First things first: JK. This article really has nothing to do with you, other than you reading it. (Which is much appreciated!) If you’re still reading after that heartbreaking bait-and-switch, let’s take a look at some of the earliest astronomical charts in the history of man—the Babylonian star catalogues.
Maps to the Stars
The Babylonian star catalogues they won’t help you find Ray Liotta’s house, but they do contain lists of constellations, individual stars, and planets. Written in cuneiform during the Kassite rule of Babylonia (ca. 1531-1155 BCE), these catalogues collected earlier observations and newly-observed information into handy compendia.
The first of these catalogues, dated to roughly the 12th century BCE, is known as Three Stars Each. Comprising several smaller texts, Three Stars Each presents a three-part division of the sky observable to the ancient Babylonians—the northern hemisphere, the equator (extending to 17° north and south), and the southern hemisphere. The sky division was carefully calculated so that the sun spent three consecutive months in each third.
Each section was said to “belong” to a different Babylonian deity: Enlil, “Lord of the Storm,” god of breath and wind, in the north; Anu, the “Sky Father” or “King of the Gods,” at the equator; and Enki, the god of suburban Minnesota craft beer, in the south.
The catalogue’s name derives from the list of stars it contained. A total of 36 stars were listed, or three for each month on the calendar. The cuneiform glyph for “star” or “constellation” is written in modern English computerological type as mul. (The superscript is key.) The large–and easily visible to the ancient Babylonians–Pleiades star cluster is referred to as “the star of stars” in Three Stars Each, written as mul.mul.
The second “official” Babylonian star catalogue was called the mul.apin, which loosely translates as “The Plow.” This is also the name of the first constellation to become visible each new year, which modern astronomers identify as Triangulum plus Gamma Andromedae. Again written in cuneiform, the mul.apin was a new-and-improved version of Three Stars Each, with more complete and accurate information.
Research dates the compilation of the mul.apin to approximately 1000 BCE. The earliest known copy of the star catalogue is a pair of preserved stone tablets dated to 686 BCE. The most recent historical versions of the text yet discovered are from roughly 300 BCE.
The mul.apin expands on Three Stars Each, and adds new information. It lists 66 stars and constellations, and includes detailed information on numerous indicators, such as the rising, setting, and culmination dates of those stars.