SLIDE #103

TITLE: Babylonian World Map
DATE: 600-500 B.C.
AUTHOR: unknown
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 reform.

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 animal constellations.

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.


Index of Ancient Maps