The case of the wandering stars

Last month in Starwatch I told you about the zodiac band that runs through the night sky. Because the Earth and the planets all orbit the sun in nearly the same plane, all of our fellow planets are located within it.

Back in the day, folks didn’t know about any of this and saw the planets as wandering stars. In fact, they really didn’t know what stars were, period. Most cultures saw them as being of a divine or godly nature. They saw patterns or pictures in the stars we call constellations and observed them majestically slide from east to west night after night. Their predictable seasonal cycles through hundreds of years acted as clocks and calendars that helped them plan their lives. They were and still are infallibly reliable!

But then, as now, there were five stars that were mavericks or wild cards. Without a lot of rhyme or reason they showed up every night in slightly different positions among the fixed stars. They would also switch directions and get brighter and fainter. Some of them even sported variations in color. They would also disappear from the skies for weeks at a time. Many cultures, including First Nation and Native Americans, saw them as greater gods and their motions and behaviors were signs of pleasure or displeasure with the mere mortals on the ground. Human behavior was controlled by these wandering stars! Drastic actions including sacrifice took place, even human sacrifice in some cases!

Ancient Greeks referred to these independently minded wandering stars as “asteres planets” which is where we get the term planets. The Greeks, as well as the neighboring Romans, didn’t see these planets as gods themselves, but named them after major gods in their mythology out of respect for their deity. It never hurt to kiss up! The Roman names of the planets have carried on to our present day.

The planet Mercury is named after the messenger of the gods because of its speed among the stars, just as the god Mercury was considered the first speedy delivery service. It only takes Mercury 88 days to circle the sun, flying along at more than 100,000 mph! Earth plows along at just 67,000 mph.

Venus is named after the Roman goddess of beauty and love because of its great brilliance in the sky. Little did they know what a hellhole it is. Because of a thick poisonous atmosphere complete with acid rain, the runaway greenhouse leaves the surface temperature hot enough to melt lead! It’s not only not a beautiful place, it’s extremely hostile!

Mars is named after the Roman god of war because of its reddish tint. War meant bloodshed. Mars travels from its closest point to Earth to its farthest point from Earth in a two-year cycle. When Mars is far away it’s more of a pale gold in color, and when it’s closest to the Earth it turns bright red, symbolizing blood. Whenever Mars was bright red in the sky it was considered a warning sign of war and death. Mars was feared!

Because the planet Jupiter was so bright and stayed in one place among the stars for a lot longer than Venus, it was named in honor of the king of the Roman gods. They were right in naming Jupiter after their head god Jupiter, because it’s by far the largest planet in the solar system at 88,000 miles in diameter. The Romans didn’t know that at the time, of course.

The planet Saturn was named after the Roman god of agriculture for reasons that aren’t all that clear. However, Saturn was also considered the goddess of time because it takes so long for Saturn to make a complete circuit among the stars. Saturn takes more than 29 years to make that journey, the longest of all the planets.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at