Renaming the Martian Moons


The idea of renaming Mars’ moons arose whilst I was thinking of names for sols of the week for the Utopian Calendar. Just as on Earth we have one day of the week named for the Moon (“Monday” in English), I wanted to allocate one sol per week to each of Mars’ moons. Thus, I initially named two sols “Phobosol” and “Deimosol” for the moons of Mars.

But Phobos means fear, fright, or terror; Deimos means flight, terror, panic, or dread. I realised that these can be translated to “fear day” and “terror day”. The words “Phobos” and “Deimos” have very similar meanings.

Do we want to live on a world with fear and terror circling overhead?

Perhaps the Martians, being predominantly scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and free-thinkers, will not care about the etymology of these names. However, while a scientist may think, “What’s in a name? An orbiting lump of carbonaceous rock by any other name is still an orbiting lump of carbonaceous rock”, many human beings are innately superstitious, even if only at the subconscious level. We are not designing a Mars settlement plan only for scientists. This settlement is for everyone. I anticipate that I am not the only one who would prefer more positive names for the Martian moons. It may be a very difficult thing to change, because the current names are well-known and entrenched in the lexicon of the Mars community, but I was inspired to research the topic further regardless.

Mars and Ares

When Asaph Hall discovered the moons of Mars in August of 1877, he took the advice of Henry Madan of England, and named the satellites “Phobos” and “Deimos”, after the sons and attendants of Ares mentioned in the fifteenth book of Homer’s Iliad. Note that in some translations of the Iliad “Mars” is written instead of “Ares”. This is because many people view these two as equivalent. However, Ares was in fact a Greek god, whereas Mars was Roman, and they were absolutely not equivalent.

Ares was only concerned with war. As Zeus says to Ares in Book 5 of the Iliad, “Most hateful to me are you of all gods on Olympus, for ever is strife dear to you and wars and fightings”. This is why I don’t like it when people name rockets and spaceships “Ares”.

Mars, in contrast, was originally an agricultural god, responsible for springtime, growth in nature, fertility, and cattle. Mars had a much better reputation than Ares. Mars was seen as noble and honourable, whereas Ares was considered savage and brutal. Ares was not a popular Greek god, whereas Mars was an extremely popular and important god to the Romans, second only to Jupiter.

How, then, did Mars become equated with Ares? Although the Roman people were originally pastoral, they became more warlike in nature as the Empire grew, and they would march (note the word) to war at the beginning of spring, i.e. in the month of March, when the weather was favourable. The month of March, the first month of the year in the Roman calendar, was named for the god Mars, who was supposedly born in this month. Naturally, the god of springtime was born at the beginning of spring.

As an agricultural god worshipped by an agricultural people, Mars had many festivals in his honour, but the biggest one was called Feriae Marti (holiday for Mars), held from March 1 (the original Roman New Year’s Day) until March 24. There were additional holidays and celebrations in Mars’ name throughout the year, in May, June, October, and February.

Thus, the Roman army was preparing to march off to war in March during a major Mars holiday. They would visit Mars’ temple and pray for victory in the upcoming battle. In this way, Mars also became known as the soldiers’ god, and the god of war.

When scholars studied the gods of ancient Rome and Greece, they found many parallels. It was common for pagan cultures of the region to borrow gods from each other, particularly in Roman culture as the Empire expanded and absorbed new peoples and their gods. Thus it was an easy misunderstanding to assume that the Roman god of war and the Greek god of war were the same character.

We should not propagate this mistake.

Mars, the god of agriculture, growth, and fertility

It is my dream to one day emigrate to Mars. In fact, I would like to be one of the first settlers. Sometime in the 2050’s, when I’m in my 80’s, I will hop a flight to the new world and put down roots.

If Mars is to be my future home, I much prefer the original ideas embodied by Mars as the god of agriculture, growth, and fertility. This image of Mars inspires belief in abundant food and good health, the successful development of human civilisation on Mars, and the success of terraforming and proliferation of life on Mars.

This idea of Mars is incongruous with fear and terror circling overhead. This is why I believe it to be essential that the Martian moons be renamed. Not only will it remind us that Mars was a positive god of agriculture and fertility, but new names could be chosen that will embody more positive and encouraging concepts than fear and terror.

Alternative names for the Martian moons

Other names have been proposed for the Martian moons before. Edgar Rice Burroughs named the larger Barsoomian moon “Thuria” and the smaller, more distant, was “Cluros”. In their novel “White Mars”, Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose called Phobos “Swift” and Deimos “Laputa”.

At first I considered renaming the moons after Mars’ twin sons and founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, however, after investigating the mythology around these two characters, I decided that they were not the best choice. In Roman mythology, the twins quarrelled when dividing up rulership of Rome, and Romulus killed Remus. This story would not carry positive overtones for the future of Mars.

As Mars was a Roman god, I decided that the best place to search for new names would be in the area of Roman mythology. Many names that may have been good candidates were already assigned to minor planets, for example: Bellona (goddess of war, Mars’ sister); Minerva (goddess of science, trade, and war); Victoria (goddess of victory); Felicitas (goddess of success); Virtus (god of courage and virtue); and Fortuna (goddess of good luck).

Eventually my search uncovered two names amongst the Roman pantheon, who have not yet been assigned to celestial objects:

Nerio: Originally a Sabine fertility goddess known as “the strong one”, Nerio was Mars’ wife, and represented strength, courage, and valour. I expect Mars would like to have his wife nearby, and the attributes expressed are very positive.

Liber: The god of vegetation, husbandry, fertility, growth in nature, and grapevines, Liber was known as “the free one”. Liber and Ceres (whose name now belongs to the largest asteroid) were the gods to whom Mars’ agricultural responsibilities passed when he became the god of war.

My feeling is that these are the two perfect names for the Martian moons. Both of these characters have a strong connection to Mars and both express positive attributes. When I discovered that, remarkably, neither of these names had been assigned to minor planets, and that Nerio was known as “the strong one” and Liber “the free one”, it seemed meant to be. These are great concepts to associate with our new Martian civilisation. How much better to have strength and freedom circling overhead than fear and terror.

Both these deities are associated with fertility, although Liber much more so, being an important agricultural god. Liber was also in charge of grapevines, so presumably Martian wine will benefit from his presence.

Which name to which moon? My suggestion is that Phobos be renamed “Nerio” and Deimos be renamed “Liber”. We would then see lovely Nerio two or three times a day, reminding us to be courageous, and Mars would have his wife nearby. The slightly more distant Liber would move slowly over the surface of the planet, steadily reflecting the light of fertility and growth onto the land and reminding us that we are free.


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