Saturn and the Evolution of God


From the remote times when events in the world of man were first held to be linked with the stars, Saturn was thought to retard any undertaking connected with him. No doubt the ancients would have found ample evidence of his sluggish influence in the fate of this book.

Saxl, Kilbansky, Panofsky Saturn and Melancholy


Only the senex has the patience equaling that of the soil… only the senex has the sense of time needed for the seasons.

James Hillman On Senex Consciousness



     The history of astrology reflects in large part the history of consciousness itself. While philosophy and religion are excellent resources for understanding the significance of being human, astrology has focused primarily on the significance of human beings.  A study of the evolution of astrological concepts, techniques, and perspectives, offers great insight into the ways humans make meaning of their lives and of the universe in which they are embedded. The planet Saturn has played a critical role in astrological practice throughout the centuries. From early origins as the baby eating, sickle wielding Kronos to later associations with the noble austerity of Melancholy; Saturn's metamorphosis reveals broad cultural influences on the practice of astrology. In ancient cultures the planet Saturn was thought to be the last of the wandering stars, a guardian marking the boundary between the temporal realm of planets and people and the eternal realm of stars and light. The story of the rise and fall of Saturn, as a god, a planet, an archetype, reveals much about the ways in which humans worship the divine.

     Before proceeding it is necessary to set some boundaries and guidelines for the discussion ahead. Astrology itself is a subject wrought with misconceptions, subjected to harsh judgments, and frequently discarded before being thoughtfully considered. To claim that astrology may have had some influence on, or at the very least some cultural relationship with, the origins and development of the concept of God, is a risky endeavor not for lack of historical evidence or intellectual soundness but simply because of the fervent passion held both for and against these two topics. To introduce a third topic into the conversation, namely evolution, is even more ambitious still. What has Saturn to do with God and what does evolution have to do with either of these great ideas? By building a theoretical bridge connecting God, Saturn, and evolution, I hope to understand how people believe the universe was formed and structured, how that belief affects their spiritual proclivities, and to what extent we can epistemologically prove, disprove, or experience that belief.

     Associating Saturn with God is not a far stretch; Saturn is an old god with a notable mythological lineage and many cultural manifestations. Evolution however, requires some explaining. First, evolution needs a definition that reaches beyond the Darwinian ideal of ‘fitness’ and functions outside of the biological mechanism of genetic mutation. For such a definition I turn to Robert Bellah:

Evolution at any system level I define as a process of increasing differentiation and complexity of organization which endows the organism, social system or whatever the unit in question may be, with greater capacity to adapt to its environment so that it is in some sense more autonomous relative to its environment than were its less complex ancestors.[1]


How then can God evolve? Is there a metric of efficiency against which we can measure God? God has many functions: providing a compass for moral alignment, offering a container for social and cultural custom, supporting the individual through the emotional challenges of being human by modeling both a way through suffering and a promise for salvation at the end. God is also most commonly the figurehead of an entire religious system that conglomerates around him and perhaps the efficiency of a particular religion could be used as a metric for the efficiency of that particular God. In this case, as religion is most significantly the middle man between the individual and God, an efficient, evolving God would then be a God that responds to social whims and needs, which are not constant and change, sometimes radically, with time and place. Saturn, as a god, has done just that.

     Astrological history is an emerging discipline the study of which is heavily reliant on sources from outside the tradition. In the modern world, the situation is negatively compounded due to an increase in astrological material that is, often fairly, deemed insignificant, pop-cultural, pseudo-scientific entertainment by the typical modern intellectual. Before addressing the modern situation however it is useful to understand the depth and breadth of astrological material from the historical perspective, a study best undertaken by looking first to the primary sources of the historical astrological tradition followed by an examination into modern texts which address the history of astrology as an emergent discipline, independent of the social, religious, or cultural milieu of a given astrological tradition. The final critical step will be to re-contextualize each astrological tradition within their respective ideological frameworks in order to reveal the critical role that astrology has played in the history of the western world. In addition to, and perhaps elaborating upon, the trajectory of astrological thought throughout the last two millennia, attending to the role of the planet Saturn along the way will reveal both cultural and individual patterns in human religiosity.


Early Astrological Sources

            The earliest extant source that is identified as an astrological treatise comes from the first century of the Common Era[2]. Written by the Roman poet Marcus Manilius, The Astronomica is a Latin poem that serves both as a poetic cosmogony and cosmology while also doubling as an astrological textbook. Manilius’ work retains a Stoic dimension in its detailing of the creation of the universe from the elements[3] and also through a general tendency to describe astrological phenomena as fatalistic despite the flowery language of the text. Manilius claims his work is ambitious in its efforts to present a great deal of technical information in a poetic, rather than prose, style and as a result The Astronomica retains a mythic quality similar to what one would expect of Homer or Hesiod[4]. An interesting characteristic of the work, which is compiled into four books, is that a great deal of material is devoted to stellar phenomena with very little attention paid to the seven wandering stars- the planets. His poetic descriptions of the constellations, not just of the zodiac but of the celestial sphere more widely, offer a glimpse into a world view which emphasizes observation based prognostications and interpretations while still relying heavily on mythic and (to Manilius’ time) historic lineages. One additional detail that is woven throughout The Astronomica is the sense of a cosmos that is interconnected and alive, true to the Platonic spirit that underpins the astrological tradition in classical and up to modern times[5].

            During the second to fourth centuries of the Common Era the tradition of astrology flourished in the Roman Empire and its decidedly cosmopolitan flair, owing to the cultural diversity of the Roman Empire itself, has leant nicely to the development of the umbrella term Hellenistic astrology. Although a broad term which extends across a handful of cultures and almost a thousand years, Hellenistic astrology generally refers to those texts written in Greek in and around the Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Common Era. The term serves to categorize a specific style of astrological practice that focuses primarily on natal horoscopy although mundane astrology is certainly present even in the early texts. One of the most significant contributors to the Hellenistic tradition, and thereby to western astrology as a whole, was Claudius Ptolemy whose two works, The Almagest and The Tetrabiblos influenced the way astrology would be practiced for centuries to come. Additionally, Ptolemy’s work laid the foundation for a cosmological model that would govern astronomical study (as well as philosophical and religious ideology) for nearly fifteen hundred years following his life.

            While Ptolemy’s Almagest is strictly an astronomical treatise that works out the details of stellar and planetary motion among other things, The Tetrabiblos is the foundation work of ancient astrology and has come to exemplify the Hellenistic astrological tradition. As historians of astrology develop their skills further and gain more understanding of the Hellenistic atmosphere, Ptolemy’s role is being seen as less central in a contemporaneous sense though his influence was certainly profound throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance before the successive works of Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler catalyzed the shift to a heliocentric model of the universe. Where Manilius’ Astronomica could be associated with a mythical sensibility and a Platonic spirit, The Tetrabiblos is Aristotelian to the core. Rooted in the doctrine of humors and based entirely on rational deduction from observational material, The Tetrabiblos describes, in four books, the seeming entirety of the astrological tradition as it was in the second century CE. Ptolemy describes and offers practical instruction for a well-developed system of stellar influences, sophisticated planetary timing techniques, and a highly Stoic perspective on the functionality (and sometimes fallibility) of astrology[6]

            In the later centuries of the Common Era, as the Roman Empire was beginning to show signs of the impending fissure that would cleave the Christian tradition, and therefore the entire empire, into two irreconcilable halves, the astrological tradition took on new dimensions of philosophical spirit and underwent refinements and expansions of technique as it came into contact with other cultures, specifically of Judaic and Islamic identities. One Egyptian writer, who is thought of as the last truly Hellenistic astrologer, was Rhetorius (c 6th century CE) and his work Compendium represents a pinnacle point in the ancient astrological tradition. The Compendium offers a thorough explanation of the houses as divisions of a natal horoscope independent of their previous associations with the signs of the zodiac, and even offers a glimpse into the future of astrology by ensuring the survival of Hellenistic time-lord techniques that would go on to dominate the astrological landscape in Persia, the Middle East, and eventually through the European Middle Ages.

            Largely resultant from the various decrees prohibiting astrological practice within the Roman Empire (which after the third century C.E. was beholden to the powers of the Catholic Church), astrologers moved east where Islamic caliphates welcomed them with open arms and generous patronages. Whereas Hellenistic astrology focused largely on the fate of the individual, the renewed pursuit of empire that characterized the Middle East in the seventh and eighth centuries of the Common Era seems to have shifted astrological focus from the one to the many, from the birth chart of a human to the birth chart of a city, kingdom, or empire. Mundane astrology flourished under the efforts of men such as Abu Ma’shar, whose work ‘Book of the Revolutions of the Years of Nativities’ details the technique of the Solar Return, thus unhinging the potential fate of a person from the static moment of birth and introducing a cyclical pattern to the life and identity of a person; taking this concept to the world scale his Book of Flowers examines the Aries ingress (aka Spring Equinox) and its effects on the year ahead; and finally his work ‘On the Great Conjunctions and on the Revolutions of the World’ further develops the concept of the ages of humanity, which was present in Ptolemy and other Hellenistic astrologers, by showing how the planetary cycles of Jupiter and Saturn reveal and reflect the shifting powers of men and the experiences of humans on earth.

            Another author whose work exemplifies the effects of the broadening horizons of Hellenistic culture is Jewish astrologer Abraham Ibn Ezra. Writing in the eleventh century, born of Jewish descent and living in Spain, Ibn Ezra was a philologist and biblical commentator. His astrological treatises provide an extensive manual for learning astrology, both horoscopic and mundane, but Ibn Ezra’s work also revealed new associations and connections that astrology had made in the middle east, namely the fleshing out of cosmic sympathies between planets, stars, and earthly materials such as plants and minerals. In The Book of Wisdom, Ibn Ezra details these connections, suggesting, perhaps, influence from the far East, where remedial measures were already established in astrological practice, and indicating the developing relationship between astrology and magic that would become primary in the European Renaissance.

            From the early works of Hellenistic astrologers through to the Middle Ages, Saturn’s significations were thoroughly fleshed out and his demeanor solidified. A guardian of fathers (Manilius), remote and cold (Ptolemy) Saturn, when ill placed can bring harm to the parents (Rhetorius) on account of his evil and harmful nature (Ibn Ezra). True to the label of malefic, Saturn was thought to impede activities, restrict growth, and bring danger or misfortune upon whoever or whatever it came into contact with via the chessboard of the natal chart. Despite having such a universally bad reputation in ancient times, Saturn did retain some redeeming characteristics which become manifest culturally in the Renaissance and modern periods.



Astrology, a history

            Prior to the twentieth century it would have been unlikely to think of astrology as having a historical narrative of its own. Granted, the system has always been one that honored lineage and historical personages figured prominently in the development and exposition of certain traditions and their associated techniques. But astrology as a subject was for many centuries hopelessly entangled with bigger cultural affairs such that to speak of astrology historically was to address issues of astronomy, cosmology, medicine, philosophy, and even literature. Additionally, the strengthening of the post-modern mind that occurred over the centuries following the Enlightenment had the unfortunate side effect of demoting astrological phenomena (and other meaning-making efforts of the human mind) to mere parlor tricks, as in the Victorian era, not worth the consideration of genuine men of letters. As a result, astrology’s ties to the historical development of the west were downplayed and in some cases astrology was deemed to be an infantile hallucination of humanity’s earliest thinkers. It is perhaps, coincidentally of course, a direct result of this separation and objectification that astrologers sought to rediscover, and re-tell, the long and varied history of their tradition. 

            In the late twentieth century the first books that offered a narrative telling of the history of astrology were published. Among those was Jim Tester’s History of Western Astrology, a straightforward and comprehensive overview of the trajectory of the astrological tradition with respect to the development of western civilization. One of Tester’s great strengths is his comparative analyses of specific astrologers with their contemporaries, providing a comprehensive picture, as it were, of the astrological landscape for a given point in the history of astrology. He deftly addresses technique such that the lay reader can follow along though there is conflicting opinion whether his technical prowess leaves something to be desired for astrologers or students of astrology[7]. It is useful though to recall that striking the balance between literary work, prose exposition, and didactic manual was a struggle that plagued astrological authors as early as Manilius. Tester also offers a unique perspective on what he calls ‘the second death of astrology’ which resulted in vehement criticism of the tradition during the centuries of and following the Enlightenment[8]. Although the Copernican Revolution is often credited with the decline of astrology, due to the system’s presumed reliance upon causal mechanisms and a geocentric cosmos, Tester points further back in history to a change in world-view, as fancifully displayed in Pico Della Mirandolla’s Criticisms against Astrology, that culminated in the modern sense of self which rejected fate (both religious and astrological) and sought truth through reason[9].

     Around the same time as Tester was publishing History of Western Astrology, James Herschel Holden compiled the History of Horoscopic Astrology, an encyclopedic text that focuses primarily on astrologers (with entries on astrological techniques or traditions where appropriate) from the ancient near east to the modern period. Additionally, in the same decade, Tamsyn Barton’s Ancient Astrology came out, documenting in great detail the astrology of the Greco-Roman period and elucidating its ties to ancient Babylonian astrology, thus suggesting connections to spiritual and religious cult traditions of the ancient and classical eras. Barton’s text goes one step further than Tester’s or Holden’s by offering examples of the different historical astrological techniques by way of interpretive analyses of Prince Charles’ birth chart[10].

     In the wake of these pioneers Nicholas Campion wrote a definitive two-volume book A History of Western Astrology that is exhaustively comprehensive, representing the peak of historical information on the astrological tradition in western civilization. In addition to not shying away from necessary descriptions of technical or astronomical details, Campion also addresses the religious and philosophical layers with comprehensive efficiency.

            It is critical to point out however, that none of the above books would have been possible without the work of translators in the mid-twentieth century who worked to uncover, compile, translate, and comment upon ancient astrological texts. Of particular note are David Pingree and Otto Neugebauer, both who came to the astrological tradition by virtue of being historians of science and mathematics. As top tier scholars and professors with vast language skills and university support for the collecting and archiving of obscure astrological treatises they were able to resurrect a historical lineage which had been essentially lost to the modern astrologer.

            Of particular interest to the historian of astrology is Otto Neugebauer’s The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, a work devoted to explicating details of early Babylonian and Egyptian astronomy, cosmology, and mathematics. While not an astrology text by any means, Exact Sciences provides a territorial overview of the textual evidence, specifically in the form of clay tablets and/or papyri, that addresses astronomical practice in the ancient near east. Prior to the seemingly unprecedented explosion of astrological material in the Hellenistic era, ancient astrology was nebulous in form and manifested in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt as the reading (and cataloging) of omens from the heavens. By unearthing and making accessible this particular branch of the astrological family tree Neugebauer provided a new origin story for astrology as a whole, broadening the horizon of cultural influences upon the tradition, and revealing deeper complexities in the relationship between astrology and religion (or perhaps better, the divine). Additionally, the Exact Sciences offers chapters on the transmission of astrology throughout the Hellenistic era, early Greek mathematics, and finally a summary of the Ptolemaic universe based largely on the astronomy laid out in the Almagest. Neugebauer’s efforts altered and expanded the scholastic view of astrology by showing irrefutably its deep connections with the very origins of all science in antiquity. But more so, he also showed that astrological material could be studied by the sharpest of minds in the most studious of ways, a gift that helped to fuel what could be seen as a Renaissance of astrological knowledge in the mid to late twentieth century.  

            Where Otto Neugebauer’s work focused on astrology’s ancient and near eastern origins, his advisee and colleague David Pingree sought to compile the work of the classical era and to follow its journey to the Far East. Pingree translated critical Hellenistic texts such as Dorotheus of Sidon’s Carmen Astrologicum and Vettitus Valens’ Anthology as well as the earliest dated Sanskrit astrological text The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja. One of Pingree’s works that was especially critical to the historical study of astrology was his translation, from Arabic into Latin, of the Ghayat al Hakim, also known as the Picatrix. His 1980 essay ‘Some Sources of the Ghayat-al-hakim’ traces the many trails of influence leading in and out of the ancient near east and explains how they contributed to astrology and more specifically, celestial magic[11]. The combined works of Neugebauer and Pingree revealed the porous nature of both astrology and the concept of western culture as a whole, inspiring many other scholars who would go on to further the historical understanding of the astrological tradition. Charles Burnett and others associated with the Warburg Institute were among those figures that proved critical to the transmission of historical astrology to the modern world. Burnett’s critical translations of Arabic material catalyzed a growing trend in the late twentieth century toward textual recovery and his extensive translations were useful in elucidating the indebtedness and interconnectedness of the Western tradition to medieval Arabic scholars.

     The Warburg Institute, of which Burnett is President, added a new element to the history of astrology by way of art history. One especially useful text to emerge from the Warburg Institute’s wider sphere is a collaborative effort between Fritz Saxl, Raymond Kilbansky, and Erwin Panofsky entitled Saturn and Melancholy. In addition to tracing the mythology and philosophy associated with Saturn (namely the association of Saturn with the humor melancholy) from antiquity to the twentieth century, Saturn and Melancholy offers extensive information on the theoretical foundations of the concept of humors, ancient cosmology, and the journey of neo-platonic philosophy through the ages. The key contribution of this text is its focus on artistic manifestations of the planet Saturn in the art, poetry, and literature of the Renaissance, exemplified in a lengthy disposition about Albrecht Durer’s portrayal of Saturn in his woodcut Melancholia[12]. One especially unique perspective addressed in Saturn and Melancholy is that Saturn is and has been highly esteemed throughout history. Despite the negative connotations associated with Saturn in the astrological tradition, Saxl, Kilbansky, and Panofsky point to the favorability of the melancholic humor in Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy as influencing a positive attitude about Saturn- a god who had otherwise been harshly judged by astrologers.

     While twentieth century trends of translation and compilation of historical astrological data contributed to a growing new field- namely the history of astrology- the discoveries also re-emphasized the importance of the relationship between astrological traditions and the larger culture in which they existed. It is in honor of that realization that we now turn to two books which examine the cultural history of the west, irrespective of astrology, to gain further understanding of how thought influences world and how the world influences thoughts.


History, beyond astrology

            In the way that Tester’s History of Western Astrology offered a narrative perspective that contextualized the historical development of astrological practice, Richard Tarnas succeeded in a similar task with the history of western thought as a whole. Published in 1993, Passion of the Western Mind is a vast work that examines the worldview that accompanied (and occasionally heralded) the historical events and phases of western civilization. Tarnas offers lengthy discussions of the role that Christianity played in the development of western culture, but also considers, with great depth, the influence of scientific developments, all the while asserting the reality that both are subject to the philosophical paradigms of a given time and place. Aside from the fluidity of narrative that garnered this book its bestseller status, Passion’s unique contribution to the cultural history of the west lies in its ability to seamlessly weave together subjects that had typically been separated. Tarnas, with little need for persuasiveness, invites the reader to reevaluate such deep psychic dichotomies as religion versus science, subject versus object, history versus present. The Passion of the Western Mind offers a clear perspective of the entangled nature of the human mind and how it manifests culturally, a useful mindset for the historian of astrology.

            The other critical text for the purposes of our evaluation, namely to understand how astrological thought evolved alongside scientific and religious ideology throughout western history, is Robert Bellah’s monumental book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Bellah, an ambitious anthropologist, successfully describes the relationship between human biology, evolution, cultural development, and religious impulse over the course of many millennia. In addition to addressing evolution from a cosmological standpoint[13] (an especially useful perspective for those seeking to understand the connection between the seemingly vast bodies of the cosmos and the seemingly minute bodies of humans) Bellah also suggests a structure for the evolution of the religious tendency in humans and shows, with sufficient evidence and no small amount of flair, how this tendency has influenced the development of culture and the progress of civilization. His chapters on Ancient Mesopotamia and the Classical Greek mindset contribute much to our understandings of the spiritual inclinations of these important, but oftentimes inaccessible, cultures. Though Bellah does not discuss astrology in the horoscopic sense, he does explore the role of the transcendent (from which one can then surmise the heavens) in service of the evolutionary trajectory of humanity thus opening the possibility for astrology to have had an even greater influence on not just the cultural history of humanity, but on the very essence of our biological and spiritual nature.


The Present Moment

            Just as the religious atmosphere of a specific era could heavily influence the astrology of that time, modern astrology has been likewise influenced by modern cultural phenomena the most important of which is the psychological tradition. With Sigmund Freud’s attentiveness to the symbolic world of dreams and Carl Jung’s discourses on archetypes, the unconscious, and even astrology and divination, astrology seemed to have found a worldview within which its wisdom could be comprehended. For the purposes of this essay however we will venture away from Freud and Jung, about who plenty has been written, and explore a less known text from a close descendant of the analytical psychology movement, James Hillman and his essay “On Senex Consciousness”. In this essay, Hillman explores the concept of the senex figure, how it has been related to the archetypal figure of Saturn throughout the ages, and how those characteristics have come to be associated with the western concept of God, the father. As a psychologist though, Hillman’s motivation is not simply to describe the concept of God or Saturn, but to understand and share how those two ideals exist in the psyche of individual humans.

     Though Hillman is not expressly alluding to astrological interpretations in this essay his perspective brings to the light the historic shift that occurred in the wake of Freud and Jung’s theories on the nature of the psyche; namely, that God, or whatever divine figure or figures are appropriate to a given culture or person, is a psychic complex within the human, not an external supernatural being. Hillman describes how the senex archetype affects various areas of an individual person’s life, such as childhood, midlife, or sexuality, and in so doing imbues the figure with a sense of engaged participation in the life of humans. From the perspective of a psychologist, this serves to catalyze dialogue and aid visualization with patients who might be stuck, isolated, or melancholic (all words used to describe the Saturn/senex archetype); but from the perspective of the historian, Hillman’s analysis of Saturn confirms, in essence, the entire argument of this paper: that astrology changes with the times.

     Psychological astrology is understood to be a branch of the subject that uses the planetary archetypal significations to elucidate the inner workings of an individual’s consciousness. In 1976 one of the pioneers in the field, Liz Greene wrote Saturn: A New Look at an Old Devil in which she examines the presence of Saturn in various positions of the natal chart and suggests the difficulties and strengths of such configurations. By applying broad strokes to both the nature of the planet’s archetypal significance and to the psychological disposition of individuals, Greene exposes the intuitive side of astrology that had been, seemingly for centuries, cloaked in the guise of ‘esoteric’ wisdom, incommunicable at least, dangerously powerful at best. 

     There was however a brief historical moment at the turn of the twentieth century wherein the esoteric nature of astrology was made visible, for better or worse. Alan Leo, a British astrologer and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, is considered by most to be the father of modern astrology. His decidedly psychological take on the subject and his belief in Heraclitus’ dictum ‘character is fate’ certainly ushered into the modern world a new type of astrology that was not fatalistic in the sense of external forces controlling the lives of men, but rather Leo posited that it is the individual’s impulses which determine our joys and trials in life, and that those impulses could be interpreted from the birth chart. Likely because of his Theosophical background, Leo seemed to hold firm beliefs about the nature of human existence and consciousness that were heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy and his 1916 book Saturn the Reaper goes to great lengths to describe the importance of Saturn, specifically in an eastern context as the planet relates to karma and yoga[14]. An astrological textbook with interpretive recipes for delineating Saturn’s presence in various positions of the birth chart, Saturn the Reaper reinforces the deep, often obscure, relationship between East and West in the evolution of culture, spirit, and human.

     The modern period for astrology bore witness to an unprecedented volume of interpretive books on the subject and with each publication there came a new interpretation of a certain planet, an innovative technique for predicting events, or a short-cut method for the laborious calculations that had accompanied astrological pursuits for thousands of years. It would not be too much to say that by the turn of the twenty-first century, there were as many different astrologies as there were astrologers. But for all the fanfare and progress, Saturn has remained solid in his scope of influence and basic characterization. In modern astrology, where psychological impact is considered with seriousness and the ethical implications of knowing or telling someone’s fate are discussed and carefully navigated, Saturn’s reputation as a malefic has been molded to meet the demands of a psychological atmosphere which favors growth. Early associations with laborious pursuits have evolved away from prognostications about enslavement to encompass more positive attributes like work ethic and mastery from experience. Although retaining associations with the senex figure, aging, and end of life, Saturn in the modern era has also come to represent maturation in the finest sense of the word and his influence is recognized as an essential aspect of individual psychological growth.


An Efficient God

            There is a danger in comparative scholasticism to make mountains out of molehills. Similarities across traditions do not necessarily indicate direct correlations and the propensity toward seeing syncretism in all historical interactions between cultures is the comparative historians greatest potential pitfall. In order to avoid such temptation in this essay I have necessarily relegated my explorations of the planet Saturn to the western tradition, arising out of the Greco-Roman world, reaching philosophical and artistic heights in the European Renaissance, and lingering in the modern western tradition through astrological lore and practice. Though the theoretical implications of the relationship between Saturn, God, and teleological evolution, could aptly be applied to the figure Shani in Vedic cosmology and despite the evidence that suggests Saturn-Kronos bore great resemblance to ancient gods of the Near East like Ninurta or Osiris, the task at hand requires enough attention without the compounding issues of cross-cultural contamination and colonization that would arise were we to include all Saturnian gods that ever were.

     In order to offer a conclusion to the initial question ‘is there a metric of efficiency against which one could measure god’ we must return to the beginning. To the ancient Greeks, the planet Saturn was known as the god Kronos. Early stories of the god, particularly those that have become legendary, describe a young Titan, son of Gaia the earth, and Ouranos the sky. Gaia bears many different children to Ouranos in their creation of the world, but Ouranos is ashamed by the ugliness of some, namely the Cyclops and the Hekatonkheires. Because of his shame, Ouranos hides all of these children away in the depths of Gaia’s body. Gaia, as a result of great discomfort, begs one of her Titan children to alleviate her of this misery. Kronus is the only child willing to rise against his father. With a sickle made by his mother from the metals in her body, Cronus castrates his father and deposes him of his reign. Rather than releasing his siblings from the depths of his mother’s womb, Kronos keeps them imprisoned. After greatly disappointing his mother, and castrating his father, Kronos receives a prophesy from his parents that he will one day be overthrown by his son, just as he had overthrown his father. In an attempt to overcome his fate, Kronos swallows every child bore to him by his wife Rhea. Just as Gaia had grown weary of her husband’s infanticidal behaviors, Rhea likewise determines to save her last son, Zeus, from the tragedy that befell his siblings. When Zeus is born, she offers a decoy- a stone swaddled like a baby- to Kronos’ appetite. The real baby Zeus is whisked away to safety on the island of Crete until the fateful day when he rallies his troops and wages war against his father Kronos.

      This story, which has been told and re-told in various forms throughout the millennia, is not new but as it is the seed from which the greater Saturnian archetype will grow it deserves careful consideration. Ancient Greek cosmogenesis describes Ouranos as the vast expanse of the heavens married to Gaia, the earth. From Hesiod’s Theogony we learn that “Gaia first bore starry Ouranos equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.” [15] Cosmologically, Hesiod’s time was not marked by a particularly structured vision of the universe. Ptolemy’s geocentric universe would not be detailed for another thousand years and the ordered, nesting spheres that we find in Plato’s Timaeus were still a few centuries away. We can therefore only assume that Ouranos was vast and flexible. Additionally, his creations also lacked a sort of form; the Cyclops had only one eye, the Hekatonkheires a hundred hands.  The essence of cosmos is one of beauty, and harmony, aspects that were clearly lacking in the Ouranos’ early universe. When Kronos castrates his father, he is literally removing the generative possibility of the sky.  When understood metaphorically as a story related somehow to the astronomical reality that the Axial mind was just coming to grasp but would not be fully realized until Ptolemy, then we can imagine Ouranos as the ever-expanding universe and his castration via Kronus, the last of the seven wandering stars, as the demarcation and imaginal creation of our solar system. That Kronos would later go on to capture and consume within his boundless belly the deities that would come to be primarily associated with the distinct objects of the night sky presents a particularly compelling case for this hypothesis. 

            But it is not a remarkable thought to associate Saturn with the boundaries of the known universe. The question is how does this relate to the creation of the concept of God. To this end I will draw again on Robert Bellah to clarify my thinking. In his 1964 essay ‘Religious Evolution’ (which provided the inspiration and outline for his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution’ Robert Bellah distinguishes between the symbolic systems of human religion in pre-history through to the historical period. He notes of the historical period:

The first of these facts is the emergence in the first millennium B.C. all across the Old World, at least in centers of high culture, of the phenomenon of religious rejection of the world characterized by an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true and infinitely valuable.[16]


Bella describes ‘world rejection’ and a focus on the transcendent as key factors in the development of the type of religious systems that still hold fast today. It is my view that this sense of world rejection in favor of transcendence could not have occurred without first the existence of a transcendent ‘beyond’ and as Saturn, the star and the god, is one of the earliest personified deities of the boundary between the imminent and transcendent, the very nature of the historical religious tradition is, always has been, and will likely remain intertwined with the planet and god, Saturn.  









Works Cited


Abū Ma’shar, Keiji Yamamoto, and Charles Burnett. 2000. On historical astrology: the book of religions and dynasties (on the great conjunctions). Leiden: Brill.


Barton, Tamsyn. 1994. Ancient astrology. London: Routledge.


Bellah, Robert N. "Religious Evolution." American Sociological Review 29, no. 3 (1964): 358-74.


----- 2011. Religion in human evolution: from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Bowden, Mary Ellen. Isis 81, no. 4 (1990): 754-56.


Burnett, Charles. 2009. Arabic into Latin in the middle Ages: the translators and their intellectual and social context. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate/Variorum.


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[1] Bellah, Religious Evolution 358

[2] Holden 22

[3] Manilius 1.150-171

[4] ibid 1.113-117

[5] For a detailed analysis of Platonic influence on ancient and modern astrology see Campion, A History of Western Astrology Volume I, Chapter 10 ‘Greece: The Platonic Revolution’

[6] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos Book 1, Chapter 2

[7] Bowden 755

[8] Tester 204

[9] Tester 207

[10] Barton 115

[11] Pingree 1980

[12] Saxl et al 284

[13] Bellah Religion in Human Evolution pp 50-52

[14] Leo pp37-40

[15] Hesiod Theogony 126

[16] Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution 359

Laura MichettiComment