ARL Archive · The Art of the Dictionary

Going Round and Round with Saturn

[Note: My original intent for this post was simply to show some of the cool art that adorns the various dictionaries and other books in the ARL’s collection under the heading of “The Art of the Dictionary.” Unfortunately, I got carried away and ended up writing a full-blown post on a hopelessly intriguing figure who’s shrouded in mystery: Saturn.]

saturn-1
Credit: Dictionary of Symbols

Not long ago, when I was suffering through what I can only call a dark time, I turned to more than a few of the books in my library to find some answers as to what might be happening and why. (I tried a shrink too, but the books were more useful.) One of them that left a “mark” was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, which has a chapter with the rather curious title, “Gifts of Depression.” Within that chapter is a section bearing the sub-heading, “Saturn’s Child,” which contains sentiments like this:

… There was a time, five or six hundred years ago, when melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn. To be depressed was to be “in Saturn,” and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a “child of Saturn.” […] These melancholic thoughts are are deeply rooted in Saturn’s preference for days gone by, for memory and the sense that time is passing. These thoughts and feelings, sad as they are, favor the soul’s desire to be both in time and in eternity, and so in a strange way, can be pleasing.

In traditional texts, Saturn is characterized as cold and distant … Saturn was also traditionally identified with the metal lead, giving the soul weight and density, allowing the light, airy elements to coalesce…. As we age, our ideas, formerly light and rambling, and unrelated to each other, become more densely gathered into values and philosophy, giving our lives substance and firmness.

For whatever reason, these words of Moore’s have stuck with me and I’ve become a little obsessed with this notion of a sort of “god of melancholy.” So, naturally, I dug into the reference section of my library to learn more about this god of yore and to see if what Moore had to say about him was accurate.

What I found, not surprisingly perhaps, were differing myths surrounding Saturn and a rich symbolic history that seems to contradict the myths without completely destroying the somewhat tenuous, yet highly visible thread that weaves its way through and unites them all.

saturn-2
Credit: Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature

Here are a few excerpts demonstrating both those contradictions and unifying themes.

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Saturn symbolizes time, with its ravenous appetite for life, devours all its creations, whether they are beings, things, ideas or sentiments. He is also symbolic of the insufficiency, in the mystic sense, of any order of existence within the plane of the temporal, or the necessity for the “reign of Cronos” to be succeeded by another cosmic mode of existence in which time has no place. Time brings restlessness–the sense of duration lasting from the moment of stimulus up to the instant of satisfaction. Hence Saturn is symbolic of activity, of slow, implacable dynamism, of realization and communication; and this is why he is said to have devoured his children and why he is related to the Ouroboros (or the serpent which bites its own tail). Other attributes are the oar (standing for navigation nad progress in things temporal), the hourglass and the scythe. In the scythe we can detect a double meaning: first, its function of cutting parallel to and corroborating the symbolism of devouring; and, secondly, its curved shape, which invariably corresponds to the feminine principle. This is why … Saturn takes on the same characteristic ambiguity of gender and sex, and is related to the earth, the sarcophagus and putrefaction, as well as the color black…. Saturn is in every case, a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localized expression in time and space of the universal life.

A Dictionary of Symbols

A very old Italian god identified with Cronus. He was said to have come from Greece to Italy in very early times, when Jupiter dethroned him and hurled him from Olympus. He established himself on the Capitol, on the site of Rome, and founded a village there, which bore the name of Saturnia. The reign of Saturn was extremely prosperous. This was the Golden Age. Saturn taught people how to cultivate the ground…. He was depicted armed with a scythe and his name was was associated with the invention of viticulture. He was, however, sometimes considered as a god of the underworld.

Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology

[Speaking of his reign in Italy …] Men lived like the gods, without care, in uninterrupted happiness, health, and strength; they did not grow old; and to them death was a slumber which relieved them of their present nature and transformed them into daemons. The earth yielded every kind of fruit and gave up all its treasures without cultivation or labor. Under the reign of Saturn, men lived a life of paradise.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature