How constellation, planet names came to be


This time of year, the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer, rises in the east high enough to see by 9:30 p.m. or so. In that same direction, bright Mars is rising. To the SSW are bright Jupiter and dimmer Saturn to its left.

Both the planets and the Water Bearer have distinctly Judeo-Christian connections. However, their Christian associations are ones that some Christians might not enjoy hearing about.

The current name of the constellation comes to us from the Romans. The Latin “aquarius” is derived from “aqua,” a term for water we still occasionally use today. The “ius” indicates the male gender, so “water man” is the most literal translation.

From those times, a very distinct part of the constellation — a tight collection of four stars in a “Y” shape — has been called the Water Jar. Aquarius carries the jar on his shoulder and seems to be emptying it on the ground below. Hence, Aquarius becomes the Water Bearer.

The ancient Greco-Roman roots of both the planets and the constellations have bothered Christians over the centuries since the founding of the religion. As a result, several attempts have been made to “Christianize” the night sky and the names of the planets and constellations found there.

There is nothing new or unique in that attempt. The Greeks adapted and absorbed older astronomical traditions at will. When the Romans rose to Mediterranean dominance, they too adapted and changed the Greek names and traditions.

You’ll find no better example than the names of the planets and the gods they represented. Zeus became Jupiter. Ares became Mars. Aphrodite became Venus.

Aquarius is an interesting case in point. The name and associated stars of the constellation may have been different from culture to culture, but its general area of the sky is almost universally connected with water.

Early civilizations such as the Syrians, Turks, Hebrews, and Persians identified the constellation as a water jar or bucket. The Egyptians associated the area of the sky with Khum, who provided life-giving water to the world.

To the still-ancient Greek civilization that followed the Egyptians, Aquarius had a dual association. Both of them were connected with water. Most often, the Greeks connected the constellation with Ganymede, the cup bearer of the gods.

But he also represented the Greek equivalent to the Biblical Noah. In that regard, Aquarius was called Deucalion. He was the son of Prometheus, a Titan who felt a special love for humans. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, which infuriated Zeus, the king of the gods.

Consequently, from the very beginning, Zeus never liked humanity much. Their growing disrespect for the gods drove his dislike to anger and hatred.

As a result, he decided to send a flood to wipe out humanity. Is the story beginning to sound familiar?

One fundamental difference applies. Unlike the Biblical story, Zeus did not intend to recreate humanity. He wanted to rid himself entirely of the despicable creatures.

Prometheus got wind of Zeus’ plan and told Deucalion to build an ark. Well, actually, it was more like a sea chest, just large enough to fit Deucalion and his wife.

Zeus squeezed the water from the clouds. The rains fell in torrents for nine days and nights (and not 40) until he had covered the world with a great flood. Only the innocent fish escaped destruction. All the animals died. In modern times, we would define their death as “collateral damage,” I suppose.

When the rains ceased, Deucalion and his wife drifted until they landed on Mount Parnassus, the only place above water.

Zeus saw that Deucalion and his wife were just and loving people and agreed to help them repopulate the Earth.

To do so, he told them to throw the bones of their mother over their shoulders.

This riddle was a test of their piety. Only righteous people could realize that the Earth was their mother. So they picked up stones from the ground and threw them over their shoulders. Humans sprang up where the stones fell. Only people made from stone could survive the task of rebuilding the human race.

Then, from Mother Earth’s soil burst forth plants and animals.

When Deucalion died, the gods rewarded him by turning him into stars. He became the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer. Deucalion pours water from his jar as a reminder to respect the gods or the floods might come again.

Such stories unsettled devout Christians. The ancient myths seemed to put into serious question the uniqueness and veracity of the unquestionable word of God found in the Bible.

Thus, from the early days of Christianity, some Christians attempted to erase the night sky’s pagan associations. During the 8th century CE, the English theologian the Venerable Bede suggested that the old gods — and by extension, their associated planets — be replaced with saints. But old traditions die hard. The planets retained their Roman names.

The last painstaking attempt to rename astronomical objects occurred in the 17th century. The movement began with the publication in 1625 by Julius Schillerius of “Coelum Stellatum Christianum.” Schillerius’s co-conspirator in the work was Jacobus Bartschius, who produced celestial globes with Christian constellation names.

If their endeavor had succeeded, we would be looking at a radically different set of planetary names. Mars, the god of war, would have become Joshua, which makes a bit of sense since Joshua was a warrior king. The rest seem arbitrary at best. Mercury becomes Elias. Jupiter becomes Moses, and Saturn becomes Adam.

More weirdly, Bartschius and Schillerius decided to replace Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, with the rather austere ascetic, St. John the Baptist. Go out and look at Venus, which sits high in the eastern sky during morning twilight right now. The planet is dazzlingly beautiful. Does it look to you like a guy wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist” who eats “locusts and wild honey”?

The 12 zodiacal constellations would have been replaced by the twelve apostles. Aquarius would have become St. Jude, for example.

The dominant constellations of summer would have changed. The familiar Aquila, the Eagle, would have become St. Katherine. Lyra, the Lyre, would have become The Savior’s Manger.

The new name of Cygnus, the Swan, is the only remnant left of their suggestions. Schillerius and Bartschius wanted to rename the constellation The Cross of Calvary. Cygnus is still sometimes called the Northern Cross to this very day.

Unfortunately, Schillerius and Bartschius quarreled a bit about the names given to particular constellations.

To add to the confusion, Wilhelm Schickard, a German professor of Hebrew and astronomy, introduced an entirely different set of Christian names at about the same time.

Intellectual chaos abounded. As a result, the last serious attempt to Christianize the sky failed miserably because a trio of scholars couldn’t come to a consensus.

Occasionally, an intrepid Christian theologian tried to recast the old constellations in Christian terms. In his early 20th-century book “Gospel in the Stars,” Joseph Seiss attempts to see the constellations as manifestations of Christian prophecy. According to Seiss, Aquarius and his water jar represent John 7:37: “ … Jesus stood and cried, saying, if any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.”

Further attempts to modify the names are pretty much doomed to failure. In 1926, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) carved the names of the constellations in stone. They divided the sky into 88 constellational divisions and kept the old names. Try and mess with those constellation names, and you’ll have the full force of astronomical science ranged against you. (I’m kidding, of course. Or at least I think I am.)

Because of the recent discovery of more dwarf planets, the IAU’s Executive Committee Working Group on Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites has taken on added significance. (I am not making up the name of the committee. To astronomers, precision is far more important than brevity.)

As astronomers discover new planets, they are given the names of gods — but with a difference. Only one was named after a Greco-Roman god. She is Eris, also called Discordia, the goddess of strife. Given the controversy at the time over the reclassification of planets, it was a clever choice indeed.

Eris will most likely be the last planet named after a Greco-Roman god. Astronomers in the IAU have begun to choose the names of gods from non-western cultural heritages. (The Venerable Bede is, I am certain, rolling over in his grave.)

Witness Gonggong, the Chinese water god with the head of a human and the tail of a serpent. Gonggong the god is said to bring catastrophe to the world.

Gonggong the planet is unlikely to do so. It’s certainly large enough at 760 miles in diameter, about the size of Pluto’s moon Charon. But at eight billion or so miles away right now, it poses little threat.

Witness the dwarf planet Makemake, fertility god from the Rapa Nui mythology of Easter Island. Witness fertility goddess Haumea from the Hawaiian tradition.

Witness Sedna, the Mother of the Sea from Inuit mythology. Witness the many-voweled Quaoar, the creation deity of the Native American Tongva people. She is said to have danced the world into creation.

And the list goes on. Astronomers expect to discover at least 1,500 new dwarf planets in the coming decades. Let’s hope we don’t run out of old gods to name them.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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