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Les Saturnales (Antoine-François Callet)

Today is the Feast of Saturn!  In Ancient Rome this holiday was officially celebrated on December 17 (XVI Kal. Jan.) and it initiated the multiple day festival of Saturnalia—the biggest holiday of the Roman Year. The Roman god Saturn was based on the Greek deity Cronus.  Although the Romans recognized that Saturn was a deposed ruler, a murderer, and a cannibal, Saturn was worshiped in Rome as an agricultural deity whose reign had been a golden age of abundance and innocence.  Saturn’s time had been one of gold–an age when people were naked, free, and kind. Jupiter’s age was one of iron when all men struggled greedily against one another–an age of wars, lawyers, oppression, and struggle.

Saturnalia was therefore a time to return to the imagined happiness of the past.  The cult statue of Saturn was freed from the shackles with which he was bound during the rest of the year and filled with olive oil (for the figure was hollow).  Schools and offices were closed so that special sacrifices could be made.  Great feasts were held and small presents were exchanged–particularly earthenware figurines called sigillaria and candles (which were a sort of symbol of the holiday and represented the return of light after the short dark days of the solstice).  There was a special seasonal market, the sigillaria. People decorated their houses and themselves with greenery and garlands.  Best of all, Rome’s famously rigid discipline was set aside during Saturnalia.  To quote the online Encyclopedia Romana:

During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”

Various cults celebrated their mysteries during this time of year.  People from all walks of life lost themselves in uninhibited drinking, merrymaking, and fertility rituals.  Many Romans were born 9 months after Saturnalia (which would be approximately August 22nd on our calendar).

Roman painting (Unknown Artist, Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii, Italy)

Saturnalia had started in Rome in 217 BCE after Rome had suffered a series of crushing defeats at the hands of the Carthaginians (and the citizens needed a morale booster), but the deep roots of the holiday stretch back to prehistory.  Additionally the various people whom Rome had conquered all had solstice rituals of their own–which became incorporated into Saturnalia.  The year-end ceremonies of the Gauls and Celts focused on evergreen trees particularly the yew.  In Roman Egypt, the ancient deities were still worshiped (indeed, worship of Isis spread through the Roman world).  During the solstice time Egyptians celebrated how their greatest god, Osiris, had returned to life after being murdered by Set. Strangely the Egyptians too focused their resurrection rituals around a tree–albeit the palm tree. Rome’s mightiest neighbor, the Persian Empire, burnt great fires for Mithras, a deathless god born in a cave on December 25th.   The Mithraic mysteries were particularly popular in the Roman military (although many of the details about the cult are unknown to us).  Across the complicated cosmopolitan Roman world, people of all classes and faiths dedicated themselves to pleasure and to getting through the cold darkness to a new year. Catullus called the time of Saturnalia, “optimo dierum” (the best of days) and that was definitely true in an empire which was otherwise beset by political unrest, war, agricultural failure, greed, injustice, and decline.

On an unrelated note, I will be away for a week to celebrate Christmas.  I might post some things here or I might be too busy eating, relaxing, and exchanging small presents with loved ones.  In the mean time I wish the very happiest of holidays to all of my family, friends, readers, and, in fact, everyone.

Cronus

In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream.  Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem.  Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.

Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros.  Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones.  Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle.  He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces.  Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus.  Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans,  Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.

Cronus devours one of his offspring (Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, oil on canvas)

Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children.  Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole.  The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea.  Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child.  Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser.  The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning.  Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus.  Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus).  This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious.  Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment).  Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.

The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans (Joachim Wtewael, 1600)

Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….

What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die.  In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings.  Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet  Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx.  In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.

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