Babylonian Astrology: How Mesopotamian Priests Influenced Your Horoscope
Mankind has always looked up to the sky and wondered at its beauty and secrets. Human beings are also incredibly good at spotting patterns, so it is no wonder that we noticed the changing appearance of the night sky as the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun. Paintings that mark the positions of the planets in the night sky have been discovered in Lascaux, France from around 15,000 BC.
Cave painting featuring star maps, Lascaux, France. ( Taylorsville Art )
The practice of deciphering these changing patterns and what they mean for life on Earth is also ancient. Different astrology practices emerged independently all over the world: in Mesopotamia, India, China, and Central America. It is the Mesopotamian system, that emerged in ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq) around 5,000 years ago, that forms the basis of the astrology that is used in the West today .
The Beginnings of Babylonian Astrology
There is some evidence for the practice of astrology in Babylon from as far back as the third millennium BC, but the oldest evidence for their organized system of astrology is from the second millennium BC. Around 70 cuneiform tablets from the 1700s BC list more than 7,000 celestial omens. At that time, astrology was focused on what was currently happening in the night sky, as the future movements of the planets was difficult to predict. However, by the 4th century BC they had a fairly reliable system for predicting future planetary movements too.
Fragments of a Babylonian star calendar. ( Babylonian Empire )
In Babylon, astrology was the practice of priests and was one of two ways that priests could determine the will of the gods. The other method was to inspect the livers of sacrificial animals and interpret the patterns of dark spots that could be observed.
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The Babylonian system of astrology contained many things that we would recognize today. They divided the fixed stars into three groups - Anu, Enlil, and Ea - based on where they rose on the Eastern horizon. The Babylonians originally recognized 18 constellations among these fixed stars, but they later focused on the 12 most important constellations, which were adopted by the Greeks and align with the constellations that we use in the West today.
Top Image: Babylonian Astrologers mapping the stars. Babylonian astrology was seen as very important in the running of the state. Source: Cradle of Civilization
Reading the Will of the Gods
The Babylonians also recognized five of the planets, along with the Sun and Moon. They associated the planets with different gods in their pantheon: Jupiter with Marduk, Venus with Ishtar, Saturn with Ninurta, Mercury with Nabu, Mars with Nergal, the Sun with Shamash and the Moon with Sin. The movement of the Sun, Moon and planets through the constellations was thought to represent the activity of these gods and hold messages from the gods about their will.
(From left to right) Ashur, Ishtar, Sin, Enlil, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar of Arbela are flanked by two star-worshippers. ( The Commons )
When reading these signs, the priests were primarily concerned with what was happening in the state as a whole and in the life of the king as the central figure of the state. They also believed that they could undertake rituals to appease the gods and mitigate any negative warnings revealed by the stars.
The Babylonian method of interpretation was based on memory, specifically what took place in the past when the same celestial phenomena were present. They also used the characteristics of the gods associated with the different planets and the stories linked to the different constellations to develop stories that held messages about their meaning.
Babylonian astrology spread throughout the region. Numerous documents detailing things such as lunar omens and solar eclipses based on the Babylonian system have been found in Hittite, Akkadian, and Assyrian cities.
Assyrian star planisphere from Assyrian Library at Nineveh (668-627 BC) British Museum. ( CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
That you could tell something about a person from the position of the stars at the time of their birth appears to have been an ancient concept in Babylonian astrology. A prophecy surviving from the second millennium BC says that children born in the 12th month would live a long time and bear male children.
Nevertheless, the practice of producing personal horoscopes only seems to have appeared from about 400 BC. This was after the Persians took over the area and, with their different religious practices, no longer needed the services of the astrologer priests.
The best-known Babylonian horoscope describes the night sky on April 29, 410 BC. It describes the Moon as being below the pincer of Scorpio, Jupiter in Pisces, Venus in Taurus, Saturn in Cancer, Mars in Gemini, and Mercury as not visible. From this, the astrologer predicted good fortune for the new-born. Like earlier predictions, if a child´s horoscope contained negative omens, the priest could also conduct rituals to mitigate these problems.
If a child´s horoscope contained negative omens, the Babylonian priest could conduct rituals to mitigate these problems. ( According to God- Exploring the Myth )
Transmission and Additions by the Greeks
While the astrology used in the West today has its roots in Babylon, it was influenced heavily by the other cultures that transmitted it to the modern world.
The Greeks were key to this transmission. While references to astrology appear in some early Greek texts, such as in poems of Hesiod from 750 BC which suggest that the stars indicate propitious times for certain tasks, it was only with increased contact with Mesopotamia, following the Asian conquests of Alexander the Great , that astrology appears to have become popular.
The Greeks added significant elements to astrology, such as the importance of the four elements - Fire, Earth, Air, and Water - and the discovery of the procession of the equinoxes.
The most famous Greek astrologer was Ptolemy of Alexandria, who lived in Egypt in around 100 AD. He wrote two important works on astrology. His Tetrabiblos provides a summation of contemporary astrology, and this was considered the astrological textbook by Arabs and European astrologers until the 17th century, when Copernicus established that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
Ancient stargazers. ( Crystalinks)
Later Astrology Adjustments by Romans and Arabs
The Romans, who adopted many aspects of Greek culture, also practiced astrology. Several of the Roman emperors were famous for their use of astrology - Augustus Caesar has his moon sign, Capricorn, minted onto some of his coins. The most famous Roman astrologer was Firmicus, who lived in the 4th century AD and wrote Mathesis as a practical guide to astrology.
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The sack of Rome in 410 AD saw much knowledge lost in Europe, until it re-emerged in the Middle Ages. However, while astrology in Europe went through a dark age, it continued to flourish in the Arab world. It was Arab scholars that preserved the works of Ptolemy and Firmicus and also added information from astrology practices in places such as China and India. They also developed the Astrolabe, a scientific instrument to track the movement of the stars and planets.
Islamic Astrolabe from the 13th Century, British Museum ( CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
It was only with the renewal of intellectual activity in Europe following the Dark Ages, that astrology appears to have grown in strength again in Europe. In the 11th and 12th centuries, hungry scholars looked to the Arab world for information about astrology. In 1138, the first Latin translation of the Tetrabiblos arrived in Europe. From this time, the European philosopher scientists reintroduced astrology into European culture and developed the system of astrology used in the West today, based on Babylonian astrology.
Top image: Medieval stargazers. People have been fascinated by the stars and their possible influence over our lives, long before and after the time of Babylonian astrology. Source: Hawkwood/ CC BY NC ND 2.0