One of the rare prayers from Mesopotamia, this prayer, incantation or rather a lyrics poem is known among Assyriologists as ”Prayer to the Gods of the Night. The Gods of the Night, as their enumeration in this poem shows, are the stars and constellations of the night sky. Context for reciting this prayers is divination, or the preparation for the divinatory practice. There is a vast corpus of Babylonian literature, hardly exploited by Assyriologists even, and of which a small part only is available to the non-specialists in translation or in excerpt , esepcially one that speak of efforts to use the influence of heavenly bodies upon the sublunar world, for purposes beneficent to man as well as for evil intent. Such astral magic, as the art of harnessing the power of the stars may be called, was practiced by scholars, diviners, exorcists and in other cases sorcerers. The former were knowledgable in apotropaic rituals, the latter in black magic.
The nobles are deep in sleep
the bars of the doors are lowered, the bolts are in place
the open doors are locked
The gods and goddesses of the country
Šamaš, Sin, Adad and Ištar
have gone home to heaven to sleep
they wil not give decisions or verdicts tonight
And the diviner ends :
May the great gods of the night:
and put a propitious sign
in the lamb I am blessing now
for the haruspicy I will perform at dawn.
Of the stars that appear in these magic contexts it is not only the planets that are invoked for ther influence, as they are in Hellenistic astrology, but also various fixed stars and constellations. Babylonian constellations take their names from the shapes that their configurations suggest ; human figures, animals, or common objects, similiar, and sometimes identical to the names they had in Classical antiquitiy.
Illustrations are rare in Mesopotamia, still, we are able to identify many constellations, even those whose names are uniquely Babylonian. Thus, among the animal figures, the Goat is the constellation of Lyra, the snake more or less corresponds to Hydra, among the demons and divine beigns are the Demon with the Gaping Mouth is roughly equivalent to Cygnus ( with parts of Cepheus), and the True Shepherd, the God of the Sky, Anu, is Orion ; of the celestial counterparts of terrestrial objects the Arrow is Sirius, the Furrow, Spica, and the Wagon is Ursa Major, our Big Dipper.
The identitiy of the apperances of Venus as Evening star and Morning star was known early, and so was, though possibly at a later date, that of the two apperances of Mercury. The names given to the fastest planet, Mercury : The Leaping One, and to the slowest, Saturn: the Steady One also testify to the astronomical knowledge of the Babylonians. Mars was obviously, the Red planet, also known as the Enemy, Jupiter was Heroic. Sun and Moon were included in the number of the seven planets. The Sun, surveying the entire earth, was omnipresent, in other cultures the god of justice, as expressed in the great hymn to Šamaš, and the Scales ( the constellation Libra) have as epithet” ”Šamaš’s star of justice” an association comparable to that of personified Justice holding the scales in her hand on medievel representations.
The most revereed divine triad, Anu, Enlil and Ea are not identified with individual stars, consteallations or planets, rather, among them they represent the entire sky, not only in the person of Anu, the sky god, whose name in Sumerian,” an”, means ‘sky’, but especially as lords of the three paths in the sky, which represent three segments of the horizon over which stars rise.
But of all the planets it was the Moon that was of the greatest importance to the Babylonians. It was the Moon, from this first sighting to its last, that regulated the calendar, which was based on lunar months. The Moon’s waxing and waning does not determine a stronger or weaker influence on , say, growing of crops as it does in Hellenistic astrology, but its phases signal the timing for various ritual acts. The moon god, Sin, the father of both Šamaš (the Sun) and Ištar, is a male deity, not the Selene or Luna of the Greeks and Romans, but he still has an affinity with women magicians, sorceresses who are able to draw down the Moon. The eclipse of the Moon, in particular, remained a terrifying event, whose dire predicitons had to be averted by penitential rites, including, the installation of a substitue king. This substitue king reigned for one hundred days and wasthen put to death, thus taking upon himself the misfortune and death portended for the king.
Sun, Moon, and Venus, repstented by their emblems, the sun disc, the lunar crescent and the eight-pointed star, are commonly depicted on monuments-steles, boundary stones-as guardians of the provision sworn to in the treaty or deed recorded therein. As believed, through proper prayers and rituals the stars influence can avert the portended misfortune and assist the magician or the physician in spellcraft or healing illness.
But while this prognostications for the king and country-though rarely for an individual-the stars and planets were not thought to affect man’s destiny by their direct influence, as they were in Greek horoscopic astrology. In Otto Neugebaurer’s words : Before the fifth century B.C. celestial omnia probably did not include predicitons for individuals, based on planetary positions in the signs of the zodiac and on their mutual configurations. In this latest and most significant modification astrology became known to the Greeks in the Hellenistic period. But with the expception of some typical Mesopotamian relics the doctrine was changed in Greek hands to a universal system in which form alone it could spread all over the world. Hence the astrology in the modern sense of the term, with its vastly expanded set of the ”methods” is a truly Greek creations, in many respects parrallel to a the development of Christian theology a few centuries later.
Still, besides Greek deterministic astrology, that is, genethlialogy, or horoscopic astrology, to which the quoted strictures of Neugebaurer apply, and Mesopotamian literature with which he contrasted it, there exist areas in which the Babylonians acknowledged the influence of stars on a mundane, personal level. These are , firstly, catharchic astrology, which endeavours to the find the most auspicious moment for commencing and undertaking; secondly, belief in the stars power to imbue ordinary substances with supernatural, magic effectiveness, the apotropaic and prophylactic application of astral influence, both benefic and malefic, insofar as stars can protect from and avert evil wrought by sorceres or portended by an omnious sign. Documentation for these concers is found not so much in the literature that concerns itself with celestial omens, but in the scientific writings of the Mesopotamian intellectuals. These writings include, in addition to fields that are generally acknowledged as science today, such as medicine, astronomy and social disciplines.
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