The Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture Annual Conference

Kathleen White

The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, in the ancient and elegant city of Bath, England, hosted the 14th Annual Conference of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in on 25-26 June 2016. This year's programme was titled 'Worshipping the Stars: Celestial Themes in Observance and Practice of the Sacred' and featured 18 lectures that explored the relationship between celestial bodies and ideas of divinity and religious practice and observance.

Dr Jenn Zahrt

Dr Jenn Zahrt. Photo: Kathleen White

The conference was accompanied by a photographic exhibition, curated by Eva Young, featuring the images from the first Student Photo Competition of the MA in Cultural and Astronomy of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Both the exhibition and the Sophia Press' conference bookstall run by Dr Jenn Zahrt, were major successes: a good proportion of the exhibition prints were sold with proceeds to the Alumni Association, and 75% of the stock of books are now in happy new homes, with the biggest seller being the newly launched Astrology in Time and Place volume. Both days were well attended and the lectures were followed by animated discussions.

Dr Nicolas Campion opening the conference

Dr Nicolas Campion opening the conference.
Photo: Gaia Somasca

Dr Nicholas Campion opening Saturday's session with a short introduction to the conference theme, noting that the conference is drawing the attention of academia to the sky and planets, 'putting the sky back on the academic agenda'. Laura Michetti then presented 'Saturn and the Evolving Godhead', tracing Saturn as a god, a planet and archetype in relation to how humans worship the divine. Dr Reinhard Mussik followed with a report on his research into 'Why do people connect supposed prehistoric sacred places in virtual space at the summer solstice?', which found that people were most interested in archaeoastronomy and local history and not in New Age spiritual ideas, and felt connected to an assumed Pan-European sun cult. Gaia Somasca explored the symbolic and collective meanings of 'Manhattanhenge', the bi-annual celestial phenomena in Manhattan in New York where the setting sun aligns with the street grid of the city.

After the tea break, Hannelore Goos discussed the 'Sun and Moon in Germanic Religion - from the Viking Age to Modern Germanic Paganism', followed by Astrid Leimlehner's presentation, 'Ancient Deities and New Meanings: The Role of Myths in Twentieth Century Astrology'. This questioned how new the psychological concepts are that underpin the 'psychological astrology' of the 20th century.

The afternoon session began with a lively trio of papers on Hindu and Thai astrology. Freedom Cole, in 'Hindu Worship and Astrology', described Vedic, Puranic (Hindu) and Tantric practices/deities and their associated astrological rituals, and Kenneth D. Miller presented 'A World Thoroughly Enchanted: The Rise of Hinduism and the Rise of Astrology', which traced the rise of Hinduism from Brahmanism and the connections between religious ideology, astrological practice, and worship. Matthew Kosuta's paper, 'Worshipping Rahu in Thailand', gave an overview of Rahu in Thai astrology and current worship of Rahu in Thai society.

Dr Micah Ross

Dr Micah Ross. Photo: Gaia Somasca

After a break for tea, Dr Micah Ross presented more of his work on the transmission of zodiacal iconography with 'The Festivals of Aquarius', which traced the origin of the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Dr Julye Bidmead and Marilyn Love then followed with 'Ishtar's Journey: Above and Below', which examined the iconography, archaeological evidence, and mythological and omen texts of the myth of Innana/Istar's Descent into Netherworld. Dr Marcello de Martino concluded the day's lectures with 'Hestia: The Indo-European Goddess of the Cosmic Central Fire'. The day finished with an cordial evening of wine, drink and nibbles, in celebration of the publication of the latest book for the Sophia Centre Press, Astrology in Time and Place: Cross-Cultural Questions in the History of Astrology. Edited by Nicholas Campion and Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum and published by Cambridge Scholars Press, this volume wasbased on papers presented at the annual conference of the Sophia Centre in 2012.

Meira Epstein

Meira Epstein. Photo: Eva Young

Sunday's session commenced with a talk by Meira Epstein on 'Cosmic Order, The Heavens and the Special Role of the Luminaries in Jewish Calendric Cycles in Art, in Sacred Literature and Rituals Throughout the Ages', discussed how Jewish tradition from Biblical times to the present has preserved cosmic awareness. Rachel Schmid followed with 'Practical Depictions: Interpreting Images of Divinity in the Heavens in Late Antique Eretz Israel', looking at solar, lunar and constellation representations in Late Antique synagogues.

Konstantinos Gravanis took the podium after the tea break to explore 'The Heavenly Bodies in Early Christian Art' and their connection to older traditions of the heavenly bodies as personified deities. Dragana Van de Moortel-Iliç continued with a talk on the origins of 'Images of the Sun, the Moon and Planets in Serbian Medieval Churches'.

After a break for lunch, Mai Lootah, presenting via Webex, asked 'What is the Role of Folkloric Pre-Islamic Anwā' in Islamic Arabia?, an attempt to document how personal cosmological beliefs of contemporary Arabs shapes their interaction with anwā, the pre-Islamic stellar folklore immortalised in poetry and rhymed prose. Stavroula Konstantopolou, 'Hubris in the Skies: Expelling the Sacred in Aristophanes' Birds and Clouds', which looked at the tension between those who viewed a cosmic order governed mainly by the laws of nature vs the divine in Socratic Greece. Paul Bembridge brought the conference to a conclusion with 'The Gnostic Crisis; Getting Evil out of the Heavens', tracing the roots of the crisis of faith around the time of Christ, and the role play by astrology, Christianity, Roman religion and Neoplatonism in resolving it.

Delegates and attendees then decamped to All Bar One for an evening of relaxation before going their individual ways, inspired by two days of thought-provoking lectures.

The Elwin Room, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific 

The Elwin Room, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Photo: Kathleen White

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