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Astrology and Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia

Feb 4, 2021
Reading time 10 min.

Astrology is an occult practice that originated in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China. The oldest records belong to the 2nd millennium BC and from the Old Babylonian period. However, Sumerians had some understanding of the subject as early as 3000 BC. The astrologers observed the movements of the planets and assigned them godlike features and powers. Each planet represented a god or a goddess and ruled certain areas of life. The astrologers advised the rulers/kings and interpreted the pattern of planetary movements as omens or signs for understanding the future. The practice is deeply rooted in the concept of Divination an important aspect of the Mesopotamian life. Divination was employed as a technique to communicate with gods, who according to the Mesopotamian religious thought, shaped the destinies of humans and controlled all events in the cosmos. Divination presupposes supernatural cause and effect in all perceived phenomena and assumes the cooperation of the gods in their willingness to reveal their future intentions. Observing the planets resulted in rudimentary scientific advances in astronomy and the practitioners of the prophetic aspects of astronomy became astrologers with great prestige and influence.

The oldest Mesopotamian records are astrological omens preserved from the reign of king Ammi-saduqa (1683-47 BC). Appearance and disappearance of the planet Venus behind the sun is recorded primarily for the interpretation of omens. The observations might have been important to the regulation of the calendar as well. More records exist from the later periods and most are from the library and archive of Assurbanipal at Nineveh (668-627 BC).

Celestial omens are discovered in at least 70 tablets with observations relating to the moon occupying 23 tablets.

Meteorological phenomena thunder, rain, hail and earthquakes are also observed and thought to have prophetic validity. Six observatories located in different cities including Babylon itself are mentioned in the tablets.

The Babylonian/Assyrian astrology later took hold in Egypt, Persia and other regions. Remnants of the Babylonian practice, such as the omens and settings of the planets and stars merged with Egyptian traditions. Scientists from both the nations made accurate measurements of areas using geometry and developed arithmetic in an algebraic direction. Mathematical astronomy was used to build multistory ziggurat towers (Choga Zanbil in Susa is an example built by the Elamites). The towers were usually seven-floor high and astrologers/astronomers conducted observations of the movements of heavenly bodies from the rooftop. They recorded empirical observations of the sun, the moon and the arrangement of the planets and constellations.

Tables with astronomical computations of the distances between stars have been preserved and contain information on the basic fixed stars and constellations, their relative positions, periods of the solar rising and settings, etc. Around 1000BC the astronomical knowledge of the Babylonians was passed on to the Greeks, who identified 48 constellations. The Greeks employed geometrical explanations of motion rather than the numerical relationships the Babylonians used. As a result Greeks progressed in astronomy and moved slowly into pure sciences while Babylonians remained closer to vernacular astrology.

One of the principal stars in Mesopotamian religion and astronomy was Venus, personified by the goddess Ishtar in Babylonia and Assyria, Astarte in Phoenicia, Athtar in Arabia, Astar in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), and Ashtart in Canaan and Israel (Persian world Setareh comes from the same origin).

As Ishtar of Erech (in Babylonia) she was worshipped in connection with the evening star, while as Ishtar of Akkad (also in Babylonia) she was identified with the morning star. Ishtar was called “the eldest of heaven and earth”, and daughter of Anu, the god of heaven. She was the goddess of love and beauty, the “Great Mother”, and to the Assyrians, a goddess of hunting and war. Greeks identified Ishtar with the goddess Venus.

The earliest formal calendar in Mesopotamia was probably the Sumerian lunar calendar. The lunar calendar required intercalation (insertion of days or other portions of time in calendars) and was later improved by the Babylonia priests. They intercalated months according to an 8-year cycle when they would add 3 extra months. The calendar months started with the direct observation of a new crescent moon at dusk.

Today Judaism and Islamic calendars still use the same principle that the new calendar day begins at sunset. The constellations of the Zodiac preserved at the British Museum from this period have several familiar representations. The Bull, the Tortoise, a female figure with wings, the Scorpion, the Archer and the Goat-fish are all portrayed on stones, cylinder seals and gems. Calendars extensively utilized all such information and were both civil and religious institutions. Their origin was attributed to be the work of Gods and Goddesses.

The time of the Persian dominion, particularly from the last quarter of the fifth century BC until the Greek conquest, was the most creative period for Babylonian mathematical astronomy. Astronomical schools existed in Uruk, Sippar, Babylon and Borsippa. The Achaemenians maintained an atmosphere favorable to the development of science. Under Darius a great Babylonian astronomer, Nabu-rimanni (Naburianus), was instructed to carry out a study of lunar eclipses and arrived at calculations more accurate than those of Ptolemy and Copernicus. His works were translated and used for many centuries by all including Seleucid and Parthian rulers of Persia.

His picture of Heavens was borrowed by the Greeks and eventually reached the famous Greek scientist Democritus. The terminology employed by Naburianu includes spheres, orbits, ecliptic, inclination, celestial equator, poles, circular motion, revolutions, retrogression and moon’s highest north and south latitudes. All these terms were used extensively by the Greek astronomers, including, the brilliant Eudoxus of Cnidus, precursor of Euclid. Another well-known Babylonian astronomer under the Persian rule, Kidinnu (Cidenas) of Sippar, distinguished the solar year from the lunar, discovered the precession of the equinoxes and arrived at an exact calculation of the length of the year, making an error of only 7 minutes, 41 seconds.

The advances enabled the astronomers to draw almanacs for the ensuing year. Almanacs in which, eclipses of the sun and the moon, and times of the new and full moon were accurately noted. Also the positions of the planets throughout the year were determined using astrological charts. There are tablets that set forth observations of Jupiter from the 43rd year of the reign of Artaxerexes II to the thirteenth year of Alexander the Great. Some old Persian names in astronomy have barely survived. The names of the four “Royal Stars” which were standing guard at the equinoxes and solstices still resembles the modern ones.

Aldebaran, Watcher of the East; Regulus, Watcher of the North; Antares, watcher of the West; Fomalhaut, Watcher of the South were used by the Persians. Today’s equivalents would probably be Alcoyne, Regulus, Albireo and Bungula.

Despite all advances astronomy remained inseparably linked to astrology. Astronomical texts, in particular, contain allusions to the ties between the stars and various illnesses. By the end of the Achaemenid period in Babylonia and other territories under the Persian rule, science had declined and the potential for its development was stalled. Science was no opponent of religion in the ancient times. In fact it developed in the shadow of temples and was influenced by religion.

By this time the dominance of religious concepts hindered new methods and modes of thought for understanding nature. The Greeks introduced the next major change. They launched new ideas that revolutionized science in general including astronomy and astrology. Empiricism and experimentation were encouraged and metaphysical basis of natural phenomenon was rejected. They adopted Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian knowledge, mixed it with Greek thought, developed it and through the medium of Greek made them universal.

The Egyptian contribution to astronomy/astrology was immense. The latter Hellenistic (Greek) astrologers of Egypt attribute the root of their discipline to Nechepso and Petosiris, an Egyptian pharaoh and his high priest. By the 1st century BC the entire apparatus of horoscopic astrology was in place and the language of Egyptian astrology had become Greek. The famed Greek astrologer, Valens traveled throughout Egypt and studied with at least a few living teachers of the old traditions and recorded his observations. Originally the astrology texts were written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian, but no clear reference to any has survived.

The Hellenistic Egypt systematized the omen materials of the earlier Babylonian astrologers. Many astrological methods, such as the use of 12 houses, lots and aspects were developed at this time and spread throughout the area by the Greek writers. By the 2nd century BC the Greek scientist Hipparchus developed the mathematical astronomy that was given its final form by Ptolemy in the second century AD. Ptolemy’s work in turn influenced all astrological/astronomical works until the advent of new sciences, including Islamic celestial concepts and astronomical studies of the Middle Ages.

After 126 BC, the Parthians, raised against the Seleucids, the Greek successors to Alexander the Great, and re-conquered most of the Persian Empire. The Parthians were hostile to the Greeks (and later the Romans) and effectively cut off communication between the main body of Hellenistic peoples and Persians plus the Bactrian Greeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This created a new school of astronomy/astrology independent from the Greek and Egyptian traditions. There are no material left from this time but its impact on Indian and Hebrew astrology has left its mark. There are fragments in Hebrew astrology that are unlike the Hellenistic astrology that was emerging at the same time. The emphasis of Light and Dark recalls the Zoroastrian religion and the impact of Persian astrology.

One can compare such literature to similar material at the end of the Indian astrological classic, Parashara’s Hora Sastra. This omen-like material of reading bodily characteristics as personality or morality traits seems to have also been influenced by the Persian astrology. There are also similarities between the Indian and the Persian astrological history/narrative. This is the account of dynastic history in terms of cyclical periods of varying lengths of time governed by the stars and planets. Many stories from the Sasanian period in books such as, Karnameh Ardeshir Papakan and Shahnameh contain such dynastic history and more were produced after the Arab conquest (Abu Sahl’s Kitab an-Nahmutan). However, despite hostility by the Parthians, Greek sciences, arts and philosophy remained and with the coming of the Sasanian rulers they reached a new peak and advances were made in the field.

The Sasanian Empire of Persia (226-642), with its state religion of Zoroastrianism, saw itself as heir to the legendary Achaemenid dynasty and their civilization, and developed an ideology and culture to reflect and promote this image. An imposing succession of Sasanian emperors actively engaged in collecting, recording and editing the historical and religious records of their civilization and the neighboring countries. According to Dinkard, the Zoroastrian canon in Pahlavi, Book IV, “all knowledge and sciences was received by Zoroaster from Ahura Mazda and transmitted through Avesta.

Destruction of Persia by Alexander dispersed the texts throughout the world. The Greeks, the Egyptians derived all their knowledge and science from these dispersed texts. Subsequently Sasanian emperors took it upon themselves to collect all these texts from all over”. The sources name, Byzantium, India and China as the main centers where book collecting was taking place.

Such activities reached their peak at the time of Khusrau I (Anoshirvan, (531-578). Greek Philosophers, Syriac speaking Christians and Nestorians fleeing persecution by the Byzantines (Orthodox Christians of Constantinople) were received by Anoshirvan and were commissioned to translate Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi. Paul the Persian dedicated Works of logic to the king. The Greek philosopher Priscianus Lydus wrote a book in response to the king’s questions on a number of subjects in Aristotelian physics, theory of the soul, meteorology and biology. Dinkard itself shows familiarity with all these topics, especially Aristotelian physics.

Books in medicine, Ptolemy’s Almagest (A collection of mathematical anthology) and other works in astronomy, Aristotle’s Organon and a number of texts in crafts and skills were translated from Greek sources. Indian scientific material in astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine were also translated into Pahlavi. The Book of Nativities (Kitab al-Mawalid) was a five part astronomical work that was translated from Pahlavi into Arabic in 750. It was ascribed to Zoroaster and according to the Iranian historian Sa’id ibn-Khurasan-Khurreh, “it was translated by Mahankard, an Iranian scholar from among the books of Zoroaster”.

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