Throughout most of human history, the eyes of our ancestors gazed upwards at clear, unpolluted skies mesmerised by the fiery balls that sped across the firmament at night. Unsurprisingly, meteorite worship took off and continues to be evident today. So, let’s get to grips with how ancient peoples viewed meteorites and why did they end up venerating them?
Meteorite worship – getting the terminology right!
Before investigating this fascinating subject – we must get the terminology right. I’ve turned to the NASA website to distinguish between a meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite. OK – are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll explain!
Meteoroids are big objects travelling through space that can be anything from grainy specks of rock to asteroids. Space rocks as some call them. Once they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, these rocks start to burn up becoming what we call “shooting stars” – or meteors. If they survive the Earth’s atmosphere and hit the ground, then you have a meteorite. And this is what our ancestors dug up to worship.
Worship of a meteorite
Meteorites have been revered throughout history. In the Middle East, there are countless examples of so-called “baetyls”, for example in the Phoenician cities of Byblos and Tyre. These were undoubtedly stones fallen from the sky and believed to be a kind of portal to the deities. In the bible, we have references to “the spiritual rock” and “the living stone”. The rock upon which the church will be built.
One ancient tale relates that a meteorite fell to Earth shaped as a human figure. Local people assumed it was an image of the goddess Diana made by Jupiter and hurled down from the heavens as a gift. As a result, they built the Temple of Diana (or Artemis more accurately) at Ephesus.
At the ancient Greek temple of Delphi, a bullet-shaped meteorite called the Omphalos was revered. It was believed to mark the centre of the universe and was referred to as the “navel”, because that hole in our stomach was seen as being the centre of the human body.
Tutankhamun and meteorites
Discovered within the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun was an iron headrest, bracelet, and dagger – at least a century before the advent of the Iron Age. The ability to smelt iron had yet to happen and wouldn’t occur until the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. So, what is iron doing in King Tut’s tomb?
Well, it seems that the ancient Egyptians used a naturally occurring source of ready-to-use iron: meteorites. It was literally picked up and turned into highly valued items. To the Egyptians, meteorites were “metal from heaven”. Lying around and waiting to be fashioned into prized implements.
The Roman meteorite worship cult
In the 3rd century CE, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – better known as Elagabalus – declared that the old Roman religion of Jupiter and the pantheon of familiar gods was to be replaced by a new imported Syrian solar cult that involved the worship of a meteorite. This cult was based in the modern city of Homs in Syria, then called Emesa.
Elagabalus brought its meteorite, or baetyl, to Rome and processed it through the streets covered in precious clothes and jewels. The emperor’s assassination in the year 222 put a stop to this activity and the meteorite was sent away.
Meteorite at the Kaaba
The most famous example of a meteorite in a place of worship is the Black Stone in the Kaaba at Mecca – Islam’s holiest place. The Black Stone – or al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad – is not worshipped as such because that would be idolatrous. But it is venerated as a sacred object dating back to the time of Adam and Eve and touched by the Prophet, Muhammad. The consensus view is that the meteorite has been in the vicinity of its current position since pagan times when the Kaaba was a temple to all the Arabian gods.
The Black Stone’s Islamic history is stormy. In conflicts between different Muslim rulers and empires, it has been hit with a catapult (683 CE); stolen to be used in another mosque (930 CE); smashed by the hired agent of a rival empire; and even smeared with excrement. As a result, it’s now in fragments bound together.
More examples of meteorite worship
Mongolian chiefs were said to have fashioned their swords from meteoric stones. Blacksmiths used material from meteorites to make horseshoes in the belief the animals could then take flight like the mythical beast, Pegasus.
As late as the 17th century CE, we have a Mughal emperor in India having two swords, a dagger, and a knife being made from a meteorite. In 1867, a huge iron object was found in Mexico wrapped in cloth at an ancient temple near the Rio de las Casas Grandes, buried alongside a skeleton.
Meteorites have impacted the religion of every culture on the planet!