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Nascence of the Babylonian Zodiac

“ANCIENT Chaldea was undoubtedly the birth place of that mysterious science of astrology which was destined to exert such influence upon the European mind during the Middle Ages, and which indeed has not yet ceased to amuse the curious and flatter the hopes of the credulous.

Whether any people more primitive than the Akkadians had studied the movements of the stars it would indeed be extremely difficult to say. This the Akkadians or Babylonians were probably the first to attempt. The plain of Mesopotamia is peculiarly suited to the study of the movements of the stars. It is level for the most part, and there are few mountains around which moisture can collect to obscure the sky. Moreover the climate greatly assists such observations.

Like most primitive people the Babylonians originally believed the stars to be pictures drawn on the heavens. At a later epoch they were described as the “writing of heaven;” the sky was supposed to be a great vault, and the movements observed by these ancient astronomers were thought to be on the part of the stars alone.

Of course it would be noticed at an early stage that some of the stars seemed fixed while others moved about. Lines were drawn between the various stars and planets, and the figures which resulted from these were regarded as omens.

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.  The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.  Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London. http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl.htm

Assyrian star planisphere found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (Aššur-bāni-apli – reigned 668-627 BCE) at Nineveh.
The function of this unique 13-cm diameter clay tablet, in which the principal constellations are positioned in eight sectors, is disputed. The texts and drawings appear to be astro-magical in nature.
Kuyunjik Collection, British Museum, K 8538 [= CT 33, 10]. London.
http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl.htm

Again, certain groups or constellations were connected with such lines which led them to be identified with various animals, and in this we may observe the influence of animism. The Babylonian zodiac was, with the exception of the sign of Merodach, identified with the eleven monsters forming the host of Tiawath.

The first complete reconstruction of the Babylonian heavens in the modern era. For more information the reader is referred to ‘Babylonian Star-lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia’ by Gavin White.  © 2007, Gavin White. http://solariapublications.com/2011/10/25/map-2-full-reconstruction-of-the-babylonian-star-map/

The first complete reconstruction of the Babylonian heavens in the modern era.
For more information the reader is referred to Babylonian Star-lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia, by Gavin White.
© 2007, Gavin White.
http://solariapublications.com/2011/10/25/map-2-full-reconstruction-of-the-babylonian-star-map/

Thus it would seem that the zodiacal system as a whole originated in Babylonia. The knowledge of the Chaldean astronomers appears to have been considerable, and it is likely that they were familiar with most of the constellations known to the later Greeks.

The following legend is told regarding the origin of astrology by Maimonides, the famous Jewish rabbi and friend of Averroes, in his commentary on the Mischnah :

“ In the days of Enos, the son of Seth, the sons of Adam erred with great error: and the council of the wise men of that age became brutish; and Enos himself was of them that erred. And their error was this: they said,—

Forasmuch as God hath created these stars and spheres to govern the world, and hath set them on high, and hath imparted honour unto them, and they are ministers that minister before Him, it is meet that men should laud and glorify and give them honour.

For this is the will of God that we laud and magnify whomsoever He magnifieth and honoureth, even as a king would honour them that stand before him. And this is the honour of the king himself.

When this thing was come up into their hearts they began to build temples unto the stars, and to offer sacrifice unto them, and to laud and magnify them with words, and to worship before them, that they might, in their evil opinion, obtain favour of their Creator.

And this was the root of idolatry; for in process of time there stood up false prophets among the sons of Adam, which said, that God had commanded them and said unto them,—

Worship such a star, or all the stars, and do sacrifice unto them thus and thus; and build a temple for it, and make an image of it, that all the people, women and children, may worship it.

And the false prophet showed them the image which he had feigned out of his own heart, and said that it was the image of that star which was made known to him by prophecy.

And they began after this manner to make images in temples, and under trees, and on the tops of mountains and hills, and assembled together and worshipped them; and this thing was spread through all the world to serve images, with services different one from another, and to sacrifice unto and worship them.

So, in process of time, the glorious and fearful Name was forgotten out of the mouth of all living, and out of their knowledge, and they acknowledged Him not.

And there was found on earth no people that knew aught, save images of wood and stone, and temples of stone which they had been trained up from their childhood to worship and serve, and to swear by their names; and the wise men that were among them, the priests and such like, thought that there was no God save the stars and spheres, for whose sake, and in whose likeness, they had made these images; but as for the Rock Everlasting, there was no man that did acknowledge Him or know Him save a few persons in the world, as Enoch, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem, and Heber.

And in this way did the world work and converse, till that pillar of the world, Abram our father, was born.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 231-3.

Hymns On the Seven Matu Gods

An Accadian hymn about the Seven Harmful Spirits:

  1. “They are the destructive reptiles, even the winds that create evil!
  2. as an evil reptile, as an evil wind, do they appear!
  3. as an evil reptile, as an evil wind, who marches in front are they !
  4. Children monstrous (gitmalutu), monstrous sons are they!
  5. Messengers of the pest-demon are they!
  6. Throne-bearers of the goddess of Hades are they!
  7. The whirlwind (mátu) which is poured upon the land are they!
  8. The seven are gods of the wide-spread heaven.
  9. The seven are gods of the wide-spread earth.
  10. The seven are gods of the (four) zones.
  11. The seven are gods seven in number.
  12. Seven evil gods are they!
  13. Seven evil demons are they!
  14. Seven evil consuming spirits are they!
  15. In heaven are they seven, in earth are they seven!”
Four faced wind demon. Old Babylonian Period, 18th-17th century B.C. Purchased in Baghdad, 1930 Oriental Institute Museum A7119 University of Chicago https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Four faced wind demon. Old Babylonian Period, 18th-17th century B.C.
Purchased in Baghdad, 1930
Oriental Institute Museum A7119
University of Chicago
https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

From H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, iv. 1. ii. 65–iii. 26; 2. v. 30-59:

  1. “Seven are they, seven are they!
  2. In the hollow of the deep, seven are they!
  3. (In) the glory of heaven, seven are they!
  4. In the hollow of the deep in a palace grew they up! (In the original, “from the hollow …. came they forth”).
  5. Male they are not, female they are not!
  6. They are the dust-storm, the travelled ones are they!
  7. Wife they possess not, child is unborn to them.
  8. Order and kindliness know they not.
  9. They hearken not to prayer and supplication.
  10. From the horse of the mountain came they forth.
  11. Of Ea are they the foes.
  12. The throne-bearers of the gods are they.
  13. To trouble the canal in the street are they set.
  14. Evil are they, evil are they!
  15. Seven are they, seven are they, seven doubly said are they!”
Four faced statuette, representing the god of the four winds. The god wears a low cap with a pair of horns meeting above each face. He carries a scimitar in his right hand and places his left foot upon the back of a crouching ram.  https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Four faced statuette, representing the god of the four winds. The god wears a low cap with a pair of horns meeting above each face. He carries a scimitar in his right hand and places his left foot upon the back of a crouching ram.
https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Another poet of Eridu, in a hymn to the Fire-god, speaks of the seven spirits in similar language:

  1. “O god of Fire,” he asks, “how were those seven begotten, how grew they up?
  2. Those seven in the mountain of the sunset were born;
  3. those seven in the mountain of the sunrise grew up.”

Throughout they are regarded as elemental powers, and their true character as destructive winds and tempests is but thinly veiled by a cloak of poetic imagery. But it will be noticed that they already belong to the harmful side of nature; and though the word which I have rendered “evil,” after the example of the Semitic translators, means rather “injurious” than “evil” in our sense of the word, they are already the products of night and darkness; their birth-place is the mountain behind which the sun sinks into the gloomy lower world.

 In the 22nd book of the great work on Astronomy, compiled for Sargon of Accad, they are termed “the seven great spirits” or galli, and it is therefore possible that they had already been identified with the “seven gods of destiny,” the Anúna-ge or “spirits of the lower world,” of the cult of Nipur.

In their gradual development into the Semite Rimmon, the spirits of the air underwent a change of parentage.

Mâtu, as we have seen, was, like his kindred wind-gods of Eridu, the offspring of Ea. But the home of the wind is rather the sky than the deep, and Meri, “the shining firmament,” was naturally associated with the sky.

When Ana, “the sky,” therefore, became the Semitic Anu, Rimmon, who united in himself Mâtu and Meri and other local gods of wind and weather as well, was made his son.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 207-8.

Winds and the Babylonian Concept of Evil

Hadad, Addu or Dadda, never superseded the native name of Ramânu (Ramman) in Babylonia and Assyria, and remained foreign to the last.

Ramânu, however, was sometimes addressed as Barqu or Barak, “the lightning;” and it is possible that antiquarian zeal may have also sometimes imposed on him the Accadian title of Meru.

He grew continuously in popular favour. In Semitic Babylonia, and yet more in Semitic Assyria, his aid was constantly invoked; and, like Anu, Bel and Ea, he tended as time went on to become more and more national in character. Ramman is one of the least local of Babylonian gods.

This was due in great measure to the nature of his origin. He began as the amalgamation of two distinct deities, the wind-god and the air-god, and the extension af his cult was marked by the absorption into his person of the various deities of the winds adored by the older faith.

He continued to grow at their expense. The spirits of the winds and storms sank lower and lower; and while the beneficent side of their operation attached itself to Ramman, there remained to them only that side which was harmful and demoniac.

Iraq ca. 800-600 B.C. Bronze Purchased in New York, 1943 Oriental Institute Museum A25413 The demon Pazuzu stands but has a scorpion's body, feathered wings, avian legs, talons, and a lion face front and back.  Pazuzu, the "king of the evil wind demons," was not unfriendly. As an enemy of the Lamashtu demon, Pazuzu is portrayed on amulets for childbirth.  The ring at the top of this figurine suggests that it was such an amulet. https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

Iraq
ca. 800-600 B.C.
Bronze
Purchased in New York, 1943
Oriental Institute Museum A25413
The demon Pazuzu stands but has a scorpion’s body, feathered wings, avian legs, talons, and a lion face front and back.
Pazuzu, the “king of the evil wind demons,” was an enemy of the Lamashtu demon. Pazuzu was portrayed on childbirth amulets. 
https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia

By degrees, the two aspects of their character came be separated. The higher gods came to be looked upon as the hearers of prayers and the bestowers of all good gifts; while the instruments of their vengeance an the inflictors of suffering and misery upon man were the inferior spirits of the lower sphere.

But the old conception, which derived both good and evil from the same source, did not wholly pass away. Evil never came to be regarded as the antagonist of good; it was rather the necessary complement and minister of good.

The supreme Baal thus preserved his omnipotence, while at the same time the ideas of pain and injustice were dissociated from him. In his combat with the dragon of chaos, Merodach summons the “evil wind” itself to his assistance; and in the legend of the assault of the seven wicked spirits upon the Moon, they are nevertheless called “the messengers of Anu their king.”

Nerra, the god of plague and destruction, smites the people of Babylonia on account of their sins by the command of the gods, like the angel with the drawn sword whom David saw standing over Jerusalem at the threshing-floor of Araunah; and in the story of the Deluge it is because of the wickedness of mankind that the flood is brought upon the earth.

The powers of darkness are degraded from their ancient position of independence, and either driven, like Tiamat, beyond the bounds of the created world, or reduced to the condition of ministers of divine wrath.

If we would realise how widely removed is this conception of them as the instruments of divine anger from that earlier view in which they are mere elemental powers, in themselves neither good nor evil, we cannot do better than compare these legendary compositions of the Semitic period with the old Accadian hymns that relate to the seven harmful spirits.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 205-6.

On the Babylonian Winds

“The primitive inhabitant of Babylonia paid a special worship to the winds. He beheld in them spirits of good and evil. He prayed for (‘the good wind” which cooled the heats of summer and brought moisture to the parched earth, and he saw in the storm and tempest, in the freezing blasts of winter and the hot wind that blew from the burning desert, “the seven evil spirits.”

They were the demons ‘who had been created in the lower part of heaven,” and who warred against the Moon-god when he suffered eclipse. They were likened to all that was most noxious to man.

The first, we are told, was “the sword (or lightning) of rain;” the second, “a vampire;” the third, “a leopard;” the fourth, “a serpent;” the fifth, “a watch-dog” (?); the sixth, “a violent tempest which (blows) against god and king;” and the seventh, “a baleful wind.” But their power caused them to be dreaded, and they were venerated accordingly.

It was remembered that they were not essentially evil. They, too, had been the creation of Anu, for they came forth from the sky, and all seven were “the messengers of Anu their king.” In the war of the gods against the dragon of chaos, they had been the allies of Merodach. We read of them that ere the great combat began, the god “created the evil wind, the hostile wind, the tempest, the storm, the four winds, the seven winds, the whirlwind, the unceasing wind.”

Battle between Marduk (Bel) and Tiamat. Drawn from a bas-relief from the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, King of Assyria, 885-860 B.C., at Nimrûd. The winds that Marduk wielded in the combat are portrayed as tridents in his hands.  British Museum, Nimrûd Gallery, Nos. 28 and 29. http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.com/2013/06/tablet-of-destinies.html

Battle between Marduk (Bel) and Tiamat. Drawn from a bas-relief from the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, King of Assyria, 885-860 B.C., at Nimrûd.
The winds that Marduk wielded in the combat are portrayed as tridents in his hands.
British Museum, Nimrûd Gallery, Nos. 28 and 29.
http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.com/2013/06/tablet-of-destinies.html

When Merodach had slung forth his boomerang and hit the dragon, “the evil wind that seizes behind showed its face. And Tiamat (the dragon of the sea) opened her mouth to swallow it, but (the god) made the evil wind descend so that she could not close her lips; with the force of the winds he filled her stomach, and her heart was sickened and her mouth distorted.”

Down to the closing days of the Assyrian empire, the four winds, ”the gods of Nipur,” were still worshipped in Assyria (H.C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, 1886, iii. 66, Rev. 26), and Saru, the Wind-god, is mentioned as a separate divinity in the story of the Deluge.

Among the winds there was one whose name awakened feelings of dread in the mind of every Babylonian. This was the tempest, called mâtu in Accadian, and abub in Semitic. It was the tempest which had been once sent by Bel to drown guilty mankind in the waters of a deluge, and whose return as the minister of divine vengeance was therefore ever feared.

Nabu, or Nebo, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie. Door detail, east entrance, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C. Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain. - Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabu#/media/File:Nabu-Lawrie-Highsmith.jpeg

Nabu, or Nebo, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie. Door detail, east entrance, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.
Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain. – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabu#/media/File:Nabu-Lawrie-Highsmith.jpeg

As each year brought with it the month of Sebat or January, with its “curse of rain,” the memory of that terrible event rose again in the Babyonian mind. Mâtu was a god whose favour had to be conciliated, and whose name accordingly appears on numbers of early cylinders.

But though Mâtu was thus specially identified with the great tempest which formed an era in Babylonian history, it was not forgotten that he was but one of several storm-gods, who were therefore spoken of as “the gods Mâtu.

Like the clouds, they were children of the sea, and were thus included in the family of Ea. It is possible that this genealogy was due to the systematising labours of a later day; but it is also possible that the gods Mâtu were primarily adored in Eridu, and that Eridu, and not Surippak, was the original city of the Chaldean Noah.

It is at least noticeable that the immortal home of the translated Xisuthros was beyond the mouth of the Euphrates, near which Eridu was built.

If Eridu were the birth-place of Mâtu, it would explain why the god of the tempest was also the god of the western wind. Elsewhere in Babylonia, the western wind blew from across the desert and brought heat with it rather than rain.

But in those remote days, when the northern portion of the Persian Gulf had not as yet been filled up with miles of alluvial deposit, a westerly breeze could still come to Eridu across the water.

In a penitential psalm, Mâtu, the lord of the mountain” (mulu mursamma-lil), whose wife, “the lady of the mountain,” is mentioned on the monuments of Tel-loh, is invoked along with his consort Gubarra, Ea, “the sovereign of heaven and earth and sovereign of Eridu,” Dav-kina, Merodach, Zarpanit, Nebo and Nana--in short, along with the gods of Eridu and the kindred deities of Babylon.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 199-202.

Cult of Nabu at Calah

“As for Bel, whose place Merodach usurped in the Babylonian pantheon, he was also recognized in Assyria, and Tiglath-pileser I built him a temple in his city of Asshur. Tiglath prefixes the adjective ‘old’ to the god’s name to show that he means Bel, not Bel-Merodach.

Sargon, too, who had antiquarian tastes, also reverts to Bel, to whom he alludes as the ‘Great Mountain,’ the name of the god following immediately after that of Asshur. Bel is also invoked in connexion with Anu as a granter of victory.

His consort Belit, although occasionally she is coupled with him, more usually figures as the wife of Asshur, and almost as commonly as a variant of Ishtar. In a temple in the city of Asshur, Tiglath-pileser I made presents to Belit consisting of the images of the gods vanquished by him in his various campaigns.

Assur-bani-pal, too, regarded Belit as the wife of Asshur, and himself as their son, alluding to Belit as ‘Mother of the Great Gods,’ a circumstance which would go to show that, like most of the Assyrian kings, his egoism rather overshadowed his sense of humour.

In Assur-bani-pal’s pantheon Belit is placed close by her consort Asshur. But there seems to have been a good deal of confusion between Belit and Ishtar because of the general meaning of the word Belit.

 [ … ]

Stephen Thompson - Asshur, Assyrian God, Marble Relief, British Museum, 1872 The Catalogue of a Series of Photographs from the Collections of The British Museum (Photographed by S. Thompson), Part III, W.A. Mansell & Co, London, 1872, p. 30. In the Nimrud Gallery of the Museum, Eastern side, #355. B.C. 884.  Marble slab. Eagle-headed winged deity Asshur (the chief of all the Gods), holding cone and basket, (supposed to represent the receptacle in which the divine gifts are stored,) and standard inscriptions. https://www.flickr.com/photos/photohistorytimeline/10171487505/

Stephen Thompson – Asshur, Assyrian God, Marble Relief, British Museum, 1872
The Catalogue of a Series of Photographs from the Collections of The British Museum (Photographed by S. Thompson), Part III, W.A. Mansell & Co, London, 1872, p. 30.
In the Nimrud Gallery of the Museum, Eastern side, #355. B.C. 884.
Marble slab. Eagle-headed winged deity Asshur (the chief of all the Gods), holding cone and basket, (supposed to represent the receptacle in which the divine gifts are stored) and standard inscriptions.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/photohistorytimeline/10171487505/

As in Babylonia so in Assyria, Nabu and Merodach were paired together, often as Bel and Nabu. Especially were they invoked when the affairs of Babylonia were being dealt with. In the seventh century b.c. we find the cult of Nabu in high popularity in Assyria, and indeed Ramman-Nirari III appears to have made an attempt to advance Nabu considerably.

George Rawlinson - Source: Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 1. (1875) The Chaldean god Nebo, from a statue in the British Museum.  http://www.totallyfreeimages.com/56/Nebo.

George Rawlinson – Source: Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 1. (1875)
The Chaldean god Nebo, from a statue in the British Museum.
http://www.totallyfreeimages.com/56/Nebo.

He erected a temple to the god at Calah, and granted him many resounding titles. But even so, it does not seem that Ramman-Nirari intended to exalt Nabu at the expense of Asshur. Indeed it would have been impossible for him to have done so if he had desired to.

Asshur was as much the national god of the Assyrian people as Osiris was of the Egyptians. Nabu was the patron of wisdom, and protector of the arts; he guided the stylus of the scribe; and in these attributes he is very close to the Egyptian Thoth, and almost identical with another Babylonian god, Nusku ...

Sargon calls Nabu ‘the Seer who guides the gods,’ and it would seem from some notices of him that he was also regarded as a leader of heavenly or spiritual forces.

Those kings who were fond of erudition paid great devotion to Nabu, and many of the tablets in their literary collections close with thanksgiving to him for having opened their ears to receive wisdom.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 227-9.

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