When you look up at the sky after sunset tonight and through the end of May, you can see a very bright star in the West. That “star” is actually the planet Venus.
Venus shines brighter than any other planets or stars in the night sky. If you go to a dark location on a moonless night and turn your back toward Venus, you can catch a faint glimpse of your own shadow.
What makes it so bright? A thick layer of white clouds surrounds the entire planet. Those clouds reflect about 70% of the sunlight back out into space. Since Venus orbits so close to Earth, that reflections makes it appear as the second brightest object in the night sky after the Moon.
IT’S JUST A PHASE
Have you ever looked at Venus through a telescope or binoculars? If you look at it tonight with a telescope, you will see only half of it lit up. Venus has phases just like our Moon.
As our Moon makes it’s way around us every 29.5 days, we watch it grow from a beautiful sliver of a crescent to a glowing Full Moon, and back to a tiny crescent before it disappears for a night or two.
Venus follows a similar pattern. But why?
Think about the planets that are farther from the Sun than us. We never see their dark sides because we are always on their lit sides. Now think about the Moon. When it is farther from the Sun than us, we see a Full Moon. But as it swings around to the side of us or in front of us, we see more and more of its dark side, creating the phases.
Venus orbits the Sun at a closer distance than us. For that reason, we can see parts of the cloudy planet’s dark side.
NO OVERHEAD VIEW
From Earth, we can only see Venus when it’s to the East or to the West of the Sun. When it comes between us and the Sun or goes around to the opposite side of the Sun, we lose sight of it. This means we can see it in the East in the hours before sunrise and in the West in the hours after sunset, but never directly overhead at day or night.
Cultures around the world once believed they saw two different stars that appeared at different times in the night sky. They gave these “two stars” names such as Morning Star and Evening Star.
ONCE UPON A TIME
From thousands of years ago, many cultures developed myths and religious beliefs based on what they saw Venus doing at night.
The Sumerians knew as early as 5,000 years ago that the morning and evening stars were one object in the night sky. They saw Venus as their goddess Inanna, who was also known as Ishtar by the later Babylonians. Inanna was a goddess of love and war and ruled over birth and death.
In one myth called Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, the goddess descends into the netherworld where she is killed, then resurrects three days later to return to the heavens. This myth reminded the ancient Sumerians of the movements of Venus and its disappearance from the sky from time to time.
The ancient Canaanite god Helel represented Venus as the Morning Star, like a male version of the Babylonian Ishtar. In the Canaanite myth from about 4,000 years ago, Helel tried to take the throne from the supreme god El, who they believed lived on a mountain to the North. Helel tried to rise higher than all the other gods, but in battle he was cast down to rule the underworld instead.
In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah condemns the King of Babylon for his treatment of the Israelites about 2,800 years ago. In chapter 14, the prophet borrows the Canaanite myth of Helel, name and all.
How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn (in Hebrew, Helel, son of Shahar)! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God (in Hebrew, El); I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, in the sides of the North. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High (Elyon, a name used in the Bible for the Hebrew god, and an ancient name for the Canaanite god, El).’ But you are brought down to the realm of the dead (Hades, the underworld), to the depths of the pit. [Isaiah 14:12-15]
The Latin name for Helel (Venus) is Lucifer, which means “Shining One, Light Bearer”. The King James Bible translators borrowed the Latin name Lucifer when translating Isaiah 14. This led to a later belief that the Christian Satan was a fallen angel named Lucifer. Most modern Bible translations drop the name Lucifer and use “Shinging One”, but the new name for Satan has stuck.
For the Maya, Venus, or “The Great Star”, held the most important place in the night sky. They believed that the position of Venus influenced life on Earth. They timed wars and other important events by watching where it went in the sky.
Through careful observations, the Maya developed a religious calendar called the Haab’ about 2,500 years ago. It was made up of eighteen months of twenty days each, with an extra 5 days at the end of the year known as Wayeb.
The Maya thought Wayeb was a dangerous time because portals between the mortal world and the underworld dissolved. This allowed the mischievious deities to cause disasters for the living. To protect themselves, the Maya didn’t leave their houses and didn’t wash or comb their hair.
GREEK & ROMAN
The Greeks knew Phosporus (the Morning Star) and Hesperos (the Evening Star) were the single planet Venus by about 2,300 years ago. The Greek mythology of Phaethon (Shining One) resembles the Canaanite and Hebrew myths of an ambitious god who is shown his place.
Ancient Romans spoke Latin and knew Venus as the Morning Star by its Latin name, Lucifer (Light Bringer). In their mythology, Lucifer carried a torch and announced the dawn. To the Romans, Lucifer was sacred to the goddess Venus, the name that was later chosen as the scientific name for the planet.
Spotting Venus in the evening sky is a treat for all ages. To learn more about when and where to find this bright planet, visit https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/