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Embedded in omens

Celestial omens frequently describe in their protases phenomena that could have been possibly observed at some time. However, they lack calendrical information and so cannot be related to datable phenomena. References in the apodoses to destruction of cities or end of dynasties are too general to be fixed in time.

The one case where a reference to a specific year name has been preserved is the so-called “Venus Tablet” (Reiner and Pingree 1975) P393774. One of the omens looks in fact like a report on a disappearance of Venus on a given date in a given year:

“On the 25th of month Addaru, Venus disappeared in the east; year of the golden throne”.

Probably other omens (not all) in this tablet were based on reports of the same type but they were all reworked to fit the structure of omens. To recover the original wording is not possible in view of the almost thousand years distance between the presumed observations and the time of the copies of the omens preserved.

While the observational background of most omens cannot be recovered, omens were used to interpret actually observed phenomena and to derive predictions from them in the 7th century letters sent to the Assyrian kings (Parpola 1993, Hunger 1992). For this use see the section on omens.

Observational texts from the 1st millennium BC

First attested in the 7th century, but probably beginning around the middle of the 8th, records of systematic observations of the sky were kept in Babylonia. They are called Astronomical Diaries by modern scholars; their ancient title was naāru ša ginê “regular watching”. P421595 = VAT 4956 or P364480 = LBAT 281+

Compilations of eclipse records go back to the second half of the 8th century.

Astronomical Diaries are records of day-by-day observation of events in the sky and on earth. About 1500 mostly fragmentary tablets are preserved. They come from the city of Babylon; a few were found in Uruk. It is possible that observational texts were produced in other cities as well; two (Sachs and Hunger 2001 nos. 57 and 63) are probably from Nippur.

Small tablets were filled with entries daily as the observations were made. From these short records, longer Diaries covering a few months up to half a year were compiled and stored.

A Diary is divided into monthly paragraphs, each of which contains:

1. For the moon: The length of the preceding month (either 29 or 30 days); the time from sunset to moonset on the first evening of the month; the intervals between risings and settings of the sun and moon before and after full moon; the date of the morning of the last visible crescent, together with the time interval from moonrise to sunrise near the end of the month. These lunar intervals were called the “Lunar Six” by A. Sachs (1948:281). Also, the passing of the moon near to fixed stars is noted, with date and distance. Eclipses of the moon and sun are recorded with their time, duration, size, direction, visible planets, weather etc. Eclipse records are often written down separately.

2. For the planets: dates of first and last visibilities, stationary points (for outer planets), and their passings near to fixed stars.

Sometimes, when phenomena of the moon or a planet could not be observed, a date is nevertheless given with the remark “not observed.” Such data must have been calculated in some way; possibly the Goal-year texts (see below) were used in these cases.

3. From the middle of the 4th century on, the dates of the equinoxes and solstices and the appearances of the star Sirius are given according to a schematical computation, not by observation.

4. Weather: clouds, rains (of different types), thunder, lightning, and winds are noted, especially (but not exclusively) when they impeded observation.

5. At the end of each monthly paragraph, the current prices of barley, dates, mustard(?), cress, sesame, and wool are given, including variation within the month. Also, the changes of the level of the river Euphrates are recorded.

6. Finally, events of local and regional interest are noted, from fires in some part of Babylon to the defeat of generals or the death of a king. Since Diaries are dated, these events can be dated as well; for example, the death of Alexander is mentioned (Sachs & Hunger 1988: 207) to have occurred on the 29th of Ajjaru = June 11, 323 BC.

An excerpt from a Diary (year 153 of the Seleucid era = 159/8 BC; Sachs and Hunger 1996 No. -158): P364574, no photo

7´     [Night of the 18th,] the north wind blew; last part of the night, the moon was 5 cubits below β Arietis, the moon being ½ cubit back to the west. Night of the 19th (and) the 19th, the north wind blew. Night of the 20th, the north wind blew;

8´     [last part of the night, the m]oon was 4 cubits below η Tauri, the moon having passed a little to the east. The 20th, the north wind blew. Night of the 21st, the north wind blew; last part of the night, the moon was ½ cubit above α Tauri, the moon having passed ½ cubit to

9´     the east. The 21st, the north wind blew. Night of the 22nd, the north wind blew; last part of the night, the moon was 1 ½ cubits below ζ Tauri. The 22nd, the north wind blew. Night of the 23rd, the north wind blew;

10´   [last part of the] night, the moon was 2 cubits above γ Geminorum, the moon being ½ cubit back to the west, 1 cubit below Jupiter. <The 23rd?,> the north wind blew. Night of the 24th, the north wind blew; last part of the night, the moon was

11´   4 ½ cubits below α Geminorum, the moon having passed ½ cubit to the east. The 24th, the north wind blew. Night of the 25th, the north wind blew; last part of the night, the moon was 1 ½ cubits in front of δ Cancri,

12´   the moon being 1 ½ cubits high to the north. The 25th, the north wind blew. Night of the 26th, the north wind blew; last part of the night, the moon was 4 cubits below ε Leonis. The 26th, the north wind blew. Night of the 27th, the north wind blew;

13´   last part of the night, the moon was 2 cubits behind α Leonis, the moon being 1 cubit high to the north. The 27th, moonrise to sunrise: 22°, measured; the north wind blew. Night of the 28th (and) the 28th, the north wind blew. Night of the 29th (and) the 29th, the north wind blew.

14´   That month, the equivalent was: barley, in the beginning of the month, 2 pān 3 sūt, in the middle of the month, 2 pān 4? sūt 2? qa, at the end of the month, 2 pān 4 sūt; dates, 2 pān 4 sūt; mustard, 3 kur;

15´   cress, 5 sūt; sesame, 2 sūt 3 qa, at the end of the month, 2 sūt 2 qa; wool, 3 minas. At that time, Jupiter was in Gemini;

16´   Venus, until the middle of the month, was in Virgo, until the end of the month, in Libra; Mercury, in the beginning of the month, was in Cancer; around the 15th, Mercury’s last appearance in the east in Leo; Saturn was in Capricorn;

17´   Mars was in Pisces. That month, the river level receded 8 fingers, total: 30 was the na (gauge). That month, on the 6th day, the satrap of Babylonia from Seleucia,

18´   [which is on] the Tigris, entered Babylon. On the 9th day, merrymaking took place everywhere.

The Diaries were used as material for the prediction of astronomical events. This is most clearly shown by the so-called “Goal-Year Texts” (see below). There is no evidence that prediction of prices or weather was attempted by means of Diaries, but it was done by other methods. The “historical” information in the Diaries may have been used for the compilation of chronicles (Van der Spek, R. J.: It has been suggested that they were also intended as a source of omens (Swerdlow 1998:16). They do contain records of events that could be considered ominous, but without interpretations (apodoses). An influence of the Diaries on the traditional omen compendia cannot be shown; these were already transmitted in a “canonical” version and not changed any more when the compilation of the Diaries began. Rather, they can be seen as part of the process called a “paradigm shift” by D. Brown (2000:161ff.) by which interest of the scribes/scholars switched from interpreting omens to prediction of astronomical phenomena.

Goal-year texts

One group are the so-called Goal-year texts (Sachs and Hunger 2006).  P257582 = LBAT #1295

This too is not a Babylonian name but a modern one; the Babylonian title is „first days, appearances, passings, and eclipses which were established for year x“. They contain materials for the prediction of planetary and lunar phenomena for a certain year, the goal year. Planetary phenomena occur after a certain number of years at almost the same calendar date within a Babylonian year. Every planet and the moon have different periods of this kind and therefore a separate section in the Goal-year texts. The phenomena of the planet are collected from a year which is by one period earlier than the goal year. The first section, e. g., contains the phenomena of Jupiter from a year which preceded the goal year by 71 years. In a similar way data for the other planets and for the moon are presented, in each case by one period earlier than the goal year. The periods are 71 or 83 years for Jupiter, 8 years for Venus, 46 for Mercury, 59 for Saturn, and 79 or 47 for Mars.

The goal year texts are obviously excerpted from the Diaries. They use exactly the same expressions, and they even contain remarks about bad weather which prevented an observation, as do the Diaries. It must have been a lot of work to get the information contained in goal year texts out of the Diaries: for each planet, one had to use a different Diary, because the periods are of different length. Also, the data for a planet are not all at one point in a diary, but spread throughout the text, because the Diaries are arranged chronologically. So the goal year texts could only be produced with the help of a reasonably complete archive of Diaries and by a lot of work.


Another group are called Almanacs (by modern scholars); they look somewhat like calendars (Sachs and Hunger 2014) P492960 or P364008 = LBAT 1199. They contain predictions for a whole Babylonian year in 12 or 13 sections, one for each month. At the beginning of each monthly section, the length of the preceding month, 29 or 30 days, is given. Then follows a summary of where the five planets were at the beginning of the month. The remaining data are then arranged chronologically. For most of the planetary phenomena, the zodiacal sign in which they occurred is mentioned. It is also indicated when a planet moved from one zodiacal sign into another. Further listed are the solstices and equinoxes, and the appearances of the star Sirius, computed according to the same scheme that provided these data in the Diaries. Sometimes the risings of other fixed stars are mentioned too. The Almanacs also contain data for eclipses. Lunar eclipses which are visible in Babylon are predicted, sometimes with an indication of their magnitude. If a solar eclipse is considered possible, the almanacs add the remark "to be watched for" because the Babylonians could not predict whether a solar eclipse would actually be visible.

A sub-group was named “Normal-Star Almanacs” by A. Sachs. These contain in addition the dates when the planets passed one of the Normal Stars (as described above unter Diaries).

Normal Star Almanac for SE 150 month V (Sachs and Hunger 2014 No. 64):

[Month V,] (the 1st of which will be identical with) the 30th (of the preceding month).  The 16th, first moonset after sunrise. The 27th, last visibility of the moon before sunrise. The 3rd, Mars will reach Leo. The 4th, last part of the night, Mars’ first appearance in the east in the beginning of Leo. Night of the 5th, first part of the night, Venus 1 finger above α Virginis, it will come close. The 7th, Venus will reach Libra. This day, Saturn stationary in Sagittarius. The 14th, first part of the night, Mercury’s last appearance in the west in Virgo. This day, lunar eclipse in Aquarius, “extraneous”, will be omitted. The 15th, with sunset, Jupiter’s acronychal rising in the east in Aquarius. Night of the 18th, first part of the night, Venus 1⅔ cubits below α Librae. Night of the 29th, solar eclipse in Virgo which will be omitted.

In the Almanacs, reports about the weather are absent. From this and the remark about solar eclipses it can be seen that the Almanacs are predictions, not observations. It is very likely that the goal year texts were used in their construction. There are procedure texts which provide the small corrections which need to be applied to the data from a goal year text (Gray and Steele 2008:105). One of the possible purposes of these almanacs could be the construction of horoscopes, because the Babylonian so-called horoscopes contain exactly the data that are provided by the almanacs and apply them to the date of birth of a child for whom the horoscope is cast. It should be noted however that almanacs are attested only from Seleucid times whereas the earliest horoscopes are from the end of the 5th century. [but compare the article on horoscopes to avoid errors]


Other compilations

Other compilations of observations are arranged by celestial bodies. There are collections of eclipses, of both observations and predictions (Huber and De Meis 2004; Steele 2000), and of the “Lunar Six” (see above on Diaries) (Sachs and Hunger 2001 Nos. 36-51) P364177, and data for each planet, unevenly distributed (Sachs and Hunger 2001 Nos. 52-103). P267039 or P481609 = Chicago A3456 = ACT 198 = Sachs Memorial Volume 201-223

observational_texts.txt · Last modified: 2016/03/07 09:21 by gombert
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