Assyrian Astrology


as-050-300tr tree of life

Assyrian Tree of Life

The most prominent means of divination for state purposes towards the end of the New Assyrian empire was astrology.

There were a number of highly qualified experts regularly making reports to the king, stating their observations of the configurations of the moon and planets, and the portent of what they had observed.

It must be pointed out that astrology in Assyria differed significantly from what goes by that name today.  venus_neo_assyrian

Assyrian astrology related only to affairs of state, not to individuals (except the royal family, and then only in a context in which the king embodied the state)s has been the case for most of the history of astrology.

The predictions were arrived at by applying traditional interpretations to current events in the heavens, such as eclipses, rings round the moon, or positions of planets.

Thunder and earthquakes could also come into this category.  The nature of Assyrian astrology can be best understood by looking at a few examples, all in the form of reports to the king.

When the moon is seen on the thirtieth day, (the meaning is either) frost, (or) there will be the sound of the enemy.babylon03

When at the observation of the moon it is high, the enemy will take the land by force.

When the moon at its observation becomes visible earlier than expected, the month will bring trouble.

Here is one of the more detailed reports: Tonight a halo surrounded the moon, and Jupiter and the constellation Scorpio were inside it.

When a halo surrounds the moon and Jupiter stands inside it, the king of Akkad will be shut in (by siege).

When a halo surrounds the moon and Jupiter (Nibiru) stands inside it, there will be epidemic mortality of herds and wild animals.

(The star of the god Marduk at its (first) observation is when it has risen for one[?] double hour it is  when it stands in the middle of the sky it is Nibiru.

When a halo surrounds the moon and Scorpio stands within it, (this means either) priestesses will have intercourse[?] with men, (or) ditto, lions will ravage and block the roads of the land.

These (omen formulae) come from the Series ‘When a halo surrounds the moon and Jupiter  stands inside it, the king of the wetland  will exercise power and destroy the land of his enemy.’  This is of ill  portent.

The foregoing may require some explanation.  The basic phenomena observed are clear: there had been a ring round the moon enclosing particular heavenly bodies.  The astrologer had then looked up the meaning of these portents in the ‘Series’ (that is, textbook) to which he refers at the end; like most ancient cuneiform texts, it was named after its first line.shamashThe emblem of Shamash is a four-pointed disk with undulating lines radiating intercardinally, and this is a standard Mesopotamian symbol for the sun.

He explains that astrologically the same planet, Jupiter, is designated by different terms according to its altitude, and hedges by giving the interpretations appropriate to two different positions.

The earlier scholars who had compiled the textbook had also done some hedging, by offering alternative interpretations in relation to the constellation Scorpio.  There was thus quite a choice of prognostications, none favourable, and the astrologer therefore concluded that the phenomena he had seen meant something bad for the state.images80

Some reports were much briefer and clearer.  Thus: ‘When a halo surrounds the moon and Regulus stands inside it, in that year women will bear male children.’  In this instance (and the first one quoted above), the phenomena mentioned were what the astrologer had witnessed, and he simply gave the meaning for economy of  words.

Finally, we may quote a small section from a long astrological report, for the sake of the social comment it contains: ‘When the moon reaches the sun and goes side by side with it, (that is) horn embraces horn, there will be upright behaviour in the land, son will will speak truth with his father.’  It was obviously assumed that the standard situation was otherwise.

H. Assyrian Empire

. Assyrian Empire- 597 B,C,

Some of the astrological reports contain weather lore, perhaps based originally on observation, such as: ‘When it thunders in the month Ayyar [approximately May], wheat and vegetables will not do well’, or: ‘When it thunders in the month Shabat [approximately February], there will be a plague of locusts.

When it thunders in the month Shabat, it will hail.’  In this last report, the astrologer is quoting two different omens he has found in his collection of texts relating to the month Shabat.  The forecast relating hail to thunder in February is the result of observation: thunder in February is often followed by hail.

The forecast is more likely than not to be correct because there is a causal connection: the combination of a thunderstorm and February temperatures does in Iraq favour precipitation in the form of hail.  The forecast about the plague of locusts also probably derived from someone having noticed that on some occasion thunder in February had been followed by a plague of locusts.  In this case, however, there is no causal connection between the two events, and the forecast is made on the basis of the Latin tag post hoc, ergo propter hoc, which is to say,  This followed  That, therefore This resulted from That.astar333

However, most of the forecasts were on a basis different from this, a kind of symbolism.  One can see how this works from the passage above which reads, ‘When a halo surrounds the moon and Jupiter stands inside it, the king of Akkad will be shut in’.  Jupiter was the planet of the god Marduk, Marduk was the god of Babylon, and Babylon was the capital city of Babylonia, known in astrological parlance as Akkad.

The Akkadian word which we translate ‘halo’ can also be used for an enclosure for cattle.  Thus for the planet Jupiter to be seen inside the moon’s halo suggested the idea of the chief power in Babylon being inside an enclosure, which would be the situation if the king of Babylonia were under siege.

Similarly, in the omen which reads ‘When the moon reaches the sun and goes side by side with it, .  .  . son will speak truth with his father’, the fact of the sun and moon going side by side offers an easy symbolism for fathers and sons living in accord.

Eclipses have always caused alarm to primitive—and sometimes not-so-primitive—peoples, and accordingly in Assyria eclipses were predominantly of evil omen.  None the less, it was possible for an astrologer to devise an interpretation of an eclipse to spare the king anxiety. Thus we find the following:

“An eclipse was due, but it was not visible in Ashur.  That eclipse bypassed Ashur, the city wherein the king dwells.  There were clouds everywhere, so that we do not know whether the eclipse took place or did not take place.humbabaApart from a few exceptions, an eight-pointed star is used exclusively for Venus

Let the king my lord send messages to Ashur and to cities everywhere—to Babylon, to Nippur, to Erech and to Borsippa; perhaps they observed it within those cities.  Let the king hear the regular reports.  .  .  .  The great gods, who are in the city wherein the king my lord dwells, shaded the sky over and did not show the eclipse.  Thus the king may assuredly know that this eclipse was not against the king my lord or his land.  Let the king be happy.”

Thus the astrologer neatly establishes that whether the eclipse happened or not, the implication was favourable for the king.  (In passing, we may also notice the oddity that at the time in question the astrologers knew enough about the movement of the moon to predict lunar eclipses—which are generally at six-monthly intervals—but yet, through superstitious conservation, still regarded eclipses as having ominous significance.)Assyri2

There were, in fact, two aspects of these astrological reports.  One was to give the king warning of forthcoming events of importance for the state; the other was to give an opportunity for the performance of rituals to avert any evil happenings of which these reports gave warning.  This latter aspect was taken care by the king’s staff of ashipus.

It may have been noticed that, although we are still in the chapter on religion, it is many pages since any significant mention was made of the gods. This is a fair reflection of the place of the gods in the Assyrian attitude to life.

We began our discussion of Assyrian religion by talking about the nature of the great gods, but his approach is a concession to our own way of thinking about religion in society.  To the ordinary Assyrian the great gods were not the part of the supernatural world by which he felt most immediately affected; although he accepted that control of the world he lived in ultimately lay with the great gods, his immediate personal contact with those divine beings might be very slight.

But that does not mean that the ordinary Assyrian would disregard the supernatural world.  Far from it.  The supernatural world was all around him, and touched his life at all points.  Thus, if he suffered illness, it was demons, or even an impersonal evil, attacking him; if he lost a child, he saw a malevolent supernatural power at work; but  he did not see a decision of the great gods.Lamashtu_plaque_h9174

There was no resigned faith in the divine purpose which would allow the Assyrian to say in the face of the latter calamity:  ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.’  The great gods came into the matter only as powers who might, if suitably supplicated or conjured, circumvent the evil of the malevolent forces.

The Assyrian saw the world around him as full of forces affecting him.  So of course do we, but whereas we see a river flood or storm as a physical force, or certain illnesses as an inflection of cells with a virus, the Assyrian saw all these phenomena as involving wills.Queen_of_the_Night_(Babylon)

There must, the Assyrian thought, be some intelligence that willed floods, storms or diseases.  In the case of major forces affecting the whole world and having some intelligible function in the scheme of things, such as storms or the motion of the sun, it seemed clear to the Assyrian that the wills activating these forces must be rational.

These supposed wills became personified as gods, with all the good and bad qualities of humans on a vaster scale.  But some things that happened where irrational and arbitrary. All too frequently newborn babies languished and died, or their mothers were smitten with an evil-smelling discharge accompanying fever and delirium and culminating in a painful death.  The great gods could indeed kill, but they killed with a purpose.

These so-common deaths of babies and women in childbirth were senseless, and could only be the doing of an irrational malevolent demon.  The culprit was in fact identified as a female demon called Lamashtu, with no function in the world order other than to attack such helpless and unoffending victims.priest

Lamashtu, though the best known, was by no means the only demon.  The world was full of these nasty beings.  Almost any misfortune or annoyance or bizarre occurrence of an apparently arbitrary nature which befell a man might be the work of a demon.  But it would not be correct to say that demons were personified disasters; far from being personified, some of them were explicitly said to be sexless, nameless and formless, and so lacking in specific characteristics that they were, as one text puts it, ‘not even recognizable by the wise gods’. Demons were not personified disasters; they were no more than the malevolent will which activated the disaster.winged_diskAssur. The national deity of Assyria, depicted in this 9th-century BCE

It was this attitude to life which was the background to the magical activities of the ashipu; the enormous influence of this class of magician both on the royal court and on the ordinary Assyrian was because the ashipu by his rituals had the key to fending off the evil influences of these supernatural forces which enclosed the Assyrian—king and commoner alike—on all sides.

To give a balance, there was a corresponding belief in good spirits, which might dwell in and protect a building, or accompany and guard a person.  We find the statement that for the man who does as he should, ‘the gods will give him a shedu’—a kind of guardian angel looking after him.  In Babylonia the term used for the protecting spirit was ilu or ishtaru.  As these are the ordinary words for ‘god’ and Lg_Assyrian_Palace‘goddess’, it is often said that everyone had his personal god or goddess; but, with the possible exception of the king, these so-called personal gods or goddesses were not named members of the pantheon, and ‘personal protecting spirit’ would give a more accurate reflection of the underlying concept.


{I do not know the identity of the author. I tried for years to find the source to no avail. I can vouch for the general authenticity of his or her knowledge of Babylonian and Assyrian astrology.  The article is reproduced more of less as is. The chief changes have been at the paragraph level, obvious typ0s and extraneous code.. All Images were added. I saw no point in not sharing this very fine introduction to the subject. of Assyrian Astrology]

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