Posts Tagged ‘Astronomy’

The Sarobe: A Living Megalithic Tradition in Basque Spain

December 26, 2013

Swinside Circle

Swinside Large Stone Circle in Cumbria

The stone circles constructed by the peoples of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages are some of the most fascinating ancient monuments in Europe. Despite considerable work by archaeologists, it is still a mystery why they were built. One of the most popular theories, proposed by Alexander Thom, is that they were built as ancient astronomical observatories, marking out the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars on particular days of the year. They thus also acted as monumental calendars. Thom’s theories were later revised by Aubrey Burl, who demolished some of the more far-fetched theories. Burl demonstrated that not all stone circles were aligned with the stars, and that the elaborate mathematical calculations to produce the type of calendars proposes by Thom were beyond the capability of the societies that built them. He also showed that some of the stars, which were presently aligned with some stone circles, had moved since the circles were first built due to precession of the equinoxes. They were not originally aligned with the circles when the ancient peoples first put them up. Burl did, however, also confirm that many of the circles were aligned with the sun and moon, particularly at the solstices.

Other research on stone circles and other, associated monuments and structures, has investigated them as sacred, ritual landscapes used for the great ceremonies performed by these ancient societies. They have been compared to cathedrals in Christian society. Mike Parker-Pearson, for example, has recently suggested that Stonehenge was constructed as part of a wider funerary landscape that included Durrington Walls, deliberately laid out as a series of ceremonial paths to mark the journey of the dead to their last resting peace and their transition from the living to the world of the ancestors.

The archaeologists investigating the astronomical functions of the stone circles looked for similar practices in other cultures around the world, particularly with the Maya of Mesoamerica. This has also been discredited due to the immense cultural differences between the historic Maya and the peoples of Neolithic Europe. Nevertheless, in the 1990s archaeologists found a possibly much closer parallel to these ancient monuments and their builders in the Basque sarobes. These are stone circles consisting of eight stones, used by nomadic shepherds in the far south of the Basque country. Clive Ruggles, in his chapter on ‘Astronomy in Ancient Europe’ in the book Astronomy Before the Telescope, describes them thus:

‘However, an analogy of great potential interest has emerged recently, from far south in the Basque country. Here there are many examples of what appear to be eight-stone rings. These sarobe were constructed by transhumant shepherding people in historic times, and in some cases they were still in use at the beginning of the twentieth century. This means that we have both first-hand accounts and extensive documentary evidence relating to their purpose and function. this evidence shows that the sarobe were actually perceived by the builders as stone octagons rather than stone rings. Legal records specify their design, construction and celestial orientation. Each site was laid out using standard units of length and aligned with the cardinal and inter-cardinal directions. Linked to the theme of cosmic order, it acted both a seat of government and a centre for religious rites. The sarobe functioned within a cosmological network of social practices and beliefs rather than merely at an instrumental level.

‘The sarobe are the material remnants of a system of the social organisation of space dating back to at least the early Middle Ages, and possibly much earlier. This system is also reflected in constructs and concepts in the Basque language. This language is pre-Indo-European, which provides evidence that Basque culture was not ruptured by the arrival of Indo-European speakers, so that a cultural continuity may be postulated right back to prehistoric times. In addition, it is interesting to note that the Basque standard unti of measurement relates to ancient units used to lay out traditional land holdings in France and possibly in many parts of the British Isles. These observations do not, of course, prove that cultural practice in the Basque Country in historic and modern times was in any way related to that in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles; they do, however, provide a strong motivation for studying the Basque Country further as useful analogy for ancient cultural practice elsewhere in Europe, and such investigations are well underway’. (p. 25).

The Basque sarobe’s also show that the stone circles probably had both an astronomical and religious functions. They thus give an insight into the type of religious and social ideas behind their construction, though without being exactly like those of the peoples, a kind of cultural ‘living fossil’, who built the megaliths in Britain and the rest of Europe.


Alex Gibson, ‘Introduction’, in Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson, eds., Prehistoric Ritual and Religion (Thrupp: Sutton Publishing 1998).

Clive Ruggles, ‘Archaeoastronomy in Europe’, in Christopher Walker, ed., Astronomy Before the Telescope (London: British Museum Press 1996).

The Doctrine of Plenitude and Space as the Abode of Man in 17th Century Theology

May 17, 2013

I’ve blogged before on the doctrine of Plenitude in 17th and 18th century theology. This was the view that God had created the various planets and stars of the cosmos as homes for extraterrestrial, intelligent beings. It was held by theologians and Christian apologists such as Christian Wolf in Germany, as well Fontanelle in France and Thomas Burnet, Charles Blount and Robert Jenkin, the subject of my last blog post. Burnet wrote in his Sacred Theory of the Earth that

‘We must not … admit or imagine, that all nature, and this great universe, was made only for the sake of man, the meanest of all intelligent creatures that we know of; nor that this little planet, when we sojourn for a few day6s, is the only habitable planet of the universe: these are thoughts so groundless and unreasonable in themselves , and also so derogatory to the infinte power, wisdom and goodness of the first cause, that as they are absurd in reason, so they deserve far better to be marked and censured for heresies in religion, than many opinions that have censured for such in former ages.’

Robert Jenkin on Possible Colonisation of Space before the Fall and after the Resurrection

Robert Jenkin believed that the various worlds of the cosmos may have been deliberately created by the Almighty to house humanity before the Fall. After this, he considered that they may have been designed to serve as further homes for humanity after the end of the time and the resurrection. Then they would serve as homes for the righteous, and places of punishment for the wicked. In the present, however, they served to keep the world in its proper place in the universe and maintain the equilibrium of the whole system through their gravitational attraction:

‘I observe, that though it should be granted, that some planets by habitable, it doth not therefore follow, that they must be actually inhabited, or that they ever have been. For they might be designed, if mankind had persisted in innocency, as places for colonies to remove men to, as the world should have increased, either in reward to those that had excelled in virtue and piety, to entertain them with the prospect of new and better worlds; and so by degrees, to advance them in proportion to their deserts, to the height of bliss and glory in heaven; or as a necessary reception for men (who would then have been immortal) after the earth had been full of inhabitants. And since the fall and mortality of mankind, they may be either for mansions of hte righteous, or places of punishment for the wicked, after the resurrection, according as it shall please God, at the end of ht eworld to new modify and transform them. And in the meantime, being placed at their respctive distances, they do by their several motions contribgute to keep the world at a poise, and the several parts of it at an equilibrium in their gravitation upon each other, by Mr. Newton’s principles’.

Religious Attitudes in Russian Biocosmism and Western Transhumanism

A similar attitude survives today in the thinking of the Russian biocosmists. This arose in the late 19th century. Its gaol was the scientific attainment of immortality and the resurrection of the dead. It also advocated the colonisation of space to provide homes for the new, resurrected humanity. The great Soviet rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was a member. Biocosmism wasn’t a specifically Christian movement. It also included elements of theosophy. Nevertheless, it can be seen as a secularisation of the theological attitude expressed by Jenkin. The Communist authorities initally tolerated Biocosmism after the 1917 Revolution before banning and persecuting it in the 1930s as a dangerous, heretical ideology. It re-appeared after the Fall of Communism, and has formed links with western Transhumanism. The similarity between the views of the Biocosmists, Transhumanists and Jenkin’s appears to bear out a remark on their identity of purpose by one of Transhumanism’s founders, the robotics engineer Mark Moravec. Moravec’s wife is a Methodist minister, and he once stated that Christians and Transhumanists wanted the same thing. They just went about it differently.

Moral Perfection and Cosmic Awe in Star Trek and Cosmos

You can also see a certain similarity with Jenkin’s views in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and the vision of human expansion in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, has said in interviews that he believed the show’s popularity lay in its optimism. It envisages a future in which humanity has overcome its social and political problems, survived the horrors of the twentieth century, and gone on to produce an ideal, tolerant society in the Federation. Star Trek is very definitely a secular show, and its attitude to religion is ambivalent. Some episodes have a positive view of it, while others consider it a negative force holding humanity and alien races back from achieving their true potential. Nevertheless it shares with Jenkin a view of the cosmos that sees it as an area for colonisation by a perfected and morally regenerate humanity.

In his TV series and book, Cosmos, the late Carl Sagan expressed a profound awe of the vastness and intricacy of the universe. A Humanist and member of the Sceptics’ group, CSICOP, now the Centre for Scientific Inquiry, Sagan also campaigned for the human colonisation of space and contact with other alien civilisations. Cosmos was a truly inspiring series, and prepared the way for later scientific blockbusters like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Sagan’s attempts to show the universe as an object of literal cosmic awe approaches the religious feeling of the numinous, the sense of awe before the presence of God or the gods. His campaign for spaceflight and extraterrestrial contact therefore partakes of the same religious nature as Jenkin’s view that the other worlds revealed by science, with the difference that Jenkin’s believed that they would only be colonised by a humanity that had attained and been transformed through God’s grace.

Despite the rationalism and secularism of mdoern SF and the movements for space exploration and colonisation, they still contain much of the religious sense of wonder and human destiny expressed by 17th and 18th century theologians like Fontanelle, Burnet, Blount and Jenkin. For them, the heavens not only proclaimed the glory of God, but also offered a future home for humanity and other intelligent beings through God’s providential grace.

Robert Boyle: Religious Knowledge also Entirely Suitable for Scientists

May 8, 2013

Atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins have stated and suggested, that real scientists should somehow not have an active religious faith or deep religious knowledge. Boyle in his Christian Virtuoso also challenged this attitude. He believed that just as people were rightly concerned to obtain a little scientific knowledge of subjects that did not have any use, like astronomy, so the scientist of Christian faith should also rightly be interested in the immaterial world of the divine. He wrote

‘I do not think the corporeal world, nor the present state of things, the only or the principal subjects, that an inquisitive man’s pen may be worthily employed about; and that there are some things, that are grounded neither upon mecfhanical nor upon chemical notices or experiments, that are yet far from deserving to be neglected, and much less to be despised, or so much as to be left uncultivated, especially by such writers, as being more concerned to act as Christians, than as virtuosi, must also think, that sometimes they may usefully busy themelves about the study of divine things, as well as at other times employ their thoughts about the inspection of natural ones. There are some subjects, whose nobleness is such, that though we derive no advantage from them, but the contentment of knowing them, and that but very imperfectly too; yet our virtuosi themselves justly think much pains and time, and perhaps cost too, well spent in in endeavouring to acquire some conjectural knowledge of them: as may be instanced in the assiduous and industrious researches they have made about the remote celestial parts of the world, especially the stars and comets, that our age has exposed to their curiosity. For most of these, though they require chargeable telescopes, and tedious, as well as unhealthy nocturnal observations, are objects, of which we can know very little with any certainty; and which, for ought appears, we can make no useful experiments with. Since therefore we so much prize a little knwledge of things, that are not only corporeal, but inanimate; methinks we should not undervalue the studies of those men, that aspire to the knowledge of incorporeal and rational beings, which are incomparably more noble than all the stars in the world, which are, as far as we know, but masses of seseless and stupid matter. Sinice also the virtuosi deservedly applaud and cherish the laborious industry of anatomists, in their inquiries into the structure of dead, ghastly, and oftentimes unhealthfully as well as offensively fetid bodies; can it be an imployment improper for a Christian virtuoso, or unworthy of him, to endeavour the discovery of the nature and faculties of the rational mind, which is that, that ennobles its mansion, and gives man the advantage he has of the beasts that perish?’

Thus Boyle also urged the study of the soul and God, as well as the subjects of earthly, scientific study. Astronomy has advanced considerably since Boyle’s time, and we now know far more about the nature of the stars, planets and cosmos. Nevertheless, his central point remains the same: religion, and religious knowledge, is still an eminently suitable subject for a scientist.

It’s The Reason for the Season

April 25, 2013

This follows on from my last post about Isaac Newton and his belief that the structure of the universe and its creatures revealed the existence of God. You may remember that a few years ago a number of atheist organisations started sporting a T-Shirt that lampooned the Christian motto, ‘Tis the Reason for the Season’. The slogan was meant to remind people that Christmas was a celebrations of the Lord’s birth. The atheist T-Shirts simply showed the Earth tilted on its axis, with an arrow, to show that Earth’s seasons were caused by its axial tilt. While it accurately describes the origin of the physical seasons, it misses the point that it’s the metaphysical season that’s being discussed. A number of prominent atheists actually came out against the design on the grounds that instead of making atheism attractive, it actually presented them as rather pretentious and intellectually condescending.

Some of Newton’s contemporaries however, wouldn’t have been fazed by the T-Shirts at all, but would probably have used it as a counterargument to demonstrate God’s existence. While Newton was sceptical of such arguments, Dr. Bentley, a leading mathematician, believed that the Earth’s axial tilt and its effects were another proof of God’s existence. Contemporary astronomy has explained much that was mysterious in Newton’s time, and I doubt many astronomers would be impressed by the argument for a deity from the Earth’s axial tilt. Nevertheless, it shows that the leading scientists of Newton’s time probably wouldn’t have been impressed by the glib arguments on atheist merchandising.


Burtt, in Russell, Science and Religious Belief (London: University of London Press 1973).