Saturn, dark and brooding, holds a scythe as he governs the affairs of Earth within the zodiac circle. The cardinal points of the compass match the cardinal signs indicating winter solstice is at hand. Late December is the time of year when Saturn comes to power. He wears the six pointed star known as Solomon’s seal, a mystic symbol of the union of body and soul. The unknown European artist who made this 16th-century woodcut based his conception of Saturn on traditions reaching back in time to the days of the Roman Empire.

The character of Saturn wasn’t always gloomy. As an early Roman god of seed- sowing and harvest, his nature was robust and rustic. It was only when he became equated with the Greek god Kronos that aspects of cold cruelty and self-serving ruthlessness appeared. And no wonder.

In Greek mythology, Kronos was the most powerful of the Titans, elder gods who ruled the world many ages ago. To foil a prophesy that one of his own children would dethrone him, Kronos devoured them at birth. Zeus, his sixth child, was spirited away to safety by his mother who then deceived Kronos by presenting him instead with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. This, too, he apparently swallowed without ill effect. But Zeus, grown to manhood, forced his father to disgorge the family and with the help of his brothers Poseidon and Hades, deposed Kronos who fled to Italy in exile. Hidden in the myth is a Greek theme that Kronos personifies Time and Time cannot successfully consume the Heavens of Zeus, the Seas of Poseidon, or the Underworld of Hades. And then the Romans added a sequel to the story.

Kronos, it seems, upon arrival in Italy to join his identity with Saturn, ushered in a veritable Golden Age of freedom, peace, and prosperity. It was one of those rare eras in human history when no class distinctions existed. All people were equal. It is this happy interval that came to be celebrated in later Roman times by the midwinter festival of Saturnalia.

The Romans considered festivals as elements of good government and social order. The darkest days of the year were enlivened by Saturnalia which began on December 17 with sacrifices and an open-air banquet attended by all. The wealthy made gifts to the poor, schools had a holiday, the law courts closed, all work was stopped, no criminals were punished for six days, slaves were free and waited on by their masters, and people gambled for nuts (symbols of fruitfulness)—not quite the licentious picture painted by later historians. It was a time of merrymaking and thoughtfulness. Wax candles and little clay dolls were traditional gifts. For one glorious week of good will, Rome commemorated the Time when the spirit of ancient Greece ennobled Roman vitality with the greeting—io Saturnalia.

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