The trigger for this post is just as interesting as the content, well to me anyway, so that’s where I’ll start. For a while I’ve been thinking about the book I saw in Mombasa: “Aphrodite” by Isabel Allende and that prompted me to brush up on my reading on one of my favorite Greek goddesses: Aphrodite herself. Then my immensely talented friend Nur posted on his blog “Panoramic Don” on the ever fascinating sky and the celestial occurrences we, in Kenya, are able to marvel at during our summer nights. Being an insatiable sky gazer, I loved the post! He mentioned the presence of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury well within scope in the evening and I tweeted him saying “you see Venus, Jupiter and Mercury. I see Aphrodite, Zeus and Ares” bringing some good ol’ mythology to his clean cut astronomy. After some conversation with Nur on my severe enchantment with mythology, I told him I’d compile a post on the heavenly bodies as per a mash-up of Greek & Roman beliefs. So here it is!
Wait, before I proceed, it is important to note a few classifications I will use:
- Protogenoi: the primordial gods who brought forth all other dieties inluding the Titans and the Olympians
- Titans: two generations of powerful deities that reigned over the Golden Age who were defeated during and banished after the Titanomachy better known as the “War of the Titans.”
- Olympians: the supreme class of gods and goddesses that resided at the pantheon on the famed Mount Olympus. They were the victors of the Titanomachy. Most notable among the Olympians are the “Dodekatheon” which refers to a dozen particular deities.
Now I can get into the planets and who they are named after. Where I have not found out the reason why the planet is named after a certain deity I will not explain. I will go in order of their arrangement in the solar system but will draw the relationships between them as clearly as I can.
Planet Mercury was named after the Olympian god of commerce, travel and athletes. He was also the official messenger of the gods. He was always known to be in a hurry and traveled quite swiftly (thanks to the wings n his ankles). The planet was named after him because it is the fastest moving planet in the solar system both in terms of revolution around the sun and rotation about it’s own axis. The element mercury too was named after the same deity for it’s fast flow and was thus appropriately dubbed “quick-silver”. The Greeks knew Mercury as Hermes.
Venus is the Roman name for the infamous goddess of love, sex, fertility, prosperity, passion and beauty. Aphrodite was her Greek name which aptly gave rise to the word “aphrodisiac”. There are two reasons why the planet was named after her. Firstly, it is also known as the evening star which rises in the evening and Venus was born and materialised on Earth in the evening (sometimes called “she who comes at dusk”). Lastly, the planet is highly regarded as the most beautiful planet in the cosmos and she was arguably the most beautiful goddess. She was an Olympian. She was a divine beauty that drove both gods and mortal men alike crazy with passion and ardor and lust! She had a history of being disliked by other goddesses for her effect on men and her beauty and of being immensely jealous of anyone thought to be more of looker than her.
Then comes the goddess of our very own planet: Earth! The Greeks called her Gaia and the Romans called her Terra. Terra is the root of the word “terrain”. Terra Mater or Mother Earth -also an attribute she was given in classical mythology- was a Protogenoi and the daughter of Chaos mentioned above. She is sometimes refered to as “the great mother” as the Titans and Olympians alike were her descendants. Her main consort was Uranus the god of the sky, with whom she bore the said deities. She also had unions with Pontus (the sea) and together had the lesser sea gods as well as bearing the Giants from her union with Tartarus (the hell pit). It is believed that mortal beings were sired from her womb: her earth.
Mars was the Roman name for the god of war. The Greeks knew him as Ares. He was one of the most fearsome gods and is associated with the more violent and physical aspects of war as opposed to the goddess Athena who was associated with military strategy and intelligence. Ironically however, he was on the losing side in the infamous Trojan War as told by Homer in his Iliad. Ares had a battle charriot that was drawn by his sons Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror) which is what the two satellites of planet Mars are called. His main consort was Venus. The planet was named after Mars for it’s red hue as red is the color of blood and danger which are associated with war!
Jupiter: the biggest planet in our solar system. Of course it wold have to be named after the god king, the supreme, the ruler of Mt. Olympus: Zeus (Greek name). He was the god of the sky and thunder – not to be confused with Uranus who was a sky god too. I’m not sure here, but I think since Zeus came after Uranus (who was a fallen god by then) he may have has superior control over being the god of the sky. That’s just me making an inference. Zeus was quite the Lothario and he had a plethora of affairs with other goddesses, divine creatures and mortals alike. His main wife was Hera. He sired numerous children by his lovers an wife both supernatural and mortal. All gods, even those that were not his offspring, called him father and feared and respected him as if he was. He, of course, was an Olympian. He was a brother to Neptune and Pluto and together they presided over the sky, sea and the underworld. All of Jupiter’s satellites are named after people that had a relationship with him. Some of them include: Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, Io etc
Saturn is the roman equvalent of the greek god of farming and harvest Cronus. I really have not been able to find out why the planet is named after him and the same applies to Uranus. I will compensate that lack of explanation with an interesting story about the two. Uranus was the Greek equivalent of the Roman sky god Caelus and was the father to Saturn. Uranus’ mother was Gaia or Mother Earth. He was also her husband. Yes, I know how incestuous that sounds but you have to remember that these deities were quite freaky! Besides, there were very few of them at that point in time so they had to mate with each other. Not an excuse but an explanation. So anyway, Uranus used to loathe the children Gaia bore him. Together they had the first generation of Titans: six sons and six daughters (who also matched up with each other to give birth to the second divine generation of Titans). Gaia and Uranus also brought forth the one-hundred-armed giants and the one-eyed Cyclopes. His hate for his own children drove him to start eating them. Mother Earth despised him for this and she plotted with her children to castrate him. The only one brave enough to step up was Saturn, who was given a scythe (his symbol), sneaked up on Uranus and castrated him! When he flung the detatched testicles to the sea, the foam that rose from them are said to have given rise to Venus and the blood to the Furies! A defeated, decapitated Uranus then cursed Saturn that his very own children will do unto him the same disgrace.
It came to pass. Saturn was the father of Zeus (Jupiter) and he too used to eat his children fearing that if he let them be and mature, they would destroy him as he did his own father. Uranus’ curse on him left him paranoid. His wife however tricked him into thinking he’d eaten Zeus and she left him in the care of a supernatural creature on Earth. He was raised in secrecy until he was grown and strong and powerful enough to destroy his father. Zeus fulfilled the curse set on saturn by Uranus and defeated him and his fellow Titan siblings to reign supreme during the Titanomachy.
Saturn was a Titan while Uranus was a primordial god. Some of the satellites that revolve around Saturn were named after his Titan siblings e.g Atlas, Prometheus, Mimas and Tethys. Others still were named after supernatural beings that were in one way or another involvd in his history. As aforementioned, Uranus’ moons are the exception and named after named after characters from the works of Shakespeare and Pope to include: cordellia, Ophelia, bianca, Cressida, Juliette and Umbriel.
The last planet in our solar system is Neptune and it was named after the Roman counterpart of the Greek god of the sea: Poseidon. The reason for this is the blue color of the planet resembling the crystal blue waters of the calm ocean. Poseidon ws an Olympain ans brother to Jupiter and Pluto. The planet’s satellits keep the naming tradition and include: Thalassa – a Greek sea goddess and Despina his daughter among others. Neptune was known to carry a triton with him and be kind to sea travellers as llong as they paid him repect.
Pluto is no longer classified as a planet but I could not leave the little guy out. Pluto is the name of the Roman god of the underworld. In Greek it is Hades, which doubles up as a name for the underworld itself. Contrary to popular belief, he was an Olympian god by virtue of being Zeus and Poseidon’s brother. However he does not belong to the Dodekathon as he did not reside on Mt. Olympus but in his underworld which he reigned over. He was the god of wealth and riches as most minerals are known to be found in subterrenea. He was also referd to as the god of fertile land and he controlled the ground that seeds were planted into. As a ruler of the dead, he presided over the souls as they left their bodies and went o the underworld before judgement and becaue the dead bodies were burried under the ground. The former planet was named Pluto by virtue of being cold and dark (owing to it’s distance fro the sun) just like the underworld. The only satellite Pluto has is Charon named after the mythological boat steerer that would ferry souls into Hades.
Classical mythology is very convoluted, contradictory and confusing as you’ve probably discovered by now. Some gods are said to be the fathers of others yet they somehow manage to have existed after them. Other still are said to be born of different parents. There is no rigid basis for them as they are beliefs, myths, legends and tales. It all depends on the accounts you read from be it Hesiod’s Theogony or homers Iliad among others. In any case I hope I’ve gotten you a tad more interested in mythology than you were before or at the very least I’ve enlightened you on some fun “did – you- know”s about the cosmos. More to come soon!