Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations


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R: Pioneer Mesopotamian Constellation Studies

38: Ernst Weidner's Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie

Ernest Weidner.

The assyriologist Ernest [Ernst] Weidner (1891-1976) was an expert on cuneiform script literature and assyriology. Has an outstanding cuneiform philologist and is considered to be one of the most outstanding cuneiform philologists of the 20th-century. Weidner was described as a modest man. As a student he read Oriental studies in Leipzig and Berlin. Weidner specialised in the study of Babylonian astronomy, astrology, and calendars. His brilliance was recognised whilst he was still in his (late) teens. He began publishing books and articles on Babylonian astronomy whilst still in his (late) teens. (He began with the study of early, pre-mathematical astronomy.) The first assertion of cultural contact between Enochic astronomy and Babylonian astronomy was made by Weidner in 1916. Later in life he obtained an academic position at the University of Graz (Professor für Altorientalistik). (Univ.-Prof. Dr. Erika Bleibtreu (Professorin für Altorientalistik (= Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies) studied ‘Keilschriftforschung’ under Ernst Weidner in Graz 1958 – 1962.) In 1955 Weidner joined the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Weidner graduated (PhD) in 1922 from the University of Leipzig. (It appears his doctoral thesis was on the Babylonian constellations; especially the constellations of the zodiac: Der babylonische Fixsternhimmel. I. Die Gestirne des Tierkreisgürtels.) He was a student of the assyriologist Felix Peiser. (It has also been stated he was a student of Alfred Jeremias.) His Habilitation on the reliefs of the Assyrian kings was completed in 1942 (Die Reliefs der assyrischen Könige). It focused on reliefs in England, the Vatican City, and Italy. This qualified him as a lecturer at the University of Graz. Until 1942 Weidner lived in Berlin (relying on journalism as a principal means of income). During his early career he focused on Babylonian astronomy. He first focused on Babylonian pre-mathematical astronomy. He then focused on Babylonian chronology and did excellent work in this area. Then he turned his investigations to the omen series Enūma Anu Enlil (but only on the first 50 tablets). At the beginning of 1943, Weidner gained the position of Professor (Professor für Altorientalistik) in the Department of Oriental Research at the Karl-Franzens-Universität, Graz.

In 1924 Weidner published the shadow tables in tablet 2 of the series Mul.Apin. In his early career he also helped to edit 2 volumes of Hittite texts from Boghazkoi. Weidner had (erroneously) concluded (Studien zur hethitischen Sprachwissenschaft, 1917) that Hittite was a Caucasian language, not an Indo-European language, and showed reluctance to abandon this belief (which he did by 1920). Friedrich Hrozný (a Czech professor at the University of Vienna, eventually given the honour of the title "father of Hittitology") was successful in arguing that the Hittite language had linguistic affiliations with Indo-European vocabulary.

Weidner studied the conduct in the harems in recent times (of the Ottoman Empire) and (mistakenly) applied this to his otherwise excellent study of the harem in the Assyrian courts. See: "Hof- und Harems-Erlasse assyrischer Konige aus dem 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr." ["Palace and harem edicts of Assyrian kings of the second millennium BC."] (AfO, 17, 1954-1956, 257-293).

 As a young assyriologist Ernst Weidner was strongly influenced by Felix Peiser who was editor of the journal Orientalistische Literaturzeitung and used it as a platform for his Panbabylonist views. The very young Weidner was also a convinced Panbabylonist and an active supporter of the Panbabylonist ideas of Hugo Winckler and Alfred Jeremias. His first substantial publication  was Beitrage zur Babylonischen Astronomie (1911). In 1923 he began his own periodical Archiv für Keilschriftforschung. The Journal of the American Oriental Society (Volume 60? Pages 79-80 carried the announcement: "Dr Ernst F. Weidner, Berlin-Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorferstr. 95, announces that he is about to begin the private publication of a periodical, Archiv für Keilschriftforschung, which will appear beginning 1923 in quarterly issues of 48 pages each, long folio size and shape (approximately "foolscap"), "clearly and legibly typed and multigraphed." ... The content will be devoted to cuneiform .... Contributions are invited from scholars in these lines all over the world; they may be composed in German, English, French or Italian." (In order to save the expense of typesetting the journal was prepared as camera ready copy or similar?) With the issue of Volume 3 in 1926 the name of the periodical was changed to Archive für Orientforschung. (The periodical was published direct by Ernst Weidner as the editor.) Weidner remained its editor until his death. (Its address, and his address, at his death was Goethestrasse 43, A-8010, Graz, Austria.)

From 1925 to 1943 he also edited the journal Mitteilungen der Althistorischen Gesellschaft. He was also a long-time editor of the Reallexikon der Assyriologie (an Encyclopedia of Assyriology issued in facsimile).

At times Weidner made available the contents of cuneiform tablets still in private collections (e.g., MS KK, in 1936).

Following the death of the British assyriologist Theophilus Pinches in 1927, Weidner made inquiries regarding any unpublished assyriological work that Pinches might have left. (Likely his inquiries did not extend to the British Museum.) One result of material obtained was "Creation of Man and the Fixing of the Anunnaki." by Ernst Weidner in Archive für Orientforschung (1936). It was later translated into English and published in the Journal of the Victoria Institute, Volume 70, 1938. (See page 286 for a brief background by the British translator.)

Unlike Peiser's approach as editor of Orientalistische Literaturzeitung Weidner did not make Archive für Orientforschung a platform for Panbabylonist views. (Circa 1918, Ernst Weidner, the last champion of the great antiquity of Babylonian astronomy, tried to prove that the Saros must have been known at least 1000 BCE, but he was not successful in this.) The journal published scholarly papers encompassing a wide outlook and primarily dealt with cuneiform material. In his periodical Weidner published, in the 1940s and 1950s, a series of valuable papers on the first 50 tablets comprising the omen series Enuma Anu Enlil. Both Ernst Weidner and Franz Kugler, the trenchant scholarly critic of Panbabylonism and the leading expert on Babylonian astronomy, were mutually combative and when Kugler died Weidner made only a brief mention of such in his periodical.

Weidner deciphered and commented on numerous cuneiform texts in the collections in Berlin and the British Museum.

Albert Grayson, in the Introduction to his book Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Volume 1 (1972, Page XIX) writes: "The first volume covers the period from the earliest inscriptions to the end of the reign of Ashur-resha-ishi I (1133-1116 B.C.) .... For this first volume my work has greatly benefited from the research of Ernest F. Weidner who has edited and commented upon virtually every inscription included here. Weidner's publications, Die Inschriften der Altassyrischen Könige (in collaboration with E. Ebeling and B. Meissner, Leipzig, 1926) and Die Inschriften Tukulti-Ninurtas I. und seiner Nachfolger (Graz, 1959) as well as numerous articles in his Archiv für Orientforschung, are models of careful philological research."

Ernst Weidner was described by C. W. Ceram (actually the German journalist Kurt Marek, 1915-1972) as rather ponderous and grave (Narrow Pass, Black Mountain (1956), Page 77). In his book Gods, Graves and Scholars (1994, Page 213), Ceram [Marek] describes Weidner as a "modest man." He was also described as a great hulk of a man. During World War I he was conscripted into the Heavy Artillery and made the rank of Corporal. In his book Gods, Graves and Scholars (1994, Page 213), Ceram [Marek] describes Weidner as "... one of the most peculiar among the often very peculiar Assyriologists. For twenty years Weidner worked as a journalist (an assistant editor) in the offices of the Berliner Ilustrirte Zeitung (a weekly newspaper - each issue containing the highlights of the week - mostly consisting of pictures)." He edited serial stories and crossword puzzles. During this time Weidner published important articles (academic journals and booklets/pamphlets) on Assyrian chronology . Also, he edited his international scholarly journal Archiv für Orientforschung. Its press run was only a few hundred copies and went only to universities and isolated scholars. Weidner remained at Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung until 1942, when he was prevailed upon to accept a professorship in Austria at the University of Graz (Professor für Altorientalistik). This coincided with the completion of his Habilitation (Die Reliefs der assyrischen Könige) in 1942.(It appears he was happy to escape the disruptions and uncertainties associated with the constant allied bombing of Berlin.) Weidner remained in Graz until his death.

Ernst Weidner was in competition with Franz Kugler (the leading authority on Babylonian astronomy) to understand Babylonian astronomy. There was a long and acrimonious controversy on aspects of Babylonian astronomy between Ernst Weidner and Franz Kugler. It centred on (1) the age of Babylonian 'scientific' astronomy, (2) the visibility of the phases of Venus, and (3) whether the Babylonians were aware of precession. (There was also a long and acrimonious controversy on aspects of Babylonian astronomy between Paul Schnabel and Franz Kugler.)

Front cover of Weidner's first volume of a projected 3-volume study of Babylonian astronomy.

Weidner's early announced plan to publish a comprehensive 3-volume study of Babylonian astronomy titled Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie was abandoned after publication of Volume 1 in 1915. It was a study of Babylonian constellations and star names. Regrettably, it was published without pages 147-180 which had been printed for it. It is possible that the contents of these pages later appeared in journal articles. The Best Books: Volume 5, Literature and Philology (1931) included Weidner's Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie. The book was reprinted in 1976 but is now thoroughly dated and unreliable. The usefulness of Weidner's early publications on Babylonian uranography were limited by his trenchant Panbabylonist views and his readiness to assign dates for constellation and star list material to the third and fourth millennium BCE. His sky map of Mesopotamian constellations for 2000 BCE is his own particular fantasy.

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.) Weidner also wrongly claimed that the Babylonians identified the Pole of the Equator and the Pole of the Ecliptic. 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).) (It is now clear that the Mesopotamians used the term 'Nibiru' to mark an astronomical event; a "crossing" at some point in the sky of Jupiter, Mercury, and a star.) In dealing with the star-list from Boghazkoi (Bogazkoi), Weidner mistranslated the names of 4 stars as planets.

At the time of his death he had accumulated large quantities of unpublished material. However, there was nothing dealing with a comprehensive treatment of the Mul.Apin series.

 In 1922 Weidner published the (then) valuable bibliographical work, Die Assyriologie: 1914-1922. It still remains useful.

For a brief English-language biography see the entry in Dictionary of German Biography (2006) edited by Walther Killy et al., Volume 10: Thibaut-Zycha, Pages 401-402.

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