Projected onto the stars, the meaning that some of our distant ancestors found in their orderly procession was that they were compelled as one body by a prime mover, alleged source of, and driving force behind, the rational, harmonious order of the universe.

The notion of a prime mover was wholly a fiction in human minds, a product of deluded imaginations in not being able to detect their own planet’s motions because as a people they moved with the Earth and had no reference other than the stars to gauge that impression by.

So if the stars seemed to move, that was enough to convince them that that must be the true state of affairs. Many believed it, and said so. Opening the door to a myriad of profound consequences, which still persist among us today.

Wars have been fought, millions killed, heretics burned at the stake as a result of such beliefs, or, rather, the denial of such beliefs. Those deadly consequences, as residing in human minds as matters of orthodox faith and belief, are what I am concerned with in these several posts dealing with our human engagements with the stars as I develop the big picture based on my reading and experience.

Along with the concept of one turning in reference to the nightly round of the stars, several other concepts accompany that of the prime mover; the idea of harmony as the essentially rational and defining characteristic of the stars moving in unison to constitute a cosmos in contrast with a disordered chaos; and the idea that deviation from harmony was a message played like notes against a musical scale intended to call people on Earth back into harmony with the circling stars.

The five visible, star-like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), as well as sun and moon, did not share in the disciplined rotation of the stars, but travelled their own ways among them along a broad pathway of their own in the middle reaches of the stars overhead. That pathway was not random but stuck to a middle way along a particular band of stars that ancient peoples visualized as forming twelve houses or constellations, the band coming to be known as the ecliptic, the celestial path among the stars along which the messenger planets (Greek angelos, messenger) traveled and, when those paths coincided, conjunctions and eclipses might occur.

The twelve, thirty-degree zodiacal houses (constellations) along the ecliptic were deified as domains ruled in monthly succession by twelve godlike figures, together forming the ring of zodiacal signs marking the progress of the seven angelic messengers.

No one realized that that background of stellar houses was far behind the moving planets, so had nothing at all to do with them because it seemed to observers on earth that the stars and planets were equidistant, so that the luminous messengers traveled among and briefly resided in stellar houses that existed solely in human imagination.

Once the stars became animated by ancient humans projecting their quest for order onto the cycling radiance overhead, the stage was set for conception and projection of prime movers, creators, supreme beings, and rulers of the (supposedly) one-turning universe.

The stars and the messengers weaving among them bore whatever meanings arose in those who projected their minds in beseeching the cosmos for guidance in conducting their Earthly lives and affairs. Temples and sanctuaries such as those structures at Göbekli Tepe, Stonehenge, and in Sumer at the head of the Persian Gulf were in many instances built as stellar observatories to mediate the traffic of signs between heaven and Earth, local authorities assuming the office of translator of heavenly messages so their followers would receive the proper message and behave accordingly.

So did religion become a fact of life on Earth in binding human labors to the will of the gods above, or most particularly to the will of the prime mover who set the cosmos in orderly motion for the purpose of inviting humans, if they knew what side their bread was buttered on, to partake in the rational order exemplified by the stars overhead.

Sumerian minds, looking up from their marshy homeland in the delta of the combined waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, became famous for conceiving of such deities (shining or radiant ones, later depicted with haloes) some five- or six-thousand years ago.

Among other gifts to their descendants, the Sumerians are now famous for leaving behind them a great trove of statuettes of worshippers with folded hands and dilated, dark-adapted eyes, only much later to be discovered by archaeologists within the past 150 years.

The figures depict worshippers in the grips of a variety of fraught human situations beneath the stars at night, looking to be told by the messenger stars what to do because that was their duty, to heed the will of Sumerian gods.

What the Sumerians invented—along with cuneiform writing on clay tablets; an extensive literature of poetry, myths, lamentations, hymns, and wise sayings; and religion built around a priestly profession as we know it today—was an intricate system of awe so lustrous as to have a compelling effect in organizing the behavior of a people who sought answers to their most pressing problems from the seemingly informative movements of the planets weaving among the orderly motions of stars along the ecliptic.

The Sumerians placed not one but three gods in the heavens, one for each of the three regions: celestial polar region, residence of the creator and prime mover, Anu: zodiac against which the seven messengers moved, ruled by Enlil, king of the gods; and outer fringe thought to be closest to Earth on the outskirts of the cosmic dome, home of Enki, source of divine wisdom.

It was a great scheme by which the Sumerians mapped out the heavens some 5,400 years ago, a scheme still with us today in the doctrine and structures of the church. The essential teaching of that scheme was “On Earth as in Heaven,” a notion backed up by the seasonal return of the sun to the same house along the ecliptic, signing the start of a new year and another round of the liturgical calendar. Genius; pure genius. Because it was true: human affairs on Earth do run according to a calendar dictated by the seasons, and the seasons by the stars.

The hitch is that it wasn’t that the stars were moving according to the prime mover’s plan, so seeming to dictate to people what they should be doing with their limited bodily energies; those stellar motions were really due to Earth’s daily rotation about its axis and simultaneous orbit around the sun. There was no prime mover at the celestial pole. There was no godly king of kings managing the motions of planets along the ecliptic. There was no divine wisdom filtering down from the stars for human guidance.

We already had the seasons to alert us to our proper annual labors; the stars were incidental to what we already knew. They were an offshoot, not the source of our wisdom. The stars told us nothing we didn’t already know.

It was the Sumerian priesthood that maintained that the heavens were the center of Sumerian life on Earth, and that the people needed their lofty interpretation of signs and directives—otherwise they’d be out of a job. Priesthoods offer the best job security on Earth if they can convince flocks to behave as they already know they should.

There is a font of circular reasoning at the heart of every religion. And we have such a plethora of religions precisely because each one has to develop a convincing rationale for the people to support the local priesthood in its annual rounds of reasoning.

These comments are what I was talking about in developing the big picture of our human engagements with the stars. For much of my life I have read Joseph Campbell, Samuel Noah Kramer, E.O. James, and James Frazer, and others of similar bent in bringing ancient ideas to life. For me this has been recreational reading to accompany my fascination with fossils and the expanding literature of evolutionary biology. Looking both to the past and the future, I was doing my best to keep pace with the world I lived in, which was expanding at an ever increasing rate.

My bookshelves today are lined with such books, testament to the interests that have sustained me throughout adult life. Now that my life is winding down, the residuum of my reading takes on a greater importance because I see so much harking back to a more comfortable (because familiar) world rather than a willingness to enter the next stage of human development and understanding. If I do not contribute to that understanding, why have I lived through the past exciting years?

So here I sit at my computer keyboard in Bar Harbor, Maine, blogging about what matters to me at my time of life, adding my thoughts and observations to the great flow of human engagement with our Earthly surroundings.

Should I live so long, you can expect that I’ll have more to say about our stellar engagements tomorrow.

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(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

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* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006