‘Men are from Mars and women are from Venus’, is thankfully now an outdated adage. But the gender symbols we have been used for centuries to differentiate the gender binary and, now updated to include non-binary genders, remain in use – including on this site! So where do these symbols come from?
Allegedly, these symbols originate from myth. The Spear and Shield of Mars is allegedly the origin of the male symbol. According to Aulus Gellius and Cassius Dio, a religious relic thought to be the spear of Mars was supposedly kept in the former residence of the kings of Rome (the Regia). The gender symbol as we know it is a planetary symbol for Mars.
The Mirror of Venus, by contrast, is associated with the goddess Venus’ hand mirror, reflecting the vanity and pride of woman kind – hmph! Rationale aside, the symbol is used as a planetary symbol for Venus.
So who used these planetary symbols? These symbols are first found in Greek Papyri, but seem to have been adopted from Bablyonian symbols made available to the Ancient Greeks by the conquest of Alexander the Great in 331 BC.
Even the Latin text above is a translation of a Persian astrologer, illustrated with woodcuts depicting Mars and Venus holding the shield, spear and hand mirror associated with the symbols. the explanations for the symbols, then, are not mutually exclusive.
Carl Linnaeus was the first to use these astrological symbols, linked to Venus and Mars, in order to differentiate the sex of plants in 1753. In his Species Plantarum, he used Venus for female plants, Mars for male and the hybrid symbol (Mercury) for hermaphroditic plants.
After the death of Linnaeus, Bezenius applied Latin names for metals on the periodic table. However, some chemists continued to use shorthand symbols for the planets associated with each metal, bringing us back to the astrological symbols. As a result:
Mars= iron= weapons
Venus= copper= hand mirror
Perhaps the simplest explanation takes us back to the Greek alphabet. Here the letters derive from the initials of the Greek planetary names for Mars and Venus. (The Greek names for these deities are Aries and Aphrodite).
Venus= Phosphorous (The Morning Star)
Then and Now
These symbols recur through myth, astrology and science with overlapping explanations, but the paradigms of Venus and Mars remain throughout. Does this really vaunt the tried stereotype of ornamental women and violent men? Maybe, but maybe not. In Pompeiian wall art for example, Mars is obscured by Venus and below, albeit unusually, appears more scantily clad than she does. Venus’ power in myth and status as a religious figure in Rome puts her on an equal status with Mars, though the same was not the case for Roman women.
Berzelius, J.J. 1814. On the Chemical Signs. Ann. of Phil. 3. 51-2. 362-4.
Schott, G.D. 2005. Sex Symbols Ancient and Modern: Their Origins and Iconography on the Pedigree. British Medical Journal. 331. 1509-10.
Stearn, W.T. 1962. The Origin of the Male and Female Symbols of Biology. Taxon. 11.4. 109-13.