The star of Bethlehem is the defining cosmic symbol of the birth of Christianity. The star that prompted the three Magi to travel for several months to bear witness to the birth of the Messiah, the one who would be king of the Jews. This, of course, made the three Magi themselves also an essential part of the birth of Christianity and yet we never hear of them again in the books of the New Testament. We read in the bible that they visited the Court of King Herod on their journey and were instructed to report back to him when they had found this royal baby. We read that after the Magi witnessed the birth, they returned to Persia by a different route to avoid Herod; and we read that Herod then issued orders for all Jewish males under the age of two to be slaughtered to ensure the death of this potential threat to his line.
We also read that Mary and Joseph were warned of the threat by an angelic non-earthly being and they departed urgently with their new born for Egypt. When Herod died two years later, the family returned to Judea. But after that we read very little about Jesus with the only reference during the first thirty years of his life was at age twelve when he was taken with his family to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem as they did each year. On this occasion he astounded the Hebrew scholars with his knowledge of scripture but we have no idea how Yeshua gained the knowledge that he impressed the scholars with, or where and how he spent the subsequent eighteen years before he publicly began his ministry with his baptism at age thirty. That was quite a mature, middle aged man by the standard of the day.
Yeshua was baptised by John, said to be the son of his mother’s cousin. John was a Nazirite which is a strict sect of Judaism. Nazirites were desert dwellers who believed in purification by immersion in water, who adhered to extremely strict ascetic vows and who have special powers to cast out demons. Notably, following his baptism Yeshua himself went into the desert where he was tempted by Satan with worldly goods before making his final resolve to embark on his God-inspired mission to gather “the lost sheep of Israel” and challenge the religious hierarchy of Judea who had ‘turned God’s house into a den of thieves’.
Minor errors in creating the modern Gregorian calendar have demonstrated that the birth of Jesus would not have been at the beginning of 1ad as we assume. King Herod the great, who is also central to the nativity story, is recorded to have died in 4bc. The belief is that under the Gregorian calendar Yeshua would have been born around 6bc. So what, then, was the wandering star that caused the Magi to set off on their search? Computers today enable us to back-trace the location of planets and even comets two thousand years ago. An obvious first point to check is whether the star of Bethlehem was Halley’s comet on its regular circuit. But that passed through earth’s sky in 12bc, at least 5-6 years before the birth. Apart from which, in ancient times, comets were considered forerunners of catastrophe, not announcements of the joyful birth of a saviour.
Of interest, the original Aramaic text of the Magi’s explanation is that they had seen Yeshua’ star “in heliacal rising.” This means a star that appears immediately prior to sunrise. The most significant planetary observation is the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn which make an exceptionally bright light, although from two planets aligned rather than being one star. This alignment randomly appears in different constellations each time but when it occurs in the constellation of Pisces it is recognised as the Star of David, symbol of Judaism.
It was Johannes Kepler, the father of modern astronomy, who had studied the writings of a medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Abarbonel, and discovered the significance to the Jewish people of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which together shine like a superstar, in the constellation of Pisces. This alignment was regarded as the ‘star of David’. Kepler also calculated that during 6bc this alignment of Jupiter and Saturn made the rare appearance in Pisces and was in fact a triple conjunction, occurring three times in the period. This has been confirmed by modern computer-generated calculations as occurring in 6bc on May 22, October 8 and December 2 with the heliacal rising in the dawn sky. This is a very plausible source of the legend that the birth of a king who would restore the line of David would be signaled by this ‘star of David’ appearing. In Greek lore Saturn (Cronus) is the heavenly father of Jupiter (Zeus).
So the Magi were literally looking for the Jewish baby boy born under the star of David who was born to be king. This would certainly spark the interest of Magi given such a rare conjunction and even more so spark the alarm of the current King of Judea, Herod. Triple conjunctions are rare, the next after 6bc was 786ad, and the next after that was in 1583. A triple conjunction in Pisces, the Star of David, is even more rare. It should also be noted that this time was also when the vernal equinox was moving from the age of Aries into the age of Pisces, the fish. This is notable with the significance of the symbol of the fish in Christianity. The last 2,000 years which began with the Magi observing a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces has certainly been the age of Christianity.
So what then became of the three Magi? Indeed the question should be raised what are Magi? The Magi were the astronomer-priests presumed to have travelled from Persia and, if so would have been adherents of the religion founded by a Persian astrologer/ philosopher named Zarathustra. It would seem most unlikely that three foreigners who followed the religion of Zarathustra, an opposing religion to Judaism, would be summoned by the Jewish God, Yahweh to witness the birth of Yeshua for no other reason than to bring gifts and then depart. Yet the authorised New Testament of the Bible speaks no more of them, in fact there is only one reference to them which is in the Book of Mathew. There is a reference in an extract from a medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne which read, “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three Magi met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in A.D. 54 to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on Jan. 1, aged 116; St. Balthasar on Jan. 6, aged 112; and St. Caspar on Jan. 11, aged 109.” The Roman Martyrology also lists these dates as the Magi’s respective feast days. These are extraorinarily long lives for people of that age, giving rise to the question of what the title of Magi really means. In further research it would seem that the Magi had knowledge beyond that of ordinary folk. Knowledge of mathematics and sciences; of medicines and healing; astronomy and astrology; of metalurgy and alchemy; of feats that defy human understanding. To ordinary humans they had the mystical powers of what we call magic.
Did the Magi continue a role in his education after his birth and the family’s return from Egypt? Did Yeshua live with them in Persia to prepare for his mission? And did they see his mission as purely spiritual to ‘fulfill the law of the prophets” or as the cosmically anointed inheritor of the kingship of David to restore the sovereignty of Israel as a defence against Rome? Rome was a serious enemy to the Persian Empire and Judea was right on their western border; it was earlier ruled by Persia before Alexander the Great conquered them. So it was certainly in the Persians’ political and military interest to have an allied, independent Judea between them and Rome. Whatever you think of this theory, clearly the Roman governor of the time, and his Jewish puppet priests, took the possibility seriously.
It raises the question about just how much influence the Persian Magi had on the politics of Judea and whether they were continually working towards the eventual 66AD great uprising of religious zealots in Galilee and Judea when the Romans were finally driven out of the region. If so, it was a short-lived victory as Rome returned with a vengeance in 70AD and the Jews were driven from the land which was given to the Philistines (Palestinians). So perhaps the Magi did have more heavenly than earthly intent. Above all they were the star watchers and believers that what happened in the heavens effected life on earth. As above, so below.
Incidentally the next great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will be in November/ December 2020 this will appear just as the vernal equinox is moving out of the Capricorn constellation into the first degree of Aquarius. Jupiter, aka Zeus, has always held a special place in the imaginative minds of humans and considered by ancient civilisations as the supreme God and protector of earth. Our fascination with Jupiter has never waned and since the 1970’s NASA has sent nine space missions up that way; it is the best part of 600 million kilometres away. In 1995 Galileo entered Jupiter’s orbit and stayed there until 2003 and observed Jupiter. Juno’s mission is to get to the very core of Jupiter and get answers to some fundamental questions about the creation of our solar system, and of us. Juno will orbit in a path that passes over Jupiter’s poles and will measure microwave emissions, the gravity field and the magnetic field, which apparently is how the scientists will gain the vital clues into the formation of our solar system.
In Greek mythology, Zeus, the presiding deity of the universe, ruler of the skies and the earth, was the god-master of all natural phenomena in the heavens. The personification of the laws of nature; the ruler of the state; the ruler of gods and men. At his command, mighty thunders would flash and lightnings would roll; he represented the grand laws of unchanging and harmonious order, by which both the natural and the spiritual world were governed. In Norse Mythology, Thor (Jupiter) rode through the skies during a thunderstorm to kill the giants, the enemies of the gods (planets), and to kill the mighty serpent that flies through the skies with the lightning from his hammer and his magical ‘belt’ that doubles his strength.
But if you ever wondered why Zeus (Greek)/ Thor (Norse) / Taranis (Celtic)/ Jupiter (Roman) was associated with the lightning, a hammer and shield wielding warrior deity, considered the chief of the planet-gods in their mythologies, you might be interested to know that Jupiter is in reality still a protector of earth. The massive energy of magnetic field and gravity of the gaseous giant has either deflected comets back out of our solar system or taken one for the team when its gravitational pull has dragged asteroids and comets to their death and preventing them turning their attention to earth. Such impacts are noted regularly and there is calculation that Jupiter’s size and gravitational pull drag in up to six asteroids/ comets per year. But some of the comets and asteroid strikes that our astronomers have actually observed have been real monsters. But as useful as it is, Jupiter is a planet not a star and, amazingly, our ancient knowledge of the stars in the heavens goes away beyond Jupiter, and even away beyond our solar system.
The Pacific Ocean was first recorded by Europeans in 1513 and the first recorded European contact with a Pacific Island people, on the Marquesas Islands, was not until 1595 when a Spanish explorer randomly encountered the island during a voyage. A Dutch explorer, Willem Janszoon, landed at Western Australia in 1606 and James Cook arrived on the East Coast of Australia in 1770. The Aborigines had occupied Australia for an estimated 60,000 years prior to that and yet one thing undeniably links the ancient aboriginal cultures with those of Europe, America and Asia. This link is a group of remote stars in the cosmos. Looking up into a clear night sky with no street light pollution we are presented with a seemingly infinite choice of stars. Apart from our own solar system’s planets, which are much brighter by their proximity, there is little to distinguish the billions of stars we can see for the amateur sky gazer. Certainly, some are brighter than others and some may cluster more than others. Some may form a shape that localised navigators create in their minds as a navigational tool but still there is nothing so remarkable as to be obvious to anyone who looks up into the night sky from any point on the planet.
The ancient Babylonian star catalogues however name one, quite unremarkable group MUL.MUL or “star of stars”, and they head the list of stars along the ecliptic, reflecting the fact that they were close to the point of vernal equinox around the 23rd century BC. Several Sumerian clay tablets have depicted these seven stars that reference the harvest period.
The modern common name for this cluster of stars as recorded in Greek mythology is ‘Pleiades’. Pleiades is mentioned in the poems of Homer and Hesiod around 1,000 BC, in which the Pleiades were seven sisters: Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. According to Greek mythology, after a chance meeting with the hunter Orion, the seven sisters became the object of his pursuit. Enamoured with the young women he pursued them over the face of the Earth. In pity for their plight, Zeus changed them into a flock of doves, which he set in the heavens.
Even though the Greeks actually name nine stars of the Pleiades, they acknowledge that only six stars are distinctly visible to the naked eye. Apart from the seven daughters they also name Atlas and Pleione as the parents. These two stars do exist although they would have been invisible to the searching eyes of ancient Greeks, Chinese or Persian astronomers. But of the seven sisters, they write that the star Merope is often called the “lost Pleiade” because she was not seen by astronomers nor charted like her sisters. The ancient Greeks explained that Merope was most faintly visible because she took a mortal husband, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth. It is a mystery how they knew of more than the six visible stars.
In Norse folklore the same cluster was known as Freyja’s hens, identified as a hen with six chicks. In Celtic tradition the rising of this cluster between the Autumn equinox and Winter solstice was a period to mourn the dead which led to festivals of “all souls day” and Halloween. The stars also appear in Hindu writings as early as the Indus Valley civilisation (3300–1700 BCE) known as the Matrikas, a group of seven divine mothers. This same cluster of stars appears in the folklore throughout the Americas, from the Cherokee to the Aztecs (Tianquiztli , the marketplace).
The cluster is also recognised in Japan under the name Mutsuraboshi (“six stars”) in the 8th century Kojiki and Manyosyu documents. The constellation is also known in Japan as Subaru (“unite”) and you may note that the Subaru car logo contains six stars. Interestingly Japanese often refer to seven stars instead of six. Travellers to Japan may be familiar with Shichifukujin (literally “seven happy gods”) which are often seen at temples and in miniature at souvenir shops throughout Japan. Locals in some prefectures of Japan still call the cluster “Shichifukujin”. As with many things Japanese, the recognition of this cluster of stars was imported from Chinese astronomy observations. This cluster of stars seem to be among the first stars mentioned in astronomical literature, appearing in Chinese annals of 2357 B.C. The Chinese were a very advanced civilisation in the study of astronomy.
The Pleiades cluster is within 4° of the ecliptic and is in the constellation of Taurus. In the Northern Hemisphere the cluster can be seen in November from dusk to dawn. The heliacal (pre-dawn) rising of the Pleiades marks late May/ June mid-winter season in the Southern Hemisphere. In Hawaii this cluster is named Makaliʻi hiki (also translates as ‘little eyes’). The Makaliʻi hiki in Hawaii rises shortly after sunset and is visible for four months from October/November to February/March. In Hawaiian tradition, this was a four-month period of celebration of the harvest called Makahiki. Warfare was forbidden and it was a period of feasting, sports, dancing and celebration. The Makaliʻi hiki were also a navigational guide for the Hawaiians.
In Aotearoa the cluster is called Matariki (also translated as ‘ little eyes’) and it appears in the South-East horizon of the night sky in May/ June being in the southern hemisphere and is referred to as the mother, surrounded by her six daughters whose role is to assist the weakened sun to return to strength.
The Australian Aborigines also include this same Pleiades star cluster, which they call the Meamei, in their dreamtime folklore. According to their mythology, the cluster represents seven girls chased by the hunter, Djulpan. This is an identical myth to the Greek myth of Orion, the hunter chasing Pleione and her six daughters. Again they speak of seven stars although only six are possibly visible to their naked eyes.
So when science tells us that man emerged from a primitive hunter gatherer existence to becoming a civilised farmer just 12,000 years ago, we must ask then how an unspectacular star cluster exists in the dreamtime mythology of a race that had migrated to this southern continent 60,000 years before Europeans records show first contact with the Aborigines of Australia.
But why do we care? Why do we want to continually study further and further into the universe? Perhaps it matters because we have a quest. We have a curiosity born of intelligence. We want to keep going further into the heavens in search of our creator in the same way that families want to keep searching further and further back into their roots. As a species we want to find God and ask: ‘having created us, where are you and why did you go away?’ Fair enough. But we live on a tiny dot of a planet that floats in a relatively small solar system (our sun is a dwarf sun) which is located in a remote corner of the Milky Way which itself is a remote little galaxy within the incomprehensible universe.
The concept of humans contemplating the vastness of the universe reminds me of an interesting part of a David Attenborough documentary about the Kalahari Desert in Namibia. They filmed down a cave, named Aegamas cave, 60 metres below the desert, in which there is the earth’s largest known underground lake. Down in this lake lives a little fish named the golden catfish. It grows up to 16 centimetres long. It is an air-breathing fish and as such could move a short distance on land, like an eel. To the golden catfish, this lake of almost 2 hectares is the entire universe. They have no conception of a narrow portal that may lead to a completely alien world of the Kalahari Desert with its huge night sky above it and the rest of Africa surrounding it.
But imagine if that fish had a genetic desire to search for its DNA relatives beyond its own universe. ‘Why have you forsaken us, oh great creator of the golden catfish?’ It is, after all, what drives other fish species to travel huge distances back to their birthplace. And, with that drive, the golden catfish explores the edges of its known universe and finds a small underground stream that eventually finds its way to another river or swamp down in the southern rainforests. What a discovery. What a new world with sunlight above it instead of the darkness of its cave. Imagine the change in organisms to feed on, the change in temperature and the new creatures it would meet along the way. But it would not find any other golden catfish; their cave environment has resulted in them evolving as unique to that mini universe; and I am not sure they would survive meeting their closest dna relative in African rivers and swamps, the sharp-tooth catfish, which gets to an average length about a metre. But, if they made it to shore and crawled briefly onto land, they would then be confronted with all manner of terrifying flying insects and birds, crawling ants and scorpions; they would hardly comprehend larger animals of hippos or elephants; hyenas or lions; it’s life Jim, but not as we know it. At what point does the catfish wonder why he left the cave.
So why do we get so excited about visiting our most distant planets and beyond? About black holes and space portals. We are far more intelligent and imaginative than a catfish and we have watched the entire Star Wars series as well as Star Trek. We would not just stumble unknowingly into terrifying alien worlds to become nothing but a rather unmemorable snack before lunch.
We believe we are the divinely anointed masters of all beasts of the land and birds of the air, which in our civilised terms means having selected parts of them lightly sautéed in a brandy sauce, served with a pear and blue cheese salad and washed down with lightly chilled Chablis. But that franchise is only for this planet. We have no rights beyond our atmosphere. Similarly, in the Aegamas cave the golden catfish rules all the organisms in its own little universe, but that doesn’t mean much if they come up against a metre long saw-toothed relative who doesn’t feel the same family connection; or a scorpion looking for lunch. As a life-form they were created from base organisms just like us. The golden catfish evolved over millions of years to the creature it is now.
If we keep venturing out further and further into the universe, perhaps we may find that there is an alien life-form that at some time in the past re-wired our brains and dna to fast-track our evolution. If we find them we should be prepared in case they may not welcome us as their beloved children, rather they may say ‘Hey look at our little monkeys, how did they get here?’