Published in: Proceedings of the 6th Turin Astrological Conference

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)

Italian version


The Golden Age in Roman times

Per aspera ad astra (through hardships to the stars): this Latin phrase, taken from Seneca’s work [2], almost seems to echo the effort of the human soul when faced with 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 appearance – last among the wandering stars visible – makes it like 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 which annexes to itself new territories of material and ideological conquest. What is beyond the knowable – fate, accident – stands in front of it like a mountainous wall with no grips, impassable to most. With its symbolic burden made of necessity, Saturn is now committed to the context that the myth itself assigns to it. 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 emasculate his father. Once he completed his deed, Cronus marries his sister Rea. Mindful of his father’s prophecy, who foretells the same fate to 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, bearer of a vision that follows the primordial chaos with the light of the Olympic pantheon, capable of dispelling Hades’ mists and ordering the world according to reason. It is also true that Zeus possesses the attribute of divine lightning, with which 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 myth of Saturn echoes the contemporary inadequacy in the face of the inexplicable. Human experience, with its happy and less happy hours, escapes any claim to rational systematisation. Still, the Olympic gods exiled the Titans, symbol of the 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 primacy of the Olympic conscience over the ancient gods and exorcise Saturn when it appears, subject to its arrows? Or should we try the path of reconciliation and understand its message now clouded by the reverberation of Jupiter?

The storytelling in the form of a myth that ancient authors accustom us to often appears disturbing due to the dramatic and sudden change of setting and association to which the characters are subject [6]. But it should not be too surprising when you think that the myth responds to cultural conditions associated with specific times and places. At the same time, the cosmological and metaphysical foundations of its basis 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”, Homeric theatre of the nymph Calypso, owner of Odysseus [7]. According to Plutarch, Cronus lies on an island that geographically could be located today in the North Atlantic, near a continent inhabited by Greeks worshipping the ancient god [8]. But now, let have the floor to the author [9]: “Cronus sleeps locked up in a cave deep inside a gold-coloured rock. While birds fly to the top of the rock bringing him ambrosia, perfume pervades the whole island. After having been his companions, the demons assist and serve Cronus when he was king of gods and men. Endowed with prophetic virtues, they draw from themselves numerous prophecies. Still, the most serious questions come down to announce them as Cronus’s dreams: since what Zeus premeditated Cronus sees in a dream. The titanic passions of the soul show themselves in him as a tense rigidity before sleep restores his rest and until his royal and divine character re-emerges uncorrupted”.

Following this change of perspective, Cronus reappears no longer as an exiled god but as a sleeping god whose potential hatches inside a golden rock, a royalty symbol. If we wanted to place the myth in an astrological context, we would see Saturn emerge from its diurnal home in Aquarius, facing Leo’s solar power. Still, now Cronus is confined to the niches of the mineral kingdom. He is a nightly god who evokes reality through dreams and has servants the refined and disembodied souls of his former subjects. 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, father’s emasculation and total lack of filial piety. But then why does he continue to be lovingly cared for by his ancient subjects and revered by the Greek refugees who surround his resting place? And what is the real meaning of the gestures that marked his condemnation?

Plutarch follows a usual style that brings him closer to the thought of the so-called Presocratic philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, to name but 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 overshadowing them with figures represented in human form. In other words, Plutarch holds an anthropocentric vision, mitigated by the awareness that there are universal patterns outside of man, but that 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 [10].

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

What, then, was the result of the fatherly emasculation? In astronomical terms, the separation of heaven from earth establishes the ecliptic obliquity, marking the beginning of measurable time and the original balance’s breach. Saturn, the first planet appearing on the sky of fixed stars, figures as the regent of the motion of the Universe; to the stellar fixity, a witness of the essence of Being beyond every change, follows the parade of the planetary gods as an intrinsic expression of the silent will of heaven. Under Uranus’ aegis, the first world generation establishes an era of substantial balance; harmony reigns supreme, but “the father, the great Uranus, called Titans the sons he generated” [14]. The Titan is the “dilator”, according to the Greek etymology of the word [15]. He’s the one who, distorting the cosmic order’s measure, represents the astronomical upheaval that marks the detachment of man 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 portrayed in the wisdom traditions of all times, the end of the Golden Age. From then on, the millstone of time begins to shatter humanity’s eras, causing empires and civilisations to rise up and ruthlessly drag into oblivion. For this reason, Macrobius insists on the equivalence between Cronus and Kronos because Saturn started time with his act [17]; and it is always for this reason that Cronus devours his children, as time leads to the conclusion of what it gives birth.

Macrobius tells us in great detail the myth of separation from heaven: [18] “Just as the different principles of everything that took shape after the sky, descend from the sky itself, and how the different elements that make up the world descend from these principles, 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 since the creation of those elements was now complete. Since then, to perpetuate animals’ reproduction, the faculty of engendering through fluids (ex humore) was transposed to the Venusian action. From that moment, all living beings were generated by the union of the male with the female. Because of the amputation of the genitals, physicists gave the god the name Saturn, from Sathimus, derived from satheh [19], which has the meaning of a male organ”. Once the celestial generation ceases, the procreation of men and women takes over under Venus Aphrodite’s auspices, which begins the cycle of humanity. Saturn’s function seems to be exhausted, but in reality, it is not so; he is still the god of the measure of time, and from his sleep, near the island of Ogygia, he reminds man of his Edenic past, lost but still alive in legends and myths.

One of the most representative classical authors of these tendencies is Virgil, who in the fourth eclogue of his Bucolics [20] mentions a prophecy whose origin traces back to the Sibylline predictions [21]. They foretell the advent of a new Golden Age, witnessed by a child’s birth under which all wars would cease. Despite its brevity, this fragment has been the subject of various antiquity comments in the Middle Ages, precisely because of the wealth of references it gave life. First of all, the connection to the Virgin’s return, which in this context is Astrea, daughter of Zeus and Themis (the Immovable) goddess of justice. Myths tell that when the world degenerated, at the beginning of the Bronze Age, according to Arato [22], Astrea flew to the sky, 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 vernal 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 evidenced by the use of the adverb iam (now), 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, this attribution’s uncertainty allowed the emperor Octavian to identify himself with the puer figure, especially after the naval victory of Actium in 31 BC, which allowed him to boast the title of Augustus, the restorer of an order that united the sacred and the profane. To keep faith in the prophecy, which saw Apollo as his tutelary deity, Octavian had the temples restored and gave new impetus to god’s cult. Apollo’s reference is also indirectly present in the figure of Lucina (She who leads to the light), one of the epithets of Hera-Juno, sister and wife of Jupiter; Apollo is, in fact, son of Jupiter and Leto. In the Middle Ages, in the absence of other historical references, it was almost binding to associate the puer with Christ and the Cumaean Sibyl with the Madonna, making Virgil the sage who first announced Christianity in the Roman world.

This parenthesis that sees myth at the service of political and religious utilitarianism does not in any way diminish its authority but rather enhances its presence, albeit in improper ways. According to the omnipresent Macrobius, our nation’s hidden history is intimately associated with the glories of the Golden Age. So Macrobius [23] tells us that in the region called Italy [24] reigned Janus, the two-faced god. He gave hospitality to Saturn, who arrived by ship in the country. He taught agricultural techniques, significantly improving the quality of foods derived from the earth, collected and consumed in the wild before then. 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. As a sign of gratitude for what Saturn had done, Janus dedicated an altar to him and ordered Saturnalia feasts 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 solstitial doors (januae), opening and closing the annual cycle [25]. His two faces represent the past and future, but a third elusive hidden face is situated between a history that is no longer and a destiny that is not yet. The third face is the eternal present that contains all reality to a timeless gaze, which the two visible faces manifest in a contingent way. An echo of this timeless pristine purity shines through in the words of Macrobius when he says 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, cultivating and harvesting. Agriculture exercises a sacred function within traditional civilisations because it emphasises the correlation between celestial and terrestrial cycles. Once completed this work of mending the tear he caused, Saturn returns to be a sleeping god who, as Proclus mentions in his Commentary on Cratylus of Plato, “gives 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 first of all the god of time, the latter understood both as mythical, circular time, which eternally traces the eras of humanity marked from the precessional movement, from this “castration” of the ways of heaven; and also as a 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 in 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 partially, to maintain contact with a cosmos that is no longer a mirror of the harmony of the origins. In addition to agriculture, Saturn has made himself the bearer of a gift whose vestiges remain today: the Saturnalia. The carnival is a transposition passed through the mesh of Christianity. Macrobius mentions that during feasts in Saturn’s honour, held in Rome in the days around the winter solstice (from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD), slaves 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 class or private property differences. In reality, he does not say everything because, by his admission, “it is not permitted to give the occult meanings or those that descend from the pure source of truth” [28]. The fact is that the winter solstice matches with the year’s renewal, where the conditions before the beginning are re-established, and the overthrow of the established order takes place; it’s a symbolic expression of the reintegration of the world in its informal aspect at the transition between two cosmic cycles. The same applies to the Roman Forum’s festivities in the temple built to the god by Tarquin the Superb around 500 BC. The building served as a deposit for the public treasure since the Romans said that nobody committed theft on its territory when Saturn stayed in Italy all the time. They released the god’s statue from the woollen laces that chained it to the temple’s columns during the year. This allegory designated the birth to an early condition, a reminiscence of an age freed from necessity bonds.


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