Planets and Myths

Classical Greek and Roman astronomers, or astrologers, identified only seven heavenly bodies as “planets” or “wanderers.” These planets seemed to wander across the sky, unlike the stars, which seemed “fixed” in place on a celestial canopy. The stars sewn on this canopy seemed to move together in unison; slowly the starry canopy rotated with the seasons. The ancient Romans also thought the Sun (named as Sol, Apollo, Helius) and our Moon (named as Luna, Diana, Artemis, Selene) were planets. They aren’t. The Sun is a star at the center of our solar system. The Moon is a satellite orbiting around our planet.

Mercury (Roman) messenger of the gods. A planet which appeared to move rapidly across the starry canopy than other planets, Mercury was the god of travelers, commerce and communication. This god was also quick witted and, therefore, related to intellectual activity. This planet is closest to our Sun. Mercury's orbit is just 88 Earth days.

Venus (Roman) goddess of love and beauty. She is the “morning and evening star” which appears either before sunrise or just after sunset. She is identified with the Babylonian Ishtar, who in her morning and evening star aspect was known as the Queen of Heaven. The planet Venus shines a beautiful blue in the sky. Venus is the second planet from the Sun. The planet's orbit is 225 Earth days.

Earth (Old English) originally Erce, known as Terra, or Tellus Mater in Latin, and Gaia in Greek. She is “Mother Earth.” Originally, Earth was not known to be a planet. The Sun was believed to revolve around Earth along with the other planets. Actually, Earth is simply the third rock from the Sun. Earth's orbit takes 365.3 days. The daily "sunrise" and "sunset" is an illusion created by Earth's rotation on its axis of 23 hours and 56 minutes, which is the length of time of one Earth day. An Earth year is the length of Earth's orbit or revolution around the Sun.

Mars (Roman) god of war, in Rome his priests, the Salli, carried the sacred shields, the ancilia. Originally Mars was an agricultural deity. He was called Mars Gardivius from gandiri, meaning, "to grow, to become big." The planet Mars appears red in the sky. Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun. Mars' orbit takes 687 Earth days. It is the last of what modern astronomers call the "inner planets," because they are the four planets closest to the Sun.

Jupiter (Roman) king of the gods. The name, “Jupiter,” means “Father Jove,” and he was the patriarch of the Roman gods. Jove was another name for this god. The planet Jupiter is the largest in our solar system, as befits the king of the heavens. Jupiter is the fifth planet of our Solar system and the first of what modern astronomers call the "outer planets." Massive Jupiter completes its orbit in 11.9 Earth years.

Saturn (Roman) god of the harvest, a cthonic deity associated with time and the Roman underworld. Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun. Saturn takes 29.5 Earth years to orbit the Sun.

The Romans thought the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were planets that revolved around Earth. This Roman cosmology, which they had adopted from the Greeks, was in turn adopted from the Babylonians. The planetary powers were basically assumed to represent the following: Sun for illumination, Moon for enchantment, Mars for growth, Mercury for wisdom, Jupiter for law, Venus for love, and Saturn for peace. In the Babylonian cosmology, the planets were identified with Shamas, Sin, Nergal, Bel, Beltis (Ishtar), and Ninib. The Babylonian cosmology was drawn from the older civilization of Sumer.

This pre-Christian Roman cosmology persisted into the Catholic Middle Ages. Indeed, the Latin names for these seven celestial bodies are the roots of the seven days of the week in the Romance languages: Italian, French, and Spanish.

Later, with telescopes and advanced technology, more planets were discovered.

In keeping with tradition, the astronomers gave these planets mythological names:

Uranus (Greek) original husband of Gaia (Earth), initially he was the personification of the starry night sky. The planet Uranus is a gas giant, like the planets Jupiter and Saturn. It does not shine brightly in the sky. The planet was discovered in 1781. Uranus is the seventh planet revolving around our Sun, which this gas giant orbits every 84 Earth years.

Neptune (Roman) god of water, originally including lakes and rain. Later, because of his marriage to Salacia, goddess of the salty coastal water, and because of his association with the Greek Poseidon, he became a god of the ocean. The planet Neptune is also a gas giant. In telescopes, it shines pale blue, the color of water. The planet was discovered in 1846. Neptune is the eighth planet in the Solar system. Its revolution is 165 Earth years.

Pluto (Greek) god of the underworld, known as Plutus in Italy. His Greek name meant “the rich one.” Apparently the planet Pluto was named after the Greek god of the dead because it was so far away and believed to be the last planet out in our solar system. The planet was discovered in 1930. Pluto is generally referred to as the ninth planet from the Sun. However, some modern astronomers argue that Pluto is too small to be properly called a planet. It also has an eliptical path to its orbit, which lasts 248 Earth years.

Sedna (Inuit) goddess of the Inuit underworld, where the spirits of game animals dwell. The goddess Sedna is believed to reside in the ocean, under the Northern ice cap. Astronomers discovered this small, shiny, red planet-like object in 2003. Many people hailed it as our Solar system's tenth planet. The astronomy team named it “Sedna” to draw a planet name from a mythology other than Greek or Roman. Also, since the planet appears shiny when viewed, the astronomers assumed it has lots of ice crystals on its surface. Unfortunately, Sedna is even smaller than Pluto, only 3/4 Pluto's size. Thus, some astronomers claim that this object is a planetoid rather than our tenth planet. The eliptical orbit of Sedna is unlike any other observed by astronomers. It lasts 10,500 Earth years.

Origins of the Names “Sun” and “Moon”

The names of the two most obvious bodies in our solar system are neither Greek nor Roman. Like Earth, which originates with a goddess name in Old English, the “Sun” and “Moon” also relate to Old English deity names.

Sun (Old English) derived from the goddess Sunna, also known as Sul and Sulla. She was also the goddess of the healing waters of hot springs. This yellow star is the hub of our Solar system. It is Earth and the other planets which revolve around this source of heat and light.

Moon (Old English) derived from the god of the moon, Mani, who was later the Man in the Moon in English folklore. Earth's only natural satelite reflects the light of the Sun back to Earth during the Moon's 27 Earth days, 7 hours, 43 minutes orbit. Its gravitational tug on Earth's waters causes the ocean tides.

Copyright LWW 2004. Used with permission of author.

Myth's Notes

The above article presented a lot of illuminating information in regard to the night sky.

Planets, Magic, and History
Stargazing and Modern Sky Lore

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