In 1054, the people of Earth were treated to an uncommon sight.
A strange light exploded and lit up the sky. For no fewer than 23 days the explosion—caused by a star running out of fuel and blowing up—was visible in the sky. For several hundred nights after the event the supernova remained visible in the sky. Stargazers around the world commented on the extraordinary celestial event, but Europe fell strangely silent. As far as contemporary historians were concerned, it never happened. Some have speculated that it was deliberately erased from history for religious reasons. But perhaps some hint of the censored event slipped through the cracks. A team of scholars claim to have discovered evidence of the mysterious event hidden in the symbols on a limited-edition gold coin.
The supernova event known as SN 1054 made proverbial headlines around the world. The first naked-eye sighting during the daytime was recorded on July 4, 1054, in East Asia. By mid-August the brightness of the explosion began to sharply decline, with the last nighttime sighting recorded on April 6, 1056. Astronomers in China, Korean, and Japan commented on the star and scholars have connected Native American paintings from Arizona, an Anasazi petroglyph from New Mexico, and Aboriginal oral traditions to the event.
But in Europe, most agree, the archival evidence is negligible. The celebrated astrologer Ibn Butlan, who was in Constantinople during the explosion, only reported it once he had left his well-compensated position and returned to Cairo. Part of the reason for Europe’s silence on this event, scholars have speculated, was the theological problems that astrology and the star represents. Europe was not always silent on astrological events—SN 1006 was recorded in numerous documents—but clearly there was something different about this potential porter.
Perhaps the solution lies in the complicated political and religious situation of the time. July 1054 was a busy time for European Christians. The church was torn apart by the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Churches (what are, today, known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches). The schism, which was centuries in the making, is usually dated to July 16, 1054, when three papal legates excommunicated the Eastern Patriarch Michael Cerularius. The timing of the excommunication corresponds to the period when the supernova would have been most visible in the morning sky.
In a recently published article in the European Journal of Science and Theologyand reported on by Livescience, an international team of scholars examined a set of small coins minted during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX. Most of the coins show the head of the emperor accompanied by a single bright star, but one set shows him flanked by two. The emperor’s head they argue, represents the sun. The eastern star is a reference to Venus (or the Morning Star) and the second star is a cipher for the supernova. Going further, they suggest that subsequent minting of this two-starred limited-edition coin may actually show the star’s light waning over time.
The study’s authors explore the possibility that the double-starred coin represents a cryptic interpretation on the Great Schism. Perhaps, they suggest, “the eastern star represents the stable and well-known Venus and the Eastern Orthodox Church, while the western star represents the short-lived ‘new star’ and the ‘fading’ Western Catholic church.” That’s a strong message that would not have gone over well with Church leaders in the West. There was, thus, a need for discretion. While, as Collins, Claspy, and Martin noted in an earlier study, “this [kind of] argument is largely circumstantial, it does provide a basis for understanding the lack of subsequent reference to the supernova of AD 1054 in the largely clerical European literature” of the time.
There are other explanations for the iconography on the coins. In the eastern part of the Roman empire there was a long tradition that placed stars on either side of the emperor’s image. As such, it’s possible that the stars have nothing to do with the supernova. But it’s not necessary to choose between these two options. It’s possible that those responsible for minting the coins found an acceptable way to articulate their interest in the celestial event. By utilizing traditional iconography the coin-maker may have struck upon a “hidden way of commemorating the appearance of SN 1054.”
While ciphers and hidden symbols may sound like the stuff of conspiracy theories, adapting the dominant cultural script is one way in which people could express themselves and push back against structures of power without putting themselves at risk. Because they are shaped by cultural conventions, these acts of self-expression could fly under the radar. Take, for example, the rebranding of the sacred mescaline containing plant huachuma with the more religious name “San Pedro.” The psychoactive cactus, which was used in Moche and Chavin indigenous culture, was renamed for the Roman Catholic Saint to make the use of the plant more acceptable to ecclesiastical authorities. The name also makes a veiled cryptic reference to Peter’s role as the holder of the keys of heaven and the plants psychoactive properties.
Alternatively, a late fifth- or early sixth-century baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, which depicts a heretical Jesus. Known as the “Arian Baptistery,” the artwork in the mosaic shows a young, clean-shaven Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. Many scholars maintain that this reflects the non-Trinitarian now-heretical views of the Arians, who saw Jesus as inferior to God-the-Father. Though the reference is subtle, the fact that the octagonal baptistery was commissioned by the Arian and Gothic King Theodoric the Great means that there is not much debate about the identification. Though Theodoric was both powerful and openly Arian, the gilded mosaic was not recrafted or censored later on. Like the renaming of the huachuma plant, it’s an example of how “unorthodox” practices or perspectives can hide in plain sight if they are presented in familiar terms.
Perhaps the small limited-edition coins of Constantine IX’s reign do a similar kind of work. A clever astronomer, artisanal worker, or both could have used the cipher to record an otherwise censored celestial event. If you believe that there are Freemason symbols hidden on US currency then none of this should seem far-fetched.
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