January 12, 2012
The glorious planet Saturn is still visible just after dark in the southwestern sky. It’s hard to miss. Look for a bright, yellowish point of light near the star Porrima in the constellation Virgo.
Of its famous rings I have previously written, but here are a few vital statistics. In a small telescope, you aren’t really looking at rings at all. Instead, you are seeing a billion trillion mostly tiny moonlets orbiting around the planet. They are merely arranged in rings. If you clumped them all together, they would amount to a pathetic hunk of rock just 40 or so miles wide. Spread out as they are, they form a diaphanous field of glory so large that the rings would barely fit between Earth and its moon.
Despite their enormous girth, the rings were too small to see before the invention of the telescope 400 years ago. In fact, so clueless were the ancient Greeks and Romans that they believed Saturn was a god like all the naked-eye planets.
“Planet” comes from a Greek word that means “wanderer.” The planets had freedom that the stars lacked. Stars were fixed with respect to each other, but the planets moved against the starry background. The gods lived among the stars and wandered around them at will.
As the farthest out planet visible to the unaided eye, Saturn is also the slowest moving of the “ancient” planets. Because of its enormous distance from the sun, around 900 million miles, Saturn takes almost 30 years to make one circuit around the sky. People didn’t live nearly so long in ancient times as they did today. Thirty years old was a grand old age for the average person. A Saturn year was near the limit of most human lives, and a person who lived long enough to see Saturn pass twice around the sky was old indeed.
The motion of all the planets helped to measure out the passage of time, and time was Saturn’s specialty. (Warning: The following story contains child eating and other indignities that are frowned upon in today’s less permissive society.)
Saturn was a very old Roman god who migrated to Italy from Greece, where he ruled under the name Cronus. He was the youngest son of Uranus, the god of heaven, and Gaia, Mother Earth. His mother gave him a flint sickle, which he used to castrate his father, take his place in Heaven, and thus become ruler of the world. The period of his rule is called the Golden Age, when humans lived in peace and prosperity. Armed with his scythe, he taught humans the art of agriculture.
Saturn’s one flaw was his fear that one of his children would overthrow him the way he supplanted his own father. To protect himself, he swallowed his own children whole immediately after they were born. As a result of some clever maneuvering by Saturn’s wife Rhea, the child named Zeus managed to escape being eaten. Eventually, after a stupendous war, Zeus grew up to replace his father as ruler of the universe.
If all of this sounds ancient and irrelevant to our modern times, think again. Both the Greeks and the Romans honored Cronus and Saturn with festivals near the end of December. The Saturnalia, as the Romans called it, was a period of joyous licentiousness and carrying on that still hangs on in our New Year’s Eve and Christmas celebrations.
Even more significantly, Saturn/Cronus is often depicted in ancient art as an old man carrying a long, curved sword or scythe. On New Year’s Eve, we worship him to this very day as Father Time holding his scythe, ready to mow us down. As the clock tolls midnight, he must yield his throne to the New Year’s child.
Of course, the planet Saturn isn’t a god, but the ancients were correct in at least one particular. Time is ultimately our enemy, its passage our greatest danger. Yet each moment is a precious gift worthy of our attention and praise. If it happens to be clear this month, you might want to go out and give old Father Time a look — just in case.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. He can be emailed at email@example.com.