Roman Mythology and the Planets
The planets and the solar system is something that most people learn about at school, and then push this knowledge to the backs of their mind. Even so, most people can probably name the 8 planets of our solar system, and many will recognise the link between most of the names in English and Roman mythology.
Naming Celestial Objects
The naming of celestial bodies is today given over to the International Astronomical Union, and traditionally, the names of these bodies have been linked to Roman and Greek mythology, building upon observations made in antiquity.
In our solar system alone though, there are almost 700,000 recognised bodies, and whilst only a small fraction of these have been named, there is a finite number of Greek and Roman mythological names that can be used. Hence, in recent years, other mythological names, Shakespearean characters and names from popular culture have been used.
The Solar System
The God Mercury
The planet Mercury was certainly known to Babylonian astronomers many hundreds of years before the rise of Rome, but in English it would take the name of the Roman god. Possibly, the planet was called Mercury because of the speed it seems to travel.
In Ancient Rome Mercury was one of the major gods, with Mercury a Pscyhopomp, as well as a god of commerce and communication. In Roman mythology, Mercury was considered the son of Jupiter and Maia, and the mythology of the god was heavily influenced by that of the Greek god Hermes.
The second planet of our solar system is another planet identified by the ancient Babylonians. This second planet would come to be known in English as Venus, a goddess of the Roman pantheon. A possible reason for its name, comes about because of the beauty and brightness of the planet.
Amongst the Roman gods and goddesses, Venus was considered the goddess of beauty and love. Born when Saturn was castrated, Venus was the wife of Vulcan, lover of Mars, and mother of Cupid. Venus is generally equated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
It is often thought that the Earth was not considered a planet until the 16th century AD and Nicolas Copernicus, although even in antiquity many mathematicians and scholars had organised the known solar system correctly.
The Earth is the only planet of our solar system not named for a Roman deity, although occasionally the planet is referred to as Gaia, who was a Greek goddess.
The name Earth comes from the Germanic of Middle English language, and is generally considered to be an attempt at a translation of the Roman word terra.
Statue of Mars from Schloss Nordkirchen
The 4th planet was another known about before the time of the Romans, but took a Roman god’s name; the 4th planet of the solar system being named Mars.
Mars was famously the Roman god of war, and generally considered to be the second most important god of the Roman pantheon after Jupiter; Mars of course being one of the gods of the Roman Legions. Mars would be linked with the Greek god Ares, with similar mythologies, but in the earliest periods of Roman mythology, Mars was also revered as an agricultural god like Saturn.
The naming of the planet possibly comes about because of the blood red colouring often associated with the planet and the god.
The largest planet in the solar system is the 5th planet known today as Jupiter.
The size of the planet ensured that a powerful Roman god would have to be linked to it, and there was no more powerful god than Jupiter, the lead god of the Roman pantheon. Jupiter is of course the Roman equivalent of Zeus from the Greek pantheon.
Saturn is the next planet in the solar system, and is the second largest after Jupiter.
The name of another powerful god would be required, and who better than the father of Jupiter. This god was named Saturn and in Roman mythology he was the god who introduced agriculture to Italy, but he was also a deity who would be connected to the Greek Cronus, a Titan overthrown by his son Jupiter/Zeus.
The God Neptune
The 7th planet of our solar system is Uranus, a planet discovered in 1781 by William Herschel.
Today, it the 7th planet is known by the name of the Roman god of the sky, Uranus; the Greek equivalent being Ouranus. Once the dominant god of the cosmos, Uranus would be overthrown by Saturn, in the telling when the mythologies of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome became intertwined.
The naming of the planet might be in keeping with the other planets, but originally Herschel wanted it named Georgium Sidus or George's Star, in recognition of King George III of England. The name of course was not popular outside of Great Britain, and Johann Bode suggested Uranus, as he was the father of Saturn, who was in turn, father of Jupiter.
The next, and final, planet found was Neptune in 1846 after Johann Gottfried Galle saw the planet where Urbain Le Verrier had predicted it to be.
It had not yet been set in stone that the name of the planet would be that of a Roman god, and briefly the idea of it being called Le Verrier was put forward. Eventually though mythological names were put forward, including Janus, the two headed Roman god, and Oceanus, the god of the earth encircling river.
Eventually though, the name of the Roman sea god Neptune became settled upon in the English language; with Neptune being the Roman equivalent of Poseidon; The blue colouring of the planet linking it to the sea.
The Goddess Ceres
Of course for most of the 20th century it was thought that there was 9 planets in our solar system, but at the start of the 21st century, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet.
There might be several hundred dwarf planets in our solar system, and it is thought that as many as 70 have so far been observed; although the IAU recognises only five.
Ceres – The nearest dwarf planet is Ceres found in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was originally discovered in 1801, and was named after Ceres the Roman goddess of Agriculture, a deity normally associated with the Greek goddess Demeter.
Pluto – Located in the Kuiper Belt, Pluto was famously discovered in 1930, and was named after the Roman god of the Underworld, who in Greek mythology was named Hades.
Haumea – Haumea was discovered in the Kuiper Belt in 2004, and was named not after a Roman or Greek deity, but after Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth.
Makemake – In 2005 another dwarf planet was identified in the Kuiper Belt, this being Makemake, the god of creation in Easter Island mythology.
Eris – In 2003 the discovery of the celestial body that would become Eris, caused the reclassification of Pluto and other “asteroids”. Eris was the goddess of strife in Greek mythology, a fitting name for the disruption its discovery caused.
Others – Other Dwarf planets provisionally named include Orcus, a Roman god of the underworld and oaths; Salacia, the wife of Neptune in Roman mythology (Amphitrite in Greek mythology); Quaoar, a god of the Mission Indians; and Sedna, a goddess of Inuit mythology.