Nascence of the Babylonian Zodiac
by Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez
“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.
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.
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.”