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.