Mesopotamia:  Cradle of Astrology’s Development

I find it incredibly apropos that astrology originated in the Cradle of Civilization, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates, the map of which even resembles a woman’s womb and birth canal.  These ancient civilizations diligently observed the heavens, seeking a connection between Earth and the stars and duly noted that some, which would later be identified as planets, demonstrated such erratic movements that the Sumerians called them udu.idim.mes, i.e. wild sheep[1]

The earliest evidence regarding the use of astrology as applied to the affairs of state is represented by the Dream of Gudea, which dates back to 2000 BCE.[2]  A key figure in the story is the goddess, Nanshe, who possessed many of the talents later attributed to Mercury, such as knowing how to perform calculations.  Her temple was known as the “House of Stars” and she possessed a lapis lazuli tablet that contained the stars of heaven, which she consulted by placing it on her knees.  Gudea, mediator between heaven and Earth, sought guidance with regard to the threat of drought, which Nanshe provided by consulting her tablet of stars, indicating the practice of seeking answers from the cosmos.

The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, c. 1651 – 1631 BCE, included in a vast compilation of astrological data known as the Enuma Anu Enlil, provided evidence of astrological activity as well as the fact that they believed that even divine power was required to obey natural, mathematical or cosmic law.  Furthermore, the tablet indicated that the patterns found in the cosmos were predictable and thus it was possible to document all possible connections between an astronomical event and the happenings on Earth.[3]  The mul.apin was another compilation that contained limited astrological information but was devoted primarily to indicating the 36 stars and 18 lunar constellations, i.e. those through which the Moon passed, from which divinations could be derived.[4]  A lunar zodiac made sense as opposed to a solar version due to the fact that stars could not be observed during the daytime.  Today’s zodiac evolved from these original constellations which included those used in modern time as well as numerous others; the development of the 12-sign zodiac is attributed to the Persians.[5] 

These early records indicate that these ancient civilizations felt a connection with the heavens which they believed provided indicators and warnings related to terrestrial events.  These messages were not considered fatalistic, but negotiable by pleading with or appeasing the relevant cosmic deity, most frequently the Sun, Moon or Venus.  The majority of records relating to the use of astrology are attributed to the Assyrians between 800 – 700 BCE, particularly the Enuma Anu Enlil (EAE) which was compiled at the edict of Emperor Ashurbanipal.[6]

Beginning in 747 BCE Babylonian scribes began keeping comprehensive records of celestial and terrestrial events known as diaries which led to the ability to predict planetary positions and ultimately the development of the horoscope.[7]  Information typically contained therein included information on the Moon, planets, solstices, equinoxes, Sirius, meteors, comets, the weather, commodity prices, river levels and historical events.  One of the most notable features of this effort is the fact that they were kept almost continuously for over 700 years and were kept by the same scribes who reproduced copies of the EAE, implying that these data had an astrological purpose.

The Persians are credited with developing astrological methods and techniques between 550 – 420 BCE which are highly recognizable to modern astrologers.  These include the birth chart, the first ephemeris, use of the 12-sign zodiac, and placing the planets within zodiac signs.  This period also included a shift to a philosophy of cosmic order as opposed to deities who acted at will.[8]   However, this isn’t particularly remarkable given the fact that the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa had drawn that conclusion over a thousand years previously.

While the benefits of astrology were limited to royalty and their military leaders until at least the fifth century BCE, it was nonetheless clear that anyone had the right to appeal to the deities associated with the heavens.[9]  What is less clear, however, is whether the Babylonians viewed astrology as fated/deterministic or open to negotiations, i.e. oracular.[10] This particular argument with regard to astrology’s message was the source of conflict with both the Christian and Islamic religions, who objected to it being deterministic because it conflicted with the concept of free will. 

Thus, between 2000 – 400 BCE seeking answers in the heavens progressed from simple sky watching, which was largely directed at the Moon and Sun, but also differentiated between stars and planets, those “wild sheep” which seemed to wander amongst the stars at will, to methods recognizable to modern astrologers.  Their earliest observations were recorded and studied, leading to the conclusion that there was order and predictability in the cosmos which even applied to deities.  The EAE and mul.apin were compiled, further preserving cumulative knowledge, which eventually resulted in the 12-sign zodiac, ephemeredes, placing planets within the signs and the development of birth charts.  Considering that this took place over thousands of years, it’s easy to see a steady, rhythmic flow of progression that spanned multiple cultures.  Early astrologers made mistakes, but rather than abandoning their craft, they instituted the practice of keeping celestial diaries so they could learn greater wisdom which was passed along for millennia. 

The fact that astrology not only refuses to die but is alive and well thousands of years later somehow links us with these ancient students of the heavens, scholars of their day who deemed their work important enough to keep detailed records for over 700 years.  Truly our continued interest illustrates the human need to connect with the stars hasn’t changed, nor will it anytime soon.

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[1] Campion, Nicholas. A History of Western Astrology: Volume I: The Ancient World.  London:  Continuum, 2008, p. 53.

[2] Campion,  p.56.

[3] Campion, p. 59

[4] Campion, p. 69

[5] Campion, p. 77

[6] Campion, p. 71

[7] Campion, p. 75

[8] Campion, p. 80

[9] Campion, p. 65

[10] Campion p. 64

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