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The Babylonian Astrolabe: the Calendar of Creation, by Rumen K Kolev

Book Review

The Babylonian Astrolabe: the Calendar of Creation
by Rumen K Kolev

Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, Helsinki & the Foundation for Finnish Assyriological Research, (Jul, 2013). ISBN: 9789521013454. 299 pages; paperback.
RRP: US$ 79.50

Reviewed by Gill Zukovskis

A captivating hypothesis

This trail-blazing book has blossomed from initial groundwork sparking a 'startling discovery' in July 2005 which, if accepted, looks set to revolutionize both our dating and our understanding of ancient and later astrology, as well as perspectives on the broader history and influences of the early civilizations of the Near East.

The starting point for Rumen Kolev's spectacular hypothesis was the remarkably straightforward question: was the apparently 'wrong' information on star positions in the so-called 'Astrolabes' ever actually 'correct' and if so, when? (These cuneiform tablets, in list and circular diagram form, assign 36 star and planet names to twelve months of the year; the months have 'three stars each', associated with the Mesopotamian deities Enlil, Anu, and Ea.) Previous researchers have pursued similar enquiries about the astral locations amid the three celestial paths of these gods - but within much narrower limits than the 10,000 BCE to 10,000 CE timeframe investigated by Kolev.

The results of preliminary analysis were astonishing - Astrolabe data on the Pleaides and Castor and Pollux seemed to match the skies in the mid sixth millennium BCE! A programme of ongoing study confirmed the original findings and extended their scope, as set out in detail in this work.

The book begins with a clear, concise survey of the twists and turns, as well as dead-ends, of scholarly debates about the Astrolabes since the late 19th century. It seems that the minefield of academic controversy has opened up once again, following the author's presentation of his initial findings at the sixth Melammu symposium in 2008, and in a September 2010 article in a French journal ('The Real Age of the Babylonian Astrolabe', Notes Assyriologiques Brèves et Utiles, Vol. 3, pp. 67-69). This book argues Kolev's case in depth and presents a full response to critics. He acknowledges support and encouragement from the eminent Assyriologist Professor Simo Parpola in bringing it to print within the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project series, overseen by the latter since 1987.

Having outlined the context in terms of discovery and interpretations past and present of the Astrolabes and related texts, Kolev then describes his own goals and methods for their astronomical-mathematical analysis.

This analysis is rooted in highly practical observations of the first reappearances (heliacal risings) of the stars and planets. He reports the surprising fact that modern astronomy algorithms to compute these phenomena are not fully validated by testing in the field. By contrast, their recording and prediction by Mesopotamian astronomers remain unsurpassed. Appendices C and D offer a valuable guide to the heliacal phases, with helpful technical explanations, interesting symbolic associations and a list of relevant Akkadian, Greek and Latin terminology (pp. 188-226). Two further Appendices outline the history of Heliacal Theory (pp. 227-236) and discuss the fruits of Kolev's own research into Heliacal Practice (pp. 237-263).

These include creation of the author's bespoke software Babylonia 2.0 to test models at different times and geographical latitudes. An extensive series of diagrams, graphs, sky charts, and photographs throughout (nearly 200 illustrations, plus 53 tables) offer visual and factual support for the tests and concepts discussed. He lists parameters for astronomical models (p. 35), tackles potential bias (p. 51) and also suggests simple procedures for checking the validity and reliability of his calculations in Appendix A, 'How to Repeat the Computations in this Book' (p. 185).

Kolev posits a cumulative four-layer structure for the Astrolabes, spanning 4000 years, with the most recent information on daylight numbers (c. 700 BCE) presented at the start, and the oldest material showing the paths of stars (c. 5500 BCE) at the end. Intermediate developments saw star month positions sanctified around 2300 BCE (around the era of Sargon the Great) and significant revisions in about 1300 BCE, contemporary with the heliacal calendar established in the Mul Apin and with the Hittite 'Prayer to the Gods of the Night' (p. 86). The coherence of the world view underlying the original sky scheme is highlighted in the Epilogue (pp. 133-144): the main Babylonian astronomical frameworks (the luni-solar year, ideal year, fixed ecliptic and 36 constellations) were integrated within Mesopotamian cosmogony, cosmology and mythology, creating a true 'calendar of creation' embracing archetypal powers and nested 'fractal' cycles.

Subsequent reworkings retained some but not all of its founding principles, with a dilution of its magical and mystical significance. New aspects appeared, however, such as the integrated system in Astrolabe S correlating practical eclipse observations with astrological omen collections. Kolev gives an innovative assessment of this text as an integrated astrologers' manual for solar eclipse divination, based on either the day and watch (day subdivision) at which an eclipse occurred, or on the relevant micro-zodiac division (dodekatemorion). The hitherto enigmatic daylight hour numbers on circular Astrolabes such as Schott's reconstruction (Astrolabe S) are explained simply here: they neatly signal which eclipse omen is applicable and the duration of its influence.

A further key discovery is evidence for early knowledge of precessional effects, inferred from three successive rising-time schemes during the first millennium BCE (p. 132). Another is recognition that tools for precise determination of ascendant positions, prerequisite for horoscope astrology, were actually already in place by c. 800 BCE (ibid.). Many other interesting points are covered, some within the main thrust of argument, others as hidden nuggets within footnotes and nestled amid other topics.

The author favours the 'azimuthal theory' based on horizon segments proposed by Pingree, rather than the 'declinational theory' of sky belts adopted by Kopff and others, citing evidence from a letter written by an astrologer-scribe in the 7th century BCE hinging on the exact position of Jupiter. He notes the changing month allocation of the vernal equinox in the Astrolabes, the Mul Apin and other texts.

An intriguing visual analogue is provided for the horizon positions of the three paths in a Marduk cylinder seal image (p. 3 and p. 32). Also worthy of further investigation are parallels drawn between Astrolabe constellations, Egyptian decans and 36 Hermetic Gods or Overseers (pp. 96-97). He mentions too the Early Dunubian (Vincha) culture, which flourished from 5500 to 4500 BCE, as a possible locus for early script and calendar developments.1 Furthermore, a shared mid sixth millennium Crimean identity is suggested for Hermes, Enoch and En Meduranki as originator of the earliest scheme, with a 'second Hermes' of Babylon proposed as creator of the canonical Mul Apin reworking.

The large final reference section contains full transliterations and translations of the following texts: Astrolabe B (held in Berlin as KAV 218 or VAT 9416), with one version laid out to match exactly the tablet arrangement; Astrolabe S (LBAT 1499 in the British Museum); plus two supplementary tablets K 3119 and part of CT 33. Astrolabe star identifications for five sets of authors appear in Appendix B (pp. 186-187), with further ancient and modern star names lists in Appendices G and H (pp. 264 -271) followed by a Bibliography (pp. 272-282) and general and topical Indices (pp. 283-298). The text is amply supported throughout by sky maps, graphs, tables, diagrams and photographs.

There are occasional minor lapses in language usage (as would naturally be expected from a non-native user of English) but these do not impair the author's power to communicate his ideas. These unfold in logical stages that are easy to follow, even for readers such as myself without technical expertise; there is also plenty of 'meat' for specialists to sink their teeth into too.

I would definitely recommend this intriguing book for anyone interested in the early history of astrology, as well as students of ancient astronomy and history generally.

Gill Zukovskis
Published online June, 2014

Notes and References
  1 ] There is a fascinating paper on this subject by Lazarovici, Lazarovici and Merlini at [Back to text]