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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.