Saturn and melancholy

Saturn and melancholy

“And since of all the Gods he was hated,
Verily o’er the Aleian plain alone he would wander,
Eating his own heart out,
avoiding the pathway of mortals.”
Homer

In Ancient Greece, when the events of the world of man were linked to the stars, Saturn occupied the retarding of all undertakings, the related adjective to melancholia being saturnine. It was a sluggish portent burdening the minds of wavering souls. For Plato, melancholy meant primarily, if not actual madness, at least moral insanity, clouding and weakening will and reason; for he regarded it as a symptom of what he describes in the Phaedrus as the worst soul of all – that of the tyrant. No doubt the ancients would see ample evidence of Saturn’s influence in contemporary life, such as the allegorical whim with which the Harry Potter books are frequently called upon.

Throughout the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, a melancholic disposition was seen to be caused by an excess of black bile within the body that needed to be expelled. The black bile represents one of the four humours (the other three being yellow bile, blood and phlegm) and these humours corresponded to the cosmic elements and to the divisions of time; they controlled the whole existence and behaviour of mankind, and, according to the manner in which they were combined, determined the character of an individual. These four humours were always present in the human body and determined its nature but according to the season, sometimes one and sometimes another gained the ascendancy. The black bile, for instance, in the autumn, whereas the winter was unfavourable to it and the spring inimical, so that autumn-engendered pains would be relieved by the spring. The four humours caused both illness and health, since their right combination was health, but the predominance or defect of one was to be an illness. When a subject could not be rid of melancholia, fears and despondencies, this was the influence of a harrowing demonic possession, now occupying the consciousness.

Picturing the physical quality of the melancholy humour, St Hildegard von Bingen describes how the humour originated in Adam’s body as the result of the Fall. After the devouring of the apple, melancholy was born in the first fruit of Adam’s seed out of the breath of the serpent which had consumed him. Men became sad, timid and inconstant in mind. As though a high wind which is good for neither herbs nor fruit. Adam had sinned, melancholy curdled in his blood, it shone in him like the dawn and contaminated the wisdom and perfection of good works. Adam broke the law, the sparkle of innocence was dulled in him, and his eyes, which had formerly beheld heaven, were blinded, and his gall was changed to bitterness, and his melancholy to blackness.

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For artists, the drawing of a melancholic delineated a ‘child of Saturn’.

Of Saturn, Arab writers of the ninth century said:

The spleen occupies the same position in the body as Saturn in the world: For Saturn with its rays sends forth transcendent powers which penetrate into every part of the world. Through these, forms adhere to and remain in, matter. Even so goes forth from the spleen the power of the black bile, which is cold and dry and it flows with the blood through the veins into every part of the body, and through it the blood coagulates and the parts adhere to one another.”

As phlegm and yellow bile were not included, we can assume their system of correlation with the planetary alignments and the four humours had not been completed. It is clear that they considered the character of the planets to be linked to physique and emotions; Saturn is dark and black, therefore it must be cold and dry by nature, melancholic.

With the melancholic condition, as though a viscous black gunk discharges and begins to pour from the nostrils, filling the locus and leaving no survivors; there is Saturn, his nature is cold, dry, bitter, black, violent and harsh. Sometimes too it is cold, moist, heavy and of stinking wind. He wishes his causes of death to be in solitude by poison, cruelty, difficulties and guile. He presides over old age and trades such as farming, grave-digging and bath attendants, over every deed of wickedness, force, tyranny and rage. Evil journeys are choreographed by him, journeys of corruption, blindness and hatred. To him belongs black snakes, goats, bullocks, waterfowl and mountains. For every dark occasion of self-destruction and matters of boredom, Saturn is present.


This text is influenced by the fantastically lyrical book, “Saturne et la mélancolie” by Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl, and Raymond Klibansky.