Saturn, A History

A hanging scroll with a Japanese drawing of an old man, representing Saturn.
Figure 1: A hanging Japanese scroll with an anthropomorphic depiction of Saturn. Japan, c. 1100 AD.

Much of the information in this post is from this blog post in the Astro Handbook. The author is unknown, but please reach out if you would like us to directly credit you! We would also like to acknowledge these other incredible resources: The Planets in Ancient Egypt by Joachim Friedrich Quak and Astronomy Across Cultures by Helaine Selin.

Saturn is unequivocally one of the most mesmerizing objects in our night sky. It’s the farthest planet from the Earth to be discovered by the naked eye! The bright, beautiful dot has captivated people for thousands of years, beginning with mystifying Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) in 2000 BC, where much of Western astronomy can be traced back to. The Babylonians referred to Saturn, or Kajamānu (and many other ancient Middle Eastern names), as a “mock-Sun or -moon”, often connecting Saturn with the Sun and potentially linking the two because Saturn’s 378 day synodic period is very close to the 365 day solar year. Saturn is named after a Roman god and so many people already talk about Roman and Greek mythology, so we are not going to do that here. Western imperialist culture has too long stood in front of the interesting and important thoughts and values of Eastern and indigenous cultures, particularly in astronomy which is so closely tied to culture itself.

So let’s knock that wall down, shall we?

Within Eastern culture, Saturn has weaved its way into Buddhism, acting as a symbol for abandoning materialism. Saturn is also known as Lord Shani (शनि) in Hindu mythology, a deity that can shape karma and destiny. In ancient Japan and China, Saturn was known as 土星, the earth star. Within the Wǔfāng Shàngdì — the “Highest Deities of the Five Regions”, 五方上帝 — theology of the Shang dynasty (1600 BC), Saturn is the manifestation of Huángdì (黄帝), the Yellow Deity.

Figure 2: Astronomical depictions on the ceiling of the ancient Egyptian tomb of Senmut. Jupiter and Saturn are seen in tandem as the two figures with falcon heads drifting in two boats. Qena, Egypt, c 1400 BCE.

In ancient Egypt, Saturn was referred to as “Horus bull of the sky,” or sometimes simply shortened to “Horus the bull.” Both the falcon-headed god Horus and the bull were symbols of kingship, and particularly of the strength of the current living king. Mars and Jupiter were also associated with Horus with different epithets, making a trio of falcon-headed entities with human bodies out of the outer planets. While the planets, including Saturn, were present since early on in the development of the Egyptian civilization, the sources are vague or damaged, so our understanding of Egyptian notions of planets is somewhat limited. Much later in the history of Egypt (circa the second century BCE) Babylonian and Graeco-Roman influences become more obvious, resulting in circular diagrams with prominent horoscopes. The most famous example is the Zodiac of Dendera, a Graeco-Roman-era temple, where Saturn maintains its association with the bull.

For some Native Americans, the planet represents that winter is coming. Australian Aboriginal beliefs identify Saturn as the creator of the stars and the world. For the people of the Andean region of South America, Saturn is associated with fertility, agriculture, and the god Pacha Kamaq. The planet even signifies death, acting as a guide to the afterlife for some indigenous African cultures.

The diversity of Saturn’s impact on the human psyche is unquantifiable. And every astronomer will tell you, if you ever get the chance to spy it through a telescope, you will not be disappointed.

Astrobite edited by Archana Aravindan.

Featured image credit: Keighley Rockcliffe.

About Keighley Rockcliffe

Keighley is a PhD candidate at Dartmouth College, which resides on unceded Abenaki land. She studies young exoplanet atmospheres with Dr. Elisabeth Newton. She firmly believes in making science a more inclusive space for all humans, especially those traditionally excluded and oppressed. Keighley loves to meet and support people, so please reach out to chat!

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