This year I have Saturn coming for the holiday season. He’ll arrive, fully exact on my natal sun, at 18:48 GMT on 21st December. Hours later, the sun enters Capricorn to ring in the Winter Solstice at 4:48 GMT on 22nd December. This is a personal Saturnalia whether I celebrate it or not and my celebrations will culminate on Christmas day which will be Sol Invictus for me too since I’m being reminded of interlinking Romano-Christian celebrations this year. My reminder of the Return of the Unconquered Sun comes as the full moon, exact at 11:11 GMT at 3 degrees 20 minutes of Cancer, opposes the sun at his rebirth.
Saturn’s conjunction of my sun closes a 29-year cycle whilst opening a new one. The moon’s fullness in Cancer evokes early January 2014 and her point in the full-moon cycle is a return of sorts to November 2013. And I could spend time analysing the minutiae of what all this means for me personally but I don’t think I will. For one thing, I feel that those who understand astrological symbolism will get the drift of where all this culminating completion might be leading. And I think that, while there’s a time and a place for tight astrological analysis, this is not it because these celestial signs are awesome in the truest sense of the word and I’m afraid that getting down to nuts and bolts might diminish the awe somehow. It would be as petty as making the point that baptismal holy water comes from the same source as water for the washing machine. So, instead, I’ll stand back and remind myself that, whatever it means for me materially to have Saturn to stay, it all results from being chosen to entertain a planetary god, and that is an honour.
So I’m cultivating an attitude of anticipation and, at the same time, making preparations to receive Saturn, the sun and the moon. Precedents for such Parousia go back a long way so I know that I can refer to various magical and religious traditions for examples of etiquette. For instance, the Christian church has been marking the season of Advent for many a long year and Christian worship at this time is absolutely centred on ritual making-ready to receive a guest of great importance. Advent – from the Latin adventus – corresponds to the Greek, Parousia, which refers to preparations that surround the prospect of the physical arrival of someone important, official, royal or holy. Parousia has a place in astrology too where it is understood as the presence of a planet at a significant zodiacal point so I can practice some appropriate astrological remediation too.
Still, it’s probably obvious that I’m not wholly delighted at the prospect of Saturn’s arrival on my sun, but some sense of foreboding is to be expected when one prepares to receive a god. The fact is the Christian season of Advent is not traditionally a time of unmitigated joy either. Preparations reflect the trials and complications that surrounded his birth and life, and are also charged with the mythological and historical sufferings of the Jews and their profound cultural and religious yearnings for liberation. Of course, there’s pleasure at the prospect of having Jesus around too but reminders of the travails and journeyings of Mary and Joseph dominate. Much is made of the circumstances that brought Jesus to be born in the right place at the right time and these include unhappy recollections of how Herod tried to thwart God’s will, was himself thwarted by the Magi, and how he subsequently ordered the Massacre of the Innocents because he couldn’t tolerate the rise of a new star when this would necessitate the setting of his own.
Besides these preparations which recourse to mythology, there are physical preparations too. Contrasting chocolate-filled Advent calendars, there are the Ember Days which fall in the last weeks of Advent. These are one group of four religious periods of fasting and contemplation which come at seasonal turning points when the sun prepares to leave the four mutable signs – Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces – for the movable ones – Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn. They come with the Quarter days and are similar in timing to particular Roman religious feriae, or festivals, intended to cultivate their agricultural gods. These weren’t fixed to particular dates but appointed to the right time astrologically by priests and magistrates who chose according to the phase of the moon. For instance, the feriae conceptivae – the fast before Saturnalia – was arranged so that Saturnalia would arrive with the full moon which would enable the Kalends of January to arrive on time too or, in other words, when the first sighting of the new moon marked January’s start.
Because, however he has developed, Saturn is, at root, an agricultural god. He was local to Capitoline Hill in Rome but, over time, cultivated in the way of so many other regional and foreign gods so that he gained in influence and personality. The Romans understood religion in terms of cultivation. They knew that if they wanted the benefits of certain gods, they needed to maintain them actively with just as much care and attention as one lavishes on crops. If they wanted to draw foreign gods away from their own lands, they needed to bait a deity-trap by offering all their homeland comforts. And, in order to cultivate Saturn they needed to remember that he, although presiding by then over agricultural toil, had once ruled the Golden Age – that mythological pre-agricultural age when gods, humans and all nature had coexisted in a time of spontaneous egalitarian plenty. And then they needed to remember how it wasn’t that way any longer and they did this by subverting order – having masters serve servants, allowing gambling when it was usually prohibited and in general having a few fun light-filled days while the sun stalled…and died…
…Only to be reborn on Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus – the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun which coincided with the winter solstice and the sun’s sure return northward. And even this naming of the day and the naming of the sun’s rebirth was an act of religious cultivation. This is because the term Invictus is an epithet – an invocation – with magical function as the correct naming of the apparently dead sun which would reignite his fire and conjure his return.
Saturnalia was a multifaceted consideration and manipulation of the matrix. Through ritual recollection of the mythical Golden Age, everyone remembered how it once was – in the beginning of all things – when choices were still all unchosen and before things got complicated. This means that Saturnalia was the brief release from the tyrannical accumulation of individual and cultural intended and unintended consequences. It was a blessed return to virgin innocence. So Roman society made magic by turning the present order upside down allowing the possibility of release of tension. They also facilitated the chance for wisdom and insight of the kind won by Odin after he’d hung upside down from Yggdrasil for nine days. Of course, there were risks of a complete overthrow of order at this time but this was mitigated by the fact that order (even if this was new order) would be re-established when Saturnalia was over. And Roman suspension of moral censure allowed the honouring and mourning of the old, dead and dying – not because these were better than what had or would replace them but because what had passed and was passing was the substrate in which everything originated. The old was the root, and roots – irrespective of quality – give rise to the possibility of life in the sun. And Saturnalia also ritually respected the truth that the old must necessarily give way to the new, since new shoots – irrespective of quality – are life and hope because they live in the sun.
So I’m preparing to receive Saturn, the sun and the full moon over the holiday season as the Romans and old-time Christians did, and the Ancient Greeks before them in self-similar form. For me it’s all about remembering how, 29 years ago when Saturn last joined my sun, it was all possibility. And I feel nostalgic for that time and wish, in a way, I could go back and try again. And I wish that all the people to touch my life over these years from whom I have moved on or who have moved on from me were still here because the world is not what it was anymore. More than that, I didn’t always mourn what I should have because I didn’t realise it was passing. But, of course, I have a life and a matrix now which I love with all my being. And I wouldn’t have anything any different so I also honour the present order and never want it to change. But, of course, I also have dreams of how it might be. Additionally, I know that things are changing irrespective of my wishes because I know that parts of my present matrix are unstable and I’m going to see them crumble. So I simultaneously fear change and will it on.
And all is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of Saturnalia which was celebrated during a time when the tragic fate of the gods was their relentless immortality. Humans have always been freer than them in this respect. We might each individually have varying allotments of freedom but, mostly, we have some degree of choice even if making a choice and choosing a path carries the equally tragic fate of being required individually and collectively to live and die by what we choose. But, even then, periodically, we can use the magical ritual moment of times like Saturnalia – and (through its similarity) the run-up to Christmas – to turn Fate’s progress upside down and be briefly freed-up to take that frozen moment of glowing candlelight in midwinter to examine – and honour, and despair at, and celebrate – where all the effort has brought us.
…And then we have to move on again – as the Magi foretold – when the sun is reborn as a new star rises in the east.