The five point star is on the flags of 35 nations today. Democratic, Communist, and Islamic. These are nations with ideologies at odds and sometimes at war. Police wear stars to represent the law. Heroes are awarded medals with stars for courage. Children receive stars on reports for good behaviour and work. The following examines the origins of the five point star, how it became associated with the idea of excellence, and why today it’s a universal symbol of achievement throughout the worlds of business, entertainment, professional sport, and the military.
The Human Ideal
It is fundamentally human to gaze up at the night sky emblazoned with celestial lights and wonder “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” The answer echoing back through time is always, “Know Thyself.” This is inscribed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi; aptly built over a cavern in 800 B.C.E.. Apollo is was the deity associated with prophecy and medicine. Aristotle believed every human is drawn into the future by an innate “telos”. In Greek, “entelecheia” means “that which turns potential into reality.” For example, the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, or an acorn into an oak tree. With human beings, this is much more complex.
Eudaimonia & Aretē
Each person is called to discover their own telos; who they are uniquely and what their vocation, or calling, will be. The principle and goal of Aretē is:
- To actualize one’s full potential
- To harness all one’s faculties, abilities, and potentialities
- To work at an optimal level of effectiveness
- To strive for and achieve excellence
The inner dimension involves building character. Here, the realization of excellence involves the practice of virtues such as wisdom, courage, kindness, humor, and moderation. The outer dimension involves building a vocation. Every vocation also has a telos. Here, one’s striving for excellence is even more measured. “As an example, let’s take a virtuous carpenter. In their trade, virtue would be excellences in artistic eye, steady hand, patience, creativity, and so on. The eudaimon carpenter is one who possesses and practices the virtues of his trade” (ethics.org.au/).For Aristotle, those who discover and realize their telos will flourish. This leads to “eudaimonia”, a quality of happiness which encompasses: wellbeing, prosperity, and a sense of blessedness. It is also the “highest human good” both at individual and societal levels.
Phronesis is a term meaning “practical wisdom, virtue, and action”. It’s linguistic root is “phroneîn” meaning “to think” from “phrḗn” meaning “mind”. A contemporary translation is “mindfulness in action”. Practical wisdom is like an inner moral compass which guides thinking and behavior always pointing to one’s guiding star. This cannot be taught but only learned through aspiration and with life work experience. According to Aristotle, people learn how to become virtuous by acting virtuously. Excellence of character is built through sustained, purposeful praxis. As is one’s vocation. Both are lifelong endeavors. As Michelangelo famously wrote in his journal: “I am 87 and still learning”.
- Good judgement
In Babylon, the five pointed star represented the corners of heaven. The cardinal directions are associated with the four lower triangles while the fifth points up to heaven. It also represented the five then known planets of Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and Venus. Between 3500B.C.E. and 2500 B.C,E. it appeared as a symbol of authority carried by rulers of the City State of Ur and on city seals in Sumer and Chaldea. The number five is associated with the goddess Ishtar.
Vedic wisdom is several thousand years old. The oral tradition was written down and codified between circa 1500 and 900 B.C.E.. It refers to the “pancha mahabhuta”, or “five great elements” of earth, water, fired, air, and aether. The Vedas state that all creation is comprised of these elements. This includes the human body wherein the five elements are associated with the five senses.
The earliest mentions of the five elements (wu xing), also called the “five changes”, appear between circa 700s and 500s B.C.E. “Wǔxíng originally refers to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Venus) that create five dimensions of earth life.” In this distinct system, the five elements are: fire, water, earth, metal/air, and wood /aether. These are traditionally illustrated as five point star. Chinese philosophers used this framework to describe the dynamic interrelations and interactions between phenomena. Outwardly throughout life and the universe and inwardly within the body, mind, and soul. This concept and model gained widespread use in traditional medicine, fengshui, and the martial arts.
Egyptian civilization spanned three thousand years, from unification in 3100 B.C.E. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E.. Throughout, the five point star has occupied a special place in ancient Egyptian beliefs and cosmology. The Egyptian sciences of astronomy and architecture were considered sacred. Construction of massive stone pyramids, temples, and monuments required flawless mathematics, geometrical precision, and technical mastery. Egyptian priest-astronomers also had extensive knowledge of the night sky. They identified thirty-eight stellar constellations. They also used the square root of five to formulate and construct a perfectly proportioned five-point star as well as to build the pyramids.
Consider the analogies at play here. A flame is triangular in shape. It points upwards. The Greek letter “D“ called “Delta” is triangular in shape. It also points upwards. The Greek word “pyr” means fire”, the basis for the word “pyramid”, also which points upwards. More on this vital symbolic point is discussed below.
The five point star was most closely associated with the goddess Isis and Sirius; the brightest star in the night sky. The Egyptians knew the annual heliacal rising of Sirius presaged the start of the annual flooding of the Nile river delta. This flooding was essential to the planting season and the assurance of a good harvest. According to Herodotus, who wrote in the Fifth Century B.C.E., Isis was the most widely beloved deity throughout Egypt. Isis, known as Sopdet in Egyptian, was depicted wearing a gold five point star as a headband. She was known simply as the “Triangle” or “Sharp One”. Isis is also called “Starfish”.
Egyptians believed in an underworld, eternal life, and rebirth. Isis was also connected with these after life rites of passage. Many Egyptian temples and tombs feature dark blue ceilings painted with gold five point stars representing the constellations. The Egyptians also thought that stars did not just exist in the heavens above but also in Duat, the land of the afterlife. It was believed a person’s soul, or Ba, could become a star in Duat. Such a soul was depicted visually as a five point star within a circle.
The Egyptians also believed that life originated in the sea. Hence, her other related name, “Stella Maris” meaning “Star of the Sea”. As such, she was especially reverenced by sailors as a guide and protector for those travelling over troubled waters. Stella Maris later became associated with Mary, mother of Jesus. during the advent of Christianity.
Pythagoras looms large in this narrative It’s well documented that he visited India, Babylon and Egypt to study their respective wisdom traditions, which were thousands of years old. During these travels, he was invested with the secret knowledge of Phi, the golden ratio, and five point star.
The Pythagoreans adopted the five point star as a symbol of the ideal human. Each of the five geometric triangles were associated with an element. The four lower triangles – air, fire, water, earth – form the arms and legs of the star. The fifth triangle is the apex. This completes the star and gives it crowning form. The apex points upwards to its divine celestial origins.
This fifth element – aether – was of different order than the more material lower elements. It was thought that aether fills the cosmos enveloping the terrestrial sphere and humans. Like the divine spirit itself, which it’s comprised of, aether is also unchanging and timeless. The Greeks called this crowning triangle, “Quintessence.” It epitomizes the absolute best someone or something can be. Another word for it is “Excellence”.
The Pythagoreans placed the five point star within a circle. And at each point of the star, they placed a letter, with the whole spelling the word “Hygieia”. This was reverenced as a sacred symbol of sanity and good health. It was also used as a secret mark of recognition between peers. The five point star within a circle conveys a powerful archetypal image.
Heights of Excellence
Excellence is defined as “the quality of being outstanding”. Its ancient root” is “kel” meaning “hill” and “to be prominent”. The importance of “high ground” has been recognized in classic military strategy for thousands of years.The apex of the five point star points upwards for a reason. As do Egyptian pyramids, cathedral spires, and mosque minarets. By the 14th Century C.E., “excellence” was seen as “that in which something or someone excels.” It’s this sense that constitutes popular understanding today. This same symbolism is also on the US dollar. The apex features the “All Seeing Eye of Providence” also derived from ancient Egypt.
The Greek term “Aretē” refers to excellence in the context of building character and a vocation.Each person is called to discover their” telos”; who they are uniquely and what their vocation, will be.
- To actualize their full potential
- To harness all their faculties, abilities, and potentialities
- To work at an optimal level of effectiveness
- To practice of virtues such as wisdom, courage, kindness, humor, and moderation
- To achieve excellence
Due to these ancient historical and psychological reasons, the five-point star is a universal symbol of excellence and power around the world today. More than forty nations feature such stars on their flags. This includes democratic, communist, and Islamic nations with otherwise generally incompatible, even inimical, political systems and ideologies. Police wear star badges to uphold the law. Heroes are awarded medals in the form of stars for courage and sacrifice. Children receive report cards with gold stars for good behavior. A general receives a star as a symbol of their command.
The Power of 5
Today, several models of mastery and growth employ the five point star as an aspirational symbol and mark of achievement. The apex alone – without the body of the star – is often illustrated as a five-step pyramid. This provides a practical way to mark progress in the ascent towards the top. For example: –
- Abraham Maslow “Hierarchy of Needs: Five Stages”
- Peter Senge “Fifth Disciple”
- John Maxwell “5 Levels of Leadership”
- Jim Collin “Level 5 Leadership”
- Virginia Satir “Five-Point Check-In”
- Vlatka Hlupic “Five Levels to Engagement”
- Patricia Benner “Five Stages of Clinical Competence”
- Stuart E. Dreyfus “Five-Stages of Adult Skill Acquisition”
- US Army Program “Five Star Dimensions of Strength”
There is a three century Western tradition of labelling highly talented individuals as “stars.”
- Chaucer’s poem “The House of Fame” was written between 1374 and 1385 C.E.. In this poem about a poet dreaming, a human being wonders if they will be turned into a star. Accordingly, the word “stellify” from that era means: “to turn into or as if into a star; place among the stars”.
- In 1751, the Bays in Council announced “You may Shine the brightest Theatric Star, that ever enliven’d of charm’d an Audience.” This is the first recorded used the term in this way,
- The earliest analogies between actors all speak to “brightness” of their performance on stage. David Garrick was the first actor to be called a “star”
- It was commonly usedin the Music Halls of that era. In 1798, the new American Continental Army Regulations specified “stars” to be worn on general officers’ epaulettes.
- In 1859, the New York City Police Department issued new brass star badges for its officers.
- In 1886, stars were first used for ranking for hotels and restaurants in Baedecker Guides.
- In 1893, the term “all-star” was first used to describe the acclaimed cast of a Broadway theatre performance
- In 1916, the term “all-star” was also used to describe a winning baseball team.
- In 1958, the Hollywood Walk of Fame with pink terrazzo five-pointed stars for acclaimed actors was inaugurated.
- In 1958, association football introduced the tradition of a five-pointed star for team badges to represent victories.
- The 1950s & 1960s saw the introduction of star stickers in schools for good behavior and classwork.
The Business World
Given the wide spread and deep association between stars as symbols of excellence and achievement as well as descriptors for those achieved excellence it was only a matter of time until this permeated into business culture generally and motivational psychology specifically, Today we’d say a five-point star is a symbol of psychological integrity and growth. When our inner elements are harmonized and focussed on excellence, we are in state of flow. In this state, learning, work, and living are all naturally optimized (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
This is well explained in a 1993 Harvard Business Review article: “How Bell Labs Creates Star Performers”. Two researchers – Robert E. Kelley and Janet Caplan – studied what differentiated Bell Lab ‘s ‘star’ employees from those considered ‘average’. They discovered “there’s little meaningful difference in the innate abilities of star performers and average worker.”
However, Kelly and Caplan identified nine areas where employee ‘stars shine brighter’: Ability to take initiative, Self-Management, Team Working, Leadership, Followership, Perspective, Networking, Show & Tell, Organizational Savvy. They also found that “when companies promote such strategies systematically, individual professionals not only improve but also pass along the benefits to their colleagues and the company’s bottom line.” (https://bit.ly/3c3Fjjr).
Another 2011 publication from Harvard Business School also looks at the enduring power of star symbolism and how it manifests as excellence. In “Paying $30,000 for a Gold Star: An Empirical Investigation into the Value of Peer Recognition to Software Salespeople” Professor Ian I. Larkin examined one particular company’s sales recognition program. He found that its Gold Star Recognition Program was so powerful that employees would forgo financial reward to become members. “Recipients received a gold star on their name card, companywide recognition, and email from the CEO, and a weekend trip to a tropical destination with the other club members. …Larkin’s study suggests that, even as adults, a gold-star system is so impactful that people would actually give up money to get a gold star” (https://hbs.me/3r0wtHB).