Imagine being an ancient person, minding your own business around your campfire at night, when suddenly one of those mysterious star things – suspected by some to be the gods themselves – falls from the sky, making thundering sounds and catching fire. It lands nearby, burying itself in the sand – and upon uncovering it, you find a massive, conical shaped blob of iron. Would you think it might be a god fallen to Earth?
The evidence from historians throughout the ages suggests that the answer to this question might be ‘yes’. The 2nd century Christian theologian and historian Clement of Alexandria is said to have concluded that “the worship of such stones to have been the first, and earliest idolatry, in the world.”
…the learned Greaves leads us to conclude [the famous image of Diana at Ephesus] to have been nothing but a conical, or pyramidal stone, that fell from the clouds. For he tells us, on unquestionable authorities, that many others of the images of heathen deities were merely such.
…Herodian expressly declares that the Phoenicians had…a certain great stone, circular below, and ending with a sharpness above, in the figure of a cone, of black colour. And they report it to have fallen from heaven, and to be the image of the sun.
So Tacitus says, that at Cyprus, the image of Venus was not of human shape; but a figure rising continually round, from a larger bottom to a small top, in conical fashion. And it is to be remarked, that Maximus Tyrius (who perhaps was a more accurate mathematician,) says, the stone was pyramidal.
And in Corinth, we are told by Pausanias, that the images both of Jupiter Melichius, and of Diana, were made (if made at all by hand) with little or no art. The former being represented by a pyramid, the latter by a column.
It is well-known that this shape is common in meteorites, caused by passing through the atmosphere in a stable orientation, which causes the leading surface to be melted and flattened/rounded.
Similar sacred stones revered in ancient times are discussed in a 1936 paper, “The Image which Fell Down from Jupiter”, by C.C. Wylie and J.R. Naiden:
We are told that the image of Aphrodite (Venus) in the sanctuary at Paphos was simply a white cone or pyramid; that the emblem of Astarte at Byblus was a cone; and that the image of Artemis (Diana) at Perga in Pamphylia was also a cone. We are told that the images of the sun god, Heliogabalus, at Emesa in Syria was a cone of black stone with small knobs on it, and that it appears on coins of Emesa. We are told that the sacred stone of Cybele brought from Pessinus to Rome during the second Punic war was a small black rugged stone, but we do not know whether it was of conical shape. We are also told that conical stones, which were apparently considered sacred, have been found at Golgi in Cyprus, in the Phoenician temples at Malta, and in the shrine of the Mistress of Torquoise in Sinai.
Similarly, Book V of Herodian’s Histories describes the ‘Black Stone of Elagabalus’, a Phoenician temple dedicated to the sun god: “In this shrine there is no statue sculpted by the hand of man…but there was an enormous stone, rounded at the base and coming to a point on the top, conical in shape and black…worshipped as though it were sent from heaven”.
While in most cases these sacred stones have disappeared in the intervening millennia, as the quoted section above notes, we still do have depictions of some of them recorded on ancient coins. According to Whylie and Naiden, “these images show that the stones were the shape of typical meteorites, and it is assumed by some scholars that many were genuine meteorites.”
This conical or pyramid shape also brings to mind another sacred stone revered by the ancient Egyptians: the black, cone-shaped ‘Ben-Ben’ stone kept in the temple of Ra at Heliopolis. The shape of this stone is thought to have acted as the model for the capstones found on many of Egypt’s famous pyramids and obelisks – does this mean that pyramids were originally built to mimic meteorites, the ‘gods fallen from the sky’ (compare the image below to the earlier photo of a meteorite)? As we’ve reported previously, the ancient Egyptians are known to have mined meteoric iron, and used it in ceremonial objects such as King Tutankhamun’s dagger.
In any case, worship or reverence for stones fallen from the sky isn’t restricted just to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans: remember the Buddha made from meteoritic iron (and stolen by the Nazis)? Also, Whylie and Naiden offer a few other examples from the past 1000 years or so:
As sacred stones of later times one might mention the Casas Grandes meteorite found wrapped in a mummy cloth in a Montezuman ruin in Mexico; the Ensisheim meteorite which fell in Alsace in 1492, and was suspended in a church; and the sacred stone of the Mohammedans at Mecca. For the older sacred stones, there is now no way of telling which were authentic meteorites and which were not, but the shape suggests that several were. Of the stones preserved, the Ensisheim and Casas Grandes (an iron) are genuine meteorites…the sacred stone at Mecca has not been examined.