Astronomy:Worship of heavenly bodies

From HandWiki
Short description: Worship of stars and other heavenly bodies as deities

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 'the 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.


Astrotheology (or astro-theology) comes from Greek ἄστρον astron, which means "star", and the word theologia (θεολογία), a combination of theos (Θεός, 'god') and logia (λογία, 'utterances, sayings, oracles')—the latter word relating to Greek logos (λόγος, 'word, discourse, account, reasoning'),[lower-alpha 1][lower-alpha 2] thus "the study of God".

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


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.[1] Direct evidence for astral cults, seen alongside the dominant solar theology which arose before the Fifth Dynasty, is found in the Pyramid Texts.[2] The growth of Osiris devotion led to stars being called "followers" of Osiris.[3] 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.")[3]

One of the most notable examples of astral worship in ancient Egypt is the goddess Sopdet, identified with the star Sirius.[4] 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[5] was the hawk god Sopdu,[6] "Lord of the East".[7] As the bringer of the New Year and the Nile flood, she was associated with Osiris from an early date[6] and by the Ptolemaic period Sah and Sopdet almost solely appeared in forms conflated with Osiris[8] and Isis.[9] 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.[10]


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.[11]

The Chaldeans, who came to be seen as the prototypical astrologers and star-worshippers by the Greeks, migrated into Mesopotamia c. 940–860 BCE.[12] 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.[13] The Chaldeans gained ascendancy, ruling Babylonia from 608 to 557 BCE.[14] The Hebrew Bible was substantially composed during this period (roughly corresponding to the period of the Babylonian captivity).


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".[15]


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.[16][17][18]

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.[19]


Astrolatry, the practice of worshiping celestial bodies like stars, is prohibited within Islamic belief due to its stark incongruence with the monotheistic foundations of the faith. Islamic theology steadfastly upholds the concept of tawhid, the oneness of God, and categorically condemns any form of polytheism or idolatry, including the veneration of celestial entities.

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.[20] The Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes the singular nature of Allah and denounces the attribution of divinity to any other entities, celestial or terrestrial.[21] This monotheistic stance is deeply ingrained within Islamic theology and is extensively discussed in academic works on Islamic belief systems.[22]

Muhammad's teachings, as documented in Hadith literature, reflect his commitment to monotheism and opposition to idolatry.[23] Islamic scholars emphasize that astrolatry contradicts the central theme of Islamic monotheism and is inconsistent with the teachings propagated by Muhammad.[24]

Academic studies in Islamic theology and comparative religion affirm the contrast between Islamic monotheism and the practice of astrolatry.[25] Islamic scholars and researchers underline that the focus of Islamic spirituality remains centered on the worship of Allah alone, with no association of divinity to any created entities, including celestial bodies.[26]


Main page: Religion: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),[27] 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.[28] They were described by Syriac Christian heresiographers as star worshippers.[29] 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).[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] They have been variously described by scholars as (neo)-Platonists, Hermeticists, or Gnostics, but there is no firm evidence for any of these identifications.[33][lower-alpha 3]

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).[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] 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".[37] 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.[38]



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

Star worship was widespread in Asia, especially in Mongolia[39] and northern China, and also spread to Korea.[40] 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.[41] This star worship, along with indigenous shamanism and medical practice, formed one of the original bases of Taoism.[42] The Heavenly Sovereign was identified with the Big Dipper and the North Star.[43]

The Sanxing (Chinese: 三星; literally: '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.[44]

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.[45]


Star worship was also practiced in Japan.[46][47][48] Japanese star worship is largely based on Chinese cosmology.[49] 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".[49]

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.[50]

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.[51] Worship of the pole star was also practiced in Onmyōdō, where it was deified as Chintaku Reifujin (鎮宅霊符神).[52]

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.[53] 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.[54] Myōken worship is also prevalent in many Nichiren-shū Buddhist temples due to the clan's connections with the school's Nakayama lineage.[55]

The Americas

Celestial objects hold a significant place within Indigenous American cultures.[56][57][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.[56][58]

Heavenly bodies held spiritual wisdom. The Pleiades, revered in various cultures, symbolized diverse concepts such as agricultural cycles and ancestral spirits.[59] In North America, star worship was practiced by the Lakota people[60][61][62] and the Wichita people.[63] The Inca civilization engaged in star worship,[64] and associated constellations with deities and forces, while the Milky Way represented a bridge between earthly and divine realms.[58]

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.[59] These narratives emphasized the belief that the celestial realm offered insights into origins and purpose. Astrotheology nurtured spiritual continuity and ecological awareness. It established a link between present and past, individual and cosmos. Furthermore, it guided agricultural practices, reinforcing the delicate balance between nature and spirituality.[56][failed verification]

Modern views

16th century

In the 16th century, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei played significant roles in advancing Copernican cosmology and the heliocentric model of the universe. Although it took time for the general public to accept these ideas, the Copernican revolution brought about a cultural shift away from geocentrism and anthropocentrism. This shift emphasized a more humble perspective of our place in the universe and opened up the possibility of sharing the cosmos with extraterrestrial life. Critics like Thomas Paine and Mark Twain used Copernicanism to challenge the traditional Christian worldview, arguing that the belief in multiple inhabited worlds contradicted the Christian faith's idea of Earth as the only habitable creation.[65]

18th century

According to historians Michael J. Crowe and Steven J. Dick, the first recognized exploration of astrotheology began in 1714 with the publication of William Derham's book Astro-theology: or, A demonstration of the being and attributes of God, from a survey of the heavens[66] based on the author's observations by means of "Mr. Huygens' Glass". Derham, an Anglican clergyman, divided the history of science into three periods and proposed that each star is a sun with its own planets, which he believed to be habitable worlds. He thought that the stars were openings in the firmament through which he thought he saw the Empyrean beyond.[67]

The 1783 issue of The New Christian's magazine had an essay entitled Astro-theology which argued the "demonstration of sacred truths" from "a survey of heavenly bodies" in the sense of the watchmaker analogy. Edward Higginson (1855) argues a compatibility of "Jewish Astro-theology" of the Hebrew Bible, which places God and his angelic hosts in the heavens, with a "Scientific Astro-theology" based on observation of the cosmos.[68]

During Derham's time, the purpose of astrotheology was to emphasize the vastness and grandeur of God's creation. In the present day, the focus of astrotheology has shifted to the question of how theologians should evaluate and interpret the discoveries of astrophysics and astrobiology, and how these findings might impact theological beliefs.[citation needed]

20th century


Nuit (alternatively Nu, Nut, or Nuith) is a goddess in Thelema, the speaker in the first chapter of The Book of the Law,[69] the sacred text written or received in 1904 by Aleister Crowley.[70] 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".


In modern scholarship, astrotheology is presented as a field of research that effectively harmonizes theology and astroscience . It asserts that both disciplines have their own unique contributions and advocates for fluid communication between them, without any attempt to dominate or marginalize one another.[71] It is a method "to identify elements of religion and myth in discussions of space science and to prepare people for possible future developments" in theology.[72] The term astro-theology was first used in the context of 18th- to 19th-century scholarship aiming at the discovery of the original religion, particularly primitive monotheism. It was coined by William Derham to encompass any "religious system founded upon the observation of the heavens".[73]

See also


  1. The accusative plural of the neuter noun λόγιον; cf. Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker. 1979. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 476. For examples of λόγια in the New Testament, cf. Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2; 1 Peter 4:11.
  2. Scouteris, Constantine B. [1972] 2016. Ἡ ἔννοια τῶν ὅρων 'Θεολογία', 'Θεολογεῖν', 'Θεολόγος', ἐν τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ τῶν Ἑλλήνων Πατέρων καί Ἐκκλησιαστικῶν συγγραφέων μέχρι καί τῶν Καππαδοκῶν [The Meaning of the Terms 'Theology', 'to Theologize' and 'Theologian' in the Teaching of the Greek Fathers up to and Including the Cappadocians] (in Greek). Athens. pp. 187.
  3. On the Sabians of Harran, see further Dozy & de Goeje (1884); Margoliouth (1913); Tardieu (1986); Tardieu (1987); Peters (1990); Green (1992); Fahd (1960–2007); Strohmaier (1996); Genequand (1999); Elukin (2002); Stroumsa (2004); De Smet (2010).



  1. Wilkinson 2003, p. 12.
  2. Wilkinson 2003, p. 90.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wilkinson 2003, p. 91.
  4. Redford (2001).
  5. Hill (2016).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Wilkinson (2003), p. 167.
  7. Wilkinson (2003), p. 211.
  8. Wilkinson (2003), p. 127.
  9. Wilkinson (2003), p. 168.
  10. Ritner (1993).
  11. Sayce (1913), pp. 237ff.
  12. Oppenheim & Reiner (1977).
  13. Cooley (2011), p. 287.
  14. Beaulieu (2018), pp. 4, 12, 178.
  15. Seligsohn (1906).
  16. Matthew 27:45
  17. Mark 15:33
  18. Luke 23:44
  19. Rosenberg 1972.
  20. Brown (2015).
  21. Qur'an 112:1-4.
  22. Esack (2002).
  23. Turner (2006).
  24. Al-Ghazali (2007).
  25. Nasr (2003).
  26. Smith (1998).
  27. On the Sabians generally, see De Blois (1960–2007); De Blois (2004); Fahd (1960–2007); Van Bladel (2009).
  28. De Blois (1960–2007).
  29. Van Bladel (2009), p. 68; cf. p. 70.
  30. 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).
  31. Hjärpe (1972) (as cited by Van Bladel (2009), pp. 68–69).
  32. Van Bladel (2009), pp. 65–66.
  33. Van Bladel (2009), p. 70.
  34. Van Bladel (2017), pp. 14, 71. On the Mesopotamian Marshes in the early Islamic period, see pp. 60–69.
  35. 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.
  36. Van Bladel (2017), pp. 71–72.
  37. Translation by Van Bladel (2017), p. 71.
  38. Hämeen-Anttila (2006), pp. 46–52.
  39. Heissig (1980), pp. 82-4.
  40. Yu & Lancaster (1989), p. 58.
  41. Schafer (1977), p. 221.
  42. Gillman (2010), p. 108.
  43. Master of Silent Whistle Studio (2020), p. 211, n.16.
  44. (in Chinese) 福禄寿星 . British Taoist Association.
  45. Orzech, Sørensen & Payne (2011), pp. 238–239.
  46. Bocking (2006).
  47. Goto (2020).
  48. Rambelli & Teeuwen (2003).
  49. 49.0 49.1 Faure (2015), p. 52.
  50. "妙見菩薩と妙見信仰". 
  51. Rambelli & Teeuwen (2003), pp. 35-36, 164-167.
  52. Friday (2017), p. 340.
  53. "千葉神社" (in ja). 
  54. "千葉氏と北辰(妙見)信仰" (in ja). 
  55. "妙見菩薩「開運大野妙見大菩薩」" (in ja). 
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 Bucko (1998).
  57. Valencius (2013).
  58. 58.0 58.1 Jones (2015).
  59. 59.0 59.1 Spence (1990).
  60. Means (2016).
  61. Goodman (2017).
  62. Lockett (2018).
  63. La Vere (1998), p. 7.
  64. Cobo (1990), pp. 25-31.
  65. Peters (2019).
  66. Derham (1714).
  67. Crowe (1994), p. 67.
  68. Higginson (1855), p. [page needed].
  69. Crowley (2004).
  70. Crowley (1991).
  71. Chon-Torres & Szocik (2022).
  72. Harrison, Albert A. (2014-01-02). "Astrotheology and Spaceflight: Prophecy, Transcendence and Salvation on the High Frontier". Theology and Science (Informa UK Limited) 12 (1): 30–48. doi:10.1080/14746700.2013.868118. ISSN 1474-6700. 
  73. OED, citing Derham (1714) as the first attestation of the term.

Works cited

Further reading

External links