Saturday, 18 September 2010

A little girl names the dark lord

Hades (Pluto)
Oxford is a small town with a famous university in the middle of England. But it's much more than that too. It's the centre of a web of influence that stretches forward and backward in time and across continents. This influence is intellectual and political, but also poetical and myth-making. It's the last of these that interests me.

A small example of an Oxfordian contribution to this mythmaking is the naming of the planet (or ex-planet) Pluto.



Pluto was discovered 80 years ago in 1930. Its presence had been suspected for a long time, but it had been invisible until 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh spotted its image on a photographic plate.

The new planet needed a name and a little girl called Venetia Burney (11 July 1918 – 30 April 2009) supplied it.

She was the grand-daughter of the head of the Bodleian Library here. He read about the discovery of a new planet at breakfast and told the story to Venetia, explaining that the planet needed a name. She suggested the Pluto. Naturally, she was well up on Roman myth and realised that the dark Lord of the Underworld, who owns the helmet of invisibility, had just revealed his presence in our solar system.

How appropriate that the identity of abductor of the maiden Proserpina should be revealed by a little girl.

And the astrology? Well, obviously, Pluto was just three degrees from Venetia's Cancer Sun when he was discovered.

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