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

R: Pioneer Mesopotamian Constellation Studies

39: Carl Bezold's Zenit- und Aequatorialgestirne am babylonischen Fixsternhimmel

Copyright © Gary D. Thompson

Portrait of Carl Bezold published with his obituary in ZA.

The German assyriologist Carl Bezold. He was born at Donauwörth in Bavaria in 1859 and died in Heidelberg (Germany) in 1922. Carl Bezold studied Semitic languages at Munich, Strassburg, and Leipzig. He graduated (under Friedrich Delitzsch) with work on epigraphy at Leipzig in 1880 and received his Habilitation for Semitic languages at Munich in1883. In 1883 Bezold was a Privatdozent at the Universität München. Bezold became the editor for the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie (a major journal for Assyriology) in 1886, and held the position until 1922. After Bezold had worked at the British Museum (1888-1893) he returned to Germany and was appointed to the chair for Semitic languages at Heidelberg in 1894. He actually lived in London (England) from 1888 to 1895 whilst engaged in preparing a catalogue of the British Museum tablet collections (Kouyunjik Collection). At this time the employment policy at some German universities caused formally delineated as dealing with "Semitic languages," to focus on Assyrian studies. Bezold's appointment at Heidelberg, as ordinarius in 1894 was part of the beginning of this process. Bezold also joined the German association for Islamic studies. (See: German Orientalism: The Study of the Middle East and Islam from 1800 to 1945 by Ursula Wokoeck (2009).

The 1891 England Census gives the following information: Name: Charles Bezold; Spouse Abele Bezold; Birth: about 1860 - Germany; Residence: 1891 - St Pancreas, London, England.

His knowledge of assyriology was considered encyclopaedic. He was proficient in numerous ancient and modern languages including Chinese, Assyrian, Arabic, Syriac, English, French, and Italian. Bezold was initially interest in the Chinese language and script. He also translated Syriac material. In 1888 he edited and published the Syriac and Arabic edition of the text of the Book of the Cave of Treasures. In 1909 he edited/collated (and translated) and published (with critical notes) the entire text of the Ge’ez (Ethiopic) epic Kebra Nagast. (But did not engage in the task of disentangling the literary sources. He left this as a challenge to future scholars.) From 1886 to 1915 he was the editor of Zeitschrift für Assyriologie.

In 1894 he was appointed Professor of Semitic Philology and Director of Oriental Seminars at the University of Heidleberg. He held this prestigious academic position until his death. In 1912, to satisfy the needs for an Assyrian dictionary that incorporated the tremendous body of new materials, Bezold initiated a new multi-volume dictionary/theasaurus project under the sponsorship of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences. However, Bezold's advanced age and the size of the undertaking and forced him to relinquish the ambitious project and to prepare instead a brief glossary based on his copious collection of material. The manuscript of the glossary, completed by Bezold just before his death in 1922, was edited by a student of his, Albrecht Gotze (Goetze), and published as Babylonisch-assyrisches Glossar (1926). Though without references and bibliographical discussions, the Babylonisch-assyrisches Glossa served for many years as a useful tool for students of Assyriology.

Bezold was a friend of both Johann Strassmaier and Franz Kugler. Whilst in London he was assisted by Strassmaier in the preparation of the Catalogue of the Cuneiform Tablets of the Kouyunjik Collection of the British Museum (5 Volumes, 1889-1899). Kugler was involved in several years of self-training to learn cuneiform script. However, between 1900 and 1907, Kugler also, for 6 to 12 months, "formally" studied cuneiform philology in Heidelberg. It can be reasonably speculated that Kugler went to Carl Bezold at the University of Heidelberg for such. Bezold's 1911 pamphlet Astronomie, Himmelsschau und Astrallehre bei den Babylonier strongly defended Kugler's chronology of Babylonian scientific astronomy and also his critique of Panbabylonism.

The pamphlet Zenit- und Aequatorialgestirne am babylonischen Fixsternhimmel (1913) was an early study of Mul.Apin tablet 1 and the identification of Babylonian constellations with modern star groups. Carl Bezold, with the assistance of August Kopff and the participation of Franz Boll, examined the contents of BM 86378. The identification of 78 Babylonian constellations and star names is made.

The 59-page pamphlet gives the transcription and (German-language) translation of BM 86378 and a detailed comparison of the results of Franz Kugler, Ernst Weidner, and August Kopff and Carl Bezold, in identifying the stars and constellations listed. The pamphlet is valuable in reproducing the particular cuneiform signs for all 78 constellations and star names investigated.

Circa 1900 little was known with certainty regarding the identification of of Babylonian constellation names and star names. Though cuneiform script had been successfully deciphered for decades the meanings of numerous words either remained unknown or were incorrectly understood. The types of astronomical texts available circa 1900 were (1) late Babylonian observational texts (4th to 1st century BCE); (2) mathematical-astronomical texts (from the latest period of Babylonian astronomy); and (3) omina literature regarding celestial events and (4) a few lists of constellation/star names. The observational texts and mathematical-astronomical texts contained few names of celestial bodies - mostly the names of planets and the constellations of the zodiac. The type of information contained in the constellation/star lists in Mul.Apin tablet 1 (BM 86378), an autograph copy of which was first published by the British Assyriologist Leonard King in 1912, provided a unique opportunity for the identification of Babylonian constellations.

Mul.Apin tablet 1 is the foundation for all identifications of Babylonian constellations/star names. Ernst Weidner incorrectly believed that the 'Astrolabes' (especially 'Astrolabe Berlin') provided the means for the successful identification of constellations/star names.  

The primary effort in successfully identifying the constellations and star names listed in BM 86378 was carried out by first by Franz Kugler and then by Carl Bezold and August Kopff. The Kopff-Bezold results largely agree with the identifications made by Franz Kugler in his Supplement 1 (1913) to his Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel. Further work by later scholars largely confirmed their results. There were 16 agreements in identification between Kugler, Weidner, and Kopff-Bezold. The lower number is due to the lesser number of identifications made by Ernst Weidner.

August Kopff was a German astronomer who worked in Heidelberg; then Berlin. In Berlin he was Director of the Institute for Astronomical Calculation of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-University (now the Humboldt-University).

Franz Boll was a renowned German classical philologist who specialized in ancient astronomy. He had the ability to combine astronomy, religion, and literature with great originality. His death in 1924 at the age of 57 put an end to his further masterly contributions to elucidating little-known traditions. His last academic position was Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Heidelberg.

Sections of the Mul.Apin series have been the key to attempts to reasonably identify Babylonian constellations. The two tablets comprising the Mul.Apin series are essentially a series of structured lists grouped into 18 sections. Tablet 1 basically contains eight sections (including five star lists):

(1) A list of 33 stars in the Path of Anu, 23 stars in the Path of Enlil, and 15 stars in the Path of Ea.

(2) A sequential list of (heliacal rising) dates in the ideal calendar (i.e., based on a year comprised of 12 months of 30 days each) on which 36 fixed stars and constellations rose heliacally.

(3) A list of simultaneously rising and setting constellations.

(4) Time intervals between the heliacal rising dates of some selected stars.

(5) The visibility of the fixed stars in the East and the West.

(6) A list of 14 ziqpu-stars (i.e., stars which culminate overhead).

(7) The relation between the culmination of zipqu-stars and their heliacal rising.

(8) A list of stars and planets in the path of the moon. (The beginning of the second tablet continues the listing of (8) in tablet 1.)

The key problem with the star-list data contained in the Mul.Apin series is that it is not quantifiable (i.e., precisely defined) and appropriate assumptions are required to be made (i.e., of the stars forming each constellation and which of these stars were listed to rise heliacally).

People have chosen to use different star-list data from the Mul.Apin series in order to identify Babylonian constellations. Kugler in his Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel, Erg. 1, used lists (2) (3) and (6) and computed for 500 BCE at Babylon. (Kugler also identified the Babylonian constellations by assembling a large number of statements in cuneiform texts about simultaneously rising and setting stars/constellations, and also about the angular distances between certain stars. This involved Kugler in a great deal of labour but his results were highly reliable.) Kopff used the same lists and computed for 600 BCE at Nineveh. I am presently unsure what lists Weidner used and what date and location he computed for. Later researchers used different lists. The German assyriologist Johann Schaumberger in his Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel, Erg. 3, used lists (1) and (2). The Dutch mathematician Bartel van der Waerden in his Anfänge der astronomie (1966) used lists (2) and (4). List (4) is compiled from list (2) and its data is most subject to inaccuracy. Many significant differences exist between the identifications made by these four scholars. Erica Reiner and David Pingree, Babylonian Planetary Omens: Part Two (1981), using lists (3) and (6) in conjunction with a planetarium projector, concluded that the data best fit the date 1000 BCE and the location of Nineveh (circa 36° north). List (3) is independent of the schematic dates of risings in list (2).Also, the simultaneously setting constellations of list (3) are clearly determined by observation. List (3) was also the foundation for the constellation identifications (and the date and place of the observations) made by Herman Hunger and David Pingree in their Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (1999). They write (Page 66): "The third list in MUL.APIN is of the simultaneous risings and settings of constellations. Whereas the parallel passage at the end of section three of "Astrolabe B" was simply a meaningless rearrangement of the preceding list of three constellations in each month, List III of MUL.APIN is independent of the schematic dates of rising in List II and the simultaneously setting constellations are clearly determined by observation. This list is the foundation of our identifications of the constellations and of our determination of the time (ca. -1000) and place (ca. 36° N) of the observations."

In 2007 the Dutch assyriologist and astronomer Teije de Jong published the results of his analysis of the date of the rising star lists (2) and (4) in Mul.Apin. Only those stars/constellations securely identified with known stars were used in the analysis. He concluded: (1) "The observations underlying the dates of the first appearance of stars and constellations in star list II and IV of MUL.APIN date from -1300 ± 150 BC." (2) "The observations were carried out in Babylon or at some other location with geographic latitude -32°." (See: de Jong, Teije. (2007). "Astronomical dating of the rising star list in MUL.APIN." (Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, Band 97, Pages 107-120).)

As stated above, the data contained in the Mul.Apin series is not quantifiable (i.e., precisely defined) and appropriate assumptions are required to be made (i.e., of the stars forming each constellation and which of these stars were listed to rise heliacally). In a Hastro-L posting (June 5, 2007) the assyriologist Hermann Hunger explained: "The tablets contain no observations. They state on which calendar date certain phenomena (mostly risings and settings) are supposed to occur. Since that calendar used real lunar months, and years consisting of either 12 or 13 such months, the date of a stellar rising, e.g., cannot occur on the same date each year. Assuming that the dates given in the text are the result of averaging, one can use them as if they were observations." The most recent informed attempt to use the data contained in the Mul.Apin series was carried out by the American astronomer Brad Schaefer. The MUL.APIN series collectively contains nearly 200 different 'idealised' astronomical observations, including measurements related to several constellations. This included the day each year that certain constellations first appeared in the dawn sky. These dates change over the millennia because of a tiny wobble in the Earth's axis. By studying these dates and other astronomical information, such as the dates certain constellations were directly overhead, Schaefer statistically determined the period involved. However, where historians had previously based their arguments on single stars or constellations on the tablets Schaefer's statistical analysis included of all the different data recorded on the tablets. By statistically analysing all of the star list data in the Mul.Apin series the American astronomer Brad Schaefer has concluded (2007) that the epoch for the data comprising Mul.Apin star lists is 1370 ± 100 BCE with a latitude of 35° ± 1.2°. The actual observations to establish the data through averaging were obviously a little earlier. Schaefer also determined that the ancient observers lived within roughly 100 kilometres of 35.1° North -  an area that includes the ancient Assyrian cities of Niniveh and Assur. The assyriologist Hermann Hunger has stated Schaefer's work will help settle a long-standing debate. The rough date of circa 1000 BCE for the tablets, that most historians have settled on, agrees rather well with Schaefer's analysis.

Appendix 1: Werner Papke and Early Dating of Mul.Apin:

According to Werner Papke (who holds a PhD in Assyriology) the Mul.Apin data (and the 12 constellation zodiac) date to circa 2340 BCE. Papke also relates these claims to the dating and meaning of the Gilgamesh epic. Papke, however, has been criticised for interpreting the Mul.Apin texts in such a way to show that Mul.Apin contains a record of observations from 2340 BCE. Hunger/Pingree (1989 and 1999) offer criticisms of Papke. Included are that Papke's dating depends on "stars rather arbitrarily selected to fit his theory." Papke has ignored the works of Hunger/Pingree and also Neugebauer and Sachs; and the criticisms of Hunger/Pingree. The analysis by the astronomer Brad Schaefer to determine the most likely dating of Mul.Apin has superseded Papke's dating claims for the 3rd-millennium BCE. Schaefer's work has established the 2nd-millennium BCE for the date of Mul.Apin data. In 2003 the assyriologist Andrew George published a new (2-volume) scholarly edition of Gilgamesh. Also, from 2003-2005 the assyriologist Stefan Maul published translations of 5 new fragments of the Gilgamesh epic. The assyriologist Alasdair Livingstone has pointed out the problems with the claim by Papke for a high standard of astronomical knowledge being achieved shortly after the invention of writing are that it must be envisaged: (1) this astronomical knowledge did not subsequently develop and was ultimately forgotten, and (2) this astronomical knowledge had no appreciable effect on the rest of Babylonian "science." Also, the fatal dating problem for Papke connecting the supposed astronomical content of the Gilgamesh epic with Mul.Apin is that the text of the Sumerian originals for the Gilgamesh epic which were later reworked in the Babylonian Gilgamesh version predate the composition of Mul.Apin by circa 1000 years. 


Copyright © 2005-2018 by Gary D. Thompson

Return to top of page.

This Web Page was last updated on: Saturday, November 4, 2017, 9:00 pm.

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