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Music legend David Bowie passed away early this year, with fans both grief-stricken and shocked at the news, as he had kept his final illness private. I covered the name Bowie last year because of his touring exhibition, which we now know was his way of saying goodbye.

At the time, there were many tributes to David Bowie taking place, with radio and TV stations taking the opportunity to play his music (my local radio station kept playing Starman non-stop, as if this was the only Bowie record they owned).

My favourite was from Weatherzone, who put out a weather report for the planet Mars, so that we could see what “life on Mars” was actually like.

Having already covered Ziggy and Bowie, there was no choice but to cover the name Mars in the month named after it.

Name Information
In Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war, and second only to Jupiter in importance. He represented military power as a method towards peace, rather than a destructive force, and was a father to and guardian of the Roman people themselves. His worship was central to Roman society, and he was an important symbol of the Roman Empire.

Mars was also an agricultural deity. Masculine, aggressive, and virile by nature, he was equally adept at defending soldiers from attack, and protecting crops. He is described as wild and savage, with a connection to woodlands, and may originally have been a god of the wilderness that needed to be mollified lest he destroy farmland. The animals sacred to Mars were wild ones, like the wolf, bear, and woodpecker, but the list also includes the domestic goose.

In art, Mars was either depicted as a youthful warrior, or as a handsome mature man with a beard, the dignified general who has won many victories. He is often nude or semi-nude to show that he is brave enough to enter battle with little to protect him. Mars is nearly always shown with a helmet and a spear, to symbolise warfare. However, when his military victory brings peace, his spear is draped with laurel.

The origin and meaning of the name Mars has been debated, with no agreement being reached. Two suggestions are that it is related to the Etruscan god Maris, or to the Hindu gods the Marutas, but both sides rubbish the opposing theory. We know that the worship of Mars was very ancient, because one of his hymns was in such archaic language that the Romans could no longer understand it, so it is safe to say that the meaning of the name Mars is lost in antiquity.

More certain are the words derived from Mars, such as martial, meaning “of war”, the month of March, which was sacred to Mars, and names such as Marcus and Martin.

The Romans named the fourth planet from the Sun after Mars: they were not the first to associate the planet with a god of war, which had been traditional ever since the Babylonians. It is speculated that the red colour of Mars brought to mind bloodshed – if so, the ancients were not far wrong, because the iron oxide that gives Mars its distinctive colour is the same thing which makes our blood red.

The planet Mars has captured the human imagination for years, and as soon as we had telescopes able to view the surface of it, we began seeing things. Astronomers thought they could see regular channels on the planet’s surface, which were called canals, and inspired a belief in intelligent life on the planet. Sceptics correctly identified this as an optical illusion caused by using a 19th century telescope which wasn’t good enough – nobody can see the “channels” today using modern instruments.

Astronomers of the 19th and early 20th centuries also thought they might have received radio signals from Mars, and even a mysterious bright light appearing to emanate from the planet was considered to be some sort of message. The idea that there were intelligent Martians, and they wished to contact us, was an idea humans had trouble shaking.

In science fiction, Mars is sometimes a Utopia, and sometimes a source of menace (most notably in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds). It is often a place of adventure and exploration, such as in the John Carter stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Later on, when it was accepted that Mars was uninhabited, sci-fi focused on the possibility of Mars becoming colonised by Earth, so that the Martian population was actually human.

Mars has been used as an English name since the 18th century. When director Spike Lee chose the name Mars for his character in She’s Gotta Have It, he took it from his own family history – Mars was the name of his great-great-grandfather, a freed slave and successful farmer. Mars was the kind of mythological name often given to slaves in America, but records show both white and black people with the name Mars.

In some cases it may not necessarily have been inspired by the god or the planet. Mars is also an English surname, a variant of Marsh: it’s most famous from Frank Mars who developed the chocolate Mars bar, which is still owned by the Mars family. The singer Bruno Mars (born Peter Hernandez) took his stage name as a symbol of being “different”. The name Mars has been more commonly used in Scandinavia and Central Europe, a variant or contraction of the name Marius.

Despite the ultra-masculine vibe of the god Mars (the symbol for the planet ♂ is the same as the one for male), Mars was sometimes given to girls, right from the start. Perhaps the surname was more influential, although girls are also given Mars-type names, such as Martina and Marcella – Mars even looks as if it might be short for Marsia or Marsha.

Recently two American celebrities have given Mars publicity as a girl’s name. Singer Erykah Badu welcomed a daughter named Mars in 2009, and comedian Blake Anderson in 2014. Two pop culture aids to seeing this as a girl’s name are TV girl detective Veronica Mars, and Sailor Mars from the Sailor Moon anime series (in the show, Sailor Mars is named after the planet and associated with fire and passion, as the planet Mars is in Japanese culture).

This is, and has always been, a rare name. In the US in 2014, 34 boys were given the name Mars, and less than 5 girls (we know there must have been at least one!). In the UK Mars does not show up in the data at all as a baby name.

Mars is an out of this world baby name, but it has millenia of history, taking in a god of protection and a red planet that has loomed in our imagination since time immemorial. Granted, there’s some teasing potential due to the Mars bar, and the fact your child would literally be a Martian, but there could be life in this name yet (in the middle for those worried about the curiosity factor). At least Mars is distinctive and will be easy to recall. Totally.

POLL RESULTS

Mars received an approval rating of 57%. 31% of people thought it was okay, although only 6% actually loved the name.

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