Babylonian star catalogues
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Old Babylonian astronomy inherited systems of star catalogues from Sumerian sources.The Babylonians grouped the stars in companies of seven. References are made to the seven Tikši, the seven Lumaši, and the seven Maši.The Enūma Eliš (V.2) mentions the Lumaši, translated by L.W. King (1902) as "the stars of the Zodiac":
- (V.1) u-ba-aš-šim man-za-za an ilāni rabūti (V.2) kakkabāni tam-šil-šu-nu lu-ma-ši uš-zi-iz
- "He (Marduk) made the stations for the great gods; The stars, their images, as the stars of the Zodiac, he fixed."
In particular, a list of stars along the path of the Moon (the ecliptic) is the predecessor of the system of the classical zodiac of twelve signs developed in Neo-Babylonian astronomy around the 7th to 6th century BC and inherited by Hellenistic astrology.
There is no direct attestation of Sumerian astronomy. There are pictorial representation assumed to represent constellation even predating the Early Dynastic Period of Sumer, found on cylinder seals and boundary stones, but the actual constellation names are only attested from Babylonian sources, beginning around 1200 BC. Since many of the Babylonian constellation names are in Sumerian, continuity with Middle and Early Bronze Age Sumer is nevertheless likely.
The first formal compendia of star lists are the Three Stars Each texts appearing from about the 12th century BC. They represent a tripartite division of the heavens: the northern hemisphere belonged to Enlil, the equator belonged to Anu, and the southern hemisphere belonged to Ea. The boundaries were at 17 degrees North and South, so that the Sun spent exactly three consecutive months in each third. The enumeration of stars in the Three Stars Each catalogues includes 36 stars, three for each month. The determiner glyph for "constellation" or "star" in these lists is MUL (, in origin a pictograph of three stars, as it were a triplet of AN signs (the Pleiades are referred to as a "star cluster" or "star of stars" in the lists, written as MUL.MUL, or MULMUL, ).
The second formal compendium of stars in Babylonian astronomy is the MUL.APIN, a pair of tablets named for their incipit, corresponding to the first constellation of the year, MULAPIN "The Plough", identified with Triangulum plus Gamma Andromedae. The list is a direct descendent of the Three Stars Each list, reworked around 1000 BC on the basis of more accurate observations. They include more constellations, including most circumpolar ones, and more of the zodiacal ones.
The Babylonian star catalogues entered Greek astronomy in the 4th century BC, via Eudoxus of Cnidus and others.Many of the constellation names in use in modern astronomy can be traced to Sumerian sources via Babylonian and Greek astronomy. Among the most ancient constellations are those that marked the four cardinal points of the year in Sumerian times (the Middle Bronze Age), i.e.
- Taurus "The Bull", from GU4.AN.NA "The Steer of Heaven", marking vernal equinox
- Leo "The Lion", from UR.GU.LA "The Lion", marking summer solstice
- Scorpius "The Scorpion", from GIR.TAB "The Scorpion", marking autumn equinox
- Capricornus "Goat-Horned", from SUḪUR.MAŠ "The Goat-Fish", marking winter solstice. It is a mythological hybrid depicted on boundary stones from before 2000 BC as a symbol of Ea.
There are other constellation names which can be traced to Bronze Age origins, including Gemini "The Twins", from MAŠ.TAB.BA.GAL.GAL "The Great Twins", Cancer "The Crab", from AL.LUL "The Crayfish", among others.
The MUL.APIN gives
- a catalogue of 71 stars and constellations of the "Three Ways" of the Three Stars Each tradition. The star names (prefixed with MUL ) are listed with the associated deity (prefix DINGIR ) and often some other brief epithet.
- dates of heliacal risings
- pairs of constellations which rise and set simultaneously
- time-intervals between dates of heliacal risings
- pairs of constellations which are simultaneously at the zenith and at the horizon
- the path of the moon and planets.
- a solar calendar
- the planets and the durations of their solar conjunctions
- stellar risings and planetary positions for predicting weather and for adjusting the calendar
- telling time by length of the gnomon shadow
- length of night watches during the year
- omens connected with the appearance of stars planets, MUL.U.RI.RI (comets?) and winds.
The path of the Moon as given in MUL.APIN consists of 17 or 18 stations, recognizable as the direct predecessor of the twelve-sign zodiac. Note that the beginning of the list with MUL.MUL "Pleiades" corresponds to the situation in the Early to Middle Bronze Age when the Sun at vernal equinox was close to the Pleiades in Taurus (closest in the 23rd century BC), and not yet in Aries as in the Iron Age (the "Age of Taurus").
- MUL.MUL "The Star Cluster" or "Star of Stars" (Pleiades)
- GU4.AN.NA "The Steer of Heaven" (Taurus)
- SIPA.ZI.AN.NA "The Loyal Shepherd of Heaven" (Orion)
- ŠU.GI "The Old One" (Perseus)
- ZUBI "The Scimitar" (Auriga)
- MAŠ.TAB.BA.GAL.GAL "The Great Twins" (Gemini)
- AL.LUL "The Crayfish" (Cancer)
- UR.GU.LA "The Lion" (Leo)
- AB.SIN "The Seed-Furrow" (Virgo)
- ZIB.BA.AN.NA/zi-ba-ni-tum "The Scales" (Libra)
- GIR.TAB "The Scorpion" (Scorpius)
- PA.BIL.SAG (Sagittarius)
- SUḪUR.MAŠ.KU6 "The Goat-Fish" (Capricorn)
- GU.LA "The Great One" (Aquarius)
- KUN.MEŠ "The tails" (Pisces)
- SIM.MAḪ "The Great Swallow" (SW Pisces and Epsilon Pegasi)
- A.NU.NI.TUM/A-nu-ni-tum (Andromeda)
- LU.ḪUŊ.GA "The Agrarian Worker" (Aries)
The "Tail of the Swallow" (Pisces) has also been read as two constellations, "The Tail" and "The Swallow", whence the uncertainty whether the "zodiac" consists of 17 or 18 constellations. All constellations of the Iron Age twelve-sign zodiac are present among them, most of them with names that clearly identify them, while some ("Furrow" for Virgo, Pabilsag for Sagittarius, "Great One" for Aquarius, "Swallow Tail" for Pisces and "Agrarian Worker" for Aries) reached Greek astronomy with altered names.
For Virgo, and for her main star Spica, Babylonian precedents are present. The MUL.APIN associates Absin "The Furrow" with the "The goddess Shala's ear of corn", and Shala is conventionally depicted as holding an ear of corn on boundary stones of the Kassite era.Regarding Sagittarius, Pabilsag is a comparatively obscure Sumerian god, later identified with Ninurta. Another name for the constellation was Nebu "The Soldier".Aquarius "The Water-Pourer" represents Ea himself, dubbed "The Great One" in the MUL.APIN. It contained the winter solstice in the Early Bronze Age. In the Greek tradition, he became represented as simply a single vase from which a stream pouredd down to Piscis Austrinus. The name in the Hindu zodiac is likewise kumbha "water-pitcher", showing that the zodiac reached India via Greek intermediaries.The current definition of Pisces is the youngest of the zodiacal constellations. The "Swallow" of Babylonian astronomy was larger, including parts of Pegasus. Late Babylonian sources mention DU.NU.NU "The Fish-Cord".It is unclear how the "Agrarian Worker" of the MUL.APIN became Aries "The Ram" of Greek tradition, possibly via association with Dumuzi the Shepherd.
- John H. Rogers, "Origins of the ancient contellations: I. The Mesopotamian traditions", Journal of the British Astronomical Association 108 (1998) 9–28