TITLE: Babylonian World Map
DATE: 600-500 B.C.
DESCRIPTION: This later Babylonian clay tablet, dating from the Persian
Period (early 5th century B.C.), shows an asysocentic view of a flat, round
world with Babylonia in the center. Its identity as a map attempting to
depict the entire world is proved by the adjacent text, which mentions seven
outer regions beyond the encircling ocean. This is a slightly different
concept from that of the early Greeks, for whom the encircling ocean was
outside of all known lands.
At this time Babylon was still a flourishing city, regarded as the center
- the "hub" - of the universe. Yet only with the rise to supremacy
of the Babylonian kings, with Hammurabi, toward 2000 B.C., had its claim
to this position become possible. Previously the position was occupied by
one of the former capitals of the earlier kingdoms. Probably the Sumerians
made the city of Nippur- honored by them as a central shrine, a Sumerian
Rome - the center of the universe from about 2300 B.C., for at that time
supremacy was regarded as conditional upon the possession of Nippur.
In addition to the entire kingdom of Babylonia, which is schematically portrayed,
seven unnamed circles are depicted and an accompanying cuneiform text is
found on both sides of the tablet. The text contains names of countries
and cities but, on the reverse side, is chiefly concerned with a description
of the Seven Islands or regions which are depicted in the form of
equal triangles (only one of which is entirely intact on the tablet) rising
beyond the circle of the Earthly Ocean. Some scholars believe that
there may have been eight "islands" originally. The tablet further
states that these islands are at equal distances of seven miles (from either
each other or from the Babylonian world), around the outer periphery of
the Earthly Ocean. Various legendary beasts are named which were reputed
to live in regions beyond the ocean that encircled the Babylonian world.
A few ancient heroes reached those places, and the badly damaged text appears
to describe conditions in them. The map is really a diagram to show the
relation of these places to the world of the Babylonians.
The Babylonians knew little about the nature of these seven islands. We
hear chiefly only of their various degrees of brightness. From the text
on the tablet and the inscriptions on the chart itself we learn that the
first island lay in the southeast, the second in the southwest, and so on,
in a clockwise sequence.
The descriptions of the first and second islands are not preserved. The
third island is where "the winged bird ends not his flight," i.e.,
cannot reach. On the forth island "the light is brighter than that
of sunset or stars": it lay in the northwest, and after sunset in summer
was practically in semi-obscurity. The fifth island, due north, lay in complete
darkness - a land "where one sees nothing," and "the sun
is not visible." The Sumerians and Babylonians probably had some knowledge,
possibly acquired from other people, of the northern high latitudes and
of the polar nights. Highly remarkable is the sixth island, "where
a horned bull dwells and attacks the newcomer". An exactly similar
presentation, true to tradition, occurs in the same position in an astrolabe
of the 17th century A.D. and has been used in the reconstruction of the
tablet. The seventh island lay in the east and is thus described: "where
the morning dawns," meaning that it faces the sunrise. Again, the islands
are all "seven miles" distant from the earth, but the distance
between them varies, being sometimes six, sometimes nine miles. The description
of two of these islands, however, has not survived.
According to Babylonian ideas, the islands said to lie between the Earthly
and the Heavenly Oceans connected the heavens and the earth. These
islands form bridges to the Heavenly Ocean, wherein are the various
animal constellations, 18 of which are mentioned by name.
Thus round the heavens flowed the Heavenly Ocean, corresponding to
the Earthly Ocean on the earth. And in the Heavenly Ocean
were animal constellations, the "vanished" gods. These probably
recur in the expression "belt of heaven," the Sumerian for which
may be literally translated, "divine animals". As the animal constellations
also sank below the horizon, so the Heavenly Ocean extended beneath
the earth, so that plenty of room existed below the Underworld for the passage
of the sun, moon, and planets. After the overthrow of the old world order
of Apsu and Tiamat or Chaos, the former gods, according to the Babylonian
Epic of Creation, were deposed and banned as animals to the Heavenly Ocean,
by command of the creator of the new world.
In the beginning everything was ocean - the Apsu - Chaos, whence arose a
number of divinities, including Tiamat (the sea) and the gods Anu, Enlil
and Enki (Ea), the later representatives of the tripartite world. Now Apsu
desired to destroy his offspring, but was killed by Enki, who looked upon
the Apsu as his home. Then Tiamat, who went forth to revenge Apsu, was vanquished
in conflict with Sumer, Babylon and Assur, respectively. Now before the
struggle, Tiamat had created, in place of Apsu, huge monsters in animal
form. The late Sumerian ruler, Gudea of Lagash (2600 B.C.), records in his
inscriptions seven such monsters; in Hammurabi's time (about 2000 B.C.)
the number was eleven. The text of the Babylonian cosmos, however, enumerates
eighteen animals, but the names of two of them are not known. Each of the
last two texts named begin with the same three animals: Basmu, Mushus and
(Laha) mu. It appears from these tests that in the course of time new kinds
of animals were added.
All of these animal constellations, though not to be confused with our zodiac,
knowledge which, in this form, has not been traced beyond about 420 B.C.,
may nevertheless be approximately equated with our zodiacal signs; among
other things and changes, however the names have naturally altered in the
course of time. The chief animals are also shown on some post-Babylonian
tablets of an astronomical nature. Karl Maasz has therefore made use of
these drawings in his reconstruction, in which pictures of the so called
boundary stones have served as guides. According to the drawings of the
clay tablet in question, the order of the animal constellations run from
right to left - from north to west, then around to the east. The text contains
the following full list of "animals" in the Heavenly Ocean
: (1) the adder (Basmu); (2) the red serpent (Mushus)- a typical name
for the dragon of Babybn which the god Marduk borrowed from the god Enlil
of Nippur; this dragon appears as a decoration on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
He is of special interest because the four animal elements which compose
him are borrowed from the neighboring animal constellations: the front legs
from the lion standing before him; the back legs from the raven or eagle
standing behind him; the scorpion's sting on his tail from the scorpion
next to him here. The dragon himself represents in principle a serpent -
the hydra; (3) the Lahamu, a serpent with the front feet of a lion, also
reminiscent in this respect here of its neighbor, the lion (the hydra);
(4) the gazelle; (5) the bull (in the late Sumerian period, a wild bull);
(6) the panther; (7) the ram; (8) unknown; (9) the lion (the constellation
Leo); (10) the jackal (the constellation Cassiopeia); (11) the stag (the
constellation Andromeda); (12) the fowl (? the falcon); (13) unknown; (14)
the monkey; (15) the he-goat, also known as the goat-fish; (16) the ostrich
(probably the crane); (17) the cat; (18) an insect, possibly the grasshopper.
The numbers 1-18 correspond to the numbers on the illustration, except that
numbers 8 and 13 are not preserved in the text of the clay tablet.
These divine animal constellations which dwell in the Heavenly Ocean
are there named the departed gods (in another cuneiform document they are
referred to as the gods of the night and the goddesses of the night) because
they were derived from the earlier "vanished" gods of the Sumerians,
which, as the result of a reform in prehistoric times, were deposed and
replaced by human gods. The Epic of Creation is the acknowledgment of this
All of this - the Seven Islands, the animal constellations and the Heavenly
Ocean - encircle the primary focus of the tablet, the "world map".
The earth proper, again, is displayed as a circular disc. Enclosed by the
circle of the Earthly Ocean lies an oblong marked "Babylon"
with two parallel lines running to it from mountains at the edge of the
enclosure, and running on to a marsh which is identified by two parallel
lines near the bottom of the circle. The marsh can be identified as the
swamp of lower present-day Iraq, its identity secured by the name Bit Yakin
at its left end, the so called "Sea Country" and known to be a
tribal territory covering marshland. A trumpet-shaped arm of the ocean curves
around the right end of the marsh so that its neck touches the lines from
Babylon. Despite the absence of a name, it is clear that the parallel lines
running to and from Babylon represent the river Euphrates. To the right
of Babylon an oval marks Assyria, and above it is apparently Urartu [eastern
Turkey and Armenia]. Several other cities are marked by small circles; one
near the trumpet-shaped sea, named "Fort of the god", is probably
Der [Badrah] at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. The name Khabban to the
upper left appears to denote an area of Elam southeast of the Zagros, geographically
out of place (it might also be another town of the same name otherwise unknown).
At the top, in the north, are the mountains, whence the Euphrates descends,
in a southeasterly direction. In the center lies Babylon - the "hub
of the universe". Encircling the earth is the "Earthly Ocean",
entitled the Bitter River, creating a gulf (the Persian Gulf of today),
it flows across the earth as far as the Euphrates. To the southwest is shown
the land of Habban. For the rest, the map gives various nameless places
indicated only by blank ovals. It is oriented towards the northwest. From
other Babylonian sources it can be learned that for the Babylonians, the
Bitter River or Earthly Ocean was enclosed by a double range of mountains,
those to the east and west - the "sunrise" and "sunset"
range, respectively being specially mentioned.
Obviously this is not so much a topographical map as it is an attempt to
illustrate ideas expressed in the accompanying text, greatest attention
being paid to the remote regions. The Babylonians evidently viewed the earth
as flat, in common with other ancient peoples. Their references to the "four
comers" relate to the directions of the winds and should not be taken
as implying that they thought it was square.
In summary, the Babylonian cosmos comprises a world map executed in cartographic
manner, a contour sketch of the Seven Islands complete with descriptive
text, and finally, a descriptive text (only) of the Heavenly Ocean and its
LOCATION: British Library, London
*Bagrow, L., The History of Cartography, p. 31.
*Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, p. 11.
*Brown, L.A., The Story of Maps, pp. 33, 37.
*Dilke, O.A.W., Greek and Roman Maps, p. 13.
*George, W., Animals and Maps, p. 26.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 111-114.
*Thrower, N.J.W., Maps and Man, p. 14.
*Unger, E., "From Cosmos Picture to the World Map", Imago Mundi,
vol. 2, pp. 1-7.