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Roman and Greek Mythology: Names, Gods, Planets, and Astrology
Roman & Greek Mythology Names: Gods, Planets
This page will give the Roman and Greek mythology names of gods after whom planets were named, and will explain how those planets came to be named after them. It will also give pictures of these gods, and tell their stories. 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.
In the Beginning Was Chaos
The ancients perceived that although most stars maintained a relatively fixed position, some of them seemed to move. Five such “wandering stars”--the word “planet” comes from a Greek word meaning “to wander or stray”--were obvious to the naked eye. These were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In fact, it is thought that both the seven-day week and the overall sacredness of the number seven within many mystical/religious traditions may have begun with the observation of seven heavenly bodies which moved: the five visible planets, the sun, and the moon. Each of these seven heavenly bodies is associated with a particular day of the week.
According to Greek mythology, the first god was Chaos. While the word Chaos brings certain images of mayhem and disorderliness to the English-speaking mind, the Greek god Chaos was just a big, empty, black, Nothing. Chaos was Nothingness, the Void, or empty space. After Chaos came the goddess Earth, who was known to the Greeks as Ge (or Gaia), and to the Romans as Terra. Earth appeared out of nothing according to Greek mythology: "Chaos was first of all, but next appeared broad-bosomed Earth" (Hesiod, Theogony). To the ancients, of course, earth was not perceived as a planet, as it was not perceived to “wander” or move at all.
The Virgin Birth of Heaven
Ge (Earth) was a virgin when she gave birth to her firstborn son, Ouranos, which means “Sky” in Greek. “Ouranos” is the Greek word which, in English translations of the Christian New Testament, is translated as “heaven”. Although the Roman name for the god Sky was Caelus, the Latin spelling of the Greek name Ouranos was “Uranus”. From this, we get the name of a modern planet. I call Uranus a “modern” planet because, being unseen by the naked eye, this planet was unknown to the ancients. The planet Uranus is so named because it is adjacent to Saturn. Saturn was the son of Uranus, as I will explain next. In astrology, Uranus is associated in modern times (though not originally) with the zodiac sign Aquarius. Since Uranus is not one of the seven moving heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye, it is not associated with any of the seven days of the week.
At this point, it should be noted that although, in this article, I’ll treat the Greek gods and their Roman counterparts as identical, these gods had differing mythologies in the Greek and Latin traditions, respectively. These differing mythologies were eventually blended in many ways, as the Roman empire attempted to blend Hellenistic (Greek) culture with their own rule, but in other ways they remained distinct.
Also, I will use the word “Latin” and the word “Roman” interchangeably, as Latin was the language of the ancient Romans.
The Golden Age of Mankind
Although Ge gave birth to Ouranos via virgin birth, she gave birth to Kronos (Latin: Saturn) the traditional way: by copulating with her son Ouranos. Kronos was the last of the original Titans (children of Ge and her son, Ouranos), and should not be confused with Chronos (Time). When Ouranos angered Ge by stuffing some of her children back inside her, her son Kronos--Saturn--helped her by castrating his father, Ouranos, with a sickle. By this act, Kronos effectively became the supreme god for a long season. During his rule, mankind was a “golden race”, which, like gods, “lived with happy hearts . . . untouched by work or sorrow. Vile old age never appeared . . . At peace, they lived with every want supplied” (Hesiod, Works and Days). Eventually, Kronos/Saturn was associated with harvest, agriculture, and a Golden Age for mankind. Considering Saturn's association with a Golden Age, I think it is fitting that Saturn was the original ruling planet of the sign Aquarius, since the so-called "Age of Aquarius" is, in the collective psyche, now associated with a sort of New Age. The association with agriculture leads to an ironic depiction of Saturn/Kronos as carrying a sickle (his tool for castrating his father) for harvesting.
Saturday is ruled by Saturn, for which the day got its name. It is fitting then, that Saturday was the traditional Jewish day of rest, since it was during the rule of Saturn that mankind was said to have lived in perpetual rest.
A Story of Beauty
While our modern sentiments may find it disturbing that Saturn was born of an incestuous relationship between Ge and her son, Ouranos, we may find the origin of our next god even more disturbing. After Saturn/Kronos castrated his father, his father’s genitals fell into the sea, where “white foam surrounded the immortal flesh” (Hesiod, Theogony). This white foam grew into a beautiful girl: Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. In fact, Hesiod links the very name “Aphrodite” to this disturbing origin, saying that the name came from the word “aphros”, the Greek word for “foam/froth”. This is probably a false etymology for the name, but it certainly is memorable.
The Roman name for Aphrodite is Venus. The planet Venus is named after the goddess of beauty because, besides the moon, it is the brightest thing in the night sky, and is indeed beautiful. In astrology, the planet Venus rules Libra and Taurus. Venus also rules Friday, which is why, in Spanish, Friday is “Viernes”.
All's Fair in Love and War
Aphrodite’s lover, Ares (a son of Zeus), was the Greek god of war, masculinity, and courage. His Roman name was Mars. Symbolically, this partnered the ideals of love/beauty with war/destruction. The Romans saw war as the mechanism for preserving peace and order, the “Pax Romana”. Thus, Mars was one of the most important gods for the Romans. The Greeks didn’t give Ares/Mars the same glorification, and sometimes showed a bit of disdain towards him. I would say that the connection between love and war also expresses a truth present in other spiritual traditions: destruction is a form of creation. Destruction clears the old out of the way and paves the way for something new and beautiful. Thus, the Hindu god Shiva, while embodying the principle of destruction, is not thereby a malevolent god, but a god whose nature intimates the possibility of new beginnings.
A more modern connection between love and war can be found in Sigmund Freud’s concept of the id, which embodies basic drives, such as sex and aggression. Perhaps love and war were linked in the myths of the ancients because this partnership mirrors a partnership of drives within our "reptilian" consciousness.
An even more modern connection is found in the title of the book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Mars/Ares representing aggression and valor (renown for one’s accomplishments), and Venus/Aphrodite representing beauty and love (fulfillment in interpersonal relationship).
The planet Mars is named after the god of war because it is reddish in color, reminiscent of bloodshed. Not surprisingly, Mars (that is, Ares) rules the astrological sign Aries. He co-rules Scorpio. He also rules Tuesday (literally: Tiw’s Day, Tiw being a Germanic god of war) and the month of March. The term “martial”, as in “martial arts”, is derived from his name.
The Father of Gods and of Men
Let’s return to our story of Kronos (Saturn), who castrated his father, Ouranos/Uranus (Sky). Because of this violent act, his parents prophesied that Kronos would some day be overthrown by a son of his own. To prevent this from happening, Kronos began eating his kids once they were born. He fathered several children with his wife, Rhea (Roman name: Ops), including Hades, Poseidon, and Hera. He ate them all immediately. But Rhea, who didn’t much like having her children eaten by her husband, after giving birth to Zeus, devised a trick to prevent Kronos from eating Zeus. She wrapped a big rock in baby clothes, and apparently, Kronos couldn’t tell the difference. He ate the rock. Rhea whisked Zeus away to safety, hiding him until he was grown. When he was grown, Zeus served his father a potion which caused him to vomit up the children he had swallowed (Zeus’ siblings). Then Zeus and his siblings waged a cataclysmic war against Kronos and his siblings (the Titans), eventually defeating them and imprisoning them deep in the gloomy underworld, called Tartarus. With the Titans out of the way, Zeus was free to rule as king over all, both gods and men. Settling on Mt. Olympus with his siblings and children (the so-called “Olympian gods”), Zeus became all-powerful and all-knowing; no one could prevent his will.
The Roman name for Zeus is Jupiter. The planet Jupiter is named after the king of the gods because it is the largest planet. Jupiter also rules over Thursday. English, being a Germanic language, renamed Jupiter’s day “Thor’s Day”, after a Germanic (Norse) god who bore many similarities to Jupiter. In Romance languages, which were derived directly from Latin, the name of Jupiter is retained. In Spanish, for example, Thursday is “Jueves”, after an alternate form of the name Jupiter: Jovis.
Zeus/Jupiter was known by many different epithets. He was called Father of Gods and Men; even the gods who weren’t his literal children called him father. He was called the Thunderer, as he was the one who held the thunder and the lightning-bolt. He was called The All-Wise, or Counselor, as he knew all, and was the source of wisdom and counsel for gods and men alike. These are just a few of his names.
Jupiter used to rule over the astrological sign, Pisces, but now rules the sign Sagittarius. Since I myself am a Sagittarius, the planet ruling my sign is associated with the All-Powerful, All-Wise King and Father of Gods and Men. How cool does that make me?
When I set out to write this article (Greek Mythology Names: Gods, Planets, Astrology), I had no idea that I would have so much to write on the subject of gods and planets. To prevent this page from dragging on so long as to become monotonous, I will go through the rest of the planets in a second article, which may be read by clicking here.