Ancient Religion and Astronomy





Submitted by: Angela Britto










Ancient Religion and Astronomy


            Since the beginning of his existence, man has always been fascinated by the skies and the behaviour of the celestial bodies that inhabit them. He has used his observations of their movements to shape his beliefs in his gods, whose stability and everlasting power were manifested in the stars and planets. Thus, “The sky was a text from which one could get information if one were skilled at asking the right questions” (2). Naked-eye astronomical observations and calculations by ancient civilizations were used to develop their religious practices and integrate them into everyday life. This was seen in the gods that they worshipped, the structure of their places of worship, how they buried their dead, when they celebrated religious festivals, in telling what the future held, and how the reigns of their rulers were justified.  

            The personified celestial bodies constituted the greater part of the pantheon of gods that many of these ancient civilizations worshipped. As natural phenomena began to be associated with the behaviour of the Sun, Moon, and several other planets and constellations, they began to be deified and attributed great powers in many cultures, such as those of Egypt, Babylon, Britain, and Mesoamerica. In attributing the gods to the tangible, the people could establish a dialogue with their gods, use their observable behaviour to validate their actions, and receive their guidance through omens (2).

In Egypt, the Sun was the god Re, the constellation of Orion was attributed to Osiris, the god of the afterlife, and the constellation Sirius was attributed to the goddess Isis (4). The different attributes of their son, the god of the skies, Horus, was connected to planets: Mars was Horus of the Horizon, Jupiter was Horus who illuminates the two lands, and Saturn was Horus, Bull of the Sky (4). Mercury was worshipped as the god Seth, and Khonsu was the god of the Moon (4). The Big Dipper stars were also revered because they formed the shape of an adze, a sculptor’s tool which carved the statues that would come to life in the afterlife (4). The rulers of Egypt (the pharaohs) were thought to become stars after they died and passed into the afterlife (4).

Worship of the planets is also evident in Babylon, where the pantheon was also made up of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon (1). In the Salisbury Plain of England, the Sun and Moon were the chief gods of the peoples who resided there, as evidenced by the impressive monument of Stonehenge (1). Furthermore, special ceremonies indicate that the Sun and Moon were also the main gods for the tribes in Africa (1). However, the Ngas of Nigeria thought that the Moon was the gentle, moderating force which must be worshipped, while the Btammailba of Togo believed that the Sun is the creator and the creator and we must approach him first (1). There is also some evidence that the Moon was also worshipped as being a part of one’s ancestors in Africa, as the cause of death has always been attributed to the waxing and waning of the Moon (1). For the Mayans in Mesoamerica, the Sun was a major god, and Venus was the patron planet for warfare, and different rulers took on different patron gods like the planet Jupiter (1). Thus the objects seen in the skies constituted the gods for several ancient cultures all over the world, and their desire to worship and be guided by these gods would manifest itself in every aspect of their lives.

            One such manifestation was their use of astronomical principles in the structure and orientation of temples. These places of worship often incorporated the alignments of the Sun and Moon at the solstices and equinoxes into the design. The purpose was that the effect of the appearance of the Sun and Moon on the design of the temple reinforced and gave the gods’ approval to the activities that were taking place within. This is evident in the formations found at Stonehenge, in Mesoamerica, among ancient Native American peoples, and in the African tribes of Togo and Benin.

            The most impressive of these formations is Stonehenge, found on the Salisbury plain in England. It was used as a gathering place 5000 years ago to worship the gods of nature, the Sun and Moon (1). Stonehenge was built so that worshippers can see the full Moon rise on its main entrance passage (1). It was also a temple to celebrate the entry of the Sun god into the circular sanctuary at its centre, and to chart the course of the Sun and Moon (1). It is considered to be a kind of megalithic observatory, where people would come to conduct rituals, and to see the sky gods in their homes (1). It is oriented towards midsummer Sunrise and midwinter Sunset (6) which would occur to mark a ritual taking place in the ring of stones. Alignments of stones marked out the maximal stretch along the horizon between the Sun at one of its standstills and the Moon at its opposite (6). Offertory pits with the ring were used to mark the intervals between the phenomenal eclipses of the Sun and Moon (1). This would have required extreme precision and extensive knowledge of the movement of the stars. 

            Several religious structures built by the ancient Mesoamerican peoples also incorporate astronomical elements. Many Mayan (500 BC) temples were oriented to align with solar solstices, equinoxes, and zenith passages (3). This allowed Mayans to track their activities through the seasons (3). Also evident are groupings of four temples, one used as an observation position and the other three marking Sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes (3). Similarly, many temples dedicated to the planet Venus had special slotted windows its west wall which was timed for the evening appearances of the planet (1).

            The Adena-Hopewell peoples of the eastern Great Plains in ancient North America created huge embankments of earth to make a 60 acre octagon with apertures at each point leading into the centre that were astronomically aligned (1). The sight lines between the openings line up with the standstill position of the Moonrise and Moonset, which is reached by the lunar god every 19 years (1). These were places of assembly where sky worshippers gathered to communicate with the celestial gods, and receive omens (1). Another formation has mound alignments that imply that the Sun was the main focus, reinforced by the belief that the Sun was reincarnated as their chiefs who they called “Great Suns” (1). The Hopi Indians marked the solstices by building shrines along an embankment where they believed the Sun stopped on its travel along the horizon (1). Prayers and offerings would be made at the shrine to welcome the Sun (1). Pawnee lodges are designed to mimic the structure of the heavens (1). It had a smoke hole in the roof designed to view the stars at the precise times when they are at their peak, like the Pleiades (1). The posts supporting the lodge are the two morning stars in the east (1). The doorway is positioned to admit Sunlight so that it reaches an altar on the west side for little more than a 20 day period spanning the equinoxes (1).

            In constructing worship structures in ancient Togo and Benin, the people believe that since the Sun has always been present, no one could ever replace it (1). So to make their houses equally permanent, they align the crossbeams carefully so that they point to the equinox Sunrise and Sunset (1). They believe that the Sun’s home is in the western sky but the doorway faces east. Consequently, all shrines must open to the west to face his residence (1) Thus it is evident that astronomical details were incorporated into the creation of the worship structures for the ancient people’s gods.

            Equally important to these ancient civilizations was the religious structures in which their dead were buried. The prime example of this was the practices of the people of ancient Egypt (3000 BC to 1 AD). Thy found the pinnacle of their religious expression through their impressive monuments to the dead, aligned according to their precise astronomical observations and decorated with astronomical texts (4). The ceiling of the burial chamber of the pharaohs was painted blue and decorated with gold stars (4). On it were carved the Pyramid Texts which charted the journey of the pharaoh into the afterlife, outlined death rituals, and identified the constellation Orion and the polar stars as the destination of the pharaoh (1,4). Star charts were painted inside coffin lids to guide the pharaoh in the afterlife (4). All nine pyramids at Giza are aligned with the four cardinal points and are on the western banks of the Nile because the western side is associated with death – where the Sun sets (4). The temples on the bank were precisely aligned to the rising and setting of the Sun and bright stars (4). The Great Pyramid built for pharaoh Khufu has vertical shafts leading from the King’s chamber out to the sides of the pyramid, pointing precisely at the northern stars (4). The shafts were to carry the dead pharaoh to the northern stars which do not set, so that he may live forever (4). The shafts point to Orion’s belt, which is associated with Osiris, the god of the afterlife (4). As a result, the ancient Egyptians used their astronomical knowledge to focus on preparing the dead for the afterlife.  

            The cycles of the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets are the methods used by ancient peoples to keep track of time. The religious significance of this practice is that it showed people when to celebrate festivals. In ancient China, time was monitored by short cycles based on the motion of the Sun and Moon. Large cycles were done using the planets through the constellations (1). In the African tribe of the Ngas in Nigeria, a Moon-timing expert watches the Moon and anticipates the night when the first thin crescent of the Moon will appear in the west for their lunar celebrations (1). He keeps records of the days of previous months by tying knots on a piece of string (1), so the people can prepare for it. In Mesoamerica, the Mayans repeated a calendar cycle of 260 days which instructed certain ritual acts on specific days, and each day had a symbolic association and omens (5). The ancient Babylonians set religious holidays according to the count of days and predicting the phases of the Moon and eclipses (1). The ancient Egyptians devised a calendar of 365 days and each season contained which was made up of 360 days in the year, with the remaining five tacked on at the end, celebrated with religious festivals as “days of the gods” (4). When stars are lost in the glare of the Sun for about 70 days, the ancient Egyptians believed that they died and entered the underworld and lost their impurities. Therefore, they set the ritual mummification process at 70 days, which was thought to strip the body of all impurities before going into the underworld (4). The Southwest Indians kept track of time by lunar and solar methods and named their months and years to correspond to the related cultural activities that took place at a particular point in the year’s cycle (1). The Native American Hopi used Sunwatching to prepare for the summer solstice festival. A calendar specialist would wait at Sunwatching stations and would sight the nearest peak or valley where the Sun would make its last visible slowdown before winter or summer standstill. This would anticipate the real solstice by a few days and so people would have time to prepare for it (1). It was important to keep time accurately so that the gods could be present to accept the offerings and praise, and to communicate properly with the people and to receive an omen.

            This search for validation and guidance from the gods were much sought after by ancient peoples, in the form of religious omens interpreted from what was observed in the skies. It is in this endeavour that astronomy in its most primitive forms and astrology intersect. People would seek omens regarding the course of war, and crop yields, for example (2). The ancient Babylonians made formula charts for forecasting when stars would appear, and assigned omen-bearing qualities to astronomical tables. One record from the 17th century BC reads (“Ayar” is a month):

If on the 17th day of Ulul Venus appeared in the west, the harvest of the land will be successful…Until the 11th of Ayar she will stand in the west and on the 12th of Ayar she will disappear, and having remained absent 7 days in the sky, Venus will shine forth in the east on the 19th of Ayar; hostilities will be in the land (1).

The Assyrians of 800 BC had deities whose actions revealed through omens influenced affairs on earth. The omens were revealed through the actions of the planets and stars (1). Worshippers would appeal to the gods by performing rites and giving up offerings and incantations (1). For them, every phenomenon held a message, so a Moonrise could tell them what to expect in the harvest, and the appearance of Jupiter might indicate what relationships with the neighbouring land might bring (1). In China from 16000 BC to 9 BC, oracle bones were in use (1). They were animal bone and tortoise shell that carried astronomically related texts and were used for divination (1). Someone would ask if the noticed behaviour of the stars was favourable and the shaman would place a glowing piece of metal into one of a series of predrilled holes in the shell (1). Then he would interpret the pattern of radiating cracks that resulted from the sudden expansion of the material (1). As a result there are several good accounts of solar and lunar events throughout history that have been recorded on the shell (1). Omens recorded were similar to the following question and answer format:

On the day keng-chou it was asked: Will there be a disaster sometime in the next 10 days? On the day keng-shen the Moon was eclipsed (1).

Therefore, it is evident that for several ancient cultures, religious beliefs were validated by astronomical observations that were developed for this purpose.

This approval of the gods was also sought by the ruling classes or rulers of ancient civilizations, in order to solidify their reigns in associating themselves with the divine right to rule. In Mesoamerica, one Mayan king dedicated temples to the god-planet Jupiter, because events in his life have seemed to be attached to the movements of Jupiter (1). The king was born at a time when Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn (the creator gods) were reassembling in the sky over the city, and their appearance confirmed the king’s bloodline through the gods themselves (1). The Mayan ruling family was always consumed by the desire to calculate different cycles of the Sun and Moon, in order to show that the ruling class communicated with and were authorized by the gods to rule (5). This was reinforced by keeping their activities in tune with these cycles, so that people would see that they were in communion with the gods and so had the right to rule them (5). This was also the case in ancient India, where ruling classes would use astronomy to find out when people must perform their sacrifices (1). This was news that was only kept within the family and reinforced their position as a ruling class over the other people in India (1). At Palenque in Mesoamerica, the Temple of Inscriptions is designed to incorporate hierophanies, which are tricks of light and shadow created when a temple interacts with the rays of the sun (3). During the summer solstice, the temple’s front doorway which depicts the king Kan Balam as a baby cradled in his father’s arms during his summer-solstice-timed heir-designation celebration (3). During this time, a beam of light would brightly illuminate the carving of the baby, reinforcing the child’s divinity and his power to rule over the land (3). In ancient China, to ensure that the royal capital fit well with the local demands for cosmic energy, the emperor would summon someone to perform feng-shui for him to select a site, the more perfect the garden, the more perfect the ruler and closer to divinity (1). Hence astronomy was used by several ancient cultures to reinforce and validate the position of the ruling class over the masses.

            Consequently, astronomical observations were used by ancient peoples to reinforce their religious beliefs. The celestial phenomena visible to the naked eye constituted the gods that they worshipped, were used to align their temples and burial areas to mimic the cosmos, provided omens open to interpretation about the future, and affirmed the divine position of the ruling class in the society. In his book Ancient Astronomers, Aveni states, “Omens are the ends for which astronomy became the means.” Astronomy and ancient religions are thus linked in that astronomy developed out of the people’s desire to have concrete manifestations of their gods and religious beliefs, and the ancient religions flourished as a result of the improvements in astronomical technique.





















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