Of all the planets used in astrology, whether it’s the bloodthirsty Mars or the insanity inducing Rahu, none are as feared and despised as the slow one, the black one, the lord of the rings and the dispenser of Karma – Saturn.
But why did Saturn evoke such dread in our ancestors? And why is it so maligned even today?
The father that eats his children
In the eyes of the Greco-Romans, Saturn was both a hero and a villain, with quite a few interesting traits. As a youth, he was tasked by mother earth, Rhea (aka Gaia), with overthrowing Uranus, father sky. To accomplish this task he was given a sickle or scythe, but it was made from obsidian rather then metal. This weapon is far from trivial, as the bronze age began around 5000 years ago, showing how old this deity was even in the eyes of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
It also shows the agricultural nature of Saturn, with him being the epitome of “you reap what you sow”. Agriculture also tied previously free roaming nomads to specific patches of land with fences, walls, laws and bland, low quality diets becoming the price for the security it provided. Despite this, Saturn and his agricultural revolution were considered a golden age by the Romans because of the prosperity they offered to the previously barbaric bands of hunter-gatherers aimlessly roaming the land.
But everything has its price, and that golden age was brought about by Saturn castrating his father, thus creating such horrors as the Gigantes and the Furies. This act also created Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. This is quite an interesting mythological twist, especially given the fact that both romantic courtship and sexual fetishes are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer societies and are clearly a product of living in large, settled communities.
This golden age also required cannibalism, with Saturn devouring every one of his offsprings to prevent another revolution. This strategy failed when Jupiter, his youngest, escaped the grim fate of his siblings and was able to overthrow his cruel father. With paternal mutilation, cannibalism and attempted infanticide under his belt, it becomes quite easy to understand why Saturn has such a grim reputation. Speaking of which, the depiction of Saturn with his scythe has turned over the years into the modern day Grim Reaper.
A stroll down memory lane
While being ancient to the Greeks and Romans of 500 BC is already quite an achievement, Ninurta, who was the Mesopotamian version of Saturn, had a temple in the Lagash that was so old it needed to undergo a restoration back in 2150 BC. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this methuselah version of Saturn looks more like a depiction of Jupiter than the wrinkled old remnant of a forgotten age. He is described as carrying a mace instead of a scythe, but us still mentioned as “reaping like barley the heads of the insubordinate” (Lugal-e).
Despite his antiquity, this primordial version of Saturn is still intimately linked to agriculture as it is directly associated with the plough and is said to give divine farming advice. Ninurta is also said to be the creator of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and as one would expect from the god of agriculture he created them not for beauty or drinking water, but for irrigation. He first became a hydraulic engineer when he was forced to defeat a rebellion in the Caucasus led by Asag, a demon who occupied the mountain with an army made of stone. After the battle, the corpses of that army were used as materials for dams, canals and waterways that directed the Tigris and Euphrates to their current courses.
Just like Saturn, Ninurta was the son of the sky father Enlil. But in contrast to his later depiction, at this stage of history he is said to be a mighty warrior that helps to establish the worship of his father throughout the world. In addition to defeating the Asag rebellion, he was also the vanquisher of the Thunderbird Anzu, the griffonic storm deity. In that story, Anzu stole the tablets of destiny, the writ of divine power, from Enlil and Ninurta had to hunt the griffon diwn to retrieve them.
Unfortunately for Ninurta, in the following centuries the defeat of Anzu was ascribed to Marduk who also took the tablets, thus becoming the king of the gods. And with the rise of Marduk and his counterparts Jupiter and Zeus, Ninurta slowly but surely turned into Saturn. Seems like a couple of millennia can make quite a difference in one’s reputation.
Men fear time, and time fears the pyramids
While the Sumerians were rather kind to their version of Saturn, the same cannot be said of the Egyptians, who were the ones to inspire the Greco-Romans. In fact, their version is sometimes even worse than the hellenistic one, as it is none other than the fratricidal Set, lord of the dead. This version of the story begins with Osiris, king of the gods and the Egyptian version of Uranus, getting whacked by his brother Set, who chopped him into small pieces and sent him to sleep with the fishes. And unlike his Roman doppelganger, Set decides to leave the castration part to a hungry crayfish. Don’t think Osiris was relieved by that fact.
Unfortunately for Set, Michael Corleone in the form of Horus came to avenge his father and take back the throne from the usurper. After an attempt to make Horus cry uncle failed due to Horus inventing the condom, as well as some mutual mutilation, Horus got the throne back and left Set with rulership over the barren desert and the land of the dead. Set did however continue to defend the sun god Ra from the devouring world serpent Apep even after he lost his throne, showing a glimmer of hope for this villainous, canine headed deity.
Descent into hell
It’s hard to imagine that Saturn’s name can be smeared any further after the horrors described above, but turns out that it can get much, much worse. While today hell is considered to be a place for sinners in the afterlife, in the old testament it is an actual place named the valley of nom, where the worship of Baal was performed. Baal (husband/owner) is the Canaanite version of Saturn, and he was considered monstrous enough to justify the genocide of all his followers, their families, and even their livestock.
So, what could be so atrocious to a bunch of nomads in 1000 BC that they considered even the cattle of the Canaanites worthy of annihilation? The answer to that lies in the way Baal was worshipped. In the aforementioned valley of nom stood a Tofet, which today would be translated as purgatory but originally meant “Inferno”. And unlike the Christian version, that inferno wasn’t reserved for the souls of sinners but for living, breathing infants who were thrown into the flames while still alive.
When the Romans conquered the Canaanite colony of Carthage that also had a huge Tofet, they completely leveled the city and covered it with salt, cursing it to never be rebuilt. It is one thing to hear of a god devouring his own children, and quite another to see him devour yours. Quite ironically, the city was rebuilt 100 years later and ended up as the source of grain for Rome itself, thus preserving the agricultural aspect of Baal but not his human worshippers who were hunted and despised by most cultures of the ancient world.
A light at the end of the tunnel
After the Far too real horror show of the Mediterranean, the Hindu Shani looks like a saint who should be showered with praises. Unfortunately, even Hindu mythology wasn’t too kind to the slowest of the planets. Even though some stories portray him as the son of Balram and Revati, he is most often portrayed as the child of Surya, the sun god, and Chaya, the shadow substitute left by his wife. Due to chayas fasting and prayers, Shani was nursed in her womb by Shiva. This unfortunately turned his skin black, which was not appreciated by Surya.
When Surya’s wife found out about Shani, she insisted on shunning him and casting him aside. That, combined with the disdain of his father, the favoritism shown to his brother Yama (the god of death) as well as his crippled leg made Shani bitter and resentful. To teach his father a lesson, a single glance from Shani made him go into an eclipse.
His role as the punisher didn’t end there, as Shiva made him the judge of the living while his brother Yama became the judge of the dead. In this role, he often attacked those who would show hubris, reminding them that they too were far too mortal and vulnerable. He also tends to reward hard work and effort, thus also epitomizing the saturnine ethos of “you reap what you sow”.
One of the mysteries of comparative mythology is the lack of a distinct Saturn figure in Germanic and Norse mythology. Some have speculated that Loki is the equivalent of Saturn but his role is far more comparable to that of Rahu. In reality, there was an ominous, Saturnine figure in their stories- Sartr, the destroyer of worlds.
The black\charred one as he was known, is mainly famous for being the king of Muspelheim, having a shining flame sword and for bringing about Ragnarok, the end of days. In fact, he is supposed to be the one that leads the army of giants to Asgard, making Heimdall blow his horn to signal the approach of armageddon. During the final battle, he will be the one to slay Freyr, the god of fertility.
And here lies the greatest twist in the realm of mythology, because while Sartr is the epitome of the saturnine archetype the actual Saturn of Norse mythology is his divine victim – Freyr. This very phallic divine is one of the most important, as well as beloved, of the Germanic deities, and is often depicted as a venusian figure that bestows pleasure upon mortals. Quite a contrast when compared to his equivalents in other cultures.
In reality however, he is quite similar to the Canaanite Baal mentioned above, although without the child sacrifices, with the names of both denoting ownership\lordship as well as “penetrator” in sexual context. Both are fertility gods who control cattle and agriculture, as well as gods of wealth that bestow riches upon men.
In his spare time, Freyr acts as a giant slayer as well, however there is a very peculiar mention of the fertility god losing his sword when he married his wife. This is rather strange as swords were considered phallic symbols in and of themselves, and this loss would be equivalent to saying that he became impotent. In any case, when he needed to slay the giant Beli, he had no problem completing the task with a simple antler. Unfortunately for Freyr, antlers weren’t enough when it came to Sartr.
An alter ego
With the possible exceptions of Ninurta and Freyr, the examples above depict a pretty grim archetype and it isn’t very surprising that worship of Saturn in his macabre form was not exactly widespread. But there was another, lesser known form of Saturn that was sometimes admired or at the very least respected – the blacksmith.
The best-known version of the divine blacksmith is Hephaestus, aka Vulcan. The master craftsman of the Olympians was said to be so ugly that Hera, his mother, tried to get rid of him by throwing him off a cliff. As a result, he became lame just like the Hindu god Shani. He was however highly respected due to his talent and married to Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself. He was also far smarter than most of his peers, trapping his unfaithful wife together with her lover Ares when the two got together and leaving them on display for the rest of the gods. During the Trojan war, he made a shield for Achilles with an animation of two cities attacking each other. Quite a feat when one remembers that the first movies were invented 3000 years later.
His Hindu counterpart, Tvastr, is not the husband but rather the son of Shukra, the Hindu Venus. And in an ironic twist on the usual Saturn narrative, in Hindu mythology it is the blacksmith and not the destroyer that battles the king of the gods. In an attempt to avenge his son who was slain by Indra, Tvastr created the draconic Vritra and sent it upon his foe just like Cronus sent Typhon against Zeus. And if that wasn’t enough, in some versions of the story Tvastr is also mentioned as Indra’s father. Compared to mythology, soap operas are rather bland indeed.
“In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” sayeth the stone,
“The King of Kings. This mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”
“The City’s gone,
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.”
“Ozymandias” – Horace Smith