Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Cooley, Jeffrey L., Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East: The Reflexes of Celestial Science in Ancient Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Israelite Narrative (History, Archaeology, and Culture of the Levant, 5; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013). Pp. ix + 396. Hardcover. US$54.50. ISBN 9781575062624.

The book under review is a study of references to celestial science in Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Israelite narrative. It is directed toward scholars of the history of science or ancient Near Eastern divination, as well as general readers in these issues. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive analysis, but it undoubtedly offers a helpful synthesis of existing sources and theories.

The volume is a revised and updated version of Cooley's PhD dissertation (2006). The entire manuscript has been extensively rearranged. Chapters 2 and 4 have been revised, chapters 1, 5 and 6 rewritten, and chapter 3 has been updated with new materials.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The main body (chs. 2–6) examines in detail scientific and literary texts related to starry hosts from Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Israel over a range of two millennia, whereas the introductory section (ch. 1) and concluding chapter (ch. 7) offer research queries and summary results.

The introduction outlines current issues in this area of research (pp. 1–27). First, it underscores the underlying “pan-Babylonianism” (pp. 2–6) and the lack of research on “astronomical concepts and methods within a particular context” for Assyriology (p. 8). Then it argues that there is “no evidence” of ancient literary authors' awareness in depicting “celestial phenomena” for Ugaritology (p. 17) and comments on the unsubstantiated beliefs from biblical studies about the Israelites' indifference to the “natural world” (p. 15). The introduction concludes with explanations of Cooley's terminological choices (pp. 26–27).

The second and third chapters (pp. 28–86), as well as the fourth (pp. 87–179), consider the great traditions of Mesopotamia: first, the scientific sources (astrological, calendrical and divination materials) and secondly the literary ones (Bilgames and Huwawa, Kutha Legend, Erra and Išum, Enlil and Ninlil, Inana and An, Dumuzi's Ascent, the Labbu Myth, Girra and Elamatum, the Exaltation of Ištar, and Enūma Eliš).[1]

The scientific part is a compendium of results reached by other scholars (inter alia H. Hunger, U. Koch-Westenholz, F. Rochberg)[2] and it provides a reference framework for subsequent chapters. The main stages of development in celestial-science traditions are offered in chronological order. Before the OB period, observations of the moon and stars had both calendrical and agricultural goals. During the OB period, celestial observations improved in support of several goals from the calendrical to the divinatory. Turning to the MB/MA period, there was the so-called “Enūma Anu Enlil Paradigm,” namely a list of astronomic and meteorological phenomena with astrological and divination purposes. During the NB/NA period, there emerged the “monarchic, especially Assyrian, reliance on celestial divination for policy making” (p. 85).

The literary section is a survey of the research conducted personally by Cooley. It analyzes the different usages of stars. First, they are used to frame the narration as celestial guidance during journeys (for instance, in Bilgameš and Huwawa, pp. 89–93), as favorable/unfavorable astral conjunctions (such as in Erra and Išum, pp. 102–3), and as deities' celestial features (for example, in Erra and Išum, p. 101). Second, they appear as technical terms of Mesopotamian celestial divination (i.e., bibbu, manzāzu, šarūru maqātu, pp. 95–110) and catasterisms (mostly, in Enūma Eliš, pp. 140–158). To sum up: the celestial aspects are deeply rooted in Mesopotamian culture and this pervasiveness is shown by the number of references in sources of different genres and intended uses.

The fourth chapter (pp. 180–224) discusses Ugaritic evidence. In general, relevant Ugaritic sources are scarce. The scientific texts are RS 23.038 (solar eclipse), KTU 1.163 (list of celestial omens), and KTU 1.78 (celestial overtone). Despite several interpretations, this indicates that there were lunar and solar observations with calendrical and cultic purposes. The literary texts are the Baal Cycle, Šahar and Šalim, and Yarikh and Nikkal-and-Ib. Here, celestial bodies are not relegated to the sidelines of narratives but play important roles. Overall, however, it seems there was a limited celestial tradition in Ugarit.

The fifth (pp. 225–87) and sixth (pp. 288–327) chapters deal with the scientific and then with the literary sources for Israel. When compiling scientific references, Cooley considers both textual and archaeological data. He starts with a study of celestial-science terminology in the Hebrew Bible (pp. 226–45), and then considers features of astral religion (pp. 245–52) and celestial divination (pp. 252–61) in Iron Age Israel, before concluding with reconstructions of calendars in the Hebrew Bible (pp. 263–85). In Israel, it seems that celestial observations were largely related to astral veneration and calendrical regulation. The literary sources studied include several biblical texts (Josh 10; Judg 5; 2 Kgs 20:1–11, and Isa 38:1–8, 21–22; Gen 1:14–18). These are analyzed and the active roles of celestial bodies in the narratives are highlighted, alongside their characterization as faithful “servants” to Yahweh (p. 326). These chapters present Israelite practices as “relatively simple” (p. 286) in comparison with Mesopotamian ones.

This book is a fine contribution to academic research. However, the misleading title of the volume should be noted. Rather than surveying figures of speech that describe celestial bodies and starry hosts, it instead focuses on “the ways in which the authors (…) incorporated and reflected on their cultures' systematic speculations about the starry heavens in literary discourse” (p. 3).

The book's format and layout are attractive: it is printed on good-quality paper, contains helpful indexes, and has an updated bibliography. Regrettably, there are a few typographical inaccuracies (for example, the double spelling Gilgamesh/Gilgameš [p. 6, n. 21] or the misprint Irra instead of Erra [p. 96 n. 19]), but none of these is crucial.

To conclude, this volume is a useful tool for specialists as well as general students. It succeeds in 1) bridging the gap between science texts and literary ones, pointing out the common cultural matrix shared by science and literature in relation to heavenly knowledge; 2) highlighting cultural, historical and literary differences among the three regions; and 3) engaging readers with diverse backgrounds.

Michela Piccin, Northeast Normal University, Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations (IHAC)

[1] For more about Lugalbanda, not considered in this discussion, see C. Wilcke, “Vom klugen Lugalbanda” in K. Volk (ed.) Erzählungen aus dem Land Sumer (Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden, 2015), 203–72. reference

[2] Herman Hunger and David Pingree, The Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (HdO, 44; Leiden: Brill, 1999); Ulla Koch-Westenholz, Mesopotamian Astrology (Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publication, 19; Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1995); Francesca Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). reference