There is no doubt that the history of astrology begins in Babylonia around four thousand years ago. The wealth of texts (preserved on cuneiform tablets) contain both reports of observation and instructions for practice that give us an excellent picture of how an astrologer in Mesopotamia would have seen and interpreted the sky. But when we think of astrology in a modern context we are generally concerned with the practice of genethlialogy or divining the destiny of a client based on the configuration of the heavens at the time of their birth (specifically in reference to positions within the zodiac). This type of astrology, also known as horoscopy, is conspicuously under represented in the cuneiform corpus.
In this blog post I want to collect the small amount of information we have on this narrowly defined version of astrology, specifically the divination of a clients future based on the location of the sun within the zodiac at the time of their birth. This is directly analogous to your traditional horoscope in a modern newspaper. There has been a rise in interest in astrology in the past few years and I think its worth spending some time focusing on the long and fascinating history of the divinatory practice.
Babylonian astrology, in brief, is a practice of divination that dates back probably to the early part of the 2nd millennium BCE (see Monroe 2019, Rochberg 2004, and Koch-Westenholz 1995). The practice looked quite different from our modern conception of astrology, as practitioners were almost solely concerned with continuously watching for ominous events in the heavens and understanding their significance. It was not until the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE (around the 5th c.) that Babylonian astrologers began to write texts that offered prognostication for a clients life based on the configuration of planets within the zodiac at the time of their birth. From this period we have a number of personal horoscopes preserved that record either the date and time of birth, and/or the configuration of the heavens at that time (Rochberg 1998). In all but one case these texts omit the actual interpretation as that was probably delivered orally by the astrologer to the client, with the text serving as the raw data from which to prognosticate.
Interestingly, there is evidence that the practice of astrology throughout Mesopotamia was concerned with divining the future from a clients birth but used a variety of other means. The location of planets or stars in the sky, and even just the calendrical date of birth were all used at varies times to prognosticate about a client’s future life (see Reimschneider 1970). But this form of astrology was a minor aspect to the much large corpus of ominous events watched for by a professional class of astrologers.
Before we dive into the texts its worth pointing out that our modern conception of the zodiac is derived directly (over a long history) from the invention of the zodiac by the Babylonians. In fact most of the signs have not changed over this 2,500 year history. Taurus was the bull, Gemini was the twins, Cancer the crab etc… but the invention of the zodiac is the topic for yet another post.
There are currently only two fragmentary texts that present lists of signs and their role in this narrow form of astrology as defined above:
The first text in this overview was initial copied by T.G. Pinches and first edited by F. X. Kugler in his Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel, 1907. The most recent edition was by Erica Reiner in 2000. It preserves a range of astrological content (a common theme among these texts). After an initial break the text begins by outlining the physical features a child might develop when born under a particular sign:
Region of Aquarius: the lower part of his ears will be large
The text continues with other prognostication about the sex of the child born under certain signs or when certain planets were in conjunction. After a horizontal ruling the text continues with some mathematical astral-medicine (the dodecatemoria) that is of particular interest for my research but not the subject of this post.
The relevant part of this text occurs on the reverse where it lists future occurrences for a child born in the “region” of a sign. Lines 3’ - 11’ of the reverse read:
[Born in the region of Gemini ...] will speak the truth; justice, collecting accounts [Born in the region of Cancer ...] mercy; will die a death of sin. Born in the region of Leo: ... will beat him down, [...] domestics, will ... he will arrange the cultivated land. Born in the region of Virgo: ... [...] Born in the region of Libra: true or untrue, Šamaš will treat him evilly. [Born in] the region of Scorpius: ... she will be sorceress, she will be joyous, ..., ..., a widow and will die by scorpion, a giant. Born in the region of Sagittarius: (they will be an expert in) shooting the bow, riding horses, submerging himself in the river, collecting accounts. Born in the region of Capricorn: the *bennu*, *lillaenna*, headache will seize him. Born in the region of Aquarius: ... death of (their) destiny, Region of Pisces: ... fear of heart.
The substantial breaks and large amount missing from the beginning of the text make it difficult to understand at times. But the intent is clear, these are possible futures for individuals born under each sign. There are interesting parallels here with Sanskrit astrology and some of the connections seem obvious (death by Scorpion under Scorpio), whereas others are more opaque.
The only other text that seems to preserve prognostication based on the zodiacal sign of the clients birth is a short section of this text. It was copied in Thureau-Dangin in TCL 6 in 1922, and it was first edited by Abe Sachs in 1952 in his crucial study of Babylonian horoscopes. The bulk of the article deals with individualized horoscopes written for clients, but in the second Appendix he edits this text which seems to be a manual for horoscopy. The rest of the tablet contains lots of fascinating information about the birth of client and planetary positions. Like the text above it also includes information about the dodecatemoria. The relevant lines of the obverse (lines 22 - 25) read:
The place of Aries: death of his family. The place of Taurus: death in battle. The place of Gemini: death in prison. The place of Cancer: death in the ocean; longevity. The place of Leo: he will grow old, he will be wealthy; secondly, capture of his personal enemy. The place of Virgo: he will be wealthy; anger. The place of Libra: good days; he will die at 40 years. The place of Scorpius: death by rage, his death by fate. The place of Sagittarius: death in the ocean. The place of Capricorn: he will be poor, he will be hysterical, he will grow sick and die. The place of Aquarius: at 30 he will have sons; death by water. The place of Pisces: at 40 he will die; distant days.
This is only a small picture of the entirety of Babylonian astrology. The wealth of texts that give record to complex astrological schemes, procedures, and lists of omens attest to a mature and detailed practice of divination. However, it is interesting that our modern form of genethlialogical astrology is so under-represented in the Babylonian corpus. There are a number of reasons for this, all of which lack complete certainty.
The principle explanation would be that the development of astrology in Mesopotamia was primarily concerned with the welfare of the state and the regent (usually a king). The historical biases that led to the survival of the texts we read today also privileged cuneiform tablets from palaces and other elite institutions. There was probably always some element of “folk” astrology practiced in the household and passed down by word of mouth (and rarely this was recorded, see above). But it was not until the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE that scribes began to write texts that directly concerned the birth of private individuals and their relationship to the newly invented zodiac.
Finally, in the table below you will find a summary of the two texts mentioned above. These two texts are not meant to represent a comprehensive tradition or even an internally consistent practice. There are large gaps, and inconsistencies that would make any form of interpretation suspect. But I hope that you can see the similarity that these ancient texts have with the way in which we read astrological portents and try and fit them into patterns of our everyday lived experience. Astrology has always been about possibilities, and the ancient scribes who worked on these texts were just as interested in the future as we are today.
|Aries||death of his family.|
|Taurus||death in battle.|
|Gemini||speak the truth; justice, collecting accounts, death in prison.|
|Cancer||mercy, will die a death of sin, death in the ocean.|
|Leo||... will beat him down, ... domestics, ... arranged the cultivated land, they will grow old, they will be wealthy.|
|Virgo||they will be wealthy, anger.|
|Libra||true or untrue, Šamaš will treat him evilly, good days, he will die at 40 years.|
|Scorpio||they will be a sorceress, they will be joyous, ... a widow, and will die by scorpion, a giant, death by rage, death by fate.|
|Sagittarius||expert in shooting the bow, riding horses, submerging themselves in the river, collecting accounts, death in the ocean.|
|Capricorn||the *bennu*, *lillaenna*, headache will seize him, they will be poor, they will be hysterical, they will grow sick and die.|
|Aquarius||death of their destiny, they will have sons, death by water.|
|Pisces||... fear of heart, at 40 they will die, distant days.|
Koch-Westenholz, U. 1995. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination. CNI Publications 19. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies.
Monroe, M. Willis. 2019. “Mesopotamian Astrology.” Religion Compass, May, e12318. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12318.
Riemschneider, K. K. 1970. Babylonische Geburtsomina in hethitischer Übersetzung. Studien zu den Boğazköy-Texten 9. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Reiner, E. 2000. “Early Zodiologia and Related Matters.” In Wisdom, Gods and Literature: Studies in Assyriology in Honour of W.G. Lambert, edited by A. R. George and I. L. Finkel, 421–27. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Rochberg, F. 1998. Babylonian Horoscopes. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
Rochberg, F. 2004. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sachs, A. 1952. “Babylonian Horoscopes.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 6: 49–75.