Ancient Zodiacs, Star Names, and Constellations: Essays and Critiques

The Origin of the Zodiac by Gary D. Thompson

Copyright © 2001-2020 by Gary D. Thompson

Return To Site Contents Page

The Origin of the Zodiac

The term zodiac indicates not only the 12 constellations marked along the ecliptic but also the signs (artificial equal divisions) that take their names from these constellations. The Babylonian zodiac was fixed sidereally (i.e., with respect to the stars), rather than tropically (i.e., with respect to the equinoxes). Babylonian astronomers interpreted the signs as being of equal length. That is, all the zodiacal signs were in practice close to the ideal of 30 degrees in length. The list of stars and constellations on the path of the moon is an approximate way of describing the ecliptic. In Mul.Apin the use of the 'three ways' to state the position of the sun - separate from the list of stars/constellations on the path of the moon shows the Babylonians did not at that time (circa 1200/1000 BCE) realise that the sun moves along the ecliptic.

The myth of a prehistoric 12-constellation zodiac (of equal divisions) is not yet extinguished. The suggestion that the zodiac was originally established as an intended scheme of 12 constellations and 12 equal divisions some 6000 years ago (or even earlier) is untenable. The fact that these ideas have been effectively disposed of seems to be ignored in publications addressed to the jury and not the bench. The zodiac is not that old. It is Babylonian in origin and dates to the 5th-century BCE. There is no evidence that the Greek scheme of 12 zodiacal constellations existed anywhere prior to its evolvement in Greece circa 500 BCE. The Assyriologist Peter Jensen was the first to show, in his book Die Kosmologie der Babylonier (1890), that the Greek zodiac (and zodiacal constellation names) was adapted (with few changes) from the (newly developed) zodiacal scheme of the Babylonians.

However, it is still erroneously assumed by some that the zodiacal constellations were recognised/established at the same time and place. The Mesopotamian astronomical texts show that this was not the case. The origin of what were to become the zodiacal constellations occurred more or less individually over some 500-600 years. Perhaps some constellations originated outside Mesopotamia. The evidence shows that the constellations which were to form the final zodiacal 12, though established over some time, were formulated into a zodiacal scheme of 12 at the same time and place - Babylonia circa the 5th-century BCE. Research still needs to focus on the origin of the individual constellations as far as that is possible (i.e., a historical perspective developed for each). Some of this work has already been done.

The tide of claims up to the early 20th-century for the great antiquity of the zodiac (made by many historians, astronomers and Assyriologists) have been definitively discredited by archaeology and an understanding of relevant Mesopotamian cuneiform sources. (Nineteenth-century arguments made frequent (misplaced) use of mythology and symbolism i.e., Recherches sur le culte public et les mystères de Mithra en Orient et en Occident by (the French archaeologist) Félix Lajard (1867). Also, the early twentieth-century publication titled Babylonian Boundary-Stones and Memorial-Tablets in the British Museum by Leonard King (1912 (accompanied by an Atlas of Plates)) was a key academic publication that helped to cement the mistaken idea of an early zodiac (and still exerts this influence today). In the Preface by Ernest Budge (i.e., E. A. Wallis Budge) and in the Introduction by Leonard King both (mistakenly) speculate that the Kassite Period kudurru symbols (dating circa 1200 BCE) had an astral connection with zodiacal constellations. In this speculation Ernest Budge was less cautious than Leonard King when he wrote that kudurru symbols: "... are among the oldest examples of astral iconography we possess, and they have a very important bearing upon the age of Babylonian astronomy and the origin of the Zodiac." They have no bearing on the age or origin of the zodiac at all.) The interpretation of the iconic depictions of the gods/goddesses on kudurru as prototypes of the constellations is not certain.

The pioneering work on Babylonian astronomy was the monumental Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel (1907-1935, 2 volumes and 3 supplements in 7 parts) by the Jesuit mathematician and Assyriologist Franz Kugler. (The idea that a 12-constellation equally divided Babylonian zodiac originated circa 6000 BCE (enthusiastically promoted by the Panbabylonists Fritz Hommel (Semiticist) and Alfred Jeremias (Archaeologist)) did not begin to be entirely discarded until the pioneering work of Franz Kugler began appearing. In his article "Orientation" (Antiquity, Volume 1, 1927, Pages 31-41) Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville incorrectly held that the zodiac was known in Mesopotamia as early as 5000 BCE.) The later studies of the mathematicians Otto Neugebauer and Bartel van der Waerden on cuneiform astronomy have clearly shown that the zodiac originated in Mesopotamia and not earlier than the 1st millennium BCE.

The zodiac is Babylonian (Mesopotamian) in origin and evolved slowly over the period 1300 BCE to 500 BCE (but perhaps circa 420 BCE). The three major stages in the development of the zodiac were: (1) the establishment of 12 unequal constellations along the ecliptic, (2) the division of the ecliptic into 12 equal segments based on the 12 constellations, and (3) the division of the 12 equal segments into 12 equal tropical signs.

The zodiac we have inherited is from the Greeks. There is no solid evidence that the Greeks possessed a complete zodiac until the 5th-century BCE. (We know the Greek zodiac was formalised by the latter half of the 5th-century BCE because the two Greek astronomers Meton and Euctemon both used it in their parapegmata (i.e., star calendars based on a division of the year into zodiacal signs). Its purpose lay with the establishment of the solar calendar.) The evidence is clear that the Greek introduction of such was that of a scheme borrowed from the Babylonians - excepting Aries and Libra. (The route of diffusion of astronomical knowledge from Mesopotamia to Greece is not known but during the 6th-century BCE the Babylonians and Ionian Greeks were subjects of a unified Persian Empire.)

The Greeks borrowed and established the zodiacal scheme circa late 6th-century (or early 5th-century) BCE. This act by the Greeks (and Eudoxus' two works on constellations) became the basis for their development of a formal Greek sphaera. (Also, there is no conclusive evidence that the obliquity of the ecliptic was known to the Babylonians before the Greeks became aware of such.) Some Greek constellations were established by at least circa 800-750 BCE. Homer circa 750 BCE in his epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey mentions six constellations and the star Sirius. Hesiod's later poem Works and Days shows that by circa 700 BCE the Greeks had established a cyclical calendar, and an astronomy connected with meteorology and botany (which included observations of the rising and setting points of stars). Hesiod names almost the same constellations as Homer.

The Greeks changed the Babylonian zodiacal constellation "Hired Man" into Aries and the Romans later reintroduced the Babylonian zodiacal constellation Libra. (The constellation Libra was included in the Babylonian zodiac but was later described by Hellenistic astronomers, such as Ptolemy, as "'the claws' of the great Scorpio.") The evidence also indicates that the Babylonian constellations which were to form the final zodiacal 12, though established over time, were formulated into a zodiacal scheme of 12 at the same time and place - Babylonia circa 7th-century BCE.

The formal scheme of Babylonian constellations was established early in the 2nd millennium BCE to mark 3 "equatorially-centred" stellar paths. These were the Paths of Anu, Enlil, and Ea. (It is doubtful that the Babylonians of the 2nd millennium had either actually identified the celestial equator or developed a formal concept of the celestial equator.) The dual purpose of the constellation scheme was calendrical and also to serve as sky markers. It was unrelated to the ecliptic (and to the zodiac which was not yet developed). Despite popular assertions to the contrary there is no mention of the zodiacal scheme in Babylonia, or elsewhere in the Occident, prior to the 1st millennium BCE.

Some constellations that later formed part of the zodiac were established in Mesopotamia circa 2000 BCE or perhaps earlier, and some were perhaps originally used as seasonal markers. (The expression "Stars of Elam, Akkad, and Amurru" perhaps suggests that, even very early, at least in Mesopotamia, the constellations originated as independent formal schemes having a calendrical purpose.) However, in the early 2nd millennium BCE these constellations formed part of the Babylonian system of "three stars each" i.e., the Paths of Anu, Enlil, and Ea. (There is some ambiguous evidence of earlier Sumerian constellations. It is reasonable to hold that perhaps the Sumerians originated certain constellations and perhaps they had a formal scheme for such.)

A significant change occurred (during the Assyrian Period) circa 1000 BCE with the astronomy of the Mul.Apin series. The astronomy of the Mul.Apin series established the preconditions for the establishment of the zodiac.

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."). [See: Note 1 below.] 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.)

Mul.Apin tablet 2 describes the Path of Shamash (= the way of the Sun) which also crossed the boundaries between the Paths of Anu, Enlil, and Ea. The path of the Sun and Planets was identified with the Moon's path. Likewise, it was a fixed path in the sky.

The second Mul.Apin tablet shows that the solar year was divided into a scheme of 12 solar months, of 30 days each, during which the sun occupied different parts of the sky. It set out: From month 12, day 1, to month 2, day 30, the sun is in the Path of Anu. From month 3, day 1, to month 5, day 30, the sun is in the Path of Enlil. From month 6, day 1, to month 8, day 30, the sun is in the Path of Anu. From month 9, day 1, to month 11, day 30, the sun is in the Path of Ea. (Hence the obliquity of the path of the sun was known to the scribes of the Mul.Apin texts at least circa 700 BCE.) In the Mul.Apin scheme the year was thus divided into 4 astronomical seasons corresponding to the 4-fold division of the ecliptic. Each of these 4 seasons was further divided into 3 solar months.

Prior to the Mul.Apin system of 17/18 constellations/stars (circa 1000 BCE earliest) the ecliptic was not specifically marked (or identified) in Babylonian astronomy. (Not all the 17/18 constellations/stars that were used to mark the path of the Moon were within the ecliptic. However, the 17/18 stars in the path of the moon provided a functional means for defining the ecliptic.) Earlier than circa 1000 BCE there was, in Babylonian astronomy, no intentional system of marking the path of the ecliptic. In the early Babylonian scheme the constellations marking the the approximate "equatorial" pathway of Anu comprised an "equatorial" "zodiac." (It is certain the the Babylonians had no formal concept of the celestial equator.)

(In some Sumerian texts dated circa 2500 BCE there are references to apparent stations of the moon called "houses."  In the Post Sargonic/Ur III Period the Sumerian term "house" (é) is (apparently) used to denote the celestial positioning of the moon (and to all appearances dropped during the Old Babylonian Period). Some of the earlier assyriologists proposed Pre Sargonic/Sargonic Period dates.] (Hermann Hunger ("The Cultic Calendars of the ancient Near East." in The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December, 1996) makes the informed and elucidating comment: "I find it misleading to mention the zodiac (and its subdivisions), which was invented around 400 B.C., in connection with the term "house" of the moon, since the meaning in the older texts is clearly not the same as in the younger. Even if the passages quoted refer to places in the sky, they could not be defined by fixed stars, because the moon is not in the same place on the same calendar date each year. Also, e-[u.sub.4]-7 seems to me to mean "house of day seven" and not "seventh house." And that could be a building on earth, as are the other "houses of the moon" mentioned.")

The zodiac is a product of a revision of the Old Babylonian system in later Neo-Babylonian astronomy in the 2nd-half of the 1st-millennium BCE.

The zodiac was a development from the Babylonian scheme of 17/18 constellations/stars marking the path of the moon. The Babylonian system of 17/18 constellations/stars zodiac marking the path of the Moon belongs to the Assyrian Period (and perhaps originated circa 1000 BCE) and was still in use in the 7th-century BCE and contained the (precursor) constellations that were to form the 12-constellation solar zodiac. At least 5 of these 17/18 constellations/stars are not previously listed but are additional constellations/named stars in the Mul.Apin series.

Post Mul.Apin (i.e., toward the Neo-Babylonian Period) the number of constellations/stars in the Path(s) of Sin/Shamash was limited from 17/18 to 12. Circa 700 BCE a "zodiac" comprising of 12 irregular sized constellations had been developed. Only those 12 constellations/stars nearest to the path of the ecliptic were used. The other 5/6 were discarded as ecliptic markers.

A Babylonian text from circa the 5th-century BCE which lists 12 months (and ignores the intercalary month) and their associated constellations, also assigns both the Pleiades and Taurus to month 2, both Orion and Gemini to month 3, and both Pegasus and Pisces to month 12. This provides an indication of another of the progressive steps towards an eventual zodiac of 12 equal 30 degree divisions and signs. Interestingly, though the 12 constellation zodiac ideally had 12 months associated with it, with the system of calendar adjustment (the use of an intercalary month) the 13th month could be inserted without having a zodiacal constellation allocated to it.

The issue of reducing from 17/18 constellations/stars as marker's along the Moon's path was connected with the establishment of 12 (ideal) solar months of 30 days each. (The fact that certain stars had become connected with the schematic year of 12 months x 30 days each greatly assisted the development of the reduction of the zodiac to 12 divisions. The calendar was schematic because of the fact that the year does not consist of exactly 360 days. This made it necessary to add an extra 13th month now and then. The periodic intercalation of a 13th lunar month was done to keep the lunar calendar in line with the seasons. It was not based on solar observations.) (This theoretical division of the year into 12 months of 30 days each is indicated as dating back to the Old Babylonian Period circa 1800 BCE.) Hence the system of 12 zodiacal constellations was invented mostly from existing constellations/named stars that originated largely during the 2nd millennium BCE for marking a different i.e., (roughly approximating an) "equatorially-centred", sky system. (The Babylonians had no actual recognition of a celestial equator.) The 12-constellation zodiac replaced the earlier 17/18 constellation/star scheme that it developed from. It was an alternative to the earlier scheme.

According to Lis Brack-Bernsen and Hermann Hunger the zodiac was first "perceived as arcs along the horizon over which the constellations rise."

Contrary to some popular assertions continually made, the constellations of the classical zodiac were not all established in the Old Babylonian period. Whilst there is relatively clear evidence that perhaps 8 of our 12 present zodiacal constellations existed in the 2nd millennium BCE there were at least 4 constellations - that were to form part of the zodiacal scheme - that most probably did not exist until the 1st millennium BCE. There is no unambiguous evidence that all of our present 12 constellations comprising the zodiac existed prior to the Late Assyrian Period.

During the 5th-century BCE a new (final) and even more schematic ecliptic calculation system was introduced: the schematic Babylonian zodiac. Circa the 5th-century BCE the Babylonian skywatchers needed a suitable frame of reference to indicate the positions of the Moon and the planets between the stars along the path of the ecliptic. With the demands of their developing astronomy it was no longer sufficient to continue with a scheme that simply noted that the Moon or a planet was close to this or that star. The zodiac was used in astronomical texts as a mathematical device.

Circa 420 BCE the Babylonians substituted the original 12 constellations forming the zodiacal scheme with a sidereal scheme of twelve equal divisions of the ecliptic comprising 30º segments. This followed the Babylonian invention of degrees, which was introduced into mathematical astronomy to enable the measuring of celestial "longitude" from a given point (which was the vernal equinox). This new and final scheme was a refined version of the ideal calendar. (A schematic month was comprised of 30 days and therefore each zodiacal segment or "sign" numbered 30°.) The zodiac of 12 equal signs (the zodiacal signs are abstract sectors/divisions of the sky without gaps between the borders of two neighbouring signs) was never used by the Babylonians as a coordinate system. It was only used as a mathematical abstraction for computing lunar and planetary motion. (The Normal Stars, a set of approximately 30 stars positioned around the ecliptic, continued to be used by the Babylonians for locating the positions of the moon and planets. It had clear advantages. The ideal calendar comprised 12 months of 30 days, whereas the zodiac comprises 12 signs of 30 degrees. The zodiac strictly depends on the velocity of the sun, which moves one degree per day in average. Thus, per definition, one day corresponds to one degree; consequently, the movements of the sun, the moon and the planets can simply be calculated on the basis of a series of figures between 1 and 360, i.e., 30 (days or degrees) times 12 (months or signs). Though we instinctively associate the figure 360 to the circumference of a circle the Mesopotamians had a different approach. They never developed a geometric model of their known universe. They simply found the number 360 useful as it can be divided by 2, 3, 5, 6 and their multiples. However, starting from the 1st-century BCE the zodiac was pictured as a circle, as we can see, for example, by the so called "zodiac of Denderah."

About the middle of the 3rd-century BCE the zodiacal reference system seems to have finally become established as the norm for such.) Also, the Babylonians always simply defined the starting points of the scheme of zodiacal signs by their positions relative to the fixed stars. The beginning of the zodiacal signs were not linked with the point of the vernal (spring) equinox. As Franz Kugler, Bartel van der Waerden, and Otto Neugebauer showed, they were linked with bright (reference) stars of the constellations. A Babylonian star catalogue dated circa 100 BCE gives the lengths (distances in degrees) of some stars in relation to the beginning of the zodiacal signs. As example: (Babylonian name) Loin of the lion, (Bayer letter) d Leonis (Degree of Babylonian sign) 20º Lion. Hamal, the brightest star of the Ram (= Babylonian MUL.LU.HUN.GA ("Hired Man") was probably used to mark the vernal equinox. However, the completed zodiacal system of the Babylonians, for reasons still incompletely known, did not start at 0º ecliptic longitude but at about 355º, and this difference extends through the whole zodiac. Peter Huber showed that that due to the star positions circa 100 BCE the point of the vernal (spring) equinox was 4°28' ± 20' away from the beginning of the sign Aries in the Babylonian system.

The Greeks located the beginnings of the zodiacal signs differently. In the changeover from the Babylonian zodiacal system to the Greek zodiacal system the abandonment of the earlier version of the zodiac measured from the fixed stars occurred.

The pictorial signs of the zodiac were developed quickly. They were already in widespread use in southern Mesopotamia in the Seleucid era. All the zodiacal signs were depicted on seals from Seleucid Uruk in a manner that displayed awareness of their astrological aspects.

It would appear it was the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes (2nd-century BCE) who first redefined the the boundaries of the 12 signs so that the vernal equinox was placed at the beginning of the (Greek) sign of Aries. This now became the starting point for the zodiacal division of 12 equal signs. This system of Hipparchus, with the "first point of the sign Aries" fixed to vernal equinox, replaced the zodiacal scheme of visible constellations. The astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, in the 2nd-century CE, consolidated this system to get rid of the inconvenience of precessional movement and attendant confusion (regarding the "mismatched" sidereal zodiac and tropical zodiac).

In summary: The 12-constellation zodiac arose during the Late Assyrian Period (the Assyrian Period began circa 1100 BCE) from a deliberate scheme which circa 1000 BCE placed 17/18 constellations/named stars (comprising of 12 existing constellations/stars previously used in marking the equatorially-centred system of the "three stars each," and 6 "new" constellations) for use as reference points along the path of the Moon. The development of the 12-constellation zodiac into 12 equal divisions (i.e., 30 degree signs) occurred later during the 5th-century BCE (for mathematical reasons). In its final form the use of the zodiac also included marking the movements of the planets.

After the Babylonians invented the 12-constellation zodiac they did not immediately regard it as especially important. However, they discarded the old reference system of the "three ways each." (With their establishment of the 12-constellation zodiac the Babylonians became the first to use the ecliptic as the primary celestial reference point. However, the Babylonians did not apparently consider the zodiac linked to the ecliptic. There does not appear to be a concept of the ecliptic within Babylonian astronomy.)

Mythologically, the Babylonians identified the 12 zodiacal signs with the twelve beasts slain by Marduk, along with Tiamat.

Appendix 1: The Mul.Apin list of (17/18) constellations/stars that marked the path of the Moon.

[See: Note 2 below.]

The list begins with MUL.MUL (Pleiades) and concludes with MUL.LU.HUN.GA (Hired Man = (Greek) Aries).

MUL.MUL [mul.mul] (= "The stars/the hair brush" (Pleiades).)

MUL.GUD.AN.NA [] (The "Bull of Heaven [the bull of Anu];" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations. (Greek zodiac: Taurus (the Bull).)

MUL.SIPA.ZI.AN.NA [] (= "The true shepherd of Anu" (Orion).)

MUL.SHU.GI [] (= The old man (Perseus).)

MUL.GAM [MUL.ZUBI] [zubi] (= The sickle sword [The hooked staff] (Auriga).)

MUL.MASH.TAB.BA.GAL.GAL [] (The "Great Twins;" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Gemini (the Twins).)

MUL.AL.LUL al.lul] (The "Crab;" [or Prokyon], later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Cancer (the Crab).)

MUL.UR.GU.LA [] (The "Lion;" [or Lioness], later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Leo (the Lion).)

MUL.AB.SIN [ab.sin] (The "Furrow [The barley-stalk];" [or Spica], later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Virgo (the Virgin).)

MUL.ZIB.BA.AN.NA [zi-ba-ni-tum] (The "Scales of Heaven [The balance];" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: originally "the Claws" (of the Scorpion) but the Romans later (re)introduced Libra (the Scales).)

MUL.GIR.TAB [] (The "Scorpion;" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Scorpius (the Scorpion).)

MUL.PA.BIL.SAG [pa.bil.sag] (The "Grandfather [Pabilsag (a god)];" [archer?], later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Sagittarius (the Archer).)

MUL.SUHUR.MASH [suhur.mas.ku6] (The "Goat fish;" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Capricornus (the Goat).)

MUL.GU.LA [] (The "Great One [The giant/the great star?];" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Aquarius (the Water-Carrier).)

MUL.ZIBBATI.MESH [MUL.KUN.MESH] [kun.mes] (= The tails (Pisces).)

MUL.SIM.MAH [sim.mah] (The "Great Swallow (SW Pisces [+ epsilon Pegasi);" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Pisces (the Fish).)

MUL.A.NU.TI.TUM [a-nu-ni-tum] (= Anunitum (a goddess) (NE Pisces (+ middle part of Andromeda)).)

MUL.LU.HUN.GA [] (The "Hired Man;" later to be one of the 12 ecliptic constellations.) (Greek zodiac: Aries (the Ram).)

[Note 1: On the uncertainty of 17/18 constellations Bartel van der Waerden (Science Awakening II: The Birth of Astronomy, 1974, Page 80) states: "The number 18 is not quite certain, because the 'tails' zibbati.mesh are probably to be taken together with both the following names ('tails of SHIM.MAH and Anunitum').

Note 2: As the exact identification of Babylonian constellations is still under debate the modern constellations listed as equivalents can, at best, only be considered as partly identical to them. In writing the constellation/star names I have attempted to follow modern convention and give the usual constellation transliterations which variously appear in both capitals or normal (roman) script (conventionally used to indicate Sumerian logographic spelling) and italics (conventionally used to indicate Akkadian) and a mix of the two conventions indicating joint use of both scripts.

Note 3: In June 2015 I received a query regarding a possible error in suggesting Procyon as part of an ancient constellation Cancer. Basically, "If the Greek constellation is Cancer and Cancer only, "Procyon" should say "Praesepe". If "Procyon" is correct, the Greek constellations would be Cancer and Canis Minor, because Procyon is the alpha star of Canis Minor." Some additional discussion is indicated as required. Part of the issue is the comparison is being made with early Greek constellations. There really is no exact identifications between Babylonian and later Greek constellations. The boundaries of the Babylonian constellations are not known. The Greek constellations and their boundaries only mostly became canonical with Eudoxus (there were later changes), but we do not know what the boundaries were until after the period of Aratus (circa 3rd-century BCE). Aratus does not mention Canis Minor in his Phainomena (but has Procyon among the weather signs). Until the 2nd-century BCE there is no evidence the Greeks recognised Canis Minor as a separate constellation/asterism. Ptolemy, in his Almagest catalogued only 2 stars comprising Canis Minor (1 being Procyon). The ancient Greek constellation boundaries generally lay beyond the visible stars. The article was written in the early 1990s and basically simplifies Bartel van der Waerden's 1952 article on the history of the zodiac. When writing the article I have begun considerations from 1952. Waerden has Procyon in his 1952 article and later book published 1974 in English. Werner Papke who I consider unreliable made the identification KAK.SI.DI = Procyon (not Sirius per Franz Kugler)) + AL.LUL = Sirius = Cancer. Ernst Weidner would have alluttu (crab) = Capricornus, not Cancer. Most have AL.LUL (= alluttu) = Cancer (crab). Most have NANGAR/NAGAR = Praesepe/Cancer, especially Praesepe. Some consider AL.LUL = allutu is likely but not suitably demonstrated, but the later NANGAR/NAGAR as suitably demonstrated. The conclusion that AL.LUL (Sumerian logogram) and alluttu (Akkadian) = Praesepe = (in) Cancer is still recent.Hunger and Pingree in Astral Sciences (1999) have other identifications (i.e., some particular stars in Cancer). Gennadij Kurtik and Alexander Militarev (2005) have: (1) for mulal.lul (mulal.lub) 'crayfish' or 'crab,' located in the area of modern Cancer; and (2) late use of NAGAR as name of constellation and zodiacal sign Cancer. Wayne Horowitz in his 2014 book on Babylonian "Astrolabes" has alluttu = Cancer.]

Appendix 2: The History of the 12 Zodiacal Constellations.

1. Cylinder seal iconography (Sumerian and Akkadian Period 3200-2000 BCE)

Note: It not established that constellations or constellation symbols are being depicted. (Note: In his study of Sassanian seals in the British Museum, Adrian Bivar sets out that these late examples of art are star maps representing astrological figures. (See: Adrian Bivar: Catalogue of the western Asiatic seals in the British Museum. Stamp seals. II: the Sassanian dynasty (1969.))

2. Prayer to the gods of the night texts (Old Babylonian Period 1830-1530 BCE)

Note: The name of the "Bull of Heaven" (mul in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven has the same name as the bull constellation Taurus.

3. Prayer to the gods of the night text (Hittite Empire circa 1430-1200 BCE)

Note: Hittite cuneiform text from the Hittite capital Boghazköy (based on an earlier Babylonian original of the prayer to the gods of the night).

4. Babylonian boundary-stone (kudurru) iconography (Cassite Period 1530-1160 BCE)

Note: It not established that constellations or constellation symbols are being depicted. It is established that god/goddess symbols are depicted. The texts which we have concerning Babylonian zodiacal iconography are few. It is difficult to say whether the signs of the zodiac of the Seleucid period (312-64 BCE) are derived from the god/goddess symbols inscribed on kudurru.

5. Hilprecht's Nippur Text HS 245 (= HS 229) (Cassite Period 1530-1160 BCE)

6. Stars of Elam, Akkad, and Amurru (Cassite Period circa 1350 BCE)

Note: The recent work of the assyriologist Wayne Horowitz indicates that this particular system of stars is actually later than - not earlier than - the "astrolabe" systems.

7. Circular "astrolabe" (circa 1150 BCE)

8. Tabular "astrolabe": Stars of Anu (circa 1100 BCE)

9. Assyrian monthly decans (after 1100 BCE)

Note: Following Babylonian Menologies and the Semitic Calendars by Stephen Langdon (1935), which is based on Astrolabe Pinches. Astrolabe P(inches) not a cuneiform text, but a modern composite reconstruction (compilation) made by the pioneering British assyriologist Theophilus Pinches from four different texts in the British Museum.

10. Late Assyrian version of prayer to the gods of the night (Late Assyrian Period 1000-612 BCE)

11. Mul.Apin series (circa 1000-700 BCE)

Appendix 3: The Tropical Points and Precession.

It would appear the Babylonian had no deep interest in, or sophisticated understanding of, the tropical points. Their basic method for determining the tropical points was to simply observe the summer solstice and the position of the other solstice and the equinoxes was found by adding approximately 3, 6, or 9 months.

In the Neo-Babylonian period (also known as the Chaldean Empire, began in 626 BCE and ended in 539 BCE) the beginning of the New Year was determined by means of observing the appearance of certain constellations. Numerous cuneiform tablets make this clear. In the Mul.Apin series of the 1st-millennium BCE Mul.Mul (= Pleiades) was the star group that functioned to mark the new year (the first of Nisan). In the spring when the Pleiades rose heliacally on the eastern horizon (just before sunrise) in conjunction with the first visible crescent Moon on the western horizon (at dusk) it marked the first day of the month Nisan (and the beginning of the new year). See for example the discussion by Johann Schaumberger in Ergan. 3 (1935, Pages 340-344).

The Babylonian astronomers who first originated the zodiac chose not to measure the zodiac from an invisible point they were unable to observe. It was easier for them to observe the fixed stars. The Babylonian zodiac was always fixed sidereally.

The Babylonians simply placed the tropical points in the middle of the relevant signs (i.e., 15º "Aries" per Mul.Apin) or related them to fixed stars (i.e., put the vernal equinox at 10º Hired Man ("Aries") per System A, or 8º Hired Man ("Aries") per System B. They never established the vernal point at 0º Hired Man ("Aries"). However, either system (10º Hire Man ("Aries") per System A, or 8º Hired Man ("Aries") per System B) may not be referring to points on the sidereal zodiac. Hunger/Pingree (1999, Page 224) point out: "The difference in the longitudes can just as easily refer to a difference in the locations of the beginning of the constellation called Hired Man as to a difference in the locations relative to a fixed star of the Vernal Equinox point." (A particular term for the vernal equinox was established in Babylonian astronomy (but perhaps only circa the Late Assyrian Period or Neo-Babylonian Period of Babylonian astronomy).

"Neugebauer explains … as follows: Looking at what we may superficially call coordinate systems in Babylonian astronomy we notice two greatly different approaches which exist side by side during the whole Seleucid period. On the one hand we have a straightforward ecliptical coordinate system in the ephemerides with a sidereally fixed vernal point, called Aries 10 in System A, Aries 8 in System B. On the other hand the 'Diaries,' the 'Goal-Year texts,' and the 'Normal Star Almanacs' describe positions of the planets and of the Moon with respect to a set of 31 reference stars, called 'Normal Stars,' in Epping’s terminology. The ecliptic with its division into 12 signs is present in these texts but the positions of the celestial bodies are related to the Normal Stars not by coordinates counted in degrees but by distances measured in 'cubits' and 'fingers'." ("Celestial Measurement in Babylonian Astronomy." by John Steele (Annals of Science, Volume 64, Number 3, 2007, Pages 293-325.)

When the zodiacal system was first being devised (over the period circa 700 BCE to 400 BCE) precession had not been discovered (and anyway was irrelevant for a sidereal zodiacal scheme).

When the Greeks fixed the zodiac to the tropical points then precessional movement displaced the signs from their associated background constellations. (That the vernal point moved was not at first taken for granted by most persons.) Hence we know have two zodiacs, the tropical or moving zodiac, which is measured from the 4 tropical points, and the sidereal zodiac that relates to the actual constellation patterns marked out along the ecliptic. The resulting "mismatched" constellational (sidereal) zodiac and schematic sign (tropical) zodiac are the legacy of a slow and unplanned development that extended across cultural borders.

Appendix 4: The Origin of Aries the Ram.

"The first sign of the zodiac, represented since Roman times as a ram, was originally referred to by the Babylonians as MUL.LU.HUN.GA (Akk. "the hireling." Two orthographic variants encountered include the transparent abbreviations (MUL.)HUN and and HUN.GA. A third variant (MUL.)LU, common to Seleucid astronomical texts, is generally taken to be a homophonic substitution for the otherwise unattested abbreviation *LU. The LU-sign, however, may also be read UDU, the usual Sumerogram for Akk. immeru "a ram." Since the HUN and LU signs are paleographically quite similar in the late Babylonian ductus and the celestial hireling was equated with Dumuzi, the shepherd par excellence of Sumerian literature, some form of punning may have led to the metamorphosis of this sign from the hireling to the ram in Hellenistic Babylonia rather than later and elsewhere. Seals depicting rams en passant, with heads forward or reversed, are known from throughout the Hellenistic period in Uruk." ("Zodiacal Signs among the Seal Impressions from Hellenistic Uruk" by Ronald Wallenfels (Pages 282-283). In: The Tablet and the Scroll, edited by Mark Cohen, et. al. (1993).)

Babylonian astronomy listed the zodiacal constellations in a fixed order beginning with the Bull (Taurus). In Greek astronomy the zodiacal constellations began with the Ram (Aries). (Note: Aries is given as convenience for The Hired Man when in fact Aries means The Hired Man in Babylonian uranography.)

Appendix 5: The Zodiac: Babylonian or Greek?

Before being used for astrological speculation the zodiac was an astronomical development whose stages are recoverable from Babylonian astronomical cuneiform texts dating from circa 1000 BCE with the Mul.Apin series. The zodiac of signs was invented for use as a reference point in mathematical astronomy. The Babylonian origin of the zodiac is assured on the basis of cuneiform documentation. (In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy (2010) by Francesca Rochberg (Chapter Seven: Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology); The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (2004) by Francesca Rochberg (Chapter 4: Sources for Horoscopes in Astronomical Texts).) Babylonian equivalents of the names of constellations later used for the divisions of the zodiac occur in Babylonian star lists and other cuneiform texts of the 1st-millennium BCE. The earliest cuneiform evidence for the existence of the 12-sign 'ecliptic' zodiac comes from 5th-century BCE astronomical diaries (Number -453 iv 2, Number -440 rev.3', and Number -418:5, 10 rev.8' and 14'). (Babylonian Horoscopes (1998) by Francesca Rochberg (Chapter 3: Elements of a Babylonian Zodiac).) The concept of the zodiac cannot be found anywhere else before the 5th-century BCE (the pre-Seleucid, Babylonian Persian (Achaemenid) Period).

A further difficulty with any claim for Greek priority is the Greek zodiac was completed rather late. The constellations Aries and Sagittarius were added by Cleostratus, and the Balance is probably due to Hipparchus. In Greek mythology, Pisces is connected with the river Euphrates. The division of the zodiac (ecliptic) into 360 equal parts (degrees) was not known to Eudoxus. (The first Greek astronomical text to divide the zodiac into 360 degrees was, On the Ascension of the Stars, by Hypsicles of Alexandria (flourished circa 190-120 BCE).)

Appendix 6: The Development of the Zodiac.

In Mesopotamia the zodiac was conceived of as a band through which the planets move. (The sun, moon, and planets move along the zodiac at differing rates.) (The zodiacal band was where planetary events took place. Certainly it was not conceived of as a 360 degree circle.

"The zodiac was almost certainly constructed through analogy with the ideal year of twelve 30-day months. The sun moves at approximately one degree per day through the zodiac, completing a circuit in one year. In the ideal calendar, therefore, the Sun can be taken to move at a mean rate of exactly one degree per day. This assumption underlies the Dodekatemoria and Kalendertext schemes. The parallelism of the zodiac and the calendar is illustrated by the occasional use of the names of the months in place of the names of zodiacal signs in Babylonian texts. It also explains why Aries was taken to be the first sign of the zodiac since the Sun is in Aries during the first month of the year in the Babylonian calendar during the Late Babylonian period. ... The zodiac consisting of twelve signs named after constellations is first attested in the fifth century BC. A zodiacal sign is an abstract division of a path through the sky, bounded by imaginary borders, and named after one of the constellations through which the Sun passes during a year. [T]here are no gaps between neighbouring signs .... The earliest references to zodiacal signs in the Diaries and related texts probably appear in the Diary for -453, although the terminology is occasionally ambiguous in differentiating between zodiacal constellations and signs in fifth-century BC Diaries." ("Celestial Measurement in Babylonian Astronomy." by John Steele (Annals of Science, Volume 64, Number 3, 2007, Pages 293-325.)

The invention/consolidation of the zodiac circa 420 BCE resulted from the growing need for an exact frame of reference as the Babylonian astronomers became more involved with mathematical computation and measurement. The zodiac was designed to be an accurate way of charting celestial movements in a map-like form. Beginning in the 5th-century BCE, the zodiac was marked by 12 30-degree arcs fixed on the celestial sphere. The positions of the moon and planets are marked in astronomical diaries using degrees within the zodiacal signs (but without recognising an actual celestial sphere). Babylonian texts usually expressed the position of the moon and the planets by both the zodiacal sign and the degrees in it, measured from the beginning of that sign. Thus the location of the moon and planets are not only related to other celestial objects, but determined in relation to space itself. Additionally, the zodiac was also concurrently combined with ideas of celestial influences over human affairs and this stimulated the appearance of new genres of astral magic and astral medicine.

"One can posit the following steps in the development of the zodiac, although it must be said that our knowledge of how the zodiac was first developed is provisional. The division of the schematic calendar into 12 months of 30 days each, such as was used in MUL.APIN, the Astrolabes, and Enūma Anu Enlil, could be correlated with twelve constellations through which the sun was found to travel in one ideal "year" of twelve 30-day months. Because the spring equinox, which was always close to the beginning of the Babylonian year, was to occur in Nisannu (I.15 according to the tradition of MUL.APIN) then Nisannu, or month I, was when the sun was in the constellation Aries (MUL.LÚ.HUN.GA = Agru "the hired man"). For each ideal month, the sun's position in the sky could be identified by the name of a constellation but schematized to correlate the sun's passage through the constellations with the twelve 30-day intervals. The result would be an association of twelve 30-day months and twelve constellations, later standardized to intervals of 30º along the ecliptic." (The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (2004) by Francesca Rochberg (Chapter 4: Sources for Horoscopes in Astronomical Texts, Page 129).)

Appendix 7: Babylonian Terms and Measures for the Zodiac.

Babylonian zodiac: lu-maš-meš (plural)

Zodiacal sign: lu-maš (singular)

Each zodiacal sign was divided into 30 uš (literally 'time degree' = 1 degree; used to measure time in degrees)

The subdivision of the uš was the ninda (1/60th of 1 uš  is 1 ninda)

LA šá MÚL = "the (1/12th) part of the zodiacal sign" (the dodekatemoria, the division of each zodiacal sign into twelve parts)

Note: The zodiac cannot be observed directly. The boundaries between the zodiacal signs of 12 equal parts are invisible constructs. Stars were used to mark points in the zodiac. "... Huber (1958) shows that the Babylonians could determine the beginnings of zodiacal signs in the sky from their distances from Normal Stars. The dates of entries into zodiacal signs in the Diaries are the results of observations." (Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia by Hunger/Pingree (1999), Page 146.)

 Appendix 8: The Earliest Star Lists.

The first formal (but not canonical) compendium of constellation/star lists only appear circa the mid 12th-century BCE. These are the Three Stars Each (kakkabū texts (i.e., star calendars). These constellation/star lists also appear in the omen series Enuma Anu Enlil which was consolidated sometime in the last quarter of the 2nd-millennium BCE.

The second formal (but not canonical) compendium of constellation/star lists appears circa 1100 BCE. This second (expanded) and more accurate compendium, basically derived from the Three Stars Each texts/lists, appears in the two-tablet Mul.Apin series. Both schemes are based on a tripartite division of the sky: the northern path of the god Enlil, the middle path of the god Anu, and the southern path of the god Ea. In the Three Stars Each scheme the 12 stars in each path are also individually placed into 12 sectors dividing the 3 paths.

Two Middle Babylonian Period astronomical tablets (HS 1897 and BM 55502 (82-7-4, 76) contain close examples of a star/constellation catalogue in KAV 218 (= Astrolabe B). However, though related to the 36-star tradition of the Astrolabes they also contain a 30-star tradition (ie., 10 stars each in the paths of Enlil, Anu, and Ea). The Middle Babylonian tablet HS 1897, from Nippur, sets out the earlier 30-star catalogue.

The use of 30 stars of Enlil, Anu, and Ea would appear to show a 2nd-millennium BCE tradition of listing stars in groups of 10 (i.e., 3 x 10; 10 stars each in the paths of Enlil, Anu, and Ea). That is a division into 30 individual sectors comprising 3 concentric bands (rings) each divided by 10 radial lines. These would be important - not monthly - stars.) Both BM 55502 and HS 1897 preserve catalogues listing 30 stars - 10 stars each for the three paths of the sky. (The term concentric describes the "three ways" drawn on the circular astrolabes but they were not 3 concentric spheres (layers) in the sky but rather 3 parallel bands (of stars), with the central band occupying (but not identifying) the equatorial region. Ernst Weidner, and other, in the early 20th-century thought the circular astrolabes indicated 3 concentric spheres for the three paths of Ea, Anu, and Enlil.)

This scheme was later replaced by a scheme of 12 stars for each of the three paths of the sky (3 x 12 = 36). (One star for each country/path and each month. The paths of Ea, Anu, and Enlil perhaps derive from the stars of Elam, Akkad, and Amurru.) However, the 30-star tradition scheme existed alongside the later 36-star scheme for circa the millennium between HS 1897 (late 2nd-millennium (early middle period)) and BM 55502 (late middle period).

Appendix 9: 12-Constellation Greek Zodiac

The archaic Greek zodiac of the Aratean-Eratosthenic period was comprised of 11 figures positioned along the ecliptic. This was due to the Babylonians originally counting/calling the "Claws" of the Scorpion as a distinct part of a double constellation. In the Hellenistic period, Greek astronomers at first called this constellation "Claws"/"Claws of the Scorpion" and included it with the Scorpion. The 12 constellation zodiac  of the Greek-Roman world originated in the 1st-century CE with the introduction of the Libra  (Balance) (in place of the Claws of the Scorpion). The different versions survive in a number of different celestial maps (likely produced to support to the comprehension of the first part of the Phaenomena) depicting either the Greek Aratean tradition or the later Latin Aratean tradition.

In the adoption of the Babylonian zodiac to Greece (1) the "wage-laborer" became the ram, (2) the winged centaur archer became a silent archer, (3) the spikes (the ears) was connected the maiden, (4) the scales were replaced by Scorpion's claws (and later the scales were reintroduced by the Romans), (5) and the goatfish was replaced by Capricorn.

Note: The word "zodiac" goes back to the Greek zōdiacōs, which, in turn, stems from zōon "animal" or "imagine, figure."

Appendix 10: The Case of Ophiuchus as a Modern Zodiacal Constellation

The sun now passes through 13 constellations, Though the constellation Ophiuchus (the serpent bearer) was not included in the original Babylonian zodiac, the Sun now spends more time in this large constellation than the nearby zodiacal constellation Scorpius (the Scorpion). For example, In 2003 the sun spent less than a week in Scorpius and just over 2 weeks in Ophiuchus. This anomaly is due to the redrawing of the constellation boundaries by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1928.

Note: On the Greek sphere the foot of Ophiuchus lay across the ecliptic.

Appendix 11: Persistent Myths

Two persistent myths are: (1) the existence of Sumerian constellations, and (2) the zodiac originating with the Sumerians. There is scant evidence for the former belief and the extant cuneiform evidence clearly establishes the falsehood of the latter belief. Currently web sites still persist in erroneously claiming that either the constellations or the zodiac were part of the historical record of Mesopotamia circa 4000 BCE. It is still mistakenly believed that the constellation Taurus has one of the longest histories of the zodiacal constellations. Also, the erroneous statement is still made that the Sumerians placed the Vernal Equinox in Taurus. There is no convincing evidence - really no evidence - to prove that the vernal equinox was first marked in Taurus or that Taurus was the lead constellation of an extremely antique zodiac.

Appendix 12: Theories of a Proto-/Paleo-Zodiac (i.e., Gradualist Theory of Zodiacal Origins)

The ideas are very speculative and vary widely. It seems that mostly they deal with the topic of precursors.

1. Peter Jensen: Die Kosmologie der Babylonier (1890).

2. Friedrich Röck: "Der Palaeozodiacus, die prähistorische Urform unseres Tierkreises." (Memnon, Band VI, 1913, Pages 147-176).

3. Harding, Arthur. (1935). Astronomy. (Page 252). (Harding was Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of Arkansas.)

4. Alexander Gurshtein: "On the Origin of the Zodiacal Constellations." (Vistas in Astronomy, Volume 36, 1993, Pages 171-190). (This is his earliest paper on the issue.)

5. Verderame, Lorenzo. (2009). "The Primeval Zodiac: Its Social, Religious, and Mythological Background." In: J. A. Rubiño-Martín et al. (Editors). Cosmology Across Cultures, ASP Conference Series 409. (Pages 151-156).

6. Juan Antonio Belmonte: "The Voyages of the Zodiac." SEAC (European Society for Astronomy in Culture) 2011 paper. (Conference proceedings published through BAR (British Archaeological Reports).)

Appendix 13: Mistaken Idea of Perpendicular Division of Zodiac

The early claim that the Babylonian zodiac was divided perpendicularly shows confusion and is untenable; it is demonstrable that the Babylonians only divided it longitudinally. The same for the Babylonian scheme of sky divisions known as the "Three Ways Each."

Return to top of page.

This web page was last updated on: Tuesday, September 1 2020, 12.30 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):

Return To Site Contents Page