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Astral Religion


Worship of the stars, which long antedated astrology. It was an underlying element in many ancient cults, more conspicuously in some than in others. The observable combination of change and variety with fixed and undeviating regularity (i.e., the motions of the sun, moon, and planets as contrasted with that of the "fixed" stars and constellations) deeply impressed even the profoundest thinkers, such as Aristotle (see Frag. 10, found in Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Mathematicos 3.2022), Plato (Phaedrus 246F), the Stoics, Immanuel Kant (Critique of Practical Reason ad fin. ), and even the Biblical poet (Psalm 19). Some writers, both ancient and modern, have held that astral religion was the beginning of true worship as distinct from magic, and have interpreted the Greek and Egyptian mythology as parables or allegories of the heavenly constellations. More probably, however, the constellations were interpreted from current mythology, and so received their names. One cannot fail to see here the poetic instinct at work, endeavoring to describe the harmony of the heavens in personal terms. Some of this poetry was religious, some merely secularas Plutarch assumed in his meteorological interpretation of Isis and Osiris.

Babylonian Star Worship. The ancient Babylonian religion was the classic development of star worship. Here the stars were all gods, animate beings of a divine, or at least supernatural, rank. The earliest cuneiform sign for "god" was a star (*). Thus the sun, moon, and planet Venus were identified with Shamash, Sin, and Ishtar; Jupiter was Marduk; Saturn (not Mars) was the war god; Mercury was Nebo, the herald; Mars was Nergal, god of the dead. This system of identification was taken over and modified by the Greeks and Romans, using the names of their own deities.

Among Other Peoples. People in a variety of areas of the world, including the East African Masai and some of the Native North Americans, worshipped the stars. Often the sun was the chief god of the pantheon and the other heavenly bodies were his family of servants. This primeval cult not only influenced many others, both Semitic and Western as well as Egyptian, but even survived them, as when the cult of Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun) supplanted many others under the dynasty of the Severi in the Roman Empire of the third century. The god Mithras, originally a friend of the Sun, was finally identified with him. The Egyptian Pharoah Akhnaton (Amenhotep IV) tried to establish the Sun God (Aton) at Heliopolis as the center of the whole Egyptian cult, but he was unsuccessful; the entrenched priesthoods of the old deities rejected this revolution in the direction of monotheism. In pre-Islamic Arabia there was a whole pantheon of astral deities; astral rites and beliefs were found also in ancient China, so widespread was this primitive cult. Among the Indo-Iranian peoples the same phenomenon was found, but in a modified form. The "Heaven God" (or gods) was only the personification of heavena usage still reflected, in reverse, in the Jewish religion (e.g., "Let the fear of Heaven [i.e., God] be upon you," Mishnah, Pirke Aboth 1.3). The immense influence of this ancient terminology survived in the Roman imperial and early Christian designation of the first day of the week as "Sun-day" (the very earliest Christian designation was "first day of the week," as in 1 Cor 16.2, or "the Lord's day," Rv 1.10).

Stars in the Bible. Among the Greeks, even in Plato's later writings (Tim. 40B), the stars were thought to be animate beings or "visible gods." Among the Hebrews and the Biblical writers, however, the references to stars either were figurative or stressed the sovereignty of the one and only God, their Creator (Is 14.12; Sir 50.6; Rv 22.16; and see Gn 1 and Ps 19). The "seven stars" in Am 5.8 are the Pleiades; in Rv 1.20 they are the seven churches in the Province of Asia. Only in connection with pagan religion and rites are the stars referred to as deities (Am 5.26; cf. Jer 7.18; 19.13; 44.17, 19, 25; Acts 7.43).

Relation of Star Worship and Astrology. It is easy to see how the Greek and Roman inheritance of astral worship led directly to astrology. It had originated in Babylonia and was combined with Iranian influence to enter the West during the two centuries of the Persian Empire (538330 b.c.) and later. Eudoxus and Theophrastus were the first to show acquaintance with it, and both rejected it (Cicero, Div. 2.87; Proclus, In Tim. 285f). But with Eudemus of Rhodes a contrast began to be drawn between the baleful and the beneficent stellar beingsa theory derived from Zoroastrian dualism (Damascius, De princ. 125). The rest followed easily; star worship had opened the gate to astrology, and even some of the best minds cultivated it henceforth, for it was regarded as a science. Fata regunt orbem, certa stant omnia lege, "Fates rule the world, and everything stands firm by law" (Manilius, Astronomicon 4.14). Any religious sentiments retained by astrology were derived from the earlier star worship; however, many later writers viewed astrology exclusively as a science with no reference to religion. Thus, Melanchthon the German reformer was an expert astrologer, but would have denied in toto astral religion. In passing on the torch to astrology, astral religion met its end, and thus itself reflected the further principle of Manilius (4.16): Nascentes morimur; finisque ab origine pendet, "Being born, we begin to die; and the end depends upon the beginning."

In Christian theology and philosophy the Biblical conception naturally prevailed: the stars are "divine" only in a poetic or figurative sense; they are God's creation, His "handiwork," and manifest His glory. Yet they shall fade, or fall from heaven, or be supplanted by other stars in a new heaven, after the Judgment. Nevertheless, the old usage still survived. In the Roman catacombs there are inscriptions that imply that the Christian soul is now super astra ("above the stars"), and the beautiful passage in Dn 12.3 is not forgotten: "They shall shine as the stars for ever and ever."

See Also: astrology.

Bibliography: f. von oefele et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh 190827) 12:48101, a series of 12 articles. w. gundel, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941 [1950]) 1:810817. g. r. driver, j. hastings and j. a. selbia, eds., Dictionary of the Bible (Edinburgh 194250) rev. in 1 v. ed. f. c. grant and h. h. rowley (New York 1963) 936938. f. j. boll, Kleine Schriften zur Sternkunde des Altertums, ed. v. stegmann (Leipzig 1950). h. gressmann, Die hellenistische Gestirnreligion (Leipzig 1925). e. w. maunder, The Astronomy of the Bible (4th ed. London 1923). o. rÜhle, Sonne und Mond im primitiven Mythus (Tübingen 1925); Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 1:662664. e. zinner, Sternglaube und Sternforschung (Freiburg 1953).

[f. c. grant]

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