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Review of Babylonian Star Lore by Gavin White




 



Babylonian Star Lore

As every practising astrologer knows, the planets are thought to have a particularly auspicious influence when they reside in their 'Exaltations'. But regardless of their well-known interpretive meanings and their widespread use, very little is actually known concerning the origins of the system or the rationale that underpins its structure. It is the purpose of the present article to try and answer these basic questions by exploring the nature and use of the Exaltation system in the extensive body of Babylonian texts that deal with the ancient art of celestial divination.


In late Babylonian sources the Exaltations are referred to as the 'secret houses' or 'secret places' of the planets (in the Akkadian language bit nisirti and ašar nisirti respectively).[1] The earliest exposition of the planetary Exaltations can be found in the so-called 'Gu-text'.[2] The text, dated between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE, lists the constellations in long strings running approximately North-South. Unfortunately the text is incomplete, and what remains needs some re-organisation, but the surviving references to the planets are as follows:
  • String E - 'Jupiter behind the Crab (Cancer) in front of the Lion (Leo)'
  • String K - 'Mercury with the Furrow (eastern half of Virgo) in front of the Raven (Corvus)'
  • String L - 'Saturn in front of the Scales (Libra)'
To fill in the remaining gaps it is necessary to resort to much later texts, which, for the most part, are dated to the Hellenistic era:[3]
  • Sun in the Hired Man (Aries)
  • Moon in the Star Cluster (Pleiades) and the Old Man (Perseus)
  • Venus in Anunitum (Northern Fish of Pisces)
  • Mars in the Goatfish (Capricorn)
Now that we have the complete range of attributions it is relatively easy to work out its informing rationale.[4] The basic pattern emphasises the great cross of the solstices and equinoxes - Jupiter and Mars, the most beneficial and malevolent planets, are located close to the stars that, by their rising, mark the summer and winter solstices respectively. On the equinoxial arms of the cross, Saturn occupies a position close to the autumn equinox, and opposite it, at the station of the New Year, are the Sun and Moon. The Sun marking the spring equinox proper while the Moon occupies its ideal calendrical position at the start of the year.

The Exaltations of Mercury and Venus are a little more problematic as they don't fit into the solstice-equinox pattern. So far the only reasonable explanation put forward is that they are 'precursors of autumn and spring' respectively.[5] As seasonal markers they indicate significant phases in the farming year - the rising of Mercury's Exaltation heralds the return of the autumnal rains and marks the start of the seeding season; while the rising of Venus' Exaltation marks the springtime floods and the final irrigation of the ripening barley before the commencement of the harvest.

The following explores each Exaltation in greater detail and demonstrates their practical application in the astrological arts.




SATURN & THE SCALES (Libra)

It is actually best to start with Saturn and its exaltation in the Scales, for the simple reason that more information has survived concerning this attribution and we can therefore gain a much clearer idea of its nature and basis.

In star-lore the rising of the Scales marks the autumn equinox where it represents the concept of 'balance' - when days and nights are equal, it also alludes to the fact that at this time of year the sun and full moon enter and depart the heavens due east and west. For these reasons the constellation of the Scales was held to be particularly sacred to Šamaš, the sun god. Beyond his cosmological role, the sun god was also the patron of truth and justice. As the 'eye of the sky' he saw everything that happened on earth, and he was therefore regarded as the arbiter of truth and righteousness. In this role he was allotted the sacred symbols of the scales and the serrated saw, which symbolise the dual processes of 'weighing up' the evidence and applying a fitting punishment. These symbols, in the form of the scales and sword, are still wielded by the modern figure of Justice to this day.

So far we have established that the Scales and the Sun have a very close affinity, but this only represents two parts of a three-part equation. In astrological lore the Sun and the Scales are so closely related to Saturn that they can effectively be used as interchangeable terms, and I believe it is for this reason that the Scales have been chosen as the Exaltation of Saturn.

The identity between Saturn and the Sun is most clearly seen in the names applied to them in astrological literature - Saturn is commonly referred to as 'the star of the sun' or 'the path of the sun', furthermore both planets can be called 'the star of truth and justice'. Their identities are so closely interwoven that omens ostensibly coined for the sun can be used to describe the celestial behaviour of Saturn. There are a number of surviving examples of this practice scattered throughout the reports of the royal astrologers of Assyria: 'If the Sun stands in the halo of the Moon: they will speak truth in all lands, son will speak truth to his father' [6] - contrary to its stated terms of reference, this omen is actually used to describe the appearance of Saturn in the lunar halo. The complex web of identifications between the Sun, Saturn and the Scales informs the rather arcane description of the Saturn found in the class of documents known as the Astrolabes: 'The red star that stands at the rising of the south-wind before the Scorpion is a planet - the Scales, Saturn; the planet 'the Scales' is the sun god'.[7]

Befitting its latter-day Exaltation, the appearance of Saturn in the Scales is interpreted as a very beneficial sign for the king and his realm. This is expressed in Babylonian astrology by the following omen: 'If the Scales' position is stable: there will be reconciliation & peace in the land'. Like many celestial omens, this example uses a 'poetic' allusion to imply the presence of Saturn, which is not explicitly mentioned in the omen. In this case the word 'stable' suggests Saturn, as one of the planet's commonest names is 'Kaiamanu' - 'the Steady or Constant One'.

One final omen concerning Saturn's presence in the Scales is well worth quoting: 'If the Scorpion's pincers (or horns) carry radiance: the king will conquer his enemies'. As anyone familiar with Greek star-lore will know, the constellation figure of Libra was formed out of the Scorpion's Pinchers in ages long past - in remembrance of this fact, the Scales are sometimes referred to as the 'Scorpion's Claws or Pinchers'. Here the presence of Saturn is again encoded, this time by the oblique reference to the constellation carrying 'radiance'. Comparable examples show that this means that a planet thought to be particularly beneficial is present in the immediate vicinity - again the astrological reports prove that this planet is Saturn. The prediction concerning warfare is derived from the martial symbolism of the Scorpion, whose weaponry - stinger and pinchers - as well as its armoured body segments has predisposed it to be a symbol of war and the martial prowess of the king.

The omens quoted above show beyond any doubt that the appearance of Saturn in the Scales was thought to be a particularly auspicious sign, even if, as in the second example, the omen actually refers to the Scorpion's Pinchers. This is all the more apparent when we consider the fact that the majority of celestial omens actually make negative predictions - they were regarded as warnings of imminent calamity, which impelled the king to take remedial action in the form of special rites and prayers designed to expunge the predicted evil.



JUPITER & THE CRAB (Cancer)

The location of Jupiter's Exaltation is found between the constellations of the Crab and the Lion (Cancer and Leo) on the most northerly section of the ecliptic, where it's rising coincides with the summer solstice. Jupiter is considered to be the most auspicious planet, indeed the 'King of the Planets', and his omens specifically apply to the land of Akkad, the traditional 'homeland' as far as astrology is concerned. This symbolism is in marked contrast to the malevolent Mars, whose Exaltation rises with the winter solstice and who is associated with the land of Elam, the traditional enemy of Babylonia.

In Babylonian lore the Crab is sometimes called the 'Seat or Abode of Anu'.[8] Anu is the most ancient god of the celestial realms; his name literally means 'heaven'. He is the ultimate authority figure who lends his power to the other gods, and in the human realm he is especially associated with the divinely ordained powers of the king. He abides in the highest of the three superimposed heavens recognised in Babylonian cosmology (the pantheon gods occupy the middle heaven while the figures of the constellations are engraved upon the lowest heaven) which may well be reflected in astrological lore by placing his special abode in the Crab, which, of course, occupies the highest part of the ecliptic.

So far only one omen referring to Jupiter in its Exaltation has come to light: 'If Jupiter (Sagmegar) passes towards sunset: quiet dwelling and well-being descend upon the land, variant: the land will dwell in quiet' - Jupiter is seen in front of the Crab.

This omen is typically used in the State Archives of Assyria[9] to refer to the circumstance of Jupiter staying visible in the heavens longer than expected. Texts such as Mul-Apin[10] give very basic periods of visibility and invisibility for all the planets - in this case, Jupiter is said to 'stand in the sky for one year' before disappearing in the west. Although most planetary phenomena that manifest outside their ideal parameters are considered to be inauspicious signs, the continued presence of benevolent Jupiter beyond its ideal period of a year is interpreted as a positive sign - as it continues to bless the king and the land beyond its normal measure.

We can only speculate that this omen has been applied to the presence of Jupiter in its Exaltation for the simple reason that it too is considered a highly benevolent sign.



VENUS & ANUNITUM (The Northern Fish of Pisces)

The Exaltation of Venus is located in the Babylonian constellation known as Anunitum, which, in Greek terms, corresponds to the Northern Fish of Pisces. In modern astrology the constellation of Pisces is represented by the well-known image of two fish joined together by a cord. This rather bizarre image makes much more sense in terms of its Babylonian prototype - which reveals that the 'cord' was originally a representation of the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates, with tiny fish set along their courses. The incorporation of the fish not only confirms the watery nature of the rivers, and is a common feature in all manner of native artwork, but it also constitutes a pictorial allegory of early spring when river carp swim upstream to their spawning grounds. At this time of year the rivers, fed by melting snows, swell to their maximum levels just as the ripening crops are receiving their final irrigation.

There are no surviving omens that deal directly with the constellation of Anunitum, let alone Venus' presence there. However, the circumstance of Venus appearing in this part of the heavens can be described as follows: 'If the Worm is very massive: there will be mercy and reconciliation in the land' - Venus stands in Anunitum. Quite why Anunitum is called the 'Worm' or 'Maggot' is not known, nevertheless the positive prediction given here is very similar to the predictions associated with the Exaltations of Jupiter and Saturn seen above.

Royal astrologers also use an omen for the nearby constellation of the Field - corresponding to the four stars that make up the Square of Pegasus - when Venus appears in Anunitum: 'If Venus becomes visible in the Field: there will be rain from the skies and floods from the springs, the harvest of the Westlands will thrive, abandoned pastures will be resettled'. The dual reference in this omen to rain and flood and a thriving harvest goes some way to confirm that Venus' Exaltation is indeed located in reference to the springtime floods and the approaching harvest.

In late omen texts and their commentaries Venus is also considered to have a second exaltation in the Lion: 'If Venus reaches her secret place: good fortune will come to pass - she reaches the constellation of the Lion. On the other hand, if she does not reach her secret place before disappearing 'the land will suffer'. Venus and the lion have a long-standing connection in all aspects of Babylonian tradition. The planet is consistently associated with Inanna-Ištar, the great goddess of war and victory who was allotted the lion as her sacred beast way back in the prehistoric period.



MERCURY & THE FURROW (Eastern half of Virgo)

On the celestial sphere the Exaltation of Mercury is set between the Babylonian constellations known as the Furrow and the Raven. The Raven (our Corvus) is held sacred to Adad, the god of rain and storm, which accords very well with the astrological nature Mercury, who is said to bring rain and flood to the land. The constellation of the Furrow was depicted in Babylonia as the goddess Šala, the wife of Adad, whose oversized barley stalk symbolised the fields in autumn when they are about to be seeded with the coming season's crop. The association of rain-bringing Mercury with the Furrow and the Raven, sacred to the barley goddess and her storm-bringing husband, beautifully sums up the seasonal aspects of autumn when the rains return after the summer dry season and the farming year commences with the opening of the sowing season.

The presence of Mercury in the Furrow is thoroughly disguised by encoding both the planet and the constellation. If it wasn't for the commentaries we would be at a loss how to interpret the following omen: 'If the Bow reaches the Arrow: the harvest will thrive, the market prices will be stable' - Mercury is the Arrow, it is visible in the Furrow. Similarly Mercury can also be called 'the Fish': 'If the Fish comes near to the Bow: the harvest of the land will prosper, the beasts of the steppe will increase, the king of the land will become strong & bind his enemies, sesame & dates will prosper. As both omens make explicit reference to a prosperous harvest we can be confident that this is the basis for Mercury's Exaltation being located in the region of the Furrow.



MARS & THE GOATFISH (Capricorn)

Mars has its Exaltation among the stars that rise at the winter solstice. As the most malevolent planet his special station has probably been placed on the lowest sector of the ecliptic to nullify his detrimental influence. As the 'Alien planet' or 'Stranger', Mars is particularly associated with the land of Elam (roughly corresponding to modern Iran), the age-old enemy of Mesopotamia.

Very little information has survived concerning the ominous nature of the Goatfish; in fact only one omen explicitly mentioning the Goatfish has come to light. This omen, rather fortuitously does concern Mars but, contrary to what we would expect, it actually gives a very negative prediction: 'If Mars rides the Goatfish: devastation of Eridu; its people will be annihilated'. No doubt, the otherwise unattested circumstance of Mars 'riding' the Goatfish, indicates some sort of occurrence thought to be outside the usual range of its behaviour - and accordingly it is interpreted as a bad sign from the gods.

As in modern mundane astrology, many of the Babylonian constellations were associated with certain cities or regions. The city of Eridu, mentioned in the omen quoted above, was renowned as the most ancient city of Mesopotamia, and was held sacred to the Sumerian god Enki. Enki was a wise and benevolent god, living in the freshwater Abyss below the earth, who brought the arts of civilisation to mankind in the era before the Great Flood. Among his entourage were a host of aquatic beings, including the Goatfish and various mermen and mermaids, which were renown for their wisdom. And it is presumably in light of this association with Enki and the Waters, and the fact that Eridu was located in the southernmost regions of Mesopotamia, that the Goatfish was affiliated with this city.



SUN & HIRED MAN (Aries)

Unlike the Moon and the other planets, the Sun is never seen with the stars, and consequently it is but rarely mentioned alongside the stars and constellations in omen-lore. It is only in very late texts that any reference is made to the Sun's Exaltation, and these texts place it in the constellation known as the Hired Man.[11] Contrary to expectation, the Hired Man is actually the Babylonian name for the familiar ram or lamb of Aries. Its name has understandably led to much confusion - many earlier commentators on the history of astrology have even concluded that the Arian ram was incorporated into the Zodiac from non-Babylonian sources.

In fact, the name of the 'Hired Man' is a learned pun that needs to be interpreted in two very different ways. At face value the 'Hired Man' refers to the additional farm labourers employed in the spring to bring in the barley harvest. But his name, as a spoken rather than written form, can also be understood as something like 'the Sheep of Atonement'. In this guise he represents the newborn lambs appearing in the cattle-folds. In other words his name is purposefully ambiguous and has been fashioned to represent the two major pastoral activities of the spring - the barley harvest and the birth of livestock.

So far no celestial omens concerning the Sun's presence in the Hired Man have been recovered. And beyond restating our initial observations that the Sun's Exaltation has been placed here to mark the spring equinox and the commencement of the New Year, we can add little more. Only one point of interest readily springs to mind concerning this attribution - the 'depression' of the Sun, ie the Zodiac sign opposite to its Exaltation, is Libra, which in Babylonian tradition is actually held sacred to the Sun.



MOON & THE STAR CLUSTER & THE OLD MAN (The Pleiades & Perseus) The Moon is listed as having two Exaltations, namely the Star Cluster and the Old Man, which correspond to the Greek Pleiades and Perseus respectively. Unlike the other Exaltations that are founded on the time that their marker stars rise, the Moon's Exaltations are selected in terms of their setting time. The reason for this divergence is to be found in the role that the Moon plays in the calendar system. In the Babylonian calendar each month began with the sighting of the New Moon over the western horizon shortly after sunset - thus the stars and constellations within which it was seen were in the process of setting.

Like most ancient societies of the Near East, the Babylonians used what is called a luni-solar calendar. In this type of calendar the months are directly based on the observed phases of the Moon and in order to synchronise the lunar months with the solar year an extra 'intercalary' month was added every three years or so. There were several methods used to determine the correct time to add this extra month - the most famous involved observing when the conjunction of the Moon and Star Cluster took place. This scheme states that the year is 'standard' if the Star Cluster and the Moon are in conjunction on the first day of the year, but if their conjunction falls on the third day then that year is 'surplus' and requires an extra month to be added.[12]

The Exaltations of the Sun and Moon are therefore primarily based on the workings of the calendar. The Sun is located in the Hired Man at the start of the New Year and the Moon occupies its ideal placement in the Star Cluster thus generating a positive sign that the coming year would be composed of an ideal 12 months rather than an inauspicious count of 13 months.

As the Moon's conjunction with the Star Cluster was such a significant event it forms the basis of a considerable number of celestial omens, though for our purposes a single example will suffice: 'If the Star Cluster comes close to the top of the Moon & stands there: the king will exercise world dominion & expand his land'. Similarly, the sighting of the Moon with the Old Man presages good fortune to the king and his realm: 'If the star of the Old Man comes to the top of the Moon and stands there: the king will stand in triumph, he will become old and expand the land; he will be happy about his land; there will be truth and justice in the land'.




The foregoing sections have, I hope, demonstrated the highly auspicious natures of the planetary Exaltations in Babylonian astrology. Their exalted status appears to be based on two inter-related factors - the spatial and temporal layout of the constellations, and the association of these constellations with planets of a complimentary nature. As we have seen the specific constellations selected as Exaltations marked the most fundamental aspects of spatial and temporal order recognised in the archaic world-view - the solstices and equinoxes, the most important phases of the farming year and significant calendrical associations. When these constellations were further dignified by the presence of their complementary planets it was seen as a sign that heaven and earth were in harmony and that the cosmic order which they embodied was unfolding in accordance with its divinely ordained plan.


THE AGE OF THE EXALTATION SYSTEM

As we have already seen at the beginning of this article, the Gu-text is the earliest text so far discovered that provides definitive, if incomplete, evidence for the use of the Exaltation system in the Ancient Near East. As the provenance of the text is not known there is some uncertainty concerning its age - the modern editors estimated that it was written sometime between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE. Another early literate source comes in the form of the royal inscriptions of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (ruled 680 to 669 BCE) who utilised the occurrence of certain auspicious celestial signs to legitimise his assumption to the throne. Unfortunately, beyond proving that the appearance of the Venus and Jupiter in their 'secret houses' was considered to be a favourable sign, the inscriptions don't provide enough detail to locate their Exaltations among the stars. The first inscription only indicates that Venus' 'secret place' was located somewhere between Aquarius and Scorpius; the second inscription states that Jupiter reached its 'secret place' in the month of Pet-babi. This month name is a rather obscure Elamite formation and there is conflicting evidence over its Babylonian equivalent - some sources identify it with the Babylonian month of Simanu (May-June), others with Du-uzu (June-July). Naturally these conflicting identifications generate different solutions. The first identification correlates with a location in Gemini, the second places Jupiter in the middle of Cancer. So although these two inscriptions are potentially compatible with what we know concerning the Exaltations they do not constitute a definitive proof of their usage at this time.[13]

Beyond this point we are forced to consider less certain evidence. Chief amongst these are a class of documents called 'Astrolabes', which together represent one of the earliest 'organised' textual groupings dealing with the constellations. The earliest copy so far discovered is currently dated to around 1100 BCE. These texts typically allocate the constellations to one of three 'stellar paths' - northern, equatorial and southern and further associate them with specific months. And what is of interest is that most early versions of the Astrolabes include 3 planets among the listings of stars and constellations. In the best-known example, called 'Pinches Astrolabe',[14] Jupiter is located in the northern path and is allocated to Month 4 (June-July); Venus is placed in the equatorial path in Month 1 (March-April), and Mars in the southernmost path in Month 9 (November-December). The similarity between these attributions and what we know of the Exaltations from later sources cannot be a coincidence. This is indeed confirmed by one particular entry, found in an alternative version of the Astrolabes, which explicitly associates Saturn with the Sun and the Scales (it is quoted above in the section dealing with Saturn).

This evidence thus indicates that something very similar to the Exaltation system was in use in the last centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE. A broadly similar conclusion can be reached by considering the evidence of the celestial omens quoted in the body of this article. There is common agreement among modern scholars that the omen series were standardised and set into their canonical formats in the last centuries of the 2nd millennium. Although there can be little doubt that these canonical series drew on an earlier literate and oral tradition dating back to the early centuries of the 2nd millennium, it is at present impossible to gain a clear enough picture of celestial divination in this era to draw any definite conclusions concerning the presence of the Exaltation system.


© Gavin White, 2008.


Gavin White is an independent researcher who has been investigating the celestial traditions of ancient Babylonia for the last 6 years. The results of his research into the Babylonian stars and constellations have recently been published under the title: 'Babylonian Star-lore. An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia', Solaria Publications, 2008.





Notes & References:

  1 ] There remains some confusion over the use of the terms 'secret house/place' in cuneiform literature of the Hellenistic period. Astrology texts definitely use both terms to refer to the Babylonian Exaltations, however contemporary Horoscopes use the term 'secret house' to signify a bewildering array of planet to constellation associations. See pages 46-50 of Babylonian Horoscopes, Francesca Rochberg, Transactions of the American Philosophical society, Volume 88, part 1,1998.
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  2 ] The Gu-text is published in Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia, Hermann Hunger & David Pingree, Brill, 1999, pages 90-100.
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  3 ] See Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology, Francesca Rochberg-Halton, Journal of the American oriental Society 108, 1988, pages 53-7.
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  4 ] The calendrical basis of the Exaltation scheme was first proposed by David Pingree in his astronomical commentary on Mul-Apin found on page 147 of Mul.Apin, An Astronomical Compendium in Cuneiform, Hermann Hunger & David Pingree, Berger, 1989.
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  5 ] Ditto.
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  6 ] Most of the omens quoted in this article are drawn from volume 8 of the State Archives of Assyria, edited by Hermann Hunger, Helsinki University Press, 1992.
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  7 ] The text was published as The 30-Star-Catalogue HS 1897 and the Late Parallel BM 55502, by Joachim Oelsner & Wayne Horowitz, Archiv fur Orientforschung 44/45, 1977-8, pages 176-185.
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  8 ] Mul-Apin (see note 4) page 20.
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  9 ] State Archives of Assyria, volume 8 (see note 6) reports 329 & 456.
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  10 ] Mul-Apin (see note 4) page 85.
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  11 ] Francesca Rochberg-Halton (see note 3) page 55.
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  12 ] Mul-Apin (see note 4) pages 89-90.
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  13 ] The inscriptions are discussed and analysed by Francesca Rochberg-Halton in pages 54-5 of Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology, Journal of the American oriental Society 108, 1988; and on pages 146-7 of Mul.Apin, An Astronomical Compendium in Cuneiform, Hermann Hunger & David Pingree, Berger, 1989.
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  13 ] Two versions of the Astrolabes are published on pages 4 & 5 of Babylonian Planetary Omens, part 2, Erica Reiner with the collaboration of David Pingree, Undena, 1981.
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The article made available on this page is copyrighted to Gavin White and is offered here, with his permission, for private and non-commercial use. It may not be reproduced further without his specific agreement. To contact Gavin directly, we recommend that you visit his website www.babylonian-astrology.com. Online publication: May 2009.


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