Discovery - Chart - Naming
See also: Uranus | Pluto
The discovery of Neptune
Like Uranus, Neptune was observed several times before being identified. The first recorded sighting was by Galileo, who observed its conjunction with Jupiter in 1612 and mistook it for one of the Jovian moons.
The actual discovery of Neptune was associated with the sort of confusion so often signified by that planet. The suggestion that the observed irregularities in the motions of Uranus were caused by another planet was first put forward in 1834 by T.J. Hussey, but George Airy, soon to be Astronomer Royal, assured him that there was not the slightest chance of using the perturbations to predict the position of the unknown planet. In 1840 the great German astronomer Friedrich Bessel decided to search for a new planet, but he fell sick and his assistant died. By 1845 John Adams of Cambridge had calculated the approximate position of the planet (despite Airy's attempts to discourage him), but his letters to Airy asking for a search to be made at Greenwich were ignored for nine months, after which Airy passed the details back to the observatory at Cambridge; there James Challis actually saw Neptune, but failed to realise what it was. Meanwhile Urban Le Verrier in Paris had also calculated the position, but the local observatory failed to do anything about it, and a letter to Airy was characteristically ignored. Eventually Le Verrier sent his results to Berlin, where Johann Galle found Neptune on the night of 23 September 1846.
Airy (born 27 July 1801) seems to have had similar luck to that more recent Astronomer Royal who dismissed space travel as nonsense just a couple of weeks before the first artificial satellite was launched. Although a man of great energy and ability, he was undoubtedly eccentric and obsessive. According to Patrick Moore, Airy once spent a day in the cellar at Greenwich Observatory sticking 'empty' labels onto empty boxes. Late in his life, an acquaintance said that "he seemed more anxious to put letters in their proper places than to master their contents". Obviously not, one would think, a Neptunian man. Yet he actually had Neptune in square to Jupiter! But these planets are a duet -- an aspecting pair making no major aspect to any other planet- and duets tend to switch their effect on and off very erratically. In Airy's case, the effect seems to have been permanently switched off by his Mercury-Saturn conjunction.
Adams (born 5 June 1819) belonged to that remarkable Victorian generation born under a Uranus-Neptune conjunction, energised in his case by the trine of Mars. At the time of the discovery, transiting Neptune made a sextile to Adams's Neptune and Galle's (born 9 June 1812) Mercury.
In the chart for the discovery of Neptune, we find the planet in conjunction with Saturn and in the sign and terms of Saturn: it takes a lot of Saturn to bring Neptune down to earth. This conjunction seems very characteristic of the Victorian age: hard working and capable, but often unable to find the balance between the materialistic and the visionary.
The Saturn-Neptune cycle commencing at the discovery has been particularly significant for communism. In 1848 the Communist Manifesto was published (and Europe was swept by a series of particularly romantic and inept revolutions), while subsequent conjunctions marked both the Russian revolution and collapse of European communism.
Neptune is also associated with both cults and the occult, and some striking events in this connection followed its discovery. In 1847 a Chinese clerk decided
that he was the son of God, founded the Taiping cult, and attempted to conquer China; whilst in America, the Mormons set out for Utah to create their theocratic community. In 1848 the Fox sisters produced the poltergeist manifestations that led to the spiritualist movement; even if they were frauds, that too is Neptunian.
The Naming of Neptune
The names Janus and Oceanus were both proposed for the new planet, but Neptune was settled on quite quickly. The Roman god Neptune was a very ancient figure. His name means 'grandson' and corresponds to both the Irish sea god Nechtan (earlier Neptonos) and the Indo-Iraman Apam Napat 'Grandson of the Waters'. He seems to have originally been a god of oil wells, or rather the natural petroleum springs of the Caucasus, which the Persians called the Mountain of the Grandson. The Celts and Romans transferred him to the sea, while the Indians eventually forgot him altogether. But the Irish remembered that Nechtan had a dangerous magic well, whilst in India the Veda had described him as living underwater yet 'clad in lightning' and 'giving off light without fuel'. Can it be chance that the planet has petroleum among its rulerships? But apart from the sea and oil, none of the things ruled by Neptune can be linked to myths of the god. The first published account of its influence by John Ackroyd (in the 1890 reprint of W. J. Simmonite's Complete Arcana of Astral Philosophy) makes no reference to mythology; his conclusions were based purely on the study of the planet in nativities.
The Romans equated Neptune to the Greek Poseidon, but the latter was not originally a sea god at all. His name means simply 'husband of Da' - i.e., Demeter or Damater, 'mother Da' - and he was a god of the earth, as shown by his responsibility for earthquakes. Like his wife, he was also associated with horses. Poseidon thus has nothing to do with the astrological Neptune.
Source for chart data: Nick Campion's Book of World Horoscopes
David McCann is an authoritative expert on the history and philosophy of astrology. His articles have been published in many international journals of astrology and he was a regular contributor to the Traditional Astrologer magazine, where this article first appeared.
© David McCann