This short essay was originally published as part of Appendix 1 from my book Babylonian Star-Map. An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia by Gavin White.
Even though the Greek star-map is fundamental to modern astronomy, very little is actually known concerning its origins or date of creation. We can be certain that all, or nearly all, of the 48 traditional constellations were established by the 4th century BCE when Eudoxus of Cnidos wrote his Phaenomena. This work, which was subsequently lost, was versified by Aratos of Soloi a century or so after its creation, and fortunately for us, Aratos’ work does survive. From this we can infer that Eudoxus’ work described the appearances and locations of the constellations but didn’t pay much heed to the mythology associated with them.
This, at least, provides us with a latest possible date for the formation of the Greek constellations, but trying to trace back their origins any further becomes increasingly difficult. All we know for sure is that Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, was added in the 6th century BCE and that 4 or 5 constellations and a few individual stars were known to Homer and Hesiod – the earliest Greek writers whose births are conventionally dated between 700 and 750 BCE. In truth, this is the earliest date that any Greek star-lore can be positively ascribed to.
The stars and constellations mentioned by Homer and Hesiod – the Great Bear, the Pleiades, Hyades, Orion, Sirius and Arcturus – are very prominent figures, both in the heavens and in the realm of astral mythology. Even though some modern scholars argue that Homer and Hesiod only knew of these few star figures, many find it difficult to accept that this was the sum total of Greek star-lore in the 8th century BCE. Even though there is no textual evidence from Greece beyond this time, it is known that Homer’s epics draw on legends first formulated in the Mycenean period (1550-1100 BCE) and I believe that this is a plausible enough timeframe for the creation of at least some of the early Greek constellations. One factor in particular supports this early date – Mycenean Greece had strong trading and cultural contacts with the Near East, especially so in the 13th century BCE when Babylonia was actively exporting its literate culture.
The Near Eastern influence in Hesiod’s mythical works are relatively well-known but Homer too, also reveals that he knew a little star-lore that originated in Babylonia when he specifically states that the stars of the Great Bear were also called the Wagon (which is of course the Babylonian name for the seven principal stars of Ursa Major).
As we will see a little later, a considerable number of Greek constellations have been derived from Babylonian sources, even though many have been distorted, misplaced or otherwise transformed in the process of transmission.
Our detailed knowledge of the Greek star-map is largely due to the illustrations and descriptions found in medieval Arabic works on astronomy. These works, especially Al-Sufi’s Uranometry, were a substantial improvement on the earlier work of Ptolemy. The following map of the Greek constellations (fig 166) is primarily based on the illustrations found in the Uranometry.
The Arabian version of the Greek star-map is well worth reproducing, not only for its greater artistic merit, but also for the occurrence of a number of instances where Arab astronomers have departed from the familiar forms of the Greek constellations. The following examples amply demonstrate the types of transformation and misunderstanding that inevitably arise when a body of traditional lore is transmitted from one culture to another.
The figure of Virgo has lost her barley stalk and date-palm frond, and to fit her image onto the star map she has had her right arm cut off above the elbow and shifted downwards towards her thigh.
The lion’s skin held by Orion has been transformed into an elaborately extended sleeve, which was popular among upper-class Arabian society during the medieval period.
The Greek Wolf (Lupus) has been changed into a lion or lioness. And curiously enough, this is actually closer to the Babylonian prototype of the Mad Dog, which was portrayed as a combination of man and lion.
Arabian astronomers have transformed the figure of Lyra, which should be a musical instrument whose sounding box was an empty tortoise shell, into a complete living tortoise.
Finally, the Gorgon’s head carried by Perseus has been transformed into the head of a masculine ghoul – from which we derive the modern star-name of Algol (literally meaning ‘the ghoul’).
Received wisdom states that beyond the zodiac and such constellations as the Raven, Hydra and Southern Fish that are closely assimilated to zodiac figures, only 4 or 5 Greek constellations are derived from Babylonian sources.1 The remaining 28 or 29 constellations are widely regarded as either being native inventions or transmissions from non-Babylonian sources. The sea-faring Phoenicians are sometimes cited as a potential source, especially for the maritime constellations found in the southern reaches of heaven, even though next to nothing is actually known of Phoenician star-lore. 2
Now that more information is available on Babylonian star-lore, there is every reason to suspect that the Greek star-map has been influenced by the Babylonian tradition to a much greater degree than has previously been recognised. Personally, I would argue that some form of Babylonian influence is detectable in between 25 and 30 of the 48 Greek constellations, which is nearly double the conventional tally. Even so, beyond the zodiac figures and their associated constellations already mentioned, there are only two Greek constellations – the Charioteer and the Eagle – that are likely to be accurate representations of their Babylonian counterparts:
The Greek Charioteer (Auriga) is plainly based on the Babylonian constellation of the Chariot. Contrary to its name, the Chariot was also depicted as a chariot-driver, and as yet there is no reason to believe that he ever had a chariot. The figure of a goat (Capella), sometimes found at his shoulder is also a memory of a Babylonian star called the Crook, which was similarly envisioned as a goat-kid (see fig 37).
The Greek Eagle (Aquila) is almost certainly derived from the Babylonian Eagle. In their respective traditions, both stars are often associated or confused with a vulture; and both birds are carrying another object represented among the stars – the Greek Eagle carries an Arrow (Sagitta) while the Babylonian Eagle carries the constellation known as the Dead Man.
Beyond these well-known and potentially accurate transmissions, another 8 or 9 Greek constellations are more loosely based on Babylonian prototypes. The parallels are not so easy to recognise as various components of the figures have been transfigured in the process of transmission:
The Serpent-bearer (Ophiuchus) is represented on the Greek star-map by a hero wrestling with an enormous serpent. I believe that this figure is ultimately based on the Babylonian constellation known as the Sitting Gods. It was sacred to the serpent-god Nirah, who was sometimes depicted as a man with a huge serpent in place of his legs.
Two further Greek figures – Centaurus and Lupus – are obviously based on Babylonian prototypes, even if there are some notable changes in their respective appearances. The Babylonian forerunner of Centaurus was known as the Bison-man, a mythical creature that combined the torso of a man with the hindquarters of a bison. But during the process of transmission, this two-legged figure was transformed into the four-legged Centaurus, which combined a human torso with the body of a horse.
The Greek figure of the Wolf (Lupus) can be traced back to the Babylonian constellation known as the Mad Dog, which was portrayed as a combination of man and lion. Although the form of the Greek constellation may have changed considerably, its close relationship to the Babylonian figure is most clearly expressed in an alternative Greek title – the ‘Wild Beast’ – which is a surprisingly accurate translation of the Mad Dog’s name.
In Babylonian tradition, the symbolism of the Mad Dog and Bison-man is informed by a well-defined seasonal motif called the Lion-Bull conflict. The essential meaning of this motif is displayed in the stars where the Bison-man, who represents the autumn rainy season, is seen killing the lion, which symbolises the drought-stricken summer months. This basic motif appears to have entered Greek tradition as star-myths inform us that Centaurus is depicted in the act of sacrificing Lupus to the gods.
We can also be pretty certain that three more Greek constellations – Pegasus, Hercules and Eridanus – are all derived from Babylonian sources, even if their images have been re-orientated, relocated or otherwise distorted in relation to their Babylonian prototypes:
Pegasus is clearly based on the Babylonian Horse constellation, which has been faithfully preserved in Arabic stellar traditions. But quite why Pegasus is portrayed upside down on the Greek star-map and is further missing its hindquarters has proved impossible to explain.
Hercules too, has been inexplicably placed upside down on the celestial sphere, where he can be seen fighting the dragon (Draco), which guards the Golden Apples. His origins probably lie with the Babylonian constellation called the Standing Gods, which like the Sitting Gods mentioned earlier, was depicted as a man with a serpent for legs. In the earliest Greek traditions this constellation was simply known as the ‘Kneeler’ – which is, I believe, a misunderstanding of the names of the Sitting and Standing Gods.
There can be little doubt that Eridanus, the celestial river that flows from the region around Orion’s legs, derives its name from the Babylonian constellation known as the Star of Eridu. However, their respective constellation images are placed some distance apart on the celestial sphere, either side of Orion. In the section on the Star of Eridu, I suggest that Eridu was depicted as a enthroned goddess holding a vase overflowing with water, which represents the wellspring of the waters, and that Eridanus might be thought of as the extended outflow of the Babylonian figure.
Beyond the foregoing examples that bear an obvious, if corrupt, debt to Babylonian prototypes, a handful of remaining examples are much more uncertain:
It is possible that Ara, the Fire Altar, which is found close to the Scorpio’s tail, is derived, not from a Babylonian constellation but, from the lore of a star at the Scorpion’s Breast. This star, our Antares, is known as Lisi in Babylonian tradition, and her name is significantly written with the sign for ‘fire brazier’.
The origins of Andromeda have exercised the imagination of every investigator of the constellations, both ancient and modern. Many modern commentators suggest she comes from the Near East but no substantial evidence has ever been cited to support such claims. The figure of Andromeda is often compared to the Babylonian constellation of Anunitum, ‘the goddess of heaven’, who represented the Northern Fish of Pisces.
There is some tantalising evidence in Arabic lore that the image of a mermaid was once located in this part of the skies. It could be a remnant of the Sumerian figure known as Kulianna (the Mermaid) who was counted as one of the Slain Heroes. I believe it is possible that this mermaid was split up into separate parts as it became assimilated into the Greek star-map – its human element being transformed into Andromeda, and its fish element becoming the northern fish of Pisces. The close link between the Andromeda and the fish is best expressed by the cord that binds Andromeda’s feet, which can now be understood as another version of the cord that binds together the Piscean fish.
From the perspective of myth and star-lore, the Greek hero Perseus has always been regarded as a purely native figure. However, in the section on the Old Man, I argue that the principal elements of his iconography effectively identify him with Enmešarra, an ancient Babylonian god associated with the dead and the underworld.
Finally, I believe that the figure the Greek Swan (Cygnus) may be a distant memory of the archaic Babylonian constellation called the Anzu-bird (see fig 7). The Swan’s outstretched wings and trailing feet are suspiciously similar to representations of the Anzu-bird, which would originally have been located in this region of the sky.
The potential identification between Cygnus and the Anzu-bird is of considerable interest as, along with the Bison-man seen earlier, the Anzu-bird’s celestial image was actually removed from the Babylonian heavens in the mid 3rd millennium BCE, long before any constellation lore was transmitted to Greece. Both the Bison-man and Anzu-bird are counted among the Slain Heroes, a group of early gods and mythical monsters that were slain by Ninurta. In the section on the Slain Heroes, I suggest that several of the Heroes represented archaic Mesopotamian constellations, and that their deaths at the hands of Ninurta symbolised the removal of their constellation images from the celestial sphere.
Among the other Slain Heroes we find Kulianna (the Mermaid), who may be related to Andromeda and the Northern Fish of Pisces; the Magilum Boat that some commentators suggest maybe related to the Argo; and the Seven-headed serpent that may be a prototype for the Hydra. Additionally I would also suggest that the Greek figure of Cetus, the Sea-Monster, could be another ancient Mesopotamian constellation figure. This intriguing subject demands further study. 3
1 I have published a set of short essays on the Zodiac figures of Babylonia on the Skyscript website. Please refer to these documents for information on the nature and history of these pivotal constellation figures.
2 The most up-to-date survey on the origins of the Greek star-map is to be found in two articles by John H. Rogers – The Origins of the Ancient Constellations: 1. The Mesopotamian Traditions; and 2. The Mediterranean Traditions published in the Journal of the British Astronomy Association 1998.
3 I hope to explore this subject in a future book on the reconstruction of the Babylonian Star-Map.
Please see “How Cuneiform Puns Inspired Some of the Bizarre Greek Constellations and Asterisms” by John McHugh.
He gives a description of the double entendres present in translations between Sumerian and Akkadian, how these could define the nature of Greek constellations, and how Homer may have brought these constellations to Greece.
Yes its a good article with some far-ranging implications for studies on star-maps and their transmission from one culture to another