Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Dec. 29, 2003. At the time of publication, Vaughn was culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
One year is dying, and another is about to be born. A variety of symbols surround this transition, and most of them are more connected than people suppose.
Father Time, with his wrinkled face and white beard, is a familiar image around December’s last days. Father Time masks are now springing up at New Year’s parties and other festivities.
This Father Time or “Old Year” imagery has ancient roots, with some mythology and folklore experts pegging a Greek titan named Cronus as a possible source for our current conceptions of Father Time.
Cronus was the son of Uranus and Gaia. Uranus was a jealous father who kept his children confined inside Gaia. But Gaia, so the myth goes, gave Cronus a scythe, or sickle, who castrated his father with it.
Then, when Cronus was freed, he married his sister and – fearful of meeting his father’s fate – consumed his own children after they were born.
One can easily see how this myth has led to our current notion of time – Cronus – devouring all things.
Furthermore, Father Time is often portrayed with a scythe and an hourglass, even in places like The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which featured Father Time in its 1809 edition.
Father Time’s sickle made sense in the almanac, not only because of the mythic background, but also because of the numerous biblical references to the sickle and the harvest. In fact, the almanac’s Father Time cast him as an angel.
Thus, biblical passages like, “The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels” (Matthew 13:39) gave the image renewed meaning, especially in the agricultural context.
In fact, the Romans took the Greeks’ version of Cronus and identified him with Saturn, their god of agriculture – whose Saturnalia festival was held in late December, which creates yet another connection between Father Time and year’s end.
Furthermore, the ancients often used the planet Saturn as their point of reference for determining the precession of the equinoxes – that is, how the tilt of the earth’s axis affects stars’ risings on dates like solstices and equinoxes.
Ancient stargazers used Saturn as a temporal reference because Saturn, observable with the naked eye, took the longest time of any of the planets to orbit the sun: 30 years. Saturn thus came to be associated as a father of time, so to speak.
And speaking of Romans, any discussion of the new year must take into account their god of gates and doors, Janus.
The god Janus was depicted with two faces – one looking backward, the other forward.
Sometimes, one face was old, the other young. The applications of these ideas to the new year are evident.
Lastly, note that Father Time isn’t the only figure depicted with a scythe or sickle. The Grim Reaper is too.
Not only does the Grim Reaper attach itself to the notion of time devouring all things, but even the name itself – reaper – turns back to the notion of harvest.
Myths, etymologies, traditions and folklore aren’t exact sciences. Their understanding is often clouded by simple mistake and legitimate confusion.
Father Time, the Grim Reaper, Cronus, Baby New Year: These images and related others turn back on themselves continually, being reinvented with each new tale, new drawing, new celebration. Such perplexity is a call to engage, not divorce.
As a new year approaches and we’re caught between one year and the next, consider this brief “time out of time.”
It’s a threshold wherein, like Janus, we look backward and forward simultaneously. We contemplate the old and the young.
And if we pay attention to our own cultural trappings, born of the ages, we’ll be reminded that a season has come and gone, making our own harvest that much closer.