Around the first of the year, American political cartoonists traditionally employ the image of Baby New Year in conversation of some sort with the Old Year to make a topical joke. A good example from last week is to the right, by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune (there are more here). The iconography is fairly consistent: a male infant, dressed is a diaper and sash with the year printed on it and sometimes wearing a top-hat, represents the New Year while the Old Year resembles Father Time, sporting a long beard and carrying a scythe. The scythe is an especially interesting attribute, and points to an ancient mythological heritage.
Why should Father Time be outfitted with a scythe, after all? To cut down all things in his path, as time does, I guess. It’s easy to see how this figure develops into the more sinister Grim Reaper, but in his origin, the old man can probably be traced to a simple misspelling ultimately. The Greek word for “time” is χρόνος, chronos, from which English words like “chronology” or “synchronicity” are derived. It is very close to the name of the Titan, Κρόνος, Kronos, the father of the chief Olympian God, Zeus. The distinction between the letters chi, χ, and kappa, κ, is very slight, a mere aspiration. My guess is that you can probably not hear the difference between the chi or “chorus” and the kappa of “kudos.” The interchangeability of the variant spellings “Kristine” and “Christine,” for instance, would seem to prove the point.
So Kronos, the father of Zeus, becomes Chronos, Father Time. But how does the scythe come into it? That is an interesting and unpleasant ancient tale, first told by the Greek poet, Hesiod, in the Theogony, circa 700 BC. It seems that Gaia, the Earth, had had many children by Ouranos, the Sky, including the young Kronos. Ouranos, in jealousy, however, had refused to let them exit the womb into the light of day. Gaia plotted with her children to reverse the situation (Theogony, lines 164-176),
‘My children, begotten by an evil father, if you obey me, we will punish the terrible sin of your father, who has contrived awful things.’ So she spoke, but the children were all afraid, and none of them uttered a word. But great Kronos the clever bravely replied to his dear mother, ‘Mother, I will take up this challenge, for I do not love our evil father, who has contrived awful things.’ So he spoke, and great Earth was delighted. She hid him for ambush, and put a jagged sickle into his hands, and told him her whole plan. When Sky came to his wife, bringing on the night and filled with desire, he lay atop Earth, fully upon her. Then the son assailed him from his ambush, extending his left hand and taking in his right the long sickle with crooked teeth, and quickly cut off his own father’s genitals and threw them away.
Well, as you can imagine, Kronos then becomes the king of the cosmos, but knowing that those who, er, live by the sword die by the sword, he resolves not to let any of his own children live. Recalling his mother’s disloyalty, Kronos opts to swallow his children himself rather than trust them to their mother, Rhea. Among this brood is Zeus, who nevertheless escapes his siblings fates when Rhea deceives her husband by handing him a stone in swaddling clothes.
The image of Kronos (or Saturn, as he was known among the Romans) devouring his children is an especially horrific image, perhaps nowhere more disturbingly illustrated than by Francisco Goya in the 1820s. An earlier portrait of the scene to the left by Peter Paul Rubens, however, is a little less gut-wrenching and a little more learned. In order to assure that his viewers will know that the old man is Kronos/Saturn and not just some random cannibal, Rubens depicts him with the Hesiodic scythe. When you compare Rubens’ Saturn with the standard representation of Father Time and Baby New Year, the iconographic debt could not be clearer. The Baby New Year on the Saturday Evening Post cover may well want to consider how close he gets to the old man with the scythe. In a larger sense, of course, the aged cannibal is a much better image of the passing of the years, the consumption of youth by tempus edax rerum, “time, the devourer of things.”