For technical reasons I’ve had to miss Sky & Telescope for several months. Now at last I have the current issue, which – though it’s now January – is for March. (Many features of fast-paced modern life are shifted into the future; it has something to do with relativity.)
In the magazine there is an interesting article, “The Very Ancient Origin of the Water Constellations,” by Craig Crossen, which I wish I’d had a chance to see before I wrote about Capricornus, the constellation that looks like a boat but is supposed to be a fish-tailed goat
As Crossen says, these watery constellations – which he lists from west to east as Capricornus, Delphinus, Aquarius, Piscis Austrinus, Pisces, Cetus, Eridanus, Argo, and Hydra – all in ancient times lay on or south of the celestial equator. And that makes it plausible that their association with water dates back all the way to the Sumerians, the ancient people of southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). To the south of them lay the Persian Gulf; and the southern zone of the sky was sacred to Enki, their god of the water and of the abyss beneath the earth. An additional large watery constellation was Centaurus, which for them was a gigantic Marsh Boar, no doubt associated with the marshland where the Euphrates and Tigris debouch into the Gulf (and where live the Marsh Arabs – perhaps descendants of the Sumerians, and nearly extirpated by Saddam Hussein.)
Yes, these constellations that we sometimes call the “Ocean of the Sky” were, back then, along or below the equator. (Actually, all except Delphinus still are. And Delphinus only barely touched the equator, leaping from it – appropriately for a dolphin.)
I thought I’d plot a picture to clarify this. Here are the Watery Constellations (including Centaurus), drawn on the imaginary celestial sphere. The boundaries are the modern ones, fixed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century astronomers, but they fit the traditional areas. The vast ancient constellation of Argo the Ship was broken into Puppis, Vela, and Carina (its poop, sails, and keel).
After trying to picture all of this band of constellations in one sphere, and finding that it’s difficult to prevent those on the nearer side from obscuring those on the farther, I broke the sphere into halves – or, you could say, the sphere viewed from opposite directions and with its front cut away.
The positions are precessed to 4000 BC, when the Sumerian civilization was developing but had not yet invented writing. The stars and constellations stay where they are, and the ecliptic also stays virtually fixed; it’s the celestial equator that is slewed around by the long slow precession, or twisting, of Earth’s axis. In six thousand years the equator has slewed more than a sixth of the way around the sky. The point where the equator crossed the ecliptic – where the Sun is at the spring equinox – was, back in 4000 BC, toward the left (east) end of Taurus; it traveled though Aries and is now far along toward the right (west) end of Pisces.
I tried plotting the AD 2000 equator onto the same pictures, and even a horizon for a Sumerian evening in 4000 BC, but decided these would overwhelm clarity. I have to say it has taken me a full day, with countless reruns (seventy?), to reduce these pictures to sufficient correctness and simplicity. Ars celat artem.
Crossen adds that Capricornus was originally a boat with a goat’s-head prow, before it morphed into a goat with a fish tail. Such boats, sacred to Enki, are referred to in Sumerian religious texts from around 2200 BC. That’s what I wish I’d known a week ago. Middle Eastern archeology was my passion from age ten to about sixteen, but it’s long since I caught up on the literature.
Rough sketchmap of Sumer (also known as Sumeria). There are many more of these mounds that were once cities, rich in archeological information. Light blue represents the area that was sea and has, since ancient times, silted up (I don’t really know the accurate extent of it). Rivers like the Euphrates and Tigris, in floodplains, often shift their courses; probably Eridu was at the mouth of the Euphrates, then was abandoned (still before the beginning of history) when the river shifted course. Babylon was a city of the Akkadians who coexisted with and then absorbed the Sumerians.
A further claim is that the mysterious name of Eridanus, the sky’s lengthy River, descends from Eridu, southernmost and most ancient of the Sumerian cities, and home of the worship of Enki. And that Eridanus earlier was regarded as ending not at the star Achernar (Arabic âkhir an-nahr, “last of the river”) but at brighter and more northerly Canopus. And that Canopus was the Sumerians’ “Star of Enki.” Eridanus, then, was the heavenly reflection of the Euphrates, ending at Eridu. “Eridanus, some scholars have pointed out, is phonetically similar to Eridu,” writes Crossen rather feebly.
It obviously is, and all this fits together with a compound plausibility and would be beautiful if true, though I don’t know whether it has been generally accepted. The first Greek letter of Eridanus is eta, the long open kind of e, which tends to alternate with a; the Akkadian version of Eridu was Iritu, which suggests a close vowel. The Greeks identified Eridanus with the Po, or an amber-bearing river somewhere northward in Europe, or with the world-encircling river of Ocean, or with a brook near Athens.
Achernar certainly was invisible to the Sumerians in 4000 BC, being even farther south than it is now by, I figure, 25 degrees – only 8 degrees from the south celestial pole. Canopus, which is now at declination -53, was farther south by 6 degrees, so from Sumeria’s latitude of about 30 it briefly peeped no more than a couple of degrees above the horizon. Catching sight of it would have been as much of a feat as it is now from Virginia. Could the great southern Star of Enki have been Rigel or Sirius?
For the Sumerians presumably the world was flat, so the celestial equator itself would have had no meaning for them, except possibly that the Sun rose and set on it, due east and west, at the equinoxes. But these constellations were the ones that struggled up from the southeastern horizon and stood in the south over the Marsh and the sea, and sank to the southwestern horizon. You could well have imagined that their home was Enki’s watery abyss that underlay the world.
That underworld, from which Enki emerged to found Eridu and civilization, was Abzu, and his temple in Eridu was E-Abzu, “house of the abyss.” Yet the word abyss seems to be simple Greek: a-byssos, “no bottom.” Is that another coincidence? Incidentally, since an abyss is not just deep but infinitely deep, it’s a bit of a misnomer when we term the floor of the ocean an “abyssal plain.”