Welcome to the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite

Andrei Breyvichko and followers of the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite pray for the meteorite’s protection on the shore of Chebarkul Lake recently. They would like to see the fragment placed in a specially-built temple. Click to watch video (in Russian). Credit: Lifenews.ru

Why am I not surprised? A small band of Russian citizens have formed a new religious group – perhaps cult is a better word – venerating the Feb. 15 fireball that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains region.

Before it entered Earth’s atmosphere at over 41,000 mph (66 960 km/hr) the 5-story-high asteroid weighed some 11,000 tons (10,000 metric tons). Slammed and shocked by its impact with the air, the meteoroid exploded into thousands of pieces at an altitude of 76,000 feet (23.3 km).

The powerful shock wave generated exploded across the city of Chelyabinsk and neighboring communities, shattering thousands of windows and flattened the roof of a zinc factory. Flying glass injured some 1,500 people. Thousands of meteorites were found by looking for the clean holes they pierced in the region’s snow.

A 20-foot (6-meter) hole in Cherbarkul Lake where a chunk of the Chelyabinsk meteorite struck on Feb. 15, 2013. Divers are currently trying to bring the piece to the surface. Credit: AP

What’s believed to be the largest piece punched a 20-foot hole in ice-covered Lake Chebarkul, located 48 miles (78 km) west of Chelyabinsk. It also created a portal for the superstitious mind. Andrei Breivichko founded the Church of the Cheylabinsk Meteorite not long after and opposes the effort to remove what’s believed to be the largest chunk of the meteorite from the lake.

A beautiful, flight-oriented 2-pound (889g) Chelyabinsk meteorite found by Alexander of Chelyabinsk, Russia.

Divers have identified a potential candidate rock and hope to bring it to the surface by next Wednesday. But unless it’s done by his followers, says Breyvichko, crucial information about the universe will be lost. Breyvichko believes the meteorite contains legal and moral guidelines in the form of “scriptures” that would elevate humankind to a new level of consciousness.

Recently, the Russian news website LifeNews published a story and video of Breyvichko and a half dozen of his followers holding hands and chanting prayers on the shore of Lake Chebarkul to protect the meteorite. While this all may sound very strange and even prove totally bogus in the end, veneration of meteorites has been around a long time.

The cist containing the Winona meteorite after Winona, Arizona located 5 miles southwest of Elden Pueblo. When it was opened, the 50 pound meteorite broke into many pieces.

Ancient cultures from the Native American Indians to the Inuit of Greenland and back in time to Greece and Rome have given special status to meteorites. Irons could be hammered into implements and weapons. Others, like Winona meteorite, kept in a stone cist in Elden Pueblo in Arizona by prehistoric Indians, likely had sacred meaning and may have even been used in religious rituals.

Bust of Elagabalus made during his brief reign (218-222 A.D.) He was only 13 or 14 years old when he became Roman Emperor.

One of the most interesting cases of meteorite worship involved Varius Avitus Bassianus, the boy emperor who ruled the Roman Empire from 218-222 A.D. Originally from the city of Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria, he was made high priest of the temple devoted to the sun god Elagabalus.

Oddly enough, worship of the sun god was centered on a large black, metallic, egg-shaped meteorite called the Black Stone of Emesa. Ancient texts of the time describe the meteorite as “fallen from the sky” and “not wrought by human hands”. The rock’s irregular surface was riddled with small projections or bumps; some imagined a likeness of the sun within its textures.

Roman coins often show it accompanied by an eagle – a symbol of strength, courage and immortality – or draped in a coverlet sewn with an eagle’s image.

Roman coin showing the horse-dawn chariot (called a a quadriga) carrying the Black Stone of Emesa accompanied by four umbrellas. Credit: Eric Olson

Filled with religious fervor, Varius changed his name to Elagabalus. When he became emperor, he had the Black Stone hauled to Rome in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses and two new temples built to house it. Dressed in multicolored silk robes and wearing heavy make-up, Elagabalus led daily worship of the meteorite – probably the only recorded instance in western history when the worship of a meteorite from the asteroid belt became the official religion of an empire.

Roman coin from 253 A.D. with Uranius Antoninus (left) and the Black Stone ensconced in the Temple at Emesa. An eagle figure is draped over the meteorite. Credit: Wikipedia

While teenagers are known for giving their parents headaches, Elagabalus went beyond the pale. He forced his subjects to worship him as a deity, had hundreds of cattle slaughtered daily to honor Elagabalus and spent much of his time in orgies or engaging in cruel acts like sticking hot pokers into his enemies or peeling off their skin and dipping them in salt. He loved cruel jokes. One poor servant was instructed to collect a thousand pounds of cobwebs. When he failed to deliver, he was thrown in a cage with hundreds starving rats and eaten alive.

An eagle symbol partly covers the Emesa Stone (right) in this Roman denarius coin. At left is the bust of emperor Elagabalus. Credit: Tim Heitz

Elagabalus’ evil ways finally caught up with him in 222 A.D. when fed-up members of the military tracked the emperor down hiding in a toilet and executed him. The Black Stone quietly found its way back to the temple of Emesa in Syria but was likely smashed to pieces when the temple became a Christian church sometime in the 4th century. To read more about Elagabalus and the story of the Emesa stone, click HERE.

Muslim pilgrims jostle for a chance to touch the Black Stone embedded in a silver frame in the eastern corner of the Kaaba in 2009. Credit: Omar Chatriwala

Another black rock purported to be a meteorite, the Black Stone in the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, remains an object of great spiritual significance in the Muslim world. Once intact and now broken into a dozen or more pieces, the prophet Mohammed placed the stone there in 605 A.D. Eyewitnesses have called everything from an agate to a meteorite to an impactite (melted local rock and meteorite material) from Wabar Crater in Saudi Arabia.

Since no one will be removing any of this sacred relic for analysis anytime soon, we may never know its origin.

We DO know the origin of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. It came from the asteroid belt and happened to cross the Earth’s path at just the right time to make our acquaintance. Through study of its ancient minerals we hope to gain a better understanding of how planets – and ultimately us – came to be.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

35 thoughts on “Welcome to the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite

  1. Re: your comment about ancient cultures, including the Romans, venerating meteorites – the Arthurian legend of the magical sword “Excalibur”, the sword in the stone, could possibly have been rooted in fact. In Jack Whyte’s book The Skystone, this is the premise. A new metal is forged from a rock that has fallen from the sky (just the way the author describes this discovery by some practical and smart Romans makes me smile), a master sword maker uses it to craft his ideal design, and voila – nothing can match it. The book is a very good read, none of the magic hocus-pocus fantasy that one usually gets with the Arthurian legends. Joseph Campbell always claimed that within a myth or legend usually was a kernel of original truth. This book a science person’s ideal historical fiction (and it’s the beginning of a series on (a more realistic) “Camulod”. Politics and patriotism vs isolationism, the rise and fall of empires, sustainability, social issues, history … and, rocks falling out of the sky. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/151723.The_Skystone

  2. I Have A Question For You That Is Unrelated To This Topic.

    On The Night Of July 4, About 10:30 Pm Or Whenever The Fireworks Ended, A Bright Object Went Over Us from South To North.

    At The Time, Some People Thought It Was A Drone. But It Was Totally Silent. It Did Not Act Like Any meteor I Have Ever Seen.

    Can You Verify Whether We Saw The ISS? If Not, Can You Suggest What We May Have Seen?

  3. PS -Tthe Object Was BrighT, The BrightesT Thing In The Sky. And Absolutely silent. It Looked Low. And The Brightness Held Until It Disappeared.

    Sorry About The Capital Letters, A Setting I Need To Find.

    • Every time I have seen the ISS, it takes about 3 minutes to cross the sky from Horizon to Horizon. It is brightest when highest overhead.

  4. I have not been able to see Saturn lately, too many clouds. Yesterday was scary. It was half hour after sunrise, but the sky was very dark. I was driving School Bus and then the rain let go almost like I have never seen it before. As Saturn becomes lost in the Solar glare, we can look at Uranus, fainter but near the best of the year. It is still fairly notable with binoculars before 5 AM. It does not seem that long ago in 1988 when Saturn and Uranus appeared close together.

  5. We Live In Grand Rapids, a CouPle Miles South Of The Forest History Center. I Would Say TheTime Mus Be Between 10:15-10:45 Because It Appeared Immediately After The Fireworks.

    • Hi Brian,
      I did a search backwards and while it appears there were no ISS passes on that date. Assuming the prediction is correct, it could either have been another satellite or one of those sky lanterns which do an excellent job of mimicking bright satellites. Can you describe its color?

  6. Incredible, at first when I saw the photo I thought they were doing some dance for joke to find some big meteorites to become rich.. It’s a singular case, considered that the meteor caused a thousand injuries.
    Thanx for the historical information.

  7. My Wife Says She Believes The Color Was A Soft Yellowish TInge. To Me, It Looked LoweR Than The ISS which We Have Observed Compliments Of Your Site!

    • Brian,
      Could be either a sky lantern or another satellite. If you quite sure of your directions – south to north – then it probably isn’t the space station since it does not travel in that direction. It will go from southwest to northeast but never south to north.

  8. I am typing from a Nook now instead of my Smartphone. Do you, or readers, have any idea where to find settings so my comments are not speckled with capital letters inappropriately?

  9. I am absolutely certain of the (generally) south to north direction. We were standing on our beach and it went directly over our heads. We do not have a view of the entire horizon S to N but it was in our field of vision perhaps for ten to fifteen seconds. As I said earlier, it appeared to be much lower and larger than the ISS.

    Can you explain what a sky lantern is?

    • Brian,
      A sky lantern is a paper bag affixed to a piece of wood with a candle at the bottom. You light the candle, it heats up the air in the bag, and the bag floats up and away. The lantern looks like a bright, slow-moving yellow or yellow-orange light. They’ve become very popular; at least once I was temporarily confused by one, thinking it was a slow-moving satellite.

  10. No, a sky lantern does not seem to fit, I do not think so. The
    wind direction was wrong and the size seemed pretty immense. I suppose a glider might fit, except it was dark out. The glide path was a straight line, quite fast, and no flutter side-to-side or up-and-down that we noticed.

  11. Yes, a single light. Large, the largest thing in the sky and brightest. Blimp shaped but way faster than you would expect a blimp to be. Seemed at a lower altitude. Visible. +/- 10 seconds. I would accept meteor as an explanation but they do not seem to last as long.

    PS-Caps fixed. Wife changed default keyboard from Swype to Android.

    • Brian,
      That would be a longer meteor than usual but very possible. Too short for a satellite unless it’s in the process of de-orbiting. Blimp-like shape is right for a meteor.

      • other than the blimp shape, the description (and trajectory) sound like it could have been an iridium flare, which could have been visible for about 10 seconds. a careful observation would reveal a relatively steady increase in brightness prior to peak, then a similar decrease prior to invisibility. just throwing that out there.

        • Hi Sean,
          Thanks for the suggestion. I would have suggested that as well but the rapid speed doesn’t fit the slow pace of Iridiums. By the way, have you seen World War Z? The couple in the movie uses the Iridium global phone service to stay in touch.

          • Hey Bob. No, haven’t seen WWZ. Just the comcast on-demand preview that they advertize when u are surfing on-demand options. i am glad to hear that Iridiums are still useful tho! I was getting worried they were gonna decommission them or something. as for speed descriptions, it’s hard to know how accurate they are as in reality they usually use subjective terms like fast or slow, which for more experienced stargazers may have a meaningful context but otherwise not necessarily so much. i have had sone1 tell me they saw a spacecraft which moved from being low to being the same height as a star, or something, so i take many people’s descriptions with a grain of salt. no offense Brian lol.

  12. Grand Rapids, Minnesota, not MI.

    The wind pushing a sky lamp along does not fit. If it was, it would have been cruising at 3-400 feet and would have had to be huge.

    Unless the winds @ that elevation could have been steady and way stronger to push a sky lamp so fast … which is unlikely.

    The community shoots off fireworks in our vicinity, towards our location actually. I do not recall strong southerly winds to push any unpowered object along so rapidly. There was no hint of that sort of wind from the fireworks display that had just finished.

    I suppose the only object we have eliminated is the ISS.

    But, as a comparison, we were lucky enough to have seen the meteor of maybe five-ten years ago that was visible all over the Northland, and that came to rest in Manitoba I think (verified by Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg) . That one was much faster and with a typical meteor streak. Because it was burning out it had an irregular appearing trajectory.

    Iridium flare is something I will followup on.

    • Brian,
      While it still sounds like it was most likely a meteor, tell me its speed again, how long it was visible again and how much sky (how many outstretched fists) it covered.

  13. My wife found some iridium flares illustrated on UTube. At least one video clip looks pretty similar to our observation.

    Our observation arrived from the south increasing in brightness as it came, until it was directly overhead. Then, as it continued north it diminished in size and brightness until it was beyond our sight lines.

    Thanks Bob, and others for the suggestions.

  14. Ten seconds +/- from coming into view to leaving our sight. But we see about 80% to the horizon in the south, and maybe 60% to the north.

    We may have two-three miles of sky to see at an elevation of 400′.

    My wife’sized hands stretched overhead, let’s say 1/4 of a fist. (We were not shaking our fists at martians to get them out our airspace so that is difficult to quantify). Maybe 6-8x’s the size of the biggest star.

    It was a steady, fast speed, but not as fast as the meteor I mentioned. It crossed the sky much faster than any boat on the lake. And if our horizon was 3 miles, we saw it for 10 seconds or less.

    • Brian,
      Thanks. Not to beat this to death but I enjoy getting to the bottom of things. A quarter of a fist against the sky is a very short distance, only about 2.5 degrees of half the distance between the two stars at the end of the bucket of the Big Dipper. Given that, it very well could be a flare off an Iridium satellite since they’re only visible for a short time. But there are two problems – there were no Iridium flares near the time of your observation and Iridiums move very slowly since they’re in high-altitude orbits.

  15. I wish I has asked you this question on July 5, when it was fresh on my mind.

    And, we had taken pictures of the fireworks. Too bad we did not think when this went over.

  16. I looked at the fireworks pictures taken on the 4th. Hard to tell, there may have been a south wind but it does not seem particularly strong.

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