I got a lot of response to the column I wrote wondering about the the origin of the five-pointed star. Von Del Chamberlain, director of the Hansen Planetarium, called and pointed out that the five-pointed star goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.
The Egyptians believed in a family of nine gods called the Great Ennead. Each god was identified with a different part of the universe. Re, for example, represented the sun, and Nun symbolized a great ocean that existed before the creation of the earth and the heavens. Shu and his twin sister, Tefnut, were the children of Re. Shu was god of the air and Tefnut goddess of the dew. They married and had twins, Geb and Nut. You with me so far? Geb was the earth god and Nut represented the heavens.Nut is the interesting one. She is represented stretched across the heavens with feet on one horizon and hands on the other in a huge arch. Her body forms a firmament over the earth. She had speckles on her body, and they became the stars. I looked up the goddess Nut in my trusty World Book under "Mythology," and there she is in living color - dappled with dozens of five-pointed stars.
Another reader, Frederick Huchel in Brigham City, sent me a six-page paper he wrote about five-pointed stars.
He observes that the five-pointed star is technically a pentagram or pentacle, a device derived from a pentagon by trigonometry, the origins of which go back to the Greeks.
"In classical antiquity," he says, "the pentagram was one of the chief features of the `secret wisdom' that separated the priests from the masses." So it's easy to understand how the star came to figure prominently in ritual magic, both black and white. Also, the geometrical proportions of the five-pointed star automatically produces the golden section, a mathematical ratio "found throughout nature, in virtually all living things, from the whorls of sunflower seed-heads to the shell of the many-chamber nautilus."
Even the origin of the word "quintessence" ties into a relationship with the five-pointed star. You may be familiar with the ancient notion of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. These were the four sacred essences. The fifth essence, which was the perfection of the sacred four, was represented by the pentagram. This perfection culminated in man, and the five-pointed star (quintessence = literally, five essences, the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form) came to symbolize this perfection of the elements.
This notion of perfection easily adapts to religious connotations. For example, Melinda Richards, a student at Ricks College, wrote to inform me that one of her LDS seminary teachers in high school had told her that in early Christian times the five points of the star represented the five wounds of Christ, in his hands, feet and side. So we come full circle to the Christmas star.
The most interesting thing to me out of all this was a point made by Von Del Chamberlain.
Sometime before his sojourn at the Hansen Planetarium, as an astronomy teacher and as staff member of the National Air and Space Museum, he became interested in the relationship of stars to the beliefs and culture of the American Indian. He has written a book on the subject, titled "When the Stars Came Down to Earth."
Chamberlain's research on the Pawnee and Plains Indians vividly describes their preoccupation with the movements of the stars and planets. They laid out their communities to mirror positions of the stars. According to the stars they planted crops and made elaborate star maps on animal hides.
According to Navajo tradition, when the fire god stamped his foot, the great star constellation the Pleiades, which was on his ankle, jumped to his knee. He stamped his foot again and it moved to his hip. Eventually it moved to his temple, where it remained. Beautiful symbolisms such as this permeate many of the sand paintings and petroglyphs of the Southwest.
However . . . the most typical image of stars used by the Indians had four points rather than five. Mescalero Apache spirit dancers repeated the use of motifs grouped in fours symbolizing the four directions. The four-pointed star, with its varying images of the Native Americans' universe, was used as a "morningstar" pattern on many of their possessions, from cradleboards to ceremonial rattles.
To quote Chamberlain, "As far as I have been able to determine, the number (five) has no particular significance as an American symbol. In my opinion, the true American star symbol should be a four-pointed star. It would be very appropriate if we would someday change even the flag to contain four-pointed stars in honor of our native people."
That's an interesting twist . . . and not a bad idea if you ask me.