The worship of heavenly bodies is the veneration of stars (individually or together as the night sky), the planets, or other astronomical objects as deities, or the association of deities with heavenly bodies. In anthropological literature these systems of practice may be referred to as astral cults.

The most notable instances of this are Sun gods and Moon gods in polytheistic systems worldwide. Also notable are the associations of the planets with deities in Sumerian religion, and hence in Babylonian and Greco-Roman religion, viz. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Gods, goddesses, and demons may also be considered personifications of astronomical phenomena such as lunar eclipses, planetary alignments, and apparent interactions of planetary bodies with stars. The Sabians of Harran, a poorly understood pagan religion that existed in Harran during the early Islamic period (7th–10th century), were known for their astral cult.

The related term astrolatry usually implies polytheism. Some Abrahamic religions prohibit astrolatry as idolatrous. Pole star worship was also banned by imperial decree in Heian period Japan.

Etymology

Astrolatry has the suffix -λάτρης, itself related to λάτρις latris, "worshipper" or λατρεύειν latreuein, "to worship" from λάτρον latron, "payment".

Ancient and medieval Near East

Mesopotamia

Babylonian astronomy from early times associates stars with deities, but the identification of the heavens as the residence of an anthropomorphic pantheon, and later of monotheistic God and his retinue of angels, is a later development, gradually replacing the notion of the pantheon residing or convening on the summit of high mountains. Archibald Sayce (1913) argues for a parallelism of the "stellar theology" of Babylon and Egypt, both countries absorbing popular star-worship into the official pantheon of their respective state religions by identification of gods with stars or planets.[1]

The Chaldeans, who came to be seen as the prototypical astrologers and star-worshippers by the Greeks, migrated into Mesopotamia c. 940–860 BCE.[2] Astral religion does not appear to have been common in the Levant prior to the Iron Age, but becomes popular under Assyrian influence around the 7th-century BCE.[3] The Chaldeans gained ascendancy, ruling Babylonia from 608 to 557 BCE.[4] The Hebrew Bible was substantially composed during this period (roughly corresponding to the period of the Babylonian captivity).

Egypt

The Ikhemu-sek, a group of ancient Egyptian deities who were the personifications of the northern constellations

Astral cults were probably an early feature of religion in ancient Egypt.[5] Direct evidence for astral cults, seen alongside the dominant solar theology which arose before the Fifth Dynasty, is found in the Pyramid Texts.[6] The growth of Osiris devotion led to stars being called "followers" of Osiris.[7] They recognized five planets as "stars that know no rest", interpreted as gods who sailed across the sky in barques: Sebegu (perhaps a form of Set), Venus ("the one who crosses"), Mars ("Horus of the horizon"), Jupiter ("Horus who limits the two lands"), and Saturn ("Horus bull of the heavens.")[7]

One of the most notable examples of astral worship in ancient Egypt is the goddess Sopdet, identified with the star Sirius.[8] Sopdet's rising coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile, a crucial event that sustained Egyptian agriculture. The goddess was venerated as a harbinger of the inundation, marking the beginning of a new agricultural cycle and symbolizing fertility and renewal. This connection between Sopdet and the Nile flood underscores the profound link between celestial phenomena and earthly prosperity in ancient Egyptian culture. She was known to the Greeks as Sothis.

Sopdet is the consort of Sah, the personified constellation of Orion near Sirius. Their child Venus[9] was the hawk god Sopdu,[10] "Lord of the East".[11] As the bringer of the New Year and the Nile flood, she was associated with Osiris from an early date[10] and by the Ptolemaic period Sah and Sopdet almost solely appeared in forms conflated with Osiris[12] and Isis.[13] Additionally, the alignment of architectural structures, such as pyramids and temples, with astronomical events reveals the deliberate integration of cosmological concepts into Egypt's built environment.[14]

Sabians

Main article: Sabians

Among the various religious groups which in the 9th and 10th centuries CE came to be identified with the mysterious Sabians mentioned in the Quran (sometimes also spelled 'Sabaeans' or 'Sabeans', but not to be confused with the Sabaeans of South Arabia),[15] at least two groups appear to have engaged in some kind of star worship.

By far the most famous of these two are the Sabians of Harran, adherents of a Hellenized Semitic pagan religion that had managed to survive during the early Islamic period in the Upper Mesopotamian city of Harran.[16] They were described by Syriac Christian heresiographers as star worshippers.[17] Most of the scholars and courtiers working for the Abbasid and Buyid dynasties in Baghdad during the ninth–eleventh centuries who were known as 'Sabians' were either members of this Harranian religion or descendants of such members, most notably the Harranian astronomers and mathematicians Thabit ibn Qurra (died 901) and al-Battani (died 929).[18] There has been some speculation on whether these Sabian families in Baghdad, on whom most of our information about the Harranian Sabians indirectly depends, may have practiced a different, more philosophically inspired variant of the original Harranian religion.[19] However, apart from the fact that it contains traces of Babylonian and Hellenistic religion, and that an important place was taken by planets (to whom ritual sacrifices were made), little is known about Harranian Sabianism.[20] They have been variously described by scholars as (neo)-Platonists, Hermeticists, or Gnostics, but there is no firm evidence for any of these identifications.[21][a]

Apart from the Sabians of Harran, there were also various religious groups living in the Mesopotamian Marshes who were called the 'Sabians of the Marshes' (Arabic: Ṣābiʾat al-baṭāʾiḥ).[22] Though this name has often been understood as a reference to the Mandaeans, there was in fact at least one other religious group living in the marshlands of Southern Iraq.[23] This group still held on to a pagan belief related to Babylonian religion, in which Mesopotamian gods had already been venerated in the form of planets and stars since antiquity.[24] According to Ibn al-Nadim, our only source for these star-worshipping 'Sabians of the Marshes', they "follow the doctrines of the ancient Aramaeans [ʿalā maḏāhib an-Nabaṭ al-qadīm] and venerate the stars".[25] However, there is also a large corpus of texts by Ibn Wahshiyya (died c. 930), most famously his Nabataean Agriculture, which describes at length the customs and beliefs — many of them going back to Mespotamian models — of Iraqi Sabians living in the Sawād.[26]

Asia

China

The Sanxing (Three Stars Gods) at a Chinese temple in Mongkok, Hong Kong

Star worship was widespread in Asia, especially in Mongolia[27] and northern China, and also spread to Korea.[28] According to Edward Schafer, star worship was already established during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), with the Nine Imperial Gods becoming star lords.[29] This star worship, along with indigenous shamanism and medical practice, formed one of the original bases of Taoism.[30] The Heavenly Sovereign was identified with the Big Dipper and the North Star.[31]

The Sanxing (Chinese: 三星; lit. 'Three Stars') are the gods of the three stars or constellations considered essential in Chinese astrology and mythology: Jupiter, Ursa Major, and Sirius. Fu, Lu, and Shou (traditional Chinese: 祿; simplified Chinese: 寿; pinyin: Fú Lù Shòu; Cantonese Yale: Fūk Luhk Sauh), or Cai, Zi and Shou (財子壽) are also the embodiments of Fortune (Fu), presiding over planet Jupiter, Prosperity (Lu), presiding over Ursa Major, and Longevity (Shou), presiding over Sirius.[32]

During the Tang dynasty, Chinese Buddhism adopted Taoist Big Dipper worship, borrowing various texts and rituals which were then modified to conform with Buddhist practices and doctrines. The cult of the Big Dipper was eventually absorbed into the cults of various Buddhist divinities, Myōken being one of these.[33]

Japan

Star worship was also practiced in Japan.[34][35][36] Japanese star worship is largely based on Chinese cosmology.[37] According to Bernard Faure, "the cosmotheistic nature of esoteric Buddhism provided an easy bridge for cultural translation between Indian and Chinese cosmologies, on the one hand, and between Indian astrology and local Japanese folk beliefs about the stars, on the other".[37]

Chiba Shrine in Chiba City, Chiba Prefecture.
Originally an 11th-century Buddhist temple dedicated to Myōken, converted into a Shinto shrine during the Meiji period.

The cult of Myōken is thought to have been brought into Japan during the 7th century by immigrants (toraijin) from Goguryeo and Baekje. During the reign of Emperor Tenji (661–672), the toraijin were resettled in the easternmost parts of the country; as a result, Myōken worship spread throughout the eastern provinces.[38]

By the Heian period, pole star worship had become widespread enough that imperial decrees banned it for the reason that it involved "mingling of men and women", and thus caused ritual impurity. Pole star worship was also forbidden among the inhabitants of the capital and nearby areas when the imperial princess (Saiō) made her way to Ise to begin her service at the shrines. Nevertheless, the cult of the pole star left its mark on imperial rituals such as the emperor's enthronement and the worship of the imperial clan deity at Ise Shrine.[39] Worship of the pole star was also practiced in Onmyōdō, where it was deified as Chintaku Reifujin (鎮宅霊符神).[40]

Myōken worship was particularly prevalent among clans based in eastern Japan (the modern Kantō and Tōhoku regions), with the Kanmu Taira clan (Kanmu Heishi) and their offshoots such as the Chiba and the Sōma clans being among the deity's notable devotees. One legend claims that Taira no Masakado was a devotee of Myōken, who aided him in his military exploits. When Masakado grew proud and arrogant, the deity withdrew his favor and instead aided Masakado's uncle Yoshifumi, the ancestor of the Chiba clan.[41] Owing to his status as the Chiba clan's ujigami (guardian deity), temples and shrines dedicated to Myōken are particularly numerous in former Chiba territories.[42] Myōken worship is also prevalent in many Nichiren-shū Buddhist temples due to the clan's connections with the school's Nakayama lineage.[43]

The Americas

Celestial objects hold a significant place within Indigenous American cultures.[44][45][failed verification] From the Lakota in North America to the Inca in South America, the celestial realm was integrated into daily life. Stars served as navigation aids, temporal markers, and spiritual conduits, illustrating their practical and sacred importance.[44][46]

Heavenly bodies held spiritual wisdom. The Pleiades, revered in various cultures, symbolized diverse concepts such as agricultural cycles and ancestral spirits.[47] In North America, star worship was practiced by the Lakota people[48][49][50] and the Wichita people.[51] The Inca civilization engaged in star worship,[52] and associated constellations with deities and forces, while the Milky Way represented a bridge between earthly and divine realms.[46]

Indigenous American cultures encapsulate a holistic worldview that acknowledges the interplay of humanity, nature, and the cosmos. Oral traditions transmitted cosmic stories, infusing mythologies, songs, and ceremonies with cosmic significance.[47] These narratives emphasized the belief that the celestial realm offered insights into origins and purpose.[44]

Judaism

The Hebrew Bible contains repeated reference to astrolatry. Deuteronomy 4:19, 17:3 contains a stern warning against worshipping the Sun, Moon, stars or any of the heavenly host. Relapse into worshipping the host of heaven, i.e. the stars, is said to have been the cause of the fall of the kingdom of Judah in II Kings 17:16. King Josiah in 621 BCE is recorded as having abolished all kinds of idolatry in Judah, but astrolatry was continued in private (Zeph. 1:5; Jer. 8:2, 19:13). Ezekiel (8:16) describes sun-worship practised in the court of the temple of Jerusalem, and Jeremiah (44:17) says that even after the destruction of the temple, women in particular insisted on continuing their worship of the "Queen of Heaven".[53]

Christianity

A scene of the film Barabbas (1961) in which a total solar eclipse that occurred on February 15, 1961, was used to recreate the crucifixion darkness

Crucifixion darkness is an episode described in three of the canonical gospels in which the sky becomes dark during the day, during the crucifixion of Jesus as a sign of his divinity.[54][55][56]

Augustine of Hippo criticized sun- and star-worship in De Vera Religione (37.68) and De civitate Dei (5.1–8). Pope Leo the Great also denounced astrolatry and the cult of Sol Invictus, which he contrasted with the Christian nativity.[citation needed]

Jesus Christ holds a significant place in the context of Christian astrology. His birth is associated with an astronomical event, symbolized by the star of the king of the Jews. This event played a role in heralding his arrival and was considered a sign of his divine nature. The belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one, drew upon astrological concepts and symbolism. The incorporation of cosmological elements into the narrative of Jesus' life and divinity contributed to the development and interpretation of Christian theology.[57]

Islam

Astrolatry is mentioned in the Quran, in the context of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham)'s observation of celestial bodies in Surat al-An'am. Scholarly analysis of Islamic beliefs underscores the unequivocal monotheism emphasized in the Quran and Hadith literature.[58] The Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes the singular nature of God and denounces the attribution of divinity to any other entities, celestial or terrestrial.[59] This monotheistic stance is deeply ingrained within Islamic theology and is extensively discussed in academic works on Islamic belief systems.[60]

Muhammad's teachings, as documented in Hadith literature, reflect his commitment to monotheism and opposition to idolatry.[61] Academic studies in Islamic theology and comparative religion affirm the contrast between Islamic monotheism and the practice of astrolatry.[62] Islamic scholars and researchers underline that the focus of Islamic spirituality remains centered on the worship of God alone, with no association of divinity to any created entities, including celestial bodies.[63]

Thelema

Nuit (alternatively Nu, Nut, or Nuith) is a goddess and the primary object of worship in Thelema, the speaker in the first chapter of The Book of the Law,[64] the sacred text written or received in 1904 by Aleister Crowley.[65] She is based on the Ancient Egyptian sky goddess Nut, who arches over her husband/brother, Geb (Earth god). She is usually depicted as a naked woman covered with stars. In The Book of the Law she says of herself: "I am Infinite Space, and the Infinite Stars thereof", and in other sections she is given the titles "Queen of Heaven", and "Queen of Space".

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See also

Notes

References

Citations

  1. ^ Sayce (1913), pp. 237ff.
  2. ^ Oppenheim & Reiner (1977).
  3. ^ Cooley (2011), p. 287.
  4. ^ Beaulieu (2018), pp. 4, 12, 178.
  5. ^ Wilkinson 2003, p. 12.
  6. ^ Wilkinson 2003, p. 90.
  7. ^ a b Wilkinson 2003, p. 91.
  8. ^ Redford (2001).
  9. ^ Hill (2016).
  10. ^ a b Wilkinson (2003), p. 167.
  11. ^ Wilkinson (2003), p. 211.
  12. ^ Wilkinson (2003), p. 127.
  13. ^ Wilkinson (2003), p. 168.
  14. ^ Ritner (1993).
  15. ^ On the Sabians generally, see De Blois (1960–2007); De Blois (2004); Fahd (1960–2007); Van Bladel (2009).
  16. ^ De Blois (1960–2007).
  17. ^ Van Bladel (2009), p. 68; cf. p. 70.
  18. ^ Van Bladel (2009), p. 65. A genealogical table of Thabit ibn Qurra's family is given by De Blois (1960–2007). On some of his descendants, see Roberts (2017).
  19. ^ Hjärpe (1972) (as cited by Van Bladel (2009), pp. 68–69).
  20. ^ Van Bladel (2009), pp. 65–66.
  21. ^ Van Bladel (2009), p. 70.
  22. ^ Van Bladel (2017), pp. 14, 71. On the Mesopotamian Marshes in the early Islamic period, see pp. 60–69.
  23. ^ Van Bladel (2017), p. 71. According to Van Bladel there were two other groups, the third one being Elchasaites, whom other scholars see as Mandaeans.
  24. ^ Van Bladel (2017), pp. 71–72.
  25. ^ Translation by Van Bladel (2017), p. 71.
  26. ^ Hämeen-Anttila (2006), pp. 46–52.
  27. ^ Heissig (1980), pp. 82–4.
  28. ^ Yu & Lancaster (1989), p. 58.
  29. ^ Schafer (1977), p. 221.
  30. ^ Gillman (2010), p. 108.
  31. ^ Master of Silent Whistle Studio (2020), p. 211, n.16.
  32. ^ (in Chinese) 福禄寿星 Archived 2006-07-22 at the Wayback Machine. British Taoist Association.
  33. ^ Orzech, Sørensen & Payne (2011), pp. 238–239.
  34. ^ Bocking (2006).
  35. ^ Goto (2020).
  36. ^ Rambelli & Teeuwen (2003).
  37. ^ a b Faure (2015), p. 52.
  38. ^ "妙見菩薩と妙見信仰". 梅松山円泉寺. Retrieved 2019-09-29.
  39. ^ Rambelli & Teeuwen (2003), pp. 35–36, 164–167.
  40. ^ Friday (2017), p. 340.
  41. ^ "千葉神社". 本地垂迹資料便覧 (in Japanese). Retrieved 2019-09-29.
  42. ^ "千葉氏と北辰(妙見)信仰". Chiba City Official Website (in Japanese). Retrieved 2019-09-29.
  43. ^ "妙見菩薩「開運大野妙見大菩薩」". 日蓮宗 法華道場 光胤山 本光寺 (in Japanese). Retrieved 2019-09-29.
  44. ^ a b c Bucko (1998).
  45. ^ Valencius (2013).
  46. ^ a b Jones (2015).
  47. ^ a b Spence (1990).
  48. ^ Means (2016).
  49. ^ Goodman (2017).
  50. ^ Lockett (2018).
  51. ^ La Vere (1998), p. 7.
  52. ^ Cobo (1990), pp. 25–31.
  53. ^ Seligsohn (1906).
  54. ^ Matthew 27:45
  55. ^ Mark 15:33
  56. ^ Luke 23:44
  57. ^ Rosenberg 1972.
  58. ^ Brown (2015).
  59. ^ Qur'an 112:1-4.
  60. ^ Esack (2002).
  61. ^ Turner (2006).
  62. ^ Nasr (2003).
  63. ^ Smith (1998).
  64. ^ Crowley (2004).
  65. ^ Crowley (1991).

Works cited

Further reading