Omens in the Stars: A Brief History of Babylonian Astrology

Depiction of the Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal Depiction of the Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal pixabay.com

The roots of Western astrology can be traced back to the ancient people of Mesopotamia; the most detailed, surviving records of the origins of astrology are found in the archaeological remains of the ancient cities of Babylonia. Some of the oldest recorded astrological tablets date back to Babylonian civilization from 2400 BCE.[1] Records show this region settled as early as 4000 BCE and growing into the cultural region known as Babylonia—is what is presently known as Iraq.[2] Early astrological practices from the region consisted of observing and recording the movement of the planets against the backdrop of the fixed stars.

Babylonian (Chaldean) astrologers created the foundation for what would become Hellenistic and Greek astrological practices. Many of the early Babylonian astrological frameworks remain in place via Western astrology. The ancient astrology practices developed over millennia intertwine thought between the science discipline, including astronomy, while borrowing from religious circles. There exists little archival evidence regarding astrology practices in Sumer and Canaan (pre-Babylonian). There was also very little distinction between astronomy and astrology through the Renaissance. Hellenistic and later the Greek additions to the practice heavily influence today’s American horoscope tradition and the predicting of life events for an individual.

The Use of Omens

The Babylonian astronomers were some of the first peoples to carefully observe the heavens, mapping the pathways of the sun, moon, and visible planets, including Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.[3] It is well documented that magic played a predominant role in Assyrian and Babylonian religions. The religions also played a significant role in developing culture. Omens were a crucial piece of ancient Mesopotamian religious life, and these omens were viewed as prophetic messages that were received directly from deities. In the context of astrology, detailed lists of omens were created based on predictive astronomical events. In Babylonian religions, planets were not viewed as gods, but as messages or celestial representations of the gods. Here is an example of a Babylonian astrological omen:

If in Nisannu the normal sunrise (looks) sprinkled with blood: there will be battles in the country.[4]

The omens were generally written in a format such as: “if ‘x’ appears, then ‘y’ occurs.” Nisannu is referring to the time of year, springtime. Early Babylonian astrology and religions focused on specific kings being in favor with gods. The omens created could be mitigated by engaging in particular rituals or providing offerings to the god having astral ties to the movements of the particular planet and luminary.

Babylonian astrology developed in a linear fashion, in a succession of periods. The first period is referred to as the Old Babylonia Period followed by the Middle Period and later the Neo-Assyrian Period. The structures of astrology carried over into the Seleucid period around 300 BCE where we can see the amalgamation of Babylonian astrological techniques developing into Hellenistic techniques which would later be advanced by Greek scholars.

The Enuma Anu Enlil

The Enuma Anu Enlil are multiple clay tablets detailing celestial events and omens written in cuneiform script. These tablets have provided historians with a vast amount of knowledge regarding early Babylonian astrology. The tablets have been found in fragments, re-organized and revised throughout centuries of astrological record keeping in Mesopotamia. The Enuma Anu Enlil hold records of the movements of the Sun, Moon, eclipses, and information regarding the five visible planets. The well-studied “Venus Tablet of Ammisadaque” tablet (number 63) details the visible movements of the “evening and morning star” (Venus) known as Ishtar in the Babylonian pantheon.[5]

The title Enuma Anu Enlil means “When Anu Enlil.” In the Mesopotamian pantheon Anu was worshipped as a god of the sky while his son Enlil was worshipped as a god of weather and storms. This title seems appropriate in the context of astrological texts considering the prevalence of meteorological terminology in contemporary astrological practice. The use of “planetary weather” and “forecast” are often used in modern astrological analysis to describe upcoming solar, lunar, and planetary events. Creating symbolic interpretations based on astronomical observations remains a predominant aspect of modern astrology.

Far-Reaching Influences

Babylonian astrological techniques had widespread influence. Much of the astrological evidence has been discovered around the cultural center of Babylonia. Found at the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa contain numerous tablets detailing lunar eclipse omens along with rare solar eclipse omens in Old Babylonian. Texts from this tablet originating in ancient Babylonia have been found throughout Mesopotamia and the surrounding area in fragments and excerpts translated in languages such as Akkadian and Hittite.[6]

The most detailed information we have on Babylonian Astrology was found in the Neo-Assyrian (900-600BCE) royal library. Later, around the 5th century astrologers began using a sidereal zodiac[7] , which was developed based on dividing the sky into equal sections of 30 degrees based on a 360 degree circle as viewed from the earth in relation to the apparent path of the Sun to the fixed stars.

Astrology also began to shift its focus from the welfare of the state to be able to apply to the life of the individual based on the birthdate around 700 - 500 BCE. During the rulership of King Ashurbanipal during the 7th century an extensive research library in the city of Ninevah was said to have been assembled which would later be taken over by the Babylonians.[8] Evidence of this information is detailed in letters and correspondences throughout the Babylonian region uncovering the King’s use of daily astrological reports provided by his scholars.[9] Traditional Babylonian astrology was still present but astrological omens were quickly becoming less popular.

The Structures of Babylonian Astrology

Taken from observations and fit into the schematization created by the astrologers the movement of the Moon and Sun in the following categories appear to be of particular importance: month, day, and duration along with direction. The Moon was viewed as having four quadrants to include the following: Akkad to the South, Subartu to the North, Elam to the East, Amurru to the West. Other areas of interest included the quality of the eclipse or event such as color and brightness. Depending on which quadrant of the planet was being eclipsed would allow astrologers to divine the correct omen and in turn imply which ritual should be engaged in.

The sky was also divided into three sections associated with the names of a different deity including: Anu (god of the sky), Enlil (god of the weather), and Ea (god of water). Each of the planets was associated with a different deity and as detailed on the Enuma Anu Enlil tablets describing what are favorable days based on the Sun or planetary position in the sky and in turn the deities influence over the lives of the people. For example, the 20th of the month was said to be Shamash (god of the Sun) day which “exults with mirth and joy.” In other areas of the texts it lists the 18th of the month to be Shamash’s “bright day.”[10] In Babylonian calendar structure the month was based on the phases of the Moon. The New Moon would start off the month and the Full Moon was a notable day in the 29.5 day lunar cycle. Each month was associated with a different zodiac sign and deity.

The Planets

It is well documented that the Babylonians tracked the planets and associated each with a deity. The table below details the similarities between the name of the planet used in modern day astrology, the name of the Mesopotamian deity, and that deity’s correspondence.

--Modern Planet Name- -Presiding Deity- -Mesopotamian Correspondences--
 Moon  Sin  God of Fertility & Cattle
 Sun  Shamash  God of Justice and Truth
 Mercury  Nabu  God of Wisdom and Writing
 Venus  Ishtar  Goddess of Sexuality and Warfare
 Mars  Nergal  God of Death, Underworld, Plague
 Saturn  Ninurta  God of Healing and Agriculture
 Jupiter  Marduk  Patron of City of Babylon

 

In reviewing this list it is evident how the deity associated with the particular planet has had a pervasive influence on modern astrological interpretation today. For example, the god Nabu is associated with writing which has become a cornerstone for modern interpretation of Mercury’s placement in the natal chart as symbolizes in the way in which one communicates, speak, or writes.

Rituals in Connection to the Planets

Based on detailed astronomical phenomena such as conjunctions between two planets or Venus being visible in the early morning or evening would prompt particular rituals or astral medicine to be employed. For example, an omens which recorded a conjunction between Saturn and Mars on January 23 669 provided recommendations to the king to chant to the god Saturn.[11]

Countless rituals exist in the Enuma Anu Enlil texts accompanying amazing astronomical observations. According to the texts each planet’s movements symbolized particular energy, typically associated with the deity identified with it. Ishtar was seen as benefic or malefic depending on if Venus rose in the morning or evening sky. Mars was typically seen as malefic bring sickness, disease, and war. Saturn was often seen as benefic and associated with the Sun god Shamash; which is an interesting departure from the late Babylonian and Greek associations with this planet. Mercury was called what has been interpreted in the texts as “the jumping one” most likely due to its quick movement through the zodiac.[12] The ritual, sacrifice, or offering would be implied based on the location, favorability, and planets involved.

Fixed Stars and The Zodiac

The Babylonians were known to have mapped out the fixed stars and various constellations. Names were given to the constellations and prior to specific “zodiac signs” the seeming planetary movement through each constellation appeared to hold significance. Two tablets dating from around 700 BC named the mul-APIN detail the rising of a multitude of starts with corresponding deities and rising times creating some of the earliest known star catalogues.[13] The original Babylonian zodiac recognized 17 or 18 constellations or “signs” later breaking them down into the 12 equal signs that would be adopted by the Greeks and Egyptians. This was structured around 2 stars Aldebaran at 15° Taurus and Anatares at 15° Scorpio.[14]

As found in the mul-APAIN here are some of the Babylonian names for some of the constellations listed as transliterations in Ulla Koch-Westenholz’s book Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination:

  • Aries= lu.hun.ga = “Hired Man”
  • Cancer = al.lul = “Crayfish”
  • Libra = zi-ba-ni-tum = “Scales”
  • Capricorn= sugar.mas.ku = “Goatfish”
  • Leo = ur.gu.la = “Lion”
  • Scorpio = gir.tab = “Scorpio”
  • Aquarius = gu.la = “The Great”
  • Taurus = gu.an.na = “The Bull of Heaven”
  • Sagittarius = pa.bil. sag = Unknown
  • Pisces = sim.mah = “Swallow”
  • Gemini = mas.tab.ba.gal.gal = “The Twins”
  • Virgo = ab.sin = “Furrow”

Conclusion

In conclusion it is evident that several aspects of the later period Babylonian astrology permeated the development of astrological techniques later found in Greece where astrology would eventually develop into horoscope astrology based on the date of one’s birth. From Babylonian astrology we can see the role divinatory astrology has taken; providing human’s with knowledge of events to come symbolized by the movement of the planets against the backdrop of the stars. These omens and predictive techniques would give the king and later individuals an opportunity to prepare for events to come through ritual and offerings. This is mirrored today in astrology as upcoming transits and planetary weather is carefully tracked by astrologers in order to give advice based on the quality of the upcoming transits. Many of the mythologies and deity correspondences have pervaded the modern meaning of the planets. Another vestige of Babylonian astrology includes the often ominous approach to solar and lunar eclipses. Overall the foundation of astrological observation, the naming and correspondences of planets with deity, and the foundational structure of the 12 sign sidereal zodiac are remnants present in modern day astrology.

This article has been contributed by Emma Wilson, a contributor for Numerology Sign


Notes 

[1] Kevin Burk, Astrology Understanding the Birth Chart (Woodbury, MI: Llewelyn, 2008)

[2] “Babylonia.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 12, 2016. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://britannica.com/place/Babylonia 

[3] Watters, Thomas R. Planets Smithsonian Guide. New York, NY: Siman and Schuster Mcmillan Company, 1995.

[4] https://www.thelivingmoon.com/42stargate/03files/Sumerian_Astronomy_02.html 

[5] Powell, Marvin A. “Babylonian Planetary Omens, Pt 1. The Venus Tablet of Ammisadaque. Erica Reiner.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 38, no. 3 (1979): 218-19 doi: 1086/372747.

[6] Koch-Westenholz, Ulla. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination. Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institiute Near Easter Studies, 1995. pg. 44-45

[7] Powell, Robert “The Ancient Babylonian Sidereal Zodiac and the Modern Astronomical Zodiac” 2011. https://www.academia.edu/10266886/The_Ancient_Babylonian_Sidereal_Zodiac_and_the_Modern_Astronomical_Zodiac 

[8] Koch-Westenholz, Ulla. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination. Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institiute Near Easter Studies, 1995.

[9] Koch-Westenholz, Ulla, pg. 52

[10] Koch-Westenholz, Ulla, pg. 113

[11] Koch-Westenholz, Ulla, pg. 125.

[12] Koch-Westenholz, Ulla, pg. 128.

[13] Powell, Robert “The Ancient Babylonian Sidereal Zodiac and the Modern Astronomical Zodiac” 2011. https://www.academia.edu/10266886/The_Ancient_Babylonian_Sidereal_Zodiac_and_the_Modern_Astronomical_Zodiac 

[14] Powell, Robert.


Sources

Burk, Kevin. Astrology Understanding the Birth Chart. Woodbury, MI: Llewelyn, 1967.

Babylonia.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 12, 2016. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://britannica.com/place/Babylonia 

Hunger, Hermann. (2005). The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture by Francesca Rochberg. Aestimatio : Critical Reviews in the History of Science. 1.

Koch-Westenholz, Ulla. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination. Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institiute Near Easter Studies, 1995.

Powell, Marvin A. “Babylonian Planetary Omens, Pt 1. The Venus Tablet of Ammisadaque. Erica Reiner.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 38, no. 3 (1979): 218-19 doi: 1086/372747.

Powell, Robert “The Ancient Babylonian Sidereal Zodiac and the Modern Astronomical Zodiac” 2011. https://www.academia.edu/10266886/The_Ancient_Babylonian_Sidereal_Zodiac_and_the_Modern_Astronomical_Zodiac 

“Stargate Sumerian Astronomical Knowledge” https://www.thelivingmoon.com/42stargate/03files/Sumerian_Astronomy_02.html 

Watters, Thomas R. Planets Smithsonian Guide. New York, NY: Siman and Schuster Mcmillan Company, 1995.

“Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddess” https://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/nabu/index.html