Celestial and Astronomical Symbolism in Ancient Religions

The Tranmission of Celestial and Astronomical Knowledge through Symbolism in Ancient Religions

Masters Thesis Outline: University of Warwick

Work In Progress Draft February 2013


My thesis explores the relationship between ancient religious iconography, myth and scripture, and ancient understandings or representations of astronomical knowledge and cosmology. Briefly, the pagan religion Mithraism, and the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Christianity all contain the same celestial imagery and symbolism. Key features among this symbolism are; the zodiac, a band of constellations around the equator – or sun’s annual path through the sky, represented by the number 12 (or 13 and 1); the seven planets including the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; calendrical markers such as the solstices and equinoxes; and even the phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes which is manifested in the changing of the heliacally rising constellation at the spring equinox – an event that occurs approximately every 2,160 years.

These astronomical features, among others, were known to all the ancient cultures of the world and the knowledge of them was transmitted through stories and metaphors told by the priest-classes. As such they were incorporated into religious scripture, art and mythology. As astronomy’s sister science, astrology, eventually became condemned by orthodox faiths, these obvious astronomical allegories became lost. Some of them have become mistaken as absolute historical truth by religious fundamentalists, some of them have been lost in translation, and some of them are merely grossly overlooked by scholars. While there remain scholars who independently advocate astronomical readings of Mithraism, such as David Ulansey, or astrological symbolism in Judaism, such as Lester Ness, and Christianity such as Nicholas Campion, many of these concentrate on astrological interpretations rather than astronomical ones which, I believe, are more prevalent. Fewer scholars still, seek to unify these astronomical metaphors into a comprehensive study of ancient religion, the nearest attempt to this I have come across is Hamlet’s Mill by Santillana and Dechend which was published in 1977 and is more concerned with cultural myths and epics, rather than religious symbolism.


Briefly, the working structure of my thesis at the moment is to open with a chapter outlining ancient astronomical knowledge. Then, instead of following in chronological order I study Mithraism first in Chapter Two because the astronomical rendering of the cult art is well attested and it sets the best examples in place for Judaism to follow. Astronomical symbolism in Judaism is attested by ancient scholars and ancient art and much of it is comparable to Mithraism. Christianity is the harder religion to attest astronomical lore too as much of it is based on secondary interpretation, seeing as the Church Fathers sought to criticise and condemn any pagan astrolatry (that is, star worship), especially when it was competing with the popular Solar Cult of the later Roman Emperors. I am not sure yet whether I am going to summarise and compare throughout the chapters, or let them stand alone and compare them briefly in a final chapter.

At the end of the Introduction I will include a note on terminology. During my research I have studied broad and sometimes complicated, but seemingly always differing, definitions of terms such as religion and science. I will clarify these. However, the distinction between astrology and astronomy in the ancient world is perhaps harder – many scholars of astrology will argue simply that there was none. But it seems from my research, and this quote from Ptolemy, that many did distinguish between the mathematical functions of star gazing, and the interpretations of diviners or astrologers. Certainly within Judaic history there is even a distinction between what I would call star worship (which obviously included observation) and divining the future (known as horary astrology). And an even greater difference between sacred calendar making, a feature integral to Jewish faith, and claiming to know God’s will in advance through reading the stars which is clearly condemned.


Chapter One

As I have said, this will comprise of a description of which astronomical features the ancients recognised such as the celestial north pole, and the celestial equatorial and ecliptic circles. Most of this is well documented and acknowledged by scholars. However, there is one area of contention I hold against some scholars. Hipparchus of Nicaea is credited in the 150s BCE with discovering phenomenon of the heavens known as the precession of the equinoxes. Precession because the zodiac signs move backward rather than forward as per their usual yearly cycle. For many, this precession which sees the change of the rising constellation at the spring equinox every 2160 years, could not possibly have been known by early peoples, as it seems to imply a strict record of astronomical knowledge passing by word of mouth over 108 generations. However, I would argue that it was known, and perhaps even known by the Predynastic Egyptians before 3000BCE, but certainly well known before Hipparchus wrote it down in 150BCE. It is easy to see using only a line of site marker such as a tree, that a constellation which heralded the spring equinox such as the Pleiades had moved a day out of kilter in only 70 years. Astronomical documentation, as shown in the Mesopotamian texts, was much more common and intelligent than we probably wish to concede.

Accepting knowledge of the Precession before Hipparchus is one of the integral features of my thesis. I believe that Mithraism and Judaism document the precession from Taurus to Aries, and that the Christian messiah manifests the precession from Aries to Pisces, perhaps even foreshadowing the movement into Aquarius which will happen in the next 150 years.

My premises are as follows. Astronomy, astrology, divining, and calendar making in all cultures of the ancient world such as Mesopotamia and Egypt was the responsibility of the priestly classes. The political importance of these priests compared to the king or ruler of the state was considerable. As such, this knowledge was both sacred, and by necessity, elitist or known only to high order religious members. Most of this knowledge was transmitted through symbols or metaphor either to preserve its clandestineness, or because there was no other means. I certainly believe that Wisdom Symbolism was a key partner to the Wisdom Literature of the ancient world, and perhaps even predates it. Most religions make reference to those that know or can see the truth, and those that cant. Origen claimed this was how Mithraism worked, and Christ himself claimed it of his followers: ‘let those who have eyes see’.


Chapter Two

The Chapter on Mithraism will be broken down into three main sections. The first focuses on the central icon of all known mithraea – called the tauroctony. Key features of this image are accepted by most Mithraic scholars as pertaining to astronomical constellations or features. Though much debate is given over which exact figures, zone of the sky, or time of the year they represent – and perhaps more importantly, who Mithras is if the others are astronomical. I would argue that the constellations represent the zone of the sky between Taurus, the Bull, and Scorpio, the Scorpion shown attacking the bulls genitals. Mithras is then either the age of Aries personified, as Porphyry alludes to in Cave of the Nymphs 24, or Perseus the constellation above Taurus in the sky and ruled by Aries, or both. There is certainly no reason to believe that the tauroctony can, or should only be interpreted as one stellar symbol, perhaps it was deliberately polysemic. Regardless, it is clearly celestial or astronomic in its nature.

Section two (still under research) will focus on the other images in the mithraea – namely the figures of the cautes and Cautopates or torchbearers which could indicate any number of astronomical features (or indeed all of them) and the more mysterious Lion headed god which I believe to symbolise either Time personified, or even the cosmocrator, or perhaps the precession personified. It seems possible he has his origins in Egypt, where animal headed gods are certainly better known.

Section three  will focus on the more mundane or physical aspects of Mithraic belief. None of which is documented, and so largely based on conjecture. However there remains a key feature known as the initiation mosaics which list seven grades of initiation associated with seven planets. It is not known whether this was just for priests, or for all initiates but it certainly seems to have comparison with the Platonic cosmology. That is, it is entirely likely Mithraism was a physical practice of Platonic cosmology, and concerned itself with spiritual salvation while living and ascendency through the seven planetary spheres. It is also possible this belief is found in later Gnostic and Christian texts.


Chapter Three

Again, the chapter on Judaism will be broken down into three sections. The first concerns physical evidence of stellar iconography in Jewish art. Such as the little discussed zodiac mosaics mostly found near Galilee. They clearly incorporate the zodiac and perhaps even the sun in his solar chariot within Jewish temples themselves. I believe this is more than aesthetic or Hellenised tastes. There is evidence to suggest that the priest himself and the menorah are also astronomically endowed:

‘Now the seven lamps of the menorah signified the planets… the twelve loaves that were upon the table signify the circle of the zodiac and the year.’  Josephus Antiquities 5.217

‘In the temple [was] a Babylonian curtain…embroidered upon it were the twelve signs’ Josephus 5.212

And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man…he had in his right hand seven stars… Revelation 1:10-20

Jewish art then corroborates with Jewish texts. This is also considered against the Jewish obsession with sacred calendars which of course relied on astronomy to function.

The second section is concerned with passages from the Old Testament, namely the appearance of Moses as a horned and therefore Arian figure who ended the rule of the golden bull. In this way he mirrors Mithras. I am also working on the passages about Samsun Hebrew (Shemesh or sunny/solar) which seem to contain a wealth of astronomical symbolism such as the fall of Leo (Samsun) in Aquarius (Delilah) and his death between the two pillars which either represent Pisces or perhaps the Axis Mundi or World Pillar. He is also paralleled with the Greek Atlas who held up the celestial sphere, and there are other similarities with Hercules who is known as a solar hero.

The third section will consider the importance of the number twelve in Jewish literature, namely the 12 tribes of Israel and the story of Joseph. These seem to represent the zodiac signs though scholars debate over which. There is also reference in Numbers to the cosmological structure of society based on the twelve tents around the tabernacle. This symbolism appears to carry over into Christianity as the twelve apostles.


Chapter Four

The first section here is concerned with the story of Christ. The features of his life and death are mirrored in ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, as well as in nearly every single culture of the world. The features of his life such as the adoration of three kings and the death for three days could all be astronomical. There is evidence in the Nag Hammadi texts that astronomical imagery was intended to be read into the New Testament. Central to this discussion is the debate between the Gnostic Valentinus and the Christian Irenaeus who argued over the length of Christs ministry. Valentinus arguing, from the symbolic viewpoint, that Christ’s ministry lasted only one year so to fit with his solar characteristics. If we accept that Joseph of the Old Testament is solar in nature, the parallels with the Jesus story are great enough to consider Christ also as solar. This is documented in Christian art which often portrays Christ as Helios.

The second section covers the story of the twelve apostles who parallel the twelve tribes of Israel in their zodiacal significance. Again, which one is which is much debated but they were recorded in Christian art as representing the zodiac signs. The four evangelists; Matthew Mark Luke and John are easier to ascribe. They represent the four Royal Stars of Mesopotamia located in the four fixed signs of the zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius, and are represented as such in Christian art.

The final section which I am still working on should cover commentary on the Gospel of Mark which I believe to be a fully astronomical or astrological text (accounting for its non-chronological nature) and the book of Revelation which contains clear astronomical symbolism such as seven stars and four headed beasts (again as the four fixed signs).


In Conclusion I hope to show that astronomical knowledge is contained within Mithraism, Judaism and Christianity. While it is clear that by the time of the composition of the New Testament as it stands now, most of this astronomical knowledge was muddled, distorted, purely aesthetic or misused. But the evidence of it shows that the tradition of recording astronomical knowledge in religious texts and symbols pervaded from the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish (1200BCE at the latest) up to as recently as the 18th century. I am not arguing that this imagery or symbolism was mystical or astrological in origin, though I imagine some or most of it could be and would have been interpreted as such. There are strong currents between astronomy and astrology, and it would not be surprising that many people used these texts and images for astrological purposes. This is an astrology which is better compared to Stoic sympatheia or universal harmony than any modern understanding of the term. While we cannot rule out astrological readings I think it is safer to argue for an astronomical intent behind these images and myths, mostly because it is clear that astronomical observation was the purpose of the priestly class whether or not divination was accepted or not. However, it is equally impossible to know the intent of the writers, or where texts have been altered. We also cannot know, especially in the case of Judaism, what was the will of the prophets, and what was the will of the people – the Book of Judges makes it clear that most of the populous including the kings were star worshippers. In the case of Mithraism, we can know almost nothing at all. But there remain patterns which, analysed from an astronomical point of view – a science fundamental to the life and religion of ancient people – seem to portray a unity of thought across time and culture which cannot and should not be overlooked.


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