Greek mythology is the set of stories about the origin of the world, the lives and activities of deities, heroes, and mythological creatures, and the rituals of ancient Greeks. Roman mythology is the body of traditional stories centered on the ancient origins and religion of the Roman Empire. Roman mythology was largely influenced by the Greek one; the other relevant source of inspiration for the Romans was the Etruscan religion. While the stories in Roman mythology were not as extensive as in Greek mythology, they both produced famous images like Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf for the Romans and the Trojan Horse for the Greeks.
The Romans were eager to identify their own gods and to reinterpret stories about Greek deities under the names of their Roman counterparts. Greek gods such as Zeus, Poseidon and Hades were known as Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto in Rome; Athena became Minerva and Aphrodite became Venus. However, one god kept the same name in both iterations—Apollo, god of light, medicine, music, poetry, archery and justice. Apollo had many responsibilities. In his transition to Roman mythology, he focused more on healing and prophecy, rather than light. However, Apollo’s twin, Artemis, became Diana in Roman myth.
Both sets of mythology come to us from literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, and through the visual arts. Because Latin literature was more widely known in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, the interpretation of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of “classical mythology” than Greek sources. In fact, the versions of Greek myths in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written during the reign of Augustus, came to be regarded as canonical. The Roman myths were used extensively by many artists from the late Renaissance through Romanticism, to Neoclassicism.
Greek and Roman mythology have had a lasting impact on our culture in other ways—in the naming of our planets, stars, months of the year, and days of the week. In the Milky Way Galaxy, most of the planets are named after Roman deities: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and even Pluto (which is no longer considered a planet). Only Earth does not have a name based on Roman mythology. The names of constellations, on the other hand, are based on Greek mythological creatures and animals, such as Taurus, Orsa Major and Minor, Orion’s Belt, the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and Pegasus.
For months of the year, there are several origins both in Italian and English. Gennaio (January) is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces so that he could see the future and the past. Febbraio (February) is named after the Roman festival of purification. Marzo (March) is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. Aprile (April) takes its name from the Latin word aperire, which means ‘to open’ like flowers in the spring. Maggio (May) is named after the Greek goddess Maia, and giugno (June) is named after the Roman goddess Juno. Luglio (July) and agosto (August) were named after Julius Caesar and Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. And finally, settembre (September), ottobre (October), novembre (November) and dicembre (December) were named after the Roman numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10 as they were originally the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the Roman year, which originally began in March. After a calendar reform, January and February were added.
For days of the week, the Italian origins primarily lie with the Romans, who named their days of the week after the planets, which in turn were named after the Roman gods. In Italian, lunedì is the day moon, martedì is the day of Mars, mercoledì is the day of Mercury, giovedì is the day of Jupiter, venerdì is the day of Venus, and sabato is the day of Saturn. In English, Saturday, Sunday and Monday are named for Saturn, the sun and the moon, respectively, following the Latin. The other four days are named for other gods that the Anglo-Saxons probably worshipped before they migrated to England.
I learned so much! Thanks for doing this, Barbara. Very interesting!