Home » Ancient Greece » Heavenly wanderers: The planets of our imaginations

Heavenly wanderers: The planets of our imaginations

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The sheer wonderment of the planets’ existence is one of the reasons I study astrology in the first place.

Now, the speculative might wonder, why do you not study astronomy, and the poet in me would reply, I do, but I also get to research story, myth, history, and fantasy when I study astrology. And the evil-doer in me would mutter, under my breath, “and do not try to take those things away from me!!” But I digress.

The word ‘planet’ comes from the Greek word πλάνης planes (‘wanderer’). I believe the Ancient Greeks understood something we’ve somewhat forgotten when it comes to our relationship to the planets, which is that they are with us only temporarily, as we ourselves are temporary.

It’s this bittersweet knowledge that rests uncomfortably in our collective consciousness, and gives us our sense of connection to the heavens. We have an emotional relationship to the planets that defies scientific understanding, facts and figures, because we are made of the same stuff they are; we are, literally, stardust, made from the same matter that created the stars and planets. So it’s no wonder we dream of them, long for them, and imagine them. They are part of us, and if nothing else I say ever matters to you, never forget where you came from. Do you doubt me? Read this: It’s completely true.

I tend to believe, along with Walt Whitman, that science provides a bit more information than I absolutely need to appreciate the grandeur of nature:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

George Meredith understood the connection I feel to the heavens, and expressed this feeling with great beauty in his poem Meditation Under Stars:

…By day to penetrate black midnight; see,
Hear, feel, outside the senses; even that we,
The specks of dust upon a mound of mould,
We who reflect those rays, though low our place,
To them are lastingly allied.
So may we read, and little find them cold:
Not frosty lamps illumining dead space,
Not distant aliens, not senseless Powers.
The fire is in them whereof we are born;
The music of their motion may be ours.

Making the imaginative leap between the planet, the myth, and human behavior, English poet John Keats was inspired to write this about Saturn, in his poem Hyperion:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud.

planets

The Poetry Foundation, a wonderful resource, if you ask me, lists no fewer than 176 poems dedicated to stars, planets, and the heavens. If I could include them all, I would, but instead I provide you with these few, and the link to their website.

Finally, I think no discussion on the ways in which the planets have inspired our imaginations would be complete without reference to Gustav Holst’s marvelous contribution, the seven movement orchestral suite, The Planets.

Written between 1914-1916, Holst wrote a movement named after each of the planets and its corresponding astrological character, each of which I find charming, each of which adds another tidbit of information about the myth of personality the planet symbolises:

Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic.

The symphony has long been analysed for its structure, which contradicts both science and astrological hierarchy. David Hurwitz, music critic, offers this explanation for the piece’s structure: that “Jupiter” is the centrepoint of the suite and that the movements on either side are in mirror images.

Thus “Mars” involves motion and “Neptune” is static; “Venus” is sublime while “Uranus” is vulgar, and “Mercury” is light and scherzando while “Saturn” is heavy and plodding. This hypothesis is lent credence by the fact that the two outer movements, “Mars” and “Neptune”, are both written in rather unusual quintuple metre.

I love the “Neptune” movement for many reasons, not least of which is that Holst managed to create an unusual effect in the final fadeout, which is so perfect for Neptune. In addition, the voices in their song bring out the ethereal, dreamy, enchanted side of Neptune, the gossamer cloud side that I think we all need a little of; perhaps it is a reminder of the glittering stardust from whence we came?

I hope you will listen and take the time to find all the other movements (or, better still, buy a recording of this enchanting symphony, one I have yet to hear live).

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