1/13/2009

He counteth the number of stars; He giveth them all their names

The title verse of this post (from Psalms 147:4) provides an interesting opportunity to engage in imitatio Dei. I'm not talking about those lame quasi-romantic name-a-star-after-someone gimmicks, but about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually name a planet.

I first heard about this contest from BZ's post at JewSchool. Since the contest is cosponsored by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which I posted about yesterday, my memory was refreshed, and I entered the contest.

I wanted to come up with names that reflect the same mythic dimension that the English planetary names reflect, and also wanted to preserve some echo of those names. Fortunately, I've read some of Cassuto's work on the Israelite Epic, so I'm familiar with the names of some of those demigods of Israelite myth who were demythologized in the Torah and reincorporated as angels or sarim. I also wanted to stay away from the gods of neighboring tribes (after all, Ma'adim, not Nergal, is the Jewish name for Mars). I considered, in the spirit of Ma'adim and Noga, of looking for names that reflect some type of physical attribute, much as Steg did here (I even thought of Techelet or Tcheltan for Neptune), but in the end decided to go with the mythic names of deities and demigods.

Given these constraints, Neptune was easy. TaNakh contains numerous references to mythic sea creatures and monsters (such as Leviathan, Naham Akalaton, Nahash Bariach, and others), one of which is named Rahav (רהב). In Iyov 26:12, Rahav represents the sea personified: "By his power He stilled the sea; by His skill He struck down Rahav". The Gemara (Bava Batra 74b) identifies Rahav as "Saro shel Yam" - the Ministering Angel of the Sea. This is a slam dunk as a biblical equivalent of the Roman sea-god, Neptune. Rahav also has a good cadence and rhythm, and is not a well-known mythic figure in other contexts. I felt that the other sea-creatures either were too unwieldy (I cannot imagine a planet Nachash Akalaton) or too familiar from other contexts (Leviathan, Tanin). Leviathan is also too close and too phonetically related to lavyan, the modern Hebrew word for "satellite".

Uranus was a bit tougher. At first I considered that the biblical equibvalent of Uranus would be Pe'or (guess where I thought of that), but quickly dismissed that idea for pretty much the same reasons that I thought of it in the first place. I looked for a deity mentioned in the Torah as some type of master of the heavens, as Uranus was the Greek god of the sky. I considered Shachar, who seems to have been some type of god of the dawn and later associated with a particular star, probably Venus, and ultimately with Lucifer. Thus, the name was already associated with another planet and is already familiar as the mundane term for dawn. Out.

Then I hit upon the name that I submitted - Elyon. Before being merged with God, Elyon seems to have been some type of independent or semi-independent deity who is creator of heaven and earth (see Bereishit 14:18-19). Elsewhere (such as Yeshayahu 14:13-14 and II Sam 22:14) Elyon is depicted as dominating the heavens. Perhaps the most interesting connection between Uranus and Elyon comes from the translation of the Sanchuniathon by Philo of Byblos. There, he identifies Elyon as the father of Uranus.

The drawbacks of this name are that it is a common Hebrew word, and that as the name of a deity, it has long since (I believe that the Torah tells us about how Avraham effected this merger in the story linked above) merged and is closely associated with God.

Ultimately, I like BZ's proposal of "Shahak" (שחק) better than my own. It preserves the archaic and mythic feel, is associated with the sky, and has an excellent cadence and rhythm. I especially like it as the counterpart to Rahav. So there you have it. Uranus and Neptune and Shahak and Rahav. Now we just have to wait for the contest judges to make it official.
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