Guid Essay

Guid Essay

The History Of Astronomy – Free Essay Example


In 1751, Rousseau wrote, that “Astronomy was born of superstition” [1], while this is a rational statement it does ignore other factors; such as weather, time keeping, and navigation. The early stages of astronomy, from prehistoric to ancient history, suggests religion primarily aids the advancement of astronomy with added motivation to record and communicate what was observed. [2] Many observations made can be associated with natural phenomena, giving the impression that the movement in the heavens controls what happens on Earth leading to predictions. [3] Before 1650, many astronomers made a livelihood from astrological predictions, whether it was their focus or not. [4]

However, by medieval times, the impact of religion began to impede progression, as the findings soon disagreed with the monotheistic scriptures, namely the Christian Church, and a backlash arose. In modern astronomy and astrophysics, religion contributes little, however in some areas criticism and disapproval are still seen.

On the other hand, religion has often impeded the development of science, especially when the teachings of the religion differ from new discoveries and explanations. Across history, religion has been closely linked with state, education, and law [1] and has held power and control over developments and communication. This has, in turn, caused the acceptance and circulation of new discoveries to be obstructed.

The impact of religion has fluctuated throughout history and has had a varying affect geographically which exceeds the scope of this study; hence only western religion and astronomy, or that which has affected western astronomy, will be considered. In addition to this, only the most influential periods will be studied.

Overall, religion has mostly hindered the advancement of astronomy, however it should be considered across the different time periods and varying religions to make a fair judgement of the impacts made.

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Prehistoric Astronomy

It is clear from archaeological findings, that there has been an important role given to what was observed in the skies. From cave paintings, to engravings (see figure 1), to large monuments such as Stonehenge or the Menga Dolmen, in Spain [5]. However, it is hard to say the exact reason behind these observations and interest, which is a common challenge when studying prehistory.

There is sufficient evidence to claim that religion was an important factor in prehistoric society and influenced professional priests [7], spiritual locations, temples, and festivals, implying that religion may have played an important role in the development of early astronomy. Many advancements were clearly used for timekeeping, such as solar and lunar calendars, however movements of the moon were not essential in this task so were most likely conducted with other motives [7]. Accurate celestial alignments were found in structures and temples, with many theories for what Stonehenge was originally erected for. However, the astronomical features of the monument are indisputable, and the most supported arguments are based around rituals and spirituality [8]. To produce a structure which is aligned as accurately as this would require a large amount of work and observations, greatly improving the progression of astronomy.

  • a – Blanchard Bone; Abri Blanchard artefact, c. 28, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. The engravings are predicted to represent the lunar analemma and phases (Marshack, 1991; Jegues-Wolkiewiez, 2005).
  • b – Graph created by Jegues-Wolkiewiez (2005) showing 2004 lunar analemma and phases based on data from the Bureau of Longitudes, Paris. The patterns between the graph and the engravements match up remarkable well.

It is difficult to conclude how much religion helped the advancement of astronomy throughout prehistory, as much of what we know is down to assumptions and interpretations which can be tainted and altered by modern societal views.[9] However, astronomy was deemed important, which cannot purely be due to timekeeping. Most likely, the spiritual nature of the sky played an influential part of the observations made. Few explanations were developed at this time; thus, religion helped astronomical progression, however, it wasn’t until ancient history that astrology started to impact on this development.

Ancient Astronomy

Ancient history saw the rise of astrology, celestial predictions, and more accurate alignments. In addition, there was a greater demand for more detailed calendars and time keeping than previously which certainly aided the expansion of the field. Ancient astronomy most likely saw the largest advancement due to religion throughout history as there was little policing through polytheistic faiths and the emphasis was on observations. Due to the extensive number of ancient civilisations, only the two main contributors will be considered.


In Babylonian times, the visible sky was the border of the world of the gods, and astronomy and astrology could not be distinguished [10]. While the movement of the sun and the phases of the moon could aid timekeeping, the study of eclipses, stars, planets, and their movements, were beyond this scope, requiring a different motivation. Celestial bodies; namely the sun, moon, and Venus; were believed to be the manifestation of gods and their movements were messages sent to warn against future events [10]. The success of these predictions could, in their belief, change the outcome of war, politics, or even life and death; if a warning was missed preparations could not made to alter the course of the future.

These divine manifestations were regularly recorded, evidencing that the impact on these heavenly divinations were deemed important and added to the circulation of such teachings [11]. The development of astronomy began with detailed observations and documentation which was aided by religion in this aspect. Furthermore, there was very little separating religion from politics, society, and science, thus, most developments were likely affected [12]. Religion also assisted as it gave another route into teaching and literacy, to promote the distribution of information.

There was little hindrance from religion in this era, as foundational scripture wasn’t written, so the developments made would not be regulated due to contradictions of faith. In addition, the Babylonians were skilled in arithmetic; hence their successful predictions and calendars; however, these were used for practical applications [1], and accepted the divinity of the night-sky. This may have inhibited the understanding of astronomy, nevertheless, there is little evidence that they considered, or had the ability, to pursue this.


The ancient Egyptians took an interest in the astronomical alignment of monuments, from aligning them with stars, to illuminating statues of gods at specific sunrises. Meaning that the skies not only had an importance for time, but also for space and their place in the cosmic order.[13] Asterisms such as Meskhetyu (the Plough); which was referred to as the ‘imperishable star’ in the Pyramid Texts [14]; were important in the religious texts.

Egyptian religion was equinoxial, meaning they focused on the solstices and their festivals moved around them. Astronomy allowed the Egyptians to track these times of the year, these were also monitored due to the rising of the Nile coinciding with the Spring Equinox, where the river replenished the dry land as the sun-god chased the star-gods away, bringing light instead of darkness [15]. This would imply, that there was religious significance to the tracking of the movement in the sky and may have aided them in the relationship between astronomy and natural events, but it may equally have been due to natural occurrences and the religious aspects were a by-product of what they witnessed.

Mythology and religion increased universal recognition and understanding of constellations. Communication has always been a factor in the development of any scientific discovery, and religion often paved the way for this distribution, with only limited hindrance from a polytheistic religion. Furthermore, religion rarely contested the works of astronomy in these early stages as observations could be used within the religion rather than arguing against it.

Astronomy of Classical Antiquity

This era saw the beginning of the discovery of the actual motion of celestial bodies. The Romans contributed little to astronomy, while the Greeks, saw significant progression with little impact from religion, which may account for the success during this era.


The Greeks added a large amount to the development of astronomy through their work on calculating the motion, the distances between, and the spherical shapes of celestial bodies. These advances were achieved through their success with geometry and optics.

In the 5th century BC, the first direct hindrance from religion, on the advancement of astronomy, was seen when the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras determined that the Moon and the Sun were large rocks, not too dissimilar from the Earth, rather than gods. This resulted in him being arrested, trialled against impiety laws, and sentenced to death. He did, however, avoid execution by leaving Athens and spending the rest of his life in exile [16]. On the other hand, this wasn’t just a religious impact, but a political one too. It was used to embarrass and undermine the politician Pericles. Pericles was strong and popular at the time of this event, so a common method was to target close friends and advisors, such as Anaxagoras.

Later into this era, the effect of religion on astronomy lessened. The Greeks had faith in numbers and calculations and faced little backlash as little else disagreed with their religion. It was believed that the Earth was the centre and the Sun and other planets orbited it. The idea that perfect circles must be used to represent the heaven did impact their accuracy, however it was more from a belief in the perfection of nature and numbers, than of a religious view.

Once again culture and mythology aided in the circulation of what was seen in the sky with the wider embrace of constellations. These were used, not only for storytelling, but for navigation, as seen in Homer’s poem the Odyssey, where Calypso advices Ulysses to always keep on the left of the bear (Ursa Major) [17].

The Greeks tried to reduce the impact of religion on science. The School of Alexandria formed independent systems for science, ethics and religion [18]. However, in 391-392 AD, Christians not only destroyed a vast amount of Greek culture but also their knowledge. The Library of Alexander was burnt, and books were lost. This marked a noticeable shift in the effect of religion on Astronomy for years to come.

Figure 2 [19]: The Antikythera mechanism, recovered in 1901, used to predict astronomical positions. This type of advancement was not seen again until the late Middle Ages. The information surrounding this was most likely lost in the fire of Alexandria, which hindered advancements by thousands of years.

Medieval Astronomy

Although western astronomy is the focal point in this study, the progress made in the Middle East during the medieval period greatly impacted that of the west. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, astronomy essentially vanished in the western part of the world. It wasn’t until Islamic scholarship brought back the knowledge from the Greeks, and spread it into western countries, that the advancements in astronomy continued, once more, within Europe.

Middle Eastern

Fortunately, not all the work from the Greeks was lost. Islamic scholars preserved and translated a large amount of the knowledge already gained and thus were able to continue the development, as they refined the models and geometry as well as invented a variety of astronomical instruments.

Islamic astronomers were very skilled at observing and categorising data. This included both new as well as past observations, as far back as the Babylonians. They recorded supernovae and named many stars. Precise methods and scientific instruments were needed to ensure that the direction of Mecca could be determined alongside the timings of sunrise and sunset for fasting during Ramadan. Astrology and astronomy also began to divide as astrology became less accepted as a science. Some believed it was against the principles of Islam to propose that there was a power which defined human events other than God. This separated the pseudoscience from the discipline, leaving more room for development [20].

Despite this, conflict did arise between religion and astronomy; as often occurs with monotheistic religions; especially concerning matters of the eternity of the world and the unity of the creator. This impacted the reasoning behind the creation of what was observed as well as the power behind it, while correcting and improving the models and movements of the celestial bodies was scarcely impacted.

By the 12th century the scholarship from the Middle East began to spread into Europe via Spain. This brought the knowledge, once lost in the fire of the Library of Alexandria, back to the West, now improved and refined [21].


Before the western world was once again introduced to the past knowledge of astronomy, the Christian church spread its influence upon the discipline. The church used astronomy for alignment and time keeping, however this hardly added to the development of the field as it had previously been near perfected.

As the medieval era continued the Church rapidly rose in power. Western culture was dominated by Christianity and most education and scholarship was funded and supported by monasteries and other religious places of study. Scholars were expected to study the Bible in depth, and the bible was the final word for all that was seen in nature. Therefore, anything which conflicted with the teachings of the Bible was often censored and destroyed.

Once the Greek scholarship was returned to the West, a backlash arose regarding the ideas proposed and little progress was allowed until the renaissance period. The structure of the cosmos, with the Earth at the centre, was accepted (see figure 3). However, matters such as creation, freewill, and what moved the planets, were at odds with the Christian faith, as Christianity did not allow for the independent movement of planets and rejected the belief that anything other than God was responsible for natural events on Earth [22].

During this era, religion rarely aided the development of astronomy, but was often seen to hinder it. New ideas and theories were censored and anything that didn’t support the word of the Bible was removed. Although universities were brought into existence, the Church controlled education, scholarship, and the circulation of information; thus, leading to very little progress for Astronomy until later into the renaissance period.


The Renaissance period saw some of the greatest developments regarding the understanding of the motion of planets in the solar system. The education system gained a stronger level of independence, and higher education was no longer ruled by clerics and religious teachings. The effect of religion in this era is best seen in terms of the impact to the most important advancements of the time, and the great minds behind them.


Nicholas Copernicus was born into a religious family in the Kingdom of Poland, 1473. His maternal uncle was a priest who oversaw Copernicus’ educational needs after the death of his father. He studied at a Catholic School and went on to University with help of his uncle. This relationship with religion gave him the chance to study astronomy. Copernicus worked for the church and was commissioned to help improve the calendar, giving him time, money, and resources to work towards improving the subject [24].

Copernicus introduced the idea of a heliocentric solar system [25], however, this was done in a theoretical manner which did not oppose the teachings of the Church. He had previously shown his work; in the form of an earlier manuscript ‘Commentarioulus’; to others, including the Pope, and did not receive significant criticism. The final work, ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’, was not published until he reached the end of his life in early 1543, with Copernicus dying on the 24th May that same year. It is quite possible that this was to avoid the possible backlash from religious members. [26]

The book was published with a dedication to Pope Paul III, indicating a concern regarding religious opinions, and the book was officially published with a foreword from the theologian Andreas Osiander stating that it was not written to be used as fact, but to help with calculations. This was most likely tied to the ideas within the Bible, and to not contradict the idea of a geocentric universe, as well as the belief that the Earth is still. Despite publishing this, it was not widely accepted for many decades.

Tycho Brahe and Kepler

Both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler were eager to link science and faith together in their work, developing astronomy, while keeping it in line with the Bible. Brahe proposed a model with both the Sun and the Earth at the centre. [28]

This aligned more with the views of the Church and allowed for the idea that the planets might revolve around the Sun, as Brahe himself, believed that the idea of a rotating and revolving Earth would be in violation of both the natural and physical truth (being that the Earth feels still) as well as the Holy Scripture. This desire to adapt science to religion held back the advancements of astronomy once more, again hindering the overall development of the subject [30].

Given Tycho’s views, Kepler desperately tried to persuade him to focus on the heliocentric model, as suggested by Copernicus, however, Tycho was not convinced. Kepler, despite being a man of God, believed that there were faults in the scripture, and that God had created the world and the humans upon it, and equipped them with the ability to learn and thus, understand it. [31] This allowed Kepler, to develop the theory with less internal conflict from his Christian beliefs, however, the impact of religion throughout the renaissance period overall hindered the progress of astronomy, especially once Galileo directly challenged the Church.

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