Mars in Human Culture

This module is concerned with the way human beings have reacted to and interpreted Mars over thousands of years. It lends itself to a very wide and free range of expression, and as such no prescriptive methodology is contained in these notes.

There is a chronological sequence to the questions that we raise but any of them could form the basis of a set of projects. All of the questions require research, and this will depend on local resources. A suggested booklist is appended, but the Internet will be able to provide much information if availability of books is limited. The 3-D projects are intended to involve the students physically, thus trying to relieve a little of the feeling that this project is all text research

The concept of Mars as the God of War , as a bringer of Discord and Disharmony has its first recorded origins amongst the Babylonian astrologers, but it is obviously older than that. The Greeks, and hence the Romans, continued this unhappy association, but added little to it in terms of original thought. The Chinese, who probably developed their astronomy independently of the Babylonians, also considered Mars to be an unfortunate influence, and gave it undesirable attributes. No Viking astrology is known, but the character of Loki the Fire God may also be a manifestation of Mars. The Maya concentrated their attention on Venus, but there are tantalising hints that they too regarded Mars as untrustworthy.

The reasons why this should be are lost to us, but we can make guesses. We know that the night sky was much more important to ancient peoples than to us, as they used the predictable motions of the stars to time seasons and harvests. Not every culture used the same constellations, and we have inherited a mixture of patterns, largely Babylonian. The movement of the planets was plotted by ancient astronomers, but only the Babylonians showed any interest in ascribing influences, baleful or otherwise, to specific ones. Mars' unfortunate reputation would appear to be due to its realtively disorderly conduct in the sky. Whereas all the other visible planets perform a stately progress across the sky, doing a backward loop as the Earth overtakes them [once for every year of their orbit], Mars loops more than once, and also varies in size and brightness considerably. This, coupled with its very red colour, caused it to be linked to the Babylonian god of the hot dry season of droughts, Nergal. His other attributes were violence, conflict and death.

There is however a very strong "culturocentric" element here, as Mars is not viewed in the same way in Africa, at least among the Dogon, for whom Mars is "Star of the Menstruating Woman". There seems to be very little available evidence of African attitudes to Mars. There are many factors affecting this: differing attitudes to the stars, an equatorial existence charactetrised by dry and rainy seasons, veneration of ancestors rather than gods. It might be an interesting project to carry out on the internet, to see just what differing views of Mars exist in the southern hemisphere.

Observation of Mars will be limited in small telescopes. Larger ones [20cms + aperture] may show more detail, but oppositions vary. There is a great deal of literature and excellent photographic material to cover this problem, but if you can get access to a telescope, it would be a good idea. Otherwise, naked eye observing, as the planet crosses the sky every night, will still be valuable.

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