Who’s Father Time? Origins & Personification Explained

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Abstract ideas, like death or the passage of time, can be hard to visualize. That’s why ancient mythology, art, and literature use personifications (human images that represent things or concepts) to convey those ideas. One of the best-known personifications is Father Time.

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You might see Father Time in art or read about him in literature. There are also several statues, monuments, and sculptures around the world that are dedicated to Father Time. With his imagery so prevalent across Europe, the United States, and much of the rest of the world, it’s common to wonder: who is Father Time? 

Who is Father Time? 

Father Time is a human representation of time itself. He symbolizes the abstract concept of time, as well as the constant, one-way movement of time. 

Father Time usually takes the form of an elderly man, and he sometimes holds a scythe or an hourglass or clock. You can also see Father Time pictured with other personification figures, including Mother Nature, Baby New Year, and the Grim Reaper. 

Father Time’s image and depiction have changed slightly over the centuries, but what he represents has remained mostly the same. 

Origins of Father Time

The origins of the Father Time allegory aren’t completely clear. But researchers and historians have been able to trace his roots back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. 

Greek origins

Father Time partially originated from agricultural society and mythology in ancient Greece. 

The ancient Greek word for time was chronos; at the same time, the Greeks had a “titan of agriculture” named Cronos. Cronos, as a god of agriculture, had the notable attribute of a harvester’s scythe or sickle. 

Over time, the Greek words for time and the agricultural deity became intertwined and interrelated. 

Greek mythology came to recognize Cronos (or alternatively, Kronos, Chronos, or Cronus) as the King of Titans and the god of time. 

In ancient Greek artwork, Cronos looks like a slightly younger man than the modern Father Time, and he sometimes has wings. 

Roman Origins

After the Roman Republic conquered Greece, the religions, rituals, and mythologies of Rome and Greece fused to form new allegories. 

The Romans equated the Greek titan Cronos with their own ancient god, Saturn. Saturn, like Cronos, carried a scythe or sickle. 

According to Roman mythology, Saturn ruled over agriculture and time, as well as wealth and renewal. Saturn adopted the imagery of an elderly man, sometimes leaning on a crutch. 

During the Renaissance Era, artists took the Greek myth of Cronus and the Roman legend of Saturn and developed detailed imagery. 

By the 18th century, Father Time was starting to look like the man we know today: an elderly man, wearing a dark cloak and carrying a scythe or hourglass. 

Is Father Time the same as the Grim Reaper?

Father Time and the Grim Reaper aren’t one and the same, but they’re often depicted as friends or companions. 

And it’s easy to see how someone could mix up the two. Father Time and the Grim Reaper are both personifications of abstract concepts: one of time and the other of death. And to make matters more confusing, they’re depicted very similarly. They both wear a dark cloak and carry a scythe or sickle. 

But they have their differences, too: whereas Father Time usually appears as a kindly old man, the Grim Reaper usually looks skeletal or hides in the shadows. While the Grim Reaper holds a scythe, Father Time usually carries a harvester’s sickle. And Father Time often has the additional symbology of an hourglass or a clock. 

Symbol or depiction

In Greek and Roman mythology, Cronos (or Saturn) appears as an older man, but one who looks strong all the same. As time went on, Father Time began looking older and older. 

In more modern depictions, Father Time looks like a frail old man wearing a dark cloak or robe, hood often drawn around his face. He has a long, white or gray beard, and if his head is exposed, he’s usually bald or wearing a garland. 

Father Time typically holds a sickle in one hand, and he may hold an hourglass in the other. Alternatively, he might be depicted holding a clock or standing near a timepiece. 

The imagery of Father Time represents the inevitable passage of time, using the imagery of an elderly man to symbolize the years gone by. The harvester’s sickle reminds us of the renewal that time offers, and the cyclical nature of life. 

Father Time in Art and Popular Culture

You might have started wondering about Father Time’s origins if you spotted him in a movie, heard his name in a song, or read about him in a book. 

If you want to see how Father Time is represented in art and pop culture, you’ll find the mythical figure in the works listed below. 

Rotunda Clock

A sculpture Father Time holding a sickle is the centerpiece of the Rotunda Clock by artist John Flanagan. The piece is located in the rotunda of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Lord’s Cricket Ground

Lord’s Cricket Ground in London features a sculpted weather vane in the shape of Father Time. 

An Allegory of Truth and Time

The 1584–85 oil painting, An Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci, is one of the earliest Rennaissance depictions of Father Time. It shows him with his daughter, Truth, as well as the two-faced Deceit. The characters of Truth and Deceit reappeared in Rennaissance paintings from this point on. 

Norman Rockwell

A painting by Norman Rockwell depicted Father TIme on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on December 31, 1910. 

The Pit and the Pendulum  

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Pit and the Pendulum, Father Time appears in a painting on the ceiling of the dungeon. 

Jude the Obscure

Author Thomas Harding depicts Father Time as a character in his novel, Jude the Obscure

The Chronicles of Narnia

C.S. Lewis includes Father Time as part of the last two novels in his Chronicles of Narnia series: The Silver Chair and The Last Battle

The Santa Claus

Father Time shows up in The Santa Claus 2, as well as The Santa Claus 3: The Escape Clause. He’s played by actor Peter Boyle, and he’s shown as a member of the “Council of Legendary Figures.” 

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year

In another Christmas film—this time a television special—Father Time is voiced by the film’s narrator, Red Skelton. 

The Smurfs

Father Time is a recurring character on the television series, The Smurfs. 

Alice Through the Looking Glass

In the 2016 movie, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Sacha Baron Cohen plays “Time.” Time is a human-clockwork hybrid, and he controls time in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland

In the original story by Lews Carroll, the character “Time” makes the Mad Hatter and his group of friends have an endless tea party by stopping himself (aka stopping time). 

Animal Collective

The band, Animal Collective, as a song entitled “Father Time” on its album, Centipede Hz. 

Metallica

Metallica references Father Time in its song, “Minus Human.” 

Death Cab for Cutie

In another musical appearance, Father Time’s name is mentioned in Death Cab for Cutie’s “What Sarah Said.” 

Little Nemo in Slumberland

Father Time appears in the comic, Little Nemo in Slumberland. In it, he represents time in general, as well as the new year. 

Representing Time

Father Time, and his predecessors Cronus and Saturn, aren’t the only personifications of time. In fact, in mythologies and polytheistic religions around the world, a human representation of time often plays an important role. 

For example, Etu represents time according to Lakota tradition, and the god Kala rules over time in Hinduism. In the Philippines, the ancient Hiligaynon god Kan-Laon is the “one who is the ruler of time,” and in Lithuanian mythology, the goddess Dalia rules over fate and the future. 

Like death, time is one of those abstract concepts that are sometimes easier to depict in human form. And personifications like Father Time and the examples listed above, as well as the Grim Reaper and death symbology, help us cope with those big ideas. 


Sources

  1. "Old father time." Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. 2003. Omnigraphics, Inc. encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Old+father+time 
  2. "Old father time." Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. 2008. The Gale Group, Inc. encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Old+father+time
  3. “An Allegory of Truth and Time c.1584-1585.” Royal Collection Trust. www.rct.uk/collection/404770/an-allegory-of-truth-and-time

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