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While the moon naturally featured in Mediterranean cultures from time immemorial, principally noted in the earliest literature as a marker of time, time-dependent constructs such as the calendar, and time-related activities, awareness and recognition of the five visible planets came relatively late to the Greeks and thence to the Romans. The moon underlies the local calendars of the Greeks, with documentary and literary evidence from the Late Bronze Age through the Imperial Roman period, and there are signs that the earliest Roman calendar also paid homage to the moon in its divisions of the month. However, although Homer in the 8th century BCE knows of a Morning and an Evening Star, he shows no indication of realizing that these are one and the same, the planet Venus. That particular identification may have come in the 6th century BCE, and it appears to have been not until the 4th century BCE that the Greeks recognized the other four planets visible to the naked eye—Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury. This awareness probably came via contact with Babylonian astronomy and astrology, where identification and observations of the planets had figured from the 2nd millennium BCE and served as a basis for astrological prognostications. But it is time, not astrology, that lies at the heart of Greek and Roman concerns with the moon and the planets. Indeed, the need to tell time accurately has been regarded as the fundamental motivation of Greek astronomy. A major cultural issue that long engaged the Greeks was how to synchronize the incommensurate cycles of the moon and the sun for calendrical purposes. Given the apparent irregularities of their cycles, the planets might seem to offer no obvious help with regard to time measurement. Nonetheless they were included by Plato in the 4th century BCE in his cosmology, along with the sun and moon, as heavenly bodies created specifically to compute time. Astrology then provided a useful framework in which the sun, moon, planets, and stars all combined to enable the interpretation and forecasting of life events. It became necessary for the Greeks, and their successors the Romans, to be able to calculate as accurately as possible the positions of the heavenly bodies in order to determine readings of the past, present, and future. Greek astronomy had always had a speculative aspect, as philosophers strove to make sense of the visible cosmos. A deep-seated assumption held by Greek astronomers, that the heavenly bodies moved in uniform, circular orbits, lead to a desire over the centuries to account for or explain away the observed irregularities of planetary motions with their stations and retrogradations. This intention “to save the phenomena,”— that is, to preserve the fundamental circularity—was said to have originated with Plato. While arithmetical schemes had sufficed in Babylonia for such calculation, it was a Greek innovation to devise increasingly complex geometric theories of circular motions (eccentrics and epicycles) in an effort to understand how the sun, moon, and planets moved, so as to place them more precisely in time and space.


John MacDonald

Inuit are an indigenous people traditionally inhabiting the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and parts of Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Across this vast region, Inuit society, while not entirely homogeneous either culturally or linguistically, nevertheless shares a fundamental cosmology, in part based on a common understanding of the sky and its contents. Traditionally, Inuit used prominent celestial objects—the sun, moon, and major circumpolar asterisms—as markers for estimating the passage of time, as wayfinding and directional aids, and, importantly, as the basis of several of the foundational myths and legends underpinning their society’s social order and mores. Random inquiries on Inuit astronomy made by European visitors after initial contact through the mid-18th and early 20th centuries were characteristically haphazard and usually peripheral to some other line of ethnological enquiry, such as folklore or mythology. In addition, the early accounts of Inuit star lore were often prone to misrepresentation due to several factors, including European cultural bias, translation inadequacies, a deficiency of general astronomical knowledge on the part of most commentators, and, most significantly, a failure—sometimes due to lack of opportunity—to conduct systematic observations of the sky in the presence of Inuit knowledge holders. Early accounts therefore tended to diminish the cultural significance of Inuit astronomy, almost to the point of insignificance. Unfortunately, by the time systematic fieldwork began on the topic, in the mid-1980s, unalloyed information on Inuit astronomical knowledge was already elusive, more and more compromised by European acculturation and substitution and, notably, by light pollution—a consequence of the increasing urbanization of Inuit communities beginning in the late 1950s. For the residents of most Arctic settlements, street lights reflecting off the snow have virtually eliminated the evocative phenomenon of the “polar night.” For several reasons, the role of planets in Inuit astronomy is difficult to determine, due, in part, to the characteristics of the planets themselves. Naked-eye differentiation between the major visible planets is by no means straightforward, and for observers living north of the Arctic Circle, the continuous or semicontinuous periods of daylight/twilight obtaining throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall effectively prevent year-round viewing of the night sky, making much planetary movement unobservable, far less an appreciation of the planets’ predictable synodic and sidereal periods. Mitigating against the significant use of planets in Inuit culture is also the principle that their applied astronomy, along with its cosmology and mythologies depend principally on—apart from the sun and the moon—the predictability of the “fixed stars.” Inuit of course did see the major planets and took note of them when they moved through their familiar asterisms or appeared, irregularly, as markers of solstice, or harbingers of daylight after winter’s dark. Generally, however, planets seem to have been little regarded until after the introduction of Christianity, when, in parts of the Canadian eastern Arctic, Venus, in particular, became associated with Christmas. While there are anecdotal accounts that some of the planets, again especially Venus, may have had a place in Greenlandic mythology, this assertion is far from certain. Furthermore, reports from Alaska and Greenland suggesting that the appearance of Venus was a regular marker of the new year, or a predictor of sun’s return, need qualification, given the apparent irregularity of Venus’s appearances above the horizon. A survey of relevant literature, including oral history, pertaining either directly or peripherally to Inuit astronomical traditions, reveals few bona fide mention of planets. References to planets in Inuit mythology and astronomy are usually speculative, typically lacking supportive or corroborative information. It can therefore be reasonably inferred that, with the qualified exception of Venus, planets played little part in Inuit astronomy and cosmology despite their being, on occasion, the brightest objects in the Northern celestial sphere. This being the case, there is a certain irony in NASA’s recently bestowing Inuit mythological names on a group of Saturn’s moons—Saturn being a planet the Inuit themselves, as far as can be determined, did not note or recognize.