Weekend: Galaxy of Names from the Gods; We All Learn the Names Parrot Fashion at School, but What Do We Really Know about the Planets? Alexander Tulloch Explains

The Birmingham Post (England), January 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

Weekend: Galaxy of Names from the Gods; We All Learn the Names Parrot Fashion at School, but What Do We Really Know about the Planets? Alexander Tulloch Explains


Byline: Alexander Tulloch

It's been an interesting few weeks for space-watchers. But despite all the press and media coverage of these no doubt marvellous feats and brave attempts at furthering our understanding of the universe, little attention is generally paid to the names by which the planets of our galaxy are known.

When astronomers began discovering the planets (or 'wanderers' as the word means in Greek) they decided for some reason to name them after Greek and Roman gods.

This may have been because of the astrological belief that the heavenly bodies influenced our lives, just as the ancient Greeks believed there was a panoply of deities up there guiding our every move from the cradle to the grave.

Be that as it may, the names we now have for the planets are almost all taken from Latin and Greek.

Mars, for instance, takes its name directly from the Roman God of War, and has also given us the word 'martial' as in expressions such as 'martial arts' and 'martial law'.

But although Mars was a Roman god, he took his name from the Greek verb marnamai 'to fight' and 'to do battle'.

The Greeks, on the other hand, had their own word for the God of War, Ares, the son of Jupiter and Juno who was also responsible for famine, destruction and plague. And this name gives us a wonderful insight to the Greeks' view of the world.

Ares is linked linguistically to two other Greek words, arren 'male' or 'masculine' and arete 'excellence' and the reason for the association is quite simple.

The personal qualities most admired by the ancient Greeks were those that went to make a good soldier such as courage in battle. The ability to wage war became the yardstick against which all other qualities were measured.

For comparison we only have to think how our words 'virtue' and 'virile' are both derived from the Latin vir, meaning 'man'.

By far the largest of the planets, with a diameter of almost 143,000 kms, is Jupiter.

The astrologers of old believed that anyone born under this planet would be blessed with a cheerful or 'jovial' nature and be the life and soul of any party.

The name itself is derived from the Latin root Jov combined with the Latin and Greek pater, 'father', so that the name just means 'father of the gods'.

Pluto takes its name from the Greek god Pluton, derived from the adjective ploutos meaning rich.

Now Pluto was the God of the underworld and, so it was thought, was responsible for the corn which grew above the ground.

As merchants could make themselves very rich men by selling cereals the two concepts of wealth and the netherworld god became inextricably bound together.

But the overall God of Agriculture was Saturn, another god whose name was borrowed and given to one of the planets.

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Weekend: Galaxy of Names from the Gods; We All Learn the Names Parrot Fashion at School, but What Do We Really Know about the Planets? Alexander Tulloch Explains
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