Yale Assyriologist decodes the ‘writing of the heavens’ by ancient stargazers

 A “uranology” tablet from the Yale Babylonian Collection, written between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE in the city of Uruk.
A “uranology” tablet from the Yale Babylonian Collection, written between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE in the city of Uruk in southern Iraq, provides on the right side a description of celestial constellations and on the other left side the topography of the city of Uruk. (Photo credit: Klaus Wagensonner)

Just in the first two months of 2019 alone, the night sky has been illuminated by a blood moon, a winter moon, and a super moon. Throughout time, celestial events such as these have — in equal parts — piqued curiosity and portended evil.

Ancient Mesopotamia was no exception. In fact, astronomy and astrology were important disciplines in this region from early on. In the age before light pollution, the vivid night sky made such a strong impression on our ancient ancestors that they thought that the stars and various other heavenly bodies represented deities, says Yale Assyriologist Eckart Frahm. The ancient stargazers were so intrigued by the mechanics of the heavens — and the possibility of being able to make predictions from what they saw in the night sky — that, from the 8th century to the 1st century BCE, they observed very closely on a daily basis the movements of the stars to determine what exactly was happening in the sky, and documented these observations on clay tablets.

The ancient Babylonians studied the night skies for 700 years, making their work “arguably, the longest lasting scholarly science project that ever existed,” says Frahm. “Nowhere ever after has any civilization done anything like it,” he adds. Through these observations they determined regularities in the sky and were able to begin to predict celestial events such as lunar or solar eclipses.

Frahm says that such scientific pursuits went hand in hand in ancient Mesopotamia with a strong belief in astrological omens. Evidence from 7th century BCE Assyria indicates a particular focus on lunar eclipses. “An eclipse was thought to be especially troublesome as it was believed that it predicted that evil was nigh,” notes Frahm. To escape this, a “substitute king ritual” had to be performed. For this, the actual king stepped down for up to 100 days, and during this time he pretended to be and was addressed as a farmer, while a “substitute king” — often someone from the margins of society — formally became king in his stead.

Sadly, for the substitute king, the only way to absorb the effects of the evil omen was for him to be sacrificed. The real king was then free to resume his royal duties.

It is likely that stargazers named the constellations and their stars at the dawn of Mesopotamian history, but it wasn’t until later that the actual appearance of the constellations or what they represented — deities, human beings, animals, vehicles, and other objects — were described in written form on cuneiform tablets.

A group of five such tablets from first millennium Babylonia and Assyria — four of them newly discovered — provides the earliest prose descriptions of the celestial constellations. Images, hand copies, and translations of these tablets have been assembled in a recently published book, “The Cuneiform Uranology Texts: Drawing the Constellations,” that has been co-authored by Frahm, Paul-Alain Beaulieu, Wayne Horowitz, and John Steele. “Uranology” is what the ancient Greeks called the study of the heavens. The tablets are written in cuneiform script and in the Babylonian language. Three of them, all previously unpublished, were found in the sacred city of Uruk in southern Iraq, and are now housed in the Yale Babylonian Collection.

A view of the site of the city of Uruk in southern Iraq
A view of the site of the city of Uruk in southern Iraq, where cuneiform tablets with the uranology texts were found. These tablets are now housed in the Yale Babylonian Collection.

The tablets include descriptions of the celestial constellations Cancer, Pisces, Pegasus, Perseus, and many others, and focus on their parts: body parts for constellations in human or animal form; parts of a wagon for ‘The Wagon’ and ‘Wagon of Heaven’ (the Big and Little Dipper). The depictions also typically speak of the clothing that constellations in human form wear, their beards if they are male, and paraphernalia that they hold or carry. A typical passage reads in translation:

The True Shepherd of Anu (i.e., Orion) … is a human figure, clothed, bearded, supplied with a kurkuru-container(?), and grasping a lock and key. The Twins (i.e., Gemini), who stand in front of the True Shepherd of Anu…, are two human figures, clothed. The front figure is bearded, the back figure has the face of (the demon) Latarak; they carry a large jug in their right hands. The celestial body that stands below the True Shepherd of Anu is the Rooster (Lepus).

The new book shows how the ancient Mesopotamians “read the writing of the heavens,” says Frahm. “It’s like writing in the stars and through the stars. And just like you can read the texts on a clay tablet, you can also read the configurations and movements of the stars.”

These early descriptions of the constellations are interpretations, says Frahm, of what looks in fact just like a grouping of dots. “You really have to be inventive to do this kind of work,” he adds, “and here you see our ancient ancestors’ imagination at work — even though they claimed that it had been the gods at the beginning of time who had written the stars onto the sky in the forms of specific images.”

In order to navigate the sky, the ancient Mesopotamians would organize the stars much in the same way we do it today. In fact, says John Steele, professor of Egyptology and Assyriology at Brown University and co-author of the book, many of the constellations we are familiar with today can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. “For example,” says Steele, “‘The Lion’ is our Leo, ‘The Crab’ is our Cancer, ‘The Balance’ is our Libra, ‘the Twins’ is our Gemini, ‘The Scorpion’ is our Scorpio, and ‘The Wagon’ is our Big Dipper. Another interesting example is the Babylonian constellation “The Hired Man” which is reimagined in the new texts as a sheep, corresponding to our ‘Aries’ or ‘The Ram.’”

A Babylonian tablet from 214 BCE, which includes a passage about “The Twins,” or Gemini.
The largest and most detailed of the three “uranology” texts from the Yale Babylonian Collection, this tablet has a subscript indicating that it was copied on Jan. 4, 214 BCE, and includes a passage about “The Twins,” or Gemini. (Photo credit: Klaus Wagensonner)

One of the challenges that Frahm — who is one of only a few hundred people worldwide who can accurately read cuneiform texts — encountered while working on the book was reading the cursive style in which some of the tablets were written. Among these is one of the fragments from Uruk housed in the Yale Babylonian Collection. Its contents were of particular interest to Frahm because of a unique juxtaposition of heaven and earth on it. On one side of the tablet are descriptions of celestial constellations and on the other of the topography of the sacred city of Uruk: temples, canals, enclosure walls, and other features. This intrigued Frahm, he says, because “it is likely that this was done deliberately in order to show that these topographic configurations in Uruk were in some way comparable to those one could observe in the skies.”

For Frahm, his participation on this book project was an opportunity to expand his scholarship by learning more about Mesopotamian astrological and astronomical concepts, some of which are still with us. “Studying these tablets is an excellent way to draw connections between the ancient past and today,” he says.

Two of the three Yale “uranology” tablets will be on display in the upcoming exhibition “Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights from the Yale Babylonian Collection” at the Yale Peabody Museum, 170 Whitney Ave. The exhibition will open on April 6.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324