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The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn: fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi, c. 1560

Wandering Sky Gods: The Personification of Astronomical Phenomena in Ancient Times

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It is 1000 BC, roughly 3000 years ago. Things have changed in the civilized world. The Bronze Age is fading, to be replaced by the time of Iron. Armies strive across portions of the Near East and the Aegean. Trojans and Greeks have indulged in their civil war. Hebrews and Philistines strive for control of a small section of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Aryans now control the Indus Valley and the caste system is emerging in India.

The alphabet has been invented and is beginning to replace earlier scripts. The scribe class will become obsolete and literacy will slowly spread. Restless human groups—Celts, Etruscans, and others—migrate across great distances, sometimes threatening the established order in the lands they enter.

In what will someday be called the United Kingdom, Stonehenge is a ruin. Its ancient purpose, lost with its builders in the mists of prehistory, has been replaced by the rites of Druids, the priestly caste of the local Celts.

But civilization continues through this time of turmoil and change. In what is now Iraq and Iran, the people of Babylon have erected multi-story stone towers called ziggurats. From the tops of these structures, a new class of priest-astronomer continues the exploration of the heavens. Unlike their Neolithic and Bronze Age forebears, they do not concentrate their efforts on the primary lights in the day and night sky—the Sun and Moon. Instead, they carefully observe the shifting positions of those wandering star-like objects that they call “planets.”

To these sky observers, Earth of course was not a planet, it was humanity’s home base and distinct from the celestial realm. However, the naked-eye planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were the targets of these early astronomers. Their observations of planetary positions would lead to the later Greek models of the Solar System, or cosmogonies.

Table 1 gives the names of the naked-eye planets according to the Romans, Greeks, and Babylonians. Today, we associate Roman names with the naked-eye planets. It is significant that, in all three traditions, the naked-eye planets or wandering stars are named for major gods and goddesses in the ancient pantheons. Nabu was the god of wisdom and a patron of scribes, Ishtar was a love and fertility goddess, Nergal was a war god (probably because of the planet’s red color), Marduk was the king of the gods, and Ninib was a former Sun god now deposed to represent a modest planet.

Roman

Greek

Babylonian

Mercury

Hermes

Nabu

Venus

Aphrodite

Ishtar

Mars

Ares

Nergal

Jupiter

Zeus

Marduk

Saturn

Kronos

Ninib

Table 1. Naked-eye planet names according to three ancient traditions.

It is likely no coincidence that the naked-eye planets are named for various classical and pre-classical gods and goddesses. In a victory for the art of marketing, the priest-astronomers convinced many influential residents of ancient city states and empires that these moving lights in the sky actually were divine.

This identification of planets with divine entities was not limited to ancient Babylon, Greece, and Rome. At about the same time in human history, similar approaches to viewing the motions of Solar System bodies were being adopted in Egypt, India, and China. The brightest of the naked-eye planets, Venus, would also become important in the religious thought of New World people including the Aztecs and Mayas of Central America.

Even though we live in a secular age, the days of the week are named for moving lights in the sky. Sunday, of course, belongs to the Sun and Monday is the Moon’s day. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are respectively identified with Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.

Perhaps because of the ancient popularity of this celestial identity system, Babylonian priest-astronomers morphed into the first astrologers. If you had the resources, you could commission one of these authorities to cast your horoscope. Your personal characteristics might have a great deal to do with planet positions in the sky on your day of birth. You could plan your daily activities using this sky guide.

In the classical world, many rulers would not sign a treaty (or break one) without first consulting the opinion of Jupiter. A general preparing for a significant battle would be very interested in the celestial location of Mars. If you were planning a business deal or a trade arrangement, Mercury and Saturn could be consulted for advice. And if you were a Lady of the Court interested in conducting a love affair, it certainly might help to follow the advice offered by Venus.

Today astrology is, at least to most educated people, a parlor game. Perhaps the most famous pick-up line at a cocktail party is “what’s your sign?” But in the ancient world, the position of the Sun among the 12 constellations of the zodiac on your date of birth was of great significance. This cannot be said of all ancient people, since astrology was satirized by ancient Hebrew authors in the Biblical tale of the “Tower of Babel.”

Jupiter, Ancient Roman sky deity, and his relative Thetis

Jupiter, Ancient Roman sky deity, and his relative Thetis ( public domain )

Sky myths

Long before the dawn of electricity, these civilized and literate people tried to make sense of the night sky literally filled with stars. They were a long way from understanding these distant lights that appeared and vanished in accord with diurnal and seasonal cycles. Perhaps to become more comfortable with this celestial immensity, they filled the sky with heroes, gods, and demons. In some cases, divine and mortal consciousness was identified with stellar hosts.

Sky twins

Consider the constellation Gemini, for example. The two brightest stars in this zodiacal constellation are Castor and Pollux. Perhaps these stars are of similar visual brightness and are near neighbors (only 4.5 degrees apart) on the celestial sphere. They were identified as the Great Twins by the Sumerians.

To the Classical Greeks and Romans, these stars were the twin children of Zeus (the ruler of the Olympian gods) and Leda, a married mortal woman seduced by Zeus while disguised as a swan. Both boys hatched from the same egg and became heroes, joining with Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece. Unlike his immortal twin, Castor was mortal. After Castor was killed in a fight, his brother beseeched Zeus to bring him back to life. Ultimately, these two now-immortal twins were transferred to the sky as Alpha and Beta Gemini, the two brightest stars in that constellation. As well as eternally sharing each other’s company in the celestial realm, the rising of these stars before sunrise in late spring heralded calm summer seas and was welcomed by sailors.

Other ancient people also viewed these stars as conscious entities. Although Arabian astronomers also called them The Twins, some medieval Arabian sky maps picture them as a pair of peacocks. In ancient India they were identified as The Horsemen.

Although no longer considered to be inhabited by divine mortals, Castor and Pollux are fascinating astronomical objects. Castor is the 23rd brightest star in the sky, with a visual magnitude of 1.59. A blue-white hydrogen-burning main sequence star, it is at a distance of about 45 light years and actually consists of three components, each of which is a binary star. Pollux is an orange-red giant at a distance of about 35 light years and has a visual brightness slightly greater than its twin.

Statue of twins Castor and Pollux

Statue of twins Castor and Pollux ( public domain )

Star-crossed lovers

Along with Deneb, the bright stars Altair and Vega form the Summer Triangle, a prominent star grouping in the northern hemisphere summer sky. Between these two stars is the Milky Way galaxy.

Ancient Chinese sky watchers had no idea that the faint, nebulous substance of the Milky Way is actually the combined radiance of billions of faint stars. Instead, they believed it to be a celestial river. Around 700 BC, a myth developed around these stars and the “river” that separates them.

Altair is the Cowherd and Vega is the Weaving Lady. Although these mortal lovers were originally reunited in heaven, an early Chinese deity, the Queen Mother of the West, became annoyed by the lovers’ celestial activities and drew a line between them. This line became the Milky Way, a celestial river that always separates Altair and Vega.

To ancient Chinese, the Milky Way was a celestial river

To ancient Chinese, the Milky Way was a celestial river ( Don McCrady / Flickr )

Seven Sisters—or maybe only six

The most famous mortals to be identified with stars are the ladies of the Pleiades. Viewed under low magnification through binoculars or a small telescope, a few hundred young stars might be counted in this open cluster, which is classified as M45 in the catalog of the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier. On a clear night far from city lights, an observer with excellent eyesight is lucky to count six visible Pleiades. So it is somewhat of a mystery that so many ancient traditions refer to this grouping as the Seven Sisters. I don’t think that people on average had better eyesight in antiquity than today. So we are left with two alternatives: either one of the brightest of the young, evolving stars in this grouping has decreased in brightness a bit over the last few millennia or Earth’s skies are a little less transparent than they used to be.

The Pleiades as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Pleiades as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope (courtesy NASA).

But not all ancient people saw the Pleiades as seven stars. Some Chinese, Japanese, Aboriginal, and Native American people recognized six women associated with the bright, young, massive stars in this grouping rather than seven.

The most famous myth regarding the Pleiades is the Greek story of a pursuit of seven maidens by the sexually aroused hunter Orion (who is also a sky resident). In answer to their pleas, Zeus placed both pursuer and pursued in the sky. In the celestial realm, the pursuit continues. In some traditions, the seven maidens were companions of the goddess Artemis.

The seven maidens representing the Pleiades in Greek mythology

The seven maidens representing the Pleiades in Greek mythology ( public domain )

In a Hindu myth of the 5th century BC, there is a connection between the Pleiades and the stars of the Big Dipper. In this myth the seven visible stars in the Big Dipper are sages and the stars of the Pleiades are their wives.

To ancient Incan astronomers, the Pleiades were not individual entities. Instead, they were the eyes of Viracoha, the god of thunder.

In the vicinity of the zodiacal constellation Taurus the Bull there is another open cluster, the Hyades. This is a more mature open cluster than the Pleiades and the nebulosity of the stellar birth nebula has dispersed. According to Greek myth, the visible members of this cluster were daughters of Atlas, the titan responsible for holding up the sky.

How the Sun God gets Around

Some sky myths attempt to explain how the Sun God moves through the sky.  Ancient Egyptians believed that the Sun God Ra rose in the east and sailed in a solar boat across his celestial realm before setting in the west.  According to Greek sources, Helios (also referred to as Apollo) was transported instead in a chariot drawn through the heavens by four celestial steeds. As an example of how powerful such imagery is, even to scientifically sophisticated moderns, the below image presents the mission patch of the aborted Apollo 13 lunar expedition. Note there are only three celestial steeds pulling the Sun in this image. Where is the fourth?

Apollo 13 mission patch

Apollo 13 mission patch (courtesy NASA).

Featured image:  The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn: fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi, c. 1560 ( public domain ).

By: Greg Matloff

This article has been excerpted from Greg Matloff (with art by C Bangs), ‘ Starlight, Starbright: Are Stars Conscious , Curtis, Norwich, UK (2015), and has been republished with permission.

Comments

I read that one of the stars in the Pleiades asterism (a group of stars that's smaller than a constellation) is a long-term variable star. Its intensity rises and falls over a couple of centuries or so and it's at its least visible in our time. It will be bright again in a hundred years and there will be seven prominent stars again.

Wonderfully compiled and I enjoyed the read. I hope your insightful research encourages others to further explore the infinite mysteries of our universe.

Ancient cultures well before the Babylonians and historic Egyptians, participated in heavenly observations. Their recordings were left in rock and artefacts thousands and tens of thousands of years ago. Whatever names they assigned to these celestial lights remain lost to us.

Interpretation of their recordings has at times been challenging but these cosmic documentations from our ancient past are finally being presented to consider.

Without scientific data, conclusions remain conjecture.

“although we live in a secular age”   Do we?

“If you were planning a business deal or a trade arrangement, Mercury and Saturn could be consulted for advice.” Yes, and this practice is still continued today. As Mercury is currently in retrograde an Astrologer may advise not to sign any contract. 

“Babylonian priest-astronomers morphed into the first astrologers.” Astrology is older than the science of Astronomy so this statement needs to be switched around. 

“Today astrology is, at least to most educated people, a palour game” Not true. it does depend on where you got your education, surely? Perhaps ask the eastern world people if it is a palour game.

Perhaps the most famous pick-up line at a cocktail party is “what’s your sign?” Only used by non Astrologers as the Sun is only one characteristic indicator, generally associated with the ego.

The planets were never considered Gods, Rulers, yes, but not Gods.

  
 

 
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