Weird History
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9 Laughably Unscientific Historical Theories Attempting To Explain The Universe

Updated April 29, 2020 15.5k views9 items

For as long as humans have been able to communicate, they have been trying to figure out exactly what is going on "up there." This has resulted in a lot of interesting, but pretty inaccurate and outmoded, theories about space throughout history. These outdated beliefs about space, which attempt to explain just how the Earth is interacting with the cosmos, are surprisingly varied, and some of the weirdest aren't as old as you might think. In fact, some of them are still believed in remote parts of the world. We may have a much better idea of the makeup of the universe now - including how big the solar system really is - but some of these old-fashioned attempts at astronomy are cooler than the truth.

  • Space Is A Fiery, Cosmic Egg

    Photo: Meister des Hildegardis-Codex / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Hildegard von Bingen was one of the most industrious people of the Middle Ages, period. She was a Benedictine abbess who is often credited as being the founder of natural history in Germany. She was also a writer, composer, philosopher, and receiver of religious visions. For all of her innovating, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 2012. She proposed that the cosmos were arranged into a fiery cosmic egg. It sounds pretty scary, but Hildegard saw it is a reflection of God's vision - the egg of the cosmos followed a divine patterning. The outermost layer of the egg is fire, representing purification and judgement; the next layer is ethereal firmament, which signifies faith; the next is water, the element for baptism; and finally, there's the Earth itself, which is made up of four elements.

  • A Scarab Beetle Rolls The Earth In The Watery Sky

    Photo: Mullica / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    The Ancient Egyptians' view of space had something in common with Hildegard von Bingen's fiery, cosmic egg theory: the idea that the world is surrounded by a layer of water. This "eternal water" was the habitation of the goddess Nut, and, beneath the Earth, a parallel netherworld known as Duat, home to both the good and the cursed, existed. In addition to this set up, the Egyptians attached a special significance to the dung beetle. They saw the dung balls from which young beetles emerged as representative of the always shifting and spherical sun and felt that the seemingly spontaneous birth of these scarabs was like that of the first God, Atum. But the importance of the dung beetle went beyond allegory; they also believed that Earth itself was being rolled by a giant, invisible dung beetle, which explained the changes in the sky at night. At least they got the rotation part right.

  • The Square Inside A Circle Concept of 'Canopy Heaven'

    There were many conflicting theories about the cosmos in Ancient China. One popular theory was known as "gaitian," or "Canopy Heaven." Named after the round-roofed style of chariots at the time, those who aligned themselves with this proposed theory believed that the Earth was a cube, surrounded by the spherical heavens. It is believed that this theory inspired the common Chinese iconography of a square within a circle.

  • The Dome That Separates The Waters Of Earth From The Waters Of Heaven

    Photo: George L. Robinson / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

    There are many references to the structure of the cosmos in the Old Testament. The Hebrews imagined the universe as a dome structure, with a metal firmament separating the waters of Heaven from the Earthly sphere. In this conception, Earth itself rests on primeval waters, held up by pillars. The idea of the cosmos as water was one that could be found all over the ancient world at the time.