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Bond of Heaven and Earth: Celestial/Terrestrial Relations in Late Babylonian Scholarship 

Kathryn Stevens (Classics and Ancient History)

A microzodiac from Hellenistic Babylonia

microzodiac from Hellenistic Babylonia 

Mesopotamian scholars of the first millennium BC formalised relationships between the celestial and the terrestrial with unprecedented intricacy. Astronomical Diaries link lunar risings with prices; celestial omens predict rebellion from sunsets; horoscopes use mathematically calculated planetary positions to determine the fate of individuals. Yet the conceptual underpinnings of these texts, and their interrelations, often remain obscure.

This project aims to clarify them, by analysing how cosmic and earthly affairs are connected in different branches of Babylonian scholarship from ca. 650-100 BC – centuries which saw the rise of new forms of celestial inquiry, and Mesopotamia’s integration into two successive foreign empires. It seeks to challenge the consensus of a “paradigm shift” in first-millennium astrology and to find coherence in the varied and at times apparently contradictory means by which celestial and terrestrial phenomena were connected in this period of political and intellectual transformation.

A large body of work exists on the numerous first-millennium cuneiform texts devoted to the study of the heavens. This project draws on and extends these detailed studies of different branches of celestial scholarship, posing a single question across different domains: how are celestial and terrestrial events connected?

Although simple in its formulation, this question has the potential to transform our understanding of celestial scholarship in first-millennium Mesopotamia. The underlying problem is whether we can detect coherence in the variety of cuneiform texts dealing with celestial-terrestrial relations from the later first millennium: the Astronomical Diaries, which record selected celestial and terrestrial phenomena on a daily and monthly basis; the traditional astrology based around the celestial omen series Enuma Anu Enlil (EAE); and newer forms of astrology such as horoscopes, which utilise predictive methods from mathematical astronomy and focus on the individual.

These texts are heterogeneous in form and function, but often written by the same specialists and recovered from the same contexts. This raises the question of whether, and how, they are conceptually related. It also raises the broader question of Babylonian celestial scholarship relates to that of the nearby cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, with which Mesopotamia saw a great deal of intellectual and cultural exchange. These are not new questions, but by drawing on the large body of recent work on astrology within each cultural context, we hope to contribute to the ongoing project of answering them. 

The project has two stages, each centred on one of the major bodies of material that link the celestial and terrestrial. The first was an international conference on the Astronomical Diaries (Durham, June 2016) – the first dedicated to interrogating the Diaries’ conceptual underpinning and development over time. In particular, the conference aimed to shed new light on their relationship to contemporary astrological material, in preparation for the second stage of the project: a workshop on Late Babylonian astrology (Durham, December 2016).

The workshop tackled the problem of conceptual coherence between the older and newer forms of astrology. It will also include specialists in Egyptian and Greek astrology, using cross-cultural transmission as an analytical tool for understanding developments in Babylonia. The project as a whole is conceived as the first stage of a large-scale project on ancient astrology in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Greek world. 

Map of the Ancient Near East. Adaptation by the Ancient World Mapping Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, of J. B. Harley and David Woodward, eds., The History of Cartography, vol. 1, Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 108, fig. 6.1.