The Recovery Of Babylonian Astronomy by Gary D. Thompson
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Gary D. Thompson
Return To Site Contents Page
The Recovery of Babylonian Astronomy
Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger: A History and Legacy of Their Co-operative Pioneering Effort to Recover Babylonian Astronomy
by Gary D. Thompson
(5) Joseph Epping
Part 6: Joseph Epping
Joseph Epping S.J. (life dates: 1835-1894) was a German mathematician, astronomer, and assyriologist. He is acknowledged as the founder of the study of cuneiform mathematical astronomical texts.
Epping was born at Neuenkirchen, near Rheine in Westphalia (01.12.1835) and died at the Jesuit College at Exaeten Castle, Holland (22.08.1894).
Both his parents died while he was very young and his early education was due to the fostering care of relations. Epping completing the gymnasium course at Rheine and at Münster and he matriculated at the academy in Münster, where he applied himself particularly to mathematics.
Epping's Jesuit training
In 1859 Epping entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Münster. In 1863, after completing his philosophical studies, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Maria-Laach. From 1863 to 1867 he taught mathematics and astronomy there. From 1867 to 1871 he then continued with his Jesuit training, studying theology, and was ordained a priest in 1870.
Epping's time in Quito, Eucador
When Garcia Moreno, President of Ecuador, petitioned the General of the Jesuits in the early 1870's for members of the Society to form the faculty of the Polytechnicum at Quito, which he had recently founded, Epping was among a number of German Jesuits who responded to the request. In June 1872 he went with the Jesuit mission to Ecuador and was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly formed Escuela Politécnica Nacional (National Polytechnic School) (established/converted in 1869 from the former Central University of Quito). He taught mathematics there until 1876. Epping first wrote two text books of geometry (1873 and 1876) in Spanish whilst in Eucador. (See: "The Rôle of Catholic Culture in Ecuador." by Richard Pattee (The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 25, Number 4, January, 1940, Pages 434-458).) He quickly learned Spanish and wrote a Spanish-language textbook of geometry. He also took an active part in all the scientific work of the Jesuits in Quito (likely including astronomy at the observatory).
The political disturbances which followed the assassination of Moreno on August 6, 1875, made it necessary for the Jesuits to return to Europe.
Epping's passage to Quito
As yet I have not been able to identify Epping's route of travel to Quito. Obviously the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was accomplished by ship. The Cunard Line, established in 1840, was the first shipping line to use steamships for ocean travel. The 4 small steamships it commissioned in 1840-1841 each had space for only 155 passengers. The Cunard Line was also the first to introduced constant, reliable trans ocean service on a fixed departure/arrival schedule. Because of its methods of training and operation the Cunard Line also established an unmatched reputation for safety. Passenger steamships, specialising in steerage passengers were only introduced to cater for the emigration movement to the USA (beginning circa 1870). It seems certain that Epping voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean on a passenger steamship (likely directly to South America).
Epping's return to Holland
When the Jesuits were forced to leave Eucador in 1876 Epping couldn't/didn't return to Germany because of the Jesuitengezetz of 1872 and in 1876 he went to Holland (first to Blijenbeck and then to Exaeten). Epping arrived in Holland in the fall of 1876. He spent the remaining years of his life at Blijenbeck, and later at Exaeten, as professor of astronomy and mathematics. In 1881 Epping was (probably) transferred/moved to Exaeten as part of the intention of the German Province of the Jesuit Order to gather together at Exaeten most of its Jesuits involved in writing. (Writers were gathered together at Exaeten by 1880.)
Epping's leisure time was occupied by research and literary work.
Strassmaier, when in Holland 1880/1881 to work on his cuneiform syllabary (Alphabetisches Verzeichniss), remained at Blijenbeck.
Epping and his collaboration with Strassmaier
It was on Strassmaier's initiative that Epping began the study of Strassmaier's transcriptions of astronomical texts. It is popularly believed that Strassmaier sent annotated copies of his drawings of astronomical texts to Epping, when Epping was based in Quito (Ecuador), and this led to further research. However, this belief is mistaken. Strassmaier only approached Epping after Epping's return from Ecuador.
When the Jesuits were forced to leave Ecuador in 1876 Epping went to Blijenbeeck Castle, Holland (because of the continuing Jesuitengezetz in Germany). He met again with Johann Strassmaier (in 1880/1881 he (first?) met Strassmaier at Blijenbeck), a past colleague from Maria Laach, when Strassmaier came to Blijenbeeck Castle in 1880/1881 to work on his cuneiform syllabary (Alphabetisches Verzeichniss). Epping was requested by Strassmaier to assist in establishing the nature of the astronomical content of numerous late astronomical cuneiform tablets. Epping agreed to take up the study of such - which involved numerous laborious calculations. In September 1881 they described the nature of the problems they faced in a joint article in the Jesuit journal Stimmen aus Maria Laach.
The collaboration between Epping and Strassmaier continued to remain in place even after Strassmaier (permanently) returned to London in 1884.
The first major breakthrough in understanding Babylonian scientific astronomy was achieved by Epping and Strassmaier. Many of the cuneiform tablets thought by Strassmaier to contain astronomical information consisted largely of recorded numbers, month names, and technical terms unknown to him. The first decipherment of an astronomical cuneiform text was published by them in 1881. Once Strassmaier had secured the collaborative assistance of Epping he made copies of texts he deemed astronomical and provided these to Epping for advice. After only a few years Epping, through some brilliant work, came to understand much of the basic structure and terminology of late Babylonian scientific astronomy. (Another great breakthrough was Kugler's interpretation of the Venus tablets.) In his later small book, Astronomisches aus Babylon (1889) Epping was able to synchronize the Babylonian calendar with the Julian, so that we know that the last dated inscription of Cambyses is of the eleventh of March, 521 BCE. Also in Astronomisches aus Babylon Epping discussed what we now call normal-star almanacs for Seleucid Era 188, 189, and 201. Later, in 2 articles published in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und verwandte Gebiete, Epping discussed the Saros-Canon of the Babylonians, and worked out the calculations for the years 38 and 79 of the Seleucid Era.
Epping's teaching duties were reduced to allow him to concentrate on writing and research. In 1881 the key to the understanding of Babylonian mathematical astronomy was found by Epping. in British Museum cuneiform tablets which had been identified as astronomical by Strassmaier.
The first decipherment of an astronomical cuneiform text was made by Epping in collaboration with Strassmaier. The work was based partly on existing translations of non-astronomical texts made in the mid 19th-century and partly as the result of numerous lunar and planetary calculations by Epping himself. He was able to investigate Babylonian methods of predicting lunar phenomena and he correctly identified the names of the planets and zodiacal constellations as well as the meaning of various Babylonian astronomical terms.
When the decipherment proved to be successful Strassmaier excerpted, from his notebooks, astronomical texts on special sheets, often adding explanatory remarks (and transliterations?). These sheets were then sent to Epping for final investigation.. After Epping's death the process was continued for Kugler.
Epping's first paper in Holland was published in 1881 in a short joint paper with Strassmaier, and his first book in Holland was published in 1882. (J. Epping & J. N. Strassmaier (1881), "Zur Entzifferung der astronomischen Tafeln der Chaldaer." ("On the deciphering of Chaldaean astronomical tables."), in: Stimmen aus Maria Laach, Volume 21, 1881, Pages 277–292. Epping's first published book, the slim volume, Der Kreislauf im Kosmos, appeared in 1882. It was an exposition and critique of the Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis and a refutation of the pantheistic and materialistic conclusions which had been drawn from it.) This first paper on Babylonian astronomy by Epping and Strassmaier appeared in 1881 whilst Epping was still at Blijenbeck? Otto Neugebauer described the 1881 paper by Epping and Strassmaier as "a masterpiece of a systematic analysis of numerical data of unknown significance." In 1881 Epping (and Strassmaier) succeeded in understanding the concluding columns of a lunar ephemeris (BM 34033) Epping (and Strassmaier) also correctly identified the names of the planets, the names of the zodiacal constellations, month names, and the meanings of many astronomical terms. (Epping identified Guttu with Mars, Sakku with Saturn, and Te-ut with Jupiter.) The end results of studying further texts were presented in 1889 in book form in the small book Astronomisches aus Babylon (which also had Strassmaier's name). This contained the first detailed results of their efforts. It was published as supplement number 44 to the Catholic general science journal Stimmen aus Maria Laach). The title of the publication was Astronomisches aus Babylon [Astronomy from Babylon] (1889, in collaboration with Johann Strassmaier).
Epping, with the help of copies of lunar calculations, etc., made by Strassmaier,
was able to discuss the Saros-Canon of the Babylonians, and work out the
calculations for the years 38 and 79 of the Seleucid Era. See:
J. Epping and J.N. Strassmaier,
Epping as author
Epping's first published volume (approximately 100 pages), Der Kreislauf im Kosmos, appeared in 1882. The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia entry states: "It was an exposition and critique of the Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis and a refutation of the pantheistic and materialistic conclusions which had been drawn from it." Epping's most important work was begun in collaboration with the pioneering assyriologist Johann Strassmaier who, in connection with his own studies in Assyriology, had persuaded him to undertake a mathematical investigation of the Babylonian astronomical observations and tables. Circa 1881, after a brief period of a few years involving considerable effort Epping's efforts at decipherment were successful. These initial successes were published by Epping and Strassmaier in Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, Volume XXI, 1881, Pages 277-292. Eight years later he published Astronomisches aus Babylon oder das Wissen der Chaldäer über den gestirnten Himmel (1889). This small book of approximately 190 pages was important both from the standpoint of astronomy and chronology. It contained an exposition of aspects of late Babylonian astronomy, worked out from Strassmaier's copies of Ephemerides of the moon and the planets. This was later supplemented by the article "Die babylonische Berechnung des Neumondes" (Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, Volume XXXIX, 1890, Pages 225-240). He was also the author of a number of other articles in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und verwandte Gebiete.
Epping's illness and personality
Epping suffered greatly from ill-health (a severe skin disorder?) during the last years of his life. The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia entry states: "He was none the less a man of untiring activity and combined geniality and a keen sense of humor with a deep and simple piety."
Giovanni Schiaparelli and Joseph Epping
Epping died (of an illness) in 1894. It appears, however, that Schiaparelli believed that Epping died in 1891. (?) See: Scritti sulla storia della astronomia antica by Giovanni Schiaparelli (3 Volumes, 1925; Volume 1, Page 48).
Epping, Joseph. and Strassmaier, Johann. (1881). "Zur Entzifferung der astronomischen Tafeln der Chaldaer." (Stimmen aus Maria Laach, Volume 21, 1881, Pages 277–292).
Epping, Joseph. (1882). Der kreislauf im kosmos. (Egänzungshefte zu den "Stimmen aus Maria Laach" 18; Freiburg im Breisgau ; Louis, Mo. : Herder). [Note: The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia entry states: "It was an exposition and critique of the Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis and a refutation of the pantheistic and materialistic conclusions which had been drawn from it."]
Epping, Joseph. and Strassmaier, Johann. (1889). Astronomisches aus Babylon oder das Wissen der Chaldäer über den gestirnten Himmel. (Egänzungshefte zu den "Stimmen aus Maria Laach" 44; Freiburg im Breisgau). [Note: Nature, Volume 43, 19 February, 1891, Page(s) 369[-373]) Babylonian Astronomy and Chronology. Abstract: "Babylonian astronomy has been investigated during the last year successfully by the Rev. Joseph Epping and the Rev. J. N. Strassmaier, S.J., who have explained and annotated two Babylonian calendars of the years 123 B.C. and 111 B.C. in their publication "Astronomisches aus Babylon oder das Wissen der Chaldæer über den gestirnten Himmel" (Freiburg, Herder, 1889). They have succeeded in giving a satisfactory account of the Babylonian calculation of the new and full moon, and have for the first time identified by calculations the Babylonian names of the planets, and of the 12 zodiacal signs and twenty-eight normal stars which correspond to some extent to the 28 nakshatras of the Hindoos. In the following passages, translated from their book, we give the general results they have obtained, but for many interesting details we must refer the reader to the work itself."]
Epping, Joseph. (1890). "Die babylonische Berechnung des Neumondes." [("The Babylonian Calculation of the New Moon.")] (Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, Volume 29, September, Pages 225-240).
Epping, Joseph. and Strassmaier,
Presently I am not certain where Epping was buried. I presently believe it is most likely he was buried in the Churchyard at Baexem. (At least 1 Jesuit who died at Exaeten in the late 19th-century is buried there.) There is no indication that there was a cemetery at Exaeten during the period of the Jesuit occupancy. There is another possibility. The Redemptorists were located at both Roermond and Wittem. (They had seminaries at both locations.) There was a cemetery at Roermond and a cemetery at Wittem. There is a slight possibility that Epping was buried at either Roermond or Wittem.
No suitably detailed obituary for Joseph Epping exists. This means that most of the details of his life/working life are now lost. See the most detailed (but generalised) obituary for Joseph Epping by Alexander Baumgartner S.J. in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Verwandte Gebeite, Volume 9, 1894. See also the brief obituary for Epping in Jahrbuch der naturwissenschaften, Volume 10, 1895, Page 432.
Return to top of page.
This web page was last updated on: Saturday, April 6, 2013, 11.00 am.
This web page was created using Arachnophilia 4.0 and FrontPage 2003.
You can reach me here by email:
Return To Site Contents Page