"When Saturn ruled the sky alone, that golden age of gold unknown."
- Jonathan Swift
The Universal Monarch
by David Talbott
It's amazing how frequently
the earliest-remembered events occur on a mythscape of uncertain
location! Where "was" the ancient paradise? Where did the gods and
goddesses and heroes of the mythical epoch actually live? Beyond the
north wind? Atop the world's highest mountain? In the land of the rising
sun? On a lost island in the middle of the sea?
If anything has been proven by
the flood of ancient texts that have come to light in the past hundred
and fifty years, it is that the central personalities of myth did not,
in the original concepts, dwell on earth. The theater in which the great
mythical events were first played out was the sky.
Here is an indisputable fact:
If you will trace the claimed history of any ancient nation backwards,
you will, in every instance, reach a point at which man lives in the
shadow of the gods. This distant epoch–what the Egyptians called the
"time of the primeval gods"–cries out for clarification. Originally,
the gods rule the world. First in an age of gold, but this age is
followed by catastrophe and cosmic disharmony. That is the archetypal
memory repeated around the world.
In their earliest historical
expressions, the gods are celestial through and through. As the stories
are told and re-told across the centuries, however, these celestial
powers are progressively localized, re-entering the chronicles in
increasingly human guise. All of the profound cosmic events expressed in
the earliest ritual, symbol, and myth are eventually brought down to
earth. In the typical instance, through a relentless process of
identification, the gods eventually emerge as legendary "ancestors" of
the nation telling the story.
Each of the nations recalling
the Golden Age, for example, insisted that their own forefathers had
descended from the gods. At first glance, this pervasive claim will
appear as sheer arrogance, a nationalistic pride carried to absurd
extremes. But the origins of the idea have never been adequately
appreciated. In truth, this worldwide racial claim, that "we are
descended from the gods," or that "our race was originally divine," or
"we were the favored children of the gods," offers a key to the
primitive experience: it confirms early man's unqualified sense of
connection to the enigmatic celestial powers so vividly portrayed in the
myths. And one cannot afford to ignore the equally significant
principle: that these celestial powers are "no longer present", no
longer visible and active in the world.
Our subject, in other words,
is far more than an enchanting idea. To explore the mythical age of the
gods is to confront the driving force of the first civilizations–the
most powerful memory in human history.
Some of the particulars of
this myth are remarkable. All of the well-preserved myths of the Golden
Age, for example, say that this magical epoch was distinguished by the
rule of a Universal Monarch, a celestial king of the world. On every
continent, it was declared that before a king ever ruled on earth, a
prototype of kings arose in heaven, and it was this "best of kings" who
had founded the original paradise.
For the Egyptians it was the
creator-king Ra, for the Sumerians it was the high god An, from whom
kingship descended. Similarly, the Hindu Brahma, the Chinese Huang-ti,
Mexican Quetzalcoatl, Mayan Itzam Na and numerous counterparts among
other nations, all preside over the Golden Age, while establishing the
ideals and principles of kingship.
In Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia,
China, Greece, Italy, northern Europe, pre-Columbian Mexico and Central
America–in fact, wherever the institution of kingship arose–the royal
genealogies lead backwards to this exemplary ruler, celebrated as the
first in a sacred line of kings. The different myths recount in rich
detail how the god built a great temple or city in primeval times,
invented the alphabet, or taught a new language to a pre-literate race.
They say it was he who invented the wheel, introduced the science of
agriculture, instituted laws, and taught the true religion–in short,
brought to a barbarous race all of the arts of civilization.
There is also a crucial
connection here. This "ancestor-king" is so completely identified with
the Golden Age that it is impossible to separate the one myth from the
other. There is no Golden Age without a founding king, no founding king
without a Golden Age!
The fabulous chronology of
Egyptian kings or pharaohs offers a telling example. In his sweeping
history of ancient Egypt, the Greek historian Herodotus enumerates the
early lineage of kings. He tells us that there was a first king of
Egypt, and his name was Helios. This first king of Egypt was not a mere
mortal! He was a celestial power.
Of course Herodotus was simply
translating an Egyptian name into Greek. For the Egyptians, the
institution of kingship began with the rule of the primeval sun god Atum
or Ra, who, prior to his retirement from the world, founded the Tep Zepi,
the First Time, or Golden Age.
In Egypt all of the kingship
rites point backwards to the age of Ra, a supreme god celebrated from
one end of Egypt to the other as the prototype of kings. Indeed, every
historical king's or pharaoh's authority derived from a connection to
the ancestral king, for as the best Egyptologists have pointed out, the
pharaoh was "accredited as such" by the claim that the blood of Atum-Ra
coursed through his veins.
In rites deeply rooted in
Egyptian cosmology, each new king symbolically ascended the throne of
Ra, took as spouse Ra's own mistress, the mother goddess, wielded Ra's
scepter, built temples and cities modeled after Ra's temple or city in
the sky, adorned himself with the beard of the god, wore the crown of Ra
as his own, and defeated neighboring enemies in just the way that Ra had
defeated the hordes of darkness or chaos in the Tep Zepi. Identification
of local king and celestial prototype was absolute.
Such is the universal
tradition: every king was, in a magical way, the Universal Monarch
reborn. And this is why, among all ancient nations, the chroniclers of
kingship took such pains to establish the unbroken line of kings: Only
by proclaiming that the local king carried the blood of his predecessor,
the Universal Monarch, could they certify his suitability for the
prescribed function of kings.
The ancient Sumerians
repeatedly proclaimed that kingship had descended directly from the
creator-king An, the most ancient and highest god of the pantheon, and
the revered founder of the Golden Age.
Consider the myths and images
of the Hindu Brahma, Manu or Yama, the Iranian Yima, Danish Frodhi, or
Chinese Huang-Ti–all models of the good king, ruling over a primitive
paradise. The respective cultures esteemed these mythical figures as
"prototypes". In later ages the chroniclers have such figures ruling on
earth. But in the earliest traditions the kingdom is in the sky, and
this ancient kingdom of the Universal Monarch is one of the most
pervasive archetypes of world mythology.
Natives of Mexico insisted
that the great god Quetzalcoatl, a sun god who ruled before the present
sun, was their first king and founder of the kingship rites. He not only
introduced all of the arts of civilization, but presided over the Golden Age.
The ancient Maya proclaimed
that their once-spectacular civilization had its origins in the rule of
the creator-king and god of the Golden Age, Itzam Na. At the center of
Mayan culture, stood the sovereign chief, announcing himself as
something like "the King of Kings and ruler of the world, regent on
earth of the great Itzam Na."
The leading Mayan expert, J.
Eric Thompson, saw this an "inflated notion of grandeur," "a sort of
divine right of kings which would have turned James I green with envy."
And yet throughout the ancient world, one encounters this divine
"grandeur" of kings at every turn.
The original concept may
appear as self flattery, but it actually has more to do with a "burden"
of kings: the requirement that the king live up to the mythical aura of
kings. Never was there a king in early times that did not wear the dress
of a mythical god–the model of the good ruler. Whatever the celestial,
founding king had achieved, it was the duty of the present king,
pharaoh, or emperor to duplicate, at least through symbolic repetition.
For such was the first test of a "good" king.
This historical burden of
kings will explain why every king was expected to renew the primeval era
of peace and plenty. Why, for example, was the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose
III so eager to announce that he had restored conditions "as they were
in the beginning", in the Tep Zepi or Golden Age of Ra? Or why did the
Pharaoh Amenhotep III congratulate himself so for having made the
country "flourish as in primeval times_"? The Pharaoh was expected to
repeat the achievements of the celestial prototype!
In the same way, when the
Sumerian king Dungi ascended the throne, it was declared that a champion
had arisen to restore the original Paradise.. Indeed, every Sumerian
king was expected to reproduce the wonders of "That Day," or the "Year
of Abundance"–the Golden Age of An. When the famous Assyrian king
Assurbanipal took the throne, the chroniclers proclaimed that "the
harvest was plentiful, the corn was abundant. . .the cattle multiplied
exceedingly." For such was the accreditation of a good king.
Among the Hebrews, the
expectation was continually expressed that the king would introduce a
new Golden Age. The Irish King, according to the respected expert J. A.
MacCulloch, ruled under the same expectation: "Prosperity was supposed
to characterize every good king's reign in Ireland," MacCulloch writes,
and "the result is precisely that which everywhere marked the golden
This is, of course, a very
familiar idea. The ancient king was, in the words of the eminent
psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, "the magical source of welfare and
prosperity." It's interesting how often scholars have noticed the theme,
without explaining it. How did this universal idea arise–that the earth
is "fruitful" under the good king?
The ideals of kingship,
according to the myths themselves, were a mirror of the life and
personality of the great celestial king whose rule brought abundance and
cosmic harmony. Hence, the same state of things should accompany that
king's successors who share in the blood-line and charisma of the great
predecessor, whether that predecessor is called Ra or An, Quetzalcoatl or Itzam Na.
Perhaps it will seem a bit
strange that an ancient god identified as the creator would be so
intimately associated with the idea of kingship, or remembered as having
ruled on earth during the Golden Age.
There is a fascinating paradox
here: In the earliest traditions, as we've already noted, the Universal
Monarch is a celestial power through and through. He is, in fact, the
central light of heaven. But as we've also noted, in the course of time
the creator-king's domain is progressively localized and the god takes
on an increasingly human countenance as the "first king" of the
particular nation telling the story.
In certain lands such as
ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, we are able to observe the process over
many centuries. In the earliest memories, Ra and An rule the sky, but
later chroniclers in both lands depict them as "terrestrial" rulers.
This localization of the creator-king is simply one part of a larger
evolutionary process. As the myths evolve over
time, the gods and heroes are brought down to earth, one nation after
another claiming these divine powers as "ancestors". And how could it be
otherwise? Remember that all sacred activity within the respective
cultures arose from the same collective links to the past, to the beauty
and terror of the primeval age.
"The further we go back in
history," observed Carl Jung, "the more evident does the king's divinity
become_" And when you trace the royal lineage backwards, you eventually
confront the radiant figure at the head of the line. Since the story of
this creator-king is as old as the myth of the Golden Age–it is older
than the institution of kingship!
Historians have always claimed
that the myths of celestial kings were nothing more than images of local
kings and kingship rites projected onto the sky. But comparative
analysis will demonstrate that the reverse is true. The memory of the
creator-king came first, and it was this remarkable memory which
provided the mythical aura supporting and legitimizing kings the world over.
Who, then–or what–was the
source of this worldwide theme, this universally-remembered and
profoundly charismatic power behind the rule of kings?
In exploring ancient images of
the Universal Monarch, we now enter the realm of classical thought. Our
own civilization owes its greatest debt to Greek and Latin poets,
philosophers and historians, who received and interpreted countless
mythical traditions of nations throughout the Mediterranean and beyond,
often drawing on literary sources that were later lost and are now
unavailable to us.
According to the Greek poet
Hesiod, the present age is but a shadow of a former epoch–called the
Golden Age of Kronos. "First of all," Hesiod writes, "the deathless gods
who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the
time of Kronos, when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods
without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: Miserable
age rested not on them. . . The fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit
abundantly and without stint."
Kronos was the father of
beginnings; in the words of the Orphic poet–the "Lord of the World,
First Father." But in the end the peaceful epoch, founded by the
god-king, gave way to world-ending disaster and devastating wars of the
gods (the Clash of the Titans).
In honor of the Age of Kronos,
the Greeks celebrated an annual festival called the Kronia, during which
the celebrants symbolically renewed the epoch of peace and plenty. Each
year, according to Lucius Accius, the Greeks held large feasts
throughout the towns and countryside, reversing the normal social order,
exchanging gifts, enjoying merrymaking free from the normal restraints,
with each man waiting on his slaves. In this way the Kronia festival
symbolically transported the celebrants back in time to a mythic period
before law and cultural constraints, when Kronos first ruled the world.
According to Plato in his
often-studied work, The Statesman, man formerly lived in a
paradise, under the rule of the creator himself. But the mortal realm,
Plato declared, was later separated from the creator, and that was the
cause of the evils descending upon the world.
So the Greeks, in accord with
the universal tradition, remembered the age of Kronos as the "model" for
later generation. In The Laws, Plato writes that 'we must do all
we can to imitate the life which is said to have existed in the days of
Kronos. . .both in private and public life."
In the third century B.C. the
neoplatonist Porphyry, drawing on the work of the Greek philosopher
Dicaearchus, offered a simple explanation for the human yearning for
paradise. The source of this yearning is the memory of the Age of Kronos,
he wrote, when men "lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and
also–if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be
accepted–without disease. . .And there were no wars or feuds between
them. Consequently, this manner of life of theirs naturally came to be
longed for by men of later times."
Like his many counterparts in
the ancient world, Kronos was the acknowledged prototype of kings, his
rule in heaven providing the standards for rule on earth.
Every Greek king thus bore the
universal burden of royalty, for the Greeks applied exactly the same
test of the just or good ruler as did other peoples. Homer, most famous
of the Greek poets, announced as the ideal "a blameless king whose fame
goes up to the wide heaven, maintaining right, and the black earth bears
wheat and barley and the trees are laden with fruit. . .and the people
prosper." It was the duty of the king, as the First Father's successor,
to renew the Golden Age!
One additional aspect of the
Kronos image draws our attention. It seems that the former ruler of the
sky entered later traditions as a renowned terrestrial king. For in
later times it was claimed that Kronos had actually dwelt on earth.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, for example, in remembering the Golden Age,
was emphatic on the point: "Kronos ruled on this very earth," he
insisted. The same idea was proclaimed in Orphic tradition.
The correspondence with the
global myth and its evolution over time (as the gods were brought down
to earth), is indeed remarkable. But the Greek myth of Kronos brings us
to a critical juncture. For this celestial power is identified, and the
identity leads inexorably to a series of far-reaching discoveries.
All Greek astronomical
traditions agreed that Kronos was the planet Saturn. What is now the
sixth planet from the Sun stands at the center of the Greek paradise
myth. Kronos, the planet Saturn, ruled the heavens for a period,
presiding over the Golden Age, then departed as the heavens fell into confusion.
How did it happen that a
remote planet, now a bare speck in the sky, found its way into such an
improbable, yet deeply-rooted memory?
Our own names for the planets
came from the Romans who gave the outermost visible planet the name
Saturn. Latin poets, philosophers, and historians, including Ovid,
Virgil, and Seneca, preserved an archaic legend about Saturn. In unison
they insisted that long, long ago the now-distant star had ruled as
god-king, founding an ancient kingdom, a paradise on earth.
The Chronicler Virgil
remembered "the life golden Saturn lived on earth, while yet none had
heard the clarion blare, none the sword-blades ring." Saturn, the poet
proclaimed, "gathered together the unruly race, scattered over mountain
heights, and gave them laws, and chose that the land be called Latium. .
.Under his reign were the golden ages men tell of, in such perfect peace
he ruled the nations. . ."
The Latin naturalist Seneca
repeated the idea more than once: "No wars the nations knew, no trumpets
threatening blasts. . .and the glad Earth herself willingly laid bare
her fruitful breast, a mother happy and safe amid such duteous nurslings.
But perhaps the most eloquent
expressions came from the poet and historian Ovid:
millennium was the age of gold . . .No brass-lipped trumpets called, nor
clanging swords. . .and seasons traveled through the years of peace. The
innocent earth learned neither spade nor plough; she gave her riches as
fruit hangs from the tree. . .Springtide the single season of the year."
What the Greeks called the
Kronia, celebrating the fortunate era of Kronos, the Romans termed the
Saturnalia, a symbolic renewal of the Saturnia regna or reign of the
great god Saturn. As in the Greek festival, the rules of social standing
and obligation were temporarily suspended, with all things reverting to
the primeval state, as master and slave took their place at one table
In remarkable agreement with
the myths of other peoples, the Romans regarded Saturn as the model and
source of cherished national customs. Tracing their ancestry and
national identity to this very god-king, the chroniclers claimed that,
in an earlier time, the Latins deemed themselves "Saturnians". "Be not
unaware, Virgil writes, "that the Latins are Saturn's race, righteous
not by bond or laws, but self-controlled of their own free will and by
the custom of their ancient god."
Nothing symbolized this
ancient tie to Saturn more dramatically than the mythical ancestry of
kings. It was for a very clear purpose that the chroniclers exerted
themselves on the subject, announcing that the early Latin kings were
part of an "unbroken line" leading back through mythical history
straight to the god-king Saturn. From the mythical king Latinus the line
led upward to Faunus, then to Picus. As Virgil puts it, "Faunus' sire
was Picus, and he boasts thee, O Saturn, as his father; thou art first
founder of the line. To him by heaven's decree was no son or male
descent, cut off. . ."
Since the line of descent was
unbroken, Virgil could insist that Augustus Caesar himself be honored as
the son of a god, destined to repeat the accomplishments of the founding
Caesar, and all Iulus' seed, destined to pass beneath the sky's mighty
vault. This, this is he whom thou so oft hearest promised to thee,
Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who shall again set up the Golden Age
amid the fields where Saturn once reigned."
Just as we have observed among
other peoples, Roman mythology preserved the myth of Saturn on two
levels. On the one hand, there was the tradition of the celestial Saturn
ruling in the sky. "When ancient Saturn had his kingdom in the sky,"
Virgil wrote, "the deep earth held lucre all in its dark embrace."
But the same god was also
localized by the Romans as the legendary first king of Latium–a glaring
contradiction the chroniclers overcame by asserting that, after the
celestial ruler's exile or flight, he had taken up residence in Latium.
"I remember how Saturn was received in this land," Ovid wrote. "He had
been driven by Jupiter from the celestial realms. From that time the
folk long retained the name of Saturnian."
At every level, the Roman
memory of Saturn resonates with a global tradition of the Universal
Monarch. In the very fashion we have observed in other lands, we see the
god entering local history as the primeval founding king, ruling an
ancestral kingdom. And with the same result: that the nation telling the
story then claimed to have "descended" from the god-king himself.
The message couldn't be more
clear. Long after the mythical age of the gods, every ancient culture
continued to honor the great luminary remembered as the king of the world.