Like any highly specialized scholar, the astronomers and astrologers of ancient Babylonia spent a considerable amount of their time learning and perfecting their craft. And as students they had to study and practice in order to impress their teachers. Since here at University of British Columbia we’re in the depths of final exam season (my students are taking theirs tomorrow!) I thought it might be fun to look at a cuneiform text that runs through the basics of cuneiform astrology. The cuneiform tablet, LBAT 1591 (BM 34566), presents the basic terminology needed to read and understand late Babylonian astrology, especially horoscope type texts.
Unfortunately we don’t have any archaeological context for this tablet. From the scant information we can piece together it is mostly like from Babylon. The contents are quite abbreviated and run through the five planets and twelve signs of the zodiac. First the planets and signs are listed sequentially and then they are combined together in a series of rote phrases. While we can’t be sure, the schematic and abbreviated nature suggest that this might either be a text for learning, or a scribe practicing their signs. These phrases would’ve have been necessary for reading or writing standard zodiacal horoscope texts.
This text has been known for a long time, first edited by Franz Xaver Kugler, an early German scholar of Babylonian astronomy. He published it in 1907 in Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel: Assyriologische, Astronomische und Astralmythologische Untersuchungen (see pages 39-41 for his edition). Since then it has been mentioned by scholars talking about Babylonian astrology, but as fars as I’m aware there hasn’t been a modern English translation. One important finding in the intervening years is that this text preserves important evidence for the concept of hypsomata, or the idea that planets have “hidden places” within the zodiac where they exert greater influence. Lines 6-8 of the obverse give the locations for each of the hypsomata for the planets, these match what we know from Greek astrology and its highly likely they originated in Babylonian practice.
NB: The text below is formated in two ways, text in ALL-CAPS is a logogram (i.e. a Sumerian sign or compound standing in for an Akkadian word or name), text in italics is phonetic Akkadian. The text is simple enough, see if you can figure out what transliterated signs below (lines 1-8) match with the signs above (note that the line numbers are off by one).
Here’s a handy table of the signs used to signify the planets and zodiacal constellations. Note that these are the very late terms used, and through the history of Babylonian astronomy and astrology there are a variety of spellings and different writings preserved on texts.