If you have read anything about Roman mythology and their gods, the chances are that you have heard of Saturn, most probably in connection with the festivals that were dedicated to the god of agriculture. Associated with agriculture, harvest, wealth, abundance, and time, Saturn was one of the most powerful gods of the archaic Romans.
As is the case for many of the Roman gods, he was conflated with one of the Greek gods after the Romans conquered Greece and became enamored with their mythology. In the case of the god of agriculture, the Romans identified Saturn with Cronus, the great Titan god.
Saturn: God of Agriculture and Wealth
Saturn was the primary Roman deity who presided over agriculture and the harvesting of crops. This is the reason that he was associated with the Greek god Cronus, who was also the god of harvest. Unlike Cronus, however, his Roman equivalent Saturn held onto his significance even after his fall from grace and was still widely worshiped in Rome.
This may, in great part, have been due to the festival devoted to him called Saturnalia, the most popular in Roman society. Saturn’s position as the patron god of agriculture and the Winter Solstice festival meant that he was also associated with wealth, abundance, and dissolution to some extent.
What does it mean to be a God of Agriculture and Harvest?
Throughout ancient history, there have been gods and goddesses of agriculture, to whom people have worshiped for plentiful harvests and healthy crops. It was the nature of pre-Christian civilizations to pray to a variety of “pagan” gods for blessings. Agriculture being one of the most important professions in those days, it is not surprising that the number of agrarian gods and goddesses were many.
Thus, we have Demeter for the ancient Greeks and her counterpart, the Roman goddess Ceres, as the goddesses of agriculture and fertile land. The goddess Renenutet, who was also interestingly a snake goddess, was very important in Egyptian mythology as the goddess of nourishment and the harvest. Xipe Totec, of the Aztec Gods, was the god of renewal who helped seeds grow and bring food to the people.
It is evident, therefore, that agricultural gods were powerful. They were both respected and feared. As humans labored over their land, they looked to the gods to help the seeds grow and for the soil to be fertile and even for the weather to be favorable. The blessings of the gods meant the difference between a good harvest and a bad, between food to eat and starvation, between life and death.
Counterpart of Greek God Cronus
After the Roman Empire spread to Greece, they took on various aspects of Greek mythology as their own. The more wealthy classes even had Greek tutors for their sons. Therefore, many of the ancient Greek gods became one with the Roman gods that had already existed. The Roman god Saturn was linked with the ancient figure of Cronos due to the fact that they were both agricultural deities.
Due to this fact, Roman mythology has taken on many of the stories about Cronus and attributed them to Saturn as well. There is no evidence that such stories about Saturn existed before the Romans came in contact with the Greeks. Now we find stories of Saturn having swallowed his children out of fear of usurpation and of Saturn’s war with his youngest son, Jupiter, the most powerful of the Roman gods.
There are also accounts of the Golden Age over which Saturn ruled, just like the Golden Age of Cronus, even though Saturn’s Golden Age differs significantly from the time that Cronus ruled the world. Cronus was banished by the Olympian gods to be a prisoner at Tartarus after Zeus defeated him but Saturn fled to Latium to rule over the people there after his defeat at the hands of his mighty son. Saturn was also considered to be a great deal less cruel and more jovial than Cronus, remaining a popular god among the Romans even after his fall from grace and defeat.
Saturn also shares jurisdiction of time, like Cronus before him. Perhaps this is because agriculture is so intrinsically linked with the seasons and time that the two cannot be separated. The very meaning of the name ‘Cronus’ was time. While Saturn may not have originally had this role, since becoming merged with Cronus he has been linked with this concept. It may even have been the reason that the planet Saturn was named after him.
Origins of Saturn
Saturn was the son of Terra, the primordial earth mother, and Caelus, the powerful sky god. They were the Roman equivalents of Gaia and Uranus, so it is unclear whether this mythology existed in Roman history originally or was appropriated from Greek tradition.
As far back as the 6th century BCE, the Romans worshiped Saturn. They also believed that Saturn had once ruled over a Golden Age and had taught the people he ruled over farming and agriculture. Thus, there was a very benevolent and nurturing side to his personality, as viewed by the people of ancient Rome.
Etymology of the Name Saturn
The origins and meaning behind the name ‘Saturn’ is not very clear. Some sources say that his name was derived from the word ‘satus,’ meaning ‘sowing’ or ‘to sow’ but other sources say that this was unlikely because it does not explain the long ‘a’ in Saturnus. Still, this explanation does at least link the god to his most original attribute, being an agricultural deity.
Other sources conjecture that the name might derive from the Etruscan god Satre and the town of Satria, an ancient town in Latium, over which land Saturn ruled. Satre was the god of the underworld and took care of matters relating to funeral practices. Other Latin names also have Etruscan roots so this is a credible explanation. Perhaps Saturn may have been associated with the underworld and funeral rites prior to the Roman invasion of Greece and his association with Cronus.
A commonly accepted pseudonym for Saturn is Sterquilinus or Sterculius, according to the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, which derives from ‘stercus,’ meaning ‘fertilizer’ or manure.’ It may have been that this was the name Saturn used while he was looking over the fertilizing of the fields. At any rate, it connects with his agrarian character. For the ancient Romans, Saturn was inextricably linked with farming.
Iconography of Saturn
As the god of agriculture, Saturn was commonly depicted with the scythe, a tool necessary for agriculture and harvesting but also a tool that is associated with death and evil omens in many cultures. It is fascinating that Saturn should be associated with this instrument, seeming to also reflect the duality of the two goddesses who are his wives, Ops and Lua.
He is often depicted in paintings and sculptures as an old man with a long gray or silver beard and curly hair, a tribute to his age and wisdom as one of the most ancient gods. He is also sometimes depicted with wings on his back, which could be a reference to the swift wings of time. His aged appearance and the timing of his festival, at the end of the Roman Calendar and followed by the New Year, might be a representation of the passing away of time and the death of one year leading to the birth of a new.
Worship of the Roman God Saturn
What is known about Saturn is that as the agricultural god, Saturn was very important to the Romans. However, a lot of scholars don’t write much about him as they don’t have enough information. It is difficult to extricate the original concept of Saturn from the later hellenising influences that crept into the worship of the god, especially when aspects of the Greek festival of Kronia, to celebrate Cronus, were incorporated into the Saturnalia.
Interestingly, Saturn was worshiped according to the Greek rite instead of the Roman rite. By the Greek rite, the gods and goddesses were worshiped with their heads uncovered, as opposed to the Roman religion where the people worshiped with their heads covered. This is because by Greek custom, the gods themselves were kept veiled and, as such, it was not proper for the worshipers to be similarly veiled.
The Templum Saturni or the Temple of Saturn, the most well-known temple to Saturn, was located in the Roman Forum. It is not clear who originally built the temple, although it could have been either King Tarquinius Superbus, one of the first Kings of Rome, or Lucius Furius. The Temple of Saturn stands at the beginning of the road leading up to the Capitoline Hill.
Presently, the ruins of the temple still stand today and is one of the most ancient monuments in the Roman Forum. The temple was originally supposed to have been constructed between 497 and 501 BCE. What remains today is the ruins of the third incarnation of the temple, earlier ones having been destroyed by fire. The Temple of Saturn was known to have housed the Roman Treasury as well as records and decrees of the Roman Senate during all of Roman history.
The statue of Saturn within the temple was filled with oil and its feet were bound by wool in classical antiquity, according to the Roman writer and philosopher, Pliny. The wool was only removed during the Saturnalia festival. The meaning behind this is unknown to us.
Festivals for Saturn
One of the most important Roman festivals, called Saturnalia, was celebrated in celebration of Saturn during the Winter Solstice. Taking place at the end of the year, according to the Roman Calendar, Saturnalia was originally one day of festivity on the 17th of December before it gradually extended to a week. This was the time when the winter grain was sown.
During Saturn’s festival, there was a celebration of harmony and equality, in accordance with Saturn’s mythical Golden Age. The distinctions between master and slave were blurred and slaves were allowed to sit at the same tables as their masters, who would at times even wait upon them. There were banquets and games of dice on the streets, and a mock king or a King of Misrule was elected to reign during the festival. The traditional white togas were set aside for more colorful garments and gifts were exchanged.
In fact, the Saturnalia festival sounds very similar in some ways to the more modern Christmas. This is because as the Roman Empire became more and more Christian in character, they appropriated the festival to mark the birth of Christ and celebrated it in a similar way.
Saturn and Latium
Unlike with the Greek gods, when Jupiter ascended to the position of supreme ruler, his father was not imprisoned in the underworld but fled to the human land of Latium. In Latium, Saturn ruled over the Golden Age. The area where Saturn settled was supposedly the future site of Rome. He was welcomed to Latium by Janus, the two-headed god, and Saturn taught the people the basic principles of farming, of sowing seeds and growing crops.
He founded the city of Saturnia and ruled wisely. This was a peaceful era and the people lived in prosperity and harmony. Roman myths say that Saturn helped the people of Latium to turn away from a more “barbaric” lifestyle and to live by a civil and moral code. In some accounts, he is even called the first King of Latium or Italy, while others see him more as an immigrant god who was expelled from Greece by his son Jupiter and chose to settle in Latium. By some, he is considered the father of the Latin nation as he fathered Picus, widely accepted as the first King of Latium.
Saturn also supposedly gathered together the wild races of the nymphs and fauns from the mountainous regions and gave them laws, as the poet Virgil describes. Thus, in many stories and fairytales, Saturn is associated with those two mythical races.
Roman Mythology Involving Saturn
One way in which the Roman myths differ from the Greek myths is the fact that Saturn’s Golden Age came after his defeat at the hands of Jupiter, when he came to Latium to live among the people there and teach them the ways of farming and harvesting of crops. The Romans believed that Saturn was a benevolent deity who stressed on the importance of peace and equality and these are all things that the Saturnalia festival are a tribute to. As such, they make a stark contrast to his behavior regarding his own children.
Such contradictions in the characterization of gods are very common when ancient cultures and religions borrow from each other and appropriate their different mythologies. Thus, we get a Roman Saturn who seems much different in nature than his Greek counterpart at times but still being associated with the same stories.
The Two Wives of Saturn
Saturn had two wives or consort goddesses, both of whom represented two very different sides of his character. These two goddesses were Ops and Lua.
Ops was a fertility deity or earth goddess of the Sabine people. When she was syncretized into Greek religion, she became the Roman equivalent of Rhea and, thus, the sister and wife of Saturn and child of Caelus and Terra. She was awarded a queenly status and was believed to be the mother of Saturn’s children: Jupiter, the god of thunder; Neptune, the god of the sea; Pluto, the ruler of the underworld; Juno, queen of the gods; Ceres, goddess of agriculture and fertility; and Vesta, goddess of hearth and home.
Ops also had a temple devoted to her on the Capitoline Hill and festivals that took place in her honor on 10th August and 9th December, called the Opalia. Some sources say that she had another consort, Consus, and these festivals included activities that were held in his honor.
In direct contrast to the goddess of fertility and the earth, Lua, often referred to as Lua Mater or Lua Saturni (the wife of Saturn), was an ancient Italian goddess of blood, war, and fire. She was the goddess to whom the Roman warriors offered their bloodstained weapons as sacrifice. This was meant to both placate the goddess and for the warriors to cleanse themselves of the burdens of war and bloodshed.
Lua is a mysterious figure about whom not much else is known. She was most well-known for being the consort of Saturn and some have conjectured that she may have been another incarnation of Ops. At any rate, her symbolism in being bound to Saturn may have been because he was the god of time and harvest. Thus, Lua signified an end where Ops signified a beginning, both of which are important where agriculture, the seasons, and the calendar year are concerned.
The Children of Saturn
With the association of Saturn and Cronus, the myth that Saturn devoured his own children by his wife Ops also came to be widely circulated. The sons and daughters of Saturn whom he ate were Ceres, Vesta, Pluto, Neptune, and Juno. Ops saved her sixth child Jupiter, whose Greek equivalent was Zeus, by presenting Saturn with a large stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow. Jupiter eventually defeated his father and resurrected his siblings before setting himself up as the new supreme ruler of the gods. Simon Hurtrelle’s sculpture, Saturn Devouring One of His Children, is one of many pieces of art that represents this famous myth.
Saturn’s Association with Other Gods
Saturn is associated with Satre and Cronus, certainly, giving him some of the darker and more cruel facets of those gods. But they are not the only ones. When used in translation, the Romans associated Saturn with gods from other cultures who were considered ruthless and severe.
Saturn was equated with Baal Hammon, the Carthaginian god to whom the Carthaginians dedicated human sacrifice. Saturn was also equated with the Jewish Yahweh, whose name was too sacred to even be pronounced aloud and whose Sabbath was referred to as Saturn’s day by Tibullus in a poem. This is probably how the eventual name of Saturday came about.
Legacy of Saturn
Saturn is very much a part of our lives even today, even when we do not think about it. The Roman god is whom the day of the week, Saturday, was named for. It seems apt that he who was so associated with festivals and merriment should be the one to end our busy work weeks. On the other hand, he is also the namesake of the planet Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest one in the solar system.
It is interesting that the planets Saturn and Jupiter should be next to each because of the unique position that the gods found themselves in. Father and son, enemies, with Saturn being banished from Jupiter’s kingdom, the two are bound together in certain ways befitting the manner the two largest planets in our solar system orbit next to one another.
In the ancient days, Saturn was the furthest planet that was known, since Uranus and Neptune had not been discovered yet. Thus, the ancient Romans knew it as the planet that took the longest time to orbit the sun. Perhaps the Romans felt it appropriate to name the planet Saturn after the god associated with time.