Saturn is one of those planets that people have a hard time wrapping their head around. After all, what good is hardship and limitations? Why would we embrace difficulty and want? What good does this planet do in our lives? What better time then to explore the meaning of Saturn during this time of the winter solstice, when the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the feast of the god Saturn?
The Feast of Saturn, which in Latin was called the Saturnalia, was celebrated as a state holiday for one to three days around the winter solstice, between the end of one planting season and the beginning of the next. A series of religious observances for various gods stretched this period by custom by for a least a full week, from what we would call December 17th to December 23. During this week many of the traditions that we associate with our Christmas, decorating trees outside the home with baked goods and treats, homes with garlands and wreaths, the giving and receiving of gifts, visiting friends and grand dinner parties were part of the festivities.
At the beginning of the holiday Saturn was sacrificed to according to Greek ritual, with the head uncovered and the linen wrappings that bound his feet during the year removed. After the ritual, a public feast was held which was to honor the golden era over which Saturn ruled.
During the holiday>, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”
So how did a festival of license and the reversal of the social order come to be associated with stern Saturn?
Saturn in the Roman world was the god of agriculture. Saturn was the father of Jupiter (Zeus) and the son of Uranus. Uranus in mating with the earth mother Gaia produced by her children that he hated. He cruelly imprisoned them in the depths of Gaia, causing her pain. Gaia implored her children to rise up against their father and end her suffering, and Kronos (Saturn) agreed to help her. She fashioned for him a flint sickle to use against his father.
Saturn used the sickle to castrate Uranus, thereby destroying his procreative power.
But Saturn started his rein with violence against his father, and grew to fear the same outcome for himself especially when the Furies made a prophecy that one of his own children would depose him. To avoid this fate, he swallowed each of his own children as soon as each was born.
His wife Rhea fashioned a plan to keep Saturn from snatching another of her babes from her arms. When Zeus, (Jupiter) was born she gave Saturn a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow. After Zeus came of age his mother pleaded with him to free his brothers and sisters. Saturn was deposed as prophesied as Zeus marshaled ancient gods to stand with him against Saturn. Saturn was imprisoned in the bowels of the earth (or in Hades according to other versions) never allowed to see the light of the day again.
Thus we can see where Saturn is associated with fears and imprisonment. But where do we make the connections with boundaries and social order?
The overthrow of Uranus established Saturn as the king of the gods, but also signals for us a point of evolution in the human race, where during the Neolithic period we gave up our nomadic ways and settled on and farmed the earth.
How can we trace the story of Saturn to this period of time?
The detail of the sickle’s being flint rather than bronze or even iron was retained by Greek mythographers . . . Knapped flints as cutting edges were set in wooden or bone sickles in the late Neolithic, before the onset of the Bronze Age. Such sickles may have survived latest in ritual contexts where metal was taboo, but the detail, which was retained by classical Greeks, suggests the antiquity of the mytheme.
With humans bound to the land and forming communities, borders, fences and trading agreements became necessities to help humans maintain order. So it was Saturn became associated with boundaries, restrictions and limitations as well as establishing and keeping the social order.
The spirit of license lasted for only a short time, and at the end of the festival another Roman activity we are well acquainted with started, that of the settling of accounts. Yes the Roman practice of the payment of debts and taxes after the holidays has followed Western Civilization since. When you go to pay those credit card bills and first of the year property taxes you can blame Rome.
The Romans honored Saturn in the Saturnalia because they believed he ruled over a golden age of peace and plenty, the gifts that a well-ordered Universe could provide to humanity. Saturn in our own lives can function in our lives the same way when we accept our own responsibilities to ourselves and our community.