Where constellations come from

The Western Constellated Sky

I know you’re itching to get out of Mesopotamia, and I understand the sense of urgency.

We’ve been stuck here for some weeks now, and it really is time to move on. And we shall, I promise, but there’s one more thing left to say about the influence of Mesopotamian myth on the history of astrology, for it is with the Mesopotamians that we get our earliest recorded information about the naming of the constellations. Of course, every culture has devised its own names for the constellations and planets, based on their unique mythology.

Unfortunately, we tend to center on only one interpretation, the current zodiacal belt, but there have been many throughout history, all of them equally interesting, in my opinion, and none of them more or less important. It’s just that we generally don’t know what they are or were. If we knew what other cultures called their constellations, we’d have a better understanding of their culture, and I always think that’s a good thing.

For today, however, let’s focus, possibly for the last time, sadly, on the Mesopotamians, and where their constellations came from. Later on I intend to discuss other cultures’ constellations, because there’s still a lot I do not know about 98% of all the things there are to know, and other cultures’ constellations is one of those things.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise by now, given the warlike, volatile culture of the Mesopotamians, combined with their concerns about conflagration and flooding, that their constellations derive from a myth of violence. Now, to be fair to the Mesopotamians, they were not warlike until approximately 2,500 B.C. Prior to that, for those of you familiar with city-building computer games, they were developing the land, building shrines, fishing, farming, etc., all the activities you associate with putting down roots in an area.

However, somewhere around 2,500 B.C., the first written records that tell us the Mesopotamians went to war were inscribed, and warfare became part of their political system. Even so, their creation myths are much, much older than institutionalised warfare, so we are left to make assumptions, probably false, that the Mesopotamians were inherently violent. The story itself, in written form, the Enuma Elis, antedates written evidence of warfare, but that doesn’t mean the myth wasn’t already in the culture as part of their oral tradition.

Ti'amat, ancient Mesopotamian fertility goddess, in a moment when all is well in the heavens, before the struggle with her consort, Marduk.
Ti’amat, ancient Mesopotamian fertility goddess, in a moment when all is well in the heavens. Artwork: J. B. Waskul; click image for more information.

The progenitors of all the gods and goddesses,  Ti’amat and Apsu, reigned together peacefully in the heavens, and all was well for a time. Then intergenerational conflict broke out, as it will in families, and Apsu, the husband and father of the noisy, rebellious children, suggested, rather melodramatically, if you ask me, that they kill their progeny.

Right here, you see the problem.

If you act out in your family, does your father threaten to kill you? He might think it, but unless you are extremely unfortunate and have found yourself landed in a household of psychotics, the likelihood is, no, your father is probably pretty nice and tolerates you, in spite of your character flaws.

Not so in Heaven, however, where the consequences for acting out are pretty dire. You see this with the Greeks later on as well, and we will discover whether or not this kind of extreme conflict goes on in other creation myths, although I’m betting it probably does, since violence seems to be part of what got us here. Okay, excuse this diversionary tactic; back we go to Mesopotamia.

So Apsu is angry, and Ea, his oldest son, god of the water, overhears his father plotting to kill him and his brethren. Instead of letting this happen, Ea, of course, since this is a soap opera, basically, kills his father instead.

So now you have a very, very angry mother-goddess, who started out in Mesopotamian lore as good, kind, sweet, loving, caring, compassionate, and turns into the prototype for Kali and European witches. This is what happens when your rotten, ungrateful children get revenge on their parents, but that’s Greek tragedy, best left for another time.

Poor Ti’amat. She is left alone, without a consort, and nothing to do but come up with ideas for revenge. Meanwhile, another faction of gods and goddesses become disenchanted with Ea’s rule, and come to Ti’amat, complaining, saying “we need a war in heaven, something that will conquer and slay Ea forever, and we need reinforcements.” So somewhere in here, Ti’amat gets pregnant, although we aren’t going to question the details, since this is a myth, and she begets eleven monster serpents and ferocious dragons. Each of the monsters is attached to a constellation, since all of this is happening in the heavens, and Ti’amat conscripts the entire zodiac into her war.

To make a rather long story short, Ti’amat is killed, Ea is saved, and the heavens are divided up amongst three male deities, Ea, Anu, and Enlil (a gender imbalance we shall discuss another time). Along the way, the Tablet of Destinies is recovered from Ti’amat’s side of the conflict, and control over the future is regained by  Ti’amat’s descendents, Ea and Ea’s grandson, Marduk, who is mightier than his forbears. Ea uses the body of Kingu, Ti’amat’s defender, to create human beings, and this is where we came from, the results of a bloody conflict in the heavens.

And so, Best Beloveds, this is how the constellations were created by the Mesopotamians, who unwittingly created a world of trouble for parents and their children.

This particular creation myth, with its emphasis on violence and really bad relationships between fathers and sons, anticipates any number of future mythic struggles: the battle between Ouranos and his children; Zeus and his many children; Lucifer/Satan and God; God and his son Jesus; Oedipus and Laius; and much later, Hamlet and his father/uncle Oedipal dyad.

See what trouble the Mesopotamians got us into?