Mars in popular culture

Image NASA

(Credit: NASA)

The appearance of Mars, glowing like a red sentinel in the night sky, was enough to spread fear amongst ancient peoples. Set against the white stars of the heavens, Mars was often considered to be a bad omen that foreshadowed a bloodbath. In fact, legend has it that on the day Julius Caesar died, Mars lit up the night with its blood-red hue, as if, on that night, the Roman god of war had triumphed over the great emperor.

Many ancient civilizations associated Mars with war; the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans named Mars after their respective gods of war. The name "Mars" which we use today was inherited from the Romans. Though the name of the planet differs from culture to culture, the planet always seems to be named for its reddish colour. In South Asian cultures, Mars is known as the "star of fire," and in Hebrew, "that which blushes."

The notion of extraterrestrial creatures inhabiting Planet Mars arose towards the end of the 19th century when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered what he called canali on the surface of Mars. This word was incorrectly translated as "canals," which led to the belief that Mars was inhabited by intelligent beings who had built a network of canals.

The literature of the era reinforced this belief by presenting Martians as the enemies of Earthlings. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, arguably the most famous piece of literature about extraterrestrials and Martians, stirred panic in 1938 when its radio adaptation was broadcast in the form of a news bulletin. The terrified listeners mistakenly believed that their lives were being endangered by a Martian invasion.

While Wells depicted Martians as cold-blooded machines of war, twentieth-century cartoons offered a more comical—but still unsympathetic—portrait of Martians through the character of Looney Tunes' Marvin the Martian. The angry little alien dressed like a Roman gladiator struggles with Bugs Bunny in the hopes of blowing up the Earth, which inconveniently blocks his view of Venus. While he only appears in a limited number of episodes, Marvin the Martian quickly became a cult favourite among Looney Tunes' cast of crazy characters.

Today, space missions to Mars have shown that mercenary-like stories like Mars Attacks! are, in fact, highly improbable. Expeditions to Mars like Viking, Spirit and Opportunity showed that there are no little green men on the Red Planet. Rather, if life actually exists on Mars, it's more likely to be a microbial form.

Other facts about the Red Planet :

  • The name of the month of March is also a remnant of the Roman Empire. The first month of the Roman year, March was named in honour of the god of war since many new battles began in March after the snow melted.
  • The Babylonians divided the week into seven days, each one in honour of a celestial body. Sunday honoured the sun; Monday, the moon; Tuesday, Mars (more easily recognizable in the French word for Tuesday, "mardi"); Wednesday, Mercury; Thursday, Jupiter; Friday, Venus; and Saturday, Saturn. Tuesday was dedicated to Mars and ceremonies were organized to ward off the evil influence of the god of war. In English, the word "Tuesday" is derived from "Tyr," the Norse god of war, who is the equivalent of Mars.
  • The symbol associated with the planet Mars is the same as that associated with the biological symbol for the male. The circle represents the warrior's shield and the arrow represents his sword.