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Joseph Kaminski

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August 17, 2017

Babylonian Astronomy


As long as mankind could ponder the world surrounding them, there’s been a unique interest in looking upwards. Some early societies looked up to the sun, grateful for plentiful harvest and fearing a drought that could end it all. Most, if not all, looked up for a heaven – a paradise that gave comfort after the death of a loved one. Some looked up to a paradise, one that offered a life much better than what they’ve been gifted – the gift of life, if you will – on the soils they toiled. But, there’s always been something awfully unique about the sky itself; especially at night.

The study of the stars has come a long way since primitive philosophy and stargazing. Astrology, a pseudo-science at best, has evolved into the strengthening science of Astronomy. We have government programs dedicated to exploring the seemingly endless universe surrounding us. We’ve stepped one small step for a man and leaped one giant leap for mankind. Think of it – in the past, history shows the narcissistic and limited knowledge showcasing some sort of flat earth in the center of it all. But now? We’re a speck of sand residing on an infinite coast.

The origins of our unique interest towards what’s certainly (or uncertainly) above us can be rooted back to the original societies of mankind. Western astrology, perhaps the oldest “astrological system” on record, was born somewhere between the 19th and 17th centuries before the common era. Tracing roots to Sumerian times, it was logical to associate everyday events with the coincidentally placed position of the stars above.

Our modern day interpretation of our earliest days in astrology and astronomy is rather vague, in a since. It’s indirect, coming from star catalogs and various Sanskrit tablets. But, as society initiated early stargazing with theology (especially polytheistic concepts of life), it’s interesting to see how “planetary gods” affected our concept of what rests above (and around) us.

During the 8th century before the common era, the Babylonian world changed astronomy forever. A more empirical approach to studying the skies above, the Babylonians began merging philosophy with the universe. Only fragments of Babylonian astronomy are available to us today – similar to the even earlier remains of Sumer and Mesopotamia.

In the Babylonian field of understanding the skies above, the Earth and the heavens were not separate but instead a spatial whole. Babylonians came before the geocentric mindset of having the Earth residing in the center of the universe – this (wrong) viewpoint would later be developed by Aristotle.

But that’s the society’s viewpoint on astronomy, not astrology. Babylonian astrology is incredibly interesting. The first organized structure for the pseudo-science, Babylonian astrology came about around the second millennium before the common era. A collection of 32 tablets dating from around 1875 BC show us the concept of interpretational and celestial omens controlling events within Earth.

Gods presented themselves as celestial images above the world, as the stars and planets that served purpose in outer-space while watching humanity below. Astronomical reports would be delivered to royalty, explaining eclipses and other natural events that correlated with astrological concerns. So, while the Babylonian society didn’t match the later ideologies of Greece, it held astrological significance to the perceptions of life and living.

Babylonian astrology held the planetary Gods to a high standard of knowledge and representation. Five planets (besides Earth) were recognized by the Babylonian people. According to their oldest cuneiform literature, they listed the non-humanized planets in the order of Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars. Each planet received a pantheon.

Jupiter was associated with Marduk, a late-generation god from Mesopotamia who became a patron deity within the city of Babylon. Later associated with water, vegetation, judgement, and magic, the Babylonian mythology of Marduk eventually transferred to political development. His pantheon represented all others; as the God of Gods and King of Kings, it seemed fit for the largest planet to dawn his name.

Venus was associated with Ishtar, the beloved goddess of fertility, love, war, sex, power, etc. Symbolizing love, Ishtar was a highly ranked Mesopotamian goddess who eventually fell to her knees as Christianity rose in the later 1st and 5th centuries CE. The Babylonian pantheon saw her as a divine personification, one of lovers and beauty who rested above the skies to watch her passing lovers. Her pantheon represented fertility and beauty.

Saturn was associated with Ninurta, the Sumerian and Akkadian god of war and hunting who was severely worshipped in Babylonia. Sometimes referred to as Ninib or Ninip, older cuneiform referred to him as a solar deity of sorts. Ninurta had a major cult following in early history, as people referred to him as a deity that released humans from the evils of sickness and the power of demons. His pantheon represented medicine and the process of life.

Mercury was associated with Nabu, a patron god of wisdom and literature. Worshipped by the Babylonian and Assyrian people, Nabu was the so-called son of Marduk. Referred to as a priest, a scribe, and a teacher, Nabu’s own cult defined him as a keeper of the Tablets of Destiny. These tablets recorded the fate of mankind; showcasing just how interested mankind has been with the afterlife. His pantheon represented knowledge in all forms.

Mars, the last planet recorded by the Babylonian astrologists and astronomers, was associated with Nergal. Portrayed as a god of pestilence and constant warfare, Nergal represented the brightest sun of suns at noontime. He represented the summer solstice, one that brought destruction of crops and harvests. The “King of Sunsets”, Nergal’s mythology advanced throughout the ages. Such death and destruction earned him the title as a god of the underworld, which was apparently “gifted” to him by Enlil and Ninlil within mythology. His pantheon represented the government of the dead.

These pantheons were just the beginning for the astrologers’ way back when. The movements of the universe – composing of the planets and stars and everything in between – meant the world to these people. The movements represented the daily life of these advanced and divine beings. The planets moving across the sky represented the activity of the gods – which were in place and which were watching over at the time.

This led astrologers to believe they could interpret the gods – interpret life itself, even – if they could correctly interpret the “activity” of these powers. If one watched the divine, one could predict what the divine were about to bring to earth. Predict a plague, predict an eclipse, predict a poor harvest? Then you, my friend, were an astrologer to be respected amongst the pantheons.

Of course, Babylonian astrology is primitive in of itself. Stargazing led men to believe they could understand life. To some extent, it worked. To predict the seasons, to predict the climate of said seasons just based on the movements of the stars above. Nowadays a hobby in the form of a pseudo-science based on zodiacs and horoscopes that are vaguely interpreted, this kind of thinking meant the world to a philosophically simple society.

To understand the general nature of the world was one giant leap for them at the time.

Fast forward to the Space Race of the Cold War, where we witness ego-inflated super powers fighting for dominance in a frontier never before advanced upon. Humanity made another giant leap, from stargazing for answers to “conquering” the moon.

To go somewhere that no man had ever gone before.

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