Image from the past: Saturn, the Titan

Many images from our ancient past survive into our time. One such is old Father Time, whom we see mostly on New Year’s Eve, sickle in hand, passing on the burden of the coming year to the New Year’s baby.

Father Time is older than you might think. He has moved slowly and inexorably across the sky for eons. As August marches forward into September, you may see him, much as our ancient forebears did, marking the passing of the days, months, and years.

He is Saturn, god of time and agriculture. He is visible in the early evening as a bright, orange-yellow point of light low in the southern sky.

It takes a small telescope to see its fabulous rings. Of course, you can come to one of our Friday-night programs and see Saturn and its rings in an unforgettable way. But find some way to see it. Ask any lifelong stargazer what keeps them enamored of the nighttime sky, and they will recount to you in vivid detail the first time they saw Saturn in a telescope.

Because Saturn was the slowest moving of the planets visible to them, the ancients saw it as a symbol of the slow passage of the years. The Greeks called it Cronus, Father Time, the father of all the gods on Mount Olympus.

He was also in charge of fertility. He made the plants and animals grow and multiply, passing their seed on through time into the next generation.

That’s why, to this day, Father Time still carries his scythe, ready to harvest the Earth’s bounty.

Cronus was not, strictly speaking, a god but a titan, the beings who ruled the universe before the gods came to power.

He came to power by driving out his father, Uranus, the god of the sky, with his sickle.

Having heard a prophecy that he in turn would be deposed by one of his own children, he swallowed them whole as they were born.

The only child to escape Cronus’ weird culinary habits was Zeus, called Jupiter by the Romans.

He was smuggled by his mother, Rhea, to the island of Crete, where he grew to manhood.

Cronus was tricked into vomiting up his other children, and they joined forces with Zeus to overthrow their father.

After a 10-year war, Zeus and the other gods were triumphant, and they threw Cronus into Tartarus, the deepest bowels of the earth, below even Hades.

For all his faults, Cronus was a kind and gentle deity. His rule brought a golden age to Earth — a period when time and nature were bountiful. The crops grew without fail, and time moved with the slow softness of a summer breeze.

Humans lived like the gods themselves, and even death was no worse than a gentle dream.

With his banishment, the age of death and change began. The age of the gods came, and human fate moves now with their fickle whims. (Try living in your father’s stomach for a while and see what it does for your disposition.)

Crops sometimes are bountiful, and sometimes they fail. The seasons are inconstant, and death is the inevitable end of life.

The old gods and titans are gone now. We see their ghosts as those bright points of light, the planets that wander slowly among the stars.

Perhaps you will think of Cronus as you look at his rings with your telescope this summer. He wears them low on his head like a triumphant wreath of golden ivy.

It is well that he should be so crowned. In a sense, Father Time still rules. We are still bound by the brief years we dwell upon our planet, by the inexorable flow of time in our all-too-brief residence here.

Time, Cronus’ gift to the world, is still our greatest joy — and our greatest sorrow.

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Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.