The stories told by satellites’ names

There will have to be a new printing before long of Albedo to Zodiac, my astronomical glossary, so I’ve been working on additions and changes. The names of the planets’ satellites were scattered in the alphabetical order; I decided it would be better to gather them in one place, and then it struck me that this list of names reads almost like a story-book. Jupiter’s family of satellites tells stories of that god’s many supposed ventures among nymphs and princesses; the satellites of Saturn are the primeval generations of Giants and Titans who rebelled against the gods; those of Uranus are the cast of Shakespearean plays; those of Neptune are spirits of the sea, and those of Pluto reek of the gloomy underworld. The authorities who now control these names (the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature) try, not always consistently, to maintain such patterns. Here is a foretaste of these fragmentary stories, though I’ve had to delete the pronunciations of the names because I can’t as yet use phonetic symbols in this system.

I Phobos and II Deimos: The Greek war-god Ares (equivalent to Latin Mars) had sons named Phobos and Deimos, both of which mean “fear” (and which, in the more normal Latin transcription of Greek names, would be Phobus and Dimus).

JUPITER: named for persons in Greek mythology associated with Zeus (Jupiter).#

I Io. Zeus’s jealous wife Hera (Juno) turned the maiden Io into a cow and sent a gadfly to drive her wandering the world. The name looks as if it might mean “going,” but was a title of the Moon in the ancient city of Argos. Asteroid 85 also bears the name Io.
II Europa. The Phoenician princess Eurôpa or Eurôpê (apparently from eurys, “wide,” and ôps, “face”) was carried off across the sea by Zeus in the form of a bull, to Crete, where she became the mother of Minos; her brother Cadmus wandered the world in search of her, and founded Thebes. They were thus the Asian ancestors of at least some of the Europeans. Asteroid 52 also bears the name Europa.
III Ganymede: Ganymedes, beautiful son of king Tros of Troy, was carried up to heaven by Zeus in the form of an eagle to be his cupbearer and catamite (a word that is a Latin corruption of his name). Asteroid 1036 bears the same name in the German form Ganymed.
IV Callisto. When the goddess Artemis (Diana), the virgin huntress, saw that one of her companions, Callisto (“most beautiful,” from kalos, “beautiful”), was pregnant, having been seduced by Zeus, she turned her into a bear, so that Callisto would have been torn to pieces by the dogs, but Zeus raised her to the sky as the constellation Ursa Major. Asteroid 203 bears the same name in the form Kallisto.
V Amalthea (Greek form Amaltheia), a goat-nymph, was one of those who nursed the infant Zeus. Asteroid 113 also bears the name Amalthea.
VI Himalia. She must have been a goddess of the island of Rhodes, also of millers; in the story she is a nymph who by Zeus becomes ancestress of the Rhodians.
VII Elara, seduced by Zeus, was the mother of the giant Tityus.
VIII Pasiphae. Pasiphae (“shining for all”), wife of king Minos of Crete, fell in love with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature half man and half bull.
IX Sinope, one of the many human maidens whom Zeus loved, tricked him by answering his question “What gift will you have?” with “Virginity”; she founded the city of Sinope, still called Sinop, on the north coast of Turkey.
X Lysithea, an ocean nymph, seduced by Zeus.
XI Carme, seduced by Zeus, was the mother of Britomartis.
XII Ananke. Greek anankê means “necessity”; personified, she was one of the nymphs pursued by Zeus.
XIII Leda, bride of the king of Sparta, was seduced by Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan, and laid two eggs from which sprang two pairs of twins, Castor, Pollux, Clytaemnestra, and Helen. Asteroid 38 also bears the name Leda.
XIV Thebe. The twins Amphion and Zethus, becoming kings of Thebes, married Niobe and Thebe, after whom the city (Thêbai) became named; but, as in many legends, the lady was said by her descendants to have mated also with the god Zeus.
XV Adrastea: Adrasteia, nymph of the ash-tree, was one of those who nursed the infant Zeus.
XVI Metis. Metis (mêtis, “advice, wisdom, skill”) was a Titaness, one of the sisters of Zeus’s father Cronus (Saturn); in a famous and complicated myth, Zeus swallowed Metis, had a headache, and from his skull emerged the goddess Athena.
– and at least 36 others named, as of .

SATURN: names all (at first) drawn from those of the Giants and Titans, two races of beings that rebelled against the Olympian gods.
I Mimas. In Greek legend Mimas (from mimeisthai, “to mimic”) one of the rebel giants.
II Enceladus (“noisy,” from kelados, “noise”), a rebel giant; crushed flat by a rock, he became the island of Sicily (from beneath which issues the rumble of the volcano Etna).
III Tethys, (from têthê, “grandmother,” or tithenai, “to arrange”) was Titan of the sea and the planet Venus.
Dione (“divine queen”; for the di- part see Jupiter) was a Titan associated with the planet Mars. Asteroid 106 also bears the name Dione.
V Rhea. The Titaness Rhea was the sister and wife of Cronus (Saturn) and mother of Zeus and the other chief Greek gods. Asteroid 577 also bears the name Rhea.
VI Titan. The Titans were a generation of gigantic beings who lived before the Olympian gods; they symbolized principles such as the planets and the days of the week; from one pair of them, Cronus (Saturn) and Rhea, Zeus (Jupiter) and the other Olympians were descended. The name, which is of a class of beings, sits rather oddly among the list of individual Titans.
VII Hyperion (“goer on high,” from huper, “above,” and ienai, “to go”), a Titan who was in charge of the Sun.
VIII Iapetus (possibly something to do with iaptein, “to drive”; or the name Japheth, one of the three sons of Noah) was a Titan, father of Atlas, Prometheus, and Epimetheus.
IX Phoebe (phoibê, “pure, radiant”), Titaness in charge of the Moon; hence the later Moon-goddess Artemis (the Roman Diana) was sometimes called Phoebe, as her brother Apollo, associated with the Sun, was often called Phoebus Apollo.
X Janus, a Roman (not Greek) god, represented by a statue with a face on the back as well as the front of his head (sometimes even with four faces). He stood in doorways (januae) and ceremonial gateways (jani) and represented times of passage; hence Janus’s month januarius (January). His name may originally have been Dianus, male form of the Moon-goddess Diana.
XI Epimetheus (“learner-too-late,” from manthanein, “to learn”) was the brother of wise Prometheus, and married the foolish Pandora. Asteroid 1810 also bears the name Epimetheus.
XII Helene. Helen (Helenê, “torch”), the loveliest of women, daughter of Leda and twin sister of Clytaemnestra, Castor, and Pollux, was stolen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta, by Paris, son of the king of Troy, thus causing the Trojan War.
XIII Telesto or Telestho (the name must have to do with telein, “to complete, make perfect,” or teletê, “a making perfect, an initiation into mysteries”) was a sea nymph, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.
XIV Calypso (“hider,” from kaluptein, “to cover”) was the nymph who detained Odysseus for seven years on her island during his voyage home from the siege of Troy.
XV Atlas. Gigantic Atlas (“enduring” – for more on him and his name see the cover-picture note in Astronomical Calendar 1996) was leader of the Titans, and after their defeat he had to carry the sky on his shoulders.
XVI Prometheus (“learner-ahead,” from manthanein, “to learn”) was a Titan, brother of Atlas and Epimetheus; wise and compassionate, he stole fire for mankind, for which Zeus punished him by chaining him on Mount Caucasus with a vulture perpetually tearing his liver.
XVII Pandora (“all gifts,” from pas, “all,” and dôron, “gift”) was a silly woman created by Zeus to frustrate all the good gifts that Prometheus had given to mankind. Married to Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, she unstoppered a jar in which Prometheus had imprisoned all the Spites, such as Madness, Passion, Vice, Toil, Sickness, and Old Age.
XVIII Pan was a goat-god from the rustic region Arcadia; his name appears to mean “all” but was also explained as from paein, “to pasture,” and he was identified with the Italian rural god Faunus. He invented the pan-pipes; one of his habits was to give the loud shout that causes panic; and he is the only god to have died.
– and at least 35 others named, as of .

I Ariel, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is an airy spirit, assistant to the magician Prospero. A different name Ariel is Hebrew (“lion of god,” from aryeh, “lion”), a place-name mentioned in the Bible but now used as an Israeli male forename.
II Umbriel: in Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, Umbriel and Ariel are guardian spirits, and Belinda is owner of the stolen lock.
III Titania: the fairy queen in <I>A Midsummer Night’s Dream
. In Greek it would mean “female Titan,” and was sometimes applied as an epithet or title to various goddesses. Asteroid 593 also bears the name Titania.
IV Oberon: the king of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in medieval folklore; it is a version of a Norman-French name Auberon.
V Miranda: the daughter of Prospero in The Tempest. Shakespeare invented it as a personal name, but it would mean “worthy of wonder,” from Latin mirari, “to wonder at, admire”; there are several places in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America called Miranda.
VI Cordelia: heroines of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
VII Ophelia: tragic fiancée of Hamlet. Shakespeare borrowed the name from Jacopo Sannazzaro, an Italian writer of a century earlier, who may have based it on the Greek word ophelos, “help,” or “profit.”
VIII Bianca: Katharina’s sister in The Taming of the Shrew (also a courtesan in Othello). Bianc is “white” in Italian. Bianca is also the name of asteroid 218.
IX Cressida. Two women captured by the Greeks during the war against Troy, Chryseis (“golden”) and Briseis (“wine-presser”?), were conflated in medieval legend as Criseis, Cresseid, and various other forms; she figures in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid, and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
X Desdemona: the tragic wife in Shakespeare’s Othello. There is a suggestion that the name derived from Greek dys-daimôn, “ill-fated.”
XI Juliet: heroine of Romeo and Juliet. It would be from Italian Giulietta, diminutive of Giulia, from Latin Julia, from the old Roman family of the Julii.
XII Portia: the clever lawyer in The Merchant of Venice; also the wife of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Portia or Porcia was an old Roman name, of the family of the Porcii, apparently deriving from porcus, “pig.”
XIII Rosalind: the heroine of As You Like It. The name went back to Germanic elements hros, “horse,” and lind, “tender,” but was reinterpreted in the Middle Ages as if from Spanish rosa linda, “lovely rose.”
XIV Belinda: of uncertain origin though perhaps having to do with Latin bella and Spanish linda, both meaning “beautiful”; apparently first used in Vanbrugh’s play The Provok’d Wife (1697), then by Pope in The Rape of the Lock (1712).
XV Puck: a mischievous sprite in The Tempest, who was also called Hobgoblin or Robin Goodfellow. This word for a goblin was an old Germanic one, but not connected with the ice-hockey puck, which is related to poke.
XVI Caliban, the wild man of the island in The Tempest, enslaved by Prospero.
– and at least 11 others named (as of 2016).

I Triton. In Greek myth Triton (presumably connected with tritos, “third”) was a sea deity, son of Poseidon (Neptune).
II Nereid. In Greek myth the fifty Nereids were sea-nymphs, daughters of the old man of the sea, Nêreus. (Could this be connected with the modern Greek word for “water,” nero?)
III Naiad. The Naiads (from naein, “to flow”) were the water-nymphs of Greek myth.
IV Thalassa. The name is the Greek word for “sea.” Its most famous use in literature is in Xenophon’s book the Anabasis (“up-going”), the story of ten thousand Greek mercenaries who were led on an ill-fated expedition deep into the heart of the Persian empire. After months of struggling homeward, they came to a hilltop, beheld the Black Sea, and burst out: “Thalassa! Thalassa!” (That is how it is usually quoted, but Xenophon used the Athenian variant thalatta.)
V Despina. In Greek myth Despoena (despoina, “lady,” feminine of despotês, “lord”) was a daughter of Poseidon (Neptune) and Demeter (Ceres).
VI Galatea. In Greek story the sculptor Pygmalion made a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it and it came to life as Galatea (“milk-white”).
VII Larissa. Larisa was the name of several minor nymphs in Greek legend, and of several cities.
VIII Proteus. In Greek myth Proteus (from prôtos, “first”) was an Egyptian king and also a sea-god, a shape-shifting magician (hence our word protean, “taking many forms”).
– and 5 more (as of 2016).

PLUTO: satellite names are mostly from Greek mythology of the underworld – Tartarus, Hades, realm of the dead – ruled by the god Hades or Pluto.
I Charon: ferryman who carried the souls of the dead across the Styx (see below).
II Nix, said to be the mother of Charon.. If the word were Latin, it would mean “snow”; if colloquial English, “nothing.”
III Hydra, the water monster – see the constellation of the same name. It was thought to be appropriate because (1) the satellite probably has a water-ice surface, (2) the monster had nine heads, and Pluto was, at the time, the ninth planet, (3) the satellite was discovered with the “H”ubble Telescope.
IV Kerberos (Greek spelling) or Cerberus (Latin): monstrous dog who guarded the entrance of the underworld.
V Styx: river forming the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead.

1 thought on “The stories told by satellites’ names”

  1. This is awesome, thanks! I love the connections between astronomy and mythology.

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