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A Historical Record of Changing orbits

Babylonian Observations of Venus

Lynn E. Rose

Dr.  Rose is a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (Buffalo). The paper published here was first read at the Velikovsky Symposium, Lewis and Clark College (Portland, Oregon), August 17, 1972.

Copyright 1972 by Lynn E Rose.

Ammizaduga was a relatively obscure king during what is known as the first Babylonian dynasty; he is usually thought to have reigned during the early or middle part of the second millennium before the present era.  One of Ammizaduga's claims to fame is that various cuneiform tablets describing conjunctions of the planet Venus with the Sun are said by some to have derived from observations made during the twenty-one years of his reign.  Ammizaduga's other claims to fame are that he was the great-great-grandson of Hammurabi, and that Ammizaduga (or perhaps it was his son) was the monarch who lost the kingdom to foreign invaders and thus allowed the dynasty of Hammurabi to come to an end.

One of the results of this paper will be the suggestion that the so-called Venus tablets of Ammizaduga have nothing to do either with Ammizaduga or with his times.  But the two major purposes of the paper are, first, to examine some of the ways in which scholars have treated these tablets over the past century or so, and, second, to give you a progress report on the efforts that Raymond Vaughan and I are making to try to determine just which orbits of Venus and of Earth would have produced the patterns of appearances and disappearances that the ancient Venus-viewers say they saw.

The first of these tablets that we are concerned with is now in the British Museum, in whose catalogue it is called K. 160 because it came from Kuyunjik, the site of ancient Nineveh, where it was excavated from the library of Ashurbanipal by Layard about 1850.  The text of this tablet was first published by Rawlinson and Smith in 1870: the text was also published in 1874 by Sayce, this time with a transliteration and with a translation.

In 1880 Bosanquet and Sayce published a translation of K. 160, and offered a preliminary analysis of its contents.  They recognized, for example, that K. 160 contains three distinct groups of "observations" of Venus: the first group consists of lines 1-29 on the obverse of the tablet, the second group consists of lines 31-45 on the obverse and lines 1-32 on the reverse, and the third group consists of lines 33-45 on the reverse.  They also seem to have been the earliest to adopt with specific reference to the Venus tablets the attitude that might be called the "astronomers' dogma," which I will explain in a moment.


But before we consider any more of the literature on these tablets or the ways in which the astronomers' dogma has dominated that literature, it may be useful to look at the nature of the observations themselves.  When Venus is to the east of the Sun, it can be seen in the western sky for a time after sunset and is then spoken of as the "Evening Star."  As Venus moves directly between Earth and the Sun, it is said to be at inferior conjunction with the Sun, and for a brief time Venus cannot be seen because of the brightness of the Sun.  But the "Evening Star" that vanishes from the western sky at inferior conjunction reappears in the eastern sky, west of the sun, as the "Morning Star," and can be seen for some months in the hours before sunrise.  Then Venus approaches superior conjunction, where the Sun is directly between us and Venus, and Venus ceases to be visible from Earth.  After this period of invisibility, however, Venus appears once more in the western sky as the "Evening Star," and the cycle continues.

K. 160 seems to be a record of these invisibilities at inferior and superior conjunction.  Let me give some typical passages from the tablet:

In the month Sivan, on the twenty-fifth day Ninsianna [that is, Venus] disappeared in the east; she remained absent from the sky for two months six days;

In the month Ulul, on the twenty-fourth day, Ninsianna appeared in the west: the heart of the land is happy.

In the month Nisan, on the twenty-seventh day, Ninsianna disappeared in the west;  she remained absent from the sky for seven days; in the month Ayar, on the third day, Ninsianna appeared in the east—hostilities occur in the land, the harvest of the land is successful.

The first invisibility mentioned in these lines involves a disappearance in the east, an invisibility of two months six days, and a reappearance in the west.  This seems to be a superior conjunction.  The second invisibility involves a disappearance in the west, an invisibility of seven days, and a reappearance in the east.  This seems to be an inferior conjunction.  Most of the data in groups one and three on the tablet are of this form.  But the lengths and spacings of these invisibilities have a certain irregularity about them, and they do not conform to the manner in which Venus moves at Present.

The data given in the second group on the tablet do have regularity—even too much regularity to be believable—but they do not conform to the present state of affairs either, and many have wondered if they are actual observations at all.  Actual observations would be marred by weather conditions, yet the data of this second group seem to be almost perfect: the invisibility at superior conjunction is always three months, not a day more and not a day less, and the invisibility at inferior conjunction is always seven days, not a day more and not a day less.  The visibility of the "Morning Star" lasts eight months five days (just once it is eight months four days), and the visibility of the "Evening Star" also lasts eight months five days (just twice it is eight months four days).  This idealized regularity makes these "observations" very suspicious-looking.

Another suspicious feature is that the initial appearances are on the first month, the second day; on the second month, the third day; on the third month, the fourth day; ... and so on, up to the twelfth month, the thirteenth day.  The idealized and somewhat numerological character of this group of data has led most readers, probably correctly, to suspect that this group of "observations" is not directly based on observation at all, and that if we are seeking actual astronomical observations and records, we should concentrate on the first and third groups on the tablet, and not worry about the artificial insertion.


Unfortunately, nearly all treatments of groups one and three on K. 160, and of the genuinely observational material on the other Venus tablets that supplement K. 160, have been based upon what I will call the "astronomers' dogma".  The "astronomers' dogma" is the uniformitarian attitude that the solar system has for untold years been just as it is now, and that Venus and Earth in particular have always been on the same orbits they are on now, except for certain very minor perturbations that are for most purposes entirely negligible.  This means that we can look at the present motions of Earth and Venus and then judge on that basis how accurate the ancient observations were.  If the ancient observations do not conform to what would be expected from the present state of affairs, then the ancient records were defective, and were either fictions or errors, but could not have been accurate observations of what was going on in the sky; accordingly, it is up to us to rewrite those ancient records so that they will conform to what we see in the sky today.

As I mentioned, Bosanquet and Sayce seem to have been the first to introduce this astronomers' dogma into the study of the Venus tablets.  They did so very cautiously, not because they doubted the astronomers' dogma, but because they were afraid that the ancient records were so insufficient that even the astronomers' dogma would not permit the derivation of any definite conclusions.  We shall see that others, such as Kugler, were not so cautious about this as were Bosanquet and Sayce.

We come next to Schiaparelli's 1906 paper in Das Weltall.  This was an abridgement and updating of a long, unpublished monograph on the same subject, the text of which was finally published in 1927, posthumously, in the collection of Schiaparelli's works on ancient astronomy (Scritti Sulla Storia della Astronomia Antica, Bologna, Nicola Zanichelli Editore, 3 vols).  In that collection the monograph on the Venus tablets is preceded by a long excerpt from one of Schiaparelli's letters that deals with further questions about the tablets.

In the literature on the Venus tablets, mention is usually made only of the Das Weltall paper; indeed, I have not yet seen any mention either of Schiaparelli's longer monograph or of his letter.  So I take this occasion not only to recommend these neglected contributions of Schiaparelli's, which are important for anyone interested in the Venus tablets, but also to recommend in general the great work that Schiaparelli did on ancient astronomy.  His reconstruction of the systems of Eudoxus and Kallippus would by itself rank him among the major historians of science.  My admiration of his work is tempered by his unwavering loyalty to the astronomers' dogma; but even the astronomers' dogma did not prove an obstacle to his work on Eudoxus and Kallippus, since, after all, Eudoxus and Kallippus were dealing with a solar system not much different from our own.


But when Schiaparelli deals with other subjects—prior, let us say, to -687—it seems to me that his opinions are of less value, precisely because of his acceptance of the astronomers' dogma: Schiaparelli is one of those who feel free to ignore what the tablets actually say whenever they conflict with what modern retro-calculation indicates that they should say.  But in spite of this weakness, enormous credit must be given to Schiaparelli for noticing what had escaped the attention of the philologists, that the tablet K. 2321 + K. 3032, which had been published in 1899 by Craig, was concerned with the same series of observations as was K. 160.  K. 2321 + K. 3032 is referred to with two different numbers because the two pieces of what was later seen to be one tablet were originally numbered separately.  Schiaparelli realized that the end of K. 2321 + K. 3032 overlapped the beginning of K. 160, and this gave him a much larger sample of observations to work with.

Schiaparelli was also the first to recognize that the data on the reverse of K. 2321 + K. 3032 are actual observations.  They are arranged, not chronologically, but in the order of the months of the disappearances of Venus.  All the disappearances in the first month or Nisan are placed together at the beginning, all the disappearances in the second month or Ayar are placed next, and so on, down to all of the disappearances in the twelfth month or Adar.

Another admirable feature of Schiaparelli's work is that he assigns the tablets to a period no earlier than the eighth century.  Vaughan and I, unexpectedly, became inclined toward a similar dating, but for different reasons.  Schiaparelli's reason was that the tablets refer to invading hordes of Manda, whom he believes not to have been on the scene in Mesopotamia prior to the eighth century.  Some of the later criticisms of this account of the Manda are based on Hittite archives and Hittite chronology.  Even in Schiaparelli's own day there were some similar efforts to place the Manda in Mesopotamia prior to the eighth century, but Schiaparelli held firm against this. (Velikovsky may feel that Schiaparelli was on the right track here, in his assignment of a relatively late date to the appearance of the Manda in Mesopotamia.)

The next important work was by Kugler in 1912.  He had noted that some of the observations for the eighth year were missing, and that in their place there was a passage that had never yet been adequately understood.  Kugler showed that this phrase meant "year of the golden throne", and that it was a year-formula that had been used to refer to the eighth year of the reign of Ammizaduga, the next-to-last king during the first Babylonian dynasty.  And so it is at this point that the Venus tablets become linked to Ammizaduga.  If the observations really do date from the time of Ammizaduga, then they are probably 3500 or 4000 years old.

Kugler tried to pin down the epoch more precisely.  His method for doing this is, from my point of view, unsatisfactory.  He realized that the observations as a whole have little similarity to anything we see Venus doing now, but he thought that if he could date one observation, regardless of its "impossible" context, that would be sufficient.  So he picked out one date, from the sixth year of the observations, where Venus is said to have disappeared in the west on the twenty-eighth day of the eighth month.  He then determined that if Venus has always moved in the way that it moves now, then there would have been a series of possible dates about four thousand years ago when Venus would have approached inferior conjunction at new moon and at about the right time of the year.


But even if this sort of backward calculation were sound, which it is not, Kugler's method would still be unsatisfactory in that it allows everything to rest on this one observational record.  In the first place, the observation that Kugler selects is by no means one of our better-confirmed readings: for every one of the sources gives a slightly different report.  One source says that Venus disappeared on the twenty eighth and was invisible for five days.  Another source says that Venus disappeared on the twentieth day of the month (or perhaps later—it isn't clear) and was invisible for three days—and here indeed the scribe adds a comment of his own that the text he is copying is defaced or damaged at this spot!  A new tablet, discovered only after Kugler wrote, says that Venus disappeared on the eighteenth of the month and was invisible for three days.  Obviously, this kind of textual evidence is not the sort on which one should be ready to stake one's whole case, and yet that is precisely what Kugler did.

In the second place, and more importantly, Kugler's use of just one observation is questionable in that if this one observation is ever placed in accord with modern expectations, then other observations on the tablets are automatically placed in conflict with modern expectations.  If you are to reach back to the sixth year of the records by retro-calculation from the present behavior of Venus, you have to pass through all the tablet entries that come after the year six, and each of those later readings must likewise be in accord with your retro-calculation.  This means that the five month invisibility at superior conjunction in year twelve should have lasted only about two months, and that the nine month invisibility at inferior conjunction in year nine should have lasted only a day or two!  In spite of' these difficulties, however, Kugler goes ahead with his calculations, and asserts that Ammizaduga's reign began in the year 1977.

In the next few years there were, as one might expect, a number of objections to Kugler's chronological conclusions, but no one seems to have gone so far as to challenge the astronomers' dogma, which was their real foundation.

In 1920 Hommel suggested that the reference to the "year of the golden throne" was inserted by a later copyist, perhaps during the reign of Ashurbanipal in the seventh century.  It does seem likely that the phrase is a later insertion, for it is located in the space that would originally have contained the rest of the observational material for the eighth year.  As it is now, we have only the date of Venus' disappearance, not the interval of invisibility and not the date of reappearance.  But Hommel thought that even if the insertion was late, the observations themselves still dated from the time of Ammizaduga.  A little later I will question this, but at this point I will merely remark that Hommel's suggestion may also be vulnerable in that W. 1924.802, which is a copy of K. 2321 + K. 3032, contains a scribble "signature" dated in an unreadable year of the reign of Sargon, which would put the insertion a number of decades, at least, prior to Ashurbanipal.  Hommel, however, was not aware of W. 1924.802, since, as the label implies, it was not discovered until four years after his 1920 paper.

The excavation of this new tablet at Kish in 1924 was announced by Langdon in 1925, and was important in that only the right edge of W. 1924.802 is unreadable, whereas its duplicate, K. 2321 + K. 3032, is readable on the right side but is broken off on the left.  Thus, between them both, we have an excellent set of readings for the first six or seven years of the observations, with usually only very minor discrepancies.

In 1927 Sarton published his Introduction to the History of Science, where he made the later very influential pronouncement that: "As early as the close of the third millennium, Babylonian astronomers recorded heliacal risings and settings of the planet Venus."  Sarton supports this claim with a footnote mentioning Kugler and Schiaparelli.  As we have seen, however, Schiaparelli dated these observations at about the eighth or seventh centuries, and Kugler dated them as covering the reign of Ammizaduga from 1977-1956.  Sarton's reference to "the third millennium" is quite an overstatement of the case, but if you think that's bad, consider what happened in 1950.  In the rush to find evidence against Velikovsky, Sarton's sloppy use of "the third millennium" as a substitute for "1977-1956" was resurrected from the libraries and rephrased as "3000 B.C." by people like Kaempffert.  This whole comedy of errors is traceable back to Kugler.  Why Schiaparelli was implicated in it escapes me.

The next major study of the Venus tablets was by Langdon and Fotheringham in 1928.  Their book is important for the student of the tablets in that they bring together a great deal of material that is not available in any one other place; unfortunately, however, their book is dominated and severely handicapped by the astronomers' dogma, and they find it necessary to scoff at much of what the tablets say was seen, simply because such things are not seen today.


Further attempts to deal with the tablets along uniformitarian lines were made by Ungnad in 1940 and van der Waerden in 1946.  Van der Waerden plays the uniformitarian game much better than some of his predecessors, but the main reason I want to mention him here is that he is the clearest example I have found of an unfortunate way of talking and thinking that is characteristic of uniformitarians.  He says at one point, after either rejecting or radically rewriting about three out of four of the recorded observations, that: "All I have done is to remove inner contradictions from the text".

It must be admitted that there are several genuine "inner contradictions" in the texts; one of them occurs in the passage that I quoted earlier.  When we are told that Venus disappeared on the twenty-fifth day of the third month, was absent from the sky for two months six days, and reappeared on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month, something is wrong here, and it is fairly obvious that we will have to reject at least one of those three items.  But to deal with textual errors of this sort and to rewrite radically the whole set of observations just in order to make them fit the present movements of Venus, as van der Waerden would do, are two entirely different things.  And what van der Waerden and others have done is hardly a matter of correcting "inner contradictions".  The fact that uniformitarians can think and speak of these things as "inner contradictions" is only symptomatic of how deeply ingrained the astronomers' dogma is.  It just never occurs to its victims that they are making any assumptions at all.  As far as they are concerned, if the historical record conflicts with modern retro-calculations, there must be some defect in the historical record, and it is perfectly all right to refer to this defect as an "inner contradiction".

The intransigence of this attitude is one of the barriers that Velikovsky ran into in 1950.  Worlds in Collision devotes pages 198-200 to the Venus tablets.  The approach is very cautious: Velikovsky does not claim to know when they originated, or even what orbits of Venus or of Earth could have produced such observations.  But he does claim, quite correctly, that the present orbits of Venus and Earth could not have produced such observations, and that if the tablets have any reliability at all, then we must admit that Venus was not moving on its present orbit at the time the observations were made.  Velikovsky thus became the first to propose a non-uniformitarian approach to the tablets.

The story from here on is probably familiar to most persons attending this conference.  You will recall that the Venus tablets came up in Payne-Gaposchkin's review, where she appealed to Sarton and to Langdon and Fotheringham.  Payne Gaposchkin's errors of several sorts were reworded by Kaempffert, with such improvements as the substitution of "3000 B.C." for "third millennium" (which had itself been a substitute for Kugler's "1977-1956").  Then Edmondson copied both the errors and the words of both Payne Gaposchkin and Kaempffert.

The irony is that both Velikovsky and his critics were drawing upon exactly the same evidence, namely, the Babylonian Venus tablets.  But when you examine the content of those tablets, they turn out to support Velikovsky and not his critics.  Those uniformitarians who do take the tablets seriously seem to be either unfamiliar with or oblivious to their contents.  How else could Kaempffert say that the Babylonians "saw the planet exactly as we see it"?  How else could Stephens say that: "As I consider the texts in their entirety I get quite the opposite impression [i.e., that Venus was not moving irregularly at the time these observations were made]"?  How else could Neugebauer say that: "From the purely astronomical viewpoint these observations are not very remarkable"?  Such statements fly in the face of the Venus tablets, for there is no way the tablets can be reconciled with the present motions of Venus, except by denying, in one way or another, that the Babylonians saw what they say they saw.


I would now like to conclude with a brief progress report concerning the efforts that Raymond Vaughan and I are making to try to find orbits of Earth and of Venus that will fit the recorded observations.  Our first move, as you might suspect, was to ignore the astronomers' dogma, and to try to make no rash assumptions about what sorts of orbits we would find.  Instead, we tried as far as possible to take the tablet reports as accurate descriptions of what was actually seen, even though they do seem to be marred by (1) a few serious textual inconsistencies of the sort discussed earlier; (2) a score or so minor discrepancies about dates, many of which amount to only a day or two; and (3) several contradictory readings about "east" and "west," none of which presents any major difficulty.

I pointed out to you a little earlier that the events on the tablets, do follow a pattern of sorts—not the present pattern, but a pattern of sorts—in that an invisibility at superior conjunction is followed by an invisibility at inferior conjunction, then there is another invisibility at superior conjunction, and so on.  In order for this kind of sequence to continue without an interruption, as it does, the orbits of the two planets must lie in nearly the same plane; otherwise, some conjunctions would not be accompanied by invisibility, or, if the inclination of the orbital planes were great enough, the very concept of a "conjunction" with the Sun might lose much of its importance, as it does, for example, in the case of comets.  At least for the time being, therefore, we decided to ignore any motions in latitude.

It should be recognized that a near collision between Earth and another planet would likely have changed the length of the day, the length of the month, and the length of the year.  So if the tablets refer to some state of affairs prior to such a near collision, we cannot be certain what was meant by the words "day", "month", and "year".  But in a ratio of quantities, the units are irrelevant, so we decided to work in terms of the ratio of the period of Earth to the period of Venus.  For purposes of our constructions, we chose to work with denominators of 19.  After investigating ratios of 2/19, 4/19, 6/19, and so on, up to 36/19, we found that the ratio at the time of the observations was just about 31/19, or about 1.63, a little higher than the present ratio of about 1.625.

Our lack of any definite units of time or distance was also a problem when we tried to deal with sightings of Venus made from Earth, where the nature of the sighting depends both upon the size and eccentricity of the orbit being followed by Venus and upon the size and eccentricity of the orbit being followed by Earth, and yet we were in no position to say anything about the actual sizes of the orbits.  We found a way around this problem by working with changing heliocentric angular velocities, which provided a way of handling sightings and invisibilities without knowing the actual sizes of the orbits.

Proceeding in that way, we found that the observations recorded for years one through nine seem to make sense with an Earth eccentricity of about .1 and a Venus eccentricity of about .15. Years ten through seventeen also make sense with Earth .1 and Venus .15, but the perihelion of Earth's orbit appears to have been shifted from where it was during years one through nine, so that you do not have the same state of affairs as before.  Years nineteen through twenty-one make sense with Earth .0 + and Venus .15.  These figures are tentative, and need to be tied down more precisely; and we also need to make sure that no better orbits for explaining the observations are available.

At present, there are still seven spots at which the fit between the pattern of invisibilities recorded on the tablets and the pattern of invisibilities that we constructed is less than satisfying.  Six of these discrepancies vary from a few thousandths of a "year" to a few hundredths of a "year"; that is, from about a "day" or two to about ten "days" or so.  I hope that we soon will have improved upon this by introducing slight changes and refinements into our model, for we still have considerable leeway for the further manipulation of the characteristics of the orbits.

The only discrepancy I really worry about is the seventh and most serious of those I mentioned.  Even if we manage to save all of the remaining phenomena, I see little chance that anything can be done to save this one, which is the eastern disappearance on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month of the eighth year.  Our model requires that the invisibility ought to have begun at least a month earlier than that.  There is some consolation in the fact that this phenomenon belongs to the eighth year, the one that was partially missing and that now contains the year-formula of Ammizaduga.  There is further consolation in that no wholesale rewriting of the text is involved: if one word, the name of the month Adar, could be changed to Sabat, that would be enough to make things right.  But perhaps we should not apologize at all for this one discordant reading, for in doing well by all but one of the phenomena we have already avoided the past practice of having to rewrite most or even nearly all of the recorded observations.

The ratio of the period of Earth to the period of Venus for years one through nine is very close to 31/19; and the ratio for years ten through seventeen is slightly less than 31/19, and the ratio for years nineteen through twenty-one is slightly greater than 31/19.  Since there is no sign here of any definite change in the orbit of Venus, this change in the ratios would presumably be due to a change in Earth's orbit; and this suggests that Earth's orbit in years one through nine was slightly greater than in years ten through seventeen and slightly smaller than in years nineteen through twenty-one, if the length of the day and the length of the month were not altered enough to distort the observers' estimate of the length of the year to such a degree that this inference about the sizes of Earth's successive orbits would be invalidated.  That is a big "if".

In none of these three states of affairs do the orbits of Venus and Earth intersect; thus it seems clear that no collision between Earth and Venus was imminent at the time of these observations.  Neither a very large Venus orbit, nor a highly eccentric one (say, .3 or greater), nor a Venus orbit that was highly inclined to the ecliptic, could have produced the observations recorded on the tablets.  This does not mean, of course, that at some other point in time—presumably earlier—Venus could not have had a very large orbit, or a highly eccentric one, or one that was highly inclined to the ecliptic, but it does mean that such things were not going on at the time of these observations.

But what was the time of these observations?  Since the ratio of the periods of Earth and Venus in each of the three situations is so close to what it is now, it seems unlikely that the observations date from very far before the present orbits of Earth and Venus were established.  If we use Velikovsky's own theory as a guide in trying to date the observations, a favorable period would appear to be the eighth century, when Earth and Venus were perhaps not very far from their present orbits (compared, at least, to where they had been at earlier times) and yet were on orbits that were definitely not the same as their present orbits.  If it was Mars that was the main threat during this period, it may be that the change in Earth's orbit at about year nine was due to a near collision with Mars; the atmospheric opacity and the disruption of living conditions that would result from such a near collision might explain why Venus was not observed for a period of nine months and four days.  A similar Earth Mars perturbation might have been responsible for the transition from the year ten through year seventeen state of affairs to the year nineteen through year twenty one state of affairs.

It seems clear, then, that our findings not only are consistent with Velikovsky's theory, but also may be regarded as providing further confirmation of his theory.

It should be noted that if the Venus observations do indeed date from the eighth century, then they have nothing to do with Ammizaduga, and the later insertion of Ammizaduga's year-formula was an ancient error.  Hommel suggests that this insertion was made by a scribe during the reign of Ashurbanipal (although we saw that the signature on W. 1924.802 seems to preclude that late a date for the insertion).  But whenever it was done, this error was presumably caused by the coincidence that the Venus observations and the reign of Ammizaduga both covered twenty-one years.  If these observations do date from the eighth century, any attempt to connect them with Ammizaduga would involve an error of from seven to twelve centuries, depending upon just when it was that Ammizaduga actually reigned.

The catch-phrase, "the Venus tablets of Ammizaduga", has a nice ring to it, but it may be time to give it up as obsolete.

In closing, I would emphasize that these results that Raymond Vaughan and I have reached so far are still tentative; our work is by no means completed, and there are numerous questions that remain to be investigated.


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