Tag Archives: ancient theories of the cosmos

9 Laughably Unscientific Historical Theories Attempting To Explain The Universe

For as long as humans have been able to communicate, they have been trying to figure out exactly what is going on “up there.” This has resulted in a lot of interesting, but pretty inaccurate and outmoded, theories about space throughout history. These outdated beliefs about space, which attempt to explain just how the Earth is interacting with the cosmos, are surprisingly varied, and some of the weirdest aren’t as old as you might think. In fact, some of them are still believed in remote parts of the world. We may have a much better idea of the makeup of the universe now, but some of these old-fashioned attempts at astronomy are cooler than the truth.

Space Is A Fiery, Cosmic Egg

Photo: Meister des Hildegardis-Codex/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Hildegard von Bingen was one of the most industrious people of the Middle Ages, period. She was a Benedictine abbess who is often credited as being the founder of natural history in Germany. She was also a writer, composer, philosopher, and receiver of religious visions. For all of her innovating, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 2012. She proposed that the cosmos were arranged into a fiery cosmic egg. It sounds pretty scary, but Hildegard saw it is a reflection of God’s vision – the egg of the cosmos followed a divine patterning. The outermost layer of the egg is fire, representing purification and judgement; the next layer is ethereal firmament, which signifies faith; the next is water, the element for baptism; and finally, there’s the Earth itself, which is made up of four elements.

A Scarab Beetle Rolls The Earth In The Watery Sky

Photo: Mullica/flickr/CC-BY-NC 2.0

The Ancient Egyptians’ view of space had something in common with Hildegard von Bingen’s fiery, cosmic egg theory: the idea that the world is surrounded by a layer of water. This “eternal water” was the habitation of the goddess Nut, and, beneath the Earth, a parallel netherworld known as Duat, home to both the good and the cursed, existed. In addition to this set up, the Egyptians attached a special significance to the dung beetle. They saw the dung balls from which young beetles emerged as representative of the always shifting and spherical sun and felt that the seemingly spontaneous birth of these scarabs was like that of the first God, Atum. But the importance of the dung beetle went beyond allegory; they also believed that Earth itself was being rolled by a giant, invisible dung beetle, which explained the changes in the sky at night. At least they got the rotation part right.

The Square Inside A Circle Concept of ‘Canopy Heaven’

Photo: By Jean-Michel Moullec [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
There were many conflicting theories about the cosmos in Ancient China. One popular theory was known as “gaitian,” or “Canopy Heaven.” Named after the round-roofed style of chariots at the time, those who aligned themselves with this proposed theory believed that the Earth was a cube, surrounded by the spherical heavens. It is believed that this theory inspired the common Chinese iconography of a square within a circle.

The Dome That Separates The Waters Of Earth From The Waters Of Heaven

Photo: George L. Robinson/Wikimedia Commons/CC0

There are many references to the structure of the cosmos in the Old Testament. The Hebrews imagined the universe as a dome structure, with a metal firmament separating the waters of Heaven from the Earthly sphere. In this conception, Earth itself rests on primeval waters, held up by pillars. The idea of the cosmos as water was one that could be found all over the ancient world at the time.

The Constellations That Produce Earthly Effects

Photo: agavegirl13/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Some cosmic patterns are regional, and specific cultures and places have unique ways of understanding those patterns. Many Native societies, for example, see direct linkages between cosmic patterns and natural phenomena on Earth. For their part, the Barasana people of the Amazon have named a group of stars the “Caterpillar Jaguar.” As this constellation rises in the sky, they believe that the number of caterpillars on Earth rises to meet this father caterpillar. In reality, this is a coincidence, due to the rotation of the Earth and the seasonal needs and development patterns of caterpillars.

Earth Is An Island In The Watery Universe

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Way back in the 8th century BCE, the pervading belief among the archaic Greeks was that the Earth was a domed island surrounded by a primordial river called “Ocean.” In this mode of thought, Ocean was like a vast outer rim that formed a shield-like structure for the Earth. The waters beyond the Ocean that they could see were, to the archaic Greeks, essentially infinite, and they feared this unknown, limitless expanse.

The Cosmos Is Surrounded By A Vast Void

Photo: WikiImages/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Ancient Greek philosophers and astronomers had many incredibly complex theories about space. Most of them dealt with the question of whether or not the universe was finite. If the universe ended, that meant that there was nothingness outside of it, a complete void. This concept of an Earth and Heavens surrounded by a void was quite popular. The Stoic philosophers, however, believed that the universe was one pulsing, cyclical being, and therefore could not have voids within it, just as humans cannot have voids within them. They believed that there was a kind of “breath” or tension holding the cosmos together, and an empty void would tear it apart.

A Luminiferous Aether Fills The Cosmic Void

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the late 19th century, the concept of a “Luminiferous Aether” became quite popular. At the time, scientists were unable to explain how light waves could travel through voids because of the understanding of waves at the time. Newton, in particular, found it inconceivable that bodies in space could move and act upon one another without any physical substance connecting them; that would’ve run in the face of scientific explanations for action, reaction, and moving bodies. Thus, scientists postulated that the universe was filled with some kind of invisible substance through which light, electricity, and magnetism traveled, and this infinite material channeled but did not interact with the physical universe. They called this substance “Luminiferous Aether.” This theory became less and less prevalent as scientific understanding of light waves improved and people got tired of trying to prove something that they could not see.

The Milky Way River Separates Heaven And Earth

Photo: skeeze/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

Some cultures see the stars as Earth-like natural structures, separating the two worlds of Heaven and Earth. The Misminay people of the Andes see the Milky Way as an actual river in the sky, feeding water between the Heavenly and Earthly spheres. Because of their location, the Milky Way crosses over the village twice in one day, quartering it, which further indicates the divine utility of the structure.