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

Per aspera ad astra (through the hardships to the stars): this Latin phrase, taken from Seneca’s work [2], almost seems to echo the effort of the human soul in the face of the tests and responsibilities symbolically expressed in the horoscope by the saturnine glyph, icon of the most remote of the septenary planets. The distance that separates it from the observer and its appearing – last among the visible wandering stars – makes it similar to a severe father god who comes to us through the trial of suffering, incomprehensible because we consider it excessive. In some ways, our current relationship with Saturn reflects an existential and cultural model whose horizon stands out no further than the vast expanses of Jupiter, the ego’s systematic growth that annexes to itself new territories of material and ideological conquest. What is beyond the knowable – the fate, the accident – stands in front of it like a mountainous wall with no holds, impassable to most.

Saturn has now relegated to the context that the myth itself assigns to it with its symbolic burden made 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 in turn ousted. Zeus-Jupiter, one of these, escaped by a stratagem from the sad fate, dethrones him by confining him to Tartarus. It is the beginning of the new gods’ era, the bearer of a vision that replaces the primordial chaos with the light of the Olympic pantheon, capable of dispersing Hades’ mists and ordering the world according to reason. It is also true that Zeus possesses the attribute of divine lightning. He can indiscriminately punish titans and mortals, yet it is always an announced punishment, often aimed at limiting even more tragic consequences [4].

So far, the Saturn myth echoes contemporary inadequacy in the face of the inexplicable. Human experience, with its happy and less happy hours, defies any pretence of rational systematisation. However, the Olympic divinities exiled the Titans, symbol of telluric and nocturnal powers, establishing – so to speak – a sort of dictatorship of the visible, [5] prelude to an era of certainties and growth of linear thought that proceeds rapidly towards the understanding of the dark areas of our knowledge. But is this the case? Can we boast the importance of Olympic consciousness over the ancient gods and exorcise Saturn when he appears? Or should we attempt the path of reconciliation and understand his message now clouded by the reverberation of Jupiter?


The narrative in the form of myth to which the ancient authors accustom us often appears disturbing due to the dramatic and sudden change of setting and association the characters are subject to [6]. But it shouldn’t be too surprising when you think that the myth responds to cultural conditions associated with specific times and places. At the same time, its cosmological and metaphysical foundations remain unaltered. Thus, eight centuries after the Hesiodic theogony, Plutarch resumes weaving the destinies of the chthonic god starting from his exile, no longer in the desolation of Tartarus but beyond the island of Ogygia, the “Ancient One”, Homeric theatre of the nymph Calypso, who detained Ulysses for seven years [7]. According to Plutarch, Cronus lies on an island that geographically could be found today in the North Atlantic, near a continent inhabited by Greek worshipers of the ancient god [8]. But now, let have the floor to the author [9]: “Cronus sleeps locked in a cave deep in a gold-coloured rock. As the birds fly to the top of the rock bringing him ambrosia, the scent permeates the whole island. Demons assist Cronus after serving him when he was king of gods and men. Endowed with prophetic virtues, they draw from themselves numerous prophecies. However, the most serious are heralded as Cronus’s dreams: what Zeus premeditates Cronus sees in a dream. The titanic passions of the soul manifest in him as a tense rigidity before sleep restores him until his royal and divine character re-emerge uncorrupted“.

Following this change of perspective, Cronus reappears no longer as an exiled god but as a sleeping god whose potential opens up within a golden rock, a symbol of royalty. If we wanted 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 confined to the mineral kingdom. He is a nocturnal god who evokes reality through dreams and has served his former subjects’ refined and disembodied souls. Therefore, his dominion is essentially over the lunar world, whose light reflects a pale image of his past divine splendour. Now the story begins to raise some perplexities; Cronus was banished from the earthly kingdom due to his unpleasant acts, his father’s castration and total lack of filial piety. But then why does he continue to be lovingly cared for by his former subjects and revered by the Greek refugees who surround his resting place? And what is the true meaning of the gestures that marked his condemnation?

Plutarch follows a style that brings him closer to the thought of the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, to name a few) in which the gap between the science of nature and that of man is not so marked. Divinity is inherent in natural processes, and myth is a syncretistic language that reads phenomena obscuring them with figures represented in human form. In other words, Plutarch has an anthropocentric vision mitigated by the awareness that there are universal models outside of man. Still, only man can understand them and define their meaning in his own life. In this culture of conciliation, there is no room for the ideas of good and evil. The dark side and the bright side of manifestation are the two necessary aspects of the Whole. Therefore, like Cronus, the Titans preside by right over the orderly unfolding of universal events [10].


The next step is to establish the meaning of the actions and roles of this king of the Titans. To this end, there is nothing more illuminating than the chronicles left by Macrobius: “Kronos (Saturn) and Chronos (time) are but the same god. Since mythographers cover Saturn in fiction, physicists [11] seek to bring his story back to a certain authenticity. They say that having Saturn cut off the genitals of his father Sky, and throwing them into the sea, from the foam formed [12] Venus was born, which took the name of Aphrodite; and here is their interpretation: when everything was chaos, time did not yet exist, since time is a measure taken from celestial revolutions; therefore time was born from the Sky; therefore it is from the Sky that Cronos (Saturn), i.e. Kronos (time) [13], is born“.

What, then, was the result of the paternal emasculation? In astronomical terms, the separation of heaven from earth establishes the obliquity of the ecliptic, marking the beginning of measurable time and the breaking of the original equilibrium. Saturn, the first planet to appear in the sky of fixed stars, figures as the ruler of the motion of the Universe; the stellar fixity, witness of the essence of Being beyond every change, is followed by the parade of the planetary gods as an intrinsic expression of the silent will of heaven. Under the aegis of Uranus, the first world generation establishes an era of substantial equilibrium; harmony reigns supreme, but “the father, the great Uranus, called the sons he generated Titans[14]. The Titan is the “dilator”, according to the Greek etymology of the word [15]. He is the one who, distorting the measure of the cosmic order, represents the astronomical upheaval that marks man’s detachment from the cosmos. At a certain point, it turns out that 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; it is the loss of perfection represented in the wise traditions of all times, the end of the Golden Age. From that moment on, time begins to shatter the eras of humanity, giving rise to empires and civilisations and ruthlessly dragging them into oblivion. For this, Macrobius insists on the equivalence between Cronos and Kronos because Saturn began time with his act [17], and it is always for this reason that Cronus devours his children since time leads to the conclusion of what he gives birth.

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 that moment, all living beings were developed by 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 has the meaning of male organ.” Once the celestial generation ceased, the procreation of men and women takes over under the auspices of Venus Aphrodite, which begins the cycle of humanity. The function of Saturn seems exhausted, but in reality, it is not so; he is still the god of the measure of time, and through his sleep, near the island of Ogygia, reminds man of his Edenic past, lost but still alive in legends and myths.


One of the most representative classical authors of these trends is Virgil. In the fourth eclogue of his Bucolics [20], he quotes a prophecy whose origin goes back to the sibylline predictions [21]. They foretell the advent of a new Golden Age, witnessed by the child’s birth under which all wars would cease. Despite its brevity, this fragment was the subject of various comments in the Middle Ages precisely because of the wealth of references it gave life to. First of all, the connection with the return of the Virgin, who in this context is Astrea, daughter of Zeus and Themis (the Immovable) goddess of justice. The myths narrate that when the world degenerated, at the beginning of the Bronze Age, according to Aratus [22], Astrea flew to heaven, where she became the constellation of Virgo. Virgil, therefore, sees in the return of the Virgo constellation at the autumn equinox – with the simultaneous passage of Pisces at the spring equinox – the beginning of a new era of peace and well-being. Virgil composed the work between 42 and 39 BC, at the very beginning of the Age of Pisces; as the use of the adverb iam (now) shows, he places the prophecy in his days. The puer we are talking about is Asinio Gallo, son of the consul Asinio Pollone to whom the eclogue is supposed to be dedicated. However, the uncertainty of this attribution allowed the emperor Octavian to identify himself with the figure of the puer, especially after the naval victory of Actium in 31 BC, which allowed him to boast the title of Augustus, restorer of an order that united sacred and profane. To keep faith with the prophecy, which saw Apollo as his tutelary deity, Octavian restored the temples and gave new impetus to the god’s cult. The reference to Apollo is also indirectly present in the figure of Lucina (she who leads to the light), one of the epithets of Hera-Juno, Jupiter’s sister and wife; Apollo is, in fact, the son of Jupiter and Leto. In the absence of other historical references in the Middle Ages, it was almost binding to associate the puer with Christ and the Cumaean Sibyl with the Virgin Mary, making Virgil the sage who first announced Christianity in the Roman world.

This parenthesis that sees the myth at the service of political and religious utilitarianism does not in any way diminish its authority but instead increases its presence, albeit in an improper way. According to the ubiquitous Macrobius, our nation’s hidden history is intimately associated with the glories of the Golden Age. So Macrobius [23] tells us that Janus, the two-faced god, reigned in the region called Italy [24]. He hosted Saturn, who arrived by ship in the country. He taught agricultural techniques, significantly improving the quality of foods derived from the earth, previously harvested and consumed in the wild. Janus and Saturn reigned in peace and agreement over the same country, establishing an era of equality and prosperity from the two cities that took their name: Janiculum and Saturnia. Suddenly Saturn disappeared without a trace. In gratitude for what Saturn had done, Janus dedicated an altar to him and ordered the feasts of Saturnalia in his honour.


Here we witness a curious transposition of the Hesiodic myth in a Roman key. Two-faced Janus is properly the god who guards the keys of the solstice doors (januae), opening and closing the annual cycle [25]. His two faces represent the past and the future, but a third elusive hidden face is located between a a history that is no longer and a destiny that is not yet. The third face is the eternal present that encloses all reality in a timeless gaze, which the two visible faces manifest in a contingent way. An echo of this pristine purity shines through in Macrobius’ words when he states that during the reign of Janus, the fruits of the earth were illum et rudem, uncultivated and wild. But here comes Saturn from the sea. Where is he from? It is not known precisely. Perhaps he crossed the waters of oblivion to land – forgetting the acts that decreed his exile – to his second life as auctor temporum (time creator), in this case as a master farmer, which designates the times and places of sowing, cultivation and harvesting. Agriculture exercises a sacred function within traditional civilisations because it emphasises the correlation between the celestial and terrestrial cycles.

Once this work of repairing the splitting caused by him is completed, Saturn becomes a sleeping god who, as Proclus recalls in his Commentary on Cratylus by Plato, “provides the principles of intelligibility from above to the Demiurge (Zeus) and presides over the whole creation[26]. Based on this foreshortening, we can outline and reconcile the divergent functions of Saturn: he is above all the god of time, the latter understood both as mythical, circular time, which eternally traces the ages of humanity marked by the precession movement, by this “castration” of the ways of heaven; and also as historical, linear time that attempts an unlikely escape from the cosmic order. This deviation makes Saturn a god who lives on earth in the darkest moments of humanity, as stated by an Orphic fragment that says: “Orpheus reminds us that Saturn dwelt openly on earth and among men[27]. He provides the measures that allow, at least in part, to maintain contact with a cosmos that is no longer a mirror of the harmony of the origins. In addition to agriculture, Saturn has become the bearer of a gift whose vestiges remain today: the Saturnalia, of which the carnival is a transposition passed through the mesh of Christianity.

Macrobius recalls that during the feasts in honour of Saturn, which were held in Rome in the days around the winter solstice (from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD), enslaved people feasted with their masters. In this temporary inversion of the social order, we can read the memory of times when, according to Macrobius, there were no differences of class or private property. In reality, he does not say everything because, for 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 coincides with the renewal of the year, where the conditions are re-established before the beginning, and the overthrow of the established order takes place; it is a symbolic expression of the reintegration of the world in its informal aspect at the transition between two cosmic cycles. The same goes for the celebrations of the Roman Forum in the temple built by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus to the god around 500 BC. The building served as a deposit for the public treasury as the Romans said that no one committed thefts on his territory when Saturn was continuously staying in Italy. During the Saturnalia, they would free the statue of the god from the woollen laces that chained him to the temple columns during the year. This allegory designated the birth to an original condition, reminiscent of an era free from the constraints of necessity.


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