The author won an award for his performance in a nationwide intercollegiate ancient Greek translation contest.
Roman & Greek Mythology: Names, Gods, Planets
This page will give the names of gods from Roman and Greek mythology 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 will 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, there is a 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 visible 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 that moved. These were the five visible planets listed above, 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, the goddess Earth appeared. She was known to the Greeks as Ge (or Gaia), and to the Romans as Terra. Note that the name "George," meaning "farmer," comes from the Greek "Ge" (earth) and "ergos" (to work), literally meaning "one who works the earth." On the other hand, the Latin (Roman) word "Terra" (earth) is the source of words like "extraterrestrial."
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, the earth was not perceived as a planet, as it was not perceived to “wander” or move at all.
To Clarify Greek vs. Roman Mythology
In this article, I’ll speak of the Greek gods and their Roman "counterparts" as if they were identical. However, these gods had differing mythologies in the Greek and Latin traditions. These differing mythologies were eventually blended in many ways as Rome attempted to assimilate much of Hellenistic (Greek) culture into its own empire. In other ways, however, they remained distinct.
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.
The Golden Age of Mankind
Although Ge gave birth to Ouranos via virgin birth, she gave birth to Kronos (Latin name: Saturn) the traditional way: by copulating with her son Ouranos. Kronos was the last of the original Titans (children of Ge and Ouranos) and should not be confused with Chronos (Time).
When Ouranos angered Ge by stuffing some of her children back inside her, Kronos 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 the 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 golden New Age. The association of Kronos 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, from 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. It is indeed beautiful. In astrology, the planet Venus rules Libra and Taurus. Venus also rules Friday, which is why, in Spanish, Friday is “Viernes.” Spanish is a Romance language, which isn't as romantic as it sounds. It simply means that Spanish is one of several languages derived from Latin, the language of Rome.
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 romantic partnership paired the ideals of love/beauty with those of 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.
The connection between love and war also expresses a truth present in other spiritual traditions: destruction is a form of creation. Destruction clears away the old, paving the way for something new and beautiful. Thus, the Hindu god Shiva, while embodying the principle of destruction, is not thereby a malevolent god. Shiva's destructive nature intimates the possibility of new beginnings.
Similarly, many of the most important goddesses from mythology found all over the world were said to rule both war and love/fertility/sexuality. Just a few such goddesses include the Greek Astarte, the Norse Freyja, and the Mesopotamian Inanna/Ishtar.
A more modern connection between love and war can be found in Sigmund Freud’s concept of the id, which embodies basic drives, especially sex and aggression. Freud also came to view humans as having two primary drives motivating their behavior. One drive is towards life/sex/reproduction, and the other drive is towards death/destruction. 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. Here, Mars/Ares represents aggression and valor (renown for one’s accomplishments), and Venus/Aphrodite represents beauty and love (fulfillment in interpersonal relationships).
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 the month of March. The name of that month is derived from the name "Mars." The term “martial,” as in “martial arts,” is also derived from his name.
The day of the week ruled by Mars/Ares is Tuesday. The word "Tuesday" literally means "Tiw’s Day". Tiw was a Germanic god of war, similar to Mars/Ares. We'll see that in English, the names of Greek and Roman gods are often replaced by the names of Germanic gods with traits similar to those of the gods they replace. The reason for this is that English is a Germanic language. Romance languages, on the other hand, tend to retain the names of the Latin (Roman) gods, since the Romance languages come directly from Latin. These languages include Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese.
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 someday 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.
Rhea, however, didn’t much like having her children eaten by her husband. So, after giving birth to Zeus, she 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. They eventually defeated the Titans and imprisoned them deep in the gloomy underworld called Tartarus. Interestingly, the Christian Bible seems to refer to this myth in 2 Peter 2:4, even using the word "Tartarus."
With the Titans out of the way, Zeus was free to rule as king over all, both gods and men. He settled with his siblings and children on Mt. Olympus, which is why they all came to be known as the "Olympian gods." Zeus became all-powerful and all-knowing; no one could thwart 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. Once again, English, being a Germanic language, was renamed Jupiter’s day “Thor’s Day.” Thor was a Germanic (Norse) god who bore many similarities to Jupiter. However, in Romance languages, the Latin name "Jupiter" is retained since those languages come from Latin. In Spanish, for example, Thursday is “Jueves,” based on an alternate Latin form of the name Jupiter: Jovis/Jove.
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?
The Prince of Liars
Hermes, a son of Zeus, was the messenger of the gods (so was Iris, the Rainbow). Since Hermes traveled a lot, he was associated with traveling and crossing over borders, both mundane and divine. Hermes' ability to cross borders is what enabled him to deliver messages from the gods in the divine realm to humans in the mortal sphere. It is also what enabled him 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 often associated with magic. 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. The word "Wednesday" came about because, in English, “Mercury’s day” was replaced with “Woden’s Day,” which later became "Wednesday." Woden (or Wotan), also known as Odin, was a Germanic god who was very similar to Mercury. In languages derived from Latin, the name "Mercury" is retained. So, the Spanish word for “Wednesday” is “Miércoles.”
Ruler of the Dead
Whereas Mercury was the son of Zeus (Jupiter), Zeus also had two brothers: Hades and Poseidon. After Zeus and his two brothers defeated their father, Kronos/Saturn, the three brothers divided up the rule of the cosmos by drawing lots. The earth and Mt. Olympus were divided equally 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.
The underworld, 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 refers 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) is located underground, which was clearly the realm belonging to Hades. This association with wealth caused Hades to be called "Plouton," meaning "rich one." That word is also the root of the English word, "plutocracy," meaning "rule by the wealthy." From "Plouton" comes the Roman (Latin) name, "Pluto." Pluto was the 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 "dives," meaning "wealthy." 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. Plants appear to spring up from under the earth. Fertility, of course, was a major concern for the ancients, whose society/economy was much more agricultural 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 Demeter's daughter, Persephone. Persephone was the fertility goddess of vegetation.
Hades had, in fact, kidnapped Persephone from Demeter. Demeter protested by cursing the land and causing a famine. Zeus finally worked out 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 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, described popular beliefs—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. The Greeks were far from being the only culture that 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, the 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 he was also associated with horses. He traveled in a chariot drawn by a hippocampus, more commonly known in English as 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. 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.