Part of the Science Networks. Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 37)


The planet Venus is named after the Roman goddess of beauty, love and fertility, the equivalent of Aphrodite in Greek mythology. According to legend she emerged from the foam of the sea onto the island of Cythera (Cyprus), for which reason Venus is sometimes referred to as the Cytherean planet. (“Venerean” or “Aphrodisian” have been proposed, but both names have unfortunate connotations.) Venus may have been the first celestial object clearly recognized as a planet. The Sumerians called it Inanna, the Akkadians chose Ishtar, and to the Egyptians it was known as Astarte. The Chinese knew it as Jin Xing. Venus is the only planet mentioned in the Homeric writings, where it appears in the Iliad, announcing the close of day and darkening of night. Achilles’ deadly assault on Hektor is described as follows:

As radiant Hesper [Venus] shines with keener light, Far-beaming o’er the silver host of night, When all the starry train emblaze the sphere: So shone the point of great Achilles’ spear.1


Seventeenth Century Celestial Object Greek Mythology Copernican System Venus Transit 
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  1. 2.
    See New Scientist of 28 February 2001.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Galilei 1989, a modern English translation by Albert van Helden, includes a chapter on the reception of Sidereus nuncius (pp. 87–116). Simon Mayer (or Mayr; 1570–1624), a German mathematician and astronomer, claimed to have observed Jupiter’s moons since the end of 1609 and in 1614 he published a work entitled Mundus Iovialis in which he claimed priority of the discovery. For the priority dispute that followed, see Johnson 1930-31.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Galilei 1989, p. 84.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For contemporary English accounts of Cassini’s discoveries, see Philosophical Transcations 8 (1673), 5178–5185 and 16 (1686–92), 79–85. Following his discovery of 1684, it took more than a century before more Saturn moons were observed: in 1789 William Herschel discovered two new satellites, now called Enceladus and Mimas.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    For the early temptations to consider Venus and Mars as copies of the Earth, and hence presumably endowed with a moon, see Sheehan 1988, chapters 3–5.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Kepler 1965, p. 40 and p. 77. See further his letter to Galileo of 19 April 1610, in Galileo 1929–39, vol. 10, p. 322. For his Pythagorean numerology, see also Koyré 1961, pp. 138–139. However, such reasoning based on mathematical harmony played little role in the subsequent development of observational astronomy.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Although this is true, it is not quite as true as it was just a few years ago. In 2004 a group of astronomers discovered that Venus has a so-called quasi-satellite (as does the Earth and Mars). This object, called 2002 VE68, is however an asteroid orbiting around the Sun, but in such a way that it appears to travel around the Venusian sky about once every Venus year. See Mikkola et al. 2004.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Leverington 2003, a detailed history of planetary astronomy from the oldest times to the present, includes no mention of Venus’ moon. On the transits of Venus and their relevance for the problem of a possible satellite, see section 3.1.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Moore 1983, p. 61. The statements are not entirely correct. Thus, Cassini’s observation was from 28 August 1686. Furthermore, as we shall see, Cassini also reported an observation from 1672, and Fontana claimed to have seen a moon in 1645. The last observation claim dates from 1768, not 1764. William Sheehan, a prolific writer on the history of planetary astronomy, deals only cursorily with the satellite of Venus, which he writes off as nothing but a curiosity. He says, incorrectly, that after 1761 there were no more reports on the phenomenon (Sheehan 1988, p. 24).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    The case of Venus’ moon is briefly described in Ashbrook 1954, reprinted in Ashbrook 1984, pp. 281–283. For a review by a French astronomer, see Lecomte 1990. More details are given in Hunt and Moore 1982, pp. 92–99, a slightly updated and better documented version of the chapter in Moore 1956, pp. 91–96. Ley 1964, pp. 215–220, draws heavily on Moore’s book, but is less reliable. Bakich 2000 only refers briefly to the subject (p. 112). See also Unsurprisingly, much of the information about Venus’ satellite found on the internet is unreliable.

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