November 30, 2004

Venus Long Revered, but Best Viewed at a Distance

Twenty-six years ago this Saturday, one of the universe's first beguiling beauties was visited by a probe from a distant admirer. On Dec. 4, 1978, the U.S. Pioneer Venus Orbiter became the first man- made object to orbit the planet Venus.

Of the all the wonders of the night sky spied by man, none has ever come close to the majesty of Venus. Throughout history, Earth's sister planet has been the subject of devotion, admiration and even religious veneration as the celestial manifestation of a godly figure. Which god exactly depended on the time and place the planet was spied hovering above the horizon.

Venus is the second planet from the sun. Because it lies closer to the sun than the Earth, it is always in roughly the same direction as the sun. From our perspective, this means that Venus can only be seen just before, or just after sunset.

It took some time for our ancestors to grasp that these two sparkling luminaries in the sky were one in the same. Venus, and also Mercury, which also follows an inside path around our home star, were considered to be two separate bodies until ancient astronomers discovered otherwise.

During certain periods of Venus' orbit, it rises before the sun in the east as the "Morning Star." Anyone looking eastward these fall mornings has seen the Morning Star in all its glory. Conversely, when Venus is on the other side of the sun from our perspective, it appears as the "Evening Star," after the sun sinks into the western horizon.

In Sumeria, one of our planet's oldest known human civilizations, Venus was associated with the goddess Innanna, or Ishtar, as she was known to later cultures in the Middle East. Later cultures associated the etheric beacon with such deities as Isis, Aphrodite and Astarte - all incarnations of the same strong-willed and sexually liberated feminine archetype.

Not all Venusian deities were female. The Greeks knew the planet by two names: Eosphorus (Phosphorus), as the morning apparition, and Hesperus, its nighttide twin. Native Americans of Central America equated Venus with their god, Quetzlcoatl, the "feathered serpent." They believed the celestial luminary represented their god's former life here on Earth.

Some biblical interpretations have Venus representing another male deity, although that incarnation, known as Lucifer, is a tad less inviting.

If our ancestors knew then what we know now about our brilliant planetary neighbor, they'd have recognized the fitness of that last name. Today we know Venus is far from being the embodiment of love and beauty.

Though roughly the same size as Earth, Venus is covered by a thick, noxious shroud of gas that would instantly choke anyone foolish enough to cavort unprotected on its surface. And if the gas didn't get you first, the planet's dense and heavy atmosphere would crumple you up like an accordion. Or the hellish heat - a balmy 900 degrees Fahrenheit! - would toast you to a crisp. Scary, yes?

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