If we look closely at the images venerated by the ancients from the point of view that they may have been inspired by planets standing in close proximity to the Earth, we see them with new eyes. And because we adopt this view, we can read the explanations of symbols on Egyptian papyri by the prophet Joseph Smith with a fresh perspective that also gives an entirely new dynamic to the imagery of prophecy.
This key is crucial because ancient sky gazers the world over drew remarkably similar pictures and offered stunningly similar descriptions of things that do not exist in our sky, though this vital truth has not been generally recognized.
Amazingly, when we heed Joseph Smith’s hints that the gods, goddesses, beasts and other images of antiquity all found their inspiration in Earth’s ancient heavens, some of the most mysterious icons suddenly appear to be virtual snapshots of what the ancients saw in Earth’s skies.
The star-in-crescent symbol, for example, so dominant in ancient symbology, appears to be a combination or blending of two astral elements: One is the sunlit limb of a planet; the other is an aurora-like discharge from another planet.
These images of "stars" look nothing like things seen in our present heavens. Yet, Joseph Smith implied that these are the planets and stars of antiquity.
Hence, the confusion of a star/planet symbol with the moon and stars is natural. The only heavenly object we see today with a bright crescent is the moon. But if other planets hovered near the Earth anciently, they would have also manifested this same crescent feature.
Certainly, the lighted crescent on the limb of neighboring planets became the basis for a multitude of symbols: the horns of a bovine, the crescent-shaped ship of heaven or the outspread wings of a bird, three of the most common symbols in ancient iconography — all seen in the Joseph Smith papyri as well as in apocalyptic and prophetic imagery.
If the planetary god’s crescent looked like outspread wings, then it could properly be described as a great heavenly bird and subsequently illustrated as a hawk or eagle.
Of course, its planetary disk is displayed over its head as well so there is no mistaking where the image originated. This is precisely what we see in the ancient symbols.
If, on the other hand, the planetary god’s or goddess’ crescent was seen as horns, he or she could be depicted as the bull or cow of heaven, a commonplace description in ancient texts of gods and goddesses. For emphasis and clarity, again the planetary disk is set between the horns.
If the planet’s crescent appeared to be a ship carrying the planet around heaven, then the god — with a disk over his head, naturally — would be depicted sitting on the ship of heaven. This, too, was a nearly universal depiction in Egyptian iconography.
Significantly, these same images, and many more like them, can be seen in the Joseph Smith Facsimile No.2, where they are most often called stars or planets.
Moreover, there must have been much more involved anciently than the simple, pacific presence of large orbs in the sky. They must have been active, changing, interacting and dynamic powers to evoke the expressions they inspired.
For example, Sumerian texts celebrate the "terrifying glory" of Inanna (Ishtar, Astarte, Venus), invoking the goddess as "the Light of the World," "the Amazement of the Lands," "the Radiant Star," "Great Light," and "Queen of Heaven." The texts depict the goddess "clothed in radiance." And it was said that the world stood in "fear and trembling at [her] tempestuous radiance."
Thus, we get the picture from the texts and the illustrations of a discharging planet, emitting aurora-like rays that form the basis for all ‘star’ imagery of antiquity.
The Sumerian "Exaltation of Inanna" says, "I want to address my greeting to her who fills the sky with her pure blaze, to the luminous one, to Inanna, as bright as the sun, to the great Queen of Heaven.
"You make the heavens tremble and the earth quake. Great Priestess, who can soothe your troubled heart? You flash like lightning over the highlands; you throw your firebrands across the earth. Your deafening command…splits apart great mountains."
An illustration taken from an Akkadian cylinder seal shows Ishtar (star) and her symbol, a planet with aurora-like streamers.
The wheel symbol of the Babylonian god Shamash looks nothing like the Sun and further illustrates the discharge streamer or star idea.
Both the texts and the images of the ancients tell the same story, each complimenting the other.
In fact, this more fully explains why stars and planets were interchangeable in the ancient mind: In antiquity, a great, nearby planet metamorphosed into a brilliant, awe-inspiring object that earthlings chose to call "star." This alone explains the graphic language and the myriad star symbols used by the ancients for their star goddesses.
This also explains why all the 'star' icons, familiar to cultures worldwide, look nothing like the mere pinpoints of light in the night sky that we designate as stars.
No wonder Joseph explained that all these archaic images were either stars or planets. They were!
© Anthony E. Larson, 2006