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50 Shades of Mars!

[Image © Warner Bros.]

Mars has been in the news quite a bit lately... the discoveries of the Curiosity rover, and NASA's talk of a crewed mission enabled by the Space Launch System and Orion capsule have brought the God of War to the fore where he belongs. Given this, I thought a bit of a historical perspective might be due.

As seen by people of pre-scientific times, Mars was traditionally represented as the god of war: a thing of fury, blood and death. Entertaining, but not the fellow you want at your Saturday afternoon BBQ. So I thought I'd take a moment here to detail some slightly alternative representations of Mars through the ages. Ancient East Indian myths surrounding Mars, or Mangal/Angaraka as they referred to him (Mars seemed to be rewritten often by ancient cultures) referred to the planet/god as "auspicious, like burning coal and the fair one." While warlike, Mars was also organized, energetic, and got things done. This Mars would have made as good a modern office manager in the Bangalore tech-corridor as a godly general in combat. He was also, however, argumentative and temperamental, so perhaps not. In either case, he was said to provide great "administrative capability." Hmmm. The Mesopotamians equated Mars with the god Nergal, representative of the underworld and all that this implies. While not as overtly warlike, to invoke Nergal did not portend a good day. That said, the Babylonians split the association with Nergal between Mars and the sun. In any case, Nergal was in effect the governor of the dead who lived below ground, and as such, did not have so much time for creating mayhem above. In Egypt, Mars was associated with the god Horus, among others. Saturn and Jupiter were also associated with Horus. When cavorting with Mars, the god became Horus the Red or Har Deshur. His head was that of a bird (either a noble falcon or somewhat comedic flamingo, depending on the source you believe), often seen in hieroglyphs. In another incarnation, Mars was the "good warrior," protecting the common man as the god Anhur (who began life as a war god- things tend to go full cycle in these tales). While the Romans rocked-out to Mars as they sacked and pillage most of Europe, the Greeks, from whom they took most astrological inspiration, were not so fond of the Red Planet. While anointing him as a god, they often viewed him with some contempt, even revulsion. To them, Mars was more randomly destructive and destabilizing, as opposed to the later Romans who found his martial ferocity more appealing to their own bloody and disturbing sense of progress-through-conquest. Think Saddam Hussein on speed. The Greek god Zeus even referred to Ares (Mars) as the god most hateful and repellent to him. He was regarded as hot-headed, impulsive and a liar, as opposed to Athena, his sister, who was a general's general. Score one for early femnisits. So it sucked to be Mars in Greece. As mentioned, the Romans were more welcoming of Mars' destructive tendencies, emulating them across much of a continent. Alternative representations, however, see Mars as a god of agriculture (something Ares and others would have doubtless be revolted by!). Later periods became more clinical, if not more objective. By the late middle ages (1500's), for instance, observers of the Red Planet had amassed a virtual catalog of Martian mischief. [The following is taken from a slim volume about Mars by the esteemed Willy Ley (1906-1969, part of the von Braun faction from Germany), which he wrote in 1966. The hardback version I have is priced at... 60 cents. Those were the days.] "Mars rules catastrophe and war, it is master of the daylight hours of darkness of Tuesday and the hours of darkness on Friday, its element is fire, its metal is iron, its gems jasper and hematite, and it rules the color red. Its qualities are warm and dry, it rules the color red, the liver, the blood vessels, the kidneys and gallbladder as well as the left ear. Being of choleric temper, it especially rules males between the ages of 42 and 57." What is of interest to this (late) middle aged writer of science histories (me) is that a) the unnamed "Middle Ages" author (as opposed to this middle-aged author) got a few things right within the ragged fantasy he spun. For instance, hematite has been found on Mars by both Curiosity and the Mars Exploration Rovers in copious quantities, part of the wave of proof that water once existed there in great volumes. How the heck did this now-turned-to-dust Middle Ages sooth-sayer know that? Coincidence, I am sure. The reference to iron is a bit more straightforward, as the ruddy aspect of Mars in the night sky certainly looks like a spot of rust. BIn any case, iron oxide has been found in those distant sands that cover the planet. Score. However, warm and dry it is not, and my gallbladder can malfunction quite well without the intervention of Mars, or Venus, or Peewee Herman for that matter, thank you very much.

Moving on. Later in the same tome (translated from Latin to German to English), came this bit of planetary poetry:

"Third planet am I, named Mars,

Fiercest and angriest of all the stars,

By Nature I am hot and dry,

Choleric my temper, though people sigh,

Of the twelve signs, not all are friendly

But Ares and Scorpio attend me,

While in their realms my fearful rays

Cause murders, death and fear all days.

My highest seat is Capricorn,

In Cancer of my might I am shorn.

Through all twelve Signs I abound

And in two years sweep clear around."

Ley, of course, recreated the rhyming in English from his native German. While lampooning the original writer, he was not such a terrible poet himself it would seem. Overall, the "poem" does not seem to contain much of historical interest, other than charting Mars' relationships with other members of the zodiac. Nonetheless, his evil, warlike reputation is confirmed once again. This is the more traditional representation of the Red Guy.

After this, by the time Galileo and others began turning telescopes to the sky, Mars became more of a "what" than a "who." The Age of Reason took away a bit of the fun, and drama, of man's relationship with Mars. That is, until people like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell began to intuit the idea of advanced life forms and massive canal-based engineering projects from swimming telescopic images.

But that's another story!

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