Reconstructing the Babylonian Star-Map

The ultimate aim of this site is to make a reconstruction of the Babylonian star-map, as it would have been known in the 1st millennium BCE. This particular time-frame has been chosen for the simple reason that the earliest copies of Mul-Apin date to this period. Mul-Apin represents what might be called the ‘classical’ version of Babylonian star-lore – its several sections list all the major stars and constellations, and indicate their approximate locations in the heavens. It therefore provides the best available framework upon which to build a reconstruction of the Babylonian star-map.

Unfortunately, Mul-Apin only furnishes us with the names of the constellations and their approximate locations. like so many Babylonian texts, it does not illustrate or even describe the constellation figures. In order to put some illustrative flesh on the bare bones of the structural framework provided by Mul-Apin it is necessary to draw on a variety of other Babylonian texts and artefacts.

Beyond a range of illustrations found on document seals, the most valuable art resources at our disposal are the class of monuments often referred to as kudurrus, but more correctly called entitlement stones. These monuments are large polished stones that were set up in the temples of southern Mesopotamia that record the granting of land rights and other privileges to certain individuals. Many of the stones are lavishly illustrated with symbols that are widely regarded as ‘astral’ in character. However, opinion varies considerably as to how close these symbols actually relate to the constellation images. In my opinion these symbols should only be thought of as symbols of gods and goddesses who have strong astral associations – be they stars, constellations or planets. The variation in iconography and disposition of the figures argues against them being accurate images of the constellations. Nevertheless they do provide indispensable information as to the general appearances of the Babylonian constellation figures. Apart from a fragmentary text that describes some of the northern constellations the final useful source of information is to be found in star-names. This lore can sometimes give us vital clues as to the basic form of a constellation and can often reveal the general deportment and orientation of the figures.

Map 1 represents the first step towards the reconstruction of the star-map. I have set the celestial co-ordinates to represent the heavens circa 1000 BCE, and have then added the images of the constellations that are regarded as relatively secure. Roughly half the 50 or so constellations can be restored at this stage. But even with this relatively secure data there are still inherent uncertainties – even if we can be confident of their appearances and locations, in so many cases it is impossible to be certain as to the precise scale and orientation of the star figures.

To make any further progress with our reconstruction we have to utilise sources found outside of the Ancient Near East. The star-lore and star-maps of ancient Greece, Arabia and Roman-age Egypt furnish us with a bewildering array of information much of which can help to fill in the remaining blank spaces on our map. The end result of this process is seen in Map 2, which is, I believe, the first concerted attempt to reconstruct the whole Babylonian star-map. So after some two thousand years of obscurity it is now restored to something of its former glory.
A brief guide to the constellations gives a quick description of each star figure.

As it is well beyond the scope of the site to explore the whole scope of these sources, any interested readers are advised to consult my book ‘Babylonian Star-lore, An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia’ by Gavin White.
In this volume I have examined all the available evidence in detail and have endevoured to reconstruct the natures and pictorial forms of all the major Babylonian constellations.
The book further speculates on the essential meanings of the constellations as a pictorial calendar that integrates various seasonal festivals – concerned with the mythic life-cycle of the sun, the farming and herding year, the institution of kingship, and various rites directed towards the dead – into an elegant system that ultimately represents an archaic image of time itself. a set of appendices furnishes additional information on the history of star-lore in Mesopotamia, the calendar, the cuneiform writing system and the use of the star in divination.


About gavin664

Writer and Publisher
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