Saturn is perhaps best known today for his annual winter festival of debauchery, called the Saturnalia, which falls in December. However, for the ancient Romans, he was an important agricultural deity, holding various associations both with the planting season and with time itself. Similar to the Greek god Cronus, Saturn is credited with giving the gift of agriculture to the Romans.
A temple was erected to Saturn at the base of the Capitoline hill in Rome, where it housed the state treasury.
Not much is known about Saturn in his Roman persona, because there is so much overlap between him and the Greek Cronus. While it is possible the some variant of Saturn was worshiped as early as the pre-Roman Etruscans, it’s difficult for scholars to tell what attributes were originally Roman, and which were Greek.
In general, one thing that academics do agree on is that Saturn’s festival, the Saturnalia, was held each year during the month of December. By contrast, festivals honoring Cronus took place in the summer.
Businesses and court proceedings closed up for the entire Saturnalia celebration, and food and drink were everywhere to be had.
Elaborate feasts and banquets were held, and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts at these parties. A typical Saturnalia gift might be something like a writing tablet or tool, cups and spoons, clothing items, or food. Citizens decked their halls with boughs of greenery, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of naked revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing – a sort of naughty precursor to today’s Christmas caroling tradition.
A great statue of Saturn stood in the temple, and interestingly enough, it was filled with oil – likely olive oil, given his status as an agricultural god. In addition, the statue’s feet were wrapped in wool, and the strips were only unbound during the Saturnalia. In addition to merrymaking, street celebrations, and social role reversals, there were sacrifices made to Saturn for a bountiful harvest during the coming year.
Patti Wigington, Paganism/Wicca Expert
Article published on & owned by About.com