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Selz: On the Astronomical Diaries of Babylon

“I cannot discuss here the philological evidence that anchors the biblical tradition in the historical charts. This is a different, albeit very important field which may support my arguments: I just mention one recent example: Jeremiah 39:3 may go back to an eye witness’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 589 BCE.

Tablet VAT 4956 in the Berlin Museum details the positions of the moon and the planets during the year 37 of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, 567 BCE. This tablet is famous for confirming the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. http://www.lavia.org/english/archivo/vat4956en.htm

Tablet VAT 4956 in the Berlin Museum details the positions of the moon and the planets during the year 37 of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, 567 BCE. This tablet is famous for confirming the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
http://www.lavia.org/english/archivo/vat4956en.htm

This is indicated by my colleague Michael Jursa’s identification of the chief-eunuch Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the biblical נכו שרםכים רכםרים or Nebu-Sarsekim, in an economic document from the sun-god temple in Sippar, dated to the “Month XI, day 18, year 10 Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.”

(M. Jursa, Nabû-šarrūssu-ukīn, rab ša-rēši, und ‘Nebusarsekim’ (Jeremiah 39:3),” NABU 5 (2008). Jursa’s translation of the document runs as follows:

“Regarding] 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabû-šarrūssu-ukīn, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Bānītu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Bānītu has delivered [it] to Esangila.

In the presence of Bēl-usāti, son of Alpāya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nādin, son of Marduk-zēru-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10  [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.”

We may note here that the evaluation of this document provoked a broad discussion in scholarly literature and in the Internet.)

The Babylonian exile had a major impact on the development of Judaism, possibly even on the moulding of the apocalyptic traditions.

(Jeremiah 39:3 gives account of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem and his victory over the Judean King Zedekiah: The passage reports that all of the officers of the king of Babylon made their entry, and occupied the middle gate.)

(Kvanvig, Roots, writes: “The emergence of the apocalyptic traditions and literature presupposes both a direct contact with Mesopotamian culture in the Babylonian diaspora, and the syncretistic tendencies in Palestine in the post-exilic centuries.” See also Sarah Robinson, “The Origins of Jewish Apocalyptic Literature: Prophecy, Babylon, and 1 Enoch,” MS Thesis, University of South Florida, 2005.)

The background of this “knowledge transfer,” however, is the scholarly situation as just described. I say this not to deny the contribution of mere story-telling and fantastic lore to the growth of the corpus of apocalyptic literature, but we cannot neglect the scholarly and even empirical background of the underlying world-view.

Indeed, this may provide the best explanation for why so many different topics and stylistic features are fused in the extant Enochic traditions.

The Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, which is tablet 63 in the Enuma Anu Enlil sequence, preserves the astronomical observations of Venus during the 1st Millennium BCE. This tablet is dated back to the mid-7th Century BCE, during the reign of King Ammisaduqa. http://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-venus-tablet-of-ammisaduqa-7th-century-science-source.html

The Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, which is tablet 63 in the Enuma Anu Enlil sequence, preserves the astronomical observations of Venus during the 1st Millennium BCE.
This tablet is dated back to the mid-7th Century BCE, during the reign of King Ammisaduqa.
http://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-venus-tablet-of-ammisaduqa-7th-century-science-source.html

What concerns us here is the heuristic attitude of Mesopotamian scholarship. Even in the late Seleucid period this scholarship remains basically “holistic” or “monistic” in the way that it links all sorts of empiricism, as may be demonstrated with examples from the famous “Astronomical Diaries.”

(We follow here the unpublished manuscript of G. Graßhoff, “The Diffusion of Knowledge: From Babylonian Regularities to Science in the Antiquity” (paper presented at the 97th Dahlem Workshop on Globalization of Knowledge and its Consequences at the Dahlem Konferenzen, Berlin, 18-23 November 2007).

In the fifth year of Darius III (331 BCE) we find a series of astronomical observations:

“Day 13 [20 September]: Sunset to moonrise 8. There was a lunar eclipse. Its totality was covered at the moment when Jupiter set and Saturn rose. During totality the west wind blew, during clearing the east wind. During the eclipse, deaths and plague occurred.

Day 14: All day clouds were in the sky …”

The reports then continue with observations from the “Burse of Babylon”; commodity prizes are given together with the positions of the planets in the zodiacal signs.

“That month, the equivalent for 1 shekel of silver was: barley . . . at that time, Jupiter was in Scorpio; Venus was in Leo, at the end of the month in Virgo; Saturn was in Pisces; Mercury and Mars, which had set, were not visible.”

The reports further continue with the famous account of the downfall of the Persian empire in the same year, after the battle at Gaugamela, north of Mosul (331 BCE).”

(H. Hunger, ed., Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, vol. 2: Diaries from 261 BCE to 165 BCE (Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 210; Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1989), pp. 175-6.)

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 786-7.

Sargon and the Observations of Bel

“We know that Sargon’s patronage of science produced the great standard Babylonian work on astronomy and astrology, in seventy-two books, which went under the name of the Observations of Bel. It was translated into Greek by the Chaldean historian Bêrôssos, and large portions of it, including a table of contents, are among the tablets found on the site of the library of Kouyunjik.

This illustration is from a page on Babylonian astronomy hosted by the science faculty of the Mathematical Institute of Utrecht University.  http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl_fixedstars.htm A dedicated work assessing the influences of Chaldean astrology on later Greek and Roman knowledge can be found in Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, 1912.  Full text available for download at several locations on the net, including: http://theosnet.net/dzyan/miscpubs/Astrology_and_Religion.pdf

This illustration is from a page on Babylonian astronomy hosted by the science faculty of the Mathematical Institute of Utrecht University.
http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/babylon/babybibl_fixedstars.htm
A dedicated work assessing the influences of Chaldean astrology on later Greek and Roman knowledge can be found in Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans, 1912.
Full text available for download at several locations on the net, including:
http://theosnet.net/dzyan/miscpubs/Astrology_and_Religion.pdf

In the course of centuries it had undergone a large amount of interpolation and addition; marginal glosses had crept into the text, and new paragraphs had been inserted recording the observations that had been made by the astronomers and astrologers of Babylonia during the whole length of the historical period.

In the form, therefore, in which it was edited for the library of Nineveh, it was very different from the original work that had been composed by the orders of Sargon. Old and new matter had been mixed up in it, and the enlargements introduced into it had probably nearly doubled its original size.

In the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series (l. 2) the Signs of the Zodiac are called Lumashi 12  , but unfortunately no list of their names is given in the context. Now these are supplied by the little tablet (No. 77,821) of the Persian Period of which a reproduction is here given. It has been referred to and discussed by various scholars, and its importance is very great.  The transcript of the text, which is now published (see p. 68) for the first time, will be acceptable to the students of the history of the Zodiac. Egyptian, Greek, Syriac and Arabic astrological and astronomical texts all associate with the Signs of the Zodiac twelve groups, each containing three stars, which are commonly known as the "Thirty-six Dekans."   The text of line 4 of the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series proves that the Babylonians were acquainted with these groups of stars, for we read that Marduk "set up for the twelve "months of the year three stars apiece." In the List of Signs of the Zodiac here given, it will be seen that each Sign is associated with a particular month. http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/blc07.htm http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/img/015.png

In the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series (l. 2) the Signs of the Zodiac are called Lumashi 12 , but unfortunately no list of their names is given in the context. Now these are supplied by the little tablet (No. 77,821) of the Persian Period of which a reproduction is here given. It has been referred to and discussed by various scholars, and its importance is very great.
The transcript of the text, which is now published (see p. 68) for the first time, will be acceptable to the students of the history of the Zodiac. Egyptian, Greek, Syriac and Arabic astrological and astronomical texts all associate with the Signs of the Zodiac twelve groups, each containing three stars, which are commonly known as the “Thirty-six Dekans.”
The text of line 4 of the Fifth Tablet of the Creation Series proves that the Babylonians were acquainted with these groups of stars, for we read that Marduk “set up for the twelve “months of the year three stars apiece.” In the List of Signs of the Zodiac here given, it will be seen that each Sign is associated with a particular month.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/blc07.htm
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/blc/img/015.png

But the original work was itself a compilation of records and observations that had been made during an untold number of previous years. These records and observations had for the most part been written in Accadian; the result being that, although the astronomy of the Chaldeans, as we know it, is purely Semitic in form and character, many of its technical terms are non-Semitic, as well as the names of the celestial bodies.

Hence it is that we find a remarkable inconsistency between certain facts reported by the astronomical tablets and the astronomical system which they set before us. This astronomical system is based upon the assumption that the sun enters the first point of the constellation Aries at the time of the vernal equinox.

http://doormann.tripod.com/asssky.htm Assyrian star map from Nineveh (K 8538). Counterclockwise from bottom: Sirius (Arrow), Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), [Aries], the Pleiades, Gemini, Hydra + Corvus + Virgo, Libra. Drawing by L.W.King with corrections by J.Koch. Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des Babilonischen Fixsternhimmels (Wiesbaden 1989), p. 56ff.

http://doormann.tripod.com/asssky.htm
Assyrian star map from Nineveh (K 8538). Counterclockwise from bottom: Sirius (Arrow), Pegasus + Andromeda (Field + Plough), [Aries], the Pleiades, Gemini, Hydra + Corvus + Virgo, Libra. Drawing by L.W.King with corrections by J.Koch. Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des Babilonischen Fixsternhimmels (Wiesbaden 1989), p. 56ff.

The system must therefore have come into existence later than the 26th century before the Christian era, when Aries first became the starting-point of the Zodiacal signs. But the signs themselves were named, and the path of the sun through them was mapped out, when the vernal equinox still coincided with the sun’s entrance, not into Aries, but into Taurus.

The whole pre-Semitic nomenclature of the Zodiacal signs, and the months of the year that correspond to them, rests on the supposition that the Zodiacal bull ushers in the vernal year. Its Accadian name was “the directing Bull,” the bull that directs the course of the year; and the sign which faced it, the Scorpion of a later age, was correspondingly termed the star “that is opposite to the foundation” of the year.

We can now understand why the Sun-god Merodach, whom even the astronomers of the historical period continued to identify with the typical constellations of the twelve months of the year, should have been entitled “the Bull of Light” in the primitive astronomical records.

He was, in fact, the celestial bull who ploughed the great furrow of the sky, and from whom the first sign of the Zodiac borrowed its name. We may see in him the prototype of that famous bull of later legend whom Anu created in order to avenge upon Gisdhubar the slight offered by the latter to Istar.

The Sun-god eventually became the monster slain by a solar hero. Such are the results of time working upon the half-forgotten beliefs and tales of an earlier age.

Whiie in some instances the old totemistic conceptions were evaded by the degeneration of a god into a mere animal, in others the reverse process took place, the bestial element being eliminated from the nature of the god.”

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. 291-3.

The Zodiacal Organization of the Gilgamesh Epic

“The doctrine of the necessity for ministering to the dead is here enunciated in no uncertain fashion.

Unless their bodies are decently buried and offerings of food and drink made at their graves, their lives in the otherworld must be abjectly miserable. The manner in which they meet their end is likewise taken into account, and warriors who have fallen on the field of battle are pre-eminently fortunate.

Eabani is evidently one of the ‘happy’ spirits; his ghost is designated utukku, a name applied not only to the fortunate dead, but likewise to a class of beneficent supernatural beings.

The term edimmu, on the other hand, designates a species of malevolent being as well as the errant and even vampirish spirits of the unhappy dead. The due observance of funeral and commemorative rites is thus a matter which touches the interests not only of the deceased but also of his relatives and friends.

We have seen from the foregoing that the epic of Gilgamesh is partly historical, partly mythological. Around the figure of a great national hero myths have grown and twined with the passing of the generations, and these have in time become woven into a connected narrative, setting forth a myth which corresponds to the daily or annual course of the sun.

Within this may be discerned other myths and fragments of myths—solar, seasonal, and diluvian.

But there is in the epic another important element which has already been referred to—the astro-theological. The zodiacal significance of the division of the epic into twelve tablets may be set aside, since, as has been indicated, the significance is in all probability a superficial one merely, added to the poem by the scribes of Assur-bani-pal, and not forming an integral part of it.

At the same time it is not hard to divide the epic naturally into twelve episodes, thus:

  1. Gilgamesh’s oppression of Erech;
  2. the seduction of Eabani;
  3. the slaying of the monster Khumbaba;
  4. the wooing of Ishtar;
  5. the fight with the sacred bull;
  6. Eabani’s death;
  7. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Mountain of the Sunset;
  8. his wanderings in the region of thick darkness;
  9. the crossing of the waters of death;
  10. the deluge-story;
  11. the plant of life;
  12. the return of Eabani’s spirit.

Throughout the epic there are indications of a correspondence between the exploits of the hero and the movements of heavenly bodies.

It is possible, for instance, that Gilgamesh and his friend Eabani had some relation to the sign Gemini, also associated in ancient Chaldean mythology with two forms of the solar deity, even as were the hero and his friend.

The sign Leo recalls the slaying of Khumbaba, the allegorical victory of light over darkness, represented on monuments by the figure of a lion (symbol of fire) fighting with a bull.

Following the sign of Leo, the wooing of the hero by the goddess Ishtar falls naturally into the sign of Virgo, the virgin. The sign of Taurus is represented by the slaying of the celestial bull, Alu, by Gilgamesh.

The journey of the hero to Mashu and his encounter with the scorpion-men at the gate of the sunset are, of course, mythological representations of the sign of Scorpio, as are also his wanderings in the region of thick darkness.

It is noticeable in this respect that Babylonian astrology often doubled the eighth sign (Scorpio) to provide a seventh; it is therefore not unlikely that this sign should correspond with two distinct episodes in the poem.

The first of these episodes is associated with Scorpio by virtue of the introduction of scorpion-men; and the second, on the assumption that the scorpion is symbolical of darkness.

Perhaps the sea-goddess Sabitu is associated astrologically with the fish-tailed goat which is the conventional representation of Capricornus.

Then the placing of the deluge-story in the XIth tablet, corresponding with the eleventh sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, the water-bearer, is evidently in keeping with the astrological aspect of the epic.

Chaldean mythology connected the rainy eleventh month with the deluge, just as the first month of spring was associated mythologically with the creation.

The healing of Gilgamesh’s sickness by Ut-Napishtim may possibly symbolise the revival of the sun after leaving the winter solstice.

Lastly, the sign of Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, corresponding to the return of Eabani from the underworld, and perhaps also to the restoration of Gilgamesh to Erech, is emblematic of life after death, and of the resumption of ordinary conditions after the deluge.

It has been suggested, though without any very definite basis, that the epic was first put together before the zodiac was divided into twelve—that is, more than two thousand years before the Christian era.

Its antiquity, however, rests on other grounds than these. In later times the Babylonian astrological system became very complicated and important, and so lent its colour to the epic that, whatever the original plan of that work may have been, its astral significance became at length its most popular aspect.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 181-3.

Portents of the Moon

“No. 234.

When Mars approaches the Moon and stands, the Moon will cause evil to inhabit the land.

When a planet stands at the left horn of the Moon, the king will act mightily.

When a star stands at the left front of the Moon, the king will act mightily.

When a star stands at the left rear of the Moon, the king of Akkad will work mightily.

When Virgo (Dilgan) stands at its left horn, in that year the vegetables of Akkad will prosper.

When Virgo (Dilgan) stands above it, in that year the crops of the land will prosper.

When a star stands at the left horn of the Moon, a hostile land will see evil.

When a star stands at its left horn, there will be an eclipse of the king of Aharrû.

The Gan-ba of that land will be diminished; it will rain.

When a star stands at its left horn, an eclipse of the king of Aharrû will take place.

When at its left horn a star (stands) Rammanu will devour in a hostile land (or) an eclipse will take place, (or) an eclipse of the king of Aharrû: his land will be diminished.

From Zakir.”

Reginald Campbell Thompson, The Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, Vol. II, London, 1900, p. lxxiv.

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