Mesopotamian Star Lore
By Anthony Roe
Published at Imbolc 2001
"The Sumerians and Babylonians believed," wrote Sir E A Wallis Budge, "that the will of the gods in respect of man and his affairs could be learned by watching the motions of the stars and planets, and that skilled star-gazers could obtain from the motions and varying aspects of the heavenly bodies indications of future prosperity and calamity. They therefore caused observations to be made and recorded on tablets, which they interpreted from a magical and not astronomical point of view, and these observations and their comments on them, and interpretation of them, have formed the foundation of astrology in use in the world for the last 5,000 years. According to ancient traditions preserved by Greek writers, the Babylonians made these observations for some hundreds of thousands of years, and though we must reject such fabulous statements, we are bound to believe that the period during which observations of the heavens were made on the plains of Babylonia comprised many thousands of years." What boasted science of the moderns can be said to be built upon a more substantial foundation?
Berosus, the initiated priest of Baal, was the first and greatest of the Chaldean astrologers and historiographers. He was a man of broad intellect and profound learning, and it is recorded of him that "nearly all his prophecies were fulfilled". Berosus settled in the island state of Cos, and there established a school of the "secret sciences". He is described by Vitruvius as the forerunner of a long line of astrologers "of genius and great acuteness, who sprang directly from the nations of the Chaldeans". The wisdom and skill of Berosus so deeply impressed the men of his age that it is reported of them that after his death they raised a statue to their priest and sage. As a testimony to the truth of the predictions made by Berosus, they caused the image to be cast "with a golden tongue".
Philo Judaeus wrote: "In relating the things of the earth to the celestial, and those of heaven to the inferior, the Chaldeans have shown in the mutual affections between these parts of the universe (which are separated in space but not in essence) the harmony that writes them in a sort of musical accord."
In the search for a plastic expression of their cosmogony, the Chaldean rulers devised the temple tower, the ziggurat. Built in steps, it expressed the degrees of the hierarchy on which heaven and earth were established. The ziggurat was actually a miniature world; its structure represented the 'Mountain of Earth'. In Babylon they erected the El-Temen-An-Ki , the house of the foundation stone of heaven and earth. This magical monument, known in the Bible as the Tower of Babel, had seven stages, each one dedicated to a planet. Its angles symbolized the four corners of the world, pointing to Akkad, Suburtu, Elam and the western lands. Four, according to old Sumerian traditions, was the number of the heavens, and the square or rectangle was accepted by Babylon as the basis of their system. The seven steps of the tower were painted in different colours which corresponded to the planets. The 'Great Misfortune', Saturn, was black. Saturn, the 'Nightly Sun', was at the base, opposed to the highest degree, the gilded top of the tower where the sun resided. The second storey up was white, the colour of shining Jupiter; the third, brick-red, the colour of Mercury. Then followed blue for Venus, yellow for Mars, gray or silver for the moon. These colours boded good or evil, like their planets. This explains why a yellow dog entering the palace foretells destruction, for yellow was the colour of Mars - Nergal, the war god. In the same way a white dog brings luck, because he is the colour of the beneficent planet, Marduk-Jupiter.
The river peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates were the legendary Sumerians who had settled in the lower Euphrates valley five thousand years before Christ; the dark-skinned Akkadians who had established themselves in the region of Babylon three thousand years before our era; the Elamites, ancestors of the Persians whom we can trace back to the fourth millennium; the star-wise Babylonians, founders of a world empire; the Assyrians, first vassals of Babylon, subsequently conquerors of Western Asia and Egypt; and the Medes, whose glory had seemed everlasting until the Persians achieved hegemony over all Asiatic lands.
In the broad plains, on terraces of temples and towers, the priests scanned the night sky, pondering over the riddle of the universe - the cause of all being, of life and death. They offered their prayers to the spirit of Ea, the Earth, and to the spirit of Anu, the Sky. By conjuration, by the burning of incense, by shouts and by whispers, by gesture and by song, the priests sought to attract the attention of the fickle gods who had to be forever reminded of the misfortunes of mortals. "Remember," the incantations were always reiterating: "Remember him who makes sacrifices - may forgiveness and peace flow for him like molten brass: May this man's days be vivified by the sun! - Spirit of the Earth, remember! Spirit of the Sky, remember!" And in like vein: "Spirit of Nindar, mighty warrior of Mulge, remember; Spirit of Paku, sublime intelligence of Mulge, remember; Spirit of En-Zuma, son of Mulge, remember; Spirit of Tishku, Lady of the Hosts, remember; Spirit of Udu, King of Justice, remember!" Mulge is the master of hell; Nindar is Saturn; Paku is Mercury; En-Zuma is the moon; Tishku is Venus; Udu is the sun.
An eclipse of the sun might cause panic; but ultimately the sun emerged victorious from this struggle against evil, for did it not rise and set day after day, with the seasons following one another, bringing sowing and harvesting? Man stimulated the rhythm of nature by incantation, dance and gesture; and the stars moved in accordance with immutable laws as if to bear witness to the harmony of the world. With the progress of civilization, the early dualism was modified. In Chaldea, wise men discovered a higher order and a better law. By contemplation of the night sky, the Chaldean priests conceived a supreme god from whom sprang the other deities. This god was a creative power chained to the eternal law which he embodied, and submitting to his own decrees. Based upon a philosophical system, a purer religion was born from Akkad's demoniacal world.
About two thousand years BCE a reform took place: a caste of priests was founded in whom all occult knowledge was concentrated. These 'baru' priests were the original magi. Now to the magus there exists no accidental happening; everything obeys the One Law, which is not resented as a coercion but rather welcomed as a liberation from the tyranny of chance. The world and its gods submit to this law, which binds together all things and all events. Everything is established solidly by that law which the wise man discerns in happenings, in appearances accidental to the profane: occult manifestations of the omnipotent creator, the source of unity and harmony.
In the search for a supreme standard, a prototype of order and harmony, the priests looked to the heavens, where, inaccessible, the stars move along. A minute and incessant observation of the heavenly bodies led them to that wisdom which we call astrology. In their everlasting round, the planet-gods were performing a pantomime, expressive of the Law which ruled the universe. The stargazers understood the meaning of this harmonious play. They could foretell the configurations of the grandiose rondo and they knew also in what way the heavenly movement would affect happenings on earth. In the world hierarchy, the superior rules over the inferior, and the star gods were the heavenly rulers of all that lay below.
Among them , the seven planets were the most powerful, 'the interpreter gods'. Jupiter-Marduk was the creator, the awakener of the dead, the victor over chaos. His bright star was a torch, 'a ruler of the sky'. When appearing in the moon aura, he bestowed male offspring. His influence was always favourable. The forebodings of the moon, Sin, were ambiguous because of its irregular phases. Growth was hindered by its contraction, stimulated by its expansion. The sun, Shamash, carrier of life and light, was likewise ambiguous, bringing sometimes scorching and drought. Uncertain was Mercury, Nebo, the scribe and god of wisdom, who wrote down the deeds of men: knowledge can bring forth good and evil. Saturn, Adar, the god of hunting, was propitious to public affairs as well as to family life. But he too seems generally to exert evil influence; they called him the Great Misfortune. Evil was Mars, Nergal, the god of the dead and of pestilence, causing war, and foretelling death to the king. He destroyed the wheat and the date harvest; he stunted the growth of cattle and fish roe. He was called the Fiend, the Persian, the Fox, etc. Venus, Ishtar, the goddess of motherhood and love, was beneficent. From her emanated great healing power; by her vegetation is brought forth; however, she was dangerous to widows and to suckling's.
Besides the planets, the signs of the zodiac also are offspring's of Chaldean astrology, and six of its original figures still exist to this day. They are the Bull, the Twins, the Lion, the Balance, the Scorpion and the Fishes. Although little is known of their symbolism, it may be surmised that these figures originally were closely connected with earthly affairs. Thus, for instance, the price of wheat was fixed according to the position of the heavenly Balance, rather than according to the quantity produced by the harvest. When the sign of the Fishes shone weakly, it meant that fish roe was affected adversely; when Nergal, the evil planet, approached the sign of the Scorpion, it meant that the king was about to die from a scorpion's sting.
In the astrologer's language, symbols and allegories were adopted which were enigmas to the profane. The sun shed tears; Jupiter is surrounded by courtiers; the moon travels in a carriage and accepts various crowns from the stars she approaches, crowns of the evil wind, of anger, of happiness, of iron, of bronze, of copper and of gold. Venus seizes foreign goods and wears crowns of different colours according to her conjunction with Mars, Saturn, Mercury or Jupiter.
These enigmatic images were expressed in the old tongue of Akkad or Sumer, the 'language of the gods', in which only the initiate conversed. The cosmic secrets were hidden from the people, because of the fear that knowledge of the future might either discourage them or cause them to abandon their daily work from joy. Those who had knowledge of the stars were more influential than king's ministers, and foreign rulers consulted them frequently. Diodorus of Sicily (first century of the Christian Era) gives witness of their prestige: "Having observed the stars during an enormous number of years," he says, "they know more exactly than anyone else the movements and the influences of the stars, and they predict with accuracy many things to come."
From ancient times, the known world had been divided according to the four quarters of the sky. The south was Akkad (Babylonia); the north, Saburtu (Assyria); the east, Elam (Persia); the west, Syria and Palestine. The movements of the stars and other events in the sky were interpreted according to this astrological geography. Thus it was considered a natural thing when thunder resounded in the south, Akkad, whereas thunder from other directions was considered an omen.
As far back as memory reached, metals were related to the underworld. They lay hidden in the hollow of the earth and no heavenly stars shone upon them; yet, in the wish to relate all earthly things to heaven, the astrologer saw an affinity between metals and planets, an idea which still haunted the mediaeval alchemists. To the Chaldeans gold was the metal of the sun, silver that of the moon, lead that of Saturn. Tin had its correspondence in Jupiter, iron in Mars, and copper in Venus.
Together with astrology, mystic numbers came into being and like astrology, numerology has survived through the ages with astonishing vitality. Thus the number seven occurs in the main stars of the Great Bear and in the Lesser Bear, in the Pleiades and in Orion. Seven are the days of the moon quarters, seven are the planets of antiquity.
Astrology, which has been the stimulus to many scientific discoveries, was also theology. In its vast domain, there is nourishment for both spirit and soul, and there can be no doubt that astrology owes its longevity to its psychic rather than to its intellectual value. Man has an innate desire for unification, which had animated the Chaldean astrologers, whose early wisdom still exerted a powerful influence at the dawn of modern science. The great astronomer Kepler made his discoveries at the end of his vain search for that law which unifies the universe.
Strictly speaking, astrology refers to observation of the movements of the astral bodies with a view to divination of the future thereby, as opposed to astronomy (disinterested scientific observation). From the movement and appearance of the moon, stars and planets, the Babylonians believed that it was possible to predict future events in the world, especially in the political and military spheres. The signs in the sky, just as those on earth, give us signals. The Babylonian view was that portents gave indications - clues - about the gods' intentions. By contrast, Hellenistic (and modern) astrology views the planets themselves as exerting influences over human destinies. It was only from the fifth century BCE that Babylonian astrologers began to cast horoscopes to foretell the fortunes of ordinary individuals. However, although many ancient astronomical texts are expressed in a form which allows for their astrological application (for example, they include associations of deities with the constellations where appropriate), the basic facts and procedures are of astronomical or chronological interest, and there is some evidence that the main reason for the development of astronomy was the wish to be able to control the calendar, rather than to interpret celestial events astrologically. Although some deities have connections with stars or planets, many do not, and the idea that Mesopotamian religion was astral in origin is untenable.
Babylonian observation of the night skies can be documented from at least 750 BCE in daily records (only a small part of which survive), and by about 400 BCE had reached a remarkably accurate level given the pre-Galilean cosmology with which they worked. Lunar eclipses could be predicted with considerable accuracy. Halley's comet was observed and recorded in 164 BCE and again in 87 BCE. The ziggurats (temple towers) may have been used in the later periods as suitable observation platforms, although that was not their original function. Babylon and Uruk were important centres of astronomy during the fourth to first centuries BCE.
In Babylonian astronomy the eastern horizon was divided into three vertical bands, the 'ways' of Enlil, Anu (An) and Ea (Enki), which were used for locating the position of the zodiacal constellations. Five planets were recognised: Mercury (called 'Jumping'), Venus, Mars, Jupiter (called 'the Fiery') and Saturn (called 'Constant'). Many of the names for the constellations were the same as or similar to those transmitted to the modern world by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy (c. CE 150).
The association of certain constellations with the months of the year was first made by the Babylonians. By about 1000 BCE they recognised eighteen zodiacal constellations (constellations through whose path the moon and planets appeared to move); the Hired Man (corresponding to our Aries), the Stars (the Pleiades), the Bull of Heaven (Taurus), the True Shepherd of Anu (An) (Orion), the Old Man (Perseus), the Crook (Auriga), the Great Twins (Gemini), the Crab (Cancer), the Lion (Leo), the Furrow (Virgo), the Scales (Libra), the Scorpion (Scorpius), Pabilsag (Sagittarius), the Goat-fish (Capricornus), the Great One (Aquarius), the Tail, the Swallow and Anunitu (these last three forming Pisces). Later the constellation the Field (Pegasus) was added.
By 600-500 BCE these were systematised in such a way that they were distributed among the twelve months, singly or sometimes in pairs. For instance, the second month of the Babylonian year (corresponding to mid-April to mid-May) had both Taurus and the Pleiades; the third month Gemini and Orion; and the twelfth month Pisces and Pegasus. By about 400 BCE the number of the zodiacal constellations was reduced to the twelve that we are familiar with today, each covering 30 degrees of the sky, and beginning with Aries for the first month (corresponding to mid-March to mid-April).
Astrology as we know it today could not have existed before the Hellenistic period, and is certainly not of Babylonian origin. Like other omens, celestial phenomena were regarded by the Mesopotamians as indicators of the will of the gods, not as in themselves influential. And they never became as important to Mesopotamian diviners as were, for example, liver omens, probably because the gods could not be questioned through them and because no manipulation of the procedures of divination by means of them was possible.
Celestial omens first began to be used as portents on a large scale in the period of the first dynasty of Babylon (eighteenth to fifteenth centuries BCE), though it is probable that lunar eclipses had at an earlier period been regarded as ominous. The collection of the celestial omens in the great series of cuneiform tablets, known as the Enuma Anu Enlil, relate exclusively to the royal court and to the nation; the professional reader of omens, the baru priest, performed his duties solely in order to advise the king of the future course of events. The omens in this material were organised into four sections, categorising phenomena as they related to Sin, the moon, Shamash, the sun, Adad, the weather-god, and Ishtar, Venus. This ancient system spread, under the aegis of the Persian Empire, to Egypt, to Greece, to the Near East, and to India.
Ancient astrologic texts were translated into Arabic in vast numbers in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Islamic innovations began to enter Byzantium in the tenth century, the Latin West in the twelfth, and India in the thirteenth, profoundly affecting the late pre-modern developments of astrology in all three cultural areas. The most ancient ideas survived however, transmitted through the self-styled Sabians of Harran in northern Mesopotamia, near Edessa. They developed an elaborate cult of the planets. Their religious tradition - a mixture of Hermetic, Neo-Platonic, Sassanian, and Indian elements known to us mainly through Arab descriptions - centred entirely about the indirect worship of the One through the planets. To this end all the paraphernalia of the rituals, including the material and shapes of the temples, the apparel of the officiating priests, and the objects sacrificed were determined by astrology. The Harranians manifested their awe of the planets by studying the science of their motions, and are to be numbered among the foremost astronomers of the ninth century. They magnified the significance of astrological theories and practices beyond what any previous group had attempted.
We may give one example of these devotions. Thus, for instance, to call upon Saturn it was necessary to await the favourable moment, to don black vestments, to approach the sacred place humbly, like a man sunk in sorrow, to burn a perfume composed of incense and opium mixed with grease and the urine of a goat, then, at the moment when the smoke arose, to raise the eyes to the star and say: "Lord, whose name is august, whose power is widespread, whose spirit sublime, O Lord Saturn the cold, the dry, the dark, the harmful . crafty sire who knowest all wiles, who art deceitful, sage, understanding, who causest prosperity or ruin, happy or unhappy is he whom thou makest such. I adjure thee, O primeval Father, by thy great mercies, and thy noble qualities, to do for me this and that!"
Such as the above went far beyond anything that had developed in old Mesopotamia. There it was customary to call the planets the stars of certain deities (Shamash and Sin, the Sun and Moon, were of course always divinities), though the cuneiform texts are not always consistent in connecting the same god with the same planet. But there were no religious activities directed to these gods in their character as planetary deities. The planets were divine, but they were not gods to whom prayers, supplications, vows, or offerings would be made. As there was no astrology in Mesopotamia as a distinct cult there could be no developed form of cults of the planets.
The occult commentator Idries Shah opines that certain 'black books' of the sorcerers have traces of Chaldean magical rituals or processes attributed to Chaldean origin, betrayed by their astrologic elements, including Sefer Raziel. In Judaic tradition mediaeval apocryphal works attributed to Daniel contained material descended from sections of the Enuma Anu Enlil. In the last century Moses Gaster published an old Hebrew astrological text, "The Wisdom of the Chaldeans", from the middle of the sixteenth century CE. The proheme to this states: "This is the book used by the Chaldeans (which they composed) through their meditations and speculations in divine wisdom concerning the spheres (planets), and the spirits that rule them; for in each sphere there is an angel that moves it." The text gives instructions that enable the individual to invoke the planetary angels to sundry effect, an echo of the corporate worship of Harran perhaps. There are cognate doctrines in the earlier Renaissance works of Marsilio Ficino, as Liber De Vita - 'The Book of Life' (1489), in his rituals to draw down the celestial influences.
The Sabians in Harran had practised such Talismanic magic, and out of their milieu came a magical work called the Picatrix , which was perhaps written in Harran. A close relationship exists between the prayers to the planets in the Picatrix and those of the Sabians of Harran. The entire work is founded upon a Neoplatonic perspective accommodating much material from other cultures, the ancient Mesopotamian component coming via Harran. However, Professor Garin, on the other hand, in his history of astrology in the Renaissance, suggests that the Picatrix was written in Arab Spain. In 1256 King Alfonso X of Castile had it translated into Spanish from Arabic. From this Spanish translation came the Latin version which was available to scholars in the fifteenth century. Modern editions exist in Latin and German. Whatever the actual site of its composition, it betrays extensive Sabian influence: it puts all the magic and astrology from the ancient world into a Neoplatonic and Hermetic framework.
This work first established that the practice of magic involves infusing material objects with Divine power, and explained that the best way to do this is to create magical talismans. The magician needed to mediate and control all the stellar influences. The Picatrix is the magician's textbook to acheieve that end. In his "From the Omens of Babylon" Michael Baigent relates that the Sabians in Harran created talismans to influence daily life and were concerned to establish the best arrangement of factors to facilitate this. It is this arrangement that concerns the Picatrix . As this text explains, in order to work effectively the talisman must be used in harmony with the requisite celestial events. This necessitates the magician being well versed in astrology. Similar astrological knowledge is necessary during the construction of the talismans: depending upon the use which will be made of them there are specific times - chosen from the movements of the planets - for them to be constructed and certain times for them to be used.
But the Picatrix goes further than this: it moves from the magical, the mechanical, to the transcendent - it compares the true use of the magical talisman with that of the alchemical elixir, that is, it can transmute the magician in the same way that the end of alchemical procedures transmutes the alchemist. The correctly constructed talisman can evoke the transcendent experience with which the Hermetic dialogues are concerned. The correctly constructed temple is not just a house of divine worship but a house of divine experience. But how successful they were in Harran we perhaps will never know, adds Baigent.
It is the Mandaeans, the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, who have preserved to this day the old Mesopotamian traditions in their Sefer Malwasia , the Book of the Zodiac. Like most of the longer Mandaic manuscripts, the Book of the Zodiac is a miscellany, a group of manuscripts of varying source and date, the main subjects being astrology and omens. At every new year Mandaean priests meet together and peruse its pages carefully to endeavour to pierce the veils of the near future for themselves and the community. In thus doing they carry on traditions of the country, for in ancient Babylon on the eighth and eleventh days of the New Year Festival, ceremonies to "fix the fates" of the coming year took place in a part of the Nebo-temple. In times of personal or national crisis, too, recourse was had to priest-astrologers and omen-readers, and so when during recent years Mandaean priests turned anxiously the pages of the Book of the Zodiac they were following the example of those who lived on the same soil thousands of years ago and, in days of stress and war, hoped to find in the stars a promise of peace and better times.
David Pingree, the most worthy of scholars in the field, has said that the rise of modern science in the West has effectively caused the annihilation of astrology as an intellectually important idea at the present time, though its popularity among the masses in the West is increasing and it still has a significant following among educated people in India. He adds: "These last believers better than I can foretell its future fate." Now in the rag, tag and bobtail archives of my schooldays is a history exercise book one page of which is headed "Dug, Shubad and Mr Woolley". Professor Woolley excavated their royal tombs at Ur, Ur of the Chaldees visited by the Patriarch Abraham, and the treasures of the king and queen can be seen in the British Museum. Decayed ziggurats still survive, and the temple of Ishtar-Venus has been reconstructed at the site of the capital of Assyria. Astonishingly, the only civilian project that progressed apace during recent hostilities in the region was the reconstruction of the crumbled walls of Babylon itself, alongside the terrifying weaponry of modern science.
The old gods are remembered by archaeological endeavours, but do the old gods yet remember their stewardship of mankind? Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization, and the observations of its baru priests heralded scientific discovery. Fragments of past glories yet lie around. But, incredibly, there is a project afoot in Turkey to dam the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with untold consequences for the Land of the Two Rivers. Is it time for more than the devotion of the archaeologists? Perhaps new priests need to intone the old incantations to save the region: "Spirit of the Earth, remember! Spirit of the Sky, remember!"