Priest astronomer

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As a priest astronomers in popular sky history hikes and on archaeological literature star competent to be priests of prehistory and antiquity referred that their astronomical knowledge to serve in temples or religious cults acquired or exercised.

Their activity combined astronomical observations with religious aspects up to astrology . The research of the processes in the sky also served the calendar calculation and the prediction of astronomical phenomena such as solar eclipses and special constellations of the stars . Celestial or solar cults based on the knowledge gained from this . In some cultures of the Orient (see Chaldeans ) or among the Mayans, the astronomical priestly astronomers are likely to have formed a kind of guild, in others they were more likely to have acted as astronomically educated individuals.

Günter D. Roth writes: "For those who preferred to see the divine in the starry sky, every change, every movement in the seemingly immovable world of stars must have been a special message." ( Günter D. Roth :)

Starry sky and religion

Astronomical phenomena have influenced human cultural history in many ways.

The seemingly unchangeable fixed stars thus contributed to the religious interpretation of the universe. The starry sky was the seat of deities in almost all cultures . The celestial phenomena with the partly cyclical, partly puzzling movement patterns of the sun, moon and planets gave impetus for scientific research and formed the basis for astrological considerations. In particular, singular events like comets and supernovae were interpreted as signs of divine will or unwillingness.

Yet the heavenly processes were also practical aids for human life and especially its seasonal requirements. In the biblical creation story , these aspects, which were used early on for calendars , religious festivals and timekeeping, are clad in the following words ( Gen 1 : 14–15  EU ): “Then God said: Lights should be on the vault of heaven to close day and night divorce. They should be signs and serve to determine festive times, days and years. They are said to be lights in the heavens that shine across the earth. And so it happened. "


For cultures or millennia without written records, the astronomical activity and importance of priests can only be inferred indirectly. Some examples of these celestial-religious activities are examined in more detail below.

The best known from this early astronomy are the megalithic structure of Stonehenge in southern England, as well as, from Germany, the Goseck circular moat and the Nebra sky disc . But there are also astronomical and religious aspects in cave painting.

Stone age cave painting

Astronomical and religious interpretation of an 18,000 year old hunting scene in the Lascaux cave with a shaman

In the Neolithic cave paintings there are isolated references between shamans and the starry sky. The southern French cave of Lascaux shows an incantation scene related to bison hunt : a bison wounded by a spear who looks painfully at the bird-headed shaman. According to the interpretation of archaeoastronomers, the eyes of the three figures represent the bright stars of the summer triangle (today's constellation Swan has a human-like shape). A second interpretation sees the hunting priest in the midst of the zodiac images Leo (rhinoceros left), Gemini (2 × 3 points) and Taurus (bison), in which the bird path represents the Milky Way . The bison head has the shape of the Hyades , a bright cluster of stars that, like the Pleiades, was a paleolithic calendar star (see Nebra Sky Disc ).

Neolithic stone circles

Archaeo-astronomers have developed several theories about prehistoric astronomy based on Stonehenge , arguably the most famous monolith monument of the Neolithic Age . Some of it is speculative, but detectable, specific observations on the seasonal cycle of sunrise and sunsets , the moon's orbit and individual brighter the stars . There is no doubt that the shamans involved had special knowledge of the orbits of the stars. And that some of the observed constellations (especially the solstices ) gave rise to different cults or sacrifices, it can be assumed. Less certain are views like those of Thom, the priest astronomers of the Bronze Age discovered the eclipse cycles and the inclination of the lunar orbit by observing the lunar turns.

As far as the measuring accuracy of the Stonehenge builders is concerned, it is of course exaggerated in some publications. Rolf Müller says: “As you can see, they are only short visors with a relatively large visor width. But the priest astronomer could quickly get an overview of the most important stations of the sun and moon through these windows from the sanctuary of the horseshoe. ”The“ beautiful and instructive photos ”in Gerald Hawkins' bestseller“ Stonehenge decoded ”(1965) should not, however, be overinterpreted .

From smaller Neolithic stone circles or Cromlechs , which can be found all over Western Europe, the directions of the solstice rises have been proven at least on some. Similar, but younger, are the Medicine Wheels of some North American Indian tribes that were also associated with the sun dances . For Central and South America see below.

Gold hats, sky disk

The four gold hats found in Europe also belong to the early history of astronomy and religion . These long-sleeved hats are decorated with chasings made of thin gold sheet on which astronomical cycles can be found. The completely preserved Berlin gold hat shows a calendar function based on a lunisolar calendar , which was probably developed by priests, and allows direct reading of periods in monthly or solar units. It may even contain the 19-year Meton cycle .

The precious production of all four hats shows the great importance of cultic time determination in the solar year (especially summer and winter solstices ) and the lunar cycles . It is still unclear whether they really served the priests as calendars or "only" represent their astronomical knowledge.

To be added: Nebra sky disc

Bronze Age priest astronomy

Fragment of a Babylonian clay tablet with a report on Halley's Comet 164 BC. BC, British Museum, London

The exploration of cyclical celestial phenomena requires

  1. the systematic development of astronomical knowledge
  2. through precise written records that
  3. must cover many decades or even centuries in order to convey the long-term nature of most celestial processes to later researchers.

These prerequisites were best met in priestly circles in early history (and into the late Middle Ages ).

Mesopotamia's gods and stars

This is very clearly handed down in documents from Mesopotamia , where the celestial religion prevailing in many places in the Bronze Age emerges not only from art and cult objects, but also from the tens of thousands of clay tablets with astronomical observations.

" There, in the land between the Euphrates and Tigris, priests of a celestial religion taken very seriously observed from high temple towers above all the beginning and the end of the periods of visibility of the moon , planets and [bright] stars, " which were all viewed as the appearance of gods . They even divided the starry sky into three paths of the sun : the middle one on both sides of the equator belonged to the god Amu , the areas north (summer) and south (winter) to the gods Enlil and Ea .

A large collection of around 7000 Babylonian clay tablets with astronomical observations and omina derived from them is preserved under the name Enuma Anu Enlil . Especially the trinity of gods

Shamash ( sun ) - Sin ( moon ) - Ishtar ( Venus ),

which was represented by the three brightest stars appears on these tables.

A typical omen is, for example: "If Ishtar appears in the east in the month of Airu [note: heliacal ascent] and the large and small twins surround them all, the king of Elam will become sick and not live." ( H. Mucke :)

In addition to the omina and the precise calendar calculation, the accuracy of the planetary and eclipse observations on the temple towers is also astonishing . The star priests recorded z. B. the 18-year Saros period of the eclipses accurate to a few hours, and just as well religiously significant constellations. The Babylonian astronomy prompted nor v 600th BC the Ionic scientist Thales von Milet for a study visit, whereby he was able to predict a decisive solar eclipse in 585 .


In ancient Egypt, astronomy was associated with technical issues (surveying according to the flood of the Nile , orientation of temples and tombs), above all, with the state religion of the sun and Osiris cults and the time calculation required for them. "Embedded in a ritual that is celebrated by the pharaoh in cult and in the festivals of the gods with the support of the priests", the calendar and time calculation became a ritual task. “It arises from the need to organize and fix the religious feast days in the annual period; the division of the day should ensure the regulation of the Osiris cult and the service to the dead. "

The basis for the Egyptian way of determining time was the measurement of the sun's shadow during the day and the passage of bright stars through the meridian at night . For this purpose, 12 specific stars were used in connection with the belief that the nocturnal crossing of the deceased kings with the sun god Re took place under the protection of these twelve guardians of the night sky . “Through the slit of a palm rib, a priest-astronomer observed the plumb line of the ruler hanging in front of him in the desired direction. A priest seated opposite him in the northern meridian of the place “[...] fixed the continuous star.

Middle and South America

The priests of the American civilizations had already in the 3rd millennium BC Chr. A rich astronomical knowledge, like temples and the calendar calculations apparent. There are Mexican step temples with 365 steps, whereby the year was divided into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 leap days. Each of the 20 days was assigned to a certain deity , so the calendar was shaped by religion.

Among the gods of the Maya peoples, the sun god K'inich Ajaw stood out, to whom blood sacrifices were offered on the New Year . The highest sky god Itzamnaaj was represented as a world tree or as a priest. Its nocturnal dew was collected as holy water and used ritually. Many temples, e.g. B. in Uaxactún (Guatemala) or Chichén Itzá (Yucatan), are aligned with the sunrises at the time of the solstices, which also indicates special cults. There was also a ritual ball game for the sun .

Around 500 AD the Mayan calendar priests knew the length of the year to be 365.242 days (only 15s too short). Another cycle of 585 days was defined after the orbit of Venus , which was highly worshiped. Astronomical and cultic details can be found in the Dresden Codex and periods of eclipse can also be found in stone monuments (e.g. a lunar eclipse in 3379 BC).

The Inca in Peru also had precise knowledge of the planetary revolutions as symbols of their main deities. B. Venus and Jupiter (584 and 398.9 days) were accurate to within ½ a day. For the Aztecs , however, solar cults were particularly important. Human sacrifices were made daily by five priests to Huitzilopochtli , the god of sun and war .

South asia

In Asia, priests developed the system of today's celestial coordinates early on . But while the astronomy of China was kept more as a chronicle and never knew an "official" theory of the world system, it was already around 1000 BC in India . Connected with a detailed, religiously shaped cosmology .

The ancient Indian universe emerged from a sacred egg , the sun was considered the divine eye of the universe, whose son looked at the universe lovingly. In addition to the divine forces of nature (heaven, earth, sun, moon, fire) there were deities from all eight directions . The lunar cycle was seen as a giver of time and life, the planetary deities circled between the sun and the North Star .

In the purely astronomical realm, India was influenced by Babylonian- Chaldean knowledge that came here via Persia . Similar to the Chinese and Mayans , there was a preference for long periods. So 360 years were combined to a year of the gods and 12,000 times 1000 of them to the day of Brahman . It is still unclear which cults were associated with these thoughts.

In addition to highly developed navigation with the sun and stars close to the horizon, a rich history of creation was typical for the island world of Melanesia . The first night had stars, but neither sun nor moon. A priestly cult staff symbolized the divine separation of heaven and earth. As abode of God and the unborn child that was the Milky Way seen - and the souls as the prototype of the constellations .

Fertile crescent and ancient Greece

The caste of scientifically informed priests was also of great importance in the New Babylonian Empire and in the Old Persian Empire . Chaldeans and magicians became synonyms for astrologers and magicians , who played a major role in advising the kings and who acted as the first “university teachers”. This may also be true of the early Aztec and Mayan empires .

The "first science" of astronomy nevertheless had the character of a secret doctrine , e.g. B. to impress with the predictions of lunar and solar eclipses , because back then it was a matter of course not to regard knowledge as common property .

In Babylonia the priests were “the appointed representatives of astronomy. In the late period, schools with their own tradition were formed in which astronomical knowledge was taught. In most of these schools, according to Strabon's testimony, astrology takes a backseat, and the texts of this time often speak of genuine scientific endeavors ... “During this time, the idea arose that the planetary and starry sky is composed of concentric crystal bowls.

The Ionic natural philosophers were the first astronomers to break away from mythology and looked for explanations of many natural phenomena. In doing so, they first drew from the high level of knowledge that Babylonian astronomy had - especially around 600 BC. The famous naturalist Thales of Miletus . He was aware of the Saros cycle of eclipses and was thus able to predict the solar eclipse in 585 BC. . Chr predict what the Lydian army a decisive advantage in a battle of the Persian Wars to have procured.

At the turn of the times, only a few scientists from the priesthood are known. One of them was Plutarch (45–125 AD), who was a priest in Delphi and an astronomer at the same time. Roman priest astronomers have not been handed down directly, but Babylonian astrologers pervaded the empire, and their mysterious knowledge was highly regarded.

In the Gospel of Matthew ( MtEU ) as "Magoi" - that is, knowledgeable of the mysterious sciences - apostrophized " Three Kings from the Orient", which followed the star of the wise men to Jerusalem and later to Bethlehem , are certainly the most famous representatives of art To connect planetary constellations with earthly events.

In contrast to Christianity, Mithraism stands for the connection between religion and astrology in the Roman Empire . On the other hand, the Chaldean oracles , which from late antiquity to the 19th century conveyed the belief that there was an ancient, oriental secret knowledge, against any kind of " fortune-telling ", including astrology.

In the case of the three Abrahamic religions , the calendar calculation in particular reveals further connections between priests and astronomy; B. for the determination of the Passover festival or the Easter date .

middle Ages

A hub through which the astrological ideas of antiquity came into the Renaissance is Harran . The local moon and stone cult of the Sabians is said to have been very important in the transmission of ancient knowledge to the Islamic Arabs - about Simplikios , Jābir ibn Hayyān and the hermetic doctrine from which alchemy and ultimately pharmacy and chemistry emerged.

Priest astronomers of modern times

A link between Christian religious and astronomical activities can be found in many historical personalities of modern times. May be mentioned by way of example

A large part of them are Jesuits , others can be assigned to the early universities ( Rome , Bologna , Vienna , Paris ) or the Vatican observatory.

See also


  • Friedrich Becker : history of astronomy . BI university pocket books Volume 298, 3rd edition, Bibliogr. Inst., Mannheim - Vienna - Zurich 1968
  • Volker Bialas : From heavenly myth to world law. A cultural history of astronomy. Iber-Verlag, Vienna 1998
  • Wilhelm Foerster : The exploration of the universe (286 p.), Volume III by Hans Kraemer (ed.) "Universe and humanity", Verlag Bong & Co., Berlin and Leipzig 1903
  • Brian M. Fagan: The Seventy Great Secrets of Ancient Cultures Chapter “Riddles of the Stone Age” (pp. 96–131) and “Ancient Cultures” (pp. 151–202). Verlag Zweausendeins, Frankfurt 2001/02.

Web links

  • The cult of the star mages . In: Der Spiegel . No. 48 , 2002, pp. 192-206 ( Online - Nov. 25, 2002 ).

Footnotes and individual references

  1. Cosmos of Astronomy History: Astronomers, Instruments, Discoveries. Kosmos, Stuttgart 1987, chapter "Astronomy between magic and experiment".
  2. Rahlf Hansen, Christine Rink: Sky Disc, Sun Chariot and Calendar Hats - An Attempt at Bronze Age Astronomy . Acta Praehistorica et Archaeologica Volume 40, 2008
  3. ^ Bialas 1998
  4. A. Thom: Megalithic Lunar Observatories . Clarendon Press, Oxford 1971
  5. Rolf Müller: The sky above man in the Stone Age: Astronomy and mathematics in the buildings of the megalithic cultures . Springer 1970
  6. Adriana Rigutti: Big Book of Astronomy . Kaiser-Verlag, Klagenfurt 2004, pp. 10-14.
  7. ^ Hermann Mucke : Great celestial discoveries . In: Astronomie Heft 2, VHS Fernkurse, Vienna 1995, Chapter “Gods and Stars”, pp. 6–11
  8. ^ H. Mucke: Great celestial discoveries . In: Astronomie Heft 2, Vienna 1995, p. 7
  9. F. Becker: History of Astronomy . 1968, pp. 14-16
  10. Becker 1968
  11. Great astronomical discoveries . In: Astronomie Heft 2, Vienna 1995, pp. 8–9.
  12. Jürgen Hamel : History of Astronomy . Magnus-Verlag, Essen 2004 (chapter 3, priest astronomers in the valley of the Nile)
  13. Volker Bialas: From heavenly myth to world law ... Iber, Vienna 1998, p. 81.
  14. E. Hornung: The night journey of the sun. An ancient Egyptian description of the afterlife . Patmos, Düsseldorf 2005
  15. Series of publications Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin 1967, p. 54 (instruments for measuring time)
  16. Volker Bialas
  17. F. Becker 1968, p. 30 f.
  18. The Mayan Gods , from advanced civilizations of Central America .
  19. J. Hamel 2004, p. 31 f. (Astronomy in ancient China)
  20. s. a. Japanese myth of Izanagi and Izanami
  21. V. Bialas 1998, chapter India
  22. ^ W. Foerster, pp. 8 and 23
  23. F. Becker 1968, p. 29
  24. G. Gerstbach: Astronomy script chapter. 2, Vienna University of Technology 2005
  25. ^ Karl Thöne: Astronomy, small picture atlas . Parkland-Verlag, Stuttgart 1992
  26. F. Becker 1968, p. 17
  27. Philipp Wälchli: Studies on the literary relationships between Plutarch and Lukian. München / Leipzig 2003, p. 159 ( limited preview in the Google book search).
  28. F. Becker 1968, p. 20
  29. Link to Roman mythology: Latin page of the University of Vienna
  30. Mischa Meier : The other age of Justinian: Contingency experience and contingency coping in the 6th century AD Göttingen 2003, p. 207 f., Footnote 512 ( limited preview in Google book search).