Origin of the Constellations

It is no surprise that most of the depictions of the familiar northern sky constellations come to us from Southern Eurasia. The astronomer M.W. Ovenden (1966) argued that the constellations as we have inherited them originated in the Mediterranean region ca. 2800 ± 400 b.c. Corresponding zodiacal constellations between Mesopotamians and Greeks (van der Waerden 1974, pp. 287-288) are Taurus, the "Bull of Heaven"; the Twins; the Lion (or Lioness); Spica, the ear of corn held by the grain goddess (corresponding to Virgo); the Scorpion; the centaur as Bowman (Sagittarius); the Goatfish (Capricorn); the Fishes (Pisces). This view and similar ideas by R.H. Allen (1899/1963, pp. 14-15) and E.W. Maunder (1908/1909, 157-159) have been sternly criticized by Dicks (1970, pp. 160-161), who considers the arguments that constellations were designed at some particular time and place as a system of coordinates are illusory, and the arguments circular. Ovenden's argument, however, was based on the assumption that the constellations were symmetric about the north celestial pole of that epoch. Dicks criticized the hypothesis as an example of anachronism—of attributing theories about constructs of the celestial sphere to people of an earlier time. Although it may well be true that there is no written evidence for notions of great circles and poles at very early epochs, it is also true, on a much more basic level, that the actual disposition of the constellations in the sky requires no formal theory to be discerned and that they can, therefore, be used as position markers for the moving heavenly bodies.

As many examples from the Megalithic (§6) onward illustrate, intelligent perception is found not only in modern times and in classical Greece. Dicks's scathing criticism of Ovenden appears to be, therefore, both unjust and fallacious.

Babylonian constellations included such familiar representations as a lion, raven, eagle, fish, scorpion, and bull, some of which we noted above. van der Waerden (1974) has a good summary of several Assyrian-period (within the range 1356 b.c. to 626 b.c.) asterisms and constellations; a more comprehensive list by P. Huber may be found in van der Waerden (1965/1968, pp. 294-297); a still fuller series of names and identifications appears in Reiner and Pingree (1975). Table 7.4 is excerpted from this list (see also Figure 7.1).

Many of these are from a star catalogue called mulAPIN dated prior to 687 b.c. The oldest rendition bears the label "Copy from Babylon." The superscripted mushen means bird and mul means star. Capital letters indicate Sumerian word-signs, and lowercase words indicate later Babylonian words; these conventions and the simplification of some of the names, such as the omission of the word "star" preceding each name, follow normal usage among Assyriologists. The ancient Sumerians used cuneiform, but the later, Babylonian, civilization used the older word-signs as well as adaptations of them to their own language (Assyro-Babylonian).

7.1. Mesopotamian Civilization

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