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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 2

Chronos And Kronos

LIVIO C. STECCHINI

Copyright (C) 1981 by the Estate of Livio C. Stecchini

[* This article has been excerpted from a letter by Dr. Stecchini that was originally published in the Sept. 1960 issue of Scientific American. LMG.]

It is true that for a person who consults a dictionary the name Kronos is different from the Greek term chronos, meaning "time"; but there is no difference to a person acquainted with classical literature. The association of Kronos, father of Zeus, with chronos is well established in poets of the fifth century B.C. This association is as old as the first Greek speculations on the nature of time in the preceding early period of Greek culture. The references may be found under the entry "Kronos" in the standard reference works for classical studies, such as Real-Encyclopäidie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft and Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon des Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie. It is because of Kronos's association with time that his name was given to the most distant of the seven heavenly bodies; in pre-Greek Oriental chronological systems a particular significance is given to this planet, Saturn for us, because it concludes its orbit in 30 years, so that a day in its year corresponds to a month in the Earth's year.

When the Romans identified their own god of agriculture Saturnus with the Greek Kronos, they made the former into a god of time. As a result, today we portray Father Time with a scythe. The transformation of a rural figure into a philosophical concept was complete by the time of Cicero, who states (On the Nature of the Gods, II, 25): "Saturnus was chosen as the one to have as his province the intervals and cycles of time. In Greek this god is called by the very word time, since Kronos is the same as chronos, that is, time. We call him Saturnus because he saturates himself with years."

The etymological connection of the two words Kronos and chronos has been positively affirmed by some linguists and strongly denied by others, because, on the one hand, the semantic similarity of the two words is evident and, on the other, from a technical linguistic point of view, the difference between the K and the ch is most significant. The debate is still unsettled; if the two words are etymologically related, the common element is indicated by the Greek word geron, "old man".

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