The following notes describe the essential meanings of the 50 or so mainstream constellations found in the Babylonian tradition. For more information on these and other less well-known stars and constellations the reader is referred to ‘Babylonian Star-lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia’ by Gavin White.
Anunitum (Northern fish of Pisces) Anunitum was the patron goddess of the city of Akkad. She was closely affiliated to Inanna-Ishtar, who as the ‘Syrian Goddess’ was envisioned holding her sacred fish and dove. As a seasonal symbol the fish of Anunitum represents the spring floods when river carp swim upstream in swollen rivers to their spawning grounds. As a mythic symbol the fish guides the sun on its ascending path from the darkness of winter towards the spring.
Arrow (Sirius & probably other adjacent stars in Canis Major) Although closely associated with the constellation of the Bow, the Arrow is always treated separately in Babylonian tradition. The annual rising of the Arrow marked the summer solstice when the sun was at its maximum height above the horizon. The Arrow was probably chosen for this role as it is the man-made object that can reach highest into the heavens. Similarly, the bird on a high perch, which is often seen besides the Arrow in ancient artwork, can also be thought of as representing the sun at its highest station.
Bow (Puppis – the poop deck of the Argo) The Bow depicts Inanna-Ishtar in her aspect of war goddess and granter of victory. Her star rises in high summer, when campaigns started in the spring come to their natural fruition. Mythical texts often describe the goddess in gory detail in the midst of battle.
Bull of Heaven (Taurus) The Bull of Heaven symbolizes the fecund powers of the spring-time skies – rain and sunshine – which bring life and growth to the earth. The Bull also represents the Golden Calf of biblical fame, which symbolizes the new-born sun emerging from the cosmic waters of creation just as the new-born calf emerges from the waters of the womb.
Cargo-Boat (Pisces Australis) The mythic function of the Cargo-Boat is probably to transport the souls of new-born children from the ancestral realms towards the realms of living. The ‘Cargo’ refers to various objects carried in the boat that symbolize the sex of the child – boys are represented by throwing sticks and axes, girls by spindles, hair-clasps and needles.
Crab (Cancer) The Crab symbolizes the summer-time drought. Like the adjacent Serpent it was thought to withhold the waters of heaven thus preventing any rain from falling during the hot summer months.
Crook (Auriga) The Crook depicts a shepherd tending a goat-kid. It naturally symbolizes the spring-time when the majority of calves, lambs and kids are born in the cattle-folds. The shepherd also symbolizes the king, who figuratively guides his people on the paths of safety and security. The Crook therefore appropriately rises in the first month of the year when the king was enthroned and empowered to rule for another year.
Eagle & Dead Man (Aquila & Sagitta) The Dead Man, carried by the Eagle, represents the souls of the dead traveling into the afterlife. Ir rises just before the winter solstice which is the time when the earth-bound dead were thought to journey to the realm of the ancestors.
Eridu (Vela – the sails of Argo) The Star of Eridu rises in the autumn months when the summer-time drought is broken by the arrival of the rainy season. Her overflowing vases, a common symbol of fertility in artwork, represents the returning rains and the rising water levels in the rivers and canals.
Field (The Square of Pegasus) The Field represents a barley field divided by a series of irrigation ditches. The constellation rises as the barley is regularly irrigated and starts to ripen. In astrology its omens naturally foretell the nature of the coming harvest.
Fish (Pisces Austrinus) Like Anunitum, the Fish symbolizes the season of flooding, which commences in the early spring. Like other creatures of the Abyss, fish were thought to be symbols of wisdom and were accordingly held sacred to Enki, the god of creative intelligence, incantations and magic.
Frond (Coma Berenices & western part of Virgo) The Frond is represented in the heavens by the figure of the goddess Erua holding her sacred branch of the Date-palm. Her constellation rises in the autumn months as the dates are ripening on the fronds.
Furrow (Eastern half of Virgo) The Furrow is obviously the origin of our modern Virgo with her familiar ear of barley. The constellation rises in the autumn when the fields have been prepared and are ready to be sown with the coming season’s barley seed.
Goatfish (Capricorn) The Goatfish rises after the winter solstice, when it announces the welcome return of the sun. I believe that the Goatfish is one of the relatively new constellation figures and can be best understood in terms of two older constellations – the Stag which announces the returning sun, and the Fish which guides the sun through the darkness of winter.
Great One (Aquarius) The Great One with his overflowing vases symbolizes the rains of heaven and the swollen rivers that characterize late winter and early spring. In the context of the star-map he can also be regarded as the ‘Irrigator’ who waters the barley fields that are represented on the star-map by the adjacent constellation known as the Field.
Great Twins (Gemini) The Great Twins are closely related to Nergal, the king of the dead in Mesopotamia tradition. The Twins stand guard, weapons at the ready, at the entrance to the underworld – their divine role being to prevent the living from descending to the realm of the dead, and perhaps more importantly to prevent the dead from rising up to overwhelm the realm of the living.
Harrow(Vela – the sails of the Argo) The Harrow is another seasonal star closely associated with the Furrow. Harrows were used to break down the large clods of earth produced by ploughing; they are used in the early autumn just before the fields are seeded.
Hired Man (Aries) The Hired Man is the Babylonian name for the familiar ram of Aries. The name is really a literate pun, which overtly refers to the hired labour employed in the spring to bring in the barley harvest, but with a little literary license the name can also be understood as something like ‘the sheep of atonement’. It rightly symbolizes the spring-time when the harvest is brought in and the lambs are born in the cattle-folds.
Horse (Front legs of Pegasus & Lacerta) In many ancient cultures the horse is allocated the divine duty of pulling the chariot of the sun. There seem to be two principle reasons underpinning this solar association – one is his great speed, and the other is that his flowing mane was thought to be a fitting symbol of the rays of light emanating from the sun.
Lion (Leo) The Lion has two main strands of symbolism. Firstly as a seasonal star it represents the ferocious heat of summer – its radiant mane stands for the overbearing radiance of the summer sun. Secondly, as the sacred beast of the war goddess Inanna-Ishtar, the Lion represents victory and war. The bright star at its breast (our Regulus) is known as the King Star – here representing the favourite of the goddess to whom she grants victory.
Little Twins (Canis Minor) The Little Twins no doubt share the same symbolism as their larger counterparts – the Great Twins. In astrology both sets of Twins are were thought to predict war and the outbreak of hostilities.
Lulal & Latarak (Cetus & part of Eridanus) The Lion-headed figures known as Lulal and Latarak are probably best regarded as protective deities who have been set at the juncture of the old and new years. Their divine role would therefore be to banish the influences of the past year and to purify the coming calendrical cycle.
Mad Dog (Lupus) The Mad Dog is probably a relic of an ancient star configuration which included the now derelict Bison-man. Together they constituted a version of the ‘Lion-bull’ conflict, which is widely thought to symbolise the seasonal conflict between summer and autumn. Here the bull, who represents the autumn rains slays the lion of summer.
Ninmah (Vela – the sails of Argo) The mother goddess is represented among the stars by Ninmah – the ‘Exalted Lady’. Her star rises in late summer just after the great ancestral festival celebrated in month 5. Just as the winter stars depict the souls of the dead traveling to the underworld, here in late summer new souls destined for birth journey from the ancestral worlds towards the realm of men.
Old Man (Perseus) The Old Man rises in the final month of the year and is appropriately associated with Enmesharra – an ancestral god who resides in the underworld in the form of a ghost.
Pabilsag (Sagittarius) Pabilsag is the direct forerunner to the centaur-archer that we know today as Sagittarius. His name can be translated as the ‘Chief Ancestor’ or ‘Forefather’, and he can be best compared to the Wild Hunter of western folklore who guides the souls of the dead to the afterlife over the course of the winter months.
Panther (Cygnus & part of Cepheus) Like Pabilsag, the Eagle and Dead Man, which all rise at the time of the winter solstice, the Panther is closely associated with the realm of the dead and the afterlife. It is the sacred beast of Nergal, the Babylonian lord of the dead, and it has probably been set among the winter-time stars to guard the entrance to the underworld. A memory of the Panther may well live on in the guise of Cerberus, the three-headed hound that guarded the entrance to the Greek underworld.
Plough (Most of Draco) For the 8 months of the year that the seed-plough was not in use it was suspended from a peg and hung from the rafters of a barn. This farming tradition seems to inform the location and symbolism of the Plough-constellation. The celestial Plough is located in the circumpolar regions – ie the ‘heights of heaven’ that correspond to the barn’s rafters. Like its terrestrial counterpart the celestial Plough is also suspended from a peg, which here represents the pole of the ecliptic – the eternal centre point of the heavens.
Rainbow (M31 Galaxy in Andromeda) The Rainbow is considered a sign of good fortune bringing rain and abundance to the land. It rises in early spring when the rains water the ripening crops.
Raven (Corvus) The Raven is sacred to Adad, the god of rain and storm. Appropriately enough the Raven rises as the summer dry season comes to an end and the storm clouds of autumn start to gather.
Rooster (Lepus) The Rooster is the animal symbol belonging to the herald of the godswho appears in his human form in the adjacent figure known as the True Shepherd of Anu. The Rooster was probably assigned the role of herald to the gods as it announced the coming of dawn each day.
Scales (Libra) The Scales are held sacred to the god Shamash, who was not only the sun god of ancient Mesopotamia but was also the god of truth and justice. His scales symbolised the principle of justice as in the judge ‘weighing up’ the evidence before issuing a commensurate verdict and a fair sentence. The sun god’s all-seeing eye made him the infalliable witness to all deeds and as such men called upon him as the upholder of righteousness and petitioned him to rectify the inequities they suffered.
Scorpion (Scorpio) In astrology the Scorpion’s armoured body segments and its array of weaponry predisposed it to become a creature symbolizing war and the martial prowess of the king. However a different meaning is attached to it in mythic texts such as the Gilgamesh Epic where Scorpion-men and women guard the sacred mountain through which the hero has traverse on his quest for immortality. The Scorpion-people are said to guard the sun at his rising and setting and because Gilgamesh is a favourite of the sun god they allow him to travel the subterranean path that the sun travels every night under the mountain.
Serpent (Hydra) In many cultures the world over the snake is regarded as one of the primary symbols of death and the underworld. In Babylonian lore, the constellation of the Serpent is held sacred to the god Ningishzida, who is a major god of the underworld. He is generally portrayed with a pair of horned serpents arising from his shoulders. In astrology the Serpent is thought to bring plague and pestilence to the land.
She-Goat (Lyra) In astrology the omens of the She-Goat foretell the fate of cattle. However for unknown reasons the constellation is not represented by a goat but by the figure of an enthroned goddess known as Gula. She is the patron of healing and medicine and as a benevolent goddess she naturally has the power to restore the health and life of men. But she also has a darker side as she also has the power to inflict disease and death to man and beast alike.
Sitting Dog (Most of Hercules) The Sitting Dog is the sacred animal of Gula (the regent of the She-Goat). It reflects the darker side of the goddess as it is widely considered to be a harbinger of death and disease. The underlying meaning of the dog is revealed in many cultures where it is simply known as the ‘eater of corpses’ – a rather grisly symbol of all-devouring death. For this reason the dog or wolf is often stationed at the entrance to the underworld in world mythology.
Sitting Gods (Most of Ophiuchus) The serpent-bodied men known as the Sitting and Standing Gods represent the ancestors of Enlil, the ultimate leader of the whole Babylonian pantheon. They dwell in the Sacred Mound, which is at once a burial mound and an image of the primeval earth. As such the serpent-bodied gods represent the dual powers of the earth as an abode of the dead and as the source of all earthly fertility.
Stag (Cassiopeia & part of Andromeda) In world mythology the stag is frequently associated with the sun and the rekindling of fire – sometimes it is even portrayed pulling the chariot of the sun instead of the more familiar horse. The constellation of the Stag rises just after mid-winter and is no doubt stationed in this region of the heavens to symbolize the rebirth of the sun after its winter-time death.
Standing Gods (Corona Borealis) See the section on the Sitting Gods above.
Star Cluster (Pleiades) The 7 principle stars of the Star Cluster represent seven war-mongering demons found in the entourage of Erra – the ferocious and unpredictable god of war, wild-fire and plague. They are typically portrayed carrying bows, axes and daggers, and in astrology their presence portends the death and destruction brought by war.
Shupa (Bootes) Shupa probably represents the high god Enlil, who is considered to be the leader of the Babylonian pantheon. As a mark of his exalted status he holds the symbol known as the ‘rod and ring’. He is closely associated with the ‘Ropes of Heaven’, which figuratively bind together the various levels of the cosmos and regulate the temporal movement of the heavens.
Swallow (Head & neck of Pegasus plus the western fish of Pisces) The Swallow or ‘Exalted bird’ may be identified with the dove that appears in Greek myths surrounding the Syrian goddess. Her characteristic myth recounts how a dove brooded an enormous egg that two fish found floating in the Euphrates, and that the Syrian goddess herself was born from this egg.
Swine (Probably Delphinus) The Swine is sacred to Damu, ‘the Child’. His cult is closely related to tat of Dumuzi who died every summer and was subsequently reborn every winter. Myths relate how Damu escaped from the underworld via a river and it is thus appropriate that his sacred constellation should rise just after mid-winter.
True Shepherd of Anu (Orion) The True Shepherd represents the herald of the gods, variously called Papshukkal or Ninshubur. Small statues of him were sometimes deposited in a brick box beneath the main cult statue in a temple as if to relay messages between the gods and mankind.
Wagon (The 7 principal stars of Ursa Major) In astrology the Wagon is said to portend eclipses, which are thought to cause the violent death of the king. Various other references in Babylonian literature effectively identify the Wagon as a funeral bier carrying the corpse to the burial ground. Such a meaning has evidently been transmitted to Arabian star-lore where these same stars are envisioned as a group of mourners pulling a funeral bier.
Wagon of Heaven (Ursa Minor) See the description of the Wagon above.
Wild Boar (Most of Centaurus) The Wild Boar is sacred to Ningirsu, a local form of Ninurta, who is a god closely associated with farming. Indeed the boar’s habit of churning up the earth as it forages for food may ultimately be the historical inspiration for the invention of the plough, which allowed early societies to adopt a sedentary lifestyle.
Wolf (Head & middle of Draco) The Wolf gnaws at the harness-work that suspends the Plough to the centre of heaven. When it finally tears the rope asunder, the different levels of the cosmos that the rope unites will collapse bringing about the end of a world-era.
Zababa (Eastern part of Ophiuchus) Zababa was a little known war god sometimes called the ‘king of battles’. He was associated with the city of Kish in northern Babylonia, which produced four dynsties of overlords in the ages immediately after the Great Flood.