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Heavenly Writings by Francesca Rochberg

Book Review

The Heavenly Writing. Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture.
By Francesca Rochberg

ISBN: 0 521 83010 9 hardback
Published by Cambridge University Press, USA, 2004
Reviewed by Sue Toohey

Available for purchase from
The Cambridge University Press website.
Price: 40.00 + p&p.

Babylonian scholarship increased markedly about one hundred years ago when ancient cuneiform texts became readily available and books were written offering explanations of Babylonian celestial divination. One of the latest offerings in this field, published in September 2004, is 'The Heavenly Writings - Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture' in which it is suggested that the place of Mesopotamian science within a general history of science has shifted with the change in histiography.

Author Francesca Rochberg, Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside, explains that this book began with a desire to come to terms with the nature of science as a cultural phenomenon in ancient Mesopotamia. It is an account of Babylonian celestial science that is based on her extensive research into primary documents (cuneiform texts), where she gives a critical analysis of the relevant materials in the history and philosophy of Babylonian science.

What seems to be of most concern to Professor Rochberg is that we do not place anachronistic consideration on what Babylonians saw as science or whether their achievements can be classified as scientific. Her primary goal, she tells us, is to 'locate and define interconnections among the various and diverse parts of the Babylonian scribal traditions of celestial science, that is, celestial divination in the form of omens, personal astrology in the form of horoscopes, as well as some parts of the astronomical text corpus.'

Professor Rochberg sees the historical reconstruction that separated legitimate astronomy from primitive lunar, planetary and stellar omens in accordance with a religion (or magic) -to - science scheme as being untenable. She sees science, and therefore the possibility of a scientific culture, as not emerging from a magical religious culture, but as fully integrated with it. Her investigations show that, in the face of the cuneiform evidence, the dichotomy between such hypothetical cultures is artificial and ahistorical.

Professor Rochberg argues that the cuneiform texts of divinatory astrological and astronomical content belong to the history of science, not because the Babylonians thought of these intellectual enquiries as 'science', but because, in assessing the nature and practice of their activities, we can reasonably place Babylonian divination, astrology and astronomy in a larger context that is meaningful within the history of science. 'The question is not how they thought about science but how we do.'

There has been continuing debate of late as to just how much the Babylonians contributed to the astrology that we practice today. I finished this book believing strongly that to dismiss the contributions that were made by the Babylonians we were not only doing them a huge disservice but ourselves as well. This book legitimises Babylonian astrological contributions in a way that advances our understanding of this period, fitting it into the context into which it belongs. The author evidently feels passionately about her topic and has researched it comprehensively. Having also written a book about the creation epic Enuma Anu Elil she refers frequently to it in this book. If you decide to read 'The Heavenly Writing' and you are not familiar with this work it might be a good idea to have a look at it in advance. The Heavenly Writing is an interesting book and one that may well advance the case for looking more closely at the debt contemporary astrologers owe to ancient Babylonian culture.

A sample chapter is available online in pdf format 

Sue Toohey
January 2005