The great cosmic event of 2017 for North Americans was the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. If you somehow missed it, fear not, as the moon will cover the sun again over much of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada on April 8, 2024.
The unknown ancient Greek who first called the phenomenon an “eclipse,” which means “abandonment,” must have imagined the sun deserting Earth, as it withdrew its warmth and plunged the planet into darkness. Other early cultures conjured up images of dreadful monsters devouring the sun, only to regurgitate it back into the heavens again.
The ancients associated most celestial phenomena, in fact, with gods and the supernatural. The Romans named the planets they knew after some of their most powerful deities. The largest planet they called Jupiter, after their omnipotent sky god. The blood-red planet Mars was aptly named for their god of war. Saturn was named for Saturnus, lord of agriculture and green growth; Mercury for the swift messenger god, guide of souls. And Venus, shining goddess of love and (in some versions of the myth) Jupiter’s daughter, became namesake of that most luminous of planets.
As other planets were discovered centuries later, thanks to the invention of the telescope, the tradition of naming them for Roman gods was continued. Only our own bears a non-Latin name. Like “moon” and “sun,” “Earth” was in origin a Germanic word, called by our Anglo-Saxon forebears ertha or erde, “ground.” The Romans called the sun sol, as in SOLar and SOLstice, and the moon luna, which gives us not only LUNar but also LUNacy and LUNatic, for the sometimes crazed behavior we humans exhibit at night in the light of the moon. And they too called our planet “ground,” terra, the land we live upon, as in TERRain, TERRA firma, and extraTERRestrial. Like other Mediterranean societies, they viewed the all-nurturing Earth as feminine and revered Mater Terra, “Mother Earth,” as a potent divinity.
This Monday, Nov. 13 Jupiter and Venus will apparently collide. In his 1950 book Worlds in Collision, Immanuel Velikovsky published his instantly debunked theory that Venus had in prehistoric times erupted from Jupiter’s surface and hurtled perilously close to Earth before stabilizing in its own orbit around the sun. The 1951 sci-fi film When Worlds Collide, given classic status in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” terrified audiences with the prospect of a rogue star crashing into Earth. Ancient Babylonians told of the giant wandering planet Nibiru passing very near the Earth, and modern hoaxers have predicted its return as Planet X, in an apocalypse destroying our world’s inhabitants.
Thankfully there’ll be no such cataclysm anytime soon, as the upcoming approach of the two planets to each other will occur only from our earthbound perspective. Astronomers call the phenomenon a “conjunction” (from Latin coniungere/to join together) and the seeming proximity of two or more planets in the night sky is not that rare an occurrence.
But in this case Venus, the brightest planet in our solar system, and Jupiter, largest and second most brilliant, will appear in an exceptionally close conjunction within the constellation Romans called Virgo (“the Maiden”). Though 400 million miles apart, they will seem to be on a collision course, with Venus just 0.25 degrees to the left of Jupiter. Depending on your location and the weather conditions, the pair should be readily visible to the naked eye from around 5:30 a.m. until sunrise (go to space.com for further details). Binoculars or an amateur telescope will provide an even more spectacular view, but be sure to find a location with an unobstructed vista to the east/southeast, as the two orbs will appear only about 10 degrees above the horizon, below the crescent moon, before disappearing into the sunrise. And as with the eclipse, be certain to avert your eyes once Apollo, another of Jupiter’s numerous offspring, steers his blazing sun chariot upward into the sky!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.