We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring. – Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980.
A big point of this website is to explore the intersection of religion, especially Paganism, and science. My first exposure to the idea that we are made of star stuff wasn’t through Paganism, though I’d been Pagan for six years or so, but in a second year university geology class. My professor taped Christmas lights to the blackboard and turned out all the lights and told us about how carbon and almost all the other elements that our world is made out of were formed in the heart of long-dead stars. He ended with the Carl Sagan quote above and I got goosebumps. I was so inspired that years later, I wrote my biggest ritual to date based on this idea: the Stardust Ritual.
Episode 123 of The Wigglian Way podcast included a review of the tv show Cosmos*. As part of the discussion, the two hosts, Mojo and Sparrow, mentioned the show’s occassional anti-religion jabs and a star stuff quote:
[Stars] get so hot that the nuclei of the atoms fuse together deep within them to make the oxygen we breathe, the carbon in our muscles, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. All was cooked in the fiery hearts of long vanished stars. … The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. – Neil Degrasse Tyson, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, episode 2, 2014.
Mojo: “… [Neil Degrasse Tyson] also mentioned that there’s a good possibility that everything on the earth – everything alive – came from the stars; that we are in fact made of star stuff… does that sound familiar to anybody? That we are made of star stuff? So not only is Cosmos not disproving my religion, it’s only proving it more. We’ve always said we’re made of star stuff.”
Sparrow: “Exactly. … Science is coming closer and closer to what we believe all the time.”
The idea that we’re made out of stars predates Carl Sagan. Quote Investigator found uses as old as 1913 and 1918, both from science. The only non-scientific origin seems to be a “Serbian proverb”: “Be humble for you are made of dung. Be noble for you are made of stars.” Serbia has been Christian for a very long time, so I don’t know if we can count that as Pagan origins. And that’s assuming it truly is a Serbian proverb; the earliest source seems to be Guy Murchie in his 1978 book The Seven Mysteries of Life and he did not provide any documentation. It is an interesting idea that Pagans, ancient or modern, may have always believed that we’re made of star stuff, but I couldn’t find any proof of this. Mojo hasn’t gotten back to me with his source.
Until a Pagan source can be found – and I am keeping an open mind about that – I will remain a bit disturbed by this possible re-writing of history. I know modern Pagans are not, as a community, all that good at history (you don’t have to dig very deep to find people who still believe that nine million women were killed in the “The Burning Times” and in Gimbutas’ ancient gynocentric civilisations), but that’s all the more reason to guard against the tendency to add more unprovable or false stories to our collective history.
We can be the religion that embraces and welcomes science; the progressive, flexible, growing religion that isn’t threatened by new facts or by change. I don’t want science to prove my spiritual beliefs to be right; I want to take on new knowledge and incorporated it into my beliefs and rituals. And maybe that’s something Carl Sagan, scientist and self-proclaimed agnostic, could get behind:
Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. … Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries. ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
* Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, is a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was presented by Carl Sagan.