Before the zodiac: the Pleiades in Mesopotamian divination and their legacy in zodiacal literature

24.04.2023 by Maria Teresa Renzi-Sepe

Preliminary note: The following blog article is based on my PhD project, “The Perception of the Pleiades in Mesopotamian Culture”, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and carried out at the Altorientalisches Institut of Leipzig. I have omitted half brackets to ease the reading in transliterations and translations of cuneiform texts. For the complete text editions, see “Further readings” at the end of the article.

Studying how celestial bodies were conceptualized in Ancient Mesopotamia before the emergence of zodiacal literature can aid our understanding of the cross-cultural, global spread of the zodiac. This is especially true in the case of the stars said to be “in the path of the moon,” a list of seventeen constellations through which the moon passes during its monthly route across the sky, according to the cuneiform MUL.APIN, an astral compendium of the first millennium BC. Twelve out of these seventeen would appear as the Babylonian zodiac at the end of the fifth or beginning of the fourth century BC.

Among the stars “in the path of the moon” but not included in the Babylonian zodiac, the first in order are the Pleiades, a cluster of stars in the north-west of the constellation Taurus (see fig. 1 and 2), which take their modern name from the seven sisters, the daughters of Atlas, from Greek mythology. As the subject of my forthcoming book entitled “The Perception of the Pleiades in Mesopotamian Culture”, the case of the Pleiades was a way to explore, through an intertextual approach, the conceptualization of celestial bodies before its transmission in the cuneiform zodiacal literature.

Fig. 1: “Taurus and the Pleiades”, Stellarium Astronomy Interactive. ( Accessed 17.04.2023.
Fig. 2: “Taurus”, plate 17 in Urania’s Mirror (1825) by Sidney Hall, restored by Adam Cuerden.

In Mesopotamia, the Pleiades are called MUL.MUL (written  in Old Babylonian ductus and in Neo-Assyrian ductus), literally “(many) Stars“ in Sumerian. At least from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1500 BC) onwards, the Pleiades are called zappu, “Bristle”, in Akkadian, conceived as the mane of the sign Taurus, pictured in the sky as a bull (see fig. 3). The Akkadian word zappu was then associated with the logogram MUL.MUL, merging two traditions. Unlike their counterparts in Classical mythology, the Pleiades are associated with male entities, sometimes warlike gods, sometimes bringers of fate, but always within a heptad (written dIMIN.BI, literally “these/their divine Seven”).

The Pleiades play a significant role in cuneiform celestial omens, inferences based on analogical relationships. These omens are collected in the divinatory series Enūma Anu Enlil (EAE), literally “When Anu (and) Enlil”, a composition dated from the Old Babylonian period to the end of the first millennium BC. From celestial omens, it emerges that the Pleiades and their phenomena (i.e., conjunctions, luminosity, dates of rising and setting) were thought to influence the outcome of the harvest through positive or adverse events predicted according to several analogical principles –calendrical, symbolic, or graphic. In the three omens from the series EAE mentioned below, one can notice the main topics of the predictions associated with the Pleiades, i.e. pestilence, rain, floods, and devastation:

DIŠ MUL.MUL ina ŠÀ-šú GUBmeš ÚŠmeš GARmešma dIMIN.BI KUR GU7meš

If the Pleiades stand inside it (i.e., the moon), a pestilence will occur, and the divine Seven will devour the country. (Verderame 2002: 176–177 § 1–6)

MUL.MUL u mulMAR UR.BI GUBmeš ŠÈGmeš u ILLUmeš GUBmešnim-ma ŠE.GÙN.NU TUR ina EN.TE.NA ŠUB- [bu-lì]

(If) the Pleiades and the Wagon stand together, rains and floods will come (and) the crop will be diminished. In winter, (there will be) a pestilence among the [herd]. (Reiner & Pingree 1981: 48 VI 2a)


If the Pleiades reach the Kidney-star, Adad (i.e., the storm god) will bring devastation. (K 5713+ obv. 8’)

Fig. 3: Drawing of the obverse of VAT 7851. From left to right: the Pleiades as seven stars with the caption MUL.MUL, the so-called “man in the Moon”, and Taurus as a bull (broken at the bottom left) with its mane accentuated.

The astrological texts dating to the Late Babylonian (and partly already Neo-Babylonian) period (ca. 626–30 BC) presume a different predictive framework than the omens in divination. The former forecast events based on computed celestial phenomena, with the zodiac as a spatial framework. Within this context, the Pleiades appear as a pars pro toto of the sign Taurus (GU4.AN.NA, alû, “Bull of Heaven”), or as its name. Nonetheless, Late Babylonian scholars drew on older predictions and mixed them with computed data to foresee events. As a result, the principles of divination are still detectable in a few astrological texts, such as BM 47494, an astrological fragment from Babylon or Borsippa, written by the scribe Iprāya before 337 BC. Its content is focused on weather and market forecasts from the positions of planets within zodiacal constellations. As shown in the lines mentioned below (BM 47494 obv. 19, 28, 31), predictions like the ones in the Pleiades omens mentioned above were still considered but likely associated with Taurus:

ana ÚŠmeš ina ŠÀ MUL.MUL mulGU4.AN.NA u mu[lSI]PA.ZI.AN.NA

For the pestilence: inside the Stars, the Bull of Heaven and the [Tr]ue Shepherd of Anu (i.e., Taurus).

ana ŠÈG A.GU4 ina ŠÀ mulKU6 mulGU.LA u MUL.MUL

For the rain (and) flood: inside the Fish (i.e., Pisces), Gula (i.e., Aquarius) and the Stars (i.e., Taurus).

ana ZI me-ḫe[-e UD.D]È?.RA.RA ri-iḫ-ṣu ina ŠÀ MUL.MUL u mulLÚ.ḪUN.GA

For the rising of a violent stor[m?, devast]ation (and) destruction: inside the Stars (i.e., Taurus) and the Hired Man (i.e., Aries).

Judging from the sources above, it seems that the conceptualization of the Pleiades in omens survived into the zodiacal literature, although the Pleiades have been “absorbed” by Taurus, and forecasts have different assumptions and purposes from the omens. One wonders how far intertextual studies between zodiacal literature and celestial omens could lead us to a new understanding of how ancient thinkers processed divination via the zodiac to find solutions to their society’s needs. 

Bibliography and further reading:

Hunger, H. 2004. “Stars, Cities and Predictions” in Burnett, C., et al. (eds.) Studies in the History of the Exact Sciences in Honour of David Pingree. Leiden-Boston: Brill, pp. 16–32.

Hunger, H., Steele, J. 2019. The Babylonian Astronomical Compendium MUL.APIN. London-New York: Routledge.

Ossendrijver, M. 2021. “Weather Prediction in Babylon”. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History 8/2, pp. 223–258.

Reiner, E., Pingree, D. 1981. Babylonian Planetary Omens, II. Bibliotheca Mesopotamica. 2/2, Malibu: Undena Publications.

Verderame, L. 2002. Le tavole I-VI della serie astrologica Enūma Anu Enlil. Nisaba 2. Roma: Di.Sc.A.M.

The new fragments from Hipparchus’ star catalog and the mathematization of the ancient astral sciences

09.02.2023 by Victor Gysembergh (Léon Robin Research Center on Ancient Thought, CNRS)

The discovery of fragments from Hipparchus’ star catalog sheds new light on a major development of positional astronomy. Hipparchus of Nicaea was a Greek astronomer active in the Eastern Mediterranean (likely in Rhodes and Nicaea) in the second century BCE. Based on ancient reports, he has long been thought to have composed the first catalog of stars to include precise numerical coordinates, representing a major step towards the mathematization of the ancient astral sciences as compared to previous qualitative descriptions of stellar positions.

In Volume 53, Issue 4 of the Journal for the History of Astronomy,Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Emanuel Zingg of Sorbonne Université and I have published new fragments of that catalogue from a palimpsest manuscript known as the Codex Climaci rescriptus. This was made possible by multispectral imaging of the palimpsest, performed by a team from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, the Lazarus Project of the University of Rochester, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

These new fragments deal with the position of Corona Borealis. They provide coordinates for its extremal stars as well as figures for its North-South and East-West extension, all expressed in an equatorial system (with right ascension used for the East-West axis and codeclination for the North-South axis, where modern astronomers generally use declination). The discovery of the new fragments from Codex Climaci rescriptus further allowed us to confirm the hypothesis (formulated by, among others, Otto Neugebauer in his History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy) that the star coordinates in an ancient Latin text known as the Aratus Latinus come from Hipparchus’ star catalog. The Aratus Latinus gives equatorial coordinates for the extremal stars of the Great Bear, the Little Bear and Draco, as well as figures for their North-South and East-West extension.

The use of an equatorial system by Hipparchus, as opposed to an ecliptical coordinate system, can be viewed as a logical choice for studying the positions of the fixed stars, because of its conformity with their diurnal motion. Furthermore, it had already been used by Hipparchus’ predecessors Aristyllus and Timocharis in the 3rd c. BCE. The use of this frame of reference presupposes the concept of celestial circles, which is absent from Babylonian astronomy but central to the development of Greek astronomy from Eudoxus of Cnidus onwards.

Instead, the Babylonian astronomers appear in their extant texts to have used a frame of reference based on the observed object’s angular distance from one of 28 fixed stars (the so-called “normal stars”). Interestingly, this angular distance appears to have been oriented roughly along the ecliptic (see Jones 2004), but it is not clear that the Babylonians used an orthogonal frame of reference based on the ecliptic (pace Graßhoff and Wenger 2017).

Centuries later, Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100 CE – ca. 175 CE) famously used an ecliptical coordinate system, which accounts more easily for the shifting of coordinates over time due to the precession of the equinoxes. Nevertheless, the use of equatorial coordinates persisted into late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the works of important authors such as Severus Sebokht, ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā, al-Khwārizmī, Qusṭā ibn Lūqā and Raymond de Marseille[1].

The new evidence further allows us to assess the accuracy of Hipparchus’ star catalog. It appears to have been remarkably accurate, to within one degree of the real coordinates in Hipparchus’ time. Readers may easily simulate the real coordinates of stars for any given time by using Stellarium, a free and open-source computer planetarium developed by the Paris Observatory. Of course, the size of the dataset recovered to date from Hipparchus’ star catalog is limited, with coordinates for only 15 stars, and it may well be that other coordinates were less accurate. From ancient lists of the number of stars in Hipparchus’ star catalog, a total number of 692 or 693 stars can be reconstructed; the actual total may have been greater, but it was almost certainly smaller than the 1028 stars in Ptolemy’s star catalog.

The fragments from Hipparchus’ star catalog also provide valuable insights into the way Ptolemy composed his own star catalog, extant in Ptolemy’s Almagest. The evidence strongly suggests that Ptolemy borrowed some of Hipparchus’ observations for his own catalog, but also that he used independent data sources. These independent sources may have been other star catalogs and/or his own observations. We can only speculate as to how Ptolemy decided what source of data to use for each individual star.

Indeed, the fragments from Hipparchus’ star catalog renew a series of fascinating questions about ancient astronomy. For instance, how did Hipparchus work to produce an accurate list of hundreds of star coordinates? What instruments did he use? Did he work alone or with colleagues and/or dependents? Did he enjoy forms of institutional support or patronage? Did he use prior measurements inherited from predecessors in the Greek world and elsewhere? And what were his motivations in undertaking such work?

A study of the recycled manuscript of Aratos’ astronomical poem Phaenomenahas recently been published by Peter Williams et al. It is hoped that further imaging of the Codex Climaci rescriptus will reveal more fragments from Hipparchus. In turn, these may provide further clues on the development of positional astronomy in Antiquity and its role in the mathematization of the ancient astral sciences.

Codex Climaci rescriptus, f° 53v, beginning of the first column of erased text. Courtesy of Museum of the Bible Collection. © Museum of the Bible, 2021. Image shared under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license, 2022. All conditions apply. Color image by Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, Lazarus Project of the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology.
Codex Climaci rescriptus, f° 53v, beginning of the first column of erased text. Courtesy of Museum of the Bible Collection. © Museum of the Bible, 2021. Image shared under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license, 2022. All conditions apply. Multispectral image by Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, Lazarus Project of the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, processing by Keith Knox.

Codex Climaci rescriptus, f° 53v, beginning of the first column of erased text. Courtesy of Museum of the Bible Collection. © Museum of the Bible, 2021. Image shared under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license, 2022. All conditions apply. In yellow, tracings of the erased text by Emanuel Zingg (Sorbonne Université).
Codex Climaci rescriptus folio 48v, showing an illustration of Corona Borealis. Courtesy Museum of the Bible Collection. © Museum of the Bible, 2021. Image shared under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license, 2022. All conditions apply. Spectral imaging by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and the Lazarus Project of the University of Rochester. Image processing by Vasilis Kasotakis.

[1] My thanks go to Flora Vafea (Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt) for this list of authors.

Imagining the Sky: The Zodiac and Related Astral Imagery in the Ancient World

11. Novermber 2022, by Alessia Pilloni

program of the workshop.

Like all specific topics within the study of antiquity, astronomy too is polyhedral, and each of its expressions can be analyzed from different points of view. One might focus only on a particular textual genre, whether mathematical or literary, or on one particular artistic representation, but this does not always give a satisfactory sense of unity or a complete understanding of the subject. That is why bringing together experts in individual aspects, i.e., history of science, Egyptology, Assyriology, classical philology, papyrology, archaeology, and art history, is so crucial: the intersection of the different approaches sheds light on matters that would remain unsolved, but with wider perspectives, we pave the way for resolving old research questions and posing new ones.

The workshop “Imagining the Sky: The Zodiac and Related Astral Imagery in the Ancient World” aimed to be a bridge connecting the study of ancient astronomy in different times and places, and also between texts and visual representation. In particular, how the concept of the zodiac and related topics has been adapted in images of different times and places and for different purposes, which, from a cross-cultural point of view, has not been studied in depth so far. Both the materials available and the supports are varied: from the schematic and stylised drawings on clay tablets in Mesopotamia, to the rich and colorful representations in Egyptian temples, and further, from the Greco-Roman monuments and small objects bearing cosmic elements, to their adaptation in Indian and Japanese manuscripts.

This blog post is meant to be a tribute to the success of this meeting of researchers of ancient astral sciences and a summary of the main topics that were discussed. All the presentations were connected by a common thread that motivated scholars to discuss and fascinated students and scholars from other disciplines.

Modern science at the service of ancient astronomy

A picture of the dome of the „Planetarium am Insulaner“, Berlin

There is nothing better than a projection of the sky at the planetarium to visualize and imagine the sky as seen in antiquity. Indeed, Susanne Hoffmann’s presentation at the Planetarium am Insulaner opened the workshop. The purpose was to show how the heavens and their moving bodies looked 3000 years ago in Babylon, when expert observers divided the sky into twelve segments identified by twelve constellations, the zodiac.

It is a great advantage to use modern instruments in order to visualize the data from ancient texts and images. On a virtual sky one can project the data from texts and images at different times and places in ancient history: the Babylonian lists of stars and constellations in the MUL.APIN compendium, Ptolemy’s coordinates, the uranology of Hipparchus and Aratus, the Zodiac depicted on the Farnese globe and so forth.

Images of the ancient sky and the texts referring to them extend beyond Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. For this reason, a group of researchers at the Max-Planck-Institut is working on a database on the materiality of the heavens in different cultures. The zodiac, for example, is transmitted and represented with characters from the transmitting culture but also adapted to the culture of the receiver, and patterns of transmission and influence can be traced as far as India and the Far East (China and Japan), as shown in the presentation by Sonja Brentjes.

Mesopotamian diagrams and drawings

Speakers: Jeanette Fincke, Wayne Horowitz, Willis Monroe, Marvin Schreiber, John Steele, John Wee

While there is an abundance of cuneiform tablets providing evidence of astronomical scientific activity in Mesopotamia, only a few also bear traces of graphic representations. The contributions of Assyriologists have in fact focused on this: the interaction between what is written and what is drawn on the tablet, meaning drawings and diagrams. Some drawings carved on the tablets are clearly depictions of constellations, like the ones in the famous astrological tablet VAT 7847.Assumptions about the diagrams, however, such as the ones that appear on the Neo Assyrian circular tablet K 8538, which were interpreted as stylised constellations during the time of the pioneers of Assyriology, such as Archibald Henri Sayce and Ernst Weidner, are to be re-examined. There is still no firm understanding: it is not even certain that the representations refer to astral elements. What is truly important is to reconsider the sources and the previous interpretative positions, in light of the new sources, and adapt them to advances in modern knowledge of Mesopotamian culture. 

detail of the diagrams in the Neo-Assirian circular tablet BM 8538, British Museum, London.
detail of the Seleucid calendar text for the zodiacal sign Leo VAT 7847, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

Maps of the sky in ancient Egypt

Speakers: Victoria Altmann-Wendling, John Baines, Yossra Ibrahim, Christian Leitz, Daniela Mendel-Leitz, Rune Nyord.

The first example that springs to mind is certainly the spectacular representation of the zodiac in the ceiling of the temple of Hathor in Dendera. There are certainly others: representations of the sky are very well attested in sarcophagi, pyramid ceilings and temples. The central theme is the presence of the personifications of the cosmic elements, such as planets and constellations, for example, the decans, the hours of the day, the winds, and so forth. Such representations aim to be sorts of “maps” of the heavens and are populated by deities and creatures. For instance, a pig swallowing celestial bodies might represent eclipses, and certain animals (scarab and falcon) are often shown carrying the sunthe actions that they perform represent the myth behind the astronomical event.

These images contain elements that confirm stylistic and cultural influences from outside Egypt, but also strong Egyptian features. Once again, the perfect example is the zodiac: a concept originating from Babylonia, but whose elements are represented with the Egyptian iconographic repertoire.

detail of the Hathor temple in Dendera, Egypt.

Images of the cosmos in Greco-Roman art and beyond

Speakers: Benjamin Anderson, Nicola Barbagli, Ilaria Bultrighini, Fabio Guidetti, Wolfgang Hübner, Stamatina Mastorakou, Fabio Spadini

In Greco-Roman art, representations of cosmic elements are found on coins, on monuments, mosaics, gems, and other objects. Much has already been said about such artifacts from an artistic point of view, but during the workshop the focus was on the interpretation and meaning of the schemes in which the astral elements are arranged.

From the point of view of written sources, Hellenistic astrology presents a highly sophisticated way of reading the signs, based on geometrical schemes.

On the other hand, in certain artifacts the disposition of the zodiac can assume different dispositions, with the signs oriented differently, for decorative reasons. This brings certain artistic objects far from an astrological purpose.

Upper left: Reverse of a medallion of Antoninus Pius (RPC IV.1 5867), minted in Nicaea, Bithynia, Turkey.
Bottom left: Pavement mosaic, Landesmuseum, Bonn.
Right: Farnese Globe, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

Some concluding thoughts

The attendance was plentiful both online, with more than a hundred virtual participants, and in person, with sixty participants in the conference room, some of them from overseas institutions: an excellent example of the resumption of in-person research activities, after two arduous years of pandemic.

For a glimpse into the future: the papers will be part of the proceedings volume, which will be curated by Mathieu Ossendrijver and Andreas Winkler and available in open access by winter 2023.

To conclude with a thought of gratitude, all that has been presented and discussed was enriched by a pleasant atmosphere of unity, sharing, and openness to dialogue on the part of the participants, perceptible not only during the presentations, but also during breaks and convivial moments.

It has been an intense dive into the world of ancient astronomy: “imagining the sky”, through pictures and texts, how the ancient people saw and perceived the heavens above their heads, tried to glean signs, and unlock its secrets by creating methods to calculate its motion in order to predict the future.

The Zodiac Glossary

22. August 2022, by Christian Casey

Building a unique research tool that will outlive all of us

A Glossary of Zodiacal Terms

As one component of the broader aims of the Zodiac Project, we’re creating a glossary of zodiacal terms from the ancient Mediterranean and near East.

The usefulness of such a project for our research is easy enough to see from a few examples. Say that you wanted to know about the Egyptian conceptualization of Aries. You could look up the English word in the glossary (“Aries”), find a few matching examples, and see that this concept is realized in Egyptian as: 𓇋𓋴𓏪𓄛𓏤 ỉsw “ram” and: 𓁶𓏤 dpỉ “first” (as in the example from Andreas Winkler’s recent blog post “A New Look at an Old Horoscope”). 𓇋𓋴𓏪𓄛𓏤 ỉsw “ram” is easy enough to understand, but what about 𓁶𓏤 dpỉ “first”? One likely explanation is that the Egyptian zodiac was ordered like the Babylonian one, with Aries as the first element and the others following after. This sort of observation immediately suggests a cultural connection between the two, which is exactly what we are here to explore.

Or you might wonder about the connections between the gods and the planets. For instance, the god Jupiter is associated with Greek Zeus and Egyptian Amun, but the planet Jupiter is known by a variety of Egyptian names: “Horus the merchant”, “Horus the secret one”, “Horus the magician”, none of which have anything to do with Jupiter or Zeus or even Amun. Looking at such evidence, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the Egyptian planet names predate any direct connection with neighboring cultures and were borrowed into the zodiacal system from local traditions. Here we have the opposite of the previous example: a telling lack of similarity where we might expect to find one. This sort of detail helps nuance our understanding of the spread of the zodiac between various cultural groups.

Even with such simple examples (where the explanations are already known in advance), it’s clear enough that having such a glossary simplifies the task of doing research. Looking at texts one at a time demands a strong memory for seemingly minor details, such as the spelling of a single word, while extracting these details and putting them together into one view makes the connections much more obvious. It also allows us to detect relationships between ancient languages, even in cases where no single member of the team knows all the languages involved.

All Beginnings are Difficult

We can talk endlessly about constructing such a glossary, but until we actually start doing it there’s no way to know how it’s actually going to work. At some point, we have to stop talking and start building, then adjust our strategy as we go along. That’s why we now have a prototype version, currently in alpha testing.

[The Zodiac Glossary working prototype as of July 20, 2022.]

The final version will probably be different in many ways, but you can already see most of the parts that we wanted to include from the beginning.

On the left, there’s a way to search for existing lemmas, a way to filter by languages, a way to sort the results, and an option to add a new lemma (only available to registered users in the final version).

On the right side, in the Lemma panel, there’s the usual information you would expect in any ancient language glossary, plus lists of variants and quotations to help us with our research. Finding an interesting pattern or cross-cultural connection is not the end of the story. We also have to refer back to the original text to dig in further. Or, at the very least, we need to cite our sources. Finally, there is a way to delete the lemma, which will also only be available to registered users in the future.

One important feature, which is not pictured here because I haven’t implemented it yet, is a way to link different lemmas together. For instance, it would be useful to link the Greek lemma κριός krios with the Egyptian 𓇋𓋴𓏪𓄛𓏤 ỉsw because both refer to the sign Aries. Having those links between ancient languages will allow us to explore connections in a lateral traversal through the networks of relationships within languages. This is one of the most important aspects of collaborative work like this involving specialists in different fields: we can find things that no single one of us is equipped to discover alone.

The Glossary will also be available to anyone who wants to use it via this same public-facing website. However, editing features will only be available to registered users. The long-term destiny of this part of the project is still an open question. Perhaps others will take it over and build on it after us (in which case we will allow other collaborators to register as editors) or perhaps it will simply remain online as a valuable tool for anyone who wants to use it. The one outcome that we are designing against from the beginning is one that is all too familiar with grant-funded academic projects: disappearing into the ether.

Surviving the Academic Grant Cycle

Zodiac is funded by a five-year ERC grant. Like all such projects, its trajectory is predicated on the assumption that deliverables come in the form of traditional academic publications: books, journal articles, etc. But books are very different from databases. For one thing, the cost of producing and preserving a physical book is paid by the reader (in one way or another), while the cost of serving up a website is paid by the creator. At the same time, books can remain on library shelves indefinitely. By the time a library book decays from age, the information in it will have been replicated elsewhere or superseded entirely. But websites don’t simply sit on shelves. They must be maintained and paid for on a continuous basis.

The success of this project in the long term requires a solution to this problem: a website that remains functional at very low cost forever. There are already ways of creating free websites with static content (content that is prepared in advance and doesn’t change), but there is no easy way to build a free website for dynamic content (content generated on the fly, such as a webpage that includes information pulled from a database). The Zodiac Glossary is thoroughly dynamic, so we need to find an affordable way to build the site that allows it to become free (or very nearly free) after the term of the grant ends.

Our current working approach is to use a variety of tools on the Amazon Web Services platform in an arrangement that keeps costs as low as possible. There is an inevitable tradeoff here. While it may be possible to keep costs down using AWS “Free Tier” services, this limits the number of visitors that the website can serve. Such an approach may prove ideal for smaller academic projects, where daily visitor numbers are expected to remain low, but it may not work in all circumstances.

Depending on the nature and scope of a project, different solutions may be creatively combined to maximize benefit and minimize cost. I’m currently working on several simultaneous approaches to the academic website funding problem (some developed as part of my work with Zodiac, some from my previous position as the CLIR postdoc at ISAW). If you’re interested in learning what I’ve discovered or discussing other solutions, consider attending my paper at this year’s ASOR conference in Boston (November 16–19), “Star Seeds: Building a digital glossary for the Zodiac Project that will outlive the project’s funding” in the Digital Archaeology and History section.

Coming soon…

Though the Zodiac Glossary is still in development, we expect to have a working, publicly-available version of the website online within the next few months. Check back for more updates, and feel free to contact me with questions or ideas:

Als die Babylonier das Horoskop erfanden

Tagesspiegelbeilage vom 02.07.2022

Das Institut für Wissensgeschichte des Altertums wird neue Aspekte des menschlichen Wissens in der Antike ausleuchten: Das Projekt „Zodiac“ erforscht die Erfindung des Tierkreises durch die Babylonier

Das Original hängt im Louvre. Antiker Tierkreis aus der Stadt Dendera in Ägypten (1. Jahrhundert v. Chr.). Bildquelle: Wikicommons

Ist es irreführend zu fragen, ob die Einweihung eines neuen Instituts an der Freien Universität unter einem glücklichen Stern stand? Am 17. Juni 2022 geboren, hat das Institut für Wissensgeschichte des Altertums das Sternzeichen Zwilling mit Aszendent Jungfrau. Dass zum Zeitpunkt seiner Eröffnung, um 11 Uhr, die Sonne im 9. Haus und der Merkur im 8. Haus stand, deutet darauf hin, dass das Institut besonders neugierig und darauf ausgerichtet sein könnte, seine Mitmenschen zu verstehen. Jupiter im 6. Haus spricht dafür, dass es hohe Standards im beruflichen Umgang mit anderen beachten und einfordern wird.

Wissenschaft oder Aberglaube?

Nun man kann derlei Vorhersagen und Horoskopie als Aberglauben abtun. Tatsächlich aber gehen all ihre Bestandteile – der Tierkreis (lat. zodiacus, von griechisch zodiakós), die Sternzeichen, die astronomische Berechnung der Planetenpositionen und die astrologische Interpretation des Ganzen – auf eine wissenschaftliche und kulturelle Revolution zurück, die in genau diesem Institut für Wissensgeschichte des Altertums in Zukunft unter anderem erforscht und gedeutet werden soll.

Der Wissenschaftshistoriker Professor Mathieu Ossendrijver wird eben diesen „zodiacal turn“, der sich im antiken Babylonien vor 2500 Jahren, also um 500 vor Christus, vollzogen hat, als Leiter des im neuen Institut angesiedelten Forschungsprojekts „ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation“ während der kommenden fünf Jahre erforschen.

Matthieu Ossendrijver ist nicht nur Althistoriker und Assyriologe, sondern auch Astrophysiker. Das ist insofern von Vorteil, als das ZODIAC-Projekt sich mit der Geburt der babylonischen Astralwissenschaft, also der Horoskopie, beschäftigen will.

Matthieu Ossendrijver nennt mehrere Elemente, die zusammenkommen mussten, damit die Babylonier die Sternzeichen und das Horoskop erfinden konnten: Erstens hatten sie schon über lange Zeit die Bewegungen der Himmelskörper, der Sterne und Planeten, beobachtet, aufgezeichnet und darin Regelmäßigkeiten und Muster erkannt. Zweitens entwickelten die Babylonier über die bloße empirische Beobachtung hinaus mathematische Techniken und Werkzeuge, mit deren Hilfe sie die Bahnen der Planeten und Sterne mathematisch berechnen und vorhersagen konnten. Ossendrijver nennt das den „mathematical turn“, der Teil des „zodiacal turn“ gewesen sei.

Erst dann wird verständlich, welche Bedeutung die Erfindung des Tierkreises vor 2500 Jahren hatte: Die Babylonier teilten nun den Himmel in zwölf Bereiche auf, denen jeweils eine Figur, ein Name und eine bestimmte Bedeutung zugeordnet wurde: den Tierkreis mit seinen zwölf Sternzeichen wie Widder, Zwilling, Jungfrau oder Löwe.

Althistoriker, Assyriologe, Astrophysiker. Mathieu Ossendrijver leitet ein Forschungsprojekt im neu gegründeten Institut für die Wissensgeschichte des Altertums.
Bildquelle: Lorenz Brandtner

Schließlich verbanden die babylonischen Astralwissenschaftler diese zu einem Wissenskorpus, aufgrund dessen Berechnungen, zu welchem Zeitpunkt welche Planeten wo im Tierkreis standen, Bedeutungen und Bedeutungszusammenhänge formuliert werden konnten.

Doch was ist eigentlich der Tierkreis, den die Babylonier erfanden und der bis heute in Zeitschriften als Grundlage für Horoskope dient? „Eigentlich handelt es sich dabei um ein Band, einen Himmelsstreifen, der den Bereich ein paar Grad unter und ein paar Grad über der scheinbaren Sonnenbahn und den scheinbaren Mond und Planetenbahnen umfasst“, sagt Matthieu Ossendrijver. „Mit dem freien Auge ist der Tierkreis nicht zu sehen: Vielmehr erfanden die Babylonier eine mathematische Konstruktion, die sie nun in zwölf Teile zu jeweils 30 Grad einteilten, und bei der sie jeden Abschnitt nach dem in ihm markanten Sternbild benannten.“

Erst durch diese Art der berechnenden Astrologie, die etwa die Sonne im 8. und den Saturn im 5. Haus verortet, kann darüber gerätselt werden, was das für ein Kind – oder ein Institut – bedeutet, das an diesem Tag das Licht der Welt erblickt.

Wie hielt sich die Deutung alter babylonischer Zeichen bis heute?

„Für die Babylonier waren die Sterne und die Himmelsphänomene göttliche Zeichen an die Menschen“, erläutert Mathieu Ossendrijver. Die Stellung der Planeten bei der Geburt eines Kindes verrät also etwas über dieses Kind. Und die Astrologie dient dazu, diese göttliche Botschaft zu entziffern und zu verstehen.

Warum aber war – und ist – die Horoskopie dermaßen erfolgreich? Wie konnte sich die babylonische Astralwissenschaft zuerst über die antike Welt ins Römische Reich, dann ins Judentum, in den Islam und ins Christentum hinein weiterverbreiten? Und sich so hartnäckig halten, dass heute noch Menschen zu Jahresbeginn ihr Horoskop studieren, um zu erfahren, ob zum Beispiel das Glück in der Liebe winkt oder ein Rückschlag im Beruf droht?

Für deren Attraktivität spricht dem Wissenschaftler zufolge, dass die Horoskopie einerseits das menschliche Bedürfnis anspricht, etwas über die eigene Zukunft zu erfahren.

Andererseits überzeugt das abstrakte System aus Zahlen und Sternbildern: Es lässt sich unabhängig von einer bestimmten Sprache, Geschichte oder Schrift sehr leicht übersetzen. Man stehe noch am Anfang, sagt Mathieu Ossendrijver, das Institut für Wissensgeschichte – unter der Leitung von J. Cale Johnson, Professor für Wissensgeschichte – ist schließlich gerade erst eröffnet worden. Aber man verrät wohl nicht zu viel, wenn man sagt: Die Antwort steht auch in den Sternen.

The origins of the planetary week

2 May 2022, by Ilaria Bultrighini

As part of my previous role as member of the ERC project Calendars in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Standardisation and Fixation (University College London; PI: Prof Sacha Stern; 2013-2018), I investigated the origins and development of the seven-day week in the Roman Empire. Despite its interest and obvious relevance to the present, the early history of the seven-day week had not been systematically studied before. The only comprehensive study of the seven-day week in antiquity up to then was a book published by Colson in 1926. Yet, the wealth of epigraphic and documentary evidence that has subsequently been discovered made Colson’s work outdated. As part of my research, I searched for, collected, and analysed references to individual days of the week and to the seven-day week as a whole across the entire corpus of epigraphic, documentary, and literary sources in Greek and Latin from throughout the Roman Empire. This relatively large body of evidence covers the whole Roman Imperial period and Late Antiquity, until approximately the end of the sixth century CE. The main output of this research is a substantial book chapter I wrote jointly with Sacha Stern, which also includes an examination of the early history of the Jewish Sabbath week based on his detailed analysis of relevant Hebrew and Aramaic sources.

The week as known today is the result of the merging of two different cultural traditions: the Jewish, biblical week and the planetary week of astrological origin. Although the idea of dividing the days of the year into cycles of seven days and of naming each of these days reaches far back into biblical antiquity, the seven-day week as a structure of time reckoning was in fact devised in the early Roman Imperial period. In the course of the first two centuries CE the Jewish and astrological traditions gradually converged to create a single, standardised seven-day week. The Christianisation of the week in the fourth century led to its wide diffusion in the Roman Empire, but its mixed cultural origins—Judeo-Christian and astrological—persisted up to Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Silver statuette of the goddess Fortuna supporting a stand on which rest seven busts
representing the planetary deities of the week. From Mâcon, France, c. 150-250 CE
© The Trustees of the British Museum

In this blog post, I focus on one of these two traditions, the astrological one. The planetary week makes its first appearance in Italy in the second half of the first century BCE. At that time and throughout the first century CE the evidence for it remains limited to the city of Rome and other parts of central-southern Italy. It is only in the course of the second century CE that the planetary week is attested outside of the Italian peninsula, including in the eastern Mediterranean. Still, the evidence suggests that even when the planetary week did reach the East, it remained a considerably more limited phenomenon compared to the western part of the Roman Empire. On this basis, Sacha Stern and I assume that the planetary week is a ‚Roman‘ product. This conclusion differs drastically from earlier scholarship, in which the general consensus is that the planetary week originated from Babylonian, Egyptian, or Hellenistic astrology. Colson did not attempt to pinpoint any specific tradition for its invention, but still presumed a ‘spread from east to west’. Nevertheless, there is in fact no evidence of a planetary week in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Hellenistic world, or anywhere further east, before the second century CE. The evidence suggests, therefore, that the tradition could only have originated in Italy.

The sequence of the planets within the week is as follows: day of Kronos/Saturn (Saturday), day of Helios/Sol (Sunday), day of Selene/Luna (Monday), day of Ares/Mars (Tuesday), day of Hermes/Mercury (Wednesday), day of Zeus/Jupiter (Thursday), and day of Aphrodite/Venus (Friday). This differs from the order of the planets in the Hellenistic astronomical and cosmological traditions, in which the planets were arranged according to their distance from the earth and/or the length of their revolution, originally as Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Moon, and in later, Roman sources as Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon—the so-called Chaldean order.

Copper-alloy nutcracker-shaped object. On the two shanks are busts of the planetary week deities. From Roman London, 2nd – 4th century CE
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The earliest mention of the generally accepted explanation for the order of the planets within the week in the literary sources is by the Alexandrian astrologer Vettius Valens (mid-2nd century CE), followed a half-century later by the historian Cassius Dio. The theory is based on the role of the seven planets as rulers of hours. The week was mapped out in 168 hours; the seven planets (in the so-called Chaldean order) were assigned serially to the 24 hours of the day, and then to the 168 hours of the week, the planet assigned to the first hour of each day becoming the ruler of that particular day. Therefore each planet was assigned both to specific hours of the day and to a whole day. The resulting sequence runs from the day of Saturn (Saturday) to the day of Venus (Friday). It is thus clear that the planetary week was not founded on any astronomical principle or system; the correspondence of days of the week with the seven celestial bodies is indeed abstract, artificial.

In fact, this concept is attested at least a half-century before Vettius Valens in a fragmentary inscription from the area of Potenza Picena (ancient Potentia) in central Italy, near the Adriatic coast. The inscription has been dated mainly on the basis of letterforms to around 100 CE or possibly earlier, even as early as the Augustan period (27 BCE – 14 CE). The fragment preserves part of a repeating list of planets in the cosmological sequence; each planet is given a number and a letter (B, N, or C) designating it as good (bona), harmful (noxia), or indifferent (communis). In other words, this inscription presents the sequence of planetary hours as described by Vettius Valens and thus suggests that such a scheme was most likely of Italian origin. This would tie in well with the Italian origins of the planetary week Sacha Stern and I are arguing for.

Further reading:

Bultrighini, I. and Stern, S. (2021) „The seven-day week in the Roman Empire: origins, standardization, and diffusion“. In S. Stern (ed.), Calendars in the Making: The Origins of Calendars from the Roman Empire to the Later Middle Ages (Time, Astronomy, and Calendars: Texts and Studies, 10). Leiden: Brill, 10–79.

Colson, F.H. (1926) The Week: An Essay on the Origin and Development of the Seven-Day Cycle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Babylonian astro-medicine: the origins of zodiacal melothesia

17 February 2022, by Marvin F. Schreiber

Melothesia is an astrological concept of assigning human body-parts to celestial objects that was extant in Greco-Roman astral science. Its conceptual background was the assumed sympathy between macrocosm and microcosm. The limbs were often assigned to zodiacal signs, the internal organs to
planets. It was mainly used in astrological medicine, e.g. to find the assumed heavenly origin of a disease via the affected body part. Different systems of assignment existed side by side, named after the category of celestial object to which the body is connected: decanal, planetary, and zodiacal melothesia.

Decanal melothesia is of Egyptian origin (decans, subdivisions of signs into three parts, are an element of Egyptian astrology). The first securely dated attestation of zodiacal melothesia in Greco-Roman astrological literature is in Manilius, Astronomica (1st century CE); but there is evidence that the zodiacal form, as well as the planetary, was developed in Babylonia.

With a uniform structure such as the twelve divisions of the zodiac, introduced in Late Babylonian astral science in the late 5th century BCE, it became possible to connect the body and the stars in a systematic way. The structure of the zodiac was mapped onto the human anatomy, dividing it into twelve regions, and indicating which sign rules over a specific part of the body. The ordering is from head to feet, respectively from Aries to Pisces. The main document that contains the original Babylonian melothesia is the astro-medical tablet BM 56605. The text can be dated roughly between 400–100 BCE.

BM 56605 (reverse)

The obverse contains a section that resembles the 29th tablet of the diagnostic-prognostic omen series Sakikkû and subsequently a text about twelve stars that are affecting specific body-parts by “touching” them, each followed by a remedy. This text could be seen as a pre-zodiological stage of melothesia.
The tablet’s reverse also consists of two sections: one column on the right contains an astro-medical zodiac scheme (‘stone-plant-wood’ for each sign) in combination with a hemerology, on the left (roughly three quarter of the tablet’s reverse) follows a micro-zodiac table.

The top row of the table consists of twelve squares with the zodiacal signs, below that an equal row with the assigned body-parts. Underneath each sign and body part are vertical sub-columns of squares with the names of animals, accompanied by numbers (referring to the micro-signs). The sequence of body parts in this text was first identified by J. Z. Wee in 2015, who uses the term ‘zodiac man’ for it.

The arrangement is the following:

Another thing that points to a Babylonian origin of melothesia is that the zodiacal form itself already had its forerunner in calendrical melothesia. It can be found in a group of medical texts from Sippar (northern Babylonia) dating to the late 6th or early 5th century BCE, and therefore older than the zodiac. In this form the body-parts are assigned to the twelve months of the Standard Babylonian Calendar.

BM 42385
BM 42655

There are four fragmentary tablets that could be used for a reconstruction of calendrical melothesia: BM 43558+, BM 42385, BM 42407, and BM 42655.

The first three of these texts treat the body-parts in their associated months and describe a therapy for each: ointments with oils, animal fats and healing stones, herbal potions, and short ritual instructions; although a diagnosis is never mentioned. BM 42655 is somewhat different: the text mentions certain
days, together with a stone-plant-wood-scheme that is identical with the zodiacal scheme that appears in the right column on the reverse of BM 56606 (see above). What follows is a sequence of body-parts which is in accordance with the calendrical melothesia documented in the other texts. The calendrical melothesia from the Sippar texts is the forerunner to Late Babylonian zodiacal melothesia, what shows that such a form of healing dates back at least to the late 6th century BCE, and is most likely of Babylonian origin.

The following table is a comparison of the reconstruction of calendrical and zodiacal melothesia.

 Calendrical Melothesia
Logogram (Akkadian)
Zodiacal Melothesia
IIGI.MEŠ (pānū),
SAG.DU (qaqqadu)
Face and head.
IIGABA (irtu),
GÚ (kišādu)
Chest and neck.
ZI (napištu)

Throat and neck.
IIIŠUII (qātā)  

Á (aḫu)
MAŠ.SÌL (naglabu)
Arm and shoulder.
IVTI.MEŠ (ṣelānu)  


VŠÀ (libbu)  


VIGÚ.(MURGU) (eṣemṣēru)
MURUB4 (qablu)
Spine and waist.

Spine and waist.
VII(…)GU.(DU) (qinnatu)  

VIII(…)PEŠ4 (biṣṣūru)  

Female Genitalia.

TUGUL (gilšu)

Upper thigh.
XDU10.GAM-iṣ (kimṣu)

XIÚR.MEŠ (pēnū)
‘Hands’ (error for ‘feet’?).
GÌRII (šēpā)

An arrangement of body parts ‘from head to feet’, this scheme, in Akkadian known as ištu muḫḫi adi šēpe, was also used, e.g. in the diagnostic-prognostic omen series Sakikkû. As mentioned above, the obverse of BM 56605 contains some diagnostic omens that resemble omens from Sakikkû. A sequence of twelve tablets (tablets 2–14) of this series is ordered according to the scheme ‘from head to feet’, what maybe inspired the later concept of melothesia in combination with the twelve months or the twelve signs.

Further reading:
Schreiber, M. F. (2019) ‘Late Babylonian Astrological Physiognomy’ in Johnson, J. C. and Stavru, A. (eds.) Visualizing the invisible with the human body: Physiognomy and ekphrasis in the ancient world (Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Cultures 10). Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 119–140.

Wee, J. Z. (2015) ’Discovery of the Zodiac Man in Cuneiform,’ Journal of Cuneiform Studies 67, 217–233.

A New Look at an Old Horoscope

04. Januar 2022, by Andreas Winkler

The practice of astrology in Graeco-Roman Egypt was largely bilingual. Nevertheless, as in many other areas, the documentation in Greek often appears to be more abundant and diverse than that in Egyptian. The published Greek horoscopes cover a wider chronological span and appear to have a wider range of complexity, from simple to elaborate, while the Egyptian horoscopes published to date are generally rather simple. In this blog post, however, I will show that this was not always the case.

[Picture: Greek horoscope recording planetary positions during a birth dated to AD 184 (P.Mich. III 152)]

Simple horoscopes could be produced by relatively unskilled practitioners. They contained only the most rudimentary data that an astrologer needed to complete his task: the positions of the five planets known in antiquity (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury) plus the Sun and the Moon, which were pinpointed in relation to whole zodiac signs. Whether Greek or Egyptian, a horoscope often provides the date and time of birth, specified down to an hour. The birth hour was needed to determine the rising sign, a last crucial piece of information. A new sign rises above the horizon roughly every second hour. From this sign the “Twelve Places”, each one being equivalent to one zodiac sign, were established. Briefly put, they were thought to govern various areas of a human life, and if a planet was found in one, it impacted this particular aspect.

Some horoscopes provide a more detailed specification of the planetary positions at the moment of birth. The planets can be located down to the degree or even arc minute in a sign. This opens up the possibility to describe further relations of the celestial bodies that could be useful for interpreting someone’s future. Most of these more advanced horoscopes are in Greek, but there are also a few Egyptian examples. O.Ashm.Dem. 633 is a fragmentary potsherd (ostracon) with a text written in hieratic and demotic, published by Otto Neugebauer and Richard A. Parker in 1968.[1] Due to its slightly idiosyncratic nature and incomplete state of preservation, the content of this horoscope was not fully understood in the first edition. Some years ago, however, I had the good fortune of finding a few additional examples of such texts in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. They have helped me to refine the interpretation of the horoscope.

[Horoscope O.Ashm.Dem. 633 (Photo credit: E. Love)]

Unlike most other horoscopes, the piece provides what seem to be two dates (ll. 1–2 and 5). The first places the birth in year 8 of the Queen (Cleopatra VII), day 22 of the month of Pharmuthi (April 22, 44 BCE). The positions of the celestial bodies given next (ll. 3–4 and 6–10) fit the date well, which makes the horoscope one of the oldest from Egypt. That Cleopatra VII is referred to with her title only, however, suggests that the text was written after the Roman conquest.

The second date mentions a year 13. This refers to a year in the 25-year lunar cycle (the time it takes for the Moon to reach the same relative position to the Sun on the same day). The lunar cycle had begun in 57 BCE and the birth fell in its 13th year. The reason for adding this information must have been to more easily pinpoint lunar positions, such as syzygies (opposition or conjunction), important for the horoscope.

What distinguishes the horoscope from other Egyptian ones is not only its richness of detail but also the way the names of the planets, zodiac signs, and other entities are written. Instead of writing out the full names of the planets, which is a common practice in other horoscopes, only one sign was used. Although this practice is already known from astronomical texts and even horoscopes, the set of signs used in the present set of texts deviates to some extent from other texts. For instance, the sign used to write Saturn , a man lifting up his arms, can be understood as representing the two raised arms of the ka-hieroglyph , which could be used to write the Egyptian word for bull. Saturn’s name in Egyptian is “Horus the Bull”. A more complex example is the representation of Mercury, which was associated with the god Thoth, by the heart hieroglyph () . The heart also represents this god. Thoth was often called the heart of the sun god Re, and in contemporary temple inscriptions the word for heart can be written with the hieroglyphic sign of the ibis, one of the animals connected to Thoth. If the heart can be written with the ibis, the bird and thus the god it represents can be written with the heart.

PlanetsWritings (without the star determinative)
 [Facsimiles of the names of the planets]

Some names of zodiac signs follow similar principles. Since the ancient astrologers often began the enumeration of the zodiac signs with Aries, it is called “the first one”, written with the Head-in-profile hieroglyph () instead of “Ram”, the more common designation for the sign. Gemini could be written with two eyes (), as in the illustrated example, or with two eyebrows (): the two eyes recall the divine twins Shu and Tefnut, who can be referred to as the two eyes of the sun god. A third example relates to Cancer (not preserved on the ostracon). Most other horoscopes spell out the name of the sign or abbreviate it, but the present text represents it with the hieroglyph of a spine with ribs (). It is unclear whether the shape of the sign brought the animal to mind—the spine representing its body and the ribs its legs—or the hieroglyph indicates the body part to which the zodiac sign was connected in astrological medicine (a doctrine to be discussed in a future blog post).

Zodiac SignsWriting (without the star determinative)Transcription
 [Facsimiles of the names of the zodiac signs and transcription into hieroglyphs]

The texts provide more than the position of the planet in relation to full signs. They also define these positions down to the degree. This allowed the astrologer to pinpoint in which terms each planet was. The terms denote a division of the zodiac signs, usually into five unequal parts. Each one belonged to a planet. The terms constitute another factor that affects the outcome of the horoscope, depending on whether a planet is in its own terms or in those of another planet.

After the position of the Moon in 20.5° Gemini (l. 4), the terms of Mars located in 18°–24° of the sign, the horoscope continues with another position: “Libra: 6°: Saturn”. What does it refer to? Although it is not explained on the ostracon, the position coincides with the last full Moon before the birth took place. This position is also related to the terms, in this case those of Saturn, which covered the first six degrees of that sign. Other horoscopes of this kind display a similar pattern. It is known that also Graeco-Roman astrologers, for instance Vettius Valens, used such points to calculate the length of the lifetime of the person for whom the horoscope was cast. Perhaps our astrologers did the same.

Although not much is preserved of the text below the section outlining the positions of the planets, it is clear that the four cardinal points (Ascendant, Descendant, Midheaven, and Lower Midheaven) are reported here and that the next section calculates some of the astrological lots. These are points on the ecliptic that were usually determined by simple principles: the astrologer measured the distance between two celestial bodies and then applied that distance from a third point. Hence exact longitudes of the planets in the zodiac signs were useful here as well. The lots also affected the predictions for a person’s fate.

Two of the most common lots in Graeco-Roman astrological literature—the Lot of Fortune and the Lot of the Daimon—are also mentioned here, along with a few other ones. Among the lots, there are four pairs. The Lot of Fortune was mirrored by the Lot of Misfortune, and the Lot of the Daimon by the Lot of the Evil Daimon, and so on. This seems to be an originally Egyptian feature, and in the names of these lots there is a striking resemblance to the terminology used for the twelve places. This underlines the development of these concepts from the same set of ideas (but that is another topic for a future blog post).

Evil Daimon
[Picture: Facsimiles of the 4 pairs of lots and hieroglyphic transcription]

In conclusion, these texts firmly refute the impression that astrologers working in the Egyptian language were satisfied with casting only simple horoscopes, while more sophisticated specimens required access to Greek.

This post has only scratched the surface of the content of these horoscopes. A fuller treatment will appear in a forthcoming paper in Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur 51 (2022).

Further Readings: A. Winkler, “Stellar Scientists: The Egyptian Temple Astrologers”, Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History 8 (2021), 91–145, esp. 130–34 (click here).

[1] O. Neugebauer & R.A. Parker, “Two Egyptian Horoscopes”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 54 (1968), pp. 231–35.

Reading Babylonian astronomical tablets in Istanbul

24. November 2021, by Mathieu Ossendrijver

In October 2021, the ZODIAC project brought me to Istanbul for an eagerly awaited research visit to the cuneiform collection of the Ancient Orient Museum (Eski Şark Eserleri Müzesi). The Ancient Orient Museum belongs to the Archaeological Museums complex, which is located near the Topkapı palace in downtown Istanbul. The building overlooks Tophanı park, where one can also visit a History of Science museum, apart from admiring its ancient trees and squeaking parrots. The Ancient Orient Museum was designed by a French architect under the guidance of Osman Hamdi Bey – the Ottoman official, scholar, writer and painter, who was the founding father of archaeology and museology in the Ottoman empire.

Ancient Orient Museum (photo by author 2021)
Glazed bricks from Babylon (photo by author 2021)

The purpose of my visit was to study Babylonian astronomical tablets from Uruk. They came to light in 1912/13 during the first excavation campaign of the German Orient Society (Deutsche Orientgesellschaft). How did they end up in Istanbul? In accordance with the regulations of the Ottoman empire, to which Iraq belonged at that time, the finds were divided between Berlin and Istanbul. The 1912/13 campaign was the only one covered by these regulations. World War I brought an end to the German excavations in Iraq and when they were resumed in 1928, the Ottoman empire no longer existed. From then on the finds were sent to Baghdad. In the early 1940s the tablets were catalogued by the German Assyriologist Fritz Kraus, who was then in exile in Istanbul. Kraus identified about 100 astronomical tablets, for the most part small fragments of tables with computed data for the planets, the moon, and the sun – a type of texts known as mathematical astronomy. As it turns out, only very few astronomical tablets from the 1912/13 campaign ended up in Berlin. Most of the astronomical fragments were published by Otto Neugebauer in „Astronomical Cuneiform Texts“ (1955). My own investigation is part of an ongoing project that will result in a new edition and analysis of the Babylonian tablets with mathematical astronomy.

Tablet reading room (photo by author 2021)

Where in Uruk do the tablets come from and who wrote them? The documentation about their findspots is incomplete, but it is believed that they were excavated near the Rēš temple, residence of the Babylonian skygod Anu and his spouse Antu. The fragments date from about 250-160 BCE, when Babylonia was under Seleucid rule. At that time the Rēš was Uruk’s main temple and an important center of Babylonian scholarship, comparable only the Marduk’s temple Esagila in Babylon. The tablets were produced by scholarly priests connected to the Rēš. Originally they were probably stored in one or more libraries within the temple – later excavations uncovered the remains of one such library in the south-eastern gate of the temple complex. For an animated reconstruction of the Rēš during this period see

Fragment from Uruk with lunar positions (photo by author 2021)

What is written on these tablets? Babylonian mathematical astronomy is all about the motion of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), the moon and the sun. A defining feature of the computations is that positions (longitudes) are expressed as a zodiacal sign and a number of degrees within the zodiacal sign. Some computations also deal with the distance of a planet or the moon above or below the ecliptic, which is the circle through the center of the zodiac. Babylonian scholars created the zodiacal framework near the end of the fifth century BCE. They named 12 zodiacal signs after nearby constellations, starting with the Hired Man (Aries), and ending with the Tails (Pisces). Each sign was divided into 30 units corresponding to 30 modern degrees of arc. All computations are executed and expressed in the 60-based number system known as sexagesimal place value notation. For instance, 10;0,45 Aries denotes a position in 10 degrees, 0 arcminutes and 45 arcseconds = 10 + 0/60 + 45/602 degrees of Aries. A special sign – the so-called Glossenkeil – was used for indicating vanishing digits („0“) within a number.

            The tables were filled from top to bottom and from left to right like Excel spreadsheets. Having filled the top row with initial values, each column was filled from top to bottom by „updating“ the numbers from one to the next instance of a phenomenon, or from day to day, depending on the type of table. The fragment from Istanbul shown above belongs to a table with daily positions of the moon. By zooming in on a few positions, we can recognize a pattern:

(day) 12: 30;08,40 (Capricorn),

(day) 13: 12;23,50 Aquarius ,

(day) 14: 24;57 (Aquarius),

(day) 15: 7;48,10 Pisces.

On day 12 the moon is said to be in 30;08,40 degrees of Capricorn. This number appears unusual for two reasons. First, it contains an extra „zero“ (Glossenkeil), which was added to indicate that the 30 and the 8 are separate digits and not a single digit 38. Secondly, the position is actually beyond 30 degrees of Capricorn, in the first degree of Aquarius. But this is how the scholars in Uruk usually expressed a position in the first degree of a zodiacal sign. In order to see the promised pattern in the numbers, we compute the differences from day to day:

from day 12 to 13 = 12;15,10 degrees,

from day 13 to 14 = 12;33,10 degrees,

from day 14 to 15 = 12;51,10 degrees.

These differences represent the moon’s daily motion along the zodiac. We can easily see a pattern now, because they increase by 18 in the second digit. The value 0;18 is used throughout the tablet. It is repeatedly added until the moon’s daily motion reaches a maximum, and then repeatedly subtracted until it reaches a minimum, etcetera, resulting in a „zigzag sequence“. Only the positions in the zodiac were written on the tablet, not the zigzag sequence that was used for computing them. The Babylonian scholars also used such zigzag sequences for modeling periodic variations in the motion of the planets and the sun.

The Babylonian evidence for mathematical astronomy is limited to Babylon and Uruk. But some of this knowledge, including the most complex algorithms for computing positions of Mercury or the moon, somehow made it to Greco-Roman Egypt, where they show up in Demotic ostraca and Greek papyri. The project ZODIAC aims to develop a convincing account of this remarkable phenomenon of the cross-cultural transfer, translation and adaptation of Babylonian astronomical methods and the associated astrological practices.

Magic and Astrology: Towards a History of the „Time-lords“ (chronokratores)

25. October 2021, by Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer

The origins of the „time-lords“ in Greek astrology (chronokratores), rulers of sequential and cyclical periods in a human life whose calculation relates to that of the lifespan, remain to be explained. Our earliest references to them as a cohesive system are in the work of the astrologer Vettius Valens of Antioch, who wrote in the mid-second century CE. With little in the way of introduction, Valens speaks of 129-month periods assigned by turns to the five planets and two luminaries, each of which also takes a subdivision of a fixed length (Sun: 19 months; Moon: 25 months; Mercury: 20 months; Venus: 8 months; Mars: 15 months; Jupiter: 12 months; Saturn: 30 months), during which it has special influence over incidents in the life of the individual. Claudius Ptolemy, in keeping with his more systematic approach, at least situates the chronokratores in relation to the more familiar natal astrology, that is, as a check on the appropriateness of predictions to various stages in a human life, while also developing a more sophisticated system of subdivisions. Hephaestion of Thebes claims ancient Egyptian origins for the system in broad terms, without further specifics.

Fragments of ivory diptych with zodiac signs, Sun and Moon, which could have been used to visualize planetary positions (Roman Period, found at Grand [Vosges], France). Source: Musées Grand Est.

In the mass of original horoscopes in the Greek papyri from Roman Egypt, we have robust evidence for the fact of the practice of astrology but so far disappointingly little detail on how it was practiced. A new attestation of the system of the chronokratores allows us to glimpse one way in which the raw data of the traditional horoscopes, which essentially present the planetary positions at birth, could have been used. That is, these positions would have informed the arrangement of the sequence of chronokratores, which in turn could predict more specific aspects and moments of a person’s life than the general characteristics assigned by the constellations of celestial bodies at birth.

In a forthcoming article in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, within the framework of the Zodiac project hosted in the Institut für Wissensgeschichte des Altertums, I publish an extensive Greek horoscope on papyrus from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus in the Roman period. But it is a „horoscope“ only in the broad sense: it is surely the work of an experienced astrologer, but it does not in fact tell us anything directly about the moment of a client’s birth, but rather gives detailed predictions for this person’s life, at least as far as early adulthood (where the papyrus breaks off), based on the cycle of the chronokratores. This post focuses on another refraction of the celestial chronokratores „on the ground.“ In a papyrus codex of some 36 folia (PGM IV), probably part of an archive of magical and alchemical manuscripts owned in the region of Egyptian Thebes in Late Antiquity, mixed in among rituals for divine revelation, exorcism, and adjuration of supernatural entities for various purposes, we find an excerpt from what must have been a longer sequence of predictions from the course of the chronokratores in the lifetime of an anonymous person. It would be tempting to place that person in turn somewhere in the textual tradition of this codex: the owner, for whom it was copied (if not in fact the copyist), or the owner of an older manuscript that served as source for part of this compilation and copying? The excerpt begins at the age of 53 years, 9 months, which is precisely the start of the sixth 129-month period of a lifespan. The period as a whole is assigned to Mercury, with subdivisions for the standard lengths of months to Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, in that order. For the subdivisions assigned to the Sun, Mars, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, short forecasts are added: in the first, the individual is encouraged to „undertake that which you seek“ (sc. to do; or understand perhaps, „what you are asking about“), and in the rest simply advised whether the time is „good“ or „bad.“

Bibliothèque nationale de France cod. suppl. gr. 574 (PGM IV), f. 10v. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

In this context we can also observe the integration of astrological doctrines, but of the catarchic or judicial as opposed to natal branch, with magic in Egypt of the Graeco-Roman and late ancient periods. This is a ritual handbook in the form of a papyrus book-roll (PGM VII: for images see here) roughly contemporary with the Theban codex. Among contents broadly similar to the latter, we find a lunar calendar for the timing of the sorts of ritual procedures generally found in the codex, structured on the principle of the zodiac: that is, for example, when the Moon is in Sagittarius, it is a good time to make invocations to the Sun and Moon, when it is in Aquarius and Aries, to perform various kinds of love-magic, or when it is in Gemini and Cancer, to undertake rituals to win favor and produce amulets, respectively. This same manuscript also coopts the Greek names of the zodiac signs, along with associated occult names and pictorial signs (charakteres), as talismanic elements to be inscribed in a ritual for obtaining a significant dream in oneiromancy (dream-divination). The appearance of astrology within the magical papyri raises the question, which calls for further study, of the relations between „magicians,“ that is, practitioners of the individualistic, instrumental religion of the rituals attested in handbooks like the two discussed here, and astrologers. Could these two sets of personnel have overlapped in part, or could they have exchanged technological expertise in the form of technical literature?            

The ultimate origins of the chronokratores, as those of not a few other astrological concepts with wide later currency, remain to be elucidated. We hope to shed further light on such questions in the course of the Zodiac project, testing among other things the claim by Hephaestion of Egyptian origins and comparing this system in detail with the idiosyncratic lifetime-periodization of the „Old Coptic Horoscope“ of 95 CE. The implication of the chronokratores and of the zodiac in the complexities of knowledge transfer, and of the wider landscape of religion and culture, in Graeco-Roman and late ancient Egypt already suggests interesting results for the history of knowledge.

Text by Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer, Freie Universität Berlin, ERC-Projekt „ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation“.