December 27th, 2008


Saturn: A Different Kind of Titan

In the third century, Romans began celebrating the Sol Invictus on 25 December, which was later appropriated by Christians as the day for Christmas. Prior to the institution of this holiday, though, the main December festival in Rome was the Saturnalia, later known as Brumalia. The number of days for this festival varied, from one day through entire week, but always starting on the seventeenth. It was when the ropes binding the statue of Saturn at his temple were untied, and sacrifices were made to the god. So who is Saturn? Well, basically, he was a Roman god of agriculture, usually associated with the Greek Kronos, ruler of the Titans. He wasn't very popular to the Hellenistic Greeks, but the story has it that he was THE main god back in the Golden Age, before being overthrown by his son Zeus in the Titanomachy. It seems that he was originally a harvest deity, which explains the sickle, but he later went on to be associated with time (possibly due in part to the confusion between "Kronos" and "Chronos," the later meaning "time"). Our image of Father Time is more or less the same guy.

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The Titan was much more popular with the Romans than with the Greeks, and some legends had it that, after being overthrown by Zeus/Jupiter, he went on to rule Italy. The Saturnalia became a significant Roman celebration, featuring gambling, gift-giving, and the reversal of roles between masters and slaves. It was seen as a symbolic return to the Golden Age, and went on to influence our modern holidays of Christmas and New Year's Day. And while mainstream culture no longer celebrates the Saturnalia, the name of Saturn lives on as a planet, a day of the week, a line of cars, and a short-lived Sega video game system.