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Angela C. Bollard
Physics 1040 Astronomy
T,R, 1:00 pm-2:15 pm
Astronomy meets Mythology
Myths and legends about the stars and planets abound throughout the history of our
world. Many cultures worshipped the sun as a god and our current names for the planets in our
solar system come from Greek or Roman Gods. In this essay I will explain how and why each
planet in our solar system was so named. We will start with the innermost planet Mercury and
work our way out to the furthermost dwarf planet of Pluto.
Mercury was discovered as early as the time of the Sumerians. It was thought to be two
different stars, so it was given two different names; Apollo (the Greek sun god) when it appeared
in the morning and Hermes (the Greek messenger god) when it appeared as an evening star.
Heraclitus even believed that Mercury orbited the Sun instead of the Earth. Mercury was named
after the Roman God of travel because of its speed moving across the sky.
Venus is visible to the human eye and therefore was visible to ancient peoples. The
Egyptians and Greeks believed that it was also two different objects; The Morning and the
Evening Star. Venus was named after the Roman Goddess of Love because of the pinkish tint of
the clouds.
Because of its red color, Mars is named after the Roman God of Spring and War.
Whereas the ancient Babylonians warded off the influence of the red planet, the Romans
welcomed it as a good omen for empire building.
Jupiter is named for the most important deity in the Roman pantheon of gods (Zeus in
Greek mythology) because of its massive size and apparent importance. All of the satellites in
Jovian system are named after either lovers or descendants of Jupiter.
Saturn (Kronos in the Greek) was named for the father of Jupiter, King of the Titans.
Most of the satellites around Saturn are named for Titans who were brothers and sisters of the
God Saturn. In Roman mythology Saturn seized power from his father Uranus by castrating and
overthrowing him, but it was foretold that one of his sons would overthrow him, so Saturn
devoured his children whole at birth. Saturn’s wife Rhea hid her sixth child, Jupiter on the isle of
Crete and gave her husband a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead. Jupiter later overthrew
his father and became the main deity.
Uranus or Ouranos was discovered on March 13, 1781 by W. Herschel and named for
the father of Saturn. Ouranos was the first god of the sky, and along with his mate Gaia (goddess
of the earth) ruled the universe. Satellites orbiting Uranus are named after characters from
Shakespeare plays.
Neptune was discovered on September 23, 1846 by Johann G. Galle. He named it after
the Roman God of the Sea because of its bluish tint. All of Neptune’s satellites are named after
the attendants of the Sea God.
Pluto was discovered on January 23, 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff,
Arizona by C.W. Tombaugh. The then planet was named by an eleven-year old girl named
Venetia Burney whose grandfather worked for Oxford University in Oxford, England. He asked
her what she thought the new planet should be named and she said that it should be named for
the Roman god of the Underworld, Pluto, because it was so cold and distant. Her grandfather
cabled this idea to the Lowell staff and they immediately agreed.