Babylonian Stargazing (ca. 7th-4th centuries BC)

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, May 30, 2007



The ancient Babylonians were very keen on learning about the sky above them, and in fact, many modern astrological traditions actually stem from early Babylonian observations about the night sky.

Although undoubtedly limited by the lack of technological advancement available to today’s astronomers, the Babylonians made some remarkable deductions using their own scientific knowledge, and they would pass this on to many other ancient civilizations as the centuries moved onward.

For the Babylonians, it should first be noted that astronomy and astrology were intricately intertwined, since science was primarily concerned with the religious revelations it would bring. The physical world was understood within the context of their religious knowledge, and unlike many people might suppose to be the case for modern science and religion, this did not seem to present any sort of barriers or contradictions in understanding.

To begin, the Babylonians were the first people to develop a theory of the ecliptic: that is, the path of the sun in relation to the stars and its planetary alignment throughout a calendar year. The Babylonians recognized that this area was divided into twelve sections at 30 degrees longitude – this is where the twelve signs of the zodiac originated, when the Babylonians gave names to the twelve sections. Notably, this ecliptic division was proven to be correct, and the ecliptic theory is still used in modern astronomical study.

The Babylonian calendar was actually divided up according to the lunar year, with twelve months, but because the months were somewhat shorter than the modern calendar – which is based on the solar year – on occasion, an extra month would be added into the year to ensure the agricultural seasons stayed on track. Weeks were divided into seven days.

In terms of astrological observations, the Babylonians were very interested in the possibility of knowing the future, and believed that the movements of the sun, moon, and the five planets they identified could be interpreted to know what the gods were planning to do. The planets they knew, though given different names than what they are currently called, were: Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars. The planets were each associated with a particular Babylonian god, and specific priests were assigned to astrological divination – not only attempting to interpret the signs in the sky, but also constantly striving to perfect their understanding of the heavens.

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Tomorrow: City of the bird men







 

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