W09 – Stars and Constellations in Babylonian Astronomy

Organizers: John Steele (Brown University) — Gil Breger (University of California, Berkeley)


  1. Gil Breger (University of California, Berkeley)
  2. Victor Gysembergh (Freie Universität Berlin)
  3. Jeanette C. Fincke (Universiteit Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten)
  4. John Steele (Brown University)
  5. Henry Stadhouders (Universiteit Utrecht)
  6. Susanne Hoffmann and Manfred Krebernik (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

General Abstract

The Babylonian night sky was populated by a large number of stars and constellations, both of which were referred to by the single term ‘star’ (MUL/MÚL = kakkabu). Stars played an important role within Babylonian astronomy and astrology, both in their own right and in acting as a reference system for the position of the moon and planets, in intercalation schemes, and in indicating the time of events. For example, the conjunction of the moon with Pleiades is used to determine whether an intercalary month is needed in several schemes know from the Neo-Assyrian period, the ziqpu stars were used to indicate the time of eclipses and other events, and in the Late Babylonian period a system of reference stars distributed around the zodiacal band (the Normal Stars) was employed in observational texts. Around the end of the fifth century BC, the zodiac was developed as a mathematical division of the path of the moon, sun and planets into twelve equal parts. Many of the Babylonian constellations and the concept of the zodiac left a legacy in later Greek and other astronomical traditions up to the present day.
This workshop seeks to present current research that provides new interpretations and insights about the stars and constellations that inhabit the world of Babylonian astronomy. These studies not only shed light on issues related to the science of astronomy, but also to matters pertaining to the production of knowledge, the cultural and social context in which astronomy was practiced, and more. By advancing our understanding of the different constituent elements of Babylonian astronomy we can further our knowledge of its impact on later intellectual traditions. Presentations in this workshop will focus on texts devoted specifically to stars, such as the so-called Great Star List, the first tablet of MUL.APIN, and the ziqpu-star lists, as well as the role of stars in other astronomical and astrological texts.

General Contacts: john_steele@brown.edu, gilbreger@berkeley.edu

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

Ziqpu-stars and Ziqpu-time: Between Observational and Schematic Astronomy
Gil Breger (University of California, Berkeley)

Astronomers in Mesopotamia used a group of stars, called ziqpu, to indicate and measure time at night. How exactly this was accomplished is unknown. One possibility is that they were directly observed as they culminated in the night sky. Evidence for this observational practice lies in their very role of telling time as well as in MUL.APIN, which gives instructions on locating them in the skies. Another possibility, however, is that the ziqpu-stars were a part of a scheme that allowed astronomers to determine the culmination of a ziqpu-star overhead without directly observing it, by employing other means, such as a water clock. In my talk, I will explore the evidence for both these possibilities, and consider the practical aspects of using ziqpu-stars in relation to time.

The “Chaldean” Theory of Comets as Stars
Victor Gysembergh (Freie Universität Berlin)

In the 1980s, three observations of Halley’s comet were identified in the Astronomical Diaries, opening the way to further identifications of cometary observations (provisional list by R. Chadwick, “Identifying Comets and Meteors in Celestial Observation Literature”, 1993). This breakthrough invites renewed discussion of Greek and Roman sources ascribing to the “Chaldeans of Babylon” a theory similar to the modern understanding of comets. According to these, late Babylonian astronomy conceived of comets as orbiting stars with constant periods, and was able to predict the return of comets. In my paper, a philologically accurate reconstruction of this theory will be offered; arguments will be made for the reliability of the Greek and Roman sources’ claim. Furthermore, it will be argued that the Greek and Roman sources point to a very late development of the “Chaldean” cometary theory, probably in the 1st c. BCE; this suggests that astronomical activity in Babylonia at this time was not restricted to observation, but was in a position to produce new theories. The accuracy of the claim to cometary predictions will be assessed on the basis of the available cometary observations in cuneiform texts. The context in which the new theory of comets emerged, the interaction with Greek astronomers, and the spread of the theory in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean will be investigated. 

The Great Star List – Understanding the Meaning of Stars
Jeanette C. Fincke (Universiteit Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten)

“The Great Star List and Related Texts” is a project funded by the Israel Science Foundation that Wayne Horowitz and I are currently conducting. This star list equates stars / constellations with gods and other stars / constellations followed by equations or explanations of other phenomena, structures and units relevant for a precise description of celestial events. Several exemplars add a section with word commentaries. The preserved exemplars come from various Assyrian and Babylonian centres and date from the Neo-Assyrian until the Late Babylonian periods, but most of the exemplars were found in Nineveh.
In my paper I shall present an overview on the structure of this important star list and demonstrate its significance for divination based on selected sections. I shall further highlight individual entries that demonstrate the widespread transmission of the knowledge subsumed in this list. 

The Names of the Signs of the Zodiac: Development and Variation
John Steele (Brown University)

The development of the zodiac as a uniform division of the path through which the Sun, Moon and planets move into twelve equal parts was a key event in the history of Babylonian astronomy. Previous studies of the development of the zodiac, which took place in the late fifth century BC, have primarily concentrated on the concept of the equal divisions and the norming of the zero point of the zodiac relative to stars. However, the development of the zodiac also involved the creation of a way to name the zodiacal signs. In this presentation I examine the names that were used for the signs of the zodiac, and in particular their chronological and geographical variation within Babylonia.

A Vixen Eating the Yoke-Band: Circumpolar Star Lore in Cuneiform and a Scholion on Hesiod
Henry Stadhouders (Universiteit Utrecht)

After presenting a hitherto unknown incantation prayer to Ibila-Emaḫ, which the speaker managed to reconstruct from unpublished tablets in the British Museum, and an attempt to answer the question of where to plot this astral deity on the map uranographically, he will concentrate on a Byzantine scholion to Hesiod's Opera et dies that would appear to have preserved some scraps of heritage from cuneiform star lore, enabling us to establish the identity of the elusive mul.mu.bu.kéš.da (Nīru raksu).

Gods, Names, Asterisms – How to Visualize MUL.APIN's Constellations?
Susanne Hoffmann and Manfred Krebernik (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

The first tablet of MUL.APIN begins with a long list of names of asterisms (most of them constellations, some single stars) which are associated with certain deities. Our investigation is based on the text as reconstructed by Hunger and Pingree (1989) and currently re-edited by Hunger and Steele. Our presentation aims at conceptualizing and visualizing the Babylonian sky based on a careful re-reading of the text and discusses the problems of some conventional translations. Furthermore, the deities linked to asterisms will be examined more closely than in the past. The resulting textual interpretations have led to new suggestions, which are illustrated via a 3D model and compared with previous visual representations of asterisms. The combination of a philological approach with astronomical computation holds potential for improving our understanding of Babylonian uranography and its historical development.

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