The Celestial Carousel

The Celestial Carousel

In fairness to the Akkadians and Sumerians, we can’t leave Mesopotamia without talking about the names of their constellations, and enquiring into what it says about humankind that most of the constellations throughout history, no matter the culture, depict animals, rather than people (this is not always true; the Greeks, as I will discuss, liked their heroes and placed them in the heavens as fitting tribute to their heroic deeds, alongside the animals those heroes slayed).

However, the Akkadians and Sumerians created a list of animal-stars, and were the first to bring us the Crab and the Lion, as well as many we no longer think of, such as the Rooster, the She-Goat, and my favorite, the “Mad Dog.” There was a constellation known as ‘the sting of the scorpion,’ as well as the actual Scorpion itself. They introduced us to the Scales (although these would not be called ‘Libra‘ until much later, since ‘libra’ is a Latin word meaning ‘scale’, or ‘to balance’). There was also a beautiful constellation called “the Rainbow,” as well as one named “the Worm,” more prosaically.

The Akkadians brought us “the Demon with the Gaping Mouth”, a fascinating name for one of the hideous snake-like monsters Ti’amat gave birth to in an earlier part of our story.

As you can see, the Akkadians and Sumerians were busy with the night sky, naming it according to things that affected them, scared them, made them happy, or that they simply encountered in every day life, such as “the Wagon,” or “the Hired Man.”

Nowadays, can you imagine anyone naming a constellation “the Hired Man”? No, probably not. Why is that? Why did the Akkadians and Sumerians think that was important enough to name the stars? Well, this is the reason I ask these questions in the first place; so that we can determine what the answers might be… but we’ll have to do the research to find out, I suspect.

For a full list of these constellations, look here.

Perhaps it’s as obvious as totemism or animism that causes us to imbue living creatures with human qualities, giving life through our imaginations to stars so distant, we can never hope to touch them or do more than observe them twinkling in the cold night sky. However, we have a strong desire to animate everything we come in contact with, and we do feel a kinship to animals. That relationship is certainly reflected in the names we have given the constellations.

By the time we get to the Ancient Greeks, we have a very different set of cultural values expressed in the heavens. I think almost everyone knows this, but the word ‘zodiac’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘sculptured animal figure’, which made me think of the ‘celestial carousel’.  

With the Greeks, we find a richness of myth intertwining with star-lore to create a depth of meaning that continues to inspire us today, although we mostly rely on Roman and Medieval European imagery and myth to inform the zodiac we currently use. In fact, we have inherited a mish-mash of ideas that inform our current use of the zodiac, and over time, I will try to separate out these strands, because we really should know where these ideas come from.

Greek myth created very different stories for the stars than those we tell today. Because the Greeks imagined the heavens as a giant, solid dome of bronze, upon which the constellations were fixed, it was possible for them to imagine the constellations as never-changing. This is a comforting thought, don’t you think? It allowed the Greeks to envision Herakles, their most cherished hero, up in the heavens, consistently defending them against harm.

More about the Greeks, Herakles’ story, and the various names of their constellations, next time.