BABYLONIAN STAR-LORE: An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia
Written and illustrated by Gavin White
, (London, 2008)
324 pages; 169 black & white drawing; paperback.
RRP: $29.95 £14.95 Euro:18.95
Reviewed by Deborah Houlding
Babylonian Star-Lore is a unique book written on a subject that is badly in need of more attention. Despite the popular exploration of constellation imagery through Greek myth, both the zodiac and the larger body of star lore are based upon older roots, many of which present their remnants in classical legends, and some of which are prehistoric and primordial, relating to the most basic and elemental experiences of life. This largely unexplored and symbolically encoded knowledge offers a fascinating portal to the scientific logic, philosophical reasoning, and political meanderings of the ancient world. And in many ways it holds the key to understanding the early origin of ancient astrology.
The objective of this book is to identify, recapture, and explain the star lore and celestial symbolism of Babylonia. One area of uniqueness is that this sort of theme, when presented with any expectation of scholarly integrity, is typically couched in the trappings of academia, using terms and a presentation style that makes it inaccessible to the average, practising astrologer. Here we have a text written on a specialist theme which has managed to span the interests of both the expert and the layman. Astrologers have a highly credible source book, researchers have a minefield of valuable information, and the price is accesible to all.
The author, Gavin White, states that the fundamental aim of the book is twofold:
...to reconstruct the Babylonian star-map as it was known in the 1st millennium BCE - and to describe the meanings and ominous natures of all the mainstream stars and constellations in the Babylonian tradition. (p.13)
Along the way White presents the idea that the constellations as a whole reflect a pictorial calendar, which integrates various seasonal festivals concerned with the mythic life-cycle of the sun. Although the author is not an astrologer, (nor is he writing for the astrological community), the way that he binds his themes to the farming and herding year, the institution of kingship and various rites directed towards the dead, reveal an elegant system "that ultimately represents an archaic image of time itself". This is something that astrologers will connect to very strongly.
The attempt to reconstruct the Babylonian star map culminates in a frontispiece image which aims to create a Babylonian equivalent to what we find with the Egyptian Temple of Denderah zodiac relief. This might sound like a mundane task requiring little more than the patience to sift through the sources and present them in their pictorial form, but the achievement (and another point of uniqueness) is that there is actually nothing resembling a star map or celestial globe that has ever been unearthed from any site in the Ancient Near East. We have texts describing the nature of the stars, but only one or two very notable illustrations or written descriptions of what the celestial figures should look like. White has drawn together all the available clues he could find to present his argument of how the Babylonian heavens were perceived and symbolised by the Babylonian mind, and to demonstrate how they take us through the seasonal journey of the year. Overall, he presents a very convincing argument, and whilst he admits that some of his theories are necessarily speculative, his work allows for detailed exploration of some salient points, and the creation of a rough summary of what is currently known, which will surely be polished up and elaborated upon by future generations of scholars working in this area.
The book is presented in three parts: the introductory section describes the structure of the archaic cosmos and gives an overview of the star-map; the main body of text comprises an A-Z gazette, which explores the names, appearances and associated lore of each star and constellation in greater detail; and the final set of appendices furnishes additional background on a variety of topics - such as the history of star-lore in Mesopotamia; the calendar; the cuneiform writing system, and the use of the stars in divination texts. Because of the high number of appendices and the dictionary format of its main theme, the book is not intended to be read from cover to cover but has been designed as a reference work, (although I did read it from cover to cover, and liked the fact that I could do that on a 'little and often' basis).
There are a few minor glitches in this work. Some of White's speculations do not drive home as securely as some others - but this is necessarily the case for someone thinking outside the square and defining new limits of understanding; and I do need to stress that the bulk of the information is authoritative, reliable and truly informative. I would have liked a bibliography, and some references to sources, and maybe an author's biography; but I also realise that these elements venture into 'academia territory' and White clearly wanted to have the liberty to write for the layman and present his own themes. I liked the style of the author's own artwork, but I felt that the typesetting was a little squashed in places. But tosh, these are piddling things. What I really love about this work is that the author is obviously totally engaged with and informed upon his subject. Babylonian Star-lore comes alive in White's hands because we can see that he is personally fascinated and enraptured by his subject. That kind of passionate interest is contagious, and sweeps us up into wanting to know more about the archetypal myths of the ancient cultures. From giving us an understanding of how the ancient Babylonians presented their thoughts in imagery and alphabetic pictures, through to the stellar association of cities and the four winds, there is a great deal here to foster an appreciation of the deeper - and usually forgotten - origins of astrology. I definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in star lore or ancient astrology.
About this book
A Babylonian cosmos
A brief guide to the Star-map
A-Z Gazette of Stars & Constellations
1. Reconstructing the Babylonian Star-map
2. The age of the Star-map
3. Chronological table
4. Textual sources
5. The writing system
6. Divination & omens
7. Seasonal cycle
8. The 12 months
9. Constellation names used to represent the planets
10. Stellar associations to regions
11. Stellar associations to cities
12. The four winds
13. Identification between constellations
14. Coincident stars
15. Further reading