Medieval Literature in the Space Age

Otherworldly landscapes are assigned names by the International Astronomical Union's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN). When a distant world is photographed, the world is assigned a theme and a few of its most distinctive features – enormous craters or volcanoes – are named. As better images become available, smaller features in the landscape, including more minor craters, depressions, and patches of ice, may also be named.

The planets stop being points in the sky and start becoming places.

Medieval stories have provided the inspiration for names throughout the solar system. In the Saturn system, heavily-cratered Mimas draws its names from tales about the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, while Iapetus – distinguishing lighter areas from dark – takes its names from a medieval French poem about a battle between Charlemagne's army and the Muslims of Spain. Among the moons of Jupiter, Io, the most volcanically active world in our solar system, takes its names from Dante's Inferno, and other medieval literatures associated with thunder and fire, while Callisto, a scarred world dominated by the enormous Valhalla structure, draws names from Old Icelandic eddic poetry and sagas.

Since the seventeenth century, medieval literatures have been foundational to the writing of the histories of the Scandinavian nations. Now, these same literatures are being used to write our futures.


Oscar A. Wergeland, 'Settlement of Iceland' (1877). National Museum of Norway: NG.M.04428. The past 50 years have seen another age of settlements, as planetary scientists undertake the exploration and naming of other worlds.

Medieval Literature in the Space Age