Star of the Deep King

May 23, 2010

This is actually not an Epic Chinese Thing, but an Epic Roman Thing That Became More Epic in Chinese Because It Sounds So Exotic When You Say It. Also, there are some scientific errors involved.

The “Deep King” here refers to the god of the Underworld. In particular, the Roman one. Also, Chinese refers to every shiny heavenly body as a “star”, with a qualifier in front of it to distinguish between star-stars, planets, comets and such. So 冥王星, or “deep king star”, actually means “the heavenly body named after the Roman king of the Underworld”. We call it Pluto, which doesn’t sound nearly as convoluted or awesome but that is what Pluto actually is. It’s a planet named after the king of Hell because it’s really cold and dark.

The character 冥 means dark and/or deep. It is really only used to refer to supernatural deep/dark things so you won’t hear anyone using it to describe a closet. Unless the closet is a portal from which demons spawn. Or the person describing it is an obnoxious liberal arts school graduate.

Appropriately the other (dwarf) planets of the solar system (with the exception of Mercury to Saturn, which were discovered by Chinese astronomers and named after classical elements before they learned the Occidental names for them) as well as other heavenly bodies named after mythological figures have similar naming schemes:

  • Uranus is called 天王星, the star of the heavenly king.
  • Neptune is called 海王星, the star of the sea king.
  • Eris is called 鬩神星, the star of the goddess of discord.
  • Makemake is called 鳥神星, the star of the (Easter Island) bird god.
  • Haumea is called 妊神星, the star of the (Hawaiian) goddess of being pregnant.
  • Ceres is called 穀神星, the star of the goddess of grains.
  • Vesta is called 灶神星, the star of the goddess of kitchen stoves.

The list goes on, but here are some of them. The compact nature of the naming scheme means that the name needs to summarize the unique characteristic of the god or goddess in one character. Conveniently, Chinese has a character for everything. However, like 冥 some of these characters are not often used by themselves in these days. For example, 鬩 is rarely used to describe chaos and 妊 is only really used as parts of technical terms to describe pregnancy.

A note: the character 神 translates to “god” (or, more modernly, “God”) but is used to refer to any sort of god or goddess in general. When gender needs to be taken into account goddesses are referred to by 女神, literally “female god”.


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