Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Cronos
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony, Macrobius' Saturnalia

For the past several years, the one consistent social event of my week has been Tuesday night pub trivia at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell. I was lucky enough to join a team that usually does pretty well, though more and more often lately they seem to do best on nights I'm not there. It's not a coincidence, I'm afraid; all too often, I'm absolutely sure about things I'm absolutely wrong about.

Last night it was the question of why Christmas falls on December 25, which has only been the formal practice of the Catholic church (and its successor Christian religions) since the fourth century. Quizmaster/Brewmaster Geoff asked what Roman celebration this was specifically meant to supplant. The answer he was looking for was "the winter solstice." The answer our team gave — which I'm sticking by, even though it got us no points — was Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was, in fact, a solstice celebration, in honor of the great and ancient god Saturn, patron of agriculture, justice and time. Saturn was a Titan, one of the children of Earth and Sky, and the father of most of the gods of Olympus. Told that one of his sons would overthrow him, Saturn devoured his children as they were born. His wife, Ops (Rhea in Greek mythology) finally managed to deceive him after the birth of her sixth child, Jupiter (Zeus). She gave Saturn a stone wrapped in a blanket, which he ate; Jupiter/Zeus grew up to lead a rebellion against the Titans, installing himself and his siblings as rulers on Olympus.

What I'm less clear on, and would like to know more about, is what was supposed to have happened to Saturn and the Titans once they were defeated. Gods are immortal. Saturn was conquered, not killed, and cast into Tartarus, the lowest point in the universe. He was imprisoned for all time with his fellow Titans — but he was never quite forgotten, and in the later years of Roman Empire he became a symbol of a mythical Golden Age, when humans lived in harmony with each other and nature, and feasted off the bounty of the land without having to do any real work. The Romans even built a temple to Saturn, right on the Forum — so his defeat was not exactly permanent, and I'd like to know whether Saturn's followers honored him in Tartarus, or believed that he had somehow escaped.

Saturnalia, which began as a single day (Dec. 17) and became a week-long celebration, commemorated this Golden Age with feasting and revelry, and particularly the suspension of regular order for the duration of the festival. During Saturnalia, masters served their slaves, and slaves became masters; people partied, gambled, wore outlandish clothing, and took various other social liberties. The festival began with a ritual sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, and concluded with a day of gift-giving on December 23. It was celebrated well into the fourth century, and its practices influenced similar holiday celebrations in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism as well as Christianity.

It feels appropriate to me that a year-end celebration would honor both justice and time, as we tally up the year's gains and losses, evaluate successes and failures, make amends where necessary and plan for the year ahead. Happy Solstice to everyone.

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