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Meteorites in History and Religion

Throughout the ages, meteorites were venerated as sacred objects by different cultures and ancient civilizations. The spectacular fall of a meteorite, accompanied by light and sound phenomena, such as falling stars, smoke, thunder, and sonic booms, has always kindled the human imagination, evoking fear and awe in everyone who witnesses such an event. For obvious reasons, the remnants of these incidents, the actual meteorites, were often kept as sacred stones or objects of power. They were worshiped, and used in their respective religious ceremonies. A stone cist containing a meteorite, Elden Pueblo, Arizona
The Winona Meteorite Find Site

From Prehistoric Times to Ancient Egypt

Actually, several Native American tribes venerated pieces and fragments of the Canyon Diablo meteorite, a giant iron meteorite that excavated Arizona's famous Meteor Crater upon its impact about 50,000 years ago. Archaeological finds throughout the United States and Mexico, proved that Canyon Diablo fragments had been traded briskly centuries before Columbus reached the shores of the New World. The Winona meteorite was found in a stone cist in the prehistoric Elden pueblo, Arizona, in 1928. The circumstances of the find suggest that the builders of the pueblo had kept the meteorite as a sacred object after actually witnessing its fall. The tribes of the Clackamas in Oregon claim that they once worshiped the Willamette meteorite, one of the largest irons known, weighing about 15 tons. Prior to their hunting trips, the Clackamas dipped the heads of their arrows and lances into the water that had gathered in the large cavities of the iron - they were convinced that this ritual would harden their weapons and grant them success in their hunt.

Native tribes throughout the world venerated meteorites, and similar stories have been told from Greenland, Tibet, India, Mongolia, and Australia. Pure iron has always been rare and so there is little wonder that iron meteorites were especially coveted by ancient civilizations as raw material for cultic knives and weapons in times prior to the Iron Age. Such knives and daggers have been recovered from the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, from Mesopotamian sanctuaries, and from the graves of the leaders of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca, in both Americas. >> top...

 

The Winona meteorite, as found in Elden Pueblo, 1928
Winona - A Sacred Meteorite?


Oregon's famous Willamette - once a sacred object?
The Willamette Iron Meteorite

From Ancient Greece to Mecca

The ancient civilizations of the occident are no exception, and there are several examples of the worship of meteorites in Greco-Roman tradition. Mircea Eliade, an expert in religious history, claims that the Palladion of Troy, the Artemis of Ephesos, as well as the Cone of Elagabalus in Emesa, were actually meteorites - stones that had fallen from the sky, objects from heaven, believed to contain supernatural powers. Richard Norton mentions the sacred stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, a rock that was said to have been thrown to Earth by the Supreme Being, Kronos, marking the "omphalos", the navel of the world. The Roman historian, Titus Livius, tells the story of the meteorite of Pessinunt, Phrygia, a conical object known as the Needle of Cybele, the goddess of fertility. After the Romans had conquered Phrygia, the meteorite was conveyed in a gigantic procession to Rome, where it was worshiped for another 500 years.

Even in the monotheistic religions of Judaeo-Christian tradition we find traces of an ancient meteorite cult. In the Hebrew language, meteorites were called "betyls", an equivalent to the Greek "baitylia", meaning "the residence of God". In the Bible, we find a story where Jacob, the ancestor of the Israelites, beds his head on such a betyl-stone in the desert. In his sleep, he has an impressive vision of a stairway to heaven leading directly to the throne of God. The story says that Jacob was full of awe when he awoke, and that he built a temple around that stone. However, nothing of this temple has been preserved up to this day.

 

Antique coin showing Elagabalus of Emesa - front
Emperor Trajan


Antique coin showing the Cone of Elagabalus - back
stone of Aphrodite in the temple of Paphos

There is another famous example from the Middle East, but there is some dispute about whether the object of veneration is actually a meteorite or not. We are referring to the "Hadschar al Aswad", the sacred "black stone", to which all Moslems pay homage on their "Hadsch", their pilgrimage to Mecca and the most important sanctuary of the Islam, the Kaaba. Each Moslem has the duty to make this pilgrimage once in his lifetime, to visit Mecca, and to walk around the Kaaba - a cubic building - seven times. Then, he has to pause at the southeast corner of the Kaaba to complete the ritual, touching or kissing the Hadschar, also known as "Yamin Allah", meaning "the right hand of God". Tradition says that this stone is a betyl, a meteorite that was given to Abraham by the archangel Gabriel. That stone also played a most important role in the life of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, who immured it into the wall at the southeast corner of the Kaaba.

The Hadsch is a rather strange ritual since Islam prohibits the worship and veneration of objects, but it seems that this tradition is much older than Islam itself. The Hadschar might be a true betyl, a real meteorite, since it is said to have a black crust and a light-gray interior. However, it might also represent a rather large Wabar pearl, a meteorite related impact glass that is found in central Saudi Arabia, not that far from Mecca. It's a pity that scientists haven't solved the mystery surrounding this sacred stone, but for normal religious reasons it has not been allowed. Wouldn't it be great to know that there is at least one ancient betyl left, and that it is still venerated after more than perhaps 2,000 years? >> top...

The Kaaba shrine in Mecca, Saudia Arabia
The Famous Kaaba in Mecca

One of the few pictures of the sacred black stone
The "Hadschar al Aswad"

From the Middle Ages to Ensisheim

There is little evidence of any cultic veneration or worship of meteorites in Europe during the last 1,500 years. The guiding influence of Christianity condemned all pagan rituals and beliefs during the Middle Ages, leaving only traces of preceding religions and customs. However, even today meteors are regarded as omens in some rural regions in Germany, France, and Italy. Some people believe that seeing a shooting star is a good omen. They will literally wish upon a star, convinced that their wish will come true if they don't tell anyone what they have wished for. Others regard meteors as bad omens, and they make a cross, saying "Amen", "God guide it", or something similar to avert bad luck. If we take into account the fact that these habits reflect older traditions, we can say with certainty that meteors and meteorites were poorly understood in the Middle Ages, and treated the same as other supernatural phenomena.

This ambiguity is well documented for one of the most famous European falls. On November 7, 1492 - the very year when Columbus discovered the New World - a huge triangular stone landed with much noise in a wheat field outside the small town of Ensisheim, Alsace, at that time still belonging to Germany and the Holy Roman Empire.

A young boy who had witnessed the fall led a crowd of curious people to the place where a black stone lay in a meter-deep hole. After they had pulled it out, people began chipping off pieces of the rock as good-luck talismans, until they were stopped by the town magistrate. Immediately, he had the unusual stone transported to his residence in an effort to protect it and his careless citizens. The whole affair attracted much public attention, causing Emperor Maximilian to visit Ensisheim 15 days after the fall to hold court over the "Thunderstone of Ensisheim" and to determine the meaning of the occurrence. After some consideration, he decided to take the fall as a good omen in his ongoing wars with France and the Turks. However, he ordered that the stone had to be preserved in the local church - fixed to the wall with iron chains to prevent it from either wandering around at night or departing in the same violent manner by which it had arrived. Today, the main mass of this famous meteorite can still be seen in the Regency Palace of Ensisheim as the centerpiece of a most remarkable meteorite collection. >> top...

 

An antique painting of the Ensisheim fall, 1492
The Ensisheim Meteorite Fall
An antique drawing of the Ensisheim fall, 1492
Historic Fall of Ensisheim, 1492
The Ensisheim meteorite, main mass of about 55kg
The Thunderstone of Ensisheim

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