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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 3
THE TWENTY-ONE YEARS OF VENUS
LIVIO C. STECCHINI
Copyright (C) 1982 by the Estate of Livio C. Stecchini
One of Kugler's most respected investigations concerns a set of cuneiform tablets which seems to indicate irregularities in the orbital movements of Venus.
The study of cuneiform clay tablets and of the languages in which they are written (Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian) received its major impulse from the discovery around 1850 A.D. at Nineveh, capital of Assyria, of the library of King Assurbanipal (668-626 B.C.). Among the first texts of this treasure trove of ancient literature to be read, there was a tablet, K. 160 - the K stands for Kuyunjik, the modern name of the place where the library was excavated - that records the movements of Venus over a span of twenty-one years. The people of Mesopotamia were so concerned with what happened to Venus in those years that they are supposed to have copied the information through the centuries. Since the first version became known, additional tablets or pieces of tablet containing the same information have surfaced every so often. At times the tablets present the same information arranged in a different format or different order. I believe that those differences in the presentation of the same data are significant; but nobody has tried to explain them up to now.*
According to our present experience, Venus appears to complete her cycle from one side of the Sun to the other and back again in 584 days (a synodic period). She is not visible when she is passing behind the Sun (superior conjunction, which lasts about 60 days) and when she is passing in front of the Sun (inferior conjunction, which lasts about 2 days or longer), because her brightness is swamped by that of the Sun. A great number of civilizations all over the globe, including some classified as primitive, have paid close attention to the dates of the disappearances and reappearances of Venus.
The importance of the cuneiform Venus Tablets is that they provide calendar dates for the beginning and the end of the invisibilities of Venus that are strikingly different from what we would expect.
Rose (Pensée IVR III) aptly quotes these entries of K. 160 as a typical example of how data are presented:
The contents of these entries indicate that the astronomers who recorded the irregular invisibilities of Venus were concerned with establishing whether they portended something ominous. Hence, they listed the appearances and disappearances of Venus together with events such as battles, invasions, good or bad harvests.
There are some errors in the transcription of the figures in our copies of the tablets; the figures were so strange and irregular that copyists at times slipped. But these errors can be corrected because the figures cross-check each other, as one can see from the sample I have provided above. [Most discrepancies involve only a day or two anyway.]
According to the material that was available in the twenties of this century, the information provided in the tablets could be tabulated as follows:
In the twenties, scholars were able to put together pieces of tablet from various sources which verified that the data for the first seven years are probably those of the original record. The lingering doubts about some of the figures for the following fourteen years could be eliminated if a thorough search were to be conducted for other tablets or fragments of tablet, through the masses of tablets that were dumped from the excavations into the storerooms of universities and museums. This is a dull and time consuming enterprise, but at the end highly rewarding. After the death of Kugler its pursuit has been generally neglected;* Otto Neugebauer has given the lead in choosing the less demanding approach, which consists in searching for arguments to discredit the credibility of the record, rather than establishing the exact text of it.
The easiest way to dispose of the Venus Tablets is to assume that some bizarre mind was driven to concoct a set of imaginary dates for the appearances and disappearances of Venus. But this would not explain why the tablets were copied and recopied over so many centuries, as the conventional view would have it.
Against those who wanted to dismiss the tablets as fiction, Kugler proved that they are a report of actual observations. He based his argument on their agreement with the standard form and style of cuneiform astronomical records. He followed his method, which consisted in avoiding abstract general arguments and concentrating on what he knew superbly well, namely, the interpretation of specific astronomical documents according to their language and thought. He concluded that the tablets contain a faithful report of what was seen. But, having shown that unquestionably we are confronted with observational data, he investigated whether the aberrant figures had been determined by peculiar conditions of visibility.
Kugler considered whether astronomical factors, such as an exceptionally bright moon, or meteorological factors such as a long period of cloudy weather, could have confused the observers. All these factors could explain a discrepancy of a few days, not of months. According to the twelfth year of the tablets, Venus would not have been seen for some five and one-half months. According to Kugler himself, in this area of the world the sky is usually of such limpidity that Mesopotamian astronomers, without the help of the telescope, were familiar with the satellites of Jupiter. Furthermore, since the invisibilities of Venus can be recorded for any stretch of history, one would be left wondering why Mesopotamian scholars persisted in transcribing through twelve or more centuries (according to Kugler's dates) the record of observations conducted under particularly unfavorable conditions.
Kugler's investigation convinced the academic world that these tablets had to be accepted as containing the record of actual observations. As a result, Fotheringham, a professional astronomer, Langdon, a specialist in cuneiform philology, and Schoch, a mathematician specializing in retrocalculation, got together as a team in order to examine these tablets from every conceivable angle. All the astronomical factors that could have affected the observations were considered, and so were all the textual factors that could explain any juggling of the figures. The conclusion was that some Babylonian astronomers took great pain in observing and reporting the risings and settings of Venus through a specific period of twenty-one years. But, on the main problem which had caused the launching of the investigation, namely, the irregularity of the reported movements of Venus, the volume (published in 1928), which is thick with facts and figures, kept complete silence except for this cryptic statement (p. 57): "some of these dates are impossible and some others highly improbable."
To the words impossible and improbable of this statement, I can object that its logical meaning is incomprehensible. The astronomer Antonie Pannekoek, in writing her general History of Astronomy (original Dutch text, Amsterdam, 1951; English translation, New York, 1961), since she was not a specialist in Near Eastern studies, based herself on what is said in the above mentioned volume and tried to report its conclusion. Having granted that at least a major body of the tablets contain "observational data," Pannekoek limits herself to this statement: "Nevertheless, among them there is a large portion that is often most erroneous; hence, there are wrongly copied numbers that at times by incorrect phenomena come out right." This is what is said in the Dutch text (p. 25). The reasoning is so contorted that the translator could not cope with it and rendered it (p. 33) as: "Among the dates there are many erroneous figures wrongly copied, or incorrect phenomena."
I have read and reread the original text of Pannekoek, trying to make some sense out of it. At the end I came to the conclusion that she is less fuzzy minded than I thought at first. What are incorrect phenomena? Evidently they are observational data that do not fit established general theory. When Galileo reported what he had seen with the telescope, he was reporting incorrect phenomena according to his colleagues in the universities and observatories of Italy.
At least Pannekoek has been honest about the entire matter. I wonder whether the same can be said of some specialists in ancient astronomy.
In 1940 Arthur Ungnad wrote an entire monograph in order to prove that the tablets contained extensive errors and transpositions; but since, even assuming all this "mixing up," the tablets would still indicate irregular motions of Venus, he found himself driven to argue that, at the time the tablets were written, a regular calendar had not yet come into existence. According to Ungnad, in Mesopotamia there was a sort of muezzin who, keeping a lookout for the new moon, when this appeared announced through the land that a new month had started. Then, if the ripening of the crops indicated that the calendar so established was out of phase, one month was added as necessary. This fantasy does not explain how a people so benighted in astronomical knowledge could keep records of the lower and upper conjunctions of Venus and engage in even more complicated astronomical research. The team of investigators which I mentioned before had examined in depth the structure of the Babylonian calendars and excluded that it could account for the irregularity of the figures.
As late as 1946, the historian of ancient science B. L. van der Waerden rewrote three out of four of the figures in the tablets, and then justified this drastic editing of the documents by stating, "All I have done is to remove inner contradictions from the text." But nobody has ever shown any inner contradictions of this sort in the text; there are only contradictions between the text and van der Waerden's own dogmatic position. As one could expect, the palm must be given to that master of the sophistical evasion, Neugebauer: "From the purely astronomical viewpoint these observations are not very remarkable.
Two great scholars thought that these tablets were so "remarkable" that they dedicated lengthy investigations to them. One of them is Kugler, who concluded that the observations are so important that the crucial need is to establish in which years these observations were made. The famous astronomer Giovanni V. Schiaparelli (1835-1910) had reached the same conclusion in a paper published in 1906, although his much longer study of the subject did not appear until it was published posthumously by one of his pupils (in Scritti sulla storia della astronomia antica, Bologna, 1925-1927).
Kugler took as his starting point a precise and unique element of the Venus Tablets: all versions seem to be concerned with the same period of twenty-one years. Why? He noticed that there is one Babylonian king who ruled twenty-one years. This is Ammizaduga, who is the last or next to the last in the dynasty established by Hammurabi. He ruled before the Babylonian Empire disintegrated and the area was plunged into what modern scholars call the Dark Ages of Mesopotamia. Kugler searched for a link between King Ammizaduga and the observations of Venus: he found that the eighth year was identified by the formula "Year of the Golden Throne" and that the same formula occurs in the Venus records in the text of the eighth year entry. It could be concluded that Kugler had found the answer. But in 1920 F. Hommel objected that the year formula was inserted by a copyist in the reign of Assurbanipal (Assurbanipal is the king in whose library K.160 was discovered). Kugler had granted earlier that the formula fits badly into the text.*
At the time of Kugler, Ammizaduga's reign was dated about 1977-1956 B.C. According to current calculations his reign ended around 1560 B.C. If the latter dating is correct, the tablets would date from shortly before the time of the Fire of Phaethon.
Schiaparelli came to face the same problem for different reasons. As a personality he could be described as the opposite of Kugler. He belonged to a family of adventurous globetrotting scholars. It may be worth mentioning that his brother, who held a chair of mathematics at the same university, Rome, was the father of Elsa, who, after engaging in several unusual activities in the United States and in Europe, settled down as the renowned Paris dress designer.
As a young man Schiaparelli became interested in comets and at the age of twenty-five (1860) he was the first to discover that there is a repulsive force that pushes the tail of comets away from the Sun. After he became a professional astronomer, his first publications dealt with meteorites: he argued that the meteorites that hit the Earth are remainders of comets (1873). Schiaparelli gained universal respect in the community of astronomers, even when he risked bold suggestions such as the one about the canals of Mars. But, when he tried to prove that Venus rotates very slowly and that this rotation has exactly the same period as the period of the movement of Venus around the Sun, he met with determined opposition, even though he was on the right track.
In my essay "The Inconstant Heavens", it is explained why he was touching a sensitive area in the psyche of astronomers. Schiaparelli had anticipated one of the most striking discoveries of recent astronomy: Venus shows always the same face to the Earth, when the two planets are closest to each other. Velikovsky has recognized how much he owes to Schiaparelli: but, on the other side, one can read in the last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (s.v. "Venus", Macropaedia, XIX, 78):
The thought is strictly Velikovsky, even though the infamous name is not mentioned.
Because of the controversy about the movements of Venus, Schiaparelli in his old age turned his attention to the Venus Tablets. His knowledge of Arabic provided the background for the reading of Assyro-Babylonian (which too is a Semitic language). Like Kugler, Schiaparelli became convinced that it was necessary to establish the dates of the twenty-one years of the tablets. He noticed that in the text of the tablets in relation to the movement of Venus, there is mentioned an invasion by hordes of Manda. According to the chronology current at the time of Schiaparelli, these invasions began in the eighth century B.C. Hence, the period of twenty-one years should be put, at most, a few decades before the reign of Sargon II. More recent historians have placed even earlier the first appearance of Manda in Mesopotamia, so that this clue is not as helpful as Schiaparelli thought.
Velikovsky is closer to the dating of Schiaparelli than to that of Kugler, but I would rather withhold judgment on the question whether Kugler or Schiaparelli was right until the very essence of the tablets is understood. Otherwise one risks imitating the opponent of Velikovsky who dates the tablets in the "third millennium B.C.", or even in "3000 B.C.", and then claims that they document conclusively the absolute regularity of the movements of Venus.
In my opinion there is, in the very structure of the tablets, an indication that the data were transmitted from generation to generation because they were the record of abnormal events. After being listed chronologically, the information about the twenty-one years is rearranged in a peculiar way. It is organized by the date of the disappearances of Venus: all the disappearances that occurred in the first month of the year, Nisan, are grouped together, then follow the disappearances that occurred in the second month, and so on up to the end of the year.
It seems to me that if Schiaparelli's long and productive life had been even longer, he would have arrived at the following conclusion: The ancient astronomers were confronted with data that did not fit the known pattern of nature and were trying to discover which pattern could account for them.
Today, we would be trying to determine according to celestial mechanics which pattern of orbits of Venus could account for the data of the tablets. This is exactly the kind of investigation that Rose and Vaughan have pursued and are pursuing. But the astronomers of Mesopotamia were not reasoning in terms of mechanics (as we do after Galileo), and were not reasoning in terms of geometry (as the Greeks and the Arabs did). They were thinking in terms of mathematics: for them the order of the cosmos was expressed by numerical patterns. Hence, my opinion is that they were trying to rearrange the data so that some sort of numerical regularity would emerge.
My method of interpretation can account for the oddest element in the Twenty-One Year Venus Tablets. In the first tablet ever uncovered, K. 160, the data are arranged according to the model I have cited at the beginning of this article, but then unexpectedly the text starts all over again. There are twelve appearances (and subsequent invisibilities) of Venus that are arranged according to a scheme that can be explained in modern terms as follows:
The mathematical genius** who constructed this scheme was trying to prove that the occurrences of the twenty-one year period, far from being a manifestation of a cosmic disturbance, were a manifestation of an even more perfect and beautiful order.
The author of this calculation took some liberty with the empirical data, but so have the astronomers who for the last two centuries have proclaimed the existence of Bode's Law as a "law of nature".
This alleged law of nature had a tinge of Pythagorean occult knowledge from the very beginning. It appeared for the first time in print in 1766, when J. D. Tietz (Titius), a professor at the University of Wittenberg, who wrote on many subjects, particularly physics and biology, but whose main interest was natural theology, gratuitously inserted it into Bonnet's Contemplation de la nature which he was translating into German. Then J. E. Bode, the professional astronomer who championed the nebular hypothesis about the origin of the solar system, in 1772 entered it as a footnote to one of his books; but later he gave credit for it to Tietz. There is a possibility that the formula had been circulating in oral form. It may be expressed as:
The values of n correspond to the positions of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, the small planets, Jupiter and Saturn, outward from the Sun.
As I wrote in 1963, the only certain value of the so-called Bode's Law is that it is a convenient mnemonic device. It fits most empirical data with a rough approximation, but it is flatly contradicted by a few others. Nevertheless, some astronomers loudly proclaimed that Velikovsky's hypotheses about the original orbits of Venus were impossible because of Bode's Law. M. M. Nieto, author of the book The Titius-Bode Law of Planetary Distances: Its History and Theory (Oxford, 1972) wrote, in relation to the Velikovsky controversy, that this assumed law does not prove anything for or against a "recent large scale evolution of the solar system". In the same spirit, C. J. Ransom, a plasma physicist, calculated that, if it were true that at one time Venus was not a planet of the solar system, one could still use Bode's Law by changing one figure in the formula
one should read
with n =-¥, 0, 1, 2, 3,.....remaining the same. But the values of n would refer to Mercury, Earth, Mars, etc. Ransom explained that his exercise "shows what you can do when you start playing with these equations".
My contention is that just as modern astronomers tried to fit into a simple numerical straitjacket the motley family of the members of the solar system, so did the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia with twenty-one years of irregular appearances and disappearances of Venus.
In my essay "The Inconstant Heavens", I have explained the psychological reasons why the human mind, when confronted with the instability of the heavens, in panic reacts by searching for proofs of the "beautiful" order of the cosmos, such as Bode's Law or the mentioned addition to K. 160. Astrology and numerology are reassuring techniques, and I cannot blame those who increasingly turn to them in the present age in which the survival of the human species has become aleatory for causes of our own making.