In the spirit of the season we are highlighting some of the books in our library that have a Christmas theme, whether it be Mythology, ancient customs or traditions, or actual events that took place – with excerpts from personal diaries and logs. We begin with the Roman god Saturnus and the festival Saturnalia often associated with the Christian feast of Christmas.
Saturnus – The Roman God of Christmas – Saturnalia
SATURNUS – According to the popular belief of the Romans, made his first appearance in Italy at a time when Janus was reigning king of the fertile region that stretches along the banks of the Tiber on either side. Presenting himself to Janus, and being kindly received, he proceeded to instruct the subjects of the latter in agriculture, gardening, and many other arts then quite unknown to them: as, for example, how to train and nurse the vine, and how to tend and cultivate fruit-trees. By such means he at length raised the people from a rude and comparatively barbarous condition to one of order and peaceful occupations, in consequence of which he was everywhere held in high esteem, and in course of time was selected by Janus to share with him the government of the kingdom, which thereupon assumed the name of Saturnia, “a land of seed and fruit.”
The period of Saturn’s government was in later times sung of by poets as a happy time when sorrows and cares of life were unknown, when innocence, freedom, and gladness reigned throughout the land, in such a degree as to deserve the title of the golden age. Greek mythology also has its golden age, said to have occurred during the reign of Cronus, and this, perhaps, more than any other circumstance, led to the identification of Saturnus and Cronus, in spite of the real difference between the two deities.
The name of Saturn’s wife was Ops. Once a year, in the month of December, the Romans held a festival called Saturnalia in his honor. It lasted from five to seven days, and was accompanied by amusements of all kinds. During those days the ordinary distinctions were done away with between master and servant or slave. No assemblies were held to discuss public affairs, and no punishments for crimes were judged. Servants or slaves went about dressed like their masters and neighbors and received from them costly presents. Children gave their parents or relatives presents of pictures, notably of a gaudy type, purchased in the street where the picture dealers lived.
Mommsen has shown that even during the Empire the Saturnalia proper was a single day, December 19th. It was the great holiday of the Roman year, not unlike our Christmas, and people greeted each other with the words ‘bona Saturnalia.’ Lucian tells us that the receiver of a book at that time was in honor bound to read it, no matter how long or uninteresting it might be.
There was a temple of Saturn in Rome, at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, containing a figure of him with his feet wrapped round with pieces of woollen cloth, which could only be removed during the festival of the Saturnalia. In one hand he held a curved garden-knife, as a sign of his having been the first to teach the people how to trim the vine and olive. In this temple were preserved the state chest and the standards of the army.
Excerpt from The Manual of Mythology by Alexander Stuart Murray – 1897
Further Reading and External Links
The Temple of Saturn in Rome