We discussed the nine-planet crest of the Hosokawa family in the context of the exhibition Lords of the Samurai. The Hosokawa daimyo family adopted a crest that consisted of eight circles appearing to orbit a larger ninth circle. The term nine planets might suggest the nine planets of our solar system (if we allow Pluto), but of course there is no direct correspondence between the nine-planet motifs of Asian tradition and the nine planets of modern astronomy.
The English word planet comes from a Greek word meaning “wanderer.” In the ancient world, and largely until Copernicus, such a term was used to describe any celestial object that appeared to move through the sky, as opposed to stars, which appeared more fixed. So Venus was a “planet,” but so was the moon, or a comet. When Thomas Nashe wrote in 1600 of “resplendent Sol, chiefe planet of the heavens” he was using the word in this sense to refer to the sun.
In the ancient world, celestial deities were often associated with heavenly bodies. In India a set of of nine such deities is often referred to as the “nine planetary deities,” and this motif seems to have spread through many parts of Asia. But the set is not necessarily quite so “planetary” as the name suggests — in some formulations the nine deities are thought to have been associated with the true planets Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn as well as with the sun and moon, but also with the directions north and south.
The image above is a detail from an eleventh-century Cambodia stone sculpture (it is on view in gallery 9 on our third floor). Many similar stone representations of this set of nine deities are known from ancient Angkor. Scholars are not entirely sure, however, exactly whom they depict. It is possible that the sets of nine deities from Cambodia represent the same nine “planetary deities” seen in ancient Indian contexts, but this is not certain, since some of them do not seem to have the expected characteristics. The exact meaning of these objects remains a mystery.
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