Records of Lunar Eclipses

Our recorded knowledge of astronomical events in Mesopotamia begins with records of lunar eclipses. These eclipses are known mostly from their use (as models for predicting disasters) in the collection called Enuma Anu Enlil from the 7th century b.c. We know of seven references to lunar eclipses and two to solar eclipses prior to the 8th century b.c. These eclipses are important both to our understanding of Mesopotamian astrology and for determining the chronology of the area. They need to be considered together and to be integrated both with the evidence from chronicles and from Venus observations. In some cases, the available information contains a month date or a statement about the time of occurrence of the eclipse that aids greatly in reducing possibilities. Most of these eclipses are considered extensively by Huber (1982), by Mitchell (1990), and by Stephenson and Clark (1978). The earliest omen refers to the death of an unidentified ruler of the dynasty of Agade, and Mitchell (1990, p. 14) found 16 possibilities between 2400 and 1800 b.c. The next eclipse omen referred to the time that Utu-hegal, king of Uruk, conquered the Gutian people. According to Jacobsen (1939, p. 203), the special gods of the Gutians were Inanna and Sin. Inanna is the Sumerian prototype of Ishtar, who was (at least in the late period) identified with the planet Venus. Sin (now more commonly transcribed Suen) is the Sumerian name of the Moon god. Today, we realize that there had been many Gutian battles, including defeats, and many previous lunar eclipses which were not associated, but the decisive defeat of the people of the Moon God at the time of a lunar eclipse made an indelible impression on the Mesopotamians. This event may even have been an important factor in the development of beliefs about the relationship of celestial and terrestrial events that ultimately crystallized as astrology.

Details come from Enuma Anu Enlil, but Jacobsen (1939, p. 203) points out that an inscription of Utu-hegal, unfortunately destroyed in crucial places, mentions that something happened "in the midst of the night." Schoch (1927) calculated the date of this lunar eclipse as 20 July 2403 b.c. (a backcalculated Gregorian calendar dating). In the backcal-culated Julian calendar usually used by historians, it would have been 9 August 2403 b.c.

Shortly afterward, Ur-Nammu, the governor of Ur under Utu-hegal, wrested domination from him and became king, establishing the Third Dynasty of Ur. This dynasty ruled for 109 years and the last king, Ibbi-Sin (whose name incorporates that of the Moon God), was conquered by the Elamites. He and his "gods" were carried off to Elam (in modern Iran). This conquest reenforced the impression created by the Gutian conquest that lunar eclipses were associated with disaster. The conquest was associated with a lunar eclipse calculated by Schoch as occurring on the night of the 17th-l8th February, 2283 b.c. These "gods" were finally recovered by Ashur-banipal, King of Assyria, who conquered Elam in 605 b.c. According to his inscriptions, the gods had been in Elam for 1635 years, which would have placed the Elamite conquest in 2285 b.c. (Luckenbill 1924-1927, vol. 2, pp. 311, 357). Despite this virtual agreement, there are major problems with this chronology, as will be seen.

There is also an account of the murder (by his son) of an unidentified king of Ur of this dynasty, apparently one of the three kings: Ur-Nammu, Shulgi, or Shu-Sin. The murderer, who expected to become king, picked the time of a lunar eclipse for the killing, but it was the parricide's brother who succeeded to the throne. Parrot (1953, vol. 2, pp. 427-428) discusses various eclipses proposed as possibilities for this eclipse by Schaumberger, and decided that the one that fitted best was the eclipse of 16 May 1999 b.c., if associated with the death of Shulgi. This chronology is very different from that of Jacobsen, who does not consider this eclipse, but, accepting Schoch's dates for the two previous eclipses, would put the death of Ur-Nammu in 2374 b.c., of Shulgi in 2326 b.c., and of Shu-Sin in 2308 b.c. In terms of the attitudes of the period, there would be a particular reason for picking a lunar eclipse date for the murder, if the intended victim was Shu-Sin, whose name incorporates that of the Moon God.

In the dynasty that followed Ibbi-Sin, extraordinary steps were taken to evade the predicted malevolent effects indicated by omens. Of one of these kings of Isin, we are told, in a historical chronicle rather than an omen:

Irra-imitti, the king, installed Bel-ibni, the gardener, on his throne as a "substitute king" and he (Irra-imitti) (even) placed his own royal crown on his (i.e. Bel-ibni's) head. (During the ceremonial rule of Bel-ibni) Irra-imitti died in his palace while sip[ping] hot porridge, and Bel-ibni who was (still) sitting on the throne did not rise (any more), he (thus) was elevated to (real) kingship. (Pritchard 1955, p. 267)

Bel-ibni assumed the name Enlil-bani and ruled for 24 years as King of Isin. Ungnad (1943) suggested that King Irra-imitti was threatened by a lunar eclipse. Jacobsen (1939, Table II, ff. 208) puts the death of Irra-imitti 75 years before the accession of Hammurabi, whereas Brinkman (1977) separates these events by 69 years.

There was also a lunar eclipse during the reign of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, which is attested in a contemporary record: "The taking place of this eclipse was evil." Unfortunately, students of this period have not yet determined the year of Zimri-Lim's long reign during which the eclipse occurred, nor does the account specify any details of the eclipse. The primary value of this record is that it demonstrates that the attitudes attested in the later records were already present.

Much later, in the time of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, we have two contemporary accounts that provide a close parallel to the story told of Irra-imitti. According to the first account, during the eternity of the eclipse and the conjunction of the gods he (the king) must not in fact go to the (palace?) limits.

If it is acceptable to the king my lord, (15) a commoner should be appointed to the bishopric12 as previously. He should offer the daily sacrifices before the high-altar; on the days of the monthly-feasts and (the feast) of the "Greeting of the temple" he should pour out the incense on the censor-stands [before] the Lady of Akkad, (and then) should (the moon) bring about an eclipse (and with it) affe[ct] Akkad, (20) [. . .] he should serve as the king's substitute (21-25 fragmentary). (Pritchard 1975, p. 179)

This was done, and a later letter reports (with original line numbers)

(5) the [substitute] king, who on the evening of the fourteenth took his se[at] (upon the throne), then spent the night of the fifteenth in the palace [of Ashur], (and) whom (the moon) affected with the eclipse, entered (10) Akkad safe and sound on the evening of the twentieth, (and) took his seat (on the throne). In the light of day I had (him) recite the traditional formulae of the scribal guild; he took upon himself all the signs of heaven and earth, (and) assumed the hegemony over all the universe. For the informa[tion] of the king my lord.

(15) This eclipse, which (the moon) brought about in (the month of) Tebet, concerned the land of Amurru. The king of the land of Amurru will die, his land will diminish, (or) in another interpretation, will disappear. Surely the scholars can tell the king my lord (20) something about the land of Amurru: the land of Amurru means the land of the Hittites and the land of the Sutaeans, (or) in another interpretation, the land of Chaldaea. Someone or other of the kings of the land of the Hittites, or of the land of Chaldaea, (reverse) or of the land of the Arabs, must bear (the consequences of) this sign. For the king my lord (there is to be) contentment: the king my lord will achieve his desire. The rites and prayers (5) of the king my lord are acceptable to the gods. Either the king of Cush, or the king of [Tyre], or Mugallu must meet the appointed death; (10) or, the king my lord will cap[ture him], the king my lord will diminish his land, the women of his harem will enter the service of the king [my lor]d. The king my lord should be gratified.

However, the king my lord should be careful, and (his) vigilance great. The apotropaic rituals, the lamentations for the pacification (of the gods), the spell against malaria (and other forms of) (15) pestilence should be carried out for the k[ing my lor]d and the sons of the king, my lords. (Pritchard 1975, pp. 186-187)

12 We regard "bishopric" as an inappropriate translation, however, analogically apt.

Table 7.6. Mesopotamian eclipse and Venus data.

Early interpretations

Long chronology

Middle chronologies

Short chronology

Ultrashort chronology

Solar eclipse under Sargon Lunar eclipse (historical and astronomical details insufficient— Naram Sin ??) Lunar eclipse—end of Gutian rule Lunar eclipse—death of King of Ur Lunar eclipse—end of Ur III Lunar eclipse (no astronomical details—end of rule of Irra-imitti—beginning date of Isin) (First year of Hammurabi) Lunar eclipse predicted—no astronomical details—during long reign of Zimri-Lim of Mari Venus observations years 1-8 of Ammizaduqa—21 years ' Samsuditana—31 years Lunar eclipse followed by solar eclipse

End of reign of Samsuditana and of dynasty of Hammurabi

1702 b.c. About 52 years

Interval: 43 years 1659 b.c.

No eclipse matches

No eclipse pairs

2049 b.c. or 2041 b.c. No possible matches 1932 b.c. 1801 b.c.

1582 b.c. 50 years

1419 b.c. 57 years

A major problem that is raised by these letters is how the diviners anticipated the eclipse and how closely they could determine its conditions. Time, expense, and inconvenience to many people were involved. Although the possibility that the eclipse might not occur was left open, a commoner was placed on the throne, however briefly, and the eclipse did occur. It seems unlikely that substitute kings were put in every time that the diviners thought that there might possibly be an eclipse somewhere. From what we know both of attitudes toward the Moon and of Mesopotamian mathematical capabilities, it seems unlikely that geometric techniques were used. Some sort of cycle of local repetition seems the only likely solution. The account of Irra-imitti implies that such prediction was already occurring prior to the First Dynasty of Babylon.

Bottero (1992, pp. 138-155) has an extended discussion of the substitute king with much additional detail, well worth reading. He emphasizes the fact that the substitute had to be killed in order to be a satisfactory scapegoat.

The last king of the Hammurabi dynasty was Samsuditana, the successor of Ammisaduqa. The end of this dynasty was marked by a lunar eclipse on the 14th of Sabatu, followed by a solar eclipse on the 28th Sabatu. A pair of eclipses matching the descriptions given in the omen texts is extremely rare. Only five pairs have been discovered by Huber (1982), who found three such pairs between 1950 and 1350 b.c., and by Mitchell (1990), who found two others over a wider range of dates and using different eclipse parameters.

These eclipse records are important for Mesopotamian chronology. The most desirable way of examining the chronology is to look at the various eclipses as a group and to examine how this group can be equated with the Venus observations, in the light of the historical information. Table 7.6 shows various possibilities.

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