In medieval cosmology, each of the seven planets has a different sort of influence on human affairs and even the movement of our souls. Mars brings war, for example, and Jupiter has a jovial effect. Relatedly, each of the planets is typically associated with an element or metal—the Sun with gold, Mercury with quicksilver, Mars with iron, etc. Saturn, the planet C. S. Lewis describes as “the last planet, old and ugly,” rules over lead. 

Saturn is indeed ugly. Taking inspiration (or horror) from the classical legends of the god Saturn, the Romantic painter Francisco Goya’s disturbed Saturn Devouring His Son captures the essence of the saturnine influence as something cold, sorrowful, unmerry, and occasionally apocalyptic. Twelfth-century scholar Alan of Lille, referring to when Earth passes Saturn in orbit, writes, “There Saturn ranges over the territory with greedy tread. … Here by his cold he robs spring of its joys, ravishes the charms of the meadow and the glory of the flowers. … He is an old man.” 

The planet’s association with lead comes from its perception as “the slowest of the planets and [having] the heaviness of lead,” which is also related to Saturn’s (the god, also known as  Cronus) dominion over time, as well as their shared (at least to medieval eyes) color of grey.

All things considered, it’s reasonable to suggest that 2020 appears to be under the influence of Saturn. The ongoing pandemic has killed over 1.35 million people worldwide with more to come, police brutality seems to be a global problem, it’s one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, and American democracy is holding on by the fringes. 

Even as the holidays approach, they seem more distant than in previous years, so it’s safe to say it’s not a year trademarked by Jupiter. The lunacy of the moon (hence the word “lunatic”) has some appeal, especially with the idiocy of many anti-mask or anti-vaccine arguments. But a lunar influence doesn’t give adequate space to the sorrows of 2020. Mars’s war emphasis doesn’t make sense either, at least not for most of the world. 

Saturn is the best fit, according to medieval cosmology. Heck, according to Ptolemy, an ancient astrologer and mathematician, “Saturn will generally produce cold in the bowels, excessive phlegm, rheumatism, emaciation, sickliness, … [and/or] cough.” Seems about right. 

But to argue that 2020 is under the influence of Saturn neglects some aspects of the rich traditions about the planet’s influence. In Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Michael Ward notes that it’s not the saturnine influence itself that’s regarded as negative—in fact, the heavens were often believed to be unfallen (and so the influence of a planet couldn’t be completely negative). More precisely, the influence of Saturn becomes corrupt in relation to its “recipients in the sublunary realm.” Saturnine influence is bad when humans receive it as such.

Here’s where a modern understanding of lead can prove a little more useful than the medieval understanding. In modern chemistry, lead works almost like a boundary element on the periodic table. The elements above in number are radioactive; the elements below aren’t. Lead is an element bordering radiation, the same way Saturn borders life and death. So when saturnine influences are given space to dominate, they will. Maybe it’s a little cheesy, but 2020 is only saturnine because we allowed it to be. 

257,000 Americans didn’t have to die from COVID-19. It’s not as if the rest of the world dealt with a different disease or had a medicine that was kept from America. It wouldn’t be fair to simply blame the federal government either—though much of the criticism is appropriate—when 56 percent of Americans still plan to travel for Thanksgiving. For some reason, America seems alone in fostering a saturnine cosmology this year.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Very fascinating, Josh. I’d never thought into the meaning behind the word saturnine. Also, medieval cosmology’s gloomy understanding of Saturn contrasts starkly with how I’ve always viewed it, as the cool and sleek planet with the rings.

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    It’s not cheesy at all. Perspective does matter. This piece covers a lot of subjects I enjoy: astronomy, medieval and classical tones, and, of course, saturnine. Nicely researched and rendered.

    Reply

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