Cronus, Chronos, and Christ

Time would not rob them of their power, but would add wisdom to their strength; the Fathers would be subject to the people, and the consul to the Fathers. – Livy, History of Rome, 2.56.16

On my recent post on the Roman Saturnalia commentator ‘shebardigan’ noted that I had inadvertently confused (or rather, conflated) two very different divinities: Cronus and Chronos. What I said was misleading, and I am grateful for the opportunity to say what I should have said then, with a bit more care and clarity.

Greek and Roman religions lacked canonical scriptures; their mythology is notoriously complex and, to modern eyes, often contradictory. This does not mean that the ancient world was devoid of religious writing; just the opposite, in fact. There was anexcess of religious writing. And of religious images, too. There is so much writing from the ancient world about the gods, in fact, spanning so many centuries, that it is well-nigh impossible to make systematic sense of it all. 


Add to that confusion the fact that Rome later adopted a great deal of Greek mythology as her own, creatively adapting all that she borrowed, and you have the recipe for some very creative confusion indeed. My original essay was thus a brief foray into what the Puritans would have called a “religious mingle-mangle.”

The Roman poet Horace famously quipped that “Captive Greece had conquered her conqueror,” as a way to describe the newfound Roman fascination with Greek mythology in the last century before the Common Era. But the conqueror was still a conqueror, so the later Romans felt free to make Greek myths over in Latin dress. As we will see, if we were to name a single religious trope that fascinated the ancient world to the point of obsession, it was sons taking over from their fathers, often wreaking havoc on what they took.


Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Saturn (Cronus) and his relationship to Time (Chronos).

Perhaps the best known version of the story of Cronus comes from Hesiod’s Theogony, his long poem about the coming to be of the old gods. Hesiod tells us (126ff) that Mother Earth and Father Sky bore a large number of children, among them Ocean, and Hyperion, and Memory, as well as the goddesses Theia and Rhea (later on, Earth bore the Cyclopes and other Giants as well, according to Hesiod, though later authors would disagree with almost every aspect of these divine genealogies). 

The youngest of the sons of Earth and Sky was also the most rebellious: this was Cronus. And so begins a story that recurs throughout the early portions of the Theogony: a father is jealous of his offspring and tries to erase them; the sons supplant the father and take his place.

In this case, Sky has taken to burying each of his offspring in the Earth until she groans under the pressure of it all. She shows her son Cronus a vicious weapon in the form of a  sickle, and together they lay a trap for the Sky. When he returns to Earth, bringing Night with him in train, Cronus castrates him; the drops of blood give rise to the Furies and more Giants, whereas the severed genitalia Cronus tosses into the Sea gave birth to Aphrodite out of the bloody foam. As I have said, other Greek and Roman literary figures remembered these events very differently; Hesiod was never canonical in the ancient world. 

Still later in the Theogony (435ff), Cronus impregnates his sister Rhea, and she bears Hestia, Demeter, Hera and Zeus. But, in strange imitation of his own father, Cronus devoured each of these children in turn, until Rhea substituted a stone for the infant Zeus, then bore him off to Crete where he was hidden away in a cave and cared for by some mysterious figures called the Couretes. This story is related by the Roman poet Lucretius in De rerum natura2.633ff, and according to another second-century Roman writer, Pausanias, one of the major mythic events commemorated at Olympia was this saving of the infant Zeus (Guide to Greece, 5.7.6ff). 

After a year, Zeus had grown to manhood and supplanted his father, Cronus, who vomited up the other children he had devoured, initiating the reign of the Olympians. It is hard to imagine a more inauspicious start to an alleged reign of peace.

Yet that it precisely what the Romans did with the myths of Cronus; they re-fashioned him into a symbol of what they called “the Golden Age.” As is often the case with myths, this happened in a fairly scattershot and unsystematic way. That’s how religious poetry usually works.  

In the later Roman period, the figure of Saturn was associated with Cronus, but a Cronus very different from the one Hesiod described. “Crooked-counseled and terrible,” Hesiod had called him (138-139).  Not so the Romans.

The Augustan poet, Virgil, identified himself explicitly with the old Hesiodic (and Arcadian) tradition of Muse-inspired poetry (in hisEclogues 6.64ff). But when he claimed to be singing a Hesiodic song himself, he referred to Italy proudly as “the land of Saturn” (Georgics 2.173). No Greek had ever referred to the Greek mainland as “the land of Cronus”; such a boast would have seemed bizarre. 

What Virgil meant by that name is complicated. He essentially re-invented this Saturnus/Cronus figure as a mythic, and subsequently deified, king of Latium who reigned during the Italic Golden Age (Georgics 1.336; 2.406, 539; 3.93; and Aeneid6.794; 7.49; 8.319; 12.830). He also regularly referred to the Olympian gods as “Saturnian”… and meant it as a compliment.

But it was Ovid who did the most to popularize a new Roman way of looking at the myths of Saturn/Cronus, in his Metamorphoses. This marvelous book is far more than an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology; it is a book devoted to the fundamental tropes of flux and change, themes uniquely suited to the solstice, and the trope of becoming something other than you were, a theme uniquely well-suited to a party like the Saturnalia. 

Ovid takes this image of the sons supplanting their fathers to new poetic heights. But what we soon discover is that Ovid’s entire epic is an extended meditation on time. Ovid begins (1.89ff) with an account of Saturn’s overthrow. But he remembers Saturn as presiding over the world’s one and only Golden Age; the Olympian gods who overthrew him presided over an Age of Silver, not Gold. The third Age Ovid calls an Age of Iron, and he sees it as fundamentally inferior to Saturn’s Golden Age in every way, with rebellion against the heavens breaking out continually. There is no belief in progress in Ovid’s topsy-turvy poetic world, the world of continuous-change-in-time. Saturn reigned at the very beginning of all these changes, and thus he was fast becoming the god for whom the word-play between Cronus (Saturn) and Chronos (Time) began to make sense, in a Latin world that did not speak much Greek.

This is all important poetic evidence of what Saturn was becoming in the Roman mind after the conquests in Greece: the symbol of a nostalgized, purer past, one lost in the fluidity of time and the frenetic repetition of conquest. It’s a hell of a poetic message for the newly emerging empire of Augustus that was already bragging about its “eternity” (and so it’s small wonder that the emperor eventually exiled Ovid from Rome to the Black Sea, though there are debates still today about what actually prompted this). 

According to Livy, the Saturnalia was established very soon after a temple to Saturn was built in Rome (History of Rome 2.21.1). Still more interesting, he claimed that the public feasts later associated with the Saturnalia came quite a bit later (History of Rome 22.1.1). It was during the time when Hannibal’s forces were ravaging the Italian peninsula, Rome’s darkest days. The divine signs were uniformly bad: javelins spontaneously combusting; shields sweating blood; soldiers struck dead by lightning; glowing stones falling from the sky; even the most sacred statues along the Appian Way and in Rome herself had broken into a sweat. These were very disturbing developments for a people notoriously superstitious by nature. 

So the Roman Senate ordered the Sybilline Books to be consulted, then made gold offerings to Jupiter, silver offerings to Juno and Minerva, called for public feasts (called lechisternium) with images of the gods reclining on couches, then ordered an enormous series of blood sacrifices for Saturn. The irony of these symbolic religious inversions could not have been clearer: blood sacrifice for the alleged king of the Golden Age, gold for the son who supplanted him, silver for his wife and daughter, iron to slay the sacrificial victims, food and drink for all the gods. That was the topsy-turvy reality the Saturnalia was designed to create, and it was all born of blood.

With the advent of Christianity in the empire, another son supplanted the religion of the fathers—but only up to a point. The trope of fathers, sons and sacrifice would receive yet another reinterpretation as Christians began to the develop their language of the divine Trinity and salvific sacrifice. In this sense, the feast for the Second Person of that Trinity, the Son—a son very unlike the Greek Cronus, and yet very much like the Latin Saturnus–would be held at the same time that the Roman Saturn had his.

Cronus… Chronos… Christ. That was the mythic connection I was trying to suggest when I concluded that “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.”