Saturn in Folklore

A Moral Reflection at the close of the last Year”

Seventeen hundred and eighty is now forever past;
Seventeen hundred eighty one will fly away as fast.

But whether life’s uncertain scene shall hold an equal pace;
Or whether Death shall come between, and end our mortal race;

Or whether sickness, pain or health, our future lot shall be;
Or whether poverty or wealth, is all unknown to me.

One thing is known, that needful ’tis, to watch with careful eye;
Since every season spent amis, is registered on high.

Too well we know what precious hours our wayward passions waste;
And this we feel our mortal Pow’rs to dust and darkness haste.

Earth rolls her rapid seasons round, to meet her final fire
But virtue is with glory crown’d, tho’ suns and stars expire.

What awful thoughts! what truth sublime! what useful lesson this!
Then let us well improve our time! That we may die in peace!

— From Nathaniel Low’s “Astronomical Diary or Almanack” for 1781 A.D.

In the early centuries of Greek astronomy, the Greeks gave descriptive names to the wandering stars. The planet now known as Saturn was originally called “Phainon” by the Greeks, which means “The Shining Star.” After being conquered by the Persian Empire, the Greeks became influenced by Babylonian astrology. Following the Babylonian manner, the Greeks came to identify the planets with their pagan gods. So the planet “Phainon” became associated with the god Chronos, known to the Romans as Saturn.

In Greek mythology, Chronos was one of the sons of Mother Earth and Father Sky. He dethroned his father by attacking him with a sickle and became a very cruel king in his place. Chronos was in turn dethroned by his son Zeus, and sent off to a lonely exile. By the late Roman Empire, these myths were allegorized, and used to explain this or that about life and the world. According to Augustine, even the pagans did not believe in their own myths, and considered them to be “an old wife’s fable.”

In this Greek allegory, Saturn or Chronos was considered to represent “time.” As explained by the great pagan Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero:

Men have believed it to be Saturn who rules the cyclic courses of the times and seasons. In Greek the nature of this god is expressed in his name. He is called Kronos, which is the same as Chronos, and means a lapse of time, just as our Roman name “Saturn” means “sated with years.”

Of course, as we well understand today, all this ancient silliness has nothing to do with the ringed gas giant that the LORD placed in our solar system! Good instruction was provided to the Roman world in late antiquity by Augustine, who wrote:

“…Saturn, they say, is length of time. Therefore, they who worship Saturn worship Time; and it is insinuated that Jupiter, king of the gods, was born of Time. For is anything unworthy said when Jupiter and Juno are said to have been sprung from Time, if he is the heaven and she is the earth, since both heaven and earth have been made, and are therefore not eternal? For their learned and wise men have this also on their own books.”

Though Christians had indeed worshipped the eternal since before the time of Augustine, depictions of Saturn or Chronos, along with other aspects of pagan culture, still persist to this day. We often see pictures of “Father Time,” an old man wearing robes, carrying his sickle or scythe, sometimes carrying an hourglass or wearing a pocket watch. Father Time was a regular feature of the Colonial almanacks of America. The almanacks often showed Saturn wearing wings, to indicate that “time flies.”

Saturn was also associated with seedtime and harvest. But the scythe is also a traditional symbol of human mortality, reminding us that one day, Time will “cut us down.” In this way, Chronos is often shown in a skeletal aspect as “The Grim Reaper.” Fleet’s Massachusetts Pocket Almanack for 1779 has a woodcut of Father Time on it’s cover, with a verse underneath from the New England Primer, reading:

“As runs the Glass, Man’s Life doth pass. Time cuts down all, both great and small.”

The early literature and almanacks of the American colonial period and the early United States is filled with such somber reflections. In our time, it may seem morbid to reflect on the inevitability of death. But the Founders lived in a world of smallpox and yellow fever, where the infant mortality rate was high, less than half of all children lived to adulthood, and life expentancy was less than 50 years.

On a lighter note, many modern words associated with timekeeping have “chronos” as a Greek root, such as “chronometer,” chronology” and “synchronize.” Indeed, the word “chronos” occurs 40 times in the New Testament, such as in this verse:

“Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet thou hast not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father, and how sayset thou then, Shew us the Father?” — John 14:9

In this way, as in other topics we’ve discussed in past Updates, we can see that a study of classical astronomy can dovetail into a study of history and language, and can even inform our understanding of modern culture. It can also help us appreciate the bondage of those in classical paganism, and the joy that must have been felt when individuals were freed from such superstitions by the power of Jesus.

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