Editor's note: A version of this was previously published on the author's website.
We humans can experience profoundly spiritual feelings when thinking about celestial objects — and we always have, from the times of the earliest belief systems right up to this minute. But does spirituality have a legitimate place in astronomy?
The official worship of the sun as a giver of life originated in the deep past. The pharaoh Akhenaten (father of Tutankhamun), who ruled Egypt from 1353 B.C. to 1336 B.C., imposed a new cult of the Aton, the solar disk, as the chief god. Soon after Akhenaten's death, the older religion was restored.
Ancient Greeks imagined the sun as the god Helios, who drove a blazing chariot across the sky daily, east to west. Once, his son Phaeton took the reins, couldn’t control the fiery steeds, and temporarily set Earth on fire. Apollo, son of the chief god Zeus, also was referred to as Helios in Greek mythology.
Also in antiquity, Romans thought of Apollo as the sun god and called the burning sphere Sol. The unconquerable sun, Sol Invictus, was an important deity in the Roman Empire before the conversion to Christianity. The youthful emperor Elagabalus (also called Heliogabalus), who ruled in the years A.D. 218-222, built a temple to Sol Invictus in the capital and tried to appoint him the principal deity.
In addition to the well-known description of the Creation in Genesis, in which the sun, moon and Earth are brought into being, the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Joshua, chapter 10, verses 12-13, places the sun and moon in special context as serving Israel during a war:
"Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
"And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."
Comets, eclipses and other goings-on
"Ancient Chinese astronomers brooded over solar eclipses and sunspots to divine future events for The Emperor," says a NASA site concerning early studies of the cosmos. "Observatories were the launching pads for exploring the mystical ties between the mundane and the cosmic."
In Hindu mythology, Ketu is Comet, a beloved seer who has a snake body. The Vedas relate that a demon, Rahu, managed by trickery to imbibe a few drops of the celestial ambrosia that conferred immortality. Rahu had a snakelike or fishlike lower body. "However, the Sun and the Moon gods had witnessed Rahu’s deed," notes Patrick Das Gupta of the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, University of Delhi, India. In the article "Comets in Ancient India," he continues, "So, the demon tried devouring them, whereupon Vishnu (a main deity) severed its head by hurling his deadly discus, the Sudarshan chakra, at Rahu."
Since they had just become immortal, the parts of the demon became two living entities, Rahu with the head and Ketu with the bottom. "In the absence of a torso, the Sun or the Moon could not be retained for long after being swallowed by the head Rahu. … That was the way Hindu mythology dealt with the phenomena of eclipses," Gupta wrote.
Stars are symbols of enlightenment in Zoroastrianism.
Starting around 250 B.C. until A.D. 255, the Persian empire called Parthia dominated a large swath of the Near East. According to Parthia.com, “at one time (it) occupied areas now in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaidzhan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.” The empire’s religion was Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest, going back at least to 600 B.C. and probably much earlier. Zoroastrianism is still practiced, mainly in India.
Ahura Mazda is the One Wise Lord in Zoroastrianism, according to an article at the website of the Theosophical Society (an organization that studies religion, philosophy and science and encourages open-mindedness toward them).
“In Zoroastrian scriptures, Ahura Mazda is described as ‘full of luster, full of glory,’ and hence his luminous creations — fire, sun, stars, and light — are regarded as visible tokens of the divine and of the inner light. That inner light is the divine spark that burns within each of us. Fire is also a physical representation of the illumined mind,” the site says.
The religion’s attention to light and stars is reflected in the Gathas, teachings of Zoroaster that are recorded as hymns. They often refer to enlightenment, meaning the achievement of understanding through truth. The light shines in astronomical phenomena, as with this excerpt from the Gathas placed online by the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies:
“And the glorious vision of the Heavenly Lights
“Attainable through Truth sublime.”
And of course, the world knows about the Christmas Star. The Book of Matthew relates that a guiding star was sent by the Lord to lead the wise men to Bethlehem so they could worship the baby Jesus. "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."
Keeping our survey short, let's not dive into the many other religious aspects of astronomy, such as the Mayas' observation of Venus, stories about constellations, comets interpreted to foretell doom, religious celebrations that coincide with new or full moon, or seasonal changes announced by the stars and marked by ceremonies
Instead, we should ask, "Why do all these cultures connect deeply held spiritual feelings to astronomy?"4 comments on this story
It must be because changes in the sky, and the mysterious depths of the universe that are visible for all to see after sundown, allow us to relate to the unimaginable beauty and mystery of Creation. We are immersed in beauty and mystery in our everyday life too, but have grown used to them and find them ordinary. We eat vegetables derived from seeds that farmers plant, but we may not contemplate the strangeness of sowing inert bundles of matter and finding that they sprout into life after they're in the ground — much less do we think about what the seeds are, packets of DNA primed to explode into vibrant heads of lettuce in a certain number of days — and we rarely consider that the lettuce, table, chair, seeds, fork, plate, salad dressing and humans are mostly just empty space with here and there molecules and their subatomic particles.
But when we look into the night sky, the everyday vanishes and that sense of wonder returns. We marvel at the vastness of space, orbits of planets, drift of gigantic galaxies, the enormous blazing nuclear-powered stars, electromagnetic waves lancing across the universe, the devastating power of supernovas and the unavoidable question, "How did it all begin?"