Makemake and Eris

Makemake is the god of fertility and creator of humanity in the mythology of the Rapa Nui people of the island of Rapa Nui in Polynesia. Actually, Rapa Nui forms one of the vertex of the triangle that defines Polynesia. Rapa Nui is in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest inhabited island almost 2000 km away with the nearest continental point almost 3500 km away.

The Dutch explorer. Jacob Roggeveen reached the Rapa Nui island on April 5th, 1722, Easter Sunday. It was named Easter Islands, the name with which we know the islands popularly now. The islands are known for its large stone statues called Moai. I bet you have seen images of these statues and wondered what they are.





Polynesian triangle with Rapa Nui represented by 3.

Polynesian triangle with Rapa Nui represented by 3.

 Eris is the Greek Goddess of strife and discord. The story goes that due to her nature to cause discord, she was the only Goddess not invited for the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Parents of Achilles. Remember Achilles as played by Brad Pitt in Troy?). She became angry and decided to crash the party. She brought with her an apple (Why does it always have to be an apple???) with “To the fairest one” written on it. This obviously caused trouble with all the other Goddess claiming they deserved it. The decision to adjudicate was put on Zeus who wisely delegated that to Paris, son of Priam (Paris – Remember Orlondo Bloom from Troy? The coward, useless guy??). Hera offered Paris ownership of all known world, Athena offered him wisdom and the abilities of the greatest warrior while Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. In his infinite stupidity, Paris chose Aphrodite. Aphrodite gives him the love of Helen who is already married to King Menelaus of Sparta thus sowing the roots of destruction of Troy in the Trojan war.

In the month of March of 2005, 31st March to be precise (4 days after Easter Sunday), the team of astronomers at the Palomar Observatory of Caltech led by Michael Brown discovered the object seen in the below image.

Makemake through the eye of Hubble
Makemake through the eye of Hubble

This was code-named Easterbunny and it has a diameter about 2/3 that of Pluto with an orbital period of 310 years. With the astronomical naming convention of naming classical Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO) after mythological names associated with creation, Mike Brown and his team decided to name the object Makemake after the Easter Island God of creation. Its complete name is 136472 Makemake with the number being a sequential number.

In January of the same year, the same team of astronomers from Caltech also discovered what they called Xena or Planet X. The way these objects are discovered is by comparing successive images taken of the same region of space on successive days. Since the star move very slowly, they would appear stationary in these images while planets, dwarf planets and other objects that are closer would appear to move. Now the space is so huge, the objects so dim and the number of objects that are visible so large that this is a very difficult task. Sophisticated computer programs are written that compare these images and identify possible matches. These possible matches also number in thousands due to problem with telescope (eg, dust particle on mirrors), the imaging device (eq, photographic plates not properly handled, problem in digital cameras) etc that these matches would still have to be visually inspected by an astronomer to classify them as possible matches. Below is the image that shows Xena in three successive images.

Movement of Eris
Movement of Eris

 Now the problem with Xena is that it is larger than Pluto (around 12 km in diameter) and 27% more massive than Pluto. When the discovery of Xena was announced along with the discovery of Makemake, it created a huge controversy. Is Xena a planet? It is larger than Pluto and if size is the criteria then it should be classified as a planet and be Planet X or the tenth planet. Can Makemake be also classified as Planet, it is just 2/3 the size of Pluto? Can Ceres, in the asteroid belt, also classified as a Planet? These discoveries led to much “discord and strife” in the international astronomical community finally forcing the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to define planets as

(1) A “planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”.

This resulted in Pluto relegated from the elite club of Planets to that of dwarf planets along with Xena, Sedna and Makemake. Due to the effect that Xena had, its discoverer Michael Brown appropriately named it Eris (136199 Eris).

Eris with its satellite Dysnomia
Eris with its satellite Dysnomia

 Fun Facts: Makemake has an orbital period of 310 years meaning it takes 310 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. Eris has an orbital period of 560 years (Aphelion around 97 AU) and at its most distance from the Sun, is almost twice as far away as Pluto is and believe me Pluto is far far away (Aphelion around 48 AU). New Horizons space probe, currently travelling at 14.8 km/s was launched in 2006 and will reach Pluto only by 2015. At its current speed, it can fly around earth in less than an hour. That should give you a perspective on how far away these objects are. Now the same Caltech team of Michael Brown also discovered 90377 Sedna. Now if you think Eris is very distant then Sedna is far, far, far, far away. Its aphelion is 937 AU, almost ten times as distant as Eris is and its orbital period is 11400 years! The last time Sedna was in the same position as today, humanity still had more than a thousand year to domesticate sheep and start agriculture (8000 BCE). 


Orbit of Sedna - Red ellipse is the orbit of Sedna while the purple ellipse is the orbit of Pluto. Note how Pluto's orbit intersect that of Neptune (blue circle) making Pluto nearer to the Sun than Neptune at some points of its orbit.

Orbit of Sedna – Red ellipse is the orbit of Sedna while the purple ellipse is the orbit of Pluto. Note how Pluto’s orbit intersect that of Neptune (blue circle) making Pluto nearer to the Sun than Neptune at some points of its orbit.


Median Empire

Astyages was the son of the “empire ender” Cyaraxes of Media. Astyages came to throne in 585 BCE after the death of Cyaraxes shortly after the battle of Halys river. The battle had taken place on May 28, 585 BCE. The battle ended abruptly due to a total solar eclipse. And this same total solar eclipse helps in identifying accurately the date of the battle.

Astyages was a “dreamer”. He dreamt that the son of his daughter Mandane would destroy his empire. Similar to the legend of Kansa (Krishna’s uncle), King Priam (Paris’s dad), and Laius (Father of Oedipus), Astyages decided that this is “not happening”. He looked around and decided that Cambyses I of the Achaemenid was “Quiet and Thoughtful Prince” to quote Herodotus and married Mandane of to him believing Cambyses I to be no threat. Later Astyages had another dream when Mandane become pregnant in which a vine tree from her womb took over the world. Astyages was a worried man. He sent his trusted general Harpagus to kill the child. Harpagus though was moral man loath to shed the royal blood. So he switched the child with a stillborn child of a shepherd, Mitradates. Remember that Krishna was also raised by a shepherd Vasudeva, Paris was raised by shepherds while Oedipus was also initially with couple of shepherds. Whats with abandoned children and shepherds!

The child was found to be alive and kicking at the age of ten playing King of the Hill. Astyages stupid magi told him that winning the game fulfills the prophecy of the child becoming king and thus is no longer a threat. Astyages lets the child live but decides to teach the treacherous Harpagus a lesson. Astyages orders the murder of only son of Harpagus and feeding him the general in a banquet. Harpagus did not react to this horrific act and bid his time.

The child became the king of the Achaemenid dynasty after his father Cambyses I, who was a vassal of the Median empire. Goaded by Harpagus, the grandson rebelled against his grandfather. After three years of struggle, Astyages’s troops mutinied during the battle of Pasargadae, probably arranged by Harpagus who led the troops. Astyages was defeated and captured, thus ending the Median empire in 550 BCE.

The child was Cyrus II also known as Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire (Achaemenid Empire) that at its peak was the largest empire in the history of the world in terms of percentage of world population under it.  About 50 million out of the then 112 million people, 44.48% of the total world population, lived and died under Cyrus.

Land of the Civilized Kings

Sumer, the land of the civilized kings or the native land, was perhaps the oldest civilization of the world. Sumer was the name given to these non-semitic civilzation by the semitic Akkadians. The Sumerian civilization lasted from the Ubaid period (c. 5300 BCE) till ca. 2334 BCE when they were absorbed by the Akkadian empire.

Arguably the oldest city in human history, Eridu, was established near the southern bank of Euphrates river south of Ur. Eridu was close to Persian gulf and near the mouth of Euphrates when it was established, but is considerably inland now due to millenia of silt accumulation. Enki, God of wisdom, magic, creation, mischief, the gatekeeper of Me (the gifts of civilization) was the patron God of Eridu. In a mythological story, similar to the Judeo-Christian creation myth, Enki eats fruits of forbidden plants resulting in creation of life and disease. Using clay and blood of Kingu (A rebel God) creates humans as servant of Gods. The first human thus created, Adapa, becomes the advisor to the first king of Eridu. Adapa refused the gift of immortality, albeit unknowingly, on the advice of Enki.

In parallel to the introduction of language in the biblical myth of Tower of Babel, Enki is credited with

Endowed with wisdom, the lord of Eridu

Changed the speech in their mouths, [brought] contention into it,

Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.

It is believed that the location of the Tower of Babel was Eridu.

In the oldest of Middle Eastern deluge myth, older than the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enki helps mankind survive the great flood by advising Atrahasis to build a boat and take his family and animals on board. Atrahasis, after 7 days and nights of flood, sends a swallow, raven and a dove to check if there any land was visible. I do not need to point out how closely this matches with Noah’s flood.

In another of Enki’s myth, Enki gives the gift of Me to Inanna, the Goddess of love, fertility and warfare. Inanna was the patron goddess of Uruk. It perhaps indicated the shift of power from Eridu to Uruk and the rise of the Uruk period in the Sumerian history. Name of the modern country of Iraq is supposedly inspired by Uruk.

Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem which is the oldest surviving piece of literature, is based on the life of Gilgamesh who was the king of Uruk. The pic of Gilgamesh tells of a vile king Gilgamesh who later grieving for the death of his friend, Enidu, goes searching for immortality. The quest is predictably futile. The poem starts with Gilgamesh praising the walls that he has built around Uruk with the implication that he is proud of the great work that he has accomplished. The poem ends with the same praise of the wall, but this time the implication being that Gilgamesh has realized his mortality and thus believes that his work will outlast him and through it, he is immortal.

Sumer came under the Akkadian empire around 2334 BCE leading to the end of the distinct existence of the Sumerian civilization.