The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has created a series of excellent interactive animations which allow the non specialist to get a feel for the extremely rich field of astronomy. Below under the Astro Movies tab is a selection of movies pertinent to the DMRT's interest in the origins and evolution of civilisation.
( Title: The Nebraska Astronomy Applets Project - Team headed by Dr.Kevin Lee; see all applets at http://astro.unl.edu/ )
The following quotation from Campbell's The Way of the Seeded Earth III gives a succinct summary of how the ancients viewed the cosmos:
And as in every other known agricultural society...the sense of an essential spiritual accord between the social and celestial orders, with the well being of the community understood as a function of this accord, contributed to the flowering of a mythology of personified cosmic powers functioning simultaneously in the heavens and on earth.
Our ancestors looking into the night skies noticed that the firmament appears to spin about a fixed star. They did not know that the earth spins on its axis and that the Pole Star, or North Star sits directly above this axis and therefore appears motionless. Instead they conceived of an Axis Mundi stretching from a World Mountain on the earth up to the pole start around which everything else turned.
The Sumerians divided the heavens into three hundred and sixty segments to approximately match the number of days the sun took to complete a circuit of the heavens (i.e. from one solstice to another). Unlike us they didn't know that the earth orbits around the sun and that this causes the position of sunrise to shift about a degree each morning, until over the course of a year it has moved through the entire firmament, or the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. They conceived of the sun traveling through all the 'houses' of the Zodiac and assigned specific meanings to this. The decision to eventually divide the firmament into twelve was probably due to the fact that the Lunar Cycle is nearly thirty days and it therefore goes through twelve and a bit cycles in a year. Many cultures like the Egyptians used add a thirteenth month every few years to compensate for these extra days.
Our ancestors did not know that the earth is tilted on its axis and that except for the equinox days when the axis is exactly sideways to the sun, it is either orientated towards or away from the sun. This creates the four seasons in latitudes above or below the equator and causes the sun to rise at different points on the horizon ranging from the south-east at the winter solstice and to the north-east at the summer solstice.
With patient observation these cyclical patterns can be marked out using standing stones etc. However amid the above order our ancestors noticed that five stars didn't move in tandem with the rest and appeared to follow more complex cycles. They did not know that these were the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn which orbited our sun and psychologically projected onto them particular qualities and properties. The movements of these five, along with the sun and moon, were thereby accorded special significance and their cycles patiently observed. It is even argued that the perception by the Sumerians circa 5,500 years ago of an order in the firmament and the resultant conviction that life on earth should be put in 'accord' with these revelatory motions was what allowed them make the decisive psychological leap to civilisation with all its attendant laws, arts and sciences. From this time onwards specialisation within cities took off centred on a priest-king, a priesthood and a court. The surplus produce of farmers hence forth found good use in provisioning an elect group dedicated to the weighty task of ensuring concord between heaven and earth.
From gazing at the stars in night sky, the movements of the sun and moon, the rare blankets of clouds bringing rain, and even indeed, the observation of sources or water springing from the ground (the watery realm beneath); the Sumerians and later Babylonians evolved a layered view of the cosmos. The Babylonian ziggurats (stepped pyramids) were an earthly reflection of this order and the Kassite (ruled Babylon circa 15~12th century BC) boundary stone (Kudurru) we will consider on the right reflects the resident powers of these layers. The inscriptions of the Kassite Kings were written mainly in Sumerian, and their letters and contracts in Babylonian reflecting their continuation, with the addition of their own gods, of the old Sumero-Babylonian order. We will mostly use the Babylonian names.
- Ishtar (planet Venus), Sin (Moon) and Shamash (sun) (powers/deities associated with Sumer - Akkad)
- Joseph Campbell in his book The Way of the Seeded Earth p38-9 gives tells us how Inanna (Ishtar) as the planet Venus, as evening star, follows the sun at night into the netherworld and, as morning star, heralds the sun's reemergence.
In one myth,where Inanna's amorous advances are rebuffed by Gilgamesh (associated with the sun) who cites the subsequent fates of her previous lovers as just cause, Inanna enraged succeeds in her petition of highest heaven (Anu) that the divine Bull of Heaven, Gugalanna, (associated with the constellation of Taurus) is sent against him. Gilgamesh defeats and dismembers the bull to the horror of its consort, Inanna's dread sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Netherworld. Eventually, Inanna descends to the netherworld to make atonement to her sister , the eventual upshot of which is that she is only let return to the day world if her own beloved consort, Dumuzi, the Shepherd, spends half the year in her realm.
The constellation Taurus appears above the horizon at the spring equinox from circa 3200 BC onward and the important barley harvesting ceremony, akitu, used occur at this time. After the summer solstice begins a period of mourning signifying that Dumuzi must die and enter the underworld.
- Anu, Lord of the Great Above, Enlil, Lord of the Air and Ea (Enki) of the House of Water ( powers/deities associated with Sumer and Akkad)
- Hugh Thurston in his Early Astronomy p66 indicates that in the Mul-Apin Tablets, the sun is described as being in the realm of Ea in the cold period of winter; of being in the realm of Anu for the Spring and Autumn; and of being in Enlil in the hot harvest period of Summer. So as well as their anthropomorphic roles in Mesopotamian mythology, with their associated powers and qualities, these deities also represent three distinct regions of the firmament. Part of what we're trying to do in the DMRT astronomy section is to push through the anthropomorphic figures that appear in myths and tales to get a sense of the impersonal powers of the firmament they represented.
- Marduk, Nabu and Ninhursag Ninlil (powers/deities associated with Babylonian Civilisation)
- In comparison to the separation of heaven and earth, Anu from Ki (the earth) by their son Enlil, the fashioning by Marduk of the cosmos from the parts of the carcass of Tiamat, goddess of the abysmal waters,is a much more violent affair. Thorkild Jakobsen in his A History of Mesopotamian Religion associates this with the rise of importance of kingship and its secular role in contrast with the more passive religious roles of the priest-kings of Sumer. The Amorites were a nomadic people who infiltrated Mesopotamia from Syria and whose patriarchal society is reflected in significant rehashing of Sumerian and Akkadian myths. Their kingdom of Babylon becAme preeminent under the rule of Hammurabi.
- Guardians of the Four World Quarters: The peculiar hawk's head on the left is Zamama of Kish. The double lion head is Ninib of Nippur. The two figures on the right have not, as far as we know, being identified but appear to be war gods. The original great Sumerian city of Uruk established a wide network of colonies dominating the north south river trade routes and also the overland east-west trade routes. Within a few centuries many of these colonies were overrun and the maintenance of trade routes became one of the main preoccupations of the Sumer-Akkad city states and indeed civilisation in general. By the time of the Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian Empires annual military campaigns to pacify or expand territories were the norm.
- Below Ground: Gula (patroness of herbs, healing and fertility) and the Scorpion Guardians: The Cosmic Serpent rises from behind Gula and her dog, defender of homes, sits at her feet. A Scorpion Archer stands guard at the uttermost bounds of the earth, protecting the rising and setting suns from daemonic forces.
- Four Elements in the Abysmal Sea from which everything came into being: on the right is the lamp of Nusku representing fire; Ramman-Adad (fourth paragraph) representing wind; the scorpion the death dealing representative of earth is associated with Gula above and finally the tortoise, associated with Ea (Enki), representing the watery element.
A History of Mesopotamian Religion - (The Treasures of Darkness) - Thorkild Jacobsen - Yale University Press - 0-300-02291-3
Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East - Michael Roaf - Checkmark Books - 0-8160-2218-6
Early Astronomy - Hugh Thurston - Springer-Verlag - 0-387-94107-X
The Mythic Image - Joseph Campbell - Princeton-Bollingen - 0-691-01839-1
The planet Venus (Inanna (Ishtar)) is closer to the Sun than the Earth and therefore from the earth will always appear in the precincts of the Sun. The result is that the planet is brightest and easiest to see, at dusk after the Sun sets when it is still visible above the horizon and known as the Evening Star, and at dawn just before the Sun rises when it is visible as the Morning Star. To the eye of ancient agriculturists it was as if the goddess, for so the planet was viewed, followed the Sun into, and preceded it back from, the underworld or nether regions. In this UNL animation set the observer planet to Earth and the observed planet to Venus and watch how Venus first follows and then precedes the Sun. Because the planet Mercury is even closer to the Sun, it is often seen in the precincts of Venus. The planet is personified in Sumerian mythology as Ninshubur, Inanna's trusted maid servant, (Queen of the East,) who is entrusted with the task of petitioning the gods, when Inanna fails to return of the dreary netherworld realm of her sister, Ereshkigal. See The Descent of Inanna
The Sumero-Babylonian astral mythology identified the aspects of the cosmic female with the phases of the planet venus. As morning star she was the virgin, as evening star the harlot, as lady of the night-sky the consort of the moon; and when extinguished under the blaze of the sun she was the hag of hell.
Joseph Campbell - Hero of a Thousand Faces
In Mesopotamia, the Akitu Festival marks of the sowing of barley in the autumn and the reaping of barley in the spring. In this period, starting say, 3200BC in Uruk, the Sun at the vernal equinox used rise in the constellation of the Bull, Gugalanna, now known as Taurus. This is the beginning of civilisation and the activities focused on the priest-king, are choreographed by the priesthood as they interpret the sacred movements of the seven planets (the lordly moon with his court of the Sun and the planets visible with the naked eye, Mercury,Venus,Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
The annual lament for Dumuzi (the shepherd-fisherman- spouse of Inanna) occurs in the summer when the sun shrivels the meadows and the livestock no longer provide milk. In a reversal of the later role of Persephone, it is Dumuzi who spends half the year with Inanna in the daylight world and half in the netherworld where her dark sister, Ereschigal, was sovereign- at least in this early period.
Shamash, the Sumerian sun god, rises in the morning over the Zagros Mountains with his distinctive rays of light emanating from his shoulders and carrying his distinctive saw toothed weapon. The Morning Star, the goddess Inanna, is visible above the mountain peaks and the World Tree, or Axis Mundi,is visible to her left.She appears to proffer something to Shamash.
The god, Ninurta, in this context probably in his role of god of South Wind and subduer/ of the storm god Zu, he is accompanied by a lion. Enki (Ea), Lord of the Apzu, realm of the fresh waters, approaches dramatically from the opposite direction carrying the storm god, Imdugud or Zu, and appears to spill onto the mountain peaks from which arise the great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris and their teeming shoals of fish. Behind him stands the vizier of the underground realm of fresh waters, Usmu.
Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia had unstable weather patterns and this is one of the reasons why the various peoples who inhabited Mesopotamia tended to have a sometimes uneasy relationship with their gods. This piece may depict a harmony between the excesses of flood and drought. From the Persian Gulf up to and beyond present day Bagdad, the lands are very flat and prone to flooding. For this reason the earliest temples in the Ubaid period were built on raised platforms which over the centuries eventually developed into great Ziggurats (stepped pyramids) visible even from great distance.