its parts, the time came when the creative principles of the elements ceased to descend from heaven as the creation of those elements was now complete. Since then, the faculty of generating through fluids (ex humore) was transposed to the Venusian action. From then on, all living beings were created through the union of the male with the female. Because of the amputation of the genitals, physicists gave the god the name of Saturn, from Sathimus, derived from satheh [19], which means male organ.” After the end of the celestial generation, Venus Aphrodite oversaw the procreation of men and women, beginning the cycle of humanity. Saturn’s sleep near the island of Ogygia serves as a reminder of man’s lost Edenic past, still alive in legends and myths.

Virgil is a prominent classical author known for associating with the prophecy of a new Golden Age. This prophecy originated from the sibylline predictions [20] and was mentioned in the fourth eclogue of his Bucolics [21]. The prophecy foretold the birth of a child that would usher in a new era of peace, where all wars would cease. Despite its brevity, this fragment received various comments in the Middle Ages owing to the wealth of references it gave life to.

Virgil’s prophecy is connected to the return of Astraea, the daughter of Zeus and the goddess of justice, Themis (The Immovable). The myths narrate that when the world degenerated, at the beginning of the Bronze Age, according to Aratus [22], Astraea flew to heaven, where she became the constellation of Virgo. Virgil saw the return of the Virgo constellation at the autumn equinox, along with the simultaneous passage of Pisces at the spring equinox, as the start of a new era of peace and well-being. The work was composed between 42 and 39 BC, at the beginning of the Age of Pisces, as shown by the use of the adverb “iam” (now).

The child mentioned in the prophecy is believed to be Asinius Gallus, the son of Consul Asinius Pollion, to whom the eclogue is dedicated. However, the exact identity of the child is uncertain, leading Emperor Octavian to identify himself with the child’s figure after Actium’s naval victory in 31 BC. This victory allowed him to call himself Augustus, the restorer of an order that united the sacred and profane. In keeping with the prophecy, Octavian restored temples and gave new impetus to the cult of Apollo, who was seen as his tutelary deity. The reference to Apollo is also present in the figure of Lucina, one of the epithets of Hera-Juno, Jupiter’s sister and wife and the mother of Apollo.

During the Middle Ages, no other historical references were available, so it was almost obligatory to associate the child with Christ and the Cumaean Sibyl with the Virgin Mary. This made Virgil the sage who first announced Christianity in the Roman world.

The myth that serves political and religious utilitarianism doesn’t lessen its authority but instead adds to its presence, albeit inappropriately. According to the ubiquitous Macrobius, our nation’s hidden history is closely linked to the Golden Age’s splendour. Macrobius notes [23] that Janus, the double-faced god, ruled over the region called Italy [24]. He hosted Saturn, who arrived by ship in the country. Saturn imparted agricultural techniques that significantly improved the quality of food produced from the land previously harvested and consumed in the wild. Janus and Saturn peacefully reigned over the same country, establishing an era of equality and prosperity that gave rise to the cities of Janiculum and Saturnia. Suddenly, Saturn vanished without a trace. In appreciation of Saturn’s contributions, Janus erected an altar in his honour and decreed the feasts of Saturnalia.

We see an interesting shift in this Roman interpretation of the Hesiodic myth. Janus, the two-faced god, was traditionally known as the guardian of the solstice doors (januae), responsible for opening and closing the annual cycle [25]. His two faces symbolise the past and the future, while a third hidden face exists between the history that has passed and the destiny that has yet to unfold. This third face represents the eternal present, encompassing all reality in a timeless gaze that the two visible faces manifest contingently. Macrobius speaks of Janus’ reign, during which the fruits of the earth were “illum et rudem”, uncultivated and wild, reflecting a sense of pristine purity. Saturn, on the other hand, emerges from the sea. His origin is unknown, but it’s possible that he crossed the waters of oblivion to start anew as the time creator and master farmer. In this role, he designates the times and places for sowing, cultivation, and harvesting. Within traditional civilisations, agriculture holds a sacred function because it highlights the correlation between celestial and terrestrial cycles.

After repairing the damage caused by him, Saturn takes on the role of a slumbering deity who, according to Proclus’ Commentary on Cratylus by Plato, “provides the principles of intelligibility from above to the Demiurge (Zeus) and presides over the whole creation[26]. This perspective allows us to understand and reconcile Saturn’s different functions: primarily, he is the god of time, encompassing both mythical, cyclical time that marks the ages of humanity through the precession movement and linear, historical time that attempts to evade the cosmic order. This deviation places Saturn on Earth during humanity’s darkest moments, as stated in an Orphic fragment: “Orpheus reminds us that Saturn dwelt openly on Earth and among men[27]. Saturn provides the measures necessary to partially maintain contact with a cosmos that no longer reflects the harmony of its origins. In addition to agriculture, Saturn is also associated with the Saturnalia, a gift whose remnants are still celebrated today through the carnival, adapted by Christianity.

According to Macrobius, during the Saturnalia feasts in Rome, which occurred around the winter solstice from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, slaves were able to feast alongside their masters. This temporary reversal of social hierarchy is believed to reflect a time when there were no class or property differences. However, Macrobius admits that he cannot reveal all the hidden meanings behind these celebrations because, to his admission, “it is not permissible to give the occult meanings or those that do not descend from the pure source of truth [28].” The fact is that the winter solstice marks a time of renewal and the re-establishment of conditions before the start of a new year. It symbolises the reintegration of the world during the transition between two cosmic cycles. Similarly, during the celebrations at the temple built by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus in the Roman Forum around 500 BC, the statue of Saturn was freed from woollen laces that chained him to the temple columns throughout the year. This allegory represented a return to an original condition, reminiscent of an era free from the constraints of necessity.

[1] “Now is come the last age of the Cumaean prophecy; the great cycle of periods is born anew. Now returns the Maid, returns the reign of Saturn. Now from high heaven, a new generation comes down. Yet do thou at that boy’s birth, in whom the iron race shall begin to cease, and the golden to arise over all the world, Holy Lucina, be gracious; now thine own Apollo reigns”.

[2] Hercules Furens, second act, v. 430. The term synthesises the saying: non est ad astra mollis e terris via (the road from earth to heaven is not easy).

[3] Theogony, v. 150 f.

[4] Ovid, Metamorphosis, XI, 1, ff. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the story of Phaeton, son of Helios and the nymph Clymene, is told. Phaeton’s eagerness to drive his father’s solar chariot leads to chaos as the inexperienced driver loses control, causing destruction and havoc on Earth. To prevent further disaster, Zeus intervenes and strikes Phaeton with a lightning bolt, sending him near the river Eridanus (the Po).

[5] The name Zeus (Gr. Ζευς) has its roots in the Indo-European Dyaus, which refers to the bright and clear Sky. This is also the origin of the Sanskrit deva and the Latin Deus.

[6] According to Eratosthenes (Catasterisms, I, 400), who is also referenced in Hyginus (De Astronomia, II, 42), Phaeton is linked with Saturn (see note 4). During the Hellenistic era, there was no fixed association between planets and deities. Saturn was sometimes identified as Fenonte, the Splendid, or Nitturo, the Night’s Watch.

[7] Odyssey, VII, 244.

[8] According to legend, Briareus, the hundred-handed monster and brother of Cronus, was thrown into the sea by Neptune after a war with Zeus. Briareus now serves as the guardian of Cronus near Ogygia due to his association with the sea. The islands’ location is connected to myths and legends about the Hyperborean race, which may not be relevant in this context.

[9] Plutarch, De facie in orbe lunae, 942 f.

[10] The idea of a never-ending, metaphysical conflict between two opposing forces – Olympic and Titanic – remains a concept that still challenges the notion of unity today, just as it did in the past. As an example, Evola explains in his work “Simboli della Tradizione Occidentale” (Turin, 1988, p.64) that “according to the ancient worldview, the Olympic element is defined in opposition to the Titanic, telluric, and Promethean one… The Arians viewed every struggle as a reflection of the metaphysical battle between Olympic and Titanic forces, seeing themselves as warriors for the former.”

[11] Philosophers who study the physical realm (physis) and aim to understand the nature, laws, and substance of the measurable world and its external entities.

[12] From the Greek άfρóς (afrós), foam.

[13] Macrobius, Saturnalia, I, 8, 6.

[14] Hesiod, op. cit., v. 210 ff.

[15] The name “titan” is believed to have originated from the Greek word “τιταίνω,” meaning to stretch or dilate, according to etymologists.

[16] The term “heliacal rising” refers to the exact moment when a star rises at dawn.

[17] While not all philologists agree with the equivalence of Cronos and Kronos, it is necessary to acknowledge this symbolism.

[18] op. cit., I, 8, 8.

[19] Greek σάθη.

[20] The semi-mythic figure of the Cumaean Sibyl is linked to the cult of Apollo, and her oracular cave was situated in Cumae, near present-day Campi Flegrei in Naples.

[21] See note 1.

[22] Aratus Da Soli, Phenomena, vv. 200-205.

[23] op. cit., I, 7, 18 ff.

[24] The term “Italy” originates from the Greek word “ιταλός” and translates to “land of the bulls”. This name was specifically linked to the Apennine region of the country.

[25] Cf. René Guénon, The solstitial symbolism of Janus, in Simboli della Scienza Sacra, Milan 1975, p. 212 ff.

[26] Cit. in G De Santillana, H. von Dechend, Il Mulino di Amleto (Hamlet’s mill), Milan 1983, p. 163.

[27] Ibid. p. 262.

[28] op. cit., I, 7, 18.