Monday, February 11, 2013

Observing the planet Mercury

Here's a link to an excellent video with Tony Flanders of Skyweek, discussing the night sky for this week, and featuring the planets Mercury and Mars.  The embedded video above is a shorter version, three minutes in length -- the link takes you to a longer, five-minute version with additional fascinating detail on the planet Mercury.

As Mr. Flanders explains in the video, this is an excellent week to observe Mercury in the west after sunset, trailing behind the sun and becoming visible after the sun sinks below the western horizon and the sky begins to darken.  He explains why Mercury is the most difficult of the visible planets to observe, and why this week is such a terrific opportunity to spot the speedy "Messenger of the Gods."  Mercury reaches its peak from Friday through Sunday this week.

As the video shows, Mercury is actually above Mars this week, and much brighter than Mars (who progressively sinks further below the horizon before the sun-glow fades, until he is no longer visible).

As explained in this and other previous posts, most people are taught that the planets were named after the mythological gods, but as Hertha von Dechend and Giorgio de Santillana argued in Hamlet's Mill, there is plenty of evidence which argues that the myths actually encode ancient understanding of the planets -- that the myths encode scientific knowledge of our solar system and that rather than the planets being named after the gods, it is the stories that take their inspiration from the motions of the planets.

If so, then we should be able to find myths about Mars and Mercury (or, as the Greeks named them, Ares and Hermes) which correspond to the scenes that we see in the heavens during weeks such as this one.  This process was demonstrated for myths about Mercury and Venus (Hermes and Aphrodite) and Jupiter and Venus (Zeus and Aphrodite) in a post from a year ago entitled "Dangerous Liaisons: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury."

Are there any myths which involve a brighter Mercury and a fainter Mars, and -- what is more -- Mercury in something of a "superior" position to Mars?  Indeed, Homer recounts just such an episode in the 5th book of the Iliad.  There, we learn that Dione the goddess mother of Aphrodite attempts to comfort Aphrodite when she is wounded by the Greek warrior Diomedes as she attempts to bear away her son Aeneas from the heavy fighting that is not going his way.  Dione tells Aphrodite to be brave in bearing a wound from a mortal, for even the god of war, Ares, had to endure such discomfort, saying:
. . . Patience, oh my child. 
Bear up now, despite your heartsick grief.
How many gods who hold the halls of Olympus 
have had to endure such wounds from mortal men, 
whenever we try to cause each other pain . . .
Ares had to endure it, when giant Ephialtes and Otus,
sons of Aloeus, bound him in chains he could not burst,
trussed him up in a brazen cauldron, thirteen months.
And despite the god's undying lust for battle
Ares might have wasted away there on the spot
if the monsters' stepmother, beautiful Eriboea
had not sent for Hermes, and out of the cauldron
Hermes stole him away -- the War-god breathing his last,
all but broken down by the ruthless iron chains.  432-445, translation by the superlative Robert Fagles.
The same passage is rendered by Richard Lattimore (1906 - 1984) as saying (in prose):
Ares had to endure hard pain when strong Ephialtes and Otos, sons of Aloeus, chained him in bonds that were too strong for him, and three months and ten he lay chained in the brazen cauldron; had not Eeriboia, their stepmother, the surpassingly lovely, brought word to Hermes, who stole Ares away out of it, as he was growing faint and the hard bondage was breaking him.  (translation here).
The two translations together help us to see how this mythological event might well describe just such a heavenly spectacle as that put on by the planets Mars and Mercury this week.  Mars is faint, and sinking down (about to "breath his last," to paraphrase the Fagles translation).  Mercury, above him, appears as a bright and heroic rescuer.

What do we make of the reference to "thirteen months"?  It seems that the Aloeidae (the giant sons of Aloeus, whose names were Ephialtes and Otos) had stuffed Mars into a brass jar and held him there for thirteen months before he was rescued.

My suggested celestial interpretation from this detail in the Homeric passage comes from the fact that the brightness of Mars to an observer on our planet varies as the two planets orbit the sun.  This excellent webpage from Nick Anthony Fiorenza explains that "Mars grows larger and brighter every time a Mars opposition occurs, about every 26 months (780 Earth days)."  In other words, Mars has a cycle which causes it to become brighter and fainter, and the period between the brightest manifestations of Mars is about 26 months.  This may explain why the god is described as being "imprisoned in a brazen cauldron" for a period of half that time -- because for half of his cycle he is growing fainter and half of the cycle he is growing brighter.

If this interpretation is correct, then it adds further support to the thesis of Hamlet's Mill.

In any event, this is an excellent time to observe the gorgeous night sky, and especially the important planet Mercury, the swift-as-thought messenger of the gods.