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The Babylonian Universe

WHAT PEOPLE AT WHAT TIME first imagined the Earth as a hollow hemispherical shell floating on the world-waters we cannot know. But it is another of the "oldest figures of Earth." This idea of the Earth as "boat-shaped" had its origin probably in the almost universal myth of the Deluge; the transition from an Ark floating right side up, to the Earth, itself a boat, floating upside down, is an easy one. But "boat-shaped" is a word which, thanks to our modern patterns, has lost its early significance. The ancient world had, however, among a certain people, a boat built on exactly such an hemi- spherical model. To-day, on the Euphrates River, these same kufas float--the round boats of the ancient Chaldeans, made of skins, stretched and sewed into a hollow hemisphere. And to-day, likewise, on the same river, fishermen ride at ease on the same inflated cushions or air-boats of skin that were in use thousands of years ago. Nothing skimmed the waters more swiftly than these circular


PLATE VI. THE PRIMORDIAL EARTH AND SEA<br> (From <i>Cosmographia Universalis</i>, Sebastian Muenster, 1599).
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(From Cosmographia Universalis, Sebastian Muenster, 1599).

boats, and nothing floated more safely than these hollow hemispheres of stretched skin upturned on the waters.

There is a curious relation between the ancient boats and the Assyrian story of the Creation. If these boats were hemispheres of stretched skin, so were the Heavens and the Earth. Merodach, the world-maker of this legend, lay for a long time helpless like the other gods under the blind rule of Chaos-Tiemat, from whom sprang everything and who created unceasingly, but who had yet created neither Heaven nor Earth. From her issued spontaneously monstrous animals and figures, men with two wings and others with four, with two faces or four, with goats' legs and horns, or with the hindparts of a horse and the foreparts of a man; animals with human heads or fishes' tails; other forms in which every sort of animal shape was united in confusion, and this confusion of creation run mad never ceased.

But finally Merodach arose, alone of all the gods, to meet her, and then it was that Space witnessed its most terrific combat. He finally slew her, but matters were hardly bettered, for Tiemat's great dead body stretched throughout all Space. "He placed his foot upon her," reads the Assyrian story, "and with his unerring knife he cut into the upper part of her; then he cut the blood vessels, and caused the blood to be carried by the north wind to the hidden places. . . . He contemplated the great corpse, raised it and wrought marvels. He split it in two as one does a fish for drying; then he hung up one of the halves on high, which became the heavens." The

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other half he spread out under his feet to form the Earth, and immediately all the creatures that were in her disappeared. Merodach again surveyed the empty world; then he cut off his own head, and, having kneaded the blood flowing from it with the Earth, formed men, who were thus endowed with a surviving particle of understanding and with a surviving particle of divine thought.

This odd conception of the heavens as made of "skin" is found over and over among primitive races. The Yakuts say that the sky is made of several skins, tightly stretched and overlapping. The Buriats call the Milky Way a "stitched seam" in the sky, and they speak with awe of a "certain being" who murmurs from time to time, "Long, long ago, when I was young, I sewed the sky together."

The picture of the kufa (Plate VII, A) is given to make clearer what most of the writers on the old Akkadian cosmogony mean when they say, "The Akkadians or Chaldeans considered the Earth to be hollow and boat-shaped." For "boat-shaped" meant to them no elongated oval figure, but distinctly a hollow hemisphere, a round shell, even a "stretched skin." Plate VII, B shows Myer's construction of their world on just this model, and his interpretation is followed below. 1

Briefly, E is the convex side of the hollow Earth shell. From C to E stretches the Lower Firmament, or zone of the atmosphere--winds, storms and clouds; this zone rests firmly upon the convex Earth shell. From C to A is the Upper Firmament, divided into two layers; from A to B

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is the zone of the spirit of the heavens; and from B to C is the zone of the planets--"sheep," or "wanderers," or "watchers." This is the zone also of lightning and of thunder. A, in this diagram, represents the Zodiac, which is "in Space and the Great Celestial Ocean," called also the "Deep" and the "Abyss." T’hom, the Great Dragon of this Great Sea, was also called Tiemat, and it was really looked upon as the Primordial Abyss out of which everything in the Universe, including Heaven and Earth, came. The arrangement of the seven planets, between B and C, are, according to Myer, a. Saturn, b. Jupiter, c. Mars, d. Sun, e. Venus, f. Mercury, g. Moon, and Earth the centre.

F F is the concave side of the Earth shell, with seven zones described, "answering," says Myer, "as shadows, to the orbits of the seven planets." This was the realm of the king of the ghost-world, the king of the dead. Curiously enough, it was believed to have been ruled over at one time by Ea, deity of Wisdom. G was the Nadir, and I was the mountain of the East, or the mountain of the world, which supported the Upper Firmament and the Great Celestial Ocean. II is the Great Chaotic Crystalline Sea, extending to an unknown distance beyond the Zodiacal zone. III is the pivot of the Star zone, on the top of the World mountain, upon which the firmament revolves. IV are the guarded gates to the Underworld, abode of the dead, or home of the dark spirits, or a place for punishment. Yet in it are concealed the waters of life, and through this region of the Underworld the nightly journey of the Sun takes place, from west to east.

Disregarding any number of merely technical differences

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between them, this diagram of Myer's will serve as a fair picture of any cosmogony based on the idea that the Earth is a hollow hemisphere with an underworld. But there is sharp disagreement over whether after all the ancient Assyrian people--certainly the Chaldeans and Babylonians--believed that the Earth was a hemispherical shell, or whether they believed that it was something quite other than that.

Babylon was mighty, and it perished utterly. Of all its wisdom, only battered fragments of texts remain; which present-day scholars have worked for years to interpret. Within a period of just twenty years, from 1888 to 1908, eight different diagrams of the supposed figure of this Babylonian Universe were offered by eight different men, of which Myer's diagram was the first. The last of these is Dr. William Fairfield Warren's, first published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1908. As he points out, no two of the other seven agree; certainly no one of the other seven bears any likeness to this beautiful construction of eight crystalline spheres surrounding a cubical, pyramidal, antipodal Earth-figure (Plate VIII).

"For the reconstruction of the Babylonian universe," he says, "we have no less than twelve most valuable data derived from the study of ancient Babylonian texts." Following is an abstract of the twelve data on which he modelled this translucent universe. 1

1. In the Babylonian conception of the universe the


PLATE VII. A. <i>A kufa laden with stoner and manned by a crew of four men. Drawn by Faucher-Gudin from a bas-relief at Koyunjik</i>.<br> (From <i>The Dawn of Civilization</i>; Gaston Maspero, 1894)
Click to enlarge

PLATE VII. A. A kufa laden with stoner and manned by a crew of four men. Drawn by Faucher-Gudin from a bas-relief at Koyunjik.
(From The Dawn of Civilization; Gaston Maspero, 1894)

PLATE VII. B. Construction of the Akkadian, Chaldean and Babylonian Universe.<br> (From <i>Qaballah</i>; Isaac Myer, 1888)
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PLATE VII. B. Construction of the Akkadian, Chaldean and Babylonian Universe.
(From Qaballah; Isaac Myer, 1888)


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FIGURE 35. <i>Babylonian</i> ''<i>Mappa Mundi</i>'' <i>inscribed on a Babylonian geographical tablet in the British Museum, No. 92,687. Showing the ocean surrounding the world, and marking the position of Babylon on the Euphrates as its centre. It shows also the mountains at the source of the river, the land of Assyria, Bit-Iakinu, and the swamps at the mouth of the Euphrates</i>.<br> (From <i>Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets, etc., in the British Museum</i>, 1906: Part XXII, Plate 48. The reading is taken from <i>The Babylonian Legends of the Creation</i>. Brit. Mus. Pubs., 1921, p. 3.)
Click to enlarge

FIGURE 35. Babylonian ''Mappa Mundi'' inscribed on a Babylonian geographical tablet in the British Museum, No. 92,687. Showing the ocean surrounding the world, and marking the position of Babylon on the Euphrates as its centre. It shows also the mountains at the source of the river, the land of Assyria, Bit-Iakinu, and the swamps at the mouth of the Euphrates.
(From Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets, etc., in the British Museum, 1906: Part XXII, Plate 48. The reading is taken from The Babylonian Legends of the Creation. Brit. Mus. Pubs., 1921, p. 3.)


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earth occupied the central place. It was the accepted centre of their planetary system.

2. The northern half of the earth was called the upper, associated with life and light. The southern half was called the under, associated with darkness and death. The South and the Underworld are identical.

3. The upper or northern half of the earth was regarded as consisting of seven stages (tupukati), ranged one above the other in the form of a staged pyramid. The staged Temple of Nippur, according to Sayce, was a model of the Earth according to the belief of those who built it.

4. Correspondingly, the antarctic or under half of the Earth was supposed to consist of seven similar stages. The seven tupukati of the underworld are a facsimile of the seven tupukati of the over world.

5. Like the quadrilateral temple modelled after it, the Earth of the Babylonians was four-cornered. In this particular it agreed with the conception ascribed to the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, Chinese, and to the Indo-Aryans of the Rig-Veda period.

6. In Babylonian thought there were seven heavens and seven hells. This belief is one of untraceable antiquity.

7. Above the seventh heaven was another, the "highest heaven," that of the fixed stars, called by the Babylonians the "heaven of Anu," after the name of one of their oldest and highest gods.

8. This eighth heaven was divided by the Zodiac into two corresponding portions, an upper, or Arctic, and an

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under, or Antarctic. At the upper pole Anu had his palace and throne.

9. In Babylonian thought, the north pole of the heavens was the true zenith of the cosmic system, and the axis of the system upright; consequently the diurnal movements of the sun and moon were regarded as occurring in a horizontal plane.

10. Proceeding outward from the central Earth, the order of the seven known planets was as follows: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. That their respective distances from the Earth were not uniform was already known.

11. In order to pass from the upper half of the Earth to its under half, that is, from the abode of living men to the abode of the dead, it was necessary to cross a body of water which on every side separated the two abodes.

12. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Babylonians considered that the twelve designated stars south of the Zodiac stood in the same relation to the dead as do the twelve corresponding stars north of the Zodiac to men in the land of the living. This representation clearly makes the living and the dead the residents respectively of antipodal surfaces of one and the same heaven-enclosed Earth. According to the Babylonian Creation Tablets (V, line 8) Anu and Ea are antipodally located gods, Anu being enthroned at the north pole of the heavens, and Ea at the south pole.

These twelve propositions, says Dr. Warren, are the fundamental features of the ancient Babylonian world-concept, and each of the twelve requirements is met by

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this figure. The upright central line represents the polar axis of the heavens and Earth in perpendicular position. The two central seven-staged pyramids represent the upper and lower halves of E-KUR, the Earth; the upper is the abode of living men, the lower the abode of the dead. The separating waters are the four seas. The seven dotted half circles above the Earth represent the "seven heavens," and the corresponding seven hemispheres below the earth, the "seven hells." The seven inner concentric spheres are respectively the domains and abodes of Sin, Shamash, Nabu, Ishtar, Nergal, Marduk, and Ninib, each being a "world-ruler" in his own planetary sphere. (The order of these spheres has been given above as Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.) The outer-most sphere (with its upper half cut away, as are the upper seven heavens, to show better the interior of the system) is the sphere of the antipodal gods, Anu and Ea, and the heaven of the fixed stars. It is to be noted further, Dr. Warren explains, that the spaces between the spheres widen rapidly at each remove from the Earth, so rapidly that in a world-view the size of this, they cannot be represented other than as in this plate.

Dr. 'Warren calls this "The Babylonian Universe" principally because Babylonia is almost the limit of our back-ward reach to the wisdom of the past, and our retracing of the persistent recurrences of so many of these principles--the "four-cornered Earth," or the cubical Earth, the "seven heavens," "Earth and counter-Earth," the "crystalline spheres," the "mountains of the world," and so on--must end there. But its origin, he says, was among


PLATE VIII. THE BABYLONIAN UNIVERSE<br> (From <i>The Universe as pictured in Milton's Paradise Lost</i>;<br> William Fairfield Warren, 1915)
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(From The Universe as pictured in Milton's Paradise Lost;
William Fairfield Warren, 1915)

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a people antedating the Babylonians. "A truer name therefore for the system would be the Pre-Babylonian. The East-Semites received it from their predecessors in the possession of the Euphratean valley, the Akkado-Sumarians. At least such is the opinion and the teaching of our highest experts. Did the system originate among those non-Semitic predecessors in the valley? This has been assumed, but no man can pretend to know."


56:1 Qabbalah; Isaac Myer, 1888, pp. 448-450.

58:1 Journal Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1908, pp. 977-983.

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