As Gods go, Saturn is quite neglected these days in the retelling of Classical Myths.
He usually gets dismissed as “the equivalent of the Greek Cronus” and that’s pretty much it.
The tale of Zeus and Cronus is quite well known: Cronus — who had castrated his own father, Uranus, with a sickle — swallowed all his children by Rhea as soon as they were born, for fear that one would overthrow him.
That was, until, Rhea contrived to smuggle the infant Zeus away.
He grew up on Mount Ida, suckled by a goat — and grew up to overthrow his father.
Most assume that’s all there is to Saturn too.
But it’s important to remember that while there are parallels between the Greek and Roman pantheon, and the Romans equated Saturn with Cronus, they do in fact have quite separate existences.
Cronus, with his sickle, was associated with the harvest, Saturn — the Roman God of agriculture — was associated more with sowing.
And to the Romans, Saturn, unlike Cronus, never became a shadowy figure in the background, even though the Roman passion for all things Greek meant that among the literatti, he did get his nose shoved out somewhat.
But it is clear that he still remained one of their most important deities, very much at the forefront of their religion.
They named one of the planets after him (the Greek name for the planet Saturn was Phainon “shining”).
In turn, the planet Saturn gave its name to a day of the week — the only day of the week, indeed, which in our calendar still bears his name: Saturday.
Saturn’s temple stood at the foot of the Capitoline. It was an important place, home to the state treasury, the Tables of Law and the records of decress by the Senate.
And the Saturnalia was probably the most popular festivals of the Roman calendar.
Originally, it lasted only a day, and it was held in celebration of the sowing of the crops, which took place in Roman Italy in December.
From the 3rd Century BCE, though, it started to grow, lasting a week by the time of the Emperor Augustus.
It was a period characterised by revelry; the formal, cumbersome toga was put aside, and everyone wore the equivalent of party clothes instead.
Slaves got to be cheeky to masters, and to have their celebratory feast before — or with — their masters.
A “lord of misrule” was chosen, and everyone had to do what he said, no matter how ridiculous — indeed, the more ridiculous, the better.
And, most significantly for us today, as we dash madly round the shops trying to find something to buy Auntie Mabel for Christmas, we have the Saturnalia to thank for the tradition of giving gifts at this season.
The traditional gift of the Saturnalia were small terracotta dolls called sigilla, and other popular gifts were candles, fruit and nuts, but all kinds of gifts were given. Book 14 of Martial’s Epigrams contains all sorts of Saturnalia gifts, ranging from a lyre to an apron, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to an ape — although Martial was writing satire, so does needs to be taken with a pinch of salt…
So what names do we have for Saturnalia babies?
Well, the possibilities are endless, but here are a few suggestions.
- Allegra — Italian “happy” and “cheerful”; Byron renamed his illegitimate daughter Clara Allegra when he gained custody of her in 1818
- Ananda — Sanskrit “happiness” and “pleasure”
- Asher — Hebrew osher “happy” and “blessing”
- Cereus — Latin “wax candle”; one of the traditional gifts of the Saturnalia. Cerea makes a nice feminine form.
- Cithara — an ancient instrument, resembling a lyre, plucked at many a Saturnalia feast
- Cymbal — simple musical instruments were often a feature of festivities such as the Saturnalia
- Drummer — plenty of drumming at the Saturnalia!
- Dulcimer — a medieval musical instrument, with the loveliest of names
- Džiugas — Lithuanian boy’s name, dating to medieval times, meaning “cheerful” and “merry”
- Farah — Arabic “joy” and “delight”
- Felicia — variant of FELIX dating back to medieval times
- Festus — Latin “festive”; used as a cognomen (surname) in Roman times
- Fête — French “festival”
- Fidicen -- Latin “minstrel”
- Gale – obsolete English word meaning “merriment” and “mirth”; the identical looking word for a high wind has a different etymology
- Gaudeamus — Latin “let us rejoice”; from the Latin student’s song “Gaudeamus igitur…”; gaudeamus was sometimes used in the 19th Century of merry-making, particularly by students.
- Gaudeo — Latin “I rejoice”
- Gaudi — Spanish surname, made familiar by the genius Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí; it derives ultimately from the Latin gaudium “joy”
- Gioconda — Italian “merry” (La Gioconda is one of the names of the Mona Lisa)
- Glad — and maybe, dare I through it in — Gladys?
- Gŵyl — Welsh “festival”
- Harper — more music…
- Hilaria — Latin: hilaris “merriment.” The original medieval Latin form of Hilary when used for girls.
- Io — although pronounced differently, if I had a Saturnalia baby, I’d be very tempted to use this lovely and rather quirky name from Greek mythology as a nod to the traditional cry of “Io, Saturnalia” (kind of the equivalent of “Merry Christmas”…)
- Jocant — obsolete English word meaning “jolly”
- Jovy — obsolete form of JOVIAL
- Joyeux — French “merry”
- Kermis — a periodical fair or carnival in the Low Countries and parts of Germany characterized by much merry-making
- Laeta (simplified as Leta) — Latin “happy”
- Lecelina — a medieval diminutive form of LETITIA
- Letitia — Latin laetitia “happiness”; used as a given name since the Middle Ages
- Lettice — the charming ye-olde-worldey English form of LETITIA
- Llawen — Welsh “merry” (the name of an early saint)
- Lowena – Cornish “joy”
- Lowender — Cornish “mirth”
- Lyra — Latin name of the Lyre (which also has name potential), the best known instrument of the ancient world, and grandmother of the harp. Like the Cithara, there would have been much strumming of the lyre at the Saturnalia, and it was one of the gifts featured by Marial in his epigrams about Saturnalia presents…
- Piper — plenty of pipe-playing at the Saturnalia too…
- Saturn — Saturn derives from Latin satus “sown,” from sero “to sow.” There are actually examples of Saturn as a given name since the 19th Century.
- Sigilla – Latin “little image”; the little statuettes handed out as traditional Saturnalia gifts
- Timbrel — a medieval instrument akin to a tamourine, used in festivities and celebrations
Not to mention all the names meaning “gift.”
And now it’s time to go and celebrate. Io, Saturnalia!