Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations


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E: Late Mesopotamian Constellations

10: Late Babylonian constellation depiction

"Abstract: Sumerian and Akkadian names of stars and constellations occur in cuneiform texts for over 2,000 years, from the third millennium BC down to the death of cuneiform in the early first millennium AD, but no fully comprehensive list was ever compiled in antiquity. Lists of stars and constellations are available in both the lexical tradition and astronomical-astrological tradition of the cuneiform scribes. The longest list in the former is that in the series Urra = hubullu, in the latter, those in Mul-Apin. Introduction: Cuneiform texts bearing names of stars and constellations are available from the early second millennium BC down to the time of the last available cuneiform tablets of the first-century AD ..., but there is no such thing as an authoritative [standardised] Mesopotamian star list, that is, a standard list of all the stars, or the main stars, known to a set of Ancient Mesopotamians in any one time or place. ... [W]hen speaking of Mesopotamian star lists, what is generally meant is a collection of names of constellations, with the occasional name of a fixed star or planet included. Star lists are found in two very different parts of the cuneiform corpus. First are dictionary lists in the lexical tradition that is best known from the canonical Sumerian-Akkadian series Urra = hubulla ... And the second, sets of star names in the astronomical/astrological tradition. For example, the stars of the Paths of Anu, Enlil, and Ea - the traditional divisions of the Mesopotamian sky. The Lexical Tradition: The canonical version of series Urra = hubulla, dating to ca. 1000 BC, was comprised of 24 tablets with a total of more than 10,000 entries when complete. Included in Tablet 22 of the series was list of star names with a Sumerian name on the left translated by its Akkadian name equivalent on the right. As is typical of the series as a whole, the list begins with the standard sign for stars, that is, the star determinative, Sumerian mul = Akkadian kakkabu, the latter being cognate to terms for stars in the other Semitic languages." (Horowitz, Wayne. (2014). "Mesopotamian Star Lists." In: Ruggles, Clive. (Editor). Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy. (Pages 1829-1833).)

The exact configuration and boundaries of Mesopotamian constellations are not known.

Surviving sketches/depictions and descriptions of the constellations are rare.

During the Seleucid Era (last few centuries BCE) in Uruk a set of 12 clay tablets showing representations of the 12 zodiacal signs for astrology were made. Unfortunately only examples of 3 of them survive: (1) Taurus with Pleiades (VAT 7851 (= VAN 786 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)), (2) Leo with Corvus standing on Hydra (VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), and (3) Virgo with her ear of corn (VAT 6448 = AO 6448).

VAT 7847, Obverse.

 A Seleucid era astrological tablet. Two astrological texts from Uruk, VAT 7847 and Louvre Museum's AO 6448, have long been recognized as two pieces of one large tablet (zodiac compilation tablet). The tablet deals with the division of Zodiac into subzodiacs, and the connection of these subzodiacs to different cities/towns, temples plants, trees and stones. (In tabular form, for each constellation of the zodiac, a tradition of the connection of each constellation of the zodiac with a certain city, temple name, and the designations for wood and stones are dealt with.) AO6448 has drawings of the constellations Corvus and Virgo with the planet Mercury in attendance.

VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) contains drawings with names of stars/constellations.  VAT 7847, Obverse. Constellation depiction on a Seleucid astrological tablet (from 2nd-century BCE Uruk). The depiction shows a lion standing on the back of a winged serpent. The two constellations depicted are Hydra and Leo. (They are shown "from the other side" - facing left instead of right.) The eight-pointed star to the left is captioned dingirSAG.ME.GAR (Jupiter). (However, some persons have mistakenly identified the bright star as Procyon.)

VAT 7847 is a part of a larger tablet that had broken into two parts. The join for VAT 7847 appeared in Textes cunéiformes du Louvre by François Thureau-Dangin, Tome XII (Tablettes d'Uruk, à l'usage des prêtres du temple d'Anu au temps des Séleucides), 1922, catalogued as AO 6448. VAT 7847 is in the State Museum, Berlin, and AO 6448 is in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Both sides show in their upper part drawings of labelled drawings of constellations. As a completed tablet VAT 7847 and AO 6448 form an astrological calendar. The text contains omens and hemerological predictions. The tablet deals with the Babylonian zodiac and depicts 12 divisions corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac and is concerned with lunar eclipses near zodiacal constellations. The tablet is dated to the Hellenistic period circa 200 BCE by one source and circa 323-363 by Klaus Wagensonner, University of Oxford, and originates from Uruk (modern Warka).

Drawing of VAT 7847, Obverse.

(The constellations Hydra and Leo as depicted on an astrological tablet  of the Seleucid era. Dated to the time of Antiochus I Soter circa 281-261 BCE. The 8-pointed 'star' on the left is named dingirSAG.ME.GAR (= Jupiter). The Lion was originally drawn further back along Hydra, but not all the earlier lines were completely erased before the clay dried. The tablet was discussed in detail by Nicholas Postgate. (See: Postgate, Nicholas. 1997. "Mesopotamian Petrology: Stages in the Classification of the Material World." Cambridge Archaelogical Journal, Volume 7, Number 2, Pages 205–224.)

The Mul.Apin series contains the earliest (surviving) full description of the Mesopotamian constellation. Its detailed constellation material dates to the late 2nd-millennium BCE.

The identification of the stars forming the Mesopotamian scheme of constellations is fairly certain for the zodiacal belt but becomes increasingly uncertain the further we move to the north or south of such. There are 5 tablets (comprising 3 types of sources) which aid our understanding, both descriptive and graphic, of how the Babylonians visualised the constellations.

Also, dot and line drawings of some of the constellations are preserved on the circular Neo-Assyrian planisphere K.8538 (dating perhaps to 650 BCE). Constellation figures are identifiable in 6 of the 8 sectors (i.e., the 6 undamaged sectors). Following Johannes Koch the stars and constellations shown are summarily identified as: (1) Libra, (2) [not identified], (3) Sirius (Arrow), (4) Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), (5) [not identified], (6) the Pleiades, (7) Gemini, (8) Hydra + Corvus + Virgo. (See Page 11-9 for a more detailed discussion.) This circular star map divides the night sky into 8 (equal) 45-degree sectors and illustrates the most prominent constellations. (The Pegasus-square (mul Aš-iku) formed by 4 bright stars is pictured in K 8538 as a triangle.) K 8538 is the sole source providing an iconographic representation of constellations.

Two tablets are descriptive sources. Several of the constellations, including the Twins (mul.mas.tab.ba.gal.gal.la), Perseus (mul.su.gi), Cancer (mul.al.lu5), and Ursa Major (mul.mar.gid.da), are described star by star in an incomplete text (VAT 9428, a Neo-Assyrian text) from Assur. The complete text originally contained a systematic star by star description of the Babylonian constellations. Effectively the text describes how to draw the constellations. (VAT 9428 was first discussed by the Assyriologist Ernst Weidner in "Eine Beschreibung des Sternenhimmels aus Assur." (AfO, Band 4, 1927, Pages 73-85).) Paul-Alain Beaulieu recently (American Oriental Society, 209th Meeting, 1999) discussed two similar genre texts, both unpublished and both fragmentary, in the Yale Babylonian Collection. The larger text, dated to the year 97 of the Seleucid period, is MLC 1866, and the smaller fragment, undated but believed to also be from the Hellenistic period, is YBC 7831.

A recently identified Babylonian text (the GU text on BM 78161) describing lines of stars in the sky (perhaps meridian or azimuth related) describes that the Arrow star (Sirius) was visualised as being fired by a human-figure, having an elbow and foot, from the Bow at Orion ("the faithful shepherd of Anu"). (BM 78161 dates between the seventh and fifth centuries BCE.) The tablet, though acquired by the British Museum in the late 19th-century, was only identified as being a star-list circa 1985 during preparation for the 8th volume of the British Museum's Catalogue of Babylonian Tablets. (In their book, Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (1999), Hermann Hunger and David Pingree explain that the Babylonian GU text arranges stars in so-called "strings" that lie along declination circles and therefore measure right-ascensions or time intervals, and the GU text also employs the stars of the zenith (ziqpu stars), which are also separated by given differences in right-ascension.) (The Babylonians circa 1000 BCE used a physical instrument known as a ziqpu (a type of pole). It is likely the ziqpu-stars obtained their name from this instrument. Both would entail the use of a vertical line to assist in making other observations. Ziqpu-stars are the means by which an observer observes the rising (and setting) of other stars.)

Note: The Babylonians used the ziqpu or pole (and astronomical instrument, basically a gnomon/polus), an upright split (separated) stick (stile), to measure shadow-lengths. Originally this pole was used as a crude transit instrument to make out the north-south orientation of buildings, later to secure an approximate idea of the altitude of stars. (See: Origins of Astrology by Jack Lindsay (1971, Page 69). See also the Babylonian astronomical/astrological compendium Mul.Apin.) No illustrations or examples of the Babylonian ziqpu have come down to us. However, we have examples of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese gnomons.

Three tablets are graphic sources. One graphic representation is a fragmentary Assyrian "planisphere" (K 8538) recovered from the library of King Assurbanipal in Nineveh. Remaining on it are schematic drawings of six stars and constellations (i.e., the constellations depicted in each sector are drawn as dots (representing stars) connected by lines). Two astrological tablets from 2nd-century BCE Uruk are our only source of actual constellation drawings. (One of these tablets is in two fragments and is formed from VAT 7847 and AO 6448.) One of the two tablets (VAT 7851) shows the Pleiades, Moon and Taurus. The other of the two tablets (VAT 7847) (obverse side) shows Jupiter, Hydra and Leo. (Both Hydra and Leo are facing an 8-pointed star, Marduk (= Jupiter).) The constellation depiction on AO 6448 (forming the reverse side of the completed VAT 7847 + AO 6448 tablet (= TCL 6, 12)) shows Mercury (the eight-pointed star captioned dingirGUD.UD), Virgo and Corvus (the Raven) (standing on the tail of Hydra). The name AB.SIN engraved on the drawing (above the star to the left) denotes either the zodiacal sign Virgo or the brightest star Spica in the constellation Virgo.

Drawings of zodiacal constellations are also found on many seal impressions from Hellenistic Uruk.

A Ziqpu-Star Planisphere from Sippar, dated to the 1st millennium BCE, largely preserves on the outer ring of its obverse side both star-names and dots (representing the stars comprising the ziqpu-star constellations.). See: "Tablets From the Sippar Library IX. A Ziqpu-Star Planisphere." by Horowitz and Al-Rawi (Iraq, Volume LXIII, 2001).

Additionally, the Bull of Heaven (Taurus) is drawn on an esoteric tablet dated to the Seleucid era. See: Textes cunéiformes du Louvre by François Thureau-Dangin, Tome VI (Tablettes d'Uruk, à l'usage des prêtres du temple d'Anu au temps des Séleucides), (Plate 91), 1922. (The plate is reproduced in Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings by Hermann Hunger (1992), Page 40.)

Bull of Heaven (Taurus) drawn on an esoteric tablet (= diagram of Kettledrum Ritual) dated to the Seleucid era (from Tablettes d'Uruk by François Thureau-Dangin (1922)). The kettledrum was made of bronze and covered with the skin of a bull. The kettledrum ritual is mentioned in texts dating to the Neo-Assyrian period (8th – 7th centuries BCE) and the Hellenistic period but it may be much older. The drum was used by temple exorcists in religious ceremonies as a means of averting the anger of the gods/goddesses.

"[W]e can test the extent to which some Babylonian constellations taken over by the Greeks retained their original shapes by comparing the data in the GU text with those in Ptolemy's star catalogue (Almagest VII-VIII)" (Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia by Hermann Hunger and David Pingree (1999, Page 97). (The GU text (BM 78161) containing star names, likely recovered from Babylon or Sippar and dating between the 7th- and 5th-century BCE, is divided into 20 sections by the Sumerian word GU (meaning "string") which concludes each section of text (written on both obverse and reverse sides of the tablet).) The Mesopotamian arrangement of constellations has survived to the present day because it became the basis of a numerical reference scheme - the ecliptic.

Appendix 1: Miscellaneous

1. BM 91000 (from the time of Nabu-apal-iddina). The sun god and his symbols, and also the symbols of the moon, sun, and Venus.

2. BM 91899. Amulet with divine symbols.

Appendix 2: The Origin and Date of the Constellation Taurus

Dates in the 3rd millennium BCE are commonly given for the existence of constellation Taurus. However, this is based on an interpretation of the bull in early literary epics and iconography. The name of the "Bull of Heaven" (mul gu4.an.na) in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven has the same name as the bull constellation Taurus. Bulls appear on cylinder seal iconography (Sumerian and Akkadian Period 3200-2000 BCE), and Babylonian boundary-stone (kudurru) iconography (Cassite Period 1530-1160 BCE). However, it not established that constellations or constellation symbols are being depicted. It is established that - at least in the case of kudurru -  god/goddess symbols are depicted. 'Prayer to the gods of the night' texts (Old Babylonian Period 1830-1530 BCE) list a bison, not a bull. It is unlikely that bison = bull. (Bison lived in the hilly flanks of the Mesopotamian low-land.) The Star-List from Boghazköy (VAT 7445) lists 2 asterisms forming part of the later constellation Taurus. The tablet VAT 7445 (published in KUB, Volume 4, Number 47) recovered from Boghazköy (the capital of the Hittite empire) in the early 19th-century, preserves a Hittite prayer/haruspicy ritual (based on the Old Babylonian Period Prayer to the Gods of the Night) that enumerates 17 stars/constellations (belonging to the path of Ea). VAT 7445 is dated to circa 1300/1200 BCE. It is possible that the Boghazköy  prayer/haruspicy ritual and star-list was earlier than the "astrolabe texts." Two constellations/asterisms listed include (1) MUL.MUL ["The Stars" = The Pleiades.] and (2) is le-e [The Jaws of the Bull.]. It could be argued that Taurus is indicated as existing through these asterism names, however, the assurance is not certain. The constellation GU4.AN.NA (the Bull) first appears in entirety in Astrolabe B (at the end of the Kassite Period circa 1100 BCE), and the omen series Enūma Anu Enlil (consolidated circa 1100 BCE). Also, the star lists forming the Mul.Apin series (dated on statistical grounds by Brad Schaefer to circa late 2nd millennium BCE).

Appendix 3: Babylonian Catasterisms

"Line 17 [Old Babylonian Prayer to the Gods of the Night]: Qaštum, "bow." Here qaštum refers to the Bow constellation, probably part of Canis Major .... This constellation features prominently in Enūma eliš as Marduk's prized weapon, which is installed in the sky and adopted by Anu as his own daughter (VI 82–91). That passage is a rare example of catasterism in Mesopotamian literature. (See also Astrolabe B B1:14–16 [KAV 218] and MUL.APIN I ii 7.) (Cooley, Jeffrey. (2011). "An OB Prayer to the Gods of the Night." In: Lenzi, Alan. (Editor). Reading Akkadian Prayers and Hymns. (Page 77).)" In detail: The goddess Istar, daughter of Anu, was identified with the heavenly Bow as a result of the declaration by Anu in Tablet VI of Enuma Elis (The Creation). In Enuma Elis, Marduk fashions a bow, designates it as his weapon (IV 35), and defeats Tiamat with it (IV, 101); later Anu lifts it up, kisses it, calls it "my daughter (= Istar of Elam)," and fixes it as a constellation in the sky (VI 82-92). The constellation of the "Bow Star," adopted by Anu as his daughter, is Canis Minor (the Bow likely comprised: δ, ε, σ, ω Canis Minor and κ Puppis). In Astrolabe B (KAV 218 B i 14–16), the Bow-star is identified as Istar of Elam and called the daughter of Anu. Istar represents the Bow Star; specifically qastu (Akkadian), a star in the constellation Canis Minor).

Appendix 4: The GU Text (BM 78161)

Tablet BM 78161 (dated circa between 7th and 5th centuries BCE) lists (Ziqpu) stars grouped in over 20 strings. Each "string" (gu) contains 2 to 4 stars arranged along a declination circle.

The recently identified (circa 1980s?) Babylonian GU Text is preserved on tablet BM 78161 and is dated to the period between the 7th and the 5th centuries BCE (700/500 BCE). Its precise provenance was not recorded at time of excavation it was likely recovered in the area of Babylon or Sippar. The Babylonian GU text (1) arranges stars in 'strings' that lie along declination circles and thus measure right-ascensions or time intervals, and also (2) employs the stars of the zenith, which are also separated by given right-ascensional differences. BM 78161 is a collection of star names (a star catalogue), organized in. (at least) 20 sections, each section ending with the word GU, a string. Except for the first and last sections the GU Text contains (a) either the name of a ziqpu star or a time interval; (b) one or more star names; and (c) the word GU. The GU Text lists/arranges lines of stars in the sky in so-called "strings" that are perhaps meridian or azimuth related. In their book, Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (1999), Hermann Hunger and David Pingree explain the Babylonian GU text arranges stars in so-called "strings" that lie along declination circles and therefore measure right-ascensions or time intervals, and the GU text also employs the stars of the zenith (ziqpu stars), which are also separated by given differences in right-ascension. The so-called Dalbanna-Text/DAL.BA.AN.NA Text  (a Mesopotamian star-list), combines several stars into a "string." Fragment exemplars, known for almost 100 years, (mostly?) form part of the Kouyunjik collection in the British Museum. (One exemplar is from Babylon.) The so-called Dalbanna-Text also mentions "straight, taut strings" (GU SI-SA DUB-BA), also "slack strings." Christopher Walker has remarked the "star-list is distinct in character from the other known texts of this genre." Unfortunately the meaning of terms used in the text are difficult to understand.

Appendix 5: Ziqpu-stars

Ziqpu-stars are the means by which an observer observes the rising (and setting) of other stars. There are approximately 30 ziqpu-stars. Ziqpu-stars are stars which culminated near the meridian (centre/middle of the sky) when viewed from Assyria or Babylonia. They were used to measure the intervals between these culminations (i.e., ziqpu intervals) as an aid to time-keeping and maintaining the calendar. Ziqpu-stars were a system of 'secondary' stars which culminated (crossed the meridian) at the same time as the more fundamental stars stars (stars by whose position time and calendar were calculated) were heliacally rising on the eastern horizon. The ziqpu-stars aided a more reliable measure of time when the horizon was obscured by atmospheric turbulence or dust. 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. The Babylonians circa 1000 BCE used a physical instrument known as a ziqpu (a type of pole). It is likely the ziqpu-stars obtained their name from this instrument. Both would entail the use of a vertical line to assist in making other observations.

Appendix 6: Difficulty of constellation identification

As an example of the difficulty of constellation identification: (1) Franz Kugler (SSB. Ergän. II. Teil (1914)) identifies (Northern Path of Enlil) ĸ. AN-KU-A-MEŠ (an-dur-a-meš) šú-ut E-kur -- Ophiuchus - Southern portion of Ophiuchus is named ĸ. il Za-mà-mà; (2) In the 10-Star Text AO 6769 (Old Babylonian period circa 1900 BCE) it has been tentatively suggested the Bison = Capricorn (or Ophiuchus / Serpens?) but see Hunger/Pingree, Astral Sciences, 1999, Pages 108-109; (3) Hunger/Pingree (Mul.Apin (1989) identify Zababa (Central Path of Anu) with parts of Ophiuchus. It is indicated that in the developing Babylonian uranography constellations came and went before the scheme eventually became fixed. However, there is no evidence of a canonical list of Mesopotamian constellations.

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Copyright © 2001-2018 by Gary D. Thompson


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