Astrology and Astronomy
in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia
Modern Day Iran (Persia) lies in the heart of Ancient Mesopotamia, what is now called the Middle East. Massoume Price, a noted authority on Iran, its history and culture, gives us a brief history of astrology and astronomy as they grew up in the earliest days of civilisation. Although not always sympathetic to the art, she argues that the power and influence of astrology has formed an almost uninterrupted continuum in the Middle East up to the present day, especially among women.
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 a thousand years earlier had some understanding of the subject. 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 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 Mesopotamian life. Divination was employed as a technique to communicate with gods, who, according to Mesopotamian religious thought, shaped the destinies of humans and controlled all events in the cosmos. Divination presupposes a 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.
Ancient Astrological Omens
The oldest Mesopotamian records are astrological omens preserved from the reign of king Ammi-saduqa (1683-47 BC). The 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 nations made accurate measurements of areas using geometry and developed arithmetic in an algebraic direction. Mathematical astronomy was used to build multi-story ziggurat towers (Choga Zanbil in Susa is an example built by the Elamites). The towers were usually seven floors high; 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.
Worship of Venus
Tables with astronomical computations of the distances between stars have been preserved containing information on the basic fixed stars and constellations, their relative positions, periods of the solar rising and settings, etc. Around 1000 BC 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 (the Persian word 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 Calendar
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 Babylonian 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 Judaic 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 Achæmenians maintained an atmosphere favourable 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 the Seleucid and Parthian rulers of Persia. His picture of the Heavens was borrowed by the Greeks and eventually reached the famous Greek scientist, Democritus. The terminology employed by Naburianus includes spheres, orbits, ecliptic, inclination, celestial equator, poles, circular motion, revolutions, retrogression, 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.
These 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.
Royal Stars of Persia
Some old Persian names in astronomy have survived. The names of the four "Royal Stars", which were standing guard at the equinoxes and solstices still resemble 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 Alcyone, Regulus, Albireo and Bungula.
[Part 2 of this article continues the history of Astronomy and Astrology with particular reference to the discoveries and advances made by Persian Astrologers, such as Al-Biruni, Avicenna, Omar Khayyam and Nasir Din Tusi.]
Read part 2 of Astrology and Astrology in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia