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Saturn, Christmas and child sacrifice

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Sebastià Giralt Font de Saturn, Jardins de Versailles via Flickr

In Roman myth Saturnus was an agricultural god of blight and sowing. The Romans likened him to the Greek god Cronus.

His annual festival was Saturnalia, originally held on December 17th. This popular festival was later held from December 17-23.

The early Christians transformed Saturnalia when arbitrarily setting the date for the birth of Christ—that is, Christmas. Some scholars and theologians say that December 25th was chosen because local and surrounding inhabitants were accustomed to gathering and celebrating at this time, making it a logical and convenient time to inaugurate Christmas.

But this wasn’t entirely based on a sweet and jubilant history. The mythic Saturn was known to devour his children because he was paranoid they would overthrow him.¹ And ancient sources tell us that actual child sacrifice to Saturn was pretty common. The ancients believed that by appeasing the Gods, things would go well for them. So giving up one’s own child (which presumably was highly valued), would bring about the best possible result. The better the sacrifice, the better the result. This kind of primitive, superstitious thinking runs throughout the ancient world, and in the Bible‘s Old Testament as well.²

Fourth-century Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum

Fourth-century Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sacrifice of children to Saturn is mentioned in the excellent video, “Isaac,”³ and Wikipedia elaborates:

According to Stager and Wolff, in 1984, there was a consensus among scholars that Carthaginian children were sacrificed by their parents, who would make a vow to kill the next child if the gods would grant them a favor: for instance that their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port.[24] They placed their children alive in the arms of a bronze statue of:

the lady Tanit … . The hands of the statue extended over a brazier into which the child fell once the flames had caused the limbs to contract and its mouth to open … . The child was alive and conscious when burned … Philo specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved.[25]

Later commentators have compared the accounts of child sacrifice in the Old Testament with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus in his “Scholia” of Plato’s Republic mentions the practice:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.[26]

This reference also seems to clarify that the statue itself was not made to move by the flames, but rather the burnt and shriveled body of the victim was contorted by them.

Diodorus Siculus too references this practice:

Himilcar, on seeing how the throng was beset with superstitious fear, first of all put a stop to the destruction of the monuments, and then he supplicated the gods after the custom of his people by sacrificing a young boy to Cronus and a multitude of cattle to Poseidon by drowning them in the sea[…] in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice

Plutarch in De superstitione also mentions the practice in Carthage:

they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young bird

These all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn.4

‘Saturn Devouring one of his Children’, 1821-1823. Found in the collection of the Prado, Madrid, Spain.

¹ When some Christians say that the Bible is the “Word” of God, they seem to be oblivious to the personal, cultural and political forces that helped to shape it, as well as the widely accepted theory that multiple authors contributed to many books previously thought to be penned by just one author. For example, not too many mature scholars believe that Moses wrote the Torah, being the first 5 books of the Old Testament. There any many scholarly works on the Old Testament. I’m not an expert but one that I’ve found very helpful is Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_Devouring_His_Son

³ Amy-Jill Levine, Lecture 5, “Isaac” in http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/old-testament.html

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_sacrifice

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