Babylonian Astrology: The Seven Wandering Stars
Babylonian astrology became a second celestial religion; but it was quite unlike the first, that of ancient China. In China the stars became gods; in Babylon the gods became stars. To the Chinese the mysteries of the cosmos were so sublime that they degraded their traditional popular divinities to demons and created a cult of the stars without priests, myths, or dogmas.
The Babylonians, on the other hand, placed their native divinities one after another in the heavens, and transferred the mythic traits of these divinities to the stars. Here was an amazing evolution: for the first and only time a civilized religion rendered the divine beings visible and calculable by identifying them with the seven wandering stars.
The cuneiform script itself expressed that impulse, for its sign of divinity was a star. An age-old Babylonian legend related that the lord of the Earth, Bel, appointed the three gods Shamash, Sin, and Ishtar guardians of the firmament, which they thereafter patrolled as the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. When four more wandering stars were found in the firmament, the Babylonians made bold to repeat the act of Bel.
The city-god of Babylon, Marduk, became the planet Jupiter; the god of death, Nergal, became the planet Mars; the god of war, Ninurta, became Saturn; and the god of knowledge, Nabu, became Mercury. Mars was called Star of Judgment upon the De ad. The Tower of Babel, which was simultaneously a sanctuary and observatory, was called tersely the Temple of the Seven Transmitters of Commands from Heaven to Earth.
Thus in Babylon divine worship became equivalent to astronomy, astronomy equivalent to searching out the will of the gods. In observing the movements of the planets and their relationships to one another, the priest was performing the highest rite of his religion. That fact accounted for the enormous power of the priestly class. They did not pray to invisible beings; they associated with them face to face, so to speak.
Out of this belief sprang the extraordinarily frank reports of the astronomer-priests to the king, and the king’s meek queries as to whether he might end his fast. Moreover, these priests prophesied with a sense of absolute certainty-for they did not read the future from deceptive signs; they read it in the eyes of the gods themselves.
The light rays sent forth from the planets were magical glances by which the gods guided activities on Earth. Their influence was predetermined beyond the possibility of doubt by the special traits of the particular god. The system of interpreting the stars no longer depended upon observation and empirical rules amassed in the course of centuries; interpretation flowed simply and directly from the very names of the planets. Each planet’s name carried with it the entire body of legend which the old religion had attached to the god…
The transposition of divine characteristics to the wandering planets is the essence of astrology. That is why the position of the planets was held to influence the destiny of individuals. If a child were born while the Moon was rising, his life would be resplendent, long, and happy. if a child were born while Mars was rising, he would be sickly and soon die. if two planets wielded their influence simultaneously, the rising planet operated with greater force. Thus, if Jupiter were rising and Venus setting at birth, a man would have luck in later life, but would abandon his wife. If Venus were rising and Jupiter setting, the man would be ruled by his wife.
Thus the astrological rule was early established that opposition of the planets mutually weakened their influence. Contrarily, in conjunction they strengthened one another, with the higher of the two planets being the stronger. Soon further refinements were added: angles of 60 and 120 degrees, triangles, and hexagons, were considered favorable, squares unfavorable. These various “aspects,” multiplied by seven, yielded a complicated doctrinal system which laid the groundwork for a comprehensive craft of prophecy. The aspect of the planets could be consulted for any event in life, for births and the founding of cities, business negotiations, travels, political treaties, battles, harvests, sickness.
Elaborations were added by the Greeks, and in the Middle Ages the Book of One Hundred Rules spread knowledge of the arcane science far and _wide. Everyone knew his ruling planet. Those who were born under Jupiter presumably possessed a “jovial” character. The children of Mars considered themselves hot-tempered, bold, bellicose, destined for evil deeds.
Even physical appearance was supposed to be governed by the planet. Every planet also had certain natural objects attributed to it, and special periods of influence. Fire, iron, hematite, jasper, the color red, the taste of bitterness, the male sex, the liver, gall, kidneys, veins, and the left ear-all belonged to Mars. Mars also dominated the years of life from 42 to 57, Tuesdays, and the night from Thursday to Friday.
Some of these rules go all the way back to the Babylonians, but most of them only to the Greek astrologers. Like the Chinese, the Greeks connected the principal aspects of thought with the stars. But the relationship which was, for the Chinese, an intellectual pattern, a magnificent synthesis of ideas, became in the West a web work of tangible causes and effects. The difference can be strikingly demonstrated by two quotations.
The Chinese Book of Changes declares: “The heavens reveal ideas; the holy man takes them as his model.” The other conception is formulated in the Talmud: “Everything that is found upon Earth is found also in the heavens; nothing is so trivial that it does not have its correlation in the sky.” According to this latter view, it was necessary only to read the celestial sign aright in order to unravel all earthly mysteries.
Such readings, however, would have called for .a highly developed craft in observation, which the Middle Ages lacked. But the Greeks apparently foresaw this and established a dogmatic scheme which could be applied in lieu of observation. Every hour of the day was placed under the dominion of a planet. In fixed succession the seven governors of the hours followed one another through an entire week, and then repeated their turns. The system was primitive, but practical. An individual’s birth-planet could be determined without consultation with an astronomer.
This arbitrary method also went back to a Babylonian model: the planetary week. Originally the week had had five days because five divided neatly into the thirty-day month. But once the seven planets had been discovered, the number seven became sacred. Babylonian observatories were made seven stories high; state documents were sealed with seven seals. There were seven colors, seven musical notes, seven parts of the body; human lives were supposed to consist of seven-year periods.
In the sky, Orion and the two Bears had seven stars; the Pleiades were called the Seven Sisters, though with the best will in the world only six tiny dots of light could be distinguished. The week was given seven days, awkward as this unit was. And each day was named after and presumably dominated by a single planet.
To this day the names of the days retain the system: Sun-day, Moon-day, Tiu/ Mars-day, Woden/Mercury-day, Thor/ Jupiter-day, Freya/Venus-day, Saturn-day. Although the names of our days derive mainly from Norse mythology, the system can be considered a gift from Babylon, reminding us of the eyes of the gods which once governed the days, the hours, and human destinies with their magical glances.