Sky: The Heavens as Hierophany

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The concept of a close relationship between the starry heavens and human beings is ancient, multifaceted, and widespread. The changing colors of the sky, the alternation between night and day, different weather patterns and seasons, eclipses, the appearance and disappearance of the sun, moon, and stars, all contribute to the interest, awe, and attraction humans feel for the sky and sky-related phenomena. Throughout human history, this fascination with the celestial world has given rise to a great many myths, rituals, and monuments. For heuristic purposes this association between the cosmic and the human may be divided into two categories: technomorphic representations and anthropomorphic representations. Anthropomorphic representations may be further divided into two classifications: heavenly divinities, often considered to be personifications of the sky and/or the heavenly bodies, and human beings of celestial essence or those who have been transferred to the heavens.

Technomorphic Representations

Since very ancient times, people have tended to construct cosmologies based on an analogy between the structure of the heavens and human activies. Such cosmologies are sometimes called technomorphic representations (from the Greek technē, "craft"). The sky was often imagined as a solid object (vault, bucket, etc.) made of iron, stone, wood, or other material. The stars might be simply holes or windows in the solid sky, or they might be torches, flames, lights, nails, flowers, plants, or animals. Naive ideas were not infrequent, such as the notion that stars are shards of the old sun and moon broken off by the spirits and continually polished by them.

The shapes formed by an arbitrarily selected number of stars give rise to the constellations. The free play of imagination made one great cluster of stars into the Milky Way and another group into an animal (the Great Bear) or a wagon: the first wagon made by a human, the wagon of Óðinn (Odin), Icarus, Jason, Philomelus, Abraham, David, Elijah, Peter, Mary, or Jesus, a wagon whose wheels creak at midnight and whose tremblings produce snow.

In these naive cosmologies, the North Star often plays an important role, being one extremity of the axis mundi on which the heavenly vault turns. Thus Estonians call the North Star, "nail of the firmament" (põhja nael ), around which the heavenly dome turns. The Saami (Lapps) have similar representations. They also believe that if the nail is not in place, the sky would fall to earth; this will happen at the end of the world when everything will be consumed by fire. The Finns say that the sky is the lid of the earth. In contrast, the Buriats see it as a big turning bucket. The Yakuts thought it was made of several animal skins spread over one another. The Buriats added to this that the Milky Way was the place where the skins were sewn together. A great number of representations relating to the "cosmic mantle" and to the "heavenly tent" have been analyzed by Robert Eisler in his Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt (1910). Influenced by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, Eisler looked for Oriental prototypes for all Mediterranean astral beliefs. At the same time, he related sacred kingship to the idea of a cosmic ruler whose attribute was usually a starry mantle, and showed that this tradition was carried over by Christianity down to the present times.

The idea that the stars are the signs of a mysterious heavenly writing is related to the shapes of the constellations. The "heavenly book," or the celestial vault in its entirety, may be a register kept by a specific deity (e.g., the Babylonian god Nabu). This register contained the past, present, and future of the entire universe. In all probability, this concept forms the background of astrology.

The sun and the moon, the largest heavenly bodies, are also the object of technomorphic representations. In Manichaeism, for instance, they are simply two boats navigating in the sky, whose role is to aid in the transfer of the light kept prisoner into the material world.

Anthropomorphic Representations

Personifications of objects and natural phenomena have allowed people in all times and cultures to explain and understand the world around them. In this context, the personification of the heavens has been an essential element of human concepts as projected in myths, legends, and theologies. The personification of the heavens is expressed essentially as divinities or as purified people who have been translated there.

Heavenly deities

In many cultures the sky, the sun, the moon, and the known planets were conceived as personal gods. These gods were responsible for all or some aspects of existence. Prayers were addressed to them, offerings were made to them, and their opinions on important matters were sought through divination.

It is known that many world mythologiesincluding some of those considered the most ancient from a historico-cultural viewpointmake a distinction between a primordial divinity of the sky (such as the Greek Ouranos) and an active divinity (such as Zeus), head of a pantheon of gods. The sky divinity usually tends to become remote and otiose. E. O. James has shown that a sky god was known among various groups of both Indo-European and Semitic people. This sky god ranged from a tribal supreme being, often remote and ineffectual, to an active creator and ruler of the universe.

Among the astral gods, the sun god is one of the most important. He was very prominent in the Nile Valley as Re-Atum but less prominent both in Mesopotamia (where Shamash had a subordinate position) and among the Indo-Europeans. The sun divinity may also be female.

A moon goddess (or god, usually in those cultures where the sun god is female) is also very important in several cultures. In Mediterranean religions, the moon goddess could be featured as a Great Mother responsible for fertility. The Iranian Anāhitā had a moon crescent as her attribute. Artemis of Ephesos was a lunar divinity. Later on, the Greek Artemis and the Roman Diana were definitely identified with the moon.

On the other hand, Anāhitā's own name was related to the name of the planet Venus. In Pahlavi, Anāhid is Venus's name. Other Venus goddesses are the Babylonian Ishtar, the Phoenician Astarte, Aramean ʿAttar-ʿatteh, and the Arabian ʿAttar or Astar. Venus as morning and evening star often may be represented as a male god.

In late Babylonian religion, the planetary gods had precise identities. They were divided into two groups: the beneficent (Marduk, Ishtar-Sarpanïtu, and Nabu) and the maleficent (Ninib and Nergal). Marduk was Jupiter and together with Venus/Ishtar, the principle of creation, he gave life to Mercury/Nabu, the representative of the happy destiny of humanity. Mars/Nergal, the war god, and Saturn/Nergal, the death god, were destructive powers. Among the Babylonians, the moon godEnzu of Lagash, Sin of Akkad, or Nanna of Urwas more important than the solar god, Shamash, Babbar, or Nigirsu.

The relationship between humanity and the stars

Catasterism, the transfer of human beings to heaven, usually in the shape of a constellation, is related to the very ancient beliefs that dead children become stars, that a falling star foretells the death of a relative, and that even the human soul is a star. Less naively expressed, the last statement is attributed to Heraclitus by the fourth-century Neoplatonist Macrobius: "Anima scintilla stellaris essentiae."

As early as the fifth century bce, the playwright Aristophanes mocked catasterism in his comedy Freedom. Alcmaeon of Croton, a physician, thought that the soul was immortal like the endless movement of the divine stars. The playwright Euripides reported that Helen of Troy was translated to the "palace of Zeus" beyond the starry sky. Even according to the "materialists," Leucippus and Democritus, the fiery soul was cognate with the sun and the moon.

Catasterism was also attested to in Egypt in the third century bce. According to the Pyramid Texts, the king follows Orion and Sirius to the sky. During his heavenly ascent, Sothis/Sirius is his sister. According to Wilhelm Gundel, the idea that humans continue to live after death in the stars (and were stars in heaven even before their birth) is Egyptian in origin. Walter Burkert also emphasizes the differences between Babylonian and Egyptian astral religion: Whereas the divinity of the astral bodies is particularly important in Babylonia, the Egyptians stress the idea of a correspondence between humans and the stars. The belief in an astral immortality, already featured by Plato as a possibility of posthumous reward, became commonplace among his disciples Xenocrates, Crantor, and Heracleides Ponticus. Later, mythology and science converged toward impressive representations such as those of the eschatological myths of Plutarch (c. 46c. 119 ce). These representations cannot be ascribed to an uninterrupted Pythagorean tradition, as the French scholar A. Delatte and his school suggest. The most prominent representative of this school was L. Rougier, who defended the Pythagorean thesis against Franz Cumont, defender of the Oriental thesis of the German Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. During the Hellenistic period and late antiquity, the underground hell of the platonic myths was transferred to a place in heaven.

In no religious tradition except gnosticism did all the astral gods become evil demons. A strong polemic against astrology is implicit in gnostic mythology. Astrology, based on an ancient Babylonian and Egyptian inheritance, took shape in the third century bce. In astrology, a particular relationship between human destiny and the heavenly bodies is expressed. This relationship takes on complicated forms, which can often be retraced to basic representations such as the "heavenly book" and the heavenly figures, or constellations. Astrology also put into mathematical language some methods of divination, which probably were based on the idea of the influence of the planets upon human individual and collective history.

See Also

Astrology; Cosmology; Moon; Stars; Sun; Supreme Beings.


Ancient astral beliefs are surveyed by Robert Eisler in Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt: Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zur Urgeschichte des antiken Weltbildes, 2 vols. (Munich, 1910). Valuable information is also contained in Uno Harva Holmberg's Der Baum des Lebens (Helsinki, 1923) and, above all, in Wilhelm Gundel's Sternglaube, Sternreligion und Sternorakel: Aus der Geschichte der Astrologie, 2d ed. (Heidelberg, 1959).

Babylonian astral religion is the object of the second volume of Franz Xaver Kugler's Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel: Assyriologische, astronomische und astralmythologische Untersuchungen, 3 vols. in 2 (Münster, 19071924).

On the sky god among the Semites and the Indo-Europeans, the standard work is E. O. James's The Worship of the Sky-God: A Comparative Study in Semitic and Indo-European Religion (London, 1963).

Theories concerning astral religion have been recently discussed in my own work, Psychanodia I: A Survey of the Evidence concerning the Ascension of the Soul and Its Relevance, "Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'empire romaine," vol. 99 (Leiden, 1983).

New Sources

Aveni, Anthony F. Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos. New York, 1992.

Barton, Tamsyn S. Ancient Astrology. New York, 1994.

Grant, Edward. Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 12001687. New York, 1996.

Krupp, E. C. Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moons, Stars, and Planets. New York, 1991.

Wright, M. R. Cosmology in Antiquity. New York, 1995.

Ioan Petru Culianu (1987)

Revised Bibliography