A few weeks ago I ran a post here at Sacred Space Astronomy involving Thomas Creech’s 1714 translation into English Verse of Lucretius’s Of the Nature of Things. Creech’s book is pretty interesting. Along with its translation of Lucretius’s poem, it has lots of notes and commentary. And part of that commentary is a long discussion on the origins of astronomy.
The author of the commentary (who is not Creech) attributes the origins of astronomy to Adam and his son Seth: Adam was divinely infused with astronomical knowledge; he taught Seth, and it passed on down through Enoch and Noah and Abraham. I find this author’s presentation fascinating. I have seen passing references in history of science scholarship to “Adamic science”—the idea that God infused Adam with bucketloads of knowledge, knowledge that eroded away with the passage of time, so that an astronomer (or pretty much any other person involved in the arts or sciences) was always trying to recapture lost knowledge. However, this is the first time I’ve ever stumbled across it directly, and as soon as I saw it, I thought it would be great material to share on Sacred Space Astronomy.
If you are inclined to a literal reading of the Bible, you may well read this material, love it, and agree with the author’s take on this story wholeheartedly. On the other hand, if you are not inclined to a literal reading of the Bible, you may read this story and think it is a fable and the author a crackpot who cannot spell. If you are the latter, I recommend looking at the original text. I have edited out the hard stuff. The author of the commentary not only assumes his audience is familiar with a vast array of authors, he expects his audience to be able to read Greek and Latin as well as English. Can you? If nothing else, this work schools us modern readers about the level of education a person could have in 1714. So, read and enjoy!
The discussion of the origins of astronomy is found in a portion of Lucretius where the poet is discussing the phases of the moon. For context, here is that part of the poem:
But more: the Moon may shine with borrow'd Rays,
Her various Light increasing with the Days,
As She the farther from the Sun retires,
And with full Face receives his scorching Fires:
When full, oppos'd, She, climbing up the East,
Views him below fall headlong down the West.
And so her Light decrease as She goes on
Thro' diff'rent Signs, approaching near the Sun.
And thus the Phases are explain'd by all
That think her Shape is Round, the Moon a Ball,
And place her circling Orb below the rest:
A fair Opinion, probable at least.
Tho' proper Light the Moon's pale Face should fill
Yet it might shew the diff'rent Phases still:
Because, as that bright Body rouls above,
Another dark, unseen, thick thing might move
Beneath, and stop the Rays, divert the Streams
Of falling Light, and turn away the Beams.
Or else, if like a Ball, half dark, half bright,
Rould round its Axle, may affect the Sight
With diff'rent Phases, and shew various Light:
Now turn that half, which the full Light adorns,
A Quarter now, now dwindle into Horns.
And this the later Babylonian Sect
Asserts, and the Chaldean Schemes reject:
As if it could not either way be done,
But powerful Reasons fix'd our Choice on one.
At this point the commentary author’s discourse “Of the Original and Progress of Astronomy among the Antients” is inserted, probably because of Lucretius’s mention of Babylonians and Chaldeans. What follows below is an excerpt of this very cool story—if you want the whole thing, complete (or, perhaps I should say “compleat”) with Greek and Latin, click here.
I particularly like the broad sweep of this story. Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Mauritanians, Arabs, Jews—all have things to say that the author finds valuable. No one is dismissed as having nothing to contribute. How nice! And note the claims for astrology, too. Enjoy the read!
The Original of Astronomy, says Gassendus, proceeded from Admiration.... For our Forefathers, astonish'd at the Splendour, Variety and Multitude of those glorious Bodies, and observing their constant and regular Motions, apply'd them selves to the Study of this Science, and transferr'd their admiration into Observations, which, in Process of time, they mark'd down in Tables, or Parapegma's, for the Instruction of Posterity: And for this reason Ricciolus... affirms Astronomy to be almost coeval with the Stars themselves: And that, together with other Arts divinely infus'd, it was reduc’d into Experiment and Practice by Adam himself, who, according to Suidas, was the Parent and Authour of all Arts and Doctrines.... Besides, that Adam particularly instructed Seth in this astral Science, and that too by Writing, is the Opinion of all the Jewish and Arabian Doctours, and among them, particularly of Gelaldinus Arabs, cited by Kircher.... of which some are in doubt, even tho' it be commented upon, as such, by Rabbi Abraham, and Rabbi Joseph Ben Uziel: But however that be, Josephus, in the eleventh Book of the Jewish Antiquities, writes, that Seth, having been instructed in Astronomy by Adam, and knowing that the World was twice to be destroy'd, once by Water, and once by Fire, reduc’d this Art to an Epitome, and for the Information and Benefit of Posterity, ingrav'd it on two Pillars, one of Brick, the other of Stone; the first to preserve it from the Fire, the second from the Deluge; which last Pillar he affirms to have been remaining in his Days at a Place call'd Syrias or Seirath, which [Isaac] Vossius... supposes to be the Land that borders on Mount Ephraim, not far from Jericho.
Seth, the Son of Adam, having thus engrav'd on two Pillars, the Theory of this celestial Science, which he had receiv'd from his Father; and Astronomy being thus brought into the World, the succeeding Patriarchs, who, by reason of their Longevity, had the Opportunity of observing many astral Revolutions, cultivated and improv’d it: Nay, some of the Jewish Doctours, particularly Rabbi Isaac Abarbenel... goes so far as to affirm, that the Lives of the Patriarchs were, by the Divine Providence, miraculously prolong'd for no other End, than that they might apply themselves to the Study of this celestial Science: in which the most celebrated for his Knowledge is Enoch, whose Books on that Subject are said to be extant to this Day in the Territories of the Queen of Sheba, as Vossius... affirms: at least they are several Times cited by Tertullian and Origen.
It is not certainly known to what Degree of Improvement this Science was brought before the Flood: but from the Testimony of Origen, citing the above-mention'd Books of Enoch, it appears; That the Stars were then reduc’d into Asterisms, under peculiar and distinct Denominations, concerning which that Patriarch, who was the Seventh from Adam, writ many secret and mysterious Things. Besides, it is evident from Scripture itself, That the Year was then, as it is now, computed by twelve Revolutions of the Moon, to one of the Sun's through the Zodiack: For it is said expressly in Genesis, That Noah enter'd into the Ark the seventeenth Day of the second Month, and went out of it the twenty seventh Day of the second Month of the Year following: In the same Book likewise express Mention is made of the seventh and tenth Months: From whence we may with good Reason infer, That the Patriarchs had then the Knowledge of the Courses of the Sun and Moon, with their Periods, and, in all Probability, of the other Planets also.
After the Flood, when Mankind came to be scatter'd over the Face of the whole Earth, Astronomy began to be study’d by several Nations, who, no doubt, had their first Knowledge of it from Noah and his Posterity: And hence arose the Contest for the Honour of its Invention. But since it cannot be deny'd, that Mankind dispers'd themselves out of Asia into Africk, Europe, and other Parts of the World, the Asiaticks may justly claim to themselves the Glory of it; and among them chiefly the Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Bactrians: of whom the most renown'd for their Skill in this Science are Evahdnes, Belus, Zoroaster, and Otanes: as also Cidenas, Naburianus, Sudinus, and Seleucus the Chaldean.
From the Assyrians and Chaldeans it came to the Egyptians, being brought thither by Abraham the Patriarch, as Eusebius... proves from the authority of Josephus, Eupolemus, Artapanus, and others, as they are cited by Alexander.... But Eupolemus seems to infer that Abraham, before his Descent into Ægypt, taught it to the Phoenicians. Others however say, that Mercury first taught the Egyptians Astronomy, and indeed all other Arts and Sciences. This is positively asserted, not only by Jamblichus, but by Plato in Phoedrus... and by Cicero… There are others who attribute the Honour of it to the Egyptians before the Chaldeans, who, say they, were even themselves first instructed in it by the Egyptians: To make good which Assertion they produce the Testimonies of Diodorus Siculus... and of Hyginus... the first of whom says, that Babylon was a Colony of the Egyptians, founded by Belus of Libya, who instituted there a College of Priests, to the end they might contemplate the Stars in the same manner as those of Egypt: The last, that one Evahdnes is said to have come from beyond the Seas into Chaldaea, and there to have taught Astronomy.
But if this Science were known to the Egyptians, before it was to the Babylonians and Chaldeans, how comes it to pass, that the Egyptian Observations are so much later than those of the Babylonians? For we scarce find any of the Egyptian to precede the Death of Alexander the Great; than which even those of the Greeks are earlier: But the Babylonian Observations were manifestly made almost two thousand Years before that time. And Cicero... ascribes it first to the Assyrians: The Assyrians... says he, by reason of the Plainness and large Extent of their Countrey, which afforded them on all sides a clear and open View of Heaven, observ'd the Course and Motion of the Stars: And having fram'd a due Calculation of their Revolutions, they from thence made Predictions of future Events: And amongst the Assyrians, the Chaldeans... arriv'd to such a Perfection of Skill, that they could foretel what should happen to any one, and under what Fate they were born: which Art the Egyptians learnt of them many Ages ago. Thus Cicero.
There are others nevertheless who deny this Honour both to the Chaldeans and Egyptians, assigning the Invention of Astronomy to the Ethiopians: of this Opinion is Lucian.... But this Assertion seems of little Weight, it being contrary to the general Stream of Tradition, even long before Lucian's Time.
The Africans too pretend to the Invention of Astronomy; and among them particularly the Mauritanians, who are said to have been instructed in that Science by their King Atlas, the Son of Libya.
Thus from the several Nations before-mention'd, Astronomy seems to have been antiently divided into three different and chief Sects, that is to say, the Assyrian, under which is comprehended the Babylonian and the Chaldaick, the Egyptian, and the Mauritanian or Atlantick.
So there you go—an “origins story” for astronomy, as told in 1714. That’s something you don’t read every day.