Mars - Making Contact

In celebration of BBC Radio 4’s Mars Week we’re looking at the history of the red planet with Rod Pyle’s book Mars: Making Contact. Today we’re collecting together some of the ancient world names that Mars has been known by. We’ll let Rod describe the majesty, wonder and terror the fourth planet from the sun held for our ancestors:

“At the best of times, Mars can be a disturbing sight, depending on your interpretation. Most profound is its colour: depending on the atmospheric conditions, the planet can appear to be an almost blood-like red and, to a lesser extent, fiery in nature. Blood played such a visceral part in ancient societies (admittedly, people saw a lot more of it in day-to-day life than we do today), and life was sufficiently fleeting, that the vision of a drop of bright red in the sky would have been unnerving to many people looking up into the night sky in wonder.

Upon longer observation, over the course of a few months, Mars did something odd once every two years. Ceasing its normal progression across the sky, which changes the planet’s position relative to the stars slightly night after night, Mars would suddenly reverse direction for a time, and then resume its normal path. This was puzzling. Today we know that this phenomenon is due merely to the arrangement of the orbit of the Earth inside the orbit of Mars. Every two years, the Earth catches up with, and then overtakes, Mars’ longer, slower orbit. However, to the ancient observer, this must have been a curious, if not worrisome, change in the planet’s behaviour. For this reason, Mars was an outsider among the other planets.”

Rod has pulled together several ancient names and stories given to Mars by different cultures from around the world (many and most of which involve carnage). Have a read below!

India - Mangal

Ancient East Indian myths surrounding Mars treated the planet as a god and named it Mangal, Mangala, Angaraka, or Bhauma. This god was considered to be “auspicious, like burning coal, and the fair one.” The deity was organised and efficient, but also argumentative and combative, if not downright warlike.

Mesopotamia - Nergal

Ancient Mesopotamia equated Mars with the god Nergal, representative of war and pestilence. Neural is presented as a ferocious lion or a large bird, or sometimes a combination of both. Over time, Nergal evolved into the overseer of the dead, who existed in the underworld.

Egypt - Horus the Red

In ancient Egypt, Mars was associated with the god Horus, generally considered the rebirth of Osiris (there are a number of versions of this myth), and also known as Horus the Red or Har Deshur. Early in the Egyptian pantheon, Horus went through a number of incarnations, alternately representing the harvest, the sky, war, and hunting. His head was that of a bird, as often seen in hieroglyphs. In another incarnation, Mars was the ‘good warrior’ protecting the common man as the god Anhui, who began life as a war god.

Greece - Ares 

The Ancient Greeks’ god for Mars was named Ares. He represented the physical brutality of war, and was often viewed with contempt and even revulsion. Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, considered Ares to be the god who was the most hateful and repellent of his charges. Ares was regarded as hotheaded, impulsive, and dishonest, and generally occupied a necessary but disdained place in Greek culture. One account referred to Ares as ‘overwhelming, insatiable in battle, destructive, and man-slaughtering.’ In contrast, Athena, his sister, represented a steady military hand, firm leadership, and superior strategic ability. 

Rome - Mars

The ancient Romans appropriated the general mythic framework of Greece, renaming the gods that they adopted in the process. Ares became Mars, and was elevated from a figure embodying necessary evil to someone to be admired and emulated. The very traits that had replied the Greeks seemed to appeal to Rome, which found Mars’ martial ferocity more aligned to their own bloody process of continuing conquest.

Mars: Making Contact by Rod Pyle is available now.