The Naming of Vanth

Orcus and Vanth

In the spring of 2009, an online friend who happens to be a professional astronomer linked me to a plaintive appeal being made on behalf of S/1 90482 (2005), the newly discovered and as yet unnamed moon of the anti-Pluto trans-Neptunian object 90482 Orcus. The satellite needed a name. Its discoverers had decided to crowdsource one. For the next two weeks, comments would be open to the best guesses of the internet, after which the most mythologically and astronomically apt suggestion would be submitted to the International Astronomical Union with credit given where due, if desired. Some facts about the satellite and its relationship to its dwarf planet were provided. The rest was left up to the reader's discretion.

In hindsight I don't know why I bothered to disclaim my knowledge of Etruscan myth if I was going to argue with another commenter that Vanth is not the consort of Charun but his co-psychopomp, thank you very much, but I threw my hat into the ring for the torch-carrying huntress of the Etruscan underworld—the very first eponym to come to mind—and expected to find out that the moon ended up named Phersipnai.

The moon ended up named Vanth.

I was not the only reader to suggest the name—as acknowledged by discoverer Mike Brown, if suggestions had been votes, Vanth would have won by a landslide. I was the first reader to suggest it, first in comments and then in e-mail:

Vanth and Charun are traditionally paired in Etruscan iconography, so her association with Orcus forms a nice parallel to Charon and Pluto; in keeping with the satellite's unclear origins, Vanth's role is not cut-and-dried (she is generally accepted as a psychopomp, possibly a benevolent counterpart to the demonic Charun) and where Orcus and Charon can be traced into other mythologies, Vanth is attested only in Etruscan; and if she accompanies dead souls from the moment of death to the underworld itself, then of course her face is turned always toward Orcus.

The name was accepted by the International Astronomical Union in the spring of 2010. My name is linked now with a Kuiper belt object. It is one of the nicest and most honoring things that has ever happened to me.

They teased us when we married,
the stonecutter and the daughter of auguries—
Charun and Vanth. The hammer I swung
into skulls of tufa and travertine,
her huntress' step, suddenly turning
as if she beckoned back a soul to Phersipnai,
we wore the names lightly, the lines of our days
already in the hand of other gods.Vanth
The laws of Tarchies, swan-winged Turan,
Thesan cradling slain Memnun in her arms
was not more piercing than her eyes
like laurel leaves, the plaited coronal of her hair
black as bucchero in the reflected sun.
No cast of Tinia's, no liver or levinbolt
could split us. We held to one another
like pole-star and ploughman, mundus and map—
the crossing of our shadows. The years
nailed home. In the tomb where she rests
among garlands and funeral games,
panthers guard her, twin lionesses pace
a rack of red-dashed ivy, dappled like fawns,
an aulos in a boy's fixed fingers plays
melodies only the dead can hear.
As in life, she lifts a hand to me,
terra-cotta in the dark of my closed eyes,
the solid compass of the heavens overhead.
Out of reach, one of my guides is waiting.
The death I will greet gladly wears her face.

"Phersu" originally published in Not One of Us #42, October 2009.