The Roman god Saturn has a long history and a festival all of his own.
The Romans generally borrowed their gods from the ancient Greeks, and almost every Roman god had a Greek counterpart. Saturn’s original counterpart in Greece was Cronus.
Cronus was a Titan. In Greek mythology, the Titans were the children of the earth mother Gaia and the sky father Uranus. There were six of them, and Cronus was the youngest. Cronus wanted to rule the universe, so he overthrew his father Uranus, and, so his children wouldn’t overthrow him, Cronus ate them. However, his son Zeus escaped and became the chief Greek god.
Cronus means “time” in Greek, so he’s connected with the seasons and harvest time. Cronus became ruler of a Golden Age in Greece and god of agriculture and the harvest. So you see his Roman counterpart Saturn was off to a good start.
Saturn was worshiped by the Romans as far back as the 6th century BCE. The Romans liked anything Greek and thought the Greeks were cultured and well-educated. They often had Greek tutors for their children. So they adopted the Greek gods at a very early stage. Saturn remained a god of agriculture to the Romans and was often pictured holding a scythe.
Like the Greeks, the Romans also believed that Saturn once ruled a Golden Age. The legend was that Saturn fled from his angry father and came to Latium, where Rome would later be built. There he taught the people how to farm and cultivate grapes. He also encouraged them to settle their differences by discussions and not by violence. This fits in with the Romans’ ideas of the Greeks as being more civilized.
Saturn was a complex god with differing sides. For a while he ruled Latium with the Roman god Janus. Janus was a figure who looked two ways, representing the past and the future. So Saturn, as god of agriculture and the seasons, was also concerned with the past and the future. Saturn had two aspects, represented by his two wives. His one wife Ops was a goddess of wealth and abundance. But his other wife Lua was a goddess of war and destruction. And, although Saturn tried to civilize the people of Latium, as Cronus he did violence to his father Uranus.
The Romans built a temple to Saturn that was located near the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The Capitoline Hill was formerly called Saturnius Mons, or Saturn’s Mountain. The temple was first begun in the 6th century BCE, and it was consecrated in 497 BCE. Even today eight of its tall, imposing columns are still standing near the Roman Forum. The Romans were devoted to Saturn and his temple, and it was restored periodically throughout the centuries. Roman senator Lucius Munatius Plancus fixed it in 42 BCE, and, after it caught on fire, it was repaired during the 4th century CE. Never ones to waste space, the Romans also used the temple as their treasury building.
The Romans believed that if they prayed and made sacrifices to their gods, the gods would do favors for them. Saturn was a popular god and received many sacrifices of animals, wine, cheese and bread in his temple. Unlike the other Roman gods, sacrifices to Saturn were made by the Greek rite; that meant that the people conducting the ritual had their head uncovered. Usually the Romans worshiped their gods with their heads covered. Saturn’s statue was draped with a white veil during the ritual. The Greek writer Plutarch said this was because Saturn was the father of truth.
All year long, the Romans looked forward to Saturn’s festival, called Saturnalia. It was originally celebrated on December 17, but later it was expanded to seven days. Saturnalia was a harvest celebration and also recalled the time when Saturn ruled the Golden Age. During Saturnalia, there were banquets, drinking, games and gladiatorial contests as well as the exchange of gifts. The merrymaking was presided over by a mock King of Misrule who wore funny clothes and told jokes. Also, people were allowed to wear casual clothes and the masters and slaves reversed roles, the masters waiting on the slaves. It was all in good fun, and people enjoyed being released from the usual strict rules of Roman society.
If some of the customs of Saturnalia sound a little like our Christmas, it’s not a coincidence. The first Roman Christian leaders replaced Saturnalia with Christmas and carried over some practices, like feasting and exchanging gifts. Both Christmas and Saturnalia are near the gloomy days of the winter solstice. And during the Middle Ages, people also celebrated Christmas with a King of Misrule.
The god Saturn is still with us today, as a planet and a weekend day. The planet Saturn might be named because it’s the slowest one to orbit the sun, and Saturn is connected with time and Cronus. Another theory is that, in ancient times, Saturn was the farthest known planet from the sun. So the Greeks made it sacred to Cronus, and the Romans made it sacred to Saturn.
The Romans named Saturday after their beloved god sometime before the 2nd century CE. It’s the only day name in English that retains its Roman origin. So, although the days of Roman rule are long gone, we still have reminders of Saturn that have comes down to us through the centuries.
Here’s a quick list of facts about Saturn:
1. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, also of wealth and war.
2. Saturn’s Greek counterpart was Cronus.
3. Saturn’s two wives were Ops, goddess of plenty, and Lua, goddess of destruction.
4. The temple to Saturn was built on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
5. Saturn was worshiped with the Greek rite, which meant worshipers’ heads were uncovered.
6. Saturn’s feast was called Saturnalia and was held in December.
7. The planet Saturn and the day Saturday are both named for Saturn.