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E: Late Mesopotamian Constellations

11: Babylonian world and universe

 

The so-called Babylonian "map of the world" is a rare visual depiction of the world. Rochberg (2012) states: "Its provenance is uncertain but its British Museum catalog number, and the onomastics of the scribe who copied the tablet point to the city of Borsippa.

 

(1) The Babylonian "map of the world"

BM 92687. Babylonian "map of the world" in the British Museum, London. It is the earliest extant map. The clay tablet is 12.2 cm tall. The map was composed in Babylonia and is the only Babylonian map drawn on an international scale. It includes the local geographic environment and also attempts to depict quite distant regions. It is a Neo-Babylonian (Persian Period, circa 500 BCE) copy of an original dating to the Sargonid Period, circa late 8th- or 7th century BCE. The clay tablet is a drawing and textual description of the Babylonian cosmos. It is oriented to the north-west. However, no directions are actually indicated on the map. (It is uncertain whether the accompanying cuneiform text was composed together with the map. Rochberg (2012), relying on Horowitz (1988) writes: "It has an integral, but complicated, relation to the image.") It is the only known map of the world dating from the Neo-Babylonian Period. All other maps have a purely local focus.

It depicts a "bird's-eye" view of the world (the world as seen from above) and shows a flat, round world with the city of Babylon in the centre. (Circa 500 BCE Babylon was still a flourishing city and regarded as the centre (i.e., the "hub") of the world. In the 3rd millennium BCE Nippur was considered to be the city at the centre of the world.) It is likely that the Sumerians made the city of Nippur the centre of the universe (a Sumerian Rome) from about 2300 BCE (just prior to the Ur III Period). Political supremacy was regarded as conditional on the possession of Nippur. With the rise to political supremacy of the Babylonian kings, from the early 2nd-millennium onwards, it was possible for Babylon to claim the central position and replace Nippur as the centre of the universe.

The map depicts the world as two concentric circles, with triangular areas/projections (most likely seven when complete) radiating outwards from the outer of the 2 circles. The area of the map within the inner circle represents the central continental area of the Earth's surface where Babylon and Assyria are located (= the oikumene (the known part of the inhabited world)). The continent is surrounded by the circle of salty ocean. The area/band between the two circles represents the (earthly) circumambulating cosmic (?) ocean. (The circular body of water is called the id marratu ("the Salt River").) The area beyond the outer circle consists of the triangular areas, which are the uncharted distant transoceanic regions, or distant region across or associated with the sea in Babylonian texts. (The several (originally 7?/8?) outer triangular 'regions' or 'islands' are called nagû. The term nagû has the sense of "island.") The continent on the map contains various geometric shapes representing places and topographic features. The place names include the countries of Assyria (indicated north-east of Babylon), Urartu (Armenia) (indicated north of Assyria), the land of Habban (South Yemen) (indicated south-west of Babylon) and the city of Babylon. The topographic features include a mountain, a swamp, and a channel. (The mountains are located at the top, in the north.) Babylon is represented by a large rectangle encompassing almost half the width of the central continent. Assyria is represented as a small oval. (Various nameless places are also indicated by ovals.) The Euphrates River, which originates in the mountains at the top of the map, runs through Babylon and flows into the marshes at the bottom of the map. The map schematically portrays the entire kingdom of Babylonia. The text contains the names of countries and cities but, on the reverse side, the text is largely concerned with a description of the seven unnamed outer regions ("islands") which are depicted in the form of equal triangles rising beyond the encircling earthly (cosmic?) ocean.

Rochberg (2012) relying on Horowitz (1998) writes: "Circles represent cities ... and parallel lines rivers. The largest demarcated area, shown as a rectangle on the upper central portion, is Babylon, the point of view from which the map was presumably made. Also on the map are the states of Urartu and Assyria .... The cities of Der and Susa and the territory of Bit Yakin are included. The regions, cities, and other geographic features such as the swamp and the water channel are all arranged inside a circle bounded by the waters of the ocean, designated as the "Bitter River" around the entire circling band."

There is text accompanying some parts of the map. The text (on both sides of the tablet) shows that the map attempts to depict the entire world. The emphasis on distant places in the text accompanying the map indicates that the likely purpose of the map was to locate and describe distant regions. The text of the reverse of the tablet describe the "7 islands" (8 islands?) in detail. (From the paucity of the information given it is evident that the Babylonians knew little about these "islands." Mostly, the description given is mostly about their various degrees of brightness.) From the text on the reverse of the tablet, and the inscriptions on the map itself, it can be determined that the first "island" lay in the south-east. the second "island" lay in the south-west, and so on, so that the sequence of the "islands" is somewhat analogous with the hands of a modern clock. The descriptions of the first and second outer regions are not preserved.

Other textual sources describe the earthly ocean as being enclosed by a double range of mountains, those to the east and those to the west (the "sunrise" and "sunset" range, respectively.

The map has a definite orientation - it is inclined. The orientation is such that the northwest is at the top. Thus the Babylonian system of orientation did not follow the perpendicular plane - north, west, south, and east - of our Western cardinal points. The Babylonian system of orientation was based upon the prevalent winds. The northwest wind was sent from the goddess Ishtar and was a favourable wind. 

For a detailed early discussion of the Babylonian world map see "From Cosmos Picture to the World Map." by Eckhard Unger (Imago Mundi, Volume 2, 1937, Pages 1-7).

 

(2) The levels of the Babylonian universe

The assyriologist Wilfred Lambert (1926-2011) and Wayne Horowitz have pointed out there is no direct evidence that the ancient Mesopotamians thought the visible heavens comprised a (solid) dome. The ancient Babylonians viewed the cosmos as a series of flat, superimposed layers of the same size separated by space, held together by ropes.

The vertical levels of the (generalised) Mesopotamian universe are indicated as:

Region Above the Heaven of Anu (See: The Etana Epic, Section B 30-43) (Open space implied by The Etana Epic)

Upper Heaven (High Heaven) of Anu (Highest Region of the Universe)

Middle Heaven (Intermediate High Heaven) of Igigi

Lower Heaven of the (Visible) Sky (Stars, Planets, Sun, and Moon)

The "Atmosphere" (Either not specifically listed (not considered a separate level of the universe) or identified as Part of Visible Sky (Lower Heaven); or Separate Geographical Level) 

Upper Earth (Humankind, The Level of the Earth's Surface (Dry Land and Sea))

Middle Earth, Apsu of Ea (Enki/Ea) (Cosmic Subterranean Water)

Lower Earth, Underworld of Nergal (King) and Ereškigal (Queen) (Realm of the Dead) (Lowest Region of the Universe)

The existing accounts of Mesopotamian cosmology are rather limited. Unfortunately they are also conflicting. For a detailed discussion of Mesopotamian cosmology, including the Babylonian world map, see Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography by Wayne Horowitz (1998). Babylonian cosmology distinguished 3 heavens. The lower two only were considered to be visible to humankind: the heaven of Enlil, where the main god Marduk/Bel had his particular dwelling, and the heaven of Ea, or lower sky on which the movements of the stars and planets could be observed.

 

(3) The physical structure of the heavenly regions

Cuneiform texts of the 1st millennium BCE record a tradition of 3 superimposed heavenly realms. The High Heaven belonged to the god Anu and was also the abode of 300 Igigi or great gods. The Middle Heaven belonged to the Igigi, and Marduk also had his throne there. The stars and constellations were drawn upon the surface of the Lower Heaven. (Invocations to 7 heavens and 7 earths occurring in Sumerian incantations have magical than cosmological significance and are not related to the 3 heavens and 3 earths found in other texts.) The texts recording a cosmological picture of 3 heavens also contain poetic speculation about the heavens being made of different stones of varying colours. The High Heaven of Anu was reddish, speckled with white and black; the Middle Heaven was blue like lapis lazuli; the Lower Heaven was translucent jasper, either blue or grey. This concept is not an attempt at empirical description but has a likely connection with mythological and/or other associations between stones and gods. The statement that the stars were drawn, or inscribed as 'writing,' upon the stone surface of the heavens is also poetic. This metaphor stressed the meaning of the stars as signs 'written' by the gods for people to observe and use to make forecasts about the future. In literary/mythological texts the term 'firmament' (and sometimes the term 'base of heaven') is used to denote the celestial realm of the planetary deities.

The term 'sky,' not 'firmament,' was used in the terminology of astronomical texts to refer to the place where celestial phenomena were observable. Both celestial divination and astronomical texts required a terminology to specify the positions and times for the occurrence of celestial phenomena. A variety of systems denoted celestial positions (without the use of the conception of the celestial sphere and its coordinates). A major frame of reference was the horizon. The 3 systems of importance were: (1) The 3 'paths.' The terminology of the 'paths' of Anu, Enlil, and Ea was used in early astronomical texts. The path of the god Anu had its gate in the center of the 'cattle pen,' or eastern horizon; the path of the god Ea lay to the south, and the path of the god Enlil lay to the north. The stars may have been associated with the gods Anu, Ea, and Enlil even earlier than the establishment of the path system, but were assigned to these paths according to where on the horizon their risings were observed (= according to their circles of declination, the distance north or south of the celestial equator). (2) Another system implied to denote celestial positions is implied in the device called a 'string.' The Babylonian GU text on BM 78161 arranges stars in 'strings' that lie along declination circles and therefore measure right-ascensions or time intervals. A 'string' established a relation between stars of similar right ascensions that crossed the meridian at the same time. (3) The other 'path' of importance was 'the path of the moon,' marked by 17/18 constellations, and used at least by circa 750 BCE. The 17/18 constellations in 'the path of the moon' were unequal in size and could not be used as a standard of reference for the calculation of 'distance' along 'the path of the moon.'

(Mul.Apin tablet 1 describes the Path of Sin (= the way of the Moon) which crossed the boundaries between the Paths of Anu, Enlil, and Ea. This referred to 17/18 constellations/stars marking the path of the Moon ("gods standing on the path of the moon."). It was a fixed path in the sky. (When the ecliptic started to become a primary reference line the 17/18 (depending on how you interpret the list) constellations/stars marking the path of the Moon were basically formed out of the "three stars each" (i.e., monthly calendar star) system of menologies and other constellations/stars were added.))

Later, these 17/18 constellations were reduced to 12 to form the basis for the zodiac, to mark the passage of the sun with respect to the fixed stars through the months of the year. Because the planets were observed to hold close to the path of the sun (the ecliptic), a larger group of ecliptical stars was identified for the purpose of observing the movement of the planets. "Although the twelve constellations of the zodiac gave their names to the zodiacal signs, once the signs were defined by longitude rather than constellation, they became a mathematical reference system of twelve 30-degree parts, counted from a defined starting point. In this way, no geometrical dimension was attributed to the heavens in mathematical astronomical texts, whose predictive schemes were strictly arithmetical and linear, and consequently shed no light on the question of the spatial structure of the heavens. (Rochberg, Francesca. (2005). "Mesopotamian Cosmology." In: Snell, David. (Editor). A Companion to the Ancient Near East. (Pages 316-329).)"

The stars of the zenith were also separated by right-ascension differences. Zenith stars were a group of stars whose culminations are used for keeping time, known as ziqpu-stars after the Akkadian term for culmination, ziqpu. Ziqpu-stars were stars "so chosen that one crosses the meridian before dawn, in the middle of each month, as another constellation is rising heliacally." (See: Mul.Apin by Hermann Hunger and David Pingree (1989) Page 142.) The ziqpu-stars were useful if, for whatever reason, the eastern horizon was obscured and the heliacal rising of important stars was unable to be directly observed. The most common version of the ziqpu-star list contained 25 stars. Another major frame of reference was a fixed celestial frame of 33 bright stars, so-called 'normal stars,' unevenly distributed along the ecliptic within a few degrees of the paths of the sun, moon, and planets. (10 degrees north latitude and 7.5 degrees south latitude (of the ecliptic).)  The reasons for the uneven distribution are not understood. 'Normal stars' were used as reference points in the sky to indicate the relative position of the moon and planets and a (normal) star, where the (normal) star becomes the reference point. In the astronomical texts the position of the moon or of a planet is given by stating that it is 'in front of' a Normal Star (which means to the west of the star), or that it is 'above' 'below,' or 'behind' (which means to the east of the star) the star, often in terms of the Babylonian units cubit and digits (finger(s)). In the late Babylonian period celestial phenomena were recorded in terms of the 31/33 Normal Stars (Mul.Sid) that were marked along the ecliptic path. The Babylonian astronomical terms used with the Normal Stars have not yet been absolutely clarified.

The 17/18 stars in 'the path of the Moon' were recognised at least by the 2nd-quarter of the 1st-millennium BCE. Hence circa 750 BCE the use of 17/18 'counting stars' along the path of the moon to measure the progress of the moon through the month. In the Mul.Apin series (Tablet 1, Section 4, Lines 38-39) the list of the stars in 'the path of the Moon' is defined as: "All these are the gods who stand in the path of the Moon through whose regions the Moon in the course of a Month passes, and whom he touches." The system of Normal Stars was in use at least as early a circa 600 BCE. The system of 36 stars marking the 'three ways/paths' gave way to a system involving 31/33 'normal stars' (= reference stars) being placed along the ecliptic, to serve as markers (primarily) for the paths of the planets. Actual (particular) 17/18 stars in 'the path of the Moon' were not denoted in the Mul.Apin series - those 'stars' used were basically asterisms.  The 31/33 stars used in the scheme of Normal Stars were not necessarily the same as those used previously in the Mul.Apin scheme for 'the path of the Moon.'

 

(4) The cosmic waters (Apsu)

In Sumerian and Akkadian mythology there was a cosmic realm called Apsu comprising watery depths beneath the earth. The Apsu was located directly beneath the earth's surface. The Apsu was the creation, abode, and kingdom of the god Enki. The temple of Enki in the very early Sumerian city of Eridu was called the E-Abzu 'House of the Abyss.' Enki's son, Marduk, was known as 'first-born son of the Apsu.' Because Enki was associated with wisdom, magic, and incantations, the Apsu was thought of as the fount of wisdom and source of the secret knowledge of incantations. The later temple of Marduk in erected in Babylon was explained as the replica of Apsu. As the counterpart to Enki's cosmic abode, Marduk's temple was also the home of all the gods. Enki's shrine in Eridu too was known as the 'holy mound.' The association of the Apsu with the 'holy mound' showed the cosmic importance of Ea's domain as a place for the divine assembly and where destiny was decreed. The assyriologist Wayne Horowitz writes (Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (1998, Page 342)) that the Apsu and the underworld were, in some texts, confused with each other.

 

(5) The realm of the dead

The furthest realm in the direction downward was 'the netherworld.' The underworld was the lowest region of the Mesopotamian universe. There were various ideas of the land of the dead in literary texts. In the only known text where cosmic regions were placed relative to one another within an overall scheme the location of the netherworld was specified as being below the Apsu. As such it was the lowest of all regions. In literary texts the netherworld was depicted as a land that was dark and distant, inhabited by ghosts, demons, or gods who ruled over the dead or who brought death.

 

Appendix: Babylonian Pole Star(s)?

Discussion on whether or not the Babylonians, and perhaps even the Sumerians were aware of both the Pole of the Equator and the Pole of the Ecliptic is, at times, confused. The discussion of an alleged Babylonian pole star by Robert Brown Junior in his Primitive Constellations, Volume II, 1900, Pages 176-191 is muddled, unreliable, and outdated. According to Brown Junior (Primitive Constellations, Volume II) "The Pole Star is Dugga-Kaga-gilgatil." Persons who maintain the Babylonians, and perhaps even the Sumerians were aware of both the Pole of the Equator and the Pole of the Ecliptic basically use out-dated references to try and prove it. (The attempted argument by Gavin White in his book Babylonian Star-Lore (2007) ) that the celestial pole was stressed in Babylonian star-lore is erroneous and is likely influenced by reliance on outdated references (but the author gives very few references for the content of his book).) However, there is no credible proof the Sumerians and/or Babylonians had established a Pole of the Equator and a Pole of the Ecliptic.

Update note: Gill Zukovskis (6/10/2012) has kindly brought to my attention that a bibliography for Babylonian Star-Lore has appeared at Solaria Publications website: "Reference Notes to Babylonian Star-lore, 2nd Edition, posted on April 11, 2012" by Gavin White. Amongst the references is "Page 135 §1: Identified as Pole star. Reiner 1995, pages 20-1." See below for Reiner's dated (and sole) source. 

It is puzzling that people want keep using Peter Jensen and Alfred Jeremias. Likely it is because few other persons make these kind of statements. However, Peter Jensen is outdated and Alfred Jeremias is biased and dated. Neither can be regarded as authoritative. In his very early book (1890) on Babylonian astronomy Die Kosmologie der Babylonier the pioneering Assyriologist Peter Jensen includes a diagram associating Anu with the North Pole of the Ecliptic and Bil-Enlil with the North Pole of the Equator (which is opposite to the assignments given later (1913) by Alfred Jeremias), but in his brief discussion on Page 19 Jensen also offers that the assignments could be reversed. In his Die Kosmologie der Babylonier (Pages 190-191), also Jensen indicates a knowledge of the two poles when he writes (English translation courtesy Leroy Ellenberger (Hastro-L)): "Since it is absolutely unthinkable that the sun and the moon, as also the 'god stars' Anu and Bil (that is, the two north poles!), could be related to the Earth in any shape, form or fashion, we shall break neither our or anyone else's noggins over VR 46, 15-16ab. This text presents no problem unless one is dead set to create difficulties where there [really] are none." 

The cuneiform text VR 46 is a star list dated to the Late Babylonian Period - for simplicity it can be dated circa 500 BCE. The text equates stars/constellations with gods/goddesses and it associates Anu with the `wolf star.´ However, the late `theological´ cuneiform text KAR 142 associates Enlil with the 'wolf star.' Hunger/Pingree Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (1999) have Wolf as alpha Trianguli. (The Plough constellation is α. + β Trianguli and γ Andromedae.) However, it was also associated with Sirius. It is difficult to understand how the text relates to the Pole of the Equator and the Pole of the Ecliptic being established/identified in Babylonian astronomy.

In the entry for "Enlil am Himmel" in the scholarly fascicle Reallexikon der Assyriologie Volume II, Page 389, the claim that the Babylonians identified the Pole of the Equator and the Pole of the Ecliptic is repeated: "Wo der »Standort« des Enlil am Himmel zu lokalisieren ist, läßt sich nicht mit Sicherheit entscheiden. Es kann sich um den Höhepunkt des scheinbaren Sonnenlaufes zur Zeit der Sommersonnenwende (unter der Breite von Babylon etwa 7,5° südlich vom Zenit) oder um den Pol der Ekliptik (s. Jensen Kosmologie, S. 19ff. und KB VI, I, S.347; Weidner Handb. babyl. Astron., S. 33) handeln." Reallexikon der Assyriologie Volume II is a dated publication (and the author of the entry is using dated references). Volume 2 was published circa the mid 1930s. There is no mechanism for updating RLA entries. (Weidner is actually simply repeating the claims he made in his book Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie. For example, in Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie Weidner holds that (Pages 32-34) Nibiru is the Pole of the Ecliptic (= Enlil is the Pole of the Ecliptic), and (Page 97) kakkab MU-SIR-KEŠ-DA = kakkab Niru, is the Pole of the Equator (= Anu is the Pole of the Equator).) Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie by Ernst Weidner (1914) was written from the Panbabylonism standpoint and is a veritable wonderland of Panbabylonism. (It was completed several years prior to its publication in 1914, and was in press from 1913.) In Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie Weidner declared a sophisticated Babylonian astronomy existed at least circa 2,000 BCE, misunderstood and incorrectly used 'The Hilprecht Text' (HS 245) – which he could not date (but is Middle Babylonian Period circa latter part of the 2nd-millennium BCE) - as evidence of an early sophisticated mathematical astronomy (before the Kassite Period), and asserted texts from the library of King Ashurbanipal go back to at least 4,500 BCE. (For Weidner 'The Hilprecht Text,' which he believed likely dated to the 3rd-millennium BCE, provided evidence for an equator-based system of coordinates for measuring the the locations of fixed stars.)

Recently Gavin White in his popular (and misleading) book Babylonian Star-Lore supported the identifications made by Alfred Jeremias in 1913 and identified Bil-Enlil with the Pole of the Ecliptic (Plough-star) and Anu with the Pole of the Equator. However, Gavin White, though quite knowledgeable, is not an expert on Babylonian astronomy and astral lore. Simply, since 1920 there has been a vast increase in our knowledge of how to interpret cuneiform languages. Cuneiform translations prior to 1920 may be unreliable and involve questionable interpretations. What the pioneering Assyriologists sometimes thought they were reading is simply mistaken. Even the Assyriologist (and staunch Panbabylonist) Ernst Weidner warned that interpretations and translations earlier than 1920 needed to be used with caution. 

Auguste Bouché-Leclercq in L'Astrologie grecque (1899, Page 122) writes: "On sait que le pole par excellence était pour les Chaldéens le pole de l'écliptique, lequel est dans la constellation du Dragon." Here Bouché-Leclercq briefly mentions a late source, Diodorus Siculus (1st century CE), for the Chaldeans identifying Anu with pole of the ecliptic in the constellation of the Dragon. Bouche-Leclercq is relying on what Diodorus Siculus (1st century AD) had to say on Mesopotamian astrology/astronomy in their own day. The reputation of Diodorus Siculus for accuracy and reliability is rather dubious. He basically copied his information from other sources, without up-dating it. He was a writer, not a researcher. Some of the information he gives on Mesopotamia is confused. 

Persons having a preference for uncritically using old material to make their case need to present supportive reasons for maintaining their continued adoption. In his bibliography in Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens (1993) the Assyriologist Christopher Walker comments that Weidner´s Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie is "now very out of date." In the same volume (?) (or elsewhere) the Assyriologist Francesca Rochberg cautions against reliance on Handbuch der altorientalischen Geisteskultur (2nd edition 1929) by Alfred Jeremias. On Page 134 of the 2nd edition Jeremias insisted that 'Nibiru' in all star texts of later times indicated Canopus.

A pioneering study of Mesopotamian astronomy was initiated with the 3 articles by Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet published during 1879-1880 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. By at least 1887 Sayce was identifying a Pole Star (Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religions). He held that "The Star/Constellation of Anu was the "Yoke of Heaven" = Draco, alpha Draconis. In an early Volume of Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology he stated: "The Akkadian term "Ditar-Anki" ("the Judge of Anki") and the Assyrian term "Dayen-Same" are designations of the Pole Star (North Celestial Pole). The assertion by Sayce of ""Yoke of Heaven" = Draco, alpha Draconis" may possibly be matched to the modern translation "Hitched Yoke" which Hunger/Pingree (1999) tentatively identify with α Draconis.  

In his Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie Weidner explained "man-za-az il Enlil" as the north pole of the ecliptic. (Relying on K 13 774?) Jensen went for similar in his book Die Kosmologie der Babylonier. However, he later withdrew this argument (changed his interpretation) in his book Assyrische-babylonische: Mythen und Epen (1906). This does not seem to be widely known by persons who like to quote his earlier book. (It also helps to demonstrate the lack of any real familiarity with these early authors.) 

In the early history of Assyriology the term "Nebiru (Neberu)" was sometimes interpreted as meaning the Pole Star, Pole, or Pivot (especially in the Enuma Elish). The Assyriologist Leonard King, using K 13 774, interpreted "man-za-az Neberu" as the Pole Star of the Equator in his book The Seven Tablets of Creation (1902). Anu is identified as the Pole Star of the Ecliptic. In his Babylonien und Assyrien (1920-25, 2 Volumes) the Assyriologist Bruno Meissner identifies 'Nibiru' with the celestial north pole (but likely is simply following Weidner). According to the Dutch assyriologist Francisco Bohl, the station of Nebiru was the point of entry of Jupiter into the path of Anu observed during the night of the vernal equinox, the Babylonian New Year. (According to Astrolabe KAV 218, during this period, the equinox occurred when the sun entered the constellation Mul Aš-Gan (= Iku) which was the "Field" constellation (= Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta Pegasus + Andromedae). The "Field" was enclosed by the rivers of paradise (the constellation of Pisces).)

The concept of nēberu changed over time. Nēberu, written MULNe2-bi-ru (the term is usually transliterated nebiru, neberu, or nibiru.), can mean Jupiter in culmination or in other specific positions, but can also denote the North Star (α Ursa Minor) and Canopus (α Carina), and even the constellation Perseus or a meteor. (It is presently rather usual to explain that the Akkadian name/term Nebiru is the planet Jupiter and the astral name of Marduk.) It is clear that the Mesopotamians used the term 'Nebiru' to mark an astronomical event; a "crossing" at some point in the sky of Jupiter, Mercury, and a star. Nēbiru perhaps defines a turning point (kunsaggû) of the sky. "Station" appears to refer to position in the sky. (One text has "If Mercury crosses the sky and stops it is Nebiru.")

The concept/astronomical meaning of nēberu in the Enuma Elish (2nd millennium BCE) is not clear. It has been stated that the early concept of nēberu as a star in the centre of the sky (i.e., fixed) is not reconcilable with the later (1st millennium BCE) conception of Marduk as a planet (or planets) (i.e., mobile). In the Enuma Elish the pole star idea is seen, by some scholars, as imminent in nēberu. In the circular astrolabes Marduk's own star is deemed to be in the centre of the inner circle (i.e., the centre of the Stars/Path of Enlil; the centre of the sky). In the Enuma Elish priority is given to the organisation of the stars. In the Enuma Elish the god Marduk is stated to have (in order): (1) organised the (stars into) constellations, (2) organised the calendar, (3) fixed the stand of nēberu, and (4) gave the moon and sun orders about their motion. The organisation of the calendar was achieved by 3 constellations of stars being established for each of the 12 months, to fix the days of the year. They are simply placed in their cosmic position as constellations in the 3 Ways/Paths. Marduk does not create the stars - they are the 'great gods.' In her book, Mesopotamian Astrology (1995, page 117), Ull Kock-Westenholz states the astronomical meaning of nēberu (both in the Enuma Elish and elsewhere) is not clear.

Among modern scholars who, based on the Enuma Elish, identify nēberu with the pole-star are B. Landsberger and J. Wilson ("The Fifth Tablet of Enuma Elish." JNES, Volume 20, 1961, page 173). As well as holding that Marduk fixing the stand of nēberu refers to the pole-star some scholars also hold that the statement in Tablet V:9-11 where Marduk placed the zenith in the belly of Tiamat is also a reference to the pole-star. 

Donald Mackenzie (Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915) and The Migration of Symbols (1926)) has the Babylonians calling the pole star Ilu Sar ("the god Sar (Star)" or Anshar ("Star of the Height" or "Star of the most High") but cites no reference(s). According to James Bonwick, Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought (1878), the Chaldean pole-star was Cagagilgate.

Felix Gössmann Planetarium Babylonicum oder die sumerisch-babylonischen Stern-Namen (1950) comments that 'nibiru' appears to be used for various stars or regions of sky including: (1) north celestial pole or pole star (= Alcor?), (2) Canopus, near the Pisces-Aries region of the zodiac, and (3) Jupiter. (Though Nibiru could be Jupiter (the texts that place Marduk in "in the center of heaven" support the identification of Jupiter, which is located in the center of the line of planets) it was once identified with Mercury.) Some modern authors still translate 'Neberu' as 'Pole Star.' Recent examples are the Assyriologist Wayne Horowitz (Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (1998)) who is followed by the British Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley (translating and interpreting the Enuma Elish) and the British cuneiform philologist and mathematician Eleanor Robson (who is likely simply following Dalley). The particular text is Astrolabe B, 'Rising Stars' list, Month 12 (Adar) for the Path of Anu (Column 2, Lines 29-32). The term 'Neberu' which has the determinative dinger = god (= Marduk) - preceded by the determinative MUL = star - is translated as 'Pole Star' (MUL BI dingir Né-bé-ru dingir AMAR.UD). There is nothing in the text that compels the identification as 'Pole Star.' The translation simply is "This star is Nibiru-Marduk." The full passage translates: "The red star which stands in the south after the gods of the night [the stars] have been finished, dividing the the sky in half, this star is Nibiru-Marduk." (Wayne Horowitz translates: "The red star, which stands at the rising of the south-wind after the gods of the night have finished their duties and divides the heavens, this star is Neberu, Marduk.") (The 'red star' suggests an identification with Mars - but this would be incorrect. Comparing Astrolabe B, Column 2, Lines 29-32 with BM 86378 (Mul.Apin, Tablet 1), Column 1, Lines 36-38 the interpretation Jupiter is valid. Mul.Apin, Tablet 1 set out: "When the stars of Enlil have disappeared, the great, faint star [Jupiter remaining faintly visible in the morning when the other stars have disappeared], which bisects the heavens and stands, is mul dinger Marduk-Niribu, mul SAG.ME.GAR; he (the god) changes his position and wanders over the heavens.") However, the 'Pole Star' (of the equator) identification is likely done because in the cuneiform texts Nibiru is not only described as mobile but is also described as a 'fixed' star. It needs to be kept in mind the Babylonians had no concept of a celestial equator.

In her book Astral Magic in Babylonia (1995) Erica Reiner, discussing HUL.BA.ZI.ZI ('Begone, Evil') a collection of incantations, writes (pages 20-21): "A magic effect is sought by praying to a deity called First-born of Emah: O First-born of Emah, First-born of Emah, you are the eldest son of Enlil. You are descended from Ekur and you stand in the middle of the sky with the Wagon. The stellar nature of this divine being addressed is evident from the middle line, where he is described as standing in the middle of the sky, with the Wagon Star. As for the astronomical identitiy of the "first-born of Emah," such a star, described as "first-born son of Anu," is listed in an astronomical compendium from about 1000 B.C. [MUL.APIN] as the star that stands in the "rope" of the Wagon, and has been identified with the Pole Star. A prayer to it is prescribed in the hemerology for the month of Ulūlu (month VI)." Reiner is reliant on studies by Carl Bezold and Franz Kugler dating almost 100 years earlier. The star that stands in the rope of the Wagon of Heaven was identified as the Pole Star by the pioneering assyriologists Carl Bezold (Zenit- und Aequartorialgestirne am babylonischen Fixsternhimmel (1913, page 43) and Franz Kugler (Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel. Ergänzungen zum ersten und zweiten Buch. I. Teil. (1913, page 57)) as β Ursa Minor (in Ursa Minor).

Both Reiner/Pingree (Babylonian Planetary Omens 2 (1981)) and Hunger/Pingree (Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (1999)) simply render the Month 12 for the Path of Anu in Astrolabe B (Column 2, Lines 29-32) as Neberu. In the composite so-called "Pinches Astrolabe" (which combines information from 4 astrolabe tablets and 2 star-lists) Month 12 for the Path of Anu has Fox (sometimes translated as Jackal), which is circumpolar and usually identified as a star (associated with the Great Bear constellation). The Fox (Sumerian MUL.KA.A or MUL.KA5.A , Akkadian sēlebu) has been variously identified. Felix Gössmann (1950) has 80-86 [= 80] Ursa Major (?) (= Alkor), and in a circular astrolabe it appears in the Path of Enlil; whilst other have ε (?) Ursa Major, or the magnitude 4.0 star Alkor(Alcor) ?, a star on the tail of the Great Bear (Ursa Major); or the constellation Canis Minor. (The modern Vulpecula, the Fox, is a small constellation with no bright star.) The 'Fox Star' is one of the 7 names of Mars. In the Star-list K 250 the 'Fox Star' is a name for Mars. The celestial movements of the 'Fox Star' represent Erra (= Irra).

It is worth noting that the British Assyriologist Stephen Langdon, in his detailed discussion of the astrolabes (The Babylonian Epic of Creation (1923, Pages 154-156)) does not make - or even suggest - a pole star identification for various descriptors applied to Marduk.

Some translate the term 'Nusku' as the Pole of the Equator. In her article "The Shape of  the Cosmos According to Cuneiform Sources." (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Volume 7, 1997, Pages 189-198) Margaret Huxley brings together evidence from a range of sources and argues that in ancient Mesopotamia the sky was thought to be a rotating sphere with a polar axis.

I do not know of any cuneiform text that explicitly mentions/establishes/describes a Pole Star (equator or ecliptic) in Babylonian astronomy. (The poorly preserved Neo-Assyrian literary fragment K 7067 has opening lines describing the great gods apparently arranging the stars in the sky. Two of the opening lines (both damaged) are usually translated: "In the station, the pole [..." and "[...] the pole [..." but I am presently not aware of the transcriptions.) A modern case, using principally Astrolabe B has been made by Wayne Horowitz. (Astrolabe B is a combination of menology and star lists compiled from older sources.) The god Marduk's pivotal position was at the centre of Astrolabe B. This places Marduk at the centre of the sky (= Marduk being associated with the pole-star of the equator). It was connected with Marduk's role in controlling/regulating the movement of the stars. The star of Marduk is stated/identified in Astrolabe B as the last month of the year (Adar) or the first month of the new year (Nisan). This is clearly associated with Marduk's role to control/regulate the movement of the stars. (The star of Marduk marked the passage from the old year to the new year.) Hence Wayne Horowitz translating text of Astrolabe B as: "The red star, which stands at the rising of the south-wind after the gods of the night have finished their duties and divides the heavens, this star is the pole star [Neberu], Marduk." Referring to the (now completed) Chicago Assyrian Dictionary should help to clarify matters. It would be helpful for proponents to cite: (1) catalogue number of relevant cuneiform text, (2) relevant transcription, (3) translation, (4) possible date, and (5) reference for such.

The Menology KAV 218 A and Astrolabe KAV 218 C (2 sections of Astrolabe B = KAV 218) list the Iku-star (GÁN (Ikû) = α, β, γ Pegasi and α Andromedae) of (the month) Nisannu as the new year's star. The heliacal rising of the Iku-star would have occurred on the eastern horizon just before dawn on Nisannu 4. However, the akitu festival, which included a celebration of the turning of the New Year, actually began on Nisannu 1.

Copyright © 2006-2014 by Gary D. Thompson

 


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