Ancient Assyrian Astrologers Teach Us About Solar Storms
What exactly goes on high above our heads? Why do the stars and celestial spheres seem to dance around the sky? What is the sun up to when it seems to “randomly” disappear in the day, or when it turns the sky strange colors? And, what kind of an impact can all these events in the heavens have on us? These are some of the questions ancient Assyrian astrologers may have pondered almost 3,000 years ago. And some of the information they wrote down about their observations is helping teach modern scientists about the solar system today and what may happen in the future.
What Did Assyrian Astrologers Write About Solar Events?
2,700 years ago ancient Assyrian astrologers, who would have been regarded as professional scholars to the kings who had commissioned them, wrote about an unusual red glow in the sky. A University of Tsukuba team found that there are at least three ancient cuneiform tablets that mention such an event, sometimes described as a “red cloud” or with text saying “red covers the sky.”
Example of cuneiform tablets. (dimamoroz /Adobe Stock)
Science Daily reports that when the scientists compared the events detailed on the ancient tablets from the Assyrian city of Nineveh with carbon-14 concentrations in tree rings, they found evidence of solar magnetic storms taking place at the times when the astrological reports were made. Specifically, the researchers explain that “These were probably manifestations of what we call today stable auroral red arcs, consisting of light emitted by electrons in atmospheric oxygen atoms after being excited by intense magnetic fields.”
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And while most of the aurorae events are linked to more northern latitudes today, when there is a major solar event, such as a solar mass ejection during times of strong magnetic activity on the sun, the events can be seen farther south. Furthermore, the ancient Assyrian astrologers were able to see these solar events because the Earth’s magnetic field has changed over thousands of years and they would have been closer to the geomagnetic pole during their lifetime.
On August 31, 2012 a long filament of solar material that had been hovering in the sun's atmosphere, the corona, erupted out into space. The coronal mass ejection, or CME, traveled at over 900 miles per second and connected with Earth's magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, causing aurora to appear on the night of Monday, September 3. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC BY 2.0)
Yasuyuki Mitsuma, one of the authors of the current study, states that “Although the exact dates of the observations are not known, we were able to narrow the range considerably by knowing when each astrologer was active.” And when those dates are compared with the radioactive carbon-14 seen in tree ring samples from the same period, the researchers have identified the texts as describing important solar events.
How the Ancient Assyrian Writings Can Help Modern Scientists
You may be wondering what all this has to do with us today. Actually, it’s important stuff because as the researchers write in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, “These space weather events constitute a significant threat to a modern civilization, because of its increasing dependency on an electronic infrastructure.” And satellites and spacecraft are especially vulnerable during solar storms.
And from a historical point of view its interesting because these cuneiform tablets are believed to be the earliest records of these kind of solar events, pushing information back on that phenomena by at least a century. So, the ancient Assyrian astrologers who wrote the texts have provided another example of how learning about the past can help enhance the present, and sometimes even “predict” the future.
Star-worshippers flanking Ashur, Ishtar, Sin, Enlil, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar of Arbela. (The Commons)
Other Signs from the Skies
The ancient astrologers also wrote other messages to their kings about what they saw happening above them. Any comets, meteors, planetary motions, and other celestial events provided good and bad omens and foretold what life would be like in their society.
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Babylonian astrologers mapping the stars. (Cradle of Civilization)
Sarah Roberts explains that this was serious business, “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.” Ashley Cowie describes one of the more harrowing rituals from today’s perspective - the replacement of the king on lunar eclipses, believed to be for his protection, and the sacrifice of the “puppet king” when the real one returned to the throne 100 days later.
But it wasn’t all astrological notions that would be swept to one side as more serious science took hold. For example, Babylonian astronomers had developed an empirical approach to predicting planetary movement by the 8th century BC. Their studies were later adopted and developed by the ancient Greeks and included some good illustrations of ancient Babylonians using advanced mathematical methods. For example, they used calculus to track Jupiter – a key planet in their minds due to the link they created between Jupiter and their key god, Marduk.
Top Image: Deriv; Stone statue of Gilgamesh (CC BY 2.0), used here as a representation of an ancient Mesopotamian man. Background: Solar event. (CC0) Information provided by ancient Assyrian astrologers can help modern scientists predict future solar storms.
Hisashi Hayakawa, Yasuyuki Mitsuma, Yusuke Ebihara, Fusa Miyake. The Earliest Candidates of Auroral Observations in Assyrian Astrological Reports: Insights on Solar Activity around 660 BCE. The Astrophysical Journal, 2019; 884 (1): L18 DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ab42e4