Meteorite Worship in Ancient Cultures
Shards of clear, natural glass lie scattered throughout the desert near the Dakhleh Oasis in Western Egypt. Their origins were a mystery until a chemical analysis determined that the substance was forged by temperatures so high, there could only be one explanation: meteorites.
Around 100,000 years ago, the area bore a closer resemblance to the African Savannah than the desert landscape it does now. The impact of the meteorite would have exterminated all life for several miles, including any human settlements unlucky enough to be caught in the blast. One can only imagine how our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have reacted to such raw power plummeting down from the heavens.
Thousands of years later, as early civilizations begin to emerge, the art of writing enabled them to record the existence of meteorites; although they could only guess at their origins. Ancient texts reveal a reverence for these fallen rocks, believed to hold mystical powers and bestow divine blessings.
Here are examples of the significance attributed to meteorites by some of the ancient cultures that encountered them.
The 'Star Metal' of Ancient Egypt
Thousands of years before any civilization had entered the Iron Age, Old Kingdom Egyptians were already crafting implements made from iron, although their iron came from above, not below. In other words, the iron was derived from meteoric matter, confirmed by the high levels of nickel in Old Kingdom artifacts.
This made Ancient Egyptians the earliest known beneficiaries of a substance that would one day change the world, although this 'star metal' was rare, and used only to create objects of ceremonial and religious significance.
Egyptians believed this substance to be the same material that the heavens were made of. Thomas Brophy and Robert Bauval write in that the Egyptian word for heaven (Bja) is the same word they used to describe what we now know as iron. Imhotep the African: Architect of the Cosmos
They also believed that their Pharaohs were reborn as 'star-gods', composed of meteoric-iron. A passage in the pyramid texts (the oldest known religious writings) claims: "The king’s bones are iron and the king’s members are the imperishable stars...”
So for the Ancient Egyptians, meteorites were gifts from the gods, containing a substance associated with royalty and divine power. It would be around 2000 years before they discovered that this material could also be retrieved from the ground, and used to forge weapons and tools.
The Benben stone — did a meteorite inspire the construction of the pyramids?
One artifact in particular that may have had meteoric origins is the Benben stone, which is referred to with great reverence in Ancient Egyptian texts. The mystical stone was said to grant divine visions, or drive a person mad if they refused guidance from the priests who watched over it. In one Ancient Egyptian creation myth, the Benben is the island upon which the creator-deity Atum stood as he forged the world from the dark, primordial waters that surrounded him.
Hieroglyphs and stone-scale models depict the stone as conical-shaped, just like the pyramids. Toby Wilkinson, an Egyptologist based at Cambridge University, said in an interview with The Guardian, "...there is a particular kind of meteorite, a rare kind of meteorite, which as it enters the atmosphere, is formed into a shape that startlingly resembles a pyramid".
Robert Bauval also believed the Benben stone to have meteoric origins, writing, "its conical shape and its association with the pyramid’s capstone - the latter a likely symbol of the star-soul of the departed pharaoh made of ‘iron bones’- is very suggestive of an oriented iron-meteorite".
This introduces an intriguing possibility; that a meteorite may have inspired the frenzy of pyramid building that took place in Egypt during the 2nd millennium BC. We can't know for sure, as we don't know when or where the Ancient Egyptians discovered the Benben stone, just as we don't know where it is currently located or even whether it still exists.
The pyramid texts say that the stone is kept within the Temple of Ra, in the city of iwnw (known by its Greek name of Heliopolis); but it likely disappeared centuries ago, and no clue as to its whereabouts has yet been found amid the ruins of Heliopolis.
What happened to the Benben stone? Much like Punt — a prosperous land that Ancient Egyptian texts describe with great reverence, yet provide no clue as to its whereabouts, the Benben stone remains a mystery.
Legends of the Benben Stone
No discussion of the Benben stone would be complete without mentioning the legends it inspired. Some have suggested that it was the very stone upon which Jacob laid his head when he dreamed of the ladder to heaven (although the Scots claim that same honor for the Stone of Scone).
Another theory posits that the Pharoah Akhenaten, who attempted to transform Egypt into a monotheistic state during his reign (around 1300 BC), was driven to do so by visions granted him by the Benben stone. In , Andrew Collins writes of Akhenaten's obsession with the Benben stone, and his determination to include depictions and replicas of the stone in every new temple he constructed. Gods of Eden: Egypt's Lost Legacy and the Genesis of Civilisation
Following Akhenaten's death, the priesthood decreed his followers to be heretics, and banished them from the kingdom. Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism (published in 1939), theorized that the leader of these followers may actually have been the biblical Moses. A controversial claim, as it implies that Moses was an Ancient Egyptian noble, rather than a Hebrew.
Meteorites in the East, West, and Center of the World
Of course, the kingdoms of North Africa were not the sole beneficiaries of meteoric matter. All around the globe, there is evidence of ancient civilizations having come into contact with fallen stars, and in all such cases, the remains of these meteorites were afforded special significance.
The Sacred Stones of Ancient Greece
Some of the temples and shrines of Ancient Greece held sacred stones, descriptions of which suggest heavenly origins. For example, the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) held an image of the goddess that was claimed to have "fallen down from Jupiter".
Meanwhile, Artemis' twin brother, Apollo, had a temple dedicated to him at Delphi that may also have contained a sacred stone. The temple was the location of the famous Delphic Oracle, which drew pilgrims from far and wide to receive prophecies from the Pythia — high priestess of Apollo.
The Ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was located at the center of the world, with the exact spot marked by a stone known as the omphalos (meaning 'navel') that was cast down from the heavens by Kronos, the titan who fathered Zeus.
The omphalos that currently stands at Delphi is only a Roman copy, but the original may well have been of meteoric origins.
The Star-Tipped Arrows of the Native Americans
Thousands of years ago, the Willamette Meteorite — the largest ever discovered in North America — crashed into a valley in what is now known as Oregon. The Clackamas tribe, inhabitants of the valley before the arrival of European settlers, believed it to be the earthly manifestation of Tomanowos, a spiritual guardian who had watched over them since the beginning of time. Clackamas hunters would dip their arrows in the rainwater that gathered around the base of the meteorite, believing it granted powerful properties.
The Willamette Meteorite is currently one of the prime exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History; but the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde — descendants of the Clackamas tribe — continue to honor Tomanowos' gift with songs and rituals, including a ceremonial visit to the exhibit every year.
The 'Space Buddha' That Was Captured by Nazis
Hitler's obsession with ancient artifacts prompted a Nazi expedition to Tibet in 1938, led by German zoologist and SS officer Ernst Schäfer. Their mission was to discover remnants of an Aryan civilization; and although they had no luck in that endeavor, they did find a Buddhist statue with a swastika carved into its midsection.
The ancient Indian symbol would have represented something entirely different to the people who carved the statue, which is at least thousand years old. Nonetheless, the Nazis were intrigued enough to take the artifact back with them to Germany.
And there it remained in a private collection in Munich, until it was finally made available for study in 2007. Samples analyzed by Elmar Buchner of the Planetology Institute at Stuttgart University revealed high levels of nickel and cobalt. He concluded that the statue (dubbed the "Space Buddha" by his research team) was carved from the remains of an ataxite meteorite — the rarest type of meteorite you can find.
The analysis also revealed a close match with the scattered remains of the Chinga Meteorite, which landed between Mongolia and Siberia around 15,000 years ago. The statue could well have been forged with remains gathered from the impact site. This means that ancient peoples of the region were exploring the site of the Chinga Meteorite over a thousand years before modern researchers discovered it in 1917; and may even have witnessed the meteorite's descent.
Not of This World...
We now know enough about meteorites to know that they come from asteroids, not from the stars, as the ancients may have believed. We also know that they are hurled down from heaven by the force of gravity, rather than by angry gods. However, our increasing knowledge does nothing to diminish our sense of wonder, knowing that these rocks are visitors from the vast infinity of space.