In 1054, the inhabitants of our planet were treated to an unusual sight. A strange light exploded and lit up the sky. For no less than twenty-three days, the explosion – caused by a star hitting its fuel and exploding – was visible in the sky. Several hundred nights after the event, the supernova was still visible in the sky. Stargazers from around the world commented on the extraordinary celestial event, but Europe fell strangely silent. As far as contemporary historians are concerned, it never happened. Some have speculated that it was purposely erased from history for religious reasons. But perhaps a hint of the censored event slipped through the cracks. A team of scientists claims to have found evidence for the mysterious event hidden in the symbols on a limited-edition gold coin.
The supernova event, known as SN 1054, made the proverbial headlines around the world. The first daytime naked-eye sighting was recorded on July 4, 1054 in East Asia. In mid-August, the brightness of the explosion began to decline sharply when the last nighttime observation was recorded on April 6, 1056. Astronomers in China, Korea, and Japan commented on the star, and scholars interlinked Native American paintings from Arizona, an Anasazi petroglyph. associated with New Mexico, and Aboriginal oral traditions to the event.
But in Europe most agree that the archival material is negligible. Celebrated astrologer Ibn Butlan, who was in Constantinople during the explosion, didn’t announce it until he 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 represented by astrology and the star. Europe wasn’t always silent about astrological events – SN 1006 was recorded in numerous documents – but there was clearly something else going on with this potential omen.
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 is known today as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches). Centuries in the making, the schism is usually dated to July 16, 1054, when three papal legates excommunicated Eastern Patriarch Michael Cerularius. The timing of the excommunication corresponds to the time when the supernova would be most visible in the morning sky.
In a recently published article in the European journal of science and theologyand reported by life sciences, an international team of scholars examined a series of small coins minted during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX. Most coins show the emperor’s head accompanied by a single bright star, but one set shows him flanked by two. The emperor’s head, they claim, represents the sun. The eastern star is a reference to Venus (or the Morning Star) and the second star is a number for the supernova. Going further, they suggest that the later minting of this two-stared limited-edition coin may in fact show that the star’s light diminishes over time.
The study’s authors investigate the possibility that the two-star coin represents a cryptic interpretation of 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 ephemeral ‘new star’ and the ‘faded’ Western Catholic Church.” That is a strong message that would not have come across well to church leaders in the West. So there was a need for discretion. While, as Collins, Claspy, and Martin noted in a previous study, „this [kind of] argument is largely circumstantial, it provides a basis for understanding the lack of later references to the 1054 supernova 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 of placing stars on either side of the emperor’s statue. As such, it is possible that the stars have nothing to do with the supernova. But there is no need to choose between these two options. It is possible that those responsible for minting the coins have found an acceptable way to express their interest in the celestial event. Using traditional iconography, the coin maker may have found a “hidden way to commemorate the appearance of SN 1054”.
While numbers and hidden symbols may sound like conspiracy theories, adapting the dominant cultural script is a way for people to express themselves and resist power structures 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 with plant huachuma with the more religious name “San Pedro”. The psychoactive cactus, which was used in the native culture of Moche and Chavin, was renamed after the Roman Catholic saint to make the use of the plant more acceptable to church authorities. The name also makes a veiled cryptic reference to Peter’s role as the holder of the keys of heaven and the plant’s psychoactive properties.
Alternatively, there is a late fifth or early sixth century CE baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, depicting a heretical Jesus. Known as the ‘Arian Baptistery’, the artwork in the mosaic depicts a young and clean-shaven Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River. Many scholars argue that this reflects the non-Trinitarian, now heretical views of the Arians, who saw Jesus as inferior to God-the-Father. While the reference is subtle, the fact that the octagonal baptistery was commissioned by the Arian and Gothic king Theodoric the Great means there isn’t much debate about its identification. Though Theodoric was both mighty and overtly Arian, the gilded mosaic was not later recreated or censored. Like the renaming of the huachuma plant, it is an example of how “unorthodox” practices or perspectives can hide in plain sight when presented in familiar terms.
Perhaps the limited-edition small coins of the reign of Constantine IX do a similar job. A shrewd astronomer, craftsman, or both could have used the cipher to capture an otherwise censored celestial event. If you think there are Masonic symbols hidden on US currency, none of this should seem far-fetched.