If you look to the morning sky – to the east that is, as the sun’s rising – you will notice a bright star in the firmament, one that should not be there. Theoretically, stars only come out at night and should be well on their way to bed by the time the sun rises, correct? Well, that’s because the Morning Star, as it’s known, isn’t a star at all, but the planet Venus. It is both the morning and evening star, the former when it appears in the east during sunrise and the latter when it appears in the west during sunset. Because of its unique nature and appearance in the sky, this “star” has figured prominently in the mythologies of many cultures.
In ancient Sumerian mythology, it was named Inanna (Babylonian Ishtar), the name given to the goddess of love and personification of womanhood. The Ancient Egyptians believed Venus to be two separate bodies and knew the morning star as Tioumoutiri and the evening star as Ouaiti. Likewise, believing Venus to be two bodies, the Ancient Greeks called the morning star Phosphoros (or Eosphoros) the “Bringer of Light” (or “Bringer of Dawn”) and the evening star they called Hesperos (“star of the evening”). By Hellenistic times, they had realized the two were the same planet, which they named after their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Phoenicians, never ones to be left out where astronomy and mythology were concerned, named it Astarte, after their own goddess of fertility. In Iranian mythology, especially in Persian mythology, the planet usually corresponds to the goddess Anahita, and sometimes AredviSura, the goddesses of fertility and rivers respectively. Mirroring the ancient Greeks, they initially believed the planet to be two separate objects, but soon realized they were one.
The Romans, who derived much of their religious pantheon from the Greek tradition and near Eastern tradition, maintained this trend by naming the planet Venus after their goddess of love. Later, the name Lucifer, the “bringer of light”, would emerge as a Latinized form of Phosphoros (from which we also get the words phosphorus and phosphorescence). This would prove influential to Christians during the Middle Ages who used it to identify the devil. Medieval Christians thusly came to identify the Morningstar with evil, being somewhat more concerned with sin and vice than fertility and love! However, the identification of the Morningstar as a symbol of fertility and womanhood remains entrenched, best demonstrated by the fact that the astronomical symbol for Venus happens to be the same as the one used in biology for the female sex: a circle with a small cross beneath.
The Morningstar also figures prominently in the mythology of countless other cultures, including the Mayans, Aborigines, and Maasai people of Kenya. To all of these cultures, the Morningstar still serves as an important spiritual, agricultural and astrological role. To the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, she is known literally as the “metal star”, based on the Five Elements.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Venus. Listen here, Episode 50: Venus.