Babylonian star catalogues

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Babylonian astronomy collated earlier observations and divinations into sets of Babylonian star catalogues, during and after the Kassite rule over Babylonia. These star catalogues, written in cuneiform script, contained lists of constellations, individual stars, and planets. The constellations were probably collected from various other sources, the earliest catalogue, Three Stars Each mentions stars of Akkad, of Amurru, of Elam and others.

Various sources have theorized a Sumerian origin for these Babylonian constellations,[1] but an Elamite origin has also been proposed.[2] A connection to the star symbology of Kassite kudurru border stones has also been claimed, but whether such kudurrus really represented constellations and astronomical information aside for the use of the symbols remains unclear.

Star catalogues after Three Stars Each include the MUL.APIN list named after the first Babylonian constellation MULAPIN, "the Plough", which is the current Triangulum constellation plus Gamma Andromedae. It lists, among others, 17 or 18 constellations in the zodiac. Later catalogues reduces the zodiacal set of constellations to 12, which were borrowed by the Egyptians and the Greeks, still surviving among the modern constellations.

Three Stars Each[edit]

The first formal compendia of star lists are the Three Stars Each texts appearing from about the 12th century BC. They represent a tripartite division of the heavens: the northern hemisphere belonged to Enlil, the equator belonged to Anu, and the southern hemisphere belonged to Enki. The boundaries were at 17 degrees North and South, so that the Sun spent exactly three consecutive months in each third. The enumeration of stars in the Three Stars Each catalogues includes 36 stars, three for each month. The determiner glyph for "constellation" or "star" in these lists is MUL (𒀯, in origin a pictograph of three stars, as it were a triplet of AN signs (the Pleiades are referred to as a "star cluster" or "star of stars" in the lists, written as MUL.MUL, or MULMUL, 𒀯𒀯).


Main article: MUL.APIN

The second formal compendium of stars in Babylonian astronomy is the MUL.APIN, a pair of tablets named for their incipit, corresponding to the first constellation of the year, MULAPIN "The Plough", identified with Triangulum plus Gamma Andromedae. The list is a direct descendent of the Three Stars Each list, reworked around 1000 BC on the basis of more accurate observations. They include more constellations, including most circumpolar ones, and more of the zodiacal ones.

The Babylonian star catalogues entered Greek astronomy in the 4th century BC, via Eudoxus of Cnidus and others. A few of the constellation names in use in modern astronomy can be traced to Babylonian sources via Greek astronomy. Among the most ancient constellations are those that marked the four cardinal points of the year in the Middle Bronze Age, i.e.

There are other constellation names which can be traced to Bronze Age origins, including Gemini "The Twins", from MAŠ.TAB.BA.GAL.GAL "The Great Twins", Cancer "The Crab", from AL.LUL "The Crayfish", among others.

The MUL.APIN gives

  • a catalogue of 71 stars and constellations of the "Three Ways" of the Three Stars Each tradition. The star names (prefixed with MUL 𒀯) are listed with the associated deity (prefix DINGIR 𒀭) and often some other brief epithet.
  • dates of heliacal risings
  • pairs of constellations which rise and set simultaneously
  • time-intervals between dates of heliacal risings
  • pairs of constellations which are simultaneously at the zenith and at the horizon
  • the path of the moon and planets.
  • a solar calendar
  • the planets and the durations of their solar conjunctions
  • stellar risings and planetary positions for predicting weather and for adjusting the calendar
  • telling time by length of the gnomon shadow
  • length of night watches during the year
  • omens connected with the appearance of stars planets, MUL.U.RI.RI (comets?) and winds.

Zodiacal constellations[edit]

The path of the Moon as given in MUL.APIN consists of 17 or 18 stations, recognizable as the direct predecessor of the twelve-sign zodiac. Note that the beginning of the list with MUL.MUL "Pleiades" corresponds to the situation in the Early to Middle Bronze Age when the Sun at vernal equinox was close to the Pleiades in Taurus (closest in the 23rd century BC), and not yet in Aries.[3][4]

  1. MUL.MUL zappu "The Star Cluster (Star of Stars)/"The Bristle" (Pleiades)
  2. MULGU4.AN.NA alû/is lê "The Bull of Heaven" (Taurus/Hyades)
  3. MULSIPA.ZI.AN.NA šitaddaru/šidallu "The Loyal Shepherd of Heaven" (Orion)
  4. MULŠU.GI šību "The Old One" (Perseus)
  5. MULZUBI/MULGÀM gamlu "The Scimitar"/"The Crook" (Auriga)
  6. MULMAŠ.TAB.BA(.GAL.GAL) māšu/tū'āmū rabûtu "The (Great) Twins" (Gemini)
  7. MULAL.LUL alluttu "The Crayfish" (Cancer)
  8. MULUR.GU.LA/MULUR.MAḪ urgulû/nēšu "The Lion" (Leo)
  9. MULAB.SÍN absinnu/šer'u "The Seed-Furrow" (Virgo)
  10. MULZI.BA.AN.NA/MULGIŠ.ÉRIN zibānītu "The Scales" (Libra)
  11. MULGÍR.TAB zuqaqīpu "The Scorpion" (Scorpius)
  12. MULPA.BÍL.SAG pabilsag "The God Pabilsag/The Overseer" (Sagittarius)
  13. MULSUḪUR.MÁŠ(.KU6) suḫurmāšu "The Goat-Fish" (Capricorn)
  14. MULGU.LA ṣinundu/ku-ur-ku/rammanu "The Great One" (Aquarius)
  15. MULKUN.MEŠ/MULZIB.ME zibbātu/zibbāt sinūnūtu "The Tails" (Pisces)
  16. MULŠÍM.MAḪ šinūnūtu "The Great Swallow" (SW Pisces and Epsilon Pegasi)
  17. MULA.NU.NI.TUM/MULLU.LIM anunītu/lulīmu "The Goddess Anunitu/The Stag" (NE Pisces and Andromeda)
  18. MUL(LÚ.)ḪUŊ(.GÁ) agru "The Agrarian Worker" (Aries)

The "Tail" and the "Swallow" (15 and 16 above) have also been read as a single constellation the "Tail of the Swallow" (Pisces), whence the uncertainty whether the "zodiac" consists of 17 or 18 constellations. All constellations of the Iron Age twelve-sign zodiac are present among them, most of them with names that clearly identify them, while some ("Furrow" for Virgo, Pabilsag for Sagittarius, "Great One" for Aquarius, "Swallow Tail" for Pisces and "Agrarian Worker" for Aries) reached Greek astronomy with altered names.

For Virgo, and for her main star Spica, Babylonian precedents are present. The MUL.APIN associates Absin "The Furrow" with the Sumer goddess Shala, and Shala is conventionally depicted as holding a length of grain on boundary stones of the Kassite era. Regarding Sagittarius, Pabilsag is a comparatively obscure Sumerian god, later identified with Ninurta. Another name for the constellation was Nebu "The Soldier". Aquarius "The Water-Pourer" represents Ea himself, dubbed "The Great One" in the MUL.APIN. It contained the winter solstice in the Early Bronze Age. In the Greek tradition, he became represented as simply a single vase from which a stream poured down to Piscis Austrinus. The name in the Hindu zodiac is likewise kumbha "water-pitcher", showing that the zodiac reached India via Greek intermediaries. The current definition of Pisces is the youngest of the zodiacal constellations. The "Swallow" of Babylonian astronomy included the western fish, but was larger as it included as well parts of Pegasus. The square of Pegasus was the constellation of the "field" (shown in the Dendera zodiac between the two fishes). The northern fish and part of Andromeda was the goddess Anunitum. Late Babylonian sources mention also DU.NU.NU "The Fish-Cord". It is unclear how the "Agrarian Worker" of the MUL.APIN became Aries "The Ram" of Greek tradition, possibly via association with Dumuzi the Shepherd.

Somewhere around the fifth century B.C., Babylonian astronomical texts began to describe the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets in terms of 12 equal signs, each one associated with a zodiacal constellation and divided into 30 degrees (uš). This normalized zodiac is fixed to the stars and totals 360°.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ .History of the Constellations and Star Names — D.4: Sumerian constellations and star names?, by Gary D. Thompson
  2. ^ History of the Constellations and Star Names — D.5: Elamite lion-bull iconography as constellations?, by Gary D. Thompson
  3. ^ The Origin Of The Zodiac by Gary D. Thompson.
  4. ^ Sumerian / Akkadian names cited according to: Jeremy A. Black; Andrew George; J. N. Postgate (January 2000), A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, ISBN 978-3-447-04264-2  Douglas B. Miller; R. Mark Shipp (1 January 1996), An Akkadian Handbook: Paradigms, Helps, Glossary, Logograms, and Sign List, Eisenbrauns, ISBN 978-0-931464-86-7  Schramm, Wolfgang (2010), Akkadische Logogramme, Göttinger Beiträge zum Alten Orient 5 (2nd, revised ed.), Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, ISBN 978-3-941875-65-4 
  5. ^ Aaboe, Asger (2001), Episodes from the Early History of Astronomy, New York: Springer-Verlag, pp. 32–33, ISBN 0-387-95136-9 
  • John H. Rogers, "Origins of the ancient contellations: I. The Mesopotamian traditions", Journal of the British Astronomical Association 108 (1998) 9–28
  • Verderame, Lorenzo, "The Primeval Zodiac: Its Social, Religious, and Mythological Background", in J.A. Rubiño-Martín et al., Cosmology Across Cultures, ASP Conference Series 409, San Francisco, 2009, 151-156.