Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

The illustrations on this page have been compiled from a variety of sources. They are reproduced in accord with 'fair use' provisions unless copyright is otherwise noted. If advised that copyright has been infringed I will immediately remove the particular illustration(s).

Return To Section Index Page

K: Pre-Islamic Arab Constellations

21: Arabic anwā' tradition

Section of early 13th-century (Syro-Egyptian) astrolabe by Abd al-Karim al-Misri with pictorial representations of  the 28 lunar mansions and 12 signs of the zodiac. Astrolabes were important for predicting star positions. In pre-Islamic times, the lunar mansions were introduced from Hindu astronomy and amalgamated with the Anw' calendar system. Under the amalgamation, many names of prominent Anw' stars were attached to the lunar mansions.

The Anwa' was the astronomical system that was used by the pre-Islamic Bedouin Arabs. The term anwā' is associated with the rains. The stellar nomenclature of the pre-Islamic Bedouin Arabs was far richer than that of the classical Greeks.

The pre-Islamic anwā' tradition of the Arabian Peninsula is concerned with a system of marking divisions of the year. The anwā' stars/constellations, a group of twenty-eight individual stars and small constellations along the ecliptic, constituted a calendar and meteorological system. Considerable, but fragmentary, data exists to enable reconstruction of some of the basic star calendars of the Arabian Peninsula. Before their contact with Greek-based astronomy through Arab-Islamic civilisation the pre-Islamic Arabs has their own folk astronomy. They knew the fixed stars and asterisms and used a number of fixed stars and asterisms, the so-called  anwā', for a variety of purposes. After the introduction of Islam in the 7th-century CE a substantial amount of poetry, proverbs, legends, and folk science was written down in Arabic texts. Some attention was focused on the star lore of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Bedouins and farmers of the Arabian Peninsula. Much Bedouin star-lore has been preserved in proverbs. Specifically, from the 9th-century onwards Arabic-Islamic lexicographers and philologists collected old Arabic folk astronomy in books called Kutub al-anwā' (Books of the anwā') (Note: Most modern scholars simply write anwa'). From these books more than 300 old Arabic names for stars and asterisms (in old Arabic and early Arabic-Islamic poetry) have been recovered. Some of these star names  are likely inherited from Babylonian astral lore.

Some present-day individuals still retain knowledge of traditional Arabic star lore. Yemeni farmers till use a calendar based on the conjunction of the new (crescent) moon and the Pleiades. (This particular calendar is also appears in the recorded pre-Islamic lore.) In the Gulf region the Canopus calendar, generally based on arbitrary 10-day units from the late summer heliacal rising of Canopus, has long been a traditional calendrical system for Bedouins and sailors.

Daniel Varisco ("Stars and Texts in Arabia." (Essays from Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News, Number 16, June Solstice, 1995)) states: "Individual stars and asterisms were used for defining the directions of the winds, timing of rain [availability of water], planting crops, pastoral activities [extent of pasture], pearling, and fishing seasons, and the like. In addition, some savants cited the location of stars as indicators of the approximate location of Mecca ...." The seasonal rains also produced unexpected water pools and pasture for sheep, goats, and camels.

Before the advent of Islam, the Arabs possessed no scientific astronomy. However, they did have a rich star lore. The pre-Islamic groups of Bedouin Arabs (i.e., the nomadic desert dwelling tribes of the Arabian Peninsula) had their own (non-standardised) individual names for the various bright stars. Indeed a rich tradition of popular star lore and seasonal lore originated on the Arabian Peninsula long before the introduction of Islam. (Paul Kunitzsch believes that the main body (younger group) of pre-Islamic Arabic star/asterism names were probably formed in the period 500-700 CE.) Pastoral tribesmen and farmers noted the risings and settings of certain stars to mark the rain periods, important winds, and seasonal events in nature. Also, they commonly regarded single stars as representing animals or people. Generally, bright stars from 1st to 3rd magnitude have had proper names in the Arabic world. The year was defined by basic seasonal change over the course of  12 months. Telling time was seasonally adapted to local contexts. An early Islamic source for the anwa' traditions, the early Islamic scholar Ibn Qutayba, states that the Bedouin Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula divided up the year from what they knew locally about the time of weather changes (hot and cold weather) and pastoral changes (appearance and disappearance of plants and pasture).

The early Bedouin asterisms greatly affected later Islamicate star names and eventually "modern" Western star names. Early Islamic astronomy was a mixture of pre-Islamic Arab star lore, and Indian, and Persian, and later Greek astronomy.

The anwa' stars (i.e., stars which marked the beginning of periods of time called anwa') are a pre-Islamic system of season- and weather-prediction by using selected prominent stars or groupings of stars. (The most important type of literature on pre-Islamic weather and astronomy is that of the anwa' dealing with potential times of rain linked with the risings and settings of certain stars.) As well as defining the seasons they act as "agricultural markers" for timing the agricultural activities. The term anwa' has the sense of rain hence the anwa' stars were associated with the rain periods. They also used them for orientation in nightly desert travels. However, the anwa' stars of the Arabs were primarily used as markers of rain. As there were variations in rainfall patterns in different parts of the Arabian Peninsula there were variously 4 to 8 periods identified. Generally, they began the year with the autumn rain followed by a sequence of rain periods.

The pre-Islamic anwa' tradition consisted of: (1) a knowledge of the risings and settings of the stars, (2) their association in particular with the settings of asterisms and simultaneous heliacal risings of other asterisms, (3) and their identification as markers of the beginning of the anwa' periods of time. (The singular term naw' (plural term anwa') is generally defined as the dawn setting of a star or asterism in the west at the same time as an opposite star or asterism rises with the sun in the east.)

The pre-Islamic anwa' tradition has ultimately influenced the naming of individual stars in Western constellations. Under the Abbasid caliphs al-Mansur (reigned 754–775) and al-Ma’mun (reigned 813–833), for the first time, scholars recorded Arab Bedouin traditions. Al-Sufi's book Kitab suwar al-kawakib, our best authority for post-Islamic Arabic star-names and constellations, also included the pre-Islamic folk tradition of Arabic star names. However, al-Sufi used anwa' texts from the Islamic period.

In the post-Islamic textual traditions two systems of the anwa' have survived. The most well-known system is that of the 28 anwa' equivalent to the lunar stations of Arab astronomy and astrology with the 28 anwa' representing stars or asterisms along the zodiacal belt (ecliptic) of the celestial sphere. The origin of the system of 27 or 28 "lunar mansions" (i.e., a lunar zodiac) was the topic of considerable debate among 19th-century Orientalists. Scholars were generally divided between those who argued for a first appearance in India and those who argued for a first appearance in China. (A system of lunar mansions was established in China, India, and Sassanian Iran prior to the establishment of Islam.) A number of early Arab texts stated that a system of "lunar mansions" had formed a major calendar of the pre-Islamic Arabian Bedouin. However, there is little doubt that the Arabs borrowed the concept of the "lunar mansions" and later Islamic scholars attached seasonal almanac lore onto this imported calendar system. Julius Wellhausen (Reste Arabischen Heidentums (1897)) correctly concluded that the concept of 28 "lunar mansions" was borrowed from the astronomy of the Hindus and merged with elements of Arab star lore after the introduction of Islam. The peoples of the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula only recognised the seasons and rain periods of importance to them and had no concern with arbitrarily dividing the years into periods. Exactly  when the pre-Islamic Arabs received the system of 28 "lunar mansions" (manāzil al-qamar) from India, and how this was achieved, is unknown. When it was done each "lunar mansion" was identified with one of the anwa' stars or asterisms.

It is usually stated that eventually the folk tradition of Arabic star names was preserved as the "lunar mansions." This would appear to be erroneous. The system of "lunar mansions" are a type of almanac for seasonal activities. Daniel Varisco ("Islamic Folk Astronomy." In: Selin, Helaine. (Editor). (2000). Astronomy Across Cultures. (Pages 615-650).) states: "The claim that the formal model of twenty-eight lunar mansions originated as a set sequence of asterisms from a pre-Islamic star calendar cannot be sustained." The Arab-Islamic concept of "lunar mansions" appears to have been borrowed from India. (Knowledge of the Indian lunar zodiac may have existed in the Arabian Peninsula in the late 4th- or early 5th-century prior to the birth of Muhammad. (The system of "lunar mansions" is mentioned in some old Arabian poems that are pre-Koranic; and are also mentioned twice in the Koran (dated 7th-century CE.) In the post-Muhammad period, during the Arab expansion, Arab scholars began to assimilate the sciences in Iran and India.) The "lunar mansions" are the constellations/asterisms which the moon moves through in its cycle around the earth and so the "lunar mansions" are a method for dividing up the celestial sphere. However, there would have been numerous locally relevant anwa' star lists throughout the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula. Knowledge of only a few stars is needed to set up a seasonal calendar. Also, the 28 stars/asterisms comprising the "lunar mansions" are not evenly spaced along the moon's path (but on average are about 13 degrees apart and related in an approximate way to the moon's nightly change of position on its eastward movement through the fixed stars). (Most of the "lunar mansions" consist of pairs of stars or small groups of closely spaced stars.)

Most modern scholars are now agreed that the Arab-Islamic lunar zodiac has an Indian origin which was merged with the indigenous system once it was borrowed. Daniel Varisco has shown that the anwa' were originally independent of the lunar lunar zodiac, and instead formed several indigenous Arabian parapegmata.

After the spread of Greek-based astronomy in the Arab-Islamic civilisation (i.e., from the 7th-century CE onwards) Arab-Islamic astronomers became familiar with the "lunar mansion" system and gave exact identifications of the stars/asterisms of the "lunar mansions" from among the stars listed in Ptolemy's star-catalogue in the Almagest. The "lunar mansions" were not actually used by the Arab-Islamic astronomers in their astronomical work. They were mostly used in astrology. The astrological texts that contained them were later to be translated into Latin and introduced into medieval western Europe.

Folk astronomy also flourished within Islamic society. This consisted of: (1) a knowledge of the sun's movement through the 12 zodiacal signs, (2) associated meteorological and agricultural phenomena, (3) use of the phases of the moon for time-reckoning, and (4) using shadows by days and the "lunar mansions" by night for simple time-reckoning.

The pre-Islamic Arabs did not expect rain at the risings and settings of all stars excepting those called naw'. The traditional anwa' texts record a length from 1 to 7 days for each naw'. Within the later "lunar mansions" scheme the length of each naw' is 13 days. These schematic lengths can hardly refer to the time for rain as several of the stations occur when there could be no rain. The sequence of rain periods attributed to the pre-Islamic Arabs varies from 4 to 8 periods of rain. It is no longer possible to reconstruct the anwa' names for the pre-Islamic seasonal sequence of rains in the Arabian Peninsula with precision.

Excursus: Kabbalistic lunar mansion system

At some time in late antiquity knowledge/use of the lunar zodiac system (lunar mansions) was introduced into Europe. An approximate date may be circa 7th-century. As early as the 7th-century the Syrian scholar Severus Sebokht was familiar with Indian astronomy. Severus Sebokht (Seboukt of Nisibis) (born 575 in Nisibis, Syria-died 667 CE) was one of the leading scholars of ecclesiastical, philosophical, and scientific culture of late antique Syria. He was one of the foremost scientific writers of his time. He was bishop of the great convent of Kenneshrin (the "Eagle's nest"). The Caliphs of Baghdad (750–1258 CE) employed Indian astronomer/astrologers. (Between the 8th- and 10th- centuries, Baghdad was a major center of study but local rulers across the region, in Cairo, Rayy, Isfahan, and other cities, also supported scientific research. During this period scholars translated studies in Sanskrit, Pahlavi, and Greek into Arabic. According to David Pingree, (scientific) astronomy developed in India in successive phases of Babylonian, Greek, and Arabic influences. In turn, Indian astronomy may have later influenced the development of (scientific) astronomy in the Islamic Caliphate; the Zijs as example. Numerous practical astronomical handbooks (known as Zijs/Zījes) existed in the Arab-Islamic world. The Zij is an important genre in medieval Arabic astronomy. A Zij was a common kind of practical astronomical work in the Arab-Islamic world. A Zij (Zīje) is a handbook of astronomical tables, including tables for working out positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, and auxiliary material and instructions for how to use the material. According to Paul Kunitzsch Zijs: "... usually consist of a theoretical introduction, and a collection of astronomical tables, for chronology, for the planets, sun and moon, etc. Mostly a star table is also included. The star tables in the zīj-works mostly are merely the result of computation or compilation, and not the result of independent star observations.") In 948 CE the Western Caliph founded an academy at Cordova at which Moors and Jews combined to build a body of knowledge which became disseminated through the academies founded at Toledo and Granada. The Indian lunar zodiac was passed to Europe by way of Arab-Islamic scholars. (Many Arab-Islamic astrologers adopted, as part of the electiones, the Indian system of 28 lunar mansions, which afforded an opportunity for more minute calculations. (See: La Cornica, Volume 31, 2002, Page 62.) Electiones = help for choosing the propitious moment for undertaking important events. For many Arab-Islamic astrologer the electiones were more connected with geomancy than astrology.) The Iberian towns of Salamanca and Toledo were meeting places for Arabic, Christian, and Jewish cultures.

I am unsure just how much of this was put to practical use in Europe rather than astrological/magical/ritual use. (The "lunar mansions" were not actually used by the Arab-Islamic astronomers in their astronomical work. They were mostly used in astrology.) The use of the lunar zodiac in Europe apparently disappeared (was discarded) during the Renaissance period (spanning from the 14th- to the 17th-century, regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history). One reason for the disappearance of the lunar zodiac in Europe was the Roman Catholic Church associated the moon with magic, but not zodiacal astrology. Zodiacal astrology was not viewed as being linked with magic. However, the system of 28 lunar mansions was not considered to accord with orthodox Roman Catholic theology, as it was believed it could serve for magical purposes.

A number of Jewish Kabbalistic texts contain brief mention of a lunar mansion system. Mention of the lunar mansions system appears in the Sefer Yetzirah (Sepher Yetzirah and other variants), a Kabbalistic text (= Jewish mysticism) principally concerned with cosmology and cosmogony. The details are not part of the Kabbalistic texts - which only have brief cryptic information - but rather originate with what may be stated in a later commentary added to the texts. It would seem the earlier the commentary the better in this regard. To date I cannot identify any detailed academic discussion (merely passing mentions) of a Kabbalistic lunar mansion system. I find this rather odd. Also, a single Kabbalah tradition of the 28 lunar mansions does not seem to exist. There were multiple versions.

Three books which purport to give details of the Kabbalistic lunar mansion system are: (1) Lunar Astrology by Alexander Volguine (4th edition, 1974). (First published in French in 1936.) I would rate it as a popular book. Alexander Volguine [Alexandre Volguine] (1903-1976) was an astrologer with his own particular ideas. The bibliography is very dated but the works by Delambre, Saussure, and Schlegel remain useful. I have reservations concerning the overall reliability of the author's historical statements/claims. Also, Volguine does not bother to exactly cite his sources for his reconstruction of Kabbalistic lunar mansions. The fact that he cannot reconstruct them all poses a problem regarding veracity. Volguine compares the ancient Arabic (28 Manazils), Vedic (27 Nakshatras) and Chinese (28 Hsiu/Xiu) systems of lunar mansions. He also discusses the 28 so called 'lunar houses.' These are unrelated to the lunar mansions and instead represent unequal divisions of the solar-lunar cycle. He also published the brief unuseful book: Astrology of the Mayas and Aztecs (1969).

 (2) I do not have, nor have I seen, an academic review of the self-published The Picatrix translated and annotated by John Greer and Christopher Warnock (2011). One author being an astrologer and the other a magician, I would rate it as a popular book. A partial English-language translation is given in Picatrix: The Goal of the Wise by William Kiesel (2002). (3) I do not have, nor have I seen an academic review of, Liber Lunae: Book of the Moon & Sepher ha-Levanah edited by Don Karr (2011).

The origin and dating of the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation is still keenly debated by specialist scholars. The Varieties of Magical Experience: Indigenous, Medieval, and Modern Magic by Lynne Hume and Nevill Drury (2013) write (Page 94): "... it is thought that the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation, was composed [written or compiled] in Palestine between the third and sixth centuries CE." (Thought to be transmitted orally before being committed to writing. Some persons date it as early as the 2nd-century.) However, Steven Wasserstrom has made a strong case for it being probable that the final redaction occurred in the 9th-century within an Islamic milieu. Statement made as a discussant at the Association for Jewish Studies 33rd Annual Conference (Washington, DC: December 16, 2001) in the session titled: Sefer Yesirah: Mystical and Philosophical Intertexts. See also Wasserstrom's publications: "Sefer Yesira and Early Islam: A Reappraisal." (The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Volume 3, Number 1, 1993, Pages 1-30); and "Further Thoughts on the Origins of Sefer Yesirah." In: Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism, Number 2, edited by Gad Fruedenthal (2002); and Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam (1995, Particularly pages 126-133). Elliot Wolfson has stated that the Sefer Yetzirah should not be described as a single composition, but rather as a composite of distinct literary strands that have been woven together through a complicated redactional process whose stages are not clearly discernable. See the discussion (Chapter 19): "Jewish Mysticism: A Philosophical Overview." by Elliot Wolfson. In: History of Jewish Philosophy edited by Daniel Frank and Oliver Leaman (1997, Pages 389-437, Specifically the section "Sefer Yetzirah: Linguistic Mysticism and Cosmological Speculation." Pages 400-406).

Source: Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation by Aryeh Kaplan (Revised edition, 1997, Page 223 (see also Page 221). (Kaplan's translations have numerous critics.) The author has only a brief discussion of the lunar mansions system briefly mentioned in the Sefer Yetzirah. Discussions by other authors usually deal with the subject as lunar calendars/lunar time. The 28 "lunar mansions" relate to the approximate 28 days of the lunar month (or more exactly, the sidereal month).

In the writings of Abraham Ibn Ezra the Indian system of lunar mansions was encapsulated in quotations from the work of astrologers writing in Arabic after the emergence of Islam.

In the works of Abraham Ibn Ezra (active in the first half of the 12th-century) there is a discussion of the adoption of the lunar mansion system by medieval Jewish scholars. His comments/criticisms of earlier writers adopting the scheme of 28 lunar mansions is of interest. (See: Abraham Ibn Ezra Book of the World: A Parallel Hebrew English Critical Edition of the Two Versions of the Text. Abraham Ibn Era's Astrological Writings, Volume 2, edited, translated, and annotated by Shlomo Sela (2010).) Sefer ha-Mivḥarim (unsure which version, perhaps all) by Abraham Ibn Ezra apparently contains (Chapters 6-9) a list of lunar mansions. See also: Sefer ha-Mivḥarim edited by J. I. Fleischer (1939). Also, the (Sefira) Shekhina mentions 28 encampments of the moon; and the Tikunnei Zohar (which is available in English), Section 69, 101b-102a. An important and informative article is: Sela, Shlomo. (2016). "Al-Farghānī on the 48 Ptolemaic Constellations: Newly Discovered Text in Hebrew Translation." (Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism, Volume 16, Number 2, Pages 249-365). ("Abstract: The present study reports the discovery of a hitherto unknown account of the 48 Ptolemaic constellations, probably by al-Farghānī, or at least from the first phase of the Arabic Ptolemaic astronomical tradition. A Hebrew translation of this account is embedded in the chapter on the fixed stars in Jacob Anatoli's Hebrew translation (ca. 1230–1240) of al-Farghānī's Elements, which this paper studies closely. This chapter is a fundamental text for understanding the Jewish interest in the fixed stars from the twelfth century onward. The Arabic text underlying Anatoli's Hebrew translation was well known in the twelfth century, notably to Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and Abraham Ibn Ezra. Anatoli's Hebrew translation of this chapter had a strong impact on subsequent Hebrew astronomy, beginning in the second half of the thirteenth century.") Shlomo Sela is professor emeritus in the department of Jewish Though at Bar-Ilan University.

The lunar mansions appear as the 28 "camps" (literally, 28 "camps of the moon") of the Divine Presence, corresponding to the 28 days of the lunar month (= 28 phases of the zodiac). Ecclesiastes 3 (Old Testament) begins with, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (3:1). The 28 "times" listed in Ecclesiastes (3: 2-8) is the approximate number of days in the lunar months. These 28 times correspond to the 28 camps of the divine presence which in turn can reference the names of God. There are 28 angelic rulers (28 lunar angels) governing the lunar mansions The signs of the zodiac are associated with the 12 Hebrew lunar months, rather than with the position of the Sun, as, for example, in Western astrology. The syncretic Mediterranean-West Asian world of the Hellenistic-Late Roman period is well recognised. It has been long recognised there are extensive foreign influences on Jewish magical beliefs of late antiquity (cross-cultural cooperation). It has also been recognised that the content of Jewish magic changed over time and also with different Jewish groups. (See: Ancient Jewish Magic: A History by Gideon Bohak (2008, Page 66).

A detailed discussion regarding the Lunar Mansions/Lunar Times appears in the (Hebrew-language) Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah by Raivad (= attributed to Abraham ben David of Posquires (1562 and 1806 editions). The commentary is indicated as discussing the 28 "camps of the moon" (per a circular diagram with 28 divisions). Note Raivad also appears as Raavad/Rabad/Ravad. (Rabbi Abraham ben David was also popularly known by the abbreviation RABaD (after the initials of his title and name, Rabbi Abraham ben David). Also, the Ra'avad (Rabad/Ravad of Posquieres, Provence).) The Sefer Yetzirah was certainly extant by the 10th-century, when it began to exert a great influence on speculative and mystical thought from that period onwards. In his excellent study, Sefer Yesira (2004), A. Peter Hayman states on Page 6 that an original text is not recoverable. Unsurprisingly, copying of the text was considered an editorial operation that incorporated various other materials.

It is generally indicated that the Kabbalistic lunar mansion system was adapted from non-Jewish sources. The Arab-Islamic system is most usually identified. After the Islamic conquest of the Mediterranean basin, Jewish scholars integrated into the ruling society and adopted the Arabic language for their literary and scientific works. Jewish astronomy of the Christian period draws mainly from Arab-Islamic sources. Eastern Jews of the 10th and 11th centuries pursued astrology. From the 10th-century Jewish scholars began building on Arabic astrology, and also began using it to re-interpret Jewish history. However, Kelley/Milone, Exploring Ancient Skies (2nd edition, 2011, Page 496), state that in an exception to the pattern of Arab influence, medieval Jewish scholars adopted the Hindu/Indian system of lunar mansions. (This was adopted through Arab-Islamic writings on astrology.) This was then passed on to the Christian world (Christian Europe). As evidence see: Tractat de prenostication circa 15th-century Catalonia - a Hermetic corpus. Also see: The Speculum Astronomiae and its Enigma by Paolo Zambelli (1992). Albertus Magnus produced the Speculum astronomiae [The Mirror of Astronomy] sometime after 1260 CE to defend astrology as a Christian form of knowledge. However, the Rig Veda/Hindu system has 27 (only sometimes 28 stars/asterisms) (naksatra), associated with the path of the moon. But they begin their reckoning from the vernal equinox. Note: A 28th intercalary naksatra was later added by astronomers to the lunar zodiac to correct the error due to the sidereal month being nearly 8 hours longer than 27 days. In the 16th-century Giordano Bruno wrote (but did not publish), De magia mathematica; and the pseudo-Pietro d'Abano wrote, Elemente magica.

Note: There were 2 main traditions of astronomy in the Arab-Islamic world. The first (earlier) astronomical tradition came from India and the second (later) astronomical tradition came from Greece. In the 8th-century a delegation of Indian scholars brought Indian astronomy to Baghdad. Later, Greek astronomical texts passed to Baghdad. In both cases there were translations into Arabic. The later Greek tradition largely displaced the earlier Indian tradition. In 12th-century Spain astronomical texts were also translated from Arabic into Hebrew.

The "Lunar Mansions" featured prominently in Arab-Islamic Astrology. As example: The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology by the medieval astrologer Abu'l-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni (life dates: 973-1048 CE). These types of texts are thought to have influenced the Jewish mystics who resided in Moslem lands in the Middle Ages. Also, there were practical influences. As example: The practical influences on Jewish mystics who lived in medieval Yemen, where the 28 "lunar mansions" played an important role as "seasonal markers" in Yemenite agriculture customs. "Whilst this aspect of Lunar astrology was derived from ancient oriental sources, it was given a unique treatment in Kabbalistic traditions, involving special verses from the Hebrew Bible, the seven "double letters" of the Hebrew alphabet aligned with "seven Sefirot," "seven seals," as well as the "seven planets" of traditional astrology. These are in turn associated with a set of Divine Names, and finally the entire caboodle was worked into a harmonious whole with the twelve signs of the Zodiac, etc. Most importantly, the Kabbalistic approach to this topic pertains to the Shechinah, the "Female" aspect of Divinity, or the "Divine Presence" in manifestation, specifically to "Her" being associated with "time." In this regard, the Zohar (1:198a) informs us that (Et - "time") is "a supernal rung." It continues by asking "And who is this Et?" to which we are told that it is the letter (Heh), and then, by adding the letter Heh as a suffix to Et, further elucidates that "it is called (Atah)," a term meaning "Now." Daniel Matt explained that the reason for "time" being "a supernal rung" is that the Shechinah "is known as 'time' since She conducts the world according to a cosmic schedule, enabling phenomenon to unfold in its proper time," and further that "She is also symbolized by the letter (Heh), the final letter of the divine name (YHVH)." (Zohar Vol. 3, Pritzker Edition) Since the Shechinah is traditionally associated with both "Time" and the "Moon," we can understand why the twenty-eight "Lunar Mansions" are collectively considered to be, as it were, an expression of the "Divine Presence" in manifestation. Furthermore, these twenty-eight Lunar Ittot (times) are associated with the twenty-eight "qualities of time" listed in Ecclestiastes 3:1-8 reading: ...." (Blog: Practical Kabbalah and Self Creation: Kabbalistic Curiosities: Moon Mansions and Seven Seals - Part 1 by Jacobus G. Swart (http://kabbalahselfcreation.blogspot.com.au/2010/10/kabbalistic-curiosities-moon-mansions.html).)

Without getting into Muslim Jews; by the 13th-century there was a system of magical lunar mansions in the Muslim world (i.e., Yemeni).

Appendix 1:

Some pre-Islamic Arabian constellations have the same Babylonian source as the Greek zodiacal signs, but were independently inherited from Mesopotamia well before the translation of Greek scientific texts into Arabic. By Islamic times, some of these borrowed constellations had been relocated to different parts of the sky. While the classical constellation Aquarius is in its (modern) place on the ecliptic, a pre-Islamic Arabian constellation Aquarius called 'the bucket' also appears in Islamic astronomy, just to the north in Pegasus. Other zodiac signs have remained in the same place as their Greek counterparts.

Some of the Arabian versions of zodiacal constellations were (or became) far larger than the Greek counterparts, also inherited from Mesopotamia. An example is the "huge Arabic lion," a precursor of Leo. The early Arab constellation of the lion was much larger than the Aratean Leo. It sprawls across 7 classical constellations. The hind legs are in Bootes (north of the ecliptic), Virgo and Corvus (south of the ecliptic), and the forelegs are in Gemini. The lion's nose and mouth are in Cancer, while its eyes, forehead, heart and hackles are in Leo.

 In his book Kitāb al-tafhīm (= The Elements of Instruction in the Art of Astrology) the Islamic Persian astrologer and philosopher Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) discusses some of the early Arabic constellations. He states that one of the most important was ‘Al-Asad,’ the Arabic Lion, an enormous lion constellation extending over one-quarter of the sky. He states (Section 163): "[T]heir Lion is fashioned out of some five [7?] constellations, only the eyes, forehead, neck and shoulders and the tail-tuft belong to Leo, while they make the foreleg out of the heads of Gemini, the other [leg] out of Canis minor, the nose out of Cancer and the hind legs of the two simaks [Arcturus and Spica]. In Section 164 Al-Biruni states: "With regard to the Mansions of the Moon, the Arabic lion extends from the 7th to the 14th mansions. The 7th is the foreleg; the 8th the nose; the 9th, the eyes, the 10th, the forehead, the 11th, the mane (even though it is located in the hindquarters of Leo), the 12th, the tip of the tail, the 13th, Al-Biruni says are dogs barking after the lion, the 14th, the hind legs of the lion."

All 12 constellations that later formed part of the zodiac were established in Mesopotamia by the late 2nd-millennium BCE, and appear in the Mul.Apin series (dating to circa 1300 BCE according to the astronomer Bradley Schaefer). Some of these may have been adapted in the Arabian peninsula before the 12-constellation zodiac (of 30 degree divisions along the ecliptic) was developed in the 1st-millennium BCE. As traditional Arabian astronomy includes a large lion, it can be assumed that the transmission to Arab folk astronomy occurred sometime later than 1300 BCE. Pre-Islamic folk astronomy in the Arabian Peninsula borrowed 2nd-millennium BCE stellar groupings from Mesopotamia prior to the Mesopotamian reworking circa 5th-century BCE to create an evenly spaced 12-constellation zodiac. During the late 2nd-millennium BCE the astronomical knowledge summarised in the Mul.Apin series had spread to the Middle East, Greece, Iran and India.

Roland Laffitte states the Arabic 'Super lion' is related to the pre-Islamic anwa' tradition and has likely been shaped by an oral heritage originating from Babylon through Aramaic traditions.

Paul Kunitzsch (Kunitzsch, Paul. (1986). "Remarks on Possible Relations Between Ancient Arabia and the Neighbouring Civilizations, as Found in Some Old Star Names." In: Pre-Islamic Arabia (Studies in the History of Arabia, Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Studies in the History of Arabia ... April, 1979, Volume II, Pages 201-205)) has explained that out of a list of just over 300 individual indigenous Arabic star names only about 15 names plus a number of constellation names belonging to the zodiac may have been borrowed from elsewhere (likely Babylonia). The system of 28 lunar mansions was borrowed from India. The zodiacal constellations came from Babylonia, before or being completed with Greek influence. The introduction of the 12 zodiacal constellations (but not the Babylonian 'system' of use) did not likely occur as a single transmission. The indigenous Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia gave 6 of the zodiacal constellations new names and 4 of the adopted zodiacal constellations were relocated in the sky, and some were made larger. Paul Kunitzsch explains that when adopting the system of 28 lunar mansions, the indigenous Arabs transferred the names of their anwa' system of corresponding pairs of stars to the lunar mansions, according to their localization in the sky. The translations of scientific works of the Indians into Arabic reportedly occurred in the 2nd half of the 8th-century CE, under the, Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. It can be assumed that the Arabs obtained their knowledge of the lunar mansions earlier than this time.

Appendix 2:

That the lunar zodiac or lunar mansions had originally been established in Babylon was a conjecture first made by Professor Albrecht Weber (History of Indian Literature (1852, Page 21). Weber was a German Indologist and historian.

American Journal of Philology, Volume XIII, Number 51, 1892, Pages 377-378

"The first attempt to construct out of 33 or 36 Babylonian normal stars a lunar zodiac composed of 24 ecliptic stars was due to Fritz Hommel [a German Orientalist] of Munich, in the last decade of the 19th-century. He compared the Babylonian stars with the Arabian manāzils, found agreement in respect of 16 stations and concluded the manāzils were based on the more ancient Babylonian scheme. (Hindu Astronomy by P. Sharma (2004, Page 20)." Though initially given a favourable reception (due to belief in common origin between all systems), a number of important objections were soon raised against the idea of Babylonian origin. The 3 key objections were: (1) agreement only really existed for about one-third of the total number i.e., approximately 12, (2) common conspicuous stars/asterisms near the ecliptic were naturally used for the same tasks, and (3) the Arabic, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese lunar zodiacs consisted of 27/28 stars/asterisms - not 24. (In the case of China there may have originally been 23 or 24 stars/asterisms marked out along the celestial equator.) See: Thibaut, George. (1894). "On the Hypothesis of the Babylonian Origin of the so-called Lunar Zodiac." (Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume LXIII, Part I, Numbers I-IV, Number 4, Pages 144-163). The author refutes Hommel's support for the Babylonian origin of the so-called Lunar Zodiac of the Arabs, Iranians, Hindus, and Chinese. In 1989 B. Subbarayappa wrote: "I myself have always wanted to believe that the original circle of lunar mansions round the equator was Babylonian. The only difficulty is that it may be rather hard to find anything in Babylonian astronomy which could really have given rise to the hsiu and nakshatra systems."

Appendix 3:

The astronomer Bradley Schaefer has found the best estimate for the formation of the Arabic 'lunar mansion/lodge' system is 200 BCE with a statistical uncertainty of roughly 1000 years.


[My thanks to the American writer and historian of astronomy Robert (Bob) A. Garfinkle for bringing the existence of the Kabbalistic lunar mansion system to my attention.]

Copyright 2007-2018 by Gary D. Thompson

Return to top of page.

This Web Page was last updated on: Wednesday, November 7, 2018, 9:00 am.

This Web Page was created using Arachnophilia 4.0 and FrontPage 2003.

You can reach me here by email (but first delete the obvious attempt in the email address to foil the spammers): garyREMOVE.thompson10@bigpond.com

Return To Site Contents Page