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Last Wednesday was the transit of Venus, the planet taking about six and a half hours to cross the face of the Sun. Most of Australia was in a prime position to view this astronomical event (with special protective glasses, or else streamed live on the Internet so as not to damage our eyes).

Transits of Venus occur in pairs 8 years apart, separated by gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. So the one before this one was in June 2004, and the next one will be in December 2117. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but if you missed this last one, I think you’ve lost your chance to see another.

The transit of Venus is not only a rare and lovely astronomical event, it is also an essential part of Australian history. It was in 1766 that the Royal Society sent Captain James Cook to observe the transit of Venus from the Pacific region. The reason scientists were so keen to get accurate observations was because astronomer Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame) had suggested that if you measured one of the transits, you could then use the data to figure out the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and thence to work out the distances to all the other bodies in the solar system.

For a variety of reasons, nearly all the scientists sent around the world ran into technical problems, and it was up to Captain Cook to take the observations, which he did in Tahiti in 1769. He then opened his sealed orders from the British Admiralty to find he had been sent on a secret mission to discover the mythical Terra Australis. There was no such place, and discovering New Zealand was a massive disappointment, as it was nowhere near the size the expedition had been hoping for.

Now some men would have gone home, feeling that observing the transit of Venus and discovering New Zealand was enough for one trip. But Captain Cook was made of sterner stuff, and he took it upon himself to become the first European to explore the east coast of Australia, and also to claim it as British territory. His reward was to be given a promotion, and sent back again to look just a bit harder for Terra Australis.

By sailing around diligently discovering places and claiming them for Britain, he was at last able to establish that Terra Australis didn’t exist, although Britain now owned a reasonable sized country it could send convicts to. The maps Cook made in the process were so good that they were still being used in the twentieth century, and the observations he took of the transit of Venus were used to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun with reasonable accuracy.

The planet Venus has an ancient connection to Australia as well, because the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land believe she is an important creator spirit called Banumbirr. Through dawn ceremonies performed with beautifully decorated Morning Star poles, they communicate with their dead ancestors through a rope of light which Banumbirr trails behind her. The ceremony means the ancient Yolngu people must have had enough astronomical knowledge to track the complex motion of Venus, as it rises before dawn only at certain times of the year.

I love stars, and although Venus is a planet, I, like almost everyone else, know it as both the Morning Star and the Evening Star. The brightest object in the night sky after the Moon, Venus is the first light to appear at dusk, and the last to disappear at dawn. In fact, I have often wished on Venus, with that little rhyme which begins, Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight …. Sometimes my wishes came true, sometimes they didn’t! Fickle Venus.

The Babylonians may have been the first to understand that the morning and evening stars were the same object, and called it Ishtar, after their goddess of love, sex, fertility and war. Other cultures followed the tradition, and to the Romans she was Venus; her morning aspect was called Lucifer (“light-bringer”), and her evening one Vesper.

Venus was a Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, luck and war; her name is from the Latin word venus, meaning “sexual love, sexual desire”. The word is closely related to venenum, meaning “poison, venom”, which probably demonstrates a certain ambivalence towards passionate love we share today. The word venenum also meant charm, as in a love potion. Falling madly in love with someone can feel as if we have been given some sort of magic potion, and if it all goes wrong, we do indeed feel as awful as if we had swallowed poison instead!

The Romans said that Venus was the mother of Aeneas, the Trojan ancestor of Rome’s founder, Romulus, and therefore the mythological ancestor of the Roman people. The month of April was sacred to her, and she was associated with springtime flowering and the fecundity of nature. Her earliest festivals were ones that celebrated gardens and wine-drinking, and many of her attributes seem to be taken from more ancient goddesses of water and purity. Later on, Venus was identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Phoenician goddess Astarte.

The beauty of Venus has made her a popular subject in art, especially as it was acceptable (and practically mandatory) to show her nude or semi-nude. Two of the most famous are probably the classical statue, the Venus de Milo, which has the arms missing, and Bottichelli’s painting, The Birth of Venus. To call a woman “a Venus” means that she is beautiful and desirable in a very erotic way.

As well as being a female first name, Venus can be an English surname. It’s not related to the goddess, but is from the Norman-French place name of Venoix, near the city of Caen.

Venus is also a place name; there are two towns in Australia called Venus Bay – one in South Australia and the other in Victoria. Both these fishing villages are named after ships called Venus, which brings us to another intriguing Australian connection to Venus.

It is said that the drinking song, The Good Ship Venus, may have been influenced by actual events, when convicts travelling on the brigantine Venus mutinied and took the ship to New Zealand, becoming Australia’s first pirates. Two of the convicts were female, and there were reports of great immorality aboard ship – a possible inspiration for the song’s bawdy lyrics.

Venus is a rarely used name, but one which evokes both feminine beauty and the twinkle of a lovely “star” which can grant wishes …. sometimes. It’s one which has several connections with Australia, and is deeply woven into our nation’s history and culture. That makes Venus a surprisingly patriotic name choice, although I do feel on this one, we have waltzed far, far beyond Matilda!

(Photo of the transit of Venus from NASA)