Roman and Greek Mythology Names: Gods, Planets, Astrology (Part 2)
Roman and Greek Mythology Names: Gods, Planets
The first part of this discussion can be found here. Read it first if you haven’t already. This page will continue the discussion of the Roman and Greek mythology names of gods, focusing on the Olympian gods after whom our planets were named. I will also give pictures of these gods, tell their stories, and explain how the planets came to be named after them. By extension, these gods’ planets, in the minds of the ancients, influenced the personality traits of people born at various times of the year. Thus, the connection between gods, planets, and astrology.
The Prince of Liars
Hermes, a son of Zeus, was the messenger of the gods (so was Iris, the Rainbow). Since he traveled a lot, he was associated with traveling and crossing over borders, both mundane and divine. Hermes used this ability to cross borders not only to deliver messages from the gods in the divine realm to humans in the mortal sphere, but to lead newly departed souls from earth to the Underworld. His Roman name was Mercury.
Hermes/Mercury was extremely fast, with winged shoes and a winged hat to get him from place to place. Thus, he was associated with running and athleticism. His position as a herald ties him with language: he is a god of writing, oration, literature, and poetry. He is also connected with diplomacy, negotiation, and interpretation.
Perhaps more interestingly, he was also the patron god of liars, thieves, tricksters, hustlers, and merchants. He was considered to be very cunning and shifty. From his association with merchants, he came to be associated with commerce and trade in general.
The planet Mercury was named after the swift messenger of the gods because of the speed of its orbit around the sun. It is the fastest of all the planets. Mercury rules over the astrological signs Gemini and Virgo. Mercury also rules Wednesday. Since English is a Germanic language, in English “Mercury’s day” was replaced with “Woden’s Day” (which later became "Wednesday"), after a Germanic god, Woden or Odin, who was similar to Mercury. In Romance languages such as Spanish, which were derived directly from Latin (the language of the Romans) the name of Mercury is retained in the word for “Wednesday”. In Spanish, this is “Miércoles”.
Ruler of the Dead
Whereas Mercury was the son of Zeus (Jupiter), Zeus also had two brothers: Hades and Poseidon. After Zeus defeated his father Cronus (Saturn), with the help of his two brothers, the three brothers divided up the rule of the cosmos by drawing lots. The earth and Mt. Olympus were divided between the three of them, but they each also received their own personal domains. Zeus got the Sky, Poseidon the seas, and Hades the underworld (which, in antiquity, was believed to exist literally beneath the ground). At first, Hades was strictly the name of the god who ruled the underworld. The underworld thus came to be known as the "house of Hades". Eventually, "house of Hades" came to be shortened to just "Hades", so that "Hades" now referred to both the god of the underworld and the underworld itself.
Although the modern mind negatively associates Hades with death and hell, he had a much more positive personality in ancient times. He was not evil. He was, in fact, associated in certain ways with both wealth and fertility/new life.
The association with wealth probably developed from the fact that the earth's natural wealth (gems and precious metals) are located underground, which was clearly the realm belonging to Hades. This association with wealth caused Hades to be called "Plouton", meaning "rich one". From "Plouton" comes the Roman (that is, Latin) name of "Pluto", a Roman god who eventually came to be associated with the Greek god Hades. Hades was also identified with the Roman god Dis Pater, also a god of riches, fertile ground, and the underworld. Dis Pater means "rich father" in Latin, "Dis" being an abbreviation of the Roman word for "wealthy": "dives". In the Christian parable of Lazarus and the rich man, it is interesting to note that the "name" sometimes given to the rich man, Dives, is simply the Latin word for "rich man". It is also interesting to note that this is the only parable in which the word "Hades" appears (and even features prominently).
Hades/Pluto is also associated strongly with the earth's fertility, which was a major concern to the ancients, whose society/economy was much more caught up in agriculture than our industrialized society. Hades' sister was Demeter, a fertility goddess of grain and the harvest. Hades' lover and co-ruler over the underworld was Persephone, a fertility goddess over vegetation. Her Roman name was Proserpina. Hades kidnapped Persephone from her mother, Demeter. Demeter protested by cursing the land and causing a famine. Zeus finally worked a compromise between Hades and Demeter: Persephone would stay with her mother for two-thirds of the year, and with her husband for one-third of the year. It is during the third of the year that Persephone (Proserpina) dwells underground with Hades (Pluto) that the effects of winter bring fertility and growth to a halt on the earth.
So to the ancient Greeks, death and birth were constantly cycling, even as the cycling of the seasons brought new birth (growth of plants) and death (death of plants). This belief is evident in Greek philosophy as well as mythology. Plato, for example, describes popular beliefs--although it is uncertain whether he himself adhered to these beliefs--in the transmigration of souls from one birth to the next, with death as an intermediate state. And the Greeks were far from being the only culture which thought this way about life and death.
The planet Pluto is named after the god of the underworld because, being the farthest planet from the sun, Pluto is dark and very cold. Pluto is associated with the zodiac sign Scorpio.
God of the Sea
The other brother of Zeus and Hades was Poseidon, god of the sea. His Latin (Roman) name was Neptune. Poseidon was also called Earth-Shaker, because he was the god of earthquakes. He carried a three-pronged fishing spear called a trident, and was also associated with horses. He traveled in a chariot drawn by a hippocampus, which was a sea-horse (From the Greek "hippos", meaning "horse", and "kampos", meaning "monster"). Incidentally, there is a structure in the human brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with the formation of new memories. It gets its name from its sea-horse shape.
The planet Neptune is named after the god of the seas because of its deep blue color. However, this name was given in modern times, not during the classical age, because Neptune (along with Pluto and Uranus) is not visible to the naked eye, and was thus unknown to the ancients. The zodiac sign associated with Neptune is Pisces, which makes perfect sense, since Pisces is the sign of the fish.
- Read about the other planets and the gods that they were named after here.