In connection with all this mythology, the most satisfying hypothesis is that the gods were men whom flattery turned into gods by reason of their genius or character, their life or luck. Soon, sacrifices and solemnities were started and, appealing as they did to men’s minds which are no less avid for folly than the spirits of demons, they spread far and wide. Finally came the poets with their ornamental lies, and the devils did the rest with their wily seduction.
Take the story of Saturn, the father, being dethroned by Jupiter, his son. Varro interprets this by saying that the cause (of which Jupiter is the symbol) comes before the seed (which is associated with Saturn). It is much simpler if we suppose that some wicked young prince, or one who was afraid that his wicked father would kill him, wanted to be king and drove his father from the throne. If Varro’s story were true, Saturn would never have preceded, nor would he have been the father of, Jupiter. For, the cause always comes before the seed, and could never be born of the seed. The fact is that even the most acute men get into difficulties when they try to dress up empty fables or even heroic deeds as symbols of natural phenomena. Such efforts, unfortunately, are as foolish as the fables.
‘Saturn,’ says Varro, ‘is said to have had the habit of devouring his own offspring. This symbolizes the fact that seeds return whence they spring. And, when we are told that a sod was given to Saturn to eat instead of Jupiter, that means that before the use of the plough was discovered, seed was buried in the ground by hand.’ The conclusion from this is that Saturn should be called the soil, not the seed, for it is the soil that may be said to devour what it brings forth when seeds that spring from the soil return to be received into the ground.
What has covering the seed with soil by human hands got to do with Saturn getting a sod to devour instead of Jupiter? Does some seed escape the fate of being devoured like the rest because it is covered with a sod? From what Varro says, you would think that the man who turns down the soil took away the seed (much as they took away Jupiter when they gave Saturn a sod), but, actually, the man who covered the seed with soil had the seed all the more thoroughly devoured.
Besides, in this interpretation, Jupiter is the seed, not the cause of the seed, as in the other account. But, everyone knows to what lengths a man is driven when he begins to explain folly and finds that nothing that is wise can be said. ‘Saturn,’ says Varro, ‘has a sickle because of agriculture.’ But, the fact is that, when Saturn was king, there was no agriculture. It is Varro himself who describes ‘the good old days’ of Saturn by saying that the earliest men lived from the fruit that the earth brought forth of its own accord. It would be a brighter idea to say that, when Saturn lost the sceptre, they gave him a sickle so that the idle king of the good old days might take up active farming when his son succeeded him!
Varro’s explanation of why boys are offered in sacrifice to Saturn among the Carthaginians, as grown up men are among the Celts, is that a human being is the best of all the things that grow. But, what is the point of attempting any explanation of so irrational a cruelty? It is better for us to notice and to keep in mind that all such interpretations have no relevance whatever to the true God, the living, immaterial, immutable Being from whom alone we can beg for a life that is everlastingly happy. All such interpretations fall within the limits of what is material, temporal, mutable, and mortal.
‘According to the fable,’ Varro tells us, ‘Saturn castrated his father the Sky; which means that Saturn and not Caelus has power over all seed that is divine.’ The reason—if there is any reason—for this is that in heaven nothing is born of seed. But, the real trouble is that, if Saturn is the son of Caelus, he is the son of Jupiter—since any number of the pagans insist that Caelus is Jupiter. Thus do all such constructions, not founded on truth, tumble and collapse by themselves. Varro says that Saturn is called Chronos (which is Greek for a period of time), since no seed is productive without time.
Thus, everything said about Saturn goes back to seed, and you would think that, with all his powers, he at least could handle seed all by himself. Why, then, were those other gods required for this purpose, especially Bacchus and Libera or Ceres? Yet, as far as seed is concerned, Varro says so much about these other gods that you would almost forget that he said anything about Saturn.
The best known of the rites of Ceres are the Eleusinian mysteries, which were very highly regarded by the Athenians. Of these, Varro offers no interpretation except in connection with corn, which was a discovery of Ceres, and with Proserpina, who was robbed from Ceres by Orcus. Proserpina, he says, is a symbol of fertility. The fable started from the fact that, for lack of fertility, the earth remained for some time sterile and, as it were, in mourning. It began to be told how Orcus kidnaped the daughter of Ceres who was called Proserpina (or fertility), and kept her in the lower world. The name Proserpina is derived from the verb proserpere, to sprout forth. Her loss was celebrated with public mourning; then, when fertility returned to the earth, there was great public rejoicing because Proserpina had been restored, and this rejoicing took the form of a religious rite. Varro goes on to say that there are many traditions in the mysteries of Ceres which relate simply to the introduction of crops.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII