A few weeks ago, Mars was very visible in the night sky, so the university in the town where I live had a viewing party. Yes, I found out a bunch of cool stuff out about Mars and got to see it through several different telescopes, but I also got to see Saturn and its’ rings pretty clearly … which made me start wondering about both the planet and the myths behind the ancient god named Saturn. BTW, you should know, Saturn is his Roman name, but in Greek mythology, Cronus is his name.
You have probably come across other references to Saturn (the god) other than just Saturn (the planet). For instance, the day of the week Saturday is named after Saturn the Roman mythological god. You may also have come across the image of an old man holding a sickle and referred to as “Father Time” as the end of the year approaches—that’s Saturn (or Cronus). The Roman god, Saturn, came to represent many things to people, perhaps most famously agriculture, wealth, and time.
There are many versions of the Saturn myth, but they are all fairly similar. In Greek mythology, Cronus (or Saturn) was one of the sons of Gaia and Uranus; some Roman versions of the myth say Uranus imprisoned his children within Gaia, but Saturn made a flint sickle and defeated his father. Later, the Furies prophesied that he would suffer the same fate—one of his own children would depose him. Hence, Saturn devoured all his children as soon as they were born—all that is, except for Jupiter (or Zeus as he is known in Greek Mythology).
However, according to Versnel, Saturn in Roman mythology differed more than simply grafting the Greek myths onto their Roman counterparts. In Roman mythology, the Golden Age of Saturn’s reign began when he brought agriculture and civilization to Italy after having been deposed elsewhere. Janus gave him a share of the kingdom and Saturn is considered to be the founder of the Latin nation. The timing of the Roman religious festival called Saturnalia in late December led to the image of Saturn as Father Time that we are familiar with today.
…So, overall, the god Saturn was really important to the Roman people—which is why they named the sixth planet from the Sun after him. You see, the Romans observed seven bright objects in the night sky that they knew weren’t stars—they were planets. …Well, all except the Sun and the Moon, that is. …So they named them—the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
Even though early Romans could see Saturn with their naked eyes, they didn’t know it had rings. When Galileo saw Saturn through his telescope in 1610, he thought it had an odd shape, but he still didn’t know it was because of Saturn’s rings; Christiaan Huygens was the first person to realize Saturn had rings in 1659.
Some other facts about Saturn (the planet): Saturn is what is known as a gas giant—made up of mostly hydrogen and helium—making it lighter than water, but very windy—winds are thought to be able to reach 1,800 kilometers an hour, lightning on Saturn is about 1,000 times more powerful than lightning on Earth, and a hurricane on Saturn is 20 times as big!
Saturn has the second largest moon in the Solar System—called Titan—and Titan is the only moon known to have a thick atmosphere. Speaking of moons, Saturn has at least 62 of them (that have been discovered so far). Saturn is also thought to have a multitude of moonlets (satellites with diameters ranging from about 40-500 meters).
Four different probes have been to Saturn in the last 40 years—Pioneer 11 few by it in September 1979, then Voyager 1 sent back the first high resolution images of Saturn toward the end of 1980 and Voyager 2 sent back even more images in August 1981. It was not until 2004 that another probe arrived—the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft—which has sent back a ton of information about Saturn, including the fact that one of Saturn’s moons, named Enceladus, has over 100 geysers and NASA scientists think Enceladus may be “the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it”.
Cassini-Huygens continues to explore the space around Saturn today. I wonder what it will find next?