“Never shall age destroy so holy a day! For how many years shall this festival abide!” Statius, 5th Century CE (Silvae, I 698ff)
And so it does, under another guise and paradigm.
Inspired by the Neoplatonist Plotinus and also the writing of Professor John Opsopaus, I have been commemorating Saturnalia for about 4 or so years now. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to get naked and sing in the streets or take flight into bacchanalian reverie as some did in classical Roman times. I can’t even get a sympathetic friend or two to swing by to watch me perform my solemn, cobbled together, neopagan rite in honor of Saturn. In performing the rite alone, though, there is a presence and potency, as well as an intimacy that I would not be able to muster in the presence of spectators. Cult rites in antiquity were often private matters anyway, conducted by select initiates and priestly dignitaries behind the veil of the inner temple while the laity simply got into what was supposed to be a joyously festive spirit. Fortunately this year for me, unlike in years past, the days immediately following the one on which I will conduct my Saturnalia rite will be full of festivity as I hop from one Winter Solstice gathering or holiday party to another. So it will play out as it should.
Saturnalia traditionally began on December 17th—or at least it was set on the 17th when the Julian calendar went into effect. A ritual and sacrifice was conducted in the temple of Saturn, the oldest Temple in Rome. The image of the deity was hollow and brimming with olive oil and it was bound, like sheaves of harvested wheat, in wool yarn, equating Saturn with the land, the seasons (Time), agriculture, and sustenance. At the conclusion of the ritual, the cry went out Io Saturnalia! and a massive public feast began.
The official holiday lasted 3 to 7 days depending on the whims of whoever was ruling at the time. We are told that homes and gardens were festively decorated with wreaths and garlands and that outdoor trees were festooned with garlands and ornaments in the shape of phalluses and other symbols of fertility and animal figurines. People fancifully dressed up, indulged children, allowed certain freedoms to their servants, and exchanged gifts of candles, cookies, and poppets or small images (siligium). They also sang in the streets and frolicked with abandon in the celebration of life and light. Oh, it all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? But wait; there’s more. Who was being commemorated at this time but Old King Saturn, the most ancient of Roman deities, who was now living in retirement in the mythical uber north country of Hyperborea (perhaps in a McMansion a sleigh ride away from his alter ego, Santa Claus).
Unlike in Greek culture, in which Kronos was more of a untouchable, curmudgeony Underworld deity—a maleficent of sorts—Roman Saturn, after being overthrown by his son Jupiter, was said to have amended his ways and to have become a wise old King who brought culture and technology to Italy. His rule was said to be a Golden Age in which peace, personal freedom, and abundance prevailed.
The name Saturn is derived from the word satus, which means sower. His consort, Ops, also commemorated at this time, is none other than Mother Earth. The name Ops comes from the word opus—great work. Here, I am reminded of that story of the Pentemychos that I have discussed before in this blog. Long before the classical Roman era, in the 5th century BC, the philosopher Pherecydes of Syros penned a metaphorical creation story in which principle hypostatic deities Kronos (Saturn, that is), Zas (Zeus/Jupiter) and Chthonie (Prima Materia/Mother Earth) sort of have a 3-way, with Kronos bestowing the seed and Zas the vigor of insemination. From the union, the “offspring of the gods” are born.
Writing a thousand years after Pherecydes, in about the 3rd century CE, Plotinus pens this beautiful tract about Saturn in the 4th passage of 1st tractate of his 5th Ennead.
That archetypal world is the true Golden Age—the age of Kronos—who is the Intellectual-Principle, being the offspring or exuberance of God. All that is immortal is in this. Nothing is here but the Divine Mind; all is God. This is the place of every soul. Here is rest unbroken. For, how can change be sought in which all is well? What needs to be aspired to by that which holds all within itself? What more can be desired for that in which everything is utterly achieved? All its content, thus, is perfect such that it may be wholly perfect, possessing nothing that is less than divine and intellective. Its knowing is not by search but by possession; its blessedness is inherent, not acquired. . . . this is pure being in eternal actuality. Nowhere is there any future, for every then is a now; nor is there any past, for nothing there has ever ceased to be.” Adapted from “The Three Initial Hypostases” by Plotinus translated by Stephen MacKenna
In this, we see another side of so-called Paganism in which the focus is not on animistic polytheism or metaphors about the changing seasons or “earth-based” spirituality, but Cosmic spirituality in which one wrangles with the relationship between God and self, the Macrocosm and Microcosm, and aspires to alchemy and gnosis.
Saturn is awareness in Time and Space in which everything exists in perfect, ideal potentiality. It is Cosmos that begets Logos (which Plotinus personifies as Zeus). Certain Gnostics and medieval mystics/mages, however, equated Saturn with bondage and chaos, because, like the Eastern Maya, Saturn is regarded as the limiting principle. However even Agrippa seems to have regarded Saturn with endearment similar to that of Plotinus, referring to the deity in his opus De Occulta Philosophia as “a great and wise lord, the begetter of silent contemplation.” He is a real Old One, an awesomely ambiguous deity at the root of phenomenological existence. As is implied in the works of medieval Gnostics such as Boehme and the philosophical alchemists of that era, he is the natural self whose destiny is to realize its true nature as the spiritual Self in a path of return. Indeed, I have begun to think Saturn is the Western equivalent of Mahamaya, which although described as the Great Nescience or Grand Illusion of Being, is, etymologically speaking, the measurement of the Cosmos. It is punched through via grace, which is the prize for at least aspiring to if not attaining “realization” of what it’s really all about.
Even so, men are hurled into the whirlpool of attachment . . . through the power of Mahamaya who makes possible the existence of this world . . . She . . . forcibly affecting even the minds of the wise, throws beings into delusion. She creates this entire universe, both moving and unmoving. It is she who, when gracious, bestows boons on human beings so that they may achieve final liberation. She is the supreme knowledge, the cause of final liberation, and eternal. She is the cause of the bondage of transmigration of the soul and the sovereign over all lords. Devi Mahatmyam I.53-58
On the one hand, we are stuck with the ruthlessness of the organism of material existence. On the other, we have the privilege of indulging in experiences—instead of not existing. And yet, there is a way out, we are told, to a fuller, original expression of Being.
In working with Saturn consciousness in my work with the Arbatel, also discussed at length in this blog, the archetype that I generally experienced was that of a wise, old god figure—the proverbial old, white bearded man in the sky. Not a harsh authoritarian figure, but one of grave, protective, parental, and sincerely committed love—the kind that is both reassuring and runs the risk of being suffocating. Indeed, I document in one of my final notes on the matter during one round of workings that I was struck by this message: “It is the monster of time and space which you cling to for existence and to which you are in bondage.” I wrote: “I reasoned that it had 2 sides: time and timelessness, space and spaciousness. In its time/space aspect, it guards and sustains and also blocks and binds. We are attracted to it because we want to preserve our ego-personality in this structure but this structure binds us to the wheel of desire and misery. If we approach it, we must do so to conquer the limitations but we become something else entirely then. God may actually be the paradigm that oppresses us and yet it is the way beyond it. But this is what the Hindu Great Goddess is and what Hermeticists and Gnostics knew.”