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Astrolabe against background of stars

On the Beauty and Metaphor of the Astrolabe


A powerful object worked simultaneously as a guide to the cosmos and to the infinite within...

If it’s true that we’re made of the stars, the artifacts created by people to measure and approach those same stars are not only indispensable but an essential part of the great narrative of humanity. The astrolabe (one of the first computers, really) and the uses to which it’s been put over centuries show strong symbolic implications. Likewise, it’s also been one of the best visual metaphors, often circular, for both being and infinity.

The word “astrolabe” is derived from the Greek astrolabos. This could be translated as “star finder” – and it recalls that the elaborate object was used for centuries to study the stars and to navigate both on land and at sea. The earliest records of an antecedent to the astrolabe date from the Hellenic world of the 2nd century BCE, and some date from the time of the great astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, circa 100-170 CE. The instrument, perfected over time, was later used by medieval and Renaissance sailors, and adopted by Islamic peoples who developed the most beautiful examples of the machine. Muslims endowed the astrolabe with a religious function and could use it to determine the direction to Mecca such that they could carry out their five daily prayers while oriented towards the sacred city.


Ancient sailors at sea

Circular in form, the astrolabe is related, symbolically and essentially, with the perfect wheel, one encompassing both the eternal and the infinite. From the earliest representations of the universe to the many ways humankind has found to represent time, the power of the geometrical circle works as a map and a visual metaphor for the graphic explanation of all kinds of information: scientific, theological, and philosophical, among many others. Thus, the astrolabe’s cartographic function is primordial, deriving an infinity of metaphysical implications by its very nature.

Another use of the astrolabe was as an astrological tool. This was especially true during the Middle Ages when there was no clear division between astronomy and astrology. Curious devices that they are, astrolabes have been used to make all kinds of decisions, including whether or not to go to war. The astrolabe then takes on a fascinating dimension as a guide not only to the geographic and the maritime worlds but to the spiritual, as if the map implied by the instrument guides both the universe outside and the one inside, too.

The beautiful astrolabe – a labyrinth, a clock-compass, a mirror of the sky and of ourselves – is always simultaneously a magical object. For centuries, it’s allowed us to decipher the world, and consequently, to decipher ourselves and the universes quietly inhabiting us.


Iranian astrolabe


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