A TRIPLE-DECKER FEAST: Three books by Gavin White
Reviewed by Gill Zukovskis
Perhaps the skies have held particularly favourable alignments for Gavin White recently - in any event, he seems to have enjoyed a very fertile creative patch. Over the past few months, he has self-published two new books and re-issued a third, full of innovative and inspiring ideas.
- Babylonian Star-lore: An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia, Solaria Publications, 2014, 414pp., ISBN: 978-0955903748; RRP: $29.95, £16.95, €18.95
- The Queen of Heaven - A New Interpretation of the Goddess in Ancient Near Eastern Art, Solaria Publications, 2013, 190pp., ISBN: 978-0955903717; RRP: $22.00, £15.00, €17.00
- Queen of the Night - The Role of the Stars in the Creation of the Child, Solaria Publications, 2014, 216pp., ISBN: 978-0955903731; RRP: $24.00, £16.00, €18.00
This review will look in more detail at the two new volumes, after some brief comments on the revised edition of his earlier book, Babylonian Star-lore (Deborah Houlding's 2008 review of the original is available here).
1) Babylonian Star-lore
The author describes his third edition as "revised and expanded, with references and additional illustrations", and the latest version has around ninety pages more than the previous. White explains that he has chosen to omit the first two appendices from the 2nd edition, on 'Reconstructing the Babylonian Star-map' and 'The Age of the Star-map', since he plans to follow up these interesting but inevitably speculative topics more fully in a future study. There is an new entry on 'The Solstices' (pp. 256-7), but the additions and amendments are mainly interspersed throughout the original material, in the form of extra artwork and expanded or altered text. One or two sections have had slightly more substantial re-writing, but the core content and overall focus of the previous edition have been maintained.
The chief addition is the new section of 'Reference Notes and Bibliography', previously available online, but now included within the printed copy. On pp. 331-369, White supplies annotated reference details section by section, with a four-page Bibliography (pp. 370-374). This is followed by further information on the main 'Textual sources' used in compiling the material (pp. 375-392), one of several appendices provided in the former edition, but now presented in a different and rather more logical sequence. With these alterations, the contents list now reads:
Following up the calendrically-based scheme outlined in Babylonian Star-lore, Gavin White takes the reader on a further fascinating exploration of the archaic skies in two parts. His quest to rediscover lost meanings expressed within the constellations focuses on visual symbolism,(mostly from Mesopotamian sources), and approaches icons and images not in isolation, but within their overall context. The journey to reconstruct the profound and moving significance encoded in the early art and mythology of humankind begins in The Queen of Heaven and continues in Queen of the Night.
- Introductory Material
- The Writing System
- Astrology and Ominous Signs
- The Babylonian Cosmos
- A Brief Guide to the Star-map
- A-Z Gazetteer of Stars & Constellations
- Abundance - Zababa
- 1. The Greek and Dendera star-maps
- 2. Star-names used to represent the planets
- 3. Stellar associations with the four regions
- 4. Stellar associations with cities, towns and temples
- 5. The exaltation system
- 6. The four winds
- 7. The 12 months
- 8. The seasonal cycle
- Further Reading
- Reference Notes & Bibliography
- Reference notes
- Textual sources
- Babylonian gods and the stars
- Thematic indexes
- Word index
- Chronological tables
2) The Queen of Heaven
The Queen of Heaven has three main sections. In part one, the author surveys representations of parentage and fertility. Motifs relating to the heavenly and terrestrial child include human, animal and plant counterparts, such as the bull calf, bird chicks, and sacred seeds from flowers and trees. Although male potency is sometimes depicted, the fertile heavens of the ancients are characterized as predominantly female; the womb of the celestial dome conceives offspring that descend from ethereal to physical realms to be born on earth below.
Aspects of the sky goddess of birth, life and death are then discussed in depth within part two. White suggests her creative powers are embodied in the rains and sunlight streaming down from above, expressed metaphorically in abstract and concrete forms such as sun disks, swastikas, radiating rosettes, flowing hair, sweeping horns, and pouring vessels. She carries souls to and from the stars in both directions of their cosmic odyssey, and her various manifestations reflect these divine functions: enthroned queen, storm and solar deity, scorpion, courtesan, noble womb, and whirling wind, as well as heavenly bird or cow, for instance.
In part three, the fall of this archaic deity, and the general development of ancient symbolic language, is discussed within a clear three-stage framework: the Age of the Goddess is followed by the Age of Transition, with uneasy coexistence of male and female divinities, and then ultimate victory in the battle for supremacy for the male-dominated pantheon, ushering in the Age of the High Gods. It is these gods who are celebrated in written texts, yet earlier world views can be traced through thoughtful study of pre-literate and non-verbal material. Several detailed examples are offered here, including assimilation of life-engendering waters and judgement of the Anzu-bird by Enki, the demonization of Lamashtu (once divine mother, later evil bringer of miscarriage and disease), comparisons between male Utu and female Inanna, and the slaying of Humbaba.
The book ends by noting the dramatic shift in ideology accompanying the third age. Not only is the divine goddess ousted, but also the vision of celestial origin and destination for humankind. In its place is a starker model where mighty rulers monopolize the heavens, with people fashioned from lifeless clay and consigned to a cold, dark underworld at the end of a life of subservience to divine will.
3) Queen of the Night
Having outlined the fundamental bases of his celestial interpretation, White then illuminates further in Queen of the Night key concepts of perennial philosophy derived from the skies. Re-iterating the central importance of archaic goddesses such as Sumerian Inanna who "embraced all the life-generating powers of the skies" (Foreword, p.9), he applies his analysis to specific aspects relating to the origins of astrology and related mythology.
He focuses first on the significance of celestial cattle, including their plant adornments and lustrous horns, replete with seed and water associations. The cattle-pen symbol of the heavens is then addressed, with specific reference to representations of human pregnancy trimesters mapped onto the 'cross' formed by the zodiac constellations. The stages in the life of the unborn child from conception to delivery, played out both in the heavens and on earth, are then related to particular motifs, including waters and fields, scorpions and serpents, lioness and sphinx. The third section will also be of particular interest to astrologers, since it examines the fairly scanty early information on the planets, hypothesizing an archaic collective of planetary gods, echoed in the rather shadowy Anunna Gods and the much-maligned and misunderstood 'demons'.
He touches upon related topics along the way, such as the importance of speech and music, the Tree of Life, the complex roles and powers of the god Šulpae, and the denigration of the Divine Goddess as the Whore of Babylon. He offers valuable insights into coiled serpents and tiered ziggurats, ending with a valuable summary of 'Origins and Ends' that sets out a specific pathway through the planetary spheres, the Milky Way and the zodiac wheel for the soul's ascent and descent. As a counterpoint to the rather dark entry of death to the world at the end of The Queen of Heaven, the subsequent volume ends on a note of optimism, stressing the hope of eternal return at the heart of the primordial tradition, and its deep roots and enduring resilience within the human psyche.
The combination of creative and analytical perspectives in these two books, with emphasis on intuitive understanding, is very appealing and compelling. A wealth of illustrations support the author's innovative arguments throughout, and there are several poignant texts too. Ideas from the Roman writer Macrobius relating to celestial gateways are incorporated here, along with evidence predominantly from Mesopotamian texts, images and artifacts, with snippets from the Far East, as well as Vedic traditions. There are useful summaries within the text, and each book includes both a thematic Symbol Index and a conventional Word Index. Chronologies for prehistoric and historic eras (including timescales for the three ages posited by the writer) are also provided, along with a select Bibliography.
The approach is a radical departure from much mainstream scholarship, which is naturally more cautious and conservative. As such, it will not be universally accepted, but the ideas presented definitely seem worthy of attention and further research. For me, as an interested non-specialist reader, White's work is packed with fresh, stimulating insights, and weaves simple threads into an intricate tapestry that merits reading and re-reading. In short, I would heartily recommend these books to anyone interested in ancient art, history, religion and culture.
Review by Gill Zukovskis
Published online January, 2015