Saturn represents your need for structure, limitation and security. As the reality principle, it stands for the workings of karma and necessity. It keeps you grounded in the material world through your relationship to time and the facts of existence, suffering, old age and death. In the past, Saturn was known as the Greater Malefic and had a fearsome reputation, but perhaps he’s been misunderstood…
Saturn orbits at the visual boundary of the solar system and has a 29 – 30 year cycle. It rules two signs – Capricorn and Aquarius – which shows its dual nature. In Capricorn, Saturn stands for the principle of order and boundaries in the material world, while in Aquarius it represents order on the mental or spiritual level.
The Saturn glyph is the cross of matter above the crescent moon of the soul, representing the soul’s incarnation in physical form. It’s also the alchemical symbol for lead, which is associated with the nigredo, or blackening stage of the Great Work – a stage of decay and putrefaction necessary for the process of transmutation. This is relevant to Saturn because he governs the timing of the individuation process as you grow into an individual.
Some of the other archetypes associated with Saturn include: the Father, the Good King, the Teacher, the Wise Old Man or senex, and Death. He’s also the Taskmaster (not the TV show!), the Terrible or Negative Father, and the Tyrant. Let’s see how these archetypes are portrayed in the myths…
We start in the obvious place with the myth most often associated with Saturn: the Greek Titan Kronos (or Cronos). Kronos was an earth and fertility god, known for castrating his father and then eating his own children. But the story starts with his mother, Gaia, who was born out of chaos.
As the original Great Mother, Gaia created her consort, the sky god Ouranos. She gave birth to the Titans, who represent forces of nature, and then to various monsters. Ouranos hated his creations because they were hideous, so he stuffed them back into Gaia, banishing them to Tartaros. She wasn’t pleased and asked Kronos to help and gave him a sickle to do the deed.
Kronos castrated Ouranos and replaced him as king of the gods. He ruled over a Golden Age alongside Rhea, his wife/sister. Rhea gave birth to Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus – the next generation of Olympian gods. But Kronos feared he would be overthrown by one of his sons and swallowed his children as they appeared.
Rhea wasn’t happy and asked Gaia for help. Gaia was used to this craziness and hatched a plan. After the birth of Zeus, Gaia smuggled him off to a cave while Rhea presented Kronos with a stone. Later, Zeus returned to overthrow his father and forced Kronos to regurgitate his children. After a war, the Titans were banished to Tartaros, but in one version Kronos was sent to the Island of the Blessed where he ruled over the Elysian Fields.
In between eating his children and throwing them up again, Kronos also fathered Chiron (see Chiron Myths). Kronos is usually depicted as an old man and is sometimes shown holding an ouroboros, which represents eternity and the cycles of time. He’s not the same as the god Chronos who was a personification of time, although the two figures seem to have got mixed up at some point.
The Roman equivalent of Kronos was the god Saturn, who was generally more benign and less power-crazed. Saturn was a fertility god of the harvest who ruled over a Golden Age of abundance and harmony. He was celebrated every year in the Saturnalia festival at Midwinter with much drinking, eating and merriment. As a fertility god, he’s also related to gods like Pan, a symbol of the creative power of nature to renew itself (see Capricorn Myths).
In Babylonian astrology, Saturn was called Sagush and was associated with Ninurta, god of agriculture and healing. He was known as the Lord of the Fields, and was often described as wise. In one myth, Ninurta gave farmers advice on how to plant and harvest crops. Later he became a warrior as the civilisation became more war-like and oppressive.
In another myth, Ninurta retrieved the Tablet of Destinies after it was stolen by the Anzu bird. The Tablet granted supreme power to Enlil as ruler of the universe. One of its powers was to reverse time so when Ninurta fired arrows at Anzu, they returned to their constituent parts. The feathers turned into birds and flew away, and his bow returned to the wood of the forest and the bowstring turned back into sheep – a neat trick!
Meanwhile, in Egypt, Saturn was associated with Sobek, the crocodile god of the Nile. He had an ambiguous nature and was seen as both protective and vicious, warding off evil but also linked to the forces of chaos via Set. Sobek ensured the fertility of the land by controlling the waters of the Nile, which was created from his sweat. 😅
Some myths also describe Sobek as a creator god who arose from the waters of Nun and created the world. In one version, he (she?) laid eggs on the bank of the waters and this created the world. Interestingly, mummified crocodiles have been found with baby crocodiles in their mouths, emphasising the protective quality of the god, but weirdly reminiscent of Kronos. Crocodiles are known to carry their young in their mouths – it’s quite sweet!
Finally, Saturn is associated with the image of God the Father in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This god is seen as the creator of the world and can be judgemental and vengeful, as well as loving and protective. Each religion has its own conception of this god but they’re all influenced by the figure of Yahweh.
Yahweh may have started out as the Canaanite god El, who was also associated with Saturn. He also started out with a consort, the fertility goddess Asherah who was worshipped as the Great Mother in the form of a tree. Unfortunately, her temples were smashed and she was written out of the Bible and suppressed – a very Saturnian act.
The repressive quality of Saturn influenced gnostic ideas about the creation of the world and mankind. Some doctrines saw Yahweh as the Demiurge, a god who believes he’s the only god in town. As a fallen and deluded being, he created this world as a distorted copy of the real thing. Other doctrines were less grim.
In Kabbalah, Saturn is associated with Binah, the sphere of understanding. Binah is the power that organises the creative forces of divine activity and gives them form. As the third sphere, it takes three points and uses them to define any position relative to the others. It’s this ability that gives rise to awareness and love, so Binah is seen as a feminine principle and the root of matter.
The Meaning of Saturn
It’s unfortunate that Saturn has become so closely associated with the figure of Kronos because there’s a lot more to the planet than being a tyrannical asshole. With Pluto and Saturn transiting Capricorn, now may be the perfect time to reconsider our relationship to Saturn and what he represents. The fact that Saturn rules two signs, one masculine and one feminine, should provide the clue we need to make sense of what’s missing in our understanding.
It’s not necessary to recast Saturn as a goddess, but remembering that every archetype can express itself in both masculine and feminine ways could be helpful. This has nothing to do with gender, but with the expression of yin and yang. In other words, it’s a way of describing how energy moves in either static or dynamic ways.
So viewed from a masculine perspective, the structures of Saturn can be static and repressive – a way to keep order and control, especially over the unruly instincts. But from a feminine perspective, Saturn can be seen as the order of nature – a structure that spontaneously arises from matter. Those structures aren’t static but dynamic, and evolve through cycles of time.
There are also dynamic expressions of the masculine and static expressions of the feminine. You can explore these ideas further in the excellent article by Jessica Garfield-Kabbara: Re-visioning Saturn.
It’s interesting that the Greeks associated Saturn with both Kronos and his wife Rhea. But the myth also suggests a hijack of the feminine by the masculine – a god regurgitating his children in a facsimile of birth. Or perhaps it’s another variation on the gnostic creation myth – a god taking credit for a world created by someone else.
However, before Kronos went mad and ate his kids, he performed an essential function: he separated Gaia and Ouranos and created reality as we know it. Kronos made physical life possible by separating the earth and the sky. And with that separation comes finite forms and time, without which there would be no experience of life.
In this way, Saturn becomes the threshold or gateway into incarnation. He is matter, but the word ‘matter’ comes from the Latin mater, which means mother. This could be another example of the patriarchy suppressing the feminine side of life, as with Yahweh and Asherah. But if we look deeper, it might represent an important symbolic milestone in the development of consciousness.
Kronos castrating Ouranos represents the birth of ego consciousness, or the awareness of yourself as a separate being from your mother. This could be seen as a terrible event – being cast out of Eden – but Gaia supported it. She encouraged Kronos and gave him the sickle, a symbol of the goddess’ power.
As we saw in Capricorn Myths, Saturn is his mother’s son. He only acts through her power and rules by her consent. In The Astrology of Fate, Liz Greene explains:
“Kronos is not an independent masculine principle, but rather the masculine side of the generative principle over which the Mother presides.”
But you can’t stay tied to the mother forever. If you want to live, you have to break free and become an individual in your own right. Saturn represents this process of growth and shows how life is differentiated into separate forms. He stands for the boundary of the ego or personal self – the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
The downside of the development of the ego is fear, and that leads to repression and the creation of the shadow. Obviously, there’s no need for the ego to be as mad as Kronos. It’s fear of the natural cycle of life that makes him swallow his children. He doesn’t want to be overthrown so he tries to stop life from moving.
But time can’t be stopped – not even for Kronos.
Kronos eating his children is often seen as a metaphor for the way time conquers everything. The past is constantly passing away and every created thing dies. But Kronos also ruled the Golden Age which represents eternity. So perhaps when he ate his children, he was trying to maintain a timeless state of perfection. In one version of his story, he ends up in the Elysian Fields, another metaphor for eternity and the Golden Age.
So Saturn stands at the end of time, the threshold into this life and out of it again. His scythe cuts you down and limits your life – which is why we don’t like him – but without limit or death, there would be no life.
Saturn is the harvest at the end of a cycle of growth. But you don’t get the harvest without the seed at the start. And the seed won’t grow without the death and decay of old forms that feed the soil. Saturn contains both the seed and the harvest. As a fertility god, he stands for eternal youth and new life, and as time, he stands for wisdom and old age.
The eternal youth sows the seed and the old man reaps. Wisdom is the harvest.
Saturn shows us that the acceptance of natural limits and the cycles of life lead to inner peace – a kind of personal Golden Age. But it depends on what you sow and how you cultivate your seeds. The harvest represents karma, the reaping of what you’ve sown. Just like Kronos, you can’t escape the consequences of your actions.
You can’t have or be everything in life. Saturn shows the limit of your potential – your lot, or what you have to work with while you’re here. But he can be a tough teacher and if you refuse to learn his lessons, you’ll experience him as harsh and restrictive. From this perspective, Saturn stands for your weaknesses, fears and inadequacies.
But if you cooperate and do the work, you’ll be rewarded with abundance and wisdom. By taking responsibility, your weaknesses can become your greatest strengths. In this way, Saturn drives the process of individuation along with Chiron.
The Saturn cycle marks the natural development of your personality through various stages of mini deaths and rebirths, especially at the returns. It also forms a hard angle to each of your planets every seven years as it moves around your chart in a pattern that’s unique to you. These transits are tests to keep you on the path and ensure that you’re being true to yourself so you can become all you’re meant to be.
This is why the alchemists saw Saturn as their patron because he governed the Great Work of transforming lead into gold. Agrippa called Saturn:
“a great, wise and understanding lord, the begetter of silent contemplation” and a “keeper and discoverer of mysteries.”
The greatest mystery is how to take the limitations of matter and earthly existence and turn them into something more, something transcendent. You do this by taking responsibility for your fate, or the reality of your life – whatever time and change brings you.
The question is what you do with what you’re given. What do you make of it? What do you build?
Who are you going to become?
Saturn Myths on Film
Films that represent the Saturn archetype include stories about time, old age and death, law and order, borders, repression and control, tradition and the past, and harvest. You could also include horror films, or anything about the shadow and fear, as well as duty, responsibility, inner strength, resilience, and perseverance against overwhelming odds. You’ll have your own favourites, but here are a few examples of Saturn on film:
- Multiple characters fighting for the Iron Throne and against the White Walkers in Game of Thrones.
- Policeman, Neil Howie who is lured to his death in a pagan ritual on Summerisle in The Wicker Man.
- Sarah Conner teaming up with time-traveller Kyle Reese to escape a cyborg in The Terminator.
- Aging mutant Logan on a quest to help his feral daughter grow up in Logan.
- FBI agent, Kate Macer, whose integrity is challenged on a raid across the Mexican border in Sicario.
- Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler spying on a playwright in East Germany in The Lives of Others.
- Edward, a boy obsessed with ghosts who befriends a retired magician in Is Anybody There?
- Psychologist Nathan Appleby dealing with the ghosts of the past and the future in The Living and the Dead.
More on the spooky world of The Living and the Dead here. Next month, a look at Pluto Myths in: The Story Behind Pluto
More on Saturn:
- Saturn Keywords
- How to Interpret Saturn Transits
- Saturn Transits to Planets and in Houses
- Saturn Pluto Cycle series