To the ancient Chinese, a sighting of Mars in the night sky signaled “bane, grief, war and murder”.
Because the Martian soil contains iron oxide (rust), the planet’s reddish hue inspired early observers to associate Mars with blood and bloodletting. The Babylonians called it the “star of death,” but the name that stuck was the one provided by the ancient Roman god of war: Mars (actually re-appropriated from the ancient Greek war-god Ares).
From that time forward, the planet Mars became synonymous with male aggression as personified by bloodthirsty Mars and his henchmen Phobos (fear) and Demios (panic) – the names given to the two Martian moons.
It’s worth wondering whether this “warrior” version of Mars would have taken hold had the ancient Hebrews’ take on the red hue and the name they assigned to the planet caught on – Ma’adim (מאדים) — “one who blushes.”
“Naming a thing is man’s nearest approach to creating it,” wrote astronomer and Mars Maniac Percival Lowell (and what he created with the surface features he called “canals” can be cited as a prime example).
Would a more refined and less combative name for the red planet have meant no War of the Worlds, with Martians intent on invading and conquering the Earth? Would a kinder and gentler demeanor have allowed us to skip all the violent Edgar Rich Burroughs stories in which Earthly hero John Carter is just as intent on maiming and killing the Martians as they are him?
In the early years of the space race, would our all-out rush to get to Mars still have utilized penis-shaped rockets (probably so – they’re aerodynamic)? Would we have called the machines we designed to transverse enormous distances in space “probes” (if space is empty, as we then believed, then what were they probing)?
And once our hardware arrived and photographed the planet’s surface details, would we have still named one of the gigantic Martians canyons Ma’adim Valles (as if it were an enormous vagina – who wouldn’t blush upon seeing that)?
Would our stereotypical Martians be less gender-specific than the proverbial “little green men?”
Perhaps, finally, we have entered a less combative and more gender-neutral phase of Mars exploration, as we prepare to go there ourselves.
What it will take to get humans to mars is not single-minded aggression, but a more diverse set of tools designed and created to sustain us there; what food we will grow and consume, what shelters we will construct and inhabit, what exercise will keep us fit in low-gravity environment, what psychological support we will need as isolated colonists on a desolate and dangerous world, how and when we will decide to couple and generate offspring on Mars.
Ironically the color that suggested blood to long ago observers is not evidence of death on the red planet, but of life. Iron oxide (iron and oxygen combined as rust), was created long ago when the planet had more liquid water, and in its current form, the iron oxide so abundant on the Martian surface can be transformed into life-sustaining energy.
Accomplishing all of this will require contributions by men and women alike, humans not intent on conquering and claiming, but on building, supporting and nurturing.
“Madam Mars” most certainly would approve.