Ancient Chaldeans Astrology and Astral Religion

Franz Cumont
Franz Cumont

During the period of the French Revolution citizen Dupuis, in three bulky volumes ‘On the Origin of all Forms of Worship’ (1794), developed the idea that the primary source of religion was the spectacle of celestial phenomena and the ascertainment of their correspondence with earthly events, and he undertook to show that the myths of all peoples and all times were nothing but a set of astronomical combinations. According to him, the Egyptians, to whom he assigned the foremost place among “the inventors of religions,” had conceived, some twelve or fifteen thousand years before our era, the division of the ecliptic into twelve constellations corresponding to the twelve months; and when the expedition of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte discovered in the temples of the Nile valley, notably at Dendera, some zodiacs to which a fabulous antiquity was attributed, these extraordinary theories appeared to receive an unexpected confirmation. But the bold mythological fabric reared in the heavens by the savant of the French Revolution fell to pieces when Jean-Antoine Letronne proved that the zodiac of Dendera dated, not from an epoch anterior to the most ancient of the known Pharaohs, but from that of the Roman emperors.

Science in her cycles of hypotheses is liable to repeat herself. An attempt has recently been made to restore to favour the fancies of Dupuis, by renovating them with greater erudition. Only, the mother country of “astral mythology” is to be sought, not on the banks of the Nile, but on those of the Euphrates. The “Pan-Babylonists,” as they have been called, maintain that behind the literature and cults of Babylon and Assyria, behind the legends and myths, behind the Pantheon and religious beliefs, behind even the writings which appear to be purely historical, lies an astral conception of the universe and of its phenomena, affecting all thoughts, all beliefs, all practices, and penetrating even into the domain of purely secular intellectual activity, including all branches of science cultivated in antiquity. According to this astral conception, the greater gods were identified with the planets and the minor ones with the fixed stars. A scheme of correspondences between phenomena in the heavens and occurrences on earth was worked out. The constantly changing appearance of the heavens indicates the ceaseless activity of the gods, and since whatever happened on earth was due to divine powers, this activity represented the preparation for terrestrial phenomena, and more particularly those affecting the fortunes of mankind. Proceeding further, it is claimed that the astral-mythological cult of ancient Babylonia became the prevailing ‘Altorientalische Weltanschauung’ of the ancient Orient and that whether we turn to Egypt or to Palestine, to Hittite districts or to Arabia, we shall find these various cultures under the spell of this conception.

It furnishes the key to the interpretation of Homer as well as of the ‘Bible.’ In particular, all the ‘Old Testament’ should be explained by a series of sidereal myths. The patriarchs are “personifications of the sun or moon,” and the traditions of the ‘Sacred Books’ are “variations of certain ‘motifs,’ whose real significance is to be found only when they are transferred to phenomena in the heavens.”

Such is a wholly impartial summary of the theories professed by the advocates of the ‘Altorientalische Weltanschauung.’ I borrow it, with a slight abbreviation, from an address delivered by Morris Jastrow, Jr., at the Oxford Congress in 1908. Now of this system. It may be said that what is true in it is not new, and what is new is not true. That Babylon was the mother of astronomy, star-worship, and astrology, that thence these sciences and these beliefs spread over the world, is a fact already told us by the ancients, and the course of these lectures will prove it clearly. But the mistake of the Pan-Babylonists, whose wide generalisations rest on the narrowest and flimsiest of bases, lies in the fact that they have transferred to the nebulous origins of history conceptions which were not developed at the beginning but quite at the end of Babylonian civilisation. This vast theology, founded upon the observation of the stars, which is assumed to have been built up thousands of years before our era, — nay, before the Trojan War, — and to have imposed itself on all still barbarous peoples as the expression of a mysterious wisdom, cannot have been in existence at this remote period, for the simple reason that the data on which it would have been founded, were as yet unknown.

How often, for instance, has the theory of the precession of the equinoxes been brought into the religious cosmology of the East! But what becomes of all these symbolical explanations, if the fact is established that the Orientals never had a suspicion of this famous precession before the genius of Hipparchus discovered it? Just as the dreams of Dupuis vanished when the date of the Egyptian zodiacs was settled, so the Babylonian mirage was dispelled when scholars advanced methodically through the desert of cuneiform inscriptions and determined the date when astronomy began to take shape, as an exact science, in the observatories of Mesopotamia. This new delusion will depart to the realm of dreams to join the idea, so dear to poets of old, of Chaldean shepherds discovering the causes of eclipses while watching their flocks.

When we have to ascertain at what date oriental star-worship affected the transformation of Syrian and Greek Paganism, we shall not find it necessary to plunge into the obscurity of the earliest times; we shall be able to study the facts in the full light of history. “An astral theory of the universe is not an outcome of popular thought, but the result of a long process of speculative reasoning carried on in restricted learned circles. Even astrology, which the theory presupposes as a foundation, is not a product of primitive popular fancies but is rather an advanced scientific hypothesis.” In this first lecture, then, we shall have to begin by asking ourselves at what date a scientific astronomy and astrology were developed at Babylon, and then proceed to examine how they led to the formation of a learned theology and gave to Babylonian religion its ultimate character.

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