Saturn, my favorite mythological curmudgeon, lost his throne and gave way to as nasty a pack of rapists, pederasts, thugs and thieves as Capt. Jack Sparrow could find in a century of shore leaves. Their litany of crimes is tedious, at best, but I’m aware of the limits of history; what gets preserved is often chosen by the loudest predators.
There’s an old Greek story about the creation of humankind which sidesteps most of that. It goes something like this.
Young Kore (Persephone’s childhood name) was wandering by a river one day. As she forded her way across it, she was pleased by the clayey texture between her toes. She stopped on the opposite bank and scooped up some of that lovely mud.
She modeled it into a familiar bifurcated form, but it wouldn’t keep its shape. She worked some humus into the clay, to give it more body, and that helped. Bits of humus showed here and there, and the slightly fluffy look of it inspired her to give the dolly a nice topping of shreddy mould for hair.
Her father strolled up and asked what she was up to. She showed him her handiwork, as charmingly pleased with herself as only a kid can be.
Zeus admired it and said it was very nice, and what was she going to do with it?
She said she wasn’t sure. “But would you make it come alive, Papa? Please-please-pleeeeease?”
Zeus looked down at her wide, bright eyes and rosy cheeks, her face alight, and fidgeting in a pleased sort of way. Only one thing to do.
He turned on his endless vision and looked up to see who was near the Olympian Fire. One of his nephews was standing there, staring at it. Zeus turned on his bullhorn voice and bellowed up to Olympos, “Hey, Prometheus! Oy, Prometheus, I need you!”
Prometheus looked away from the Fire and said, “What’s up, Big Guy?”
Zeus hated it when people called him Big Guy (it lacked class), but he swallowed his irritation. “Toss me down some of that Fire, smartass, okay?”
Prometheus grinned good-naturedly, scooped up a handful of the divine flame, and lobbed it in an underhand toss.
Zeus caught it in midair, massaged it into shape, then carefully pressed it against the clay creature in his daughter’s hands. It baked the clay and filled it with life.
The little clay dolly twitched, gasped, and sat up. It rubbed its face and opened new eyes. It rubbed its head, now sporting a fluffy head of soft hair. It spoke: “Holy crap.” Pause. “Well, that was weird.”
Kore bounced up and down, causing the creature to splay its legs and hang on for dear life.
“I want lots of them! And I want to call them Kores, like me! Look how cute they are,” she declared ungrammatically, staring at the singular creature.
“They should be called Zeus-lets, kiddo. You’re hardly old enough to be naming dollies, let alone species! I gave it life and I’m the grownup. I’ll decide what happens to it. Understand?”
Gaia, who had had quite enough of her rotten grandson lately, made her presence known with a rumble. “Do you ever tire of being the biggest brat in the room, Zeus? I gave my flesh for the creature, so it should be named after me! Lots of little Gaia-citas running around. Should brighten things up considerably around here.”
Zeus found himself in a serious disagreement, where he had expected a minor battle of wills with a child.
It didn’t help that Prometheus and the rest of the Olympians had turned to watch, and were encouraging all sides indiscriminately: “Go, you kid!” “Give it to the Big Guy!” “Hey, Grandma rocks, she should have it!” Zeus personally saw Apollo, alone, change his vote three times. And he wasn’t the most changeable, either.
It was a floor show.
He caught Gaia’s eye. “Arbitrate?”
She lifted her chin. “If you can find an impartial arbiter.”
Zeus looked around and saw nearly every face animated with opinions. Even Hades had something to say. Naturally, he was rooting for the kid, just to spite Zeus.
Nearly every face. One face alone was still, and it was still behind bars. Zeus’s father, and former opponent, was just quietly watching.
He turned to Gaia. “How about Kronus?” (That’s the original name of Saturn, to you Latinites.)
Gaia was surprised. Also mighty pleased — she considered all her sons mentally weak, but Kronus was the best of the bunch and had taken her side when no one else would. If he was acceptable to his arch-enemy Zeus, he was certainly acceptable to her. “Kronus it is,” she said, and everyone turned with her to look at him.
Kronus’s eyes lifted. The ages of imprisonment had left his eyes deep and dark with shadows. It took some time for him to bring himself fully into the light again. His brother Iapetus gave him a surreptitious hand.
As he stepped into the center of the watching gods and took up the mantle of judgement, bright white light filled the space they were in. It chased away every shadow, prying into every nook. Nothing remained hidden.
He cleared his throat softly. “I can’t pretend I didn’t see and hear every bit of that. I’m a little surprised you asked me, so before I go further, I need one word from each if you.”
He paused and made sure he had their attention. Even the restless child was riveted by the lines and hollows on his great face, the aeons of thought marking his brow. “Swear before all Olympos that you’ll be bound by my decision. All of you. Because greater good or greater ill may come of this than any of you can now see.”
Surprised, but trusting him, Gaia nodded. “Of course.”
Enthralled, Kore whispered, “Yes.”
Boxed in and suddenly wishing he’d named anyone else, even Hades, Zeus grumbled, “Oh, Hell.” Beat. “All right.”
Kronus nodded, and shifted position. “Then this is how I rule.
“Zeus, you did a thorough job of giving this creature life, and therefore gave it a future and everything that goes with it: thoughts, wishes, actions, an ability to affect the world. That is a heavy burden to lay on something that didn’t ask for it. It will need a strong ally, a knowing guide, a wise governor. You will be all that and more, because, having given this thing life, you should help to make that life worth having.”
Zeus blinked and stepped back, as if punched in the gut. Not what he’d been thinking at all.
Kronus turned to Kore, who blanched and tried to shrink. He smiled at her as gently as he was able. “Kore, you made something beautiful, and it was intelligently and cleverly made. Well done.”
She tried to smile. She was certainly proud at his praise, but overwhelmed. Never had she been in the center of so much light; it hurt and frightened her, but she didn’t want to show it.
Kronus went on, “You asked that there be lots of them, and so there shall be. You will get your wish.”
Kore nodded with a big, shy motion of her head.
Kronus added, “You made it out of clay and in your hands it was lifeless. Do you remember?”
Kore nodded again.
Kronus said, “Then, in the fulness of time, you will be responsible for them in that state again. When they live out their spans and return to being lifeless, they will return to your hands.”
Kore’s eyes widened. So did Hades’, because a new shadow — distinctly like the shades of his realm — descended on Kore’s form and began to soften the light that nearly blinded her. Her mother Demeter, riveted by the shadow, was so tense you could string her in a bow, but there was nothing she could do.
Kore breathed her relief at being shielded from the painful glare.
Kronus turned last to Gaia. “You gave your flesh to make this flesh, so its flesh is your responsibility. Provide this species with food aplenty, and ensure its fertility so that it will perpetuate itself time out of mind.”
Gaia, hiding her relief, nodded. She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but hadn’t expected to get off so lightly for stooping to Zeus’s level in the first place.
Then Kronus stopped briefly and gave her a Look, and she felt she had just been privately chewed out for that very thing. She dropped her gaze and gave a little nod, accepting the silent rebuke.
Kronus looked upwards and scratched his chin. It made a scrunchy sound, since he hadn’t shaved. “As for what to call it,” he mused aloud, “I see no point in choosing one of your names over the others. It’s now a shared task and no one of you should have more credit — or more responsibility — than you already do.”
He looked at the little thing, sitting peacefully cross-legged and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Its mud was now good flesh, and the crisp, short fibers of humus peeking through were transformed into crisp, short hair. It saw Kronus peering at it, with his huge wise face alight with interest. It smiled brightly up at him and gave a big enthusiastic wave with both arms, exposing more crisp patches underneath.
Kronus smiled as inspiration dawned. He remarked, “It does look like it was made with humus. We’ll call it homo.”
And so it was.
The much shorter translation from Pseudo-Hyginus’s “220 Fables” is here:
My prior work on the Saturn mythology is posted as a guest-blog series at Oxford Astrologer. …Why under astrology?
Because, since the death of Joseph Campbell, modern astrology is the best repository of psychologically-oriented myth. Ignore what doesn’t work for you — but enjoy and mull over the stories, because they’re utterly human:
– Saturn’s tricky childhood: