For Saturn’s Sake, Remember the Dead

Gary’s meditation on year-end roll calls of celebrity deaths calls some ancient mythological connections to mind. The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia would have commenced this past weekend and carried us through the week. In its heyday, it was a week-long festival that started on the 17th of December and ended on the 23rd. The puritanical Augustus preferred three days to seven, but the populus would have none of it—even the emperor must know his limits.

We’ve probably all heard that this festival was the real precursor to Christian Christmas, with its funny inversion of social roles, the masters serving meals to slaves, the eating, the drinking, the gift-giving, the general merriment. Saturday is still Saturn’s day in English, and we all know that his day (or rather, his night) is set aside especially for the parties.

But all this playful artifice had a very serious underside, a brooding quality designed to carry us across the threshold of the winter solstice. These are the dark days, the short days, the cold days in the northern hemisphere. Yet before this festival was finished (another reason, perhaps, for defending the full week’s celebration) the days began to lengthen again. That astronomic fact may be the secret to understanding the symbolics of the thing in any case.

Saturn was associated in Roman mythology with the Greek god Chronos, who notoriously devoured his children as each was born. It may seem odd that Saturn was also remembered as presiding over the Earth’s original Golden Age but he was also the god of natural abundance, the steward of agriculture and the yearly harvest, often depicted with his trademark scythe and bundled stalks of wheat.

So what is the connection between devouring children and a superabundance of grain? The clue lies in the Greek god’s name: Chronos, or Time. It’s all an elaborate choreography of death and life. In the main versions of the myth, Chronos eventually regurgitated his children intact (the original Olympians) at his wife’s urging.

Time devours everything and everyone in the end. Saturnalia is a profound mythic meditation on death and rebirth, the refreshing cycles of natural time that make it seem obvious to celebrate life in the deadest season of the year, and to remember our losses at the high-point of the party.

phllar@langate.gsu.edu'

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of  seven books, most recently: JJ Winckelmann andd the Vatican's First Profane Museum (Palgrave, 2011).