Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cultural astronomy and star worship in Bath

 (28 June 2016)

On the historic day of 24 June 2016, when it became known that the British people had voted for  Britain's exit from the European Union, I took the ferryboat from the French-occupied Flemish town of Kales (Calais) to Dover. In years past I had always taken the Eurostar superfast train, which emerges from underground near Folkestone, but this time I could see the white cliffs of Dover, ever since Julius Caesar the emblematic first sign of Britain. As most of you know, they are the reason why Britain is also known as Albion, from Latin albus, “white”.

I was going to the Conference on Cultural Astronomy in Bath on 25-26 June 2016, organized by the Sophia Centre belonging to the University of Wales in Lampeter. It is pleasant to think that the choice of this town was, in cosmic terms, not a coincidence. It is here that William Herschel lived when he made the first-ever discovery of a new planet, Uranus.
This year the topic was “Worship of the Stars”, a subject that overlaps with the subject of the European-level Conference on Cultural Astronomy hosted by its British section in this same town in September. At that conference, I will present a paper myself (on the Semitic concept of Shirk, “associating (a dying hero with a star)”, which Islam later transformed into meaning “idolatry”). Here I only attended other people’s lectures. But this gave me ample time to listen and think, so I shall briefly report on the lectures before giving my own thoughts.

And by the way, I earned many a smirk by introducing myself as being “from Brussels” (actually at a small distance from it, not worthy of mention on an international scale), that hell-hole and focal point of EU tyranny. So, that much for the Sitz im Leben behind this reflection.

The worldwide religion

The worldwide array of instances of star worship presented here shows that star worship is really the universal religion. In this regard it competes with ancestor worship, also near-universal. Or rather, the two are often intertwined, for deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. The identification of stars with gods is not only implicit in a common etymology of words for “god” (Deva = “the radiant one”), it is even affirmed by serious philosophers like Socrates (Apology 226d) and Plato (Laws, 821c or 886d). This view often had to deal with a skeptical counterpoint, exemplified by the position of philosopher Anaxagoras and of playwright Aristophanes (“The Clouds” and “The Birds”) that the sun and the stars are only pieces of burning stone. From a religious viewpoint, this expulsion of the sacred was disrepect to the gods, or what the Greeks called Hubris, “foolish pride”, “conceit”, as explained by Stavroula Konstantopoloulou.

Several speakers went deeper into the alreay well-established role of the Mesopotamian traditions in this regard. A lesser-known instance, here discussed by Hannelore Goos, is the role of the stars in Germanic religion. We heard details about the roles of sun and moon in the Edda, sometimes in disguise. The Germanic pantheon is often reputed to be sombre and full of ice, but here we saw that it, too, often symbolically refers to more luminous lore about the bright ones in the heavens.

In Germany today, we notice a revival of Solstice gatherings at ancient woodhenge sites (several have only recently been discovered) or rock formations. Reinhard Mussik reported that these were less an expression of neo-Paganism than of a heightened interest in archaeo-astronomy. In particular, he found a widespread belief in a transnational solar cult that must anciently have been spread across Europe.   

I apologize to those speakers whose name or research I don’t mention in this limited space, and move on to Marcello De Martino’s important thesis on Hestia/Vesta, goddess of the hearth, i.e. the focal (from focus, “hearth”) or central fire. The Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus of Croton conceived of a model of the universe wherein the earth is central vis-à-vis the planets and then the fixed stars, much like in the usual geocentric model, except that the earth itself revolves around something even more central, the focal fire. This pyrocentric model is but the high-brow formulation of a tradition that goes back to at least Proto-Indo-European times (some 4000 BCE). In this system, the gods are personifications of celestial bodies and phenomena, conceived as peripheral to the real centre of the universe, Hestia as the hearth fire.

I add that in this respect, some Paganisms were ready from the beginning for the concept of “discarding the gods”, which Christianity or Islam would later impose by force (though only to replace them with their own god). But before that, we already see how Stoicism, which takes some distance from state-approved theism, becomes the accepted worldview among educated Greeks and Romans. Or how the Vedic cult of the gods gets replaced with a pursuit of knowledge, of the Absolute (Brahman), in the Upanishads. These developments only explicitated a relativisation of the gods that had been there all along, because the heavenly beings had always been conceived as peripheral and subordinate to the central fire.  

I may also add that in Christian cosmology, this central fire reappears as the centrality of hell within the planet standing in the centre of the geocentric universe. Theologians had a conscience problem here, for situating hell-fire underground amounted to putting Satan in the centre of the universe. You have to pay Satan his due, but this was just too much honour.

The Biblical religions

The Tenach (Old Testament) recognizes the importance of star worship, even when prohibiting it for the Israelites: “Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that you be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven." (Deut. 4:19) As an application of this instruction among the Jews themselves, we learned here from speaker Meira Epstein that the Talmud describes rituals for the first appearance of t, with Helios in his chariot at the centre,he New Moon, but that after verifying the moon’s visibility, the officiant is then directed to look at his prayer text and never at the moon itself during the ritual, so as it make clear that this is not moon worship. Nonetheless, as excavated synagogue floors from the early Christian centuries show (documented by Rachel Schmid), the Zodiac became an integral part of the really existing Jewish worldview.

As Christianity brought the Biblical worldview to the Pagans, it busied itself with eradicating star worship, partly simply eliminating it and consigning it to oblivion, partly adopting it in disguise. Thus, the eulogy to Mary as “Queen of Heaven” is directly taken from the Pagan lore about Venus. Church buildings were oriented to the rising sun. The Pentecost as the feast of the Holy Spirit and of communication across language barriers was put in Gemini, All Saints’ Day as feast of the dead in Scorpio, etc. Stellar divination even gained an explicit place in the Jesus narrative with the visit of the Magi. Jesus was often likened to the sun with its well-attested myths of death and resurrection. As Konstatinos Gravanis showed, theologians also likened Jesus to a conjunction of sun and moon: the sun being his divine nature, radiant and unchanging, and the moon his human nature, imperfect and transient.

Astrology was very influential in the Middle East and in the Roman Empire, so the Church ended up incorporating some of it. The Church Fathers condemned its supposed determinism, but later doctores such as Thomas Aquinas created a space for it within the Christian worldview. Christian astrologers merely had to explicitate that the heavenly bodies were not gods (in fact, they were deemed to be set and kept in motion by angels), and on that condition their own form of horoscopy could flourish.

An instance of very elementary astrology in Christian art was presented by my Serbian friend Dragana Ilič. On a Jesus painting in a Serbian monastery, we find a depiction of two seeming space ships, with one cosmonaut in each, in the heavenly background to scenes from Jesus’ life. Since Erich von Däniken, many New-Agers see this as proof that aliens have come, and that cosmonauts from up there even triggered the genesis of religion down here. Alas, she showed that these were ultimately just fanciful images of sun and moon. 


The Quran simply and strictly prohibits star worship. Again, this went hand in hand with a high tide of astrology, but on the condition that astrologers emphasized how the planets were not gods but mere cogwheels in a machinery set in motion by the Creator. Pre-Islamic religion was actually also largely star worship (next to ancestor worship and the worship of special stones like the Black Stone in Mecca’s Ka’ba). Thus, the three Meccan goddesses of Satanic Verses fame, al-Lat, al-Uzza and al-Manat, are roughly the Sun, Venus and the Moon. One of the most original papers dealt with one pre-Islamic Arabian form of practical star lore.

We learned from Arab researcher Mai Lootah that in pre-Islamic Arabia, the quasi-Babylonian lore about the heliacal rising (i.e. as the last to visibly rise before daybreak) of a number of stars and planets, or about their opposition (rising when the sun sets) had been encapsulated in a series of verses or rhymed prose texts, generally with a prediction attached. This art was called anwā’. Most commonly they generally predicted the weather, like astrological versions of our weather proverbs: “Red sky at night,/ shepherd’s delight;/ red sky in the morning,/ shepherd take warning.” You might compare them also to the little stories that go with a specific throw of the oracle stones in different oracle systems from China to Congo, where each outcome contains a prediction applicable to the questioners’ situation.

The art seems to have some status, for city dwellers from Saudi Arabia have mastered it, the way Westerners nowadays complete courses in fengshui or indeed in astrology. Traditionally, however, it was passed on from father to sun in Beduin communities, and she could interview a number of those hereditary specialists in Kuwait. The verses were preserved all across the Islamic period by these Beduin soothsayers (baru’), who of course had to assure their environments that the stars were not gods and that this lore implied nothing detrimental to monotheism. However, since urbanization struck in Arabia in the 1960s, the specialists are losing touch with nature and with direct observation of the starry sky, so that this lore is now getting hazy. Modernization is destroying what fourteen centuries of prohibitive monotheism could not.  

Rebels against the world order

An often neglected ideological impact upon evolving astrology is Mazdeism or Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion. The Persians ruled Babylon in the 6th-4th century BCE, where they adopted but also influenced local astrology. They were a major presence in Greek life, and in subsequent centuries, after Alexander, remained a major influence upon Hellenism. As is fairly well-known, they worshipped Ahura Mazda (“Lord Wisdom”), a form of address of the Vedic god Varuna, personification of the world order incarnated in the orderly configuration of the night sky.

The great rebel against Ahura Mazda was Angra Mainyu (“Furious Spirit”), signifying disorder.  From philological studies, we know that he can be equated with the Vedic god Indra, the thunder-god (Thor, Jupiter, Zeus, Marduk), whom the Iranians had demonized. In Vedic polytheism there are, apart from the ultimate poles of Heaven and Earth, three classes of gods: 12 heavenly ones, 11 atmospheric ones, and 8 earthly ones. The first category signifies celestial order, not coincidentally the number of the Zodiac signs, or that which in Iranian dualism comes to be symbolized by Ahura Mazda. The third one signifies the wordly riches undergoing the influences from above. The second category is the one that interests us here: it signifies dynamism and disorder, symbolized by the unwieldy number 11 and by the unpredictable wind. It is here that storm-god Indra belongs.

Above the earth with its intractable and hidden pathways, but below the seemingly orderly and unchanging array of the fixed stars, therefore also reckoned as part of the “atmosphere”, of the in-between sphere, there are also the disorderly phenomena of heaven. These include comets, eclipses, the occasional nova, and come to think of it, in a sense also the planets. These are more predictable than the earthly events, also more than the weather or the comets, but less than the fixed stars. It is, for instance, hardly necessary to calculate an ephemeris for the stars, for their positions remain unchanging for a long time; by contrast, it is necessary to map out the movements of the planets.

This way, the planets partly partake of the orderly and unchanging divine world, but also participate in the sphere of disorder. Speaker Paul Bembridge demonstrated a remarkable confluence, around the time of Christ, of beliefs that a war was raging in heaven between the stars and the planets: the “Gnostic crisis”. In that sense, it could be said that the planets partially signify the adversary of the world order. He probably went too far when he tied this in with the nickname of  Venus, the brightest of the planets, as Lucifer. He tried to associate Venus, and through her the planets in general, with the Devil (“the slanderer”), the Satan (“the adversary”), the opponent of the divine order par excellence. However, Lucifer means the “light-bringer”, apparently because as morning-star, Venus announces the dawn; and not too much should be looked for behind this.

On the other hand, while exaggerated, it does point to a reality. As is known, in Bible-based theology, Satan is meant to try and test us, to “lead us into temptation”. And that exactly is what the planets are: signifiers of the unruly passions, the wild sea we have to learn to navigate, and from which we ultimately have to emancipate ourselves.

Hindu astrology

The whole conference was exceptional, but I especially enjoyed the papers on Hindu astrology by Kenneth Miller and Freedom Cole. One of the Sanskrit terms for “astrologer”, at least since its mention in a 4th-century dictionary, is Daiva-jña, “knower of the gods”, or in practice, “knower of fate”. Another is Daiva-lekhaka, “gods-writer”, “fate-writer”, i.e. horoscope-maker. Obviously, the stars here were seen as gods regulating man’s destiny.

The Bhagavad-Gita 5:12 says that men desiring success in action worship Devas/gods, and that for them, success gets accomplished through ritual action. It is in this spirit that astrology is still practised in India today: the client will get advice on what ritual to practise, when and how and for which god, to ward off the negative influences of the stellar configurations indicated in his horoscope. This will remove the obstacles to his well-being and the fulfilment of his desires.

By contrast, Sadhana or what is nowadays called “the spiritual path” falls outside the ambit of astrology. In Sadhana, the point is to decrease your desires, to renounce, to abandon. A monk is usually expected to refrain from astrology. His aim is not to navigate the circumstances of life, the risks and opportunities signified by the stellar configurations, but to grow out of this world, to become indifferent to fate.

In the West, astrology appeals mostly to starry-eyed aficionaos of “spirituality”. Though cultivating a soft and mushy worldview, they tend to be stern in their disapproval when they hear that in the Orient (not just India, but also China and other places, where the bourgeoisie takes astrological advice very seriously) people are very “materialistic” in the questions they ask, as are the astrologers in their matter-of-fact answers. But in fact, it is only natural, ever since the beginning of sooth-saying, that oracle-readers, palmists and star-gazers are down-to-earth in the advice they give. Everyone is free to “indulge” in the spiritual path during his free time; but in the grim business of making a living, choosing where and how to build a house, or marrying off your daughter to a worthy candidate, clear and lucre-conscious counsel is called for. 

Hindu civilization probably borrowed its present system of horoscopy from the Greeks, who in turn had freshly adopted it from the Babylonians. It is, at any rate, not mentioned in India before Alexander, in fact only six or so centuries later. One of the speakers, like many Hindus, wasn’t so sure about this. Thus, the very first book on horoscopy in India is admittedly called Yavana Jataka, “Ionian Birth Astrology”, but that doesn’t strictly prove that non-Greek astrology wasn’t known. But this sounds like special pleading: the common-sense conclusion from the available data is that the existing tradition of Babylonian horoscopy was first adopted and transformed by the Greeks after Alexander’s conquest, and in subsequent centuries transmitted by the Indo-Greeks to the Indians.

However, the borrowed nature of Indian nativity-reading doesn’t prove the absence of astrology. All major civilizations cultivated some more or less systematized stellar lore, along with other forms of divination. And indeed, Vedic civilization knew at least two distinct forms of astrology. One was omen-reading, described in the Mahabharata, comparable to what existed in Mesopotamia in pre-horoscope days and amply attested there in clay tablets from the 2nd millennium BCE. This was by its very nature haphazard, based on any celestial revelation which the gods of their own volition chose to make concerning their own mood: eclipse, comet, or sudden darkening of (what we now know to be) double-stars of when its weaker partner came to occult the brighter partner.

The other was based on the 28 lunar houses, already mentioned in the Vedas, a system cognate to the 28 Xiu in China or the 28 Manāzil in Arabia. Each house was roughly the angular distance traversed by the moon in a day. It was succinctly but systematically described in the Jyotishi Vedanga, a work which Cole confirmed to be from the 14th century BCE, pace David Pingree’s estimate of ca. the 5th century BCE. This book dates itself in two independent passages through the precessional correlation of the constellations with both the Solstice axis and the Equinox axis to ca. 1350 BCE, and nowhere to any other date. It is not acceptable to overrule or ignore this direct testimony, as academics wedded to an artificially low chronology for Indian civilization usually do.

The Jyotishi Vedanga gives instructions under which stellar configurations to perform rituals. But why should this be important? At face value, this seems to be only astronomical, only technical, but the fact that ritualists should attach importance to stellar configurations indicates a sense of astrology, of attaching a significance to celestial positions. Only, this significance is not yet tied to individuals and their birth times, not yet nativity-astrological, not yet horoscopic. It only decides on generally auspicious times for starting an entreprise, for laying the first stone of a house, or for concluding a wedding. It is what we would call “electional astrology”.

The most common remnant of this form of astrology, persisting long after Hellenistic-originated horoscopy came centre-stage, is the existence of wedding-seasons. If in an Indian city you consider hiring a festival tent or a brass-band for your company’s garden party, it is best to choose the off season, for at certain times of the year, cities are just full of wedding parties. All new couples want to tune in to a good stellar configuration to solemnize their wedding. Only militant skeptics organize weddings under a configuration that is deemed inauspicious.  


This conference was great. Coincidentally or not, it took place when Jupiter conjoined Rahu (who, as Matthew Kosuta detailed, is the special object of worship in Thailand), and both were in opposition with the Moon conjoining Neptune. Rahu is the cosmic monster that devours the sun or moon during eclipses; or more rationally, the point where lunar and solar orbit intersect. Astrologers believe that with Jupiter, Rahu indicates glorious new beginnings, or meetings with great sequels. Moreover, on this occasion they oppose Neptune, the planet of illusions and confusion. The growth and expansion they promise, sets itself against flaky dead-ends and entanglements. Yet Neptune happens to be at his strongest in Pisces, bringing out positive sides like a rich imagination and inspired art.

I do not know enough of astrology to discern what should be the downside, but I suppose we’ll run into that at some point. That is what most of us, lesser mortals, do: undergo our destiny, because we tend to be underlings. Then again, this is a great time for starting an upward curve. Meanwhile, I am satisfied with having had a good time.


Anonymous said...

Dhru Bhagat sahibji incarnated on Earth during Satjug, the age of Truth. The North Star is considered as Dhru's star.

Anonymous said...

The SaptRishi (seven sages)also have their own stars.

Gururaj B N said...

Dear Dr.Elst, Most of this goes over my head. But, I have always been curious to know why, how and when did the mortals began to develop the idea that the tiny dots in the sky could influence their fate and fortunes on this earth?

Unknown said...

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Jayan divakaran said...

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