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Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and the Loosening of the Bonds


In the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we give thanks for all we have and then share that bounty with others. We can discover the origins of some of our holiday customs in the Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration of this season, which is also the source of the name of a Hellenistic astrological timing procedure called the ‘loosening of the bonds.’

Saturn is connected to the Greek god Kronos whose name is similar to the word for time. This God of Time was defeated in a battle for supremacy by his son Zeus, symbolizing how the old must give way to the new. He was then chained and imprisoned in the underworld Tartarus. Subsequently Saturn’s cult spread to Rome where he became the patron deity of agriculture and along with his wife Ops, which means bounty, presided over a golden age of happiness and plenty harvested from the fruits of the earth.

In gratitude, King Janus instituted the yearly Saturnalia festival December 17-23 to honor him. It was joyously celebrated by an exchange of gifts between adults and children, and the exchange of wax candles between adults to symbolize the imminent return of the sun’s light at the winter solstice, marking the death of the old year followed by the birth of the new.

The Temple of Saturn held his cult image and it was also the storage bin of the state treasury.  The statue’s feet were normally bound in wool to represent the stalks of grain tied up in the fields as well as the immutable law which interconnects all things in time. As Manilius wrote, “Fate rules the world; all things stand fixed by its immutable laws.”But during the 5-day the Saturnalia festival, the bonds were loosened and untied as an act of liberation from the laws of social hierarchy, and roles were reversed.  Slaves were freed from work and exempted from punishment; furthermore masters waited on their slaves and served them the kind of banquets that they themselves would normally enjoy. And gambling, normally frowned upon, was permitted.

The astrological literature describes a time lord procedure called Zodiacal Releasing from the Lots of Fortune and Spirit (Valens, Anthology, Book 4) that charts the changing seasons of material prosperity and professional success over the course of a person’s life.  When a time lord planet has handed over the governance of the times to each of the other planets in turn and has some of its allotment of time still remaining, instead of repeating the round of zodiacal order, there is a loosening of the bond that jumps across to the opposite sign. The interpretation of this event is that the individual is freed from the restraints that normally limit him or her, and there can be a liberation or reversal of the difficulties of their situation. Saturn, which rules Fate, can also temporarily free us during the brief gap between the old and new year.

Our wishes for you during this holiday season is that you experience some  release and freedom from  the worries, cares, limitations, and troubles that you carry and that you are nourished by the bounty of Earth. And then some presents as well.