A Brief History of Mars (Originally published in the Classical Astronomy Update of August, 2003)
Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.” — Isaiah 47:13
Mars has always been the subject of mythology, from the pagan myths of the ancient world to the modern mythos of science fiction. As Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in August, 2003, it might be worthwhile to consider the influence of the folklore associated with the Red Planet.
Though many Christians are uncomfortable with pagan mythology, we can nevertheless see from the Mars myths how the LORD can bend even pagan superstitions to His purpose. And despite the wishful thinking of those who hold to the secular faith of organized science, the modern myths of Mars also show how the LORD remains on throne even in this present age.
* What’s in a Name? *
In the earliest days of Greek culture, the pagan religion of Greece had not yet become associated with the stars. The wandering star now known as Mars was originally called “Pyroeis” — “The Fiery Star.” In this early period, the Greeks gave descriptive names to the planets based on their appearances.
Over time, the Greeks learned much of the culture of Egypt and Babylon, and used the science and mathematics of these cultures as the foundation for their great philosophical accomplishments. But in the process, the Greeks also acquired the Babylonian habit of astrology. In this way, the wandering planets came to be associated with the pagan gods of Greece.
The fiery star Pyroeis was hereafter called after “Ares,” the god of war, known to the Romans as “Mars.” In around 350 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato included this description of Mars in his dialogue, “The Timaeus”….
…Next to it is the star of Ares, and this last has the reddest color of them all.
The Red Planet and the other celestial bodies are creations of God, just as much as the birds and trees and everything else on the Earth. But unfortunately, old Babylonian habits die hard. To this day, the names and other astrological associations remain attached to the Red Planet and God’s other celestial creations, even after two millennia of Christianity.
The name of Mars has influenced European language. The word “martial” has combat and military connotations, such as in “martial law” and “martial arts.” And the name of Mars was found in Roman names, such as Marcus and Marcellus. Male and female variations of these names are still found today in many European languages, such as Mark, Martin, Marcia, Mario and Marcel. This is still another example of the persistent influence of Roman culture, even down to the present day.
In the first century, it was not uncommon for Jews to have Roman-influenced names. For example, we read in Acts and Paul’s letters of John Mark, Barnabas’s cousin, who travelled with Paul and Barnabas. And the Gospel of Mark is attributed to this same John Mark. So we can see that the LORD was pleased to inspire a man named after Mars to breathe His Word.
* The Areopagus *
Athens has always been the capital of Greece, in ancient times just as it is today. In Athens there is a hill called the “Areopagus,” a Greek name which means “Mars Hill.” The Areopagus was the site where the tribunal of Athens had historically met to judge legal cases, especially murder trials. According to Greek myth, the Olympian gods had judged Ares on this hill, after he had been charged in the murder of a son of the sea god Poseidon.
In about 600 B.C., the Areopagus was firmly established as the court of Athens by Solon the lawgiver, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Among the cases heard at the Areopagus was the trial of the philosopher Socrates, who was condemned in 399 B.C. for allegedly corrupting the youth and for impiety against the Greek gods.
Perhaps the most famous case heard at Mars Hill was that of the Apostle Paul, as we read in Acts 17….
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry…. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? (Acts 17:17, 19)
The passage goes on to tell Paul’s sermon to this august pagan tribual, how he explained to the Athenians that “the unknown god” was the true God who created all things. And Paul reveals his knowledge and understanding of the Greeks in verse 28:
For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’
This poem that Paul quotes is the “Phaenomena” by Aratus, the oldest and best known poem of Greek astronomy. Aratus is our source for all the classical Greek constellations, which are still used to the present day. Aratus is also an excellent classical source for other aspects of astronomy, including the phases of the Moon, the changes of the seasons, and cloud patterns that forecast changes in the weather. Paul quotes from the beginning of Aratus’s Phaenomena….
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favorable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.
In quoting Aratus, I’d like to believe that Paul was well-versed in the Greek classical astronomy! In any event, Paul goes on to explain in his sermon on Mars Hill that it is God, not Zeus, who the Athenians should worship….
Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:29, 30)
Paul’s sermon persuaded some of his listeners, including a member of the Areopagus named Dionysius, who is traditionally regarded as the first bishop of Athens. There were a number of medieval writings incorrectly attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. And in this manner, the LORD triumphantly used Paul on that hill dedicated to Mars.
In time, all of Greece eventually turned to the True God. In the centuries that followed, the Christian heirs of the Greek tradition became very critical of the mythology of Mars….
If anyone delights in the random massacre of human beings, he should diligently study the wild passions of Mars. The multitude of sinners have collected from their gods the seminal ideas for almost all types of crime; and to allow their doomed souls to commit misdeeds with impunity, they defend themselves with greater authority by the foregoing examples of wrongdoing. – Firmicus Maternus, from “The Error of Pagan Religions” (circa 350 A.D.)
By late antiquity, the pagans of the Roman Empire had used the ancient gods as allegories to explain various aspects of nature and human life. But Christian writers such as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo refuted such ideas….
But if war itself is Mars, as speech is Mercury, I wish it were as true that there were no war to be falsely called a god, as it is true that it is not a god. – from “The City of God” (circa 400 A.D.)
And so the LORD triumphed over Mars and the other Olympians of the ancient world, and the old superstitions are only held today by fortune tellers and their deceived patrons. But centuries later, in modern times, a new mythology of Mars emerged, a pseudo-scientific mythology that still has a persistent following to the present day….
* Mars, the Modern Planet *
In ancient Greek philosophy, the Sun, Moon, stars and all the planets were believed to be made of a thin, wispy, celestial element called “aether,” very different in nature from the elements that made up the world. When the Sun-centered theory of Mikolaj Kopernik first became popular, it was realized that the planets were worlds like our own, made of the same solid material.
From this, an idea emerged that the planets could be inhabited by intelligent creatures, the enduring dream of “life on other worlds.” This notion has been especially popular over the years among science-minded atheists, who seek to show the universality of darwinism. And this notion has been widely rejected by Biblical Christians, who hold to the special creation of life. But for the centuries since this idea’s emergence, Mars had been the focus of this new modern mythology.
* An Inhabited Universe? *
Christian Huygens was a 17th century astronomer best known for identifying the rings of Saturn. Huygens was also an early proponent of the dream of extraterrestial intelligence. In a work published in 1698, Huygens wrote:
I make no doubt that the Planetary Worlds have as wonderful a variety (of life) as we. But still the main and most diverting Point of the Enquiry is behind, which is the placing some Spectators… not Men perhaps like ours, but some Creatures or other endued with Reason. For all this Furniture and Beauty the Planets are stock’d with seem to have been made in vain, without any design or end, unless there were some in them that might at the same time enjoy the Fruits, and adore the wise Creator of them.
This is an early articulation of what I call “The Waste of Space” theory — that planets in outer space *must* be inhabited, otherwise there is no purpose to the universe and it is thus a waste of space. With this fallacious thought in mind, Huygens speculated that each planet of the solar system must have inhabitants, each suited to the different environments of each world. For Mars, Huygens proposed:
(Mars’s) Light and Heat is twice, and sometimes three times less than ours, to which I suppose the Constitution of his Inhabitants is answerable.
Sadly for Huygens and his contemporary readers, the solar system has proven to be completely devoid of life. So by his reckoning, the solar system really is a waste of space. However, for centuries thereafter, the successors of Huygens clung to Mars as the one world believed to support intelligent life.
* The “Canals” of Mars *
Even though the opposition of August, 2003 will be the closest ever, a very close opposition of Mars occurred on September 2, 1877. All the largest telescopes of the world were trained on Mars at this time. One observer was Asaph Hall in Washington D.C., who studied Mars with the 26-inch telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory. It was at this time that Hall discovered the two tiny moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, which had previously eluded telescope observers.
Another observer in 1877 was Giovanni Schiarparelli, who studied the dark markings on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli thought he observed dark lines on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli called these lines “canali” which he apparently meant to simply describe the channel-like shape of these surface markings. However, this term was interpreted to literally mean “canals.” Many people at the time believed this name suggested an artificial origin for these markings. And one man in particular capitalized on this popular sentiment.
Percival Lowell was a late 19th century occultist and an early promoter of Japanese Shinto mysticism. He also became an influential popularizer of astronomy. Lowell opened a private observatory in Arizona to study the Red Planet in detail. Lowell ran away with Schiaparelli’s observation and made “the Canals of Mars” a household word.
Beginning in the 1890s, Lowell published a series of books reporting his “findings” and strongly promoting the idea of “Life on Mars.” A wealthy man to begin with, Lowell made another fortune selling popular books that speculated on the inhabitants of Mars — their appearance, their cities, their technology. Lowell was a bit of a showman, a P.T. Barnum of astronomy. Isaac Asimov called Percival Lowell “the patron saint of the intelligent-life-on-Mars cult.”
Unfortunately for Lowell, other more reputable scientists of the time did not observe Schiaparelli’s “canali.” A controversy ensued surrounding Lowell and his theories. In time, these markings were deemed to be optical illusions resulting from high-magnification viewings of Mars. However, Lowell had already captured the popular mind. This is what the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica had to say on the subject:
Accepting the view that the dark lines on Mars are objectively real and continuous, and are features as definite in reality as they appear in the telescope, Professor Lowell has put forth an explanation of sufficient interest to be mentioned here. His first proposition is that lines frequently thousands of miles long, each following closely a great circle, must be the product of design rather than of natural causes. His explanation is that they indicate the existence of irrigating canals which carry the water produced annually by the melting of the polar snows to every part of the planet….
[footnote] “Prof. Lowell’s theory is supported by so much evidence of different kinds that his own exposition should be read in extenso in Mars and its canals and Mars as the abode of life.”
(see http://9.1911encyclopedia.org/M/MA/MARS.htm )
Nonetheless, Lowell’s work was largely discredited in his lifetime. However, the Lowell Observatory remains to this day in Flagstaff, Arizona as a well-regarded private observatory. It was at the Lowell Observatory that the pseudo-planet Pluto was discovered in 1930. The body of Percival Lowell is buried on the grounds of the observatory. This site is ironically known today as “Mars Hill,” not to be confused with the Areopagus, where the Apostle Paul shared Christ with the Athenians.
* Mars’s Modern Literary Influences *
And so by the early decades of the 20th century, the idea of “Life on Mars” became firmly entrenched in the popular mind. The famous writer, eugenicist and free-love advocate H.G. Wells was influenced by the works of Lowell. In 1898, Wells wrote the story “War of the Worlds,” in which the inhabitants of Mars invade the Earth. This novel was no doubt the inspiration for all “alien invasion” stories thereafter, a staple of science fiction books and movies.
The H.G. Wells story was adapted in 1938 by Orson Wells and the Mercury Theatre of the Air. The famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast created a panic among many who believed the Earth was actually being invaded by Martians.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, was also influenced by Percival Lowell. His novel “Princess of Mars,” released in 1912, was a story of an Earth man who is mysteriously transported to Mars, and has many adventures among the inhabitants of that world. This novel became the first of a series of eleven novels.
And of course, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis used a human spaceflight to Mars as the setting for his 1938 allegorical novel, “Out of the Silent Planet.” In this story, Lewis brilliantly blends Christian theology with traditional mythological elements in the science fiction genre.
* Persistence of the Modern Myth *
The myth of life on Mars persisted through the mid 20th century, but began to erode in the era of spaceflight. As space probes were sent from Earth to study Mars close up, it became increasingly clear that Mars was a cold, substantially airless place, entirely unsuitable for supporting life of any sort that could be imagined from the laws of chemistry.
The question of life on Mars was believed to be settled in 1976 when the Viking space probe landed on Mars. In a much celebrated event, Viking sent back a panoramic picture of the surface of Mars on July 4, 1976, the Bicentennial of the United States. However, the panorama revealed Mars to be a rock-strewn desert, entirely uninviting and inhospitable.
Viking also was equipped to perform a soil analysis and isolate chemicals in the soil to determine whether any chemical by-products of biological activity could be detected. Much to the dismay of the “life on Mars” cult, the Viking results proved conclusively that no biological activity could be observed in the Martian soil.
This put the issue to rest for 20 years. However, the issue flamed to full brightness in 1996 with the discovery of the “Mars Rock.” A meteorite fragment discovered in Antarctica was determined to have originated on Mars and come to the Earth through a highly circuitous path. This rock was determined to have the remains of bacteria therein.
This finding was greeted with much hoopla and media fanfare. Finally, ultimate “proof” existed that life as we knew it could (and in fact did) exist on Mars. However, skeptical types (such as this writer) were confident that it would be learned that the bacteria in this “Mars Rock” was of earthly origin, a contaminated sample. And that’s exactly what happened. The Mars Rock was debunked and the story was quietly dropped by the media.
In spite of all this, the “true believers” of the Mars cult remain undeterred. A half-shadowed photo from the 1976 Viking survey was produced to show a “Face on Mars” wearing what appeared to be an Egyptian-style head dress. This was held to be proof of an intelligence on Mars that carved the face, and may well have visited Earth and influenced our culture in the distant past.
A new high-resolution photo of the region was produced by the Mars Global Surveyor in 2001, showing the region to be a natural ground formation. The “face” seen in the 1976 photo was attributed to a trick of the sunlight falling on this formation. Even then, the Mars crowd insisted that the “face” was real and all attempts to debunk it were part of an elaborate coverup!
If God made life on other worlds, He did not tell us in His Word, so we need not waste time thinking of the question. But we can be sure that the solar system is a “waste of space” according to Huygens’s standard. And we can chuckle at the crackpot theories of Percival Lowell, and the long, failed history of the search for extraterrestrial life.
We’ve seen how, throughout the centuries, Mars has been the subject of much mythology, ancient and modern — much misplaced belief. We also see that the LORD has triumphed over silly speculations, ancient and modern. Let us rejoice in that!