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Babylonian literature and science

The Babylonians were an ancient culture located in what is now Iraq. They had very advanced systems of writing, science and mathematics for the time period in which they lived. Most of what we have from the Babylonians was written in cuneiform on clay tablets.


There are many Babylonian literary works the titles of which have come down to us. One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, in twelve books, composed by a certain Sin-liqi-unninni, and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh. The whole story is a composite product, and it is possible that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure.

Another epic was that of the Creation, the object of which was to glorify Bel-Marduk by describing his contest with Tiamat, the dragon of chaos. In the first book an account is given of the creation of the world out of the primeval deep and the birth of the gods of light. Then comes the story of the struggle between the gods of light and the powers of darkness, and the final victory of Marduk, who clove Tiamat asunder, forming the heaven out of one half of her body and the earth out of the other. Marduk next arranged the stars in order, along with the sun and moon, and gave them laws which they were never to transgress. After this the plants and animals were created, and finally man. Marduk here takes the place of Ea, who appears as the creator in the older legends, and is said to have fashioned man out of the clay.

The legend of Adapa, the first man, a portion of which was found in the record-office of the Egyptian king Amenophis IV (Akhenaton) at Tell-el-Amarna , explains the origin of death. Adapa while fishing had broken the wings of the south wind, and was accordingly summoned before the tribunal of Anu in heaven. Ea counselled him not to eat or drink there. He followed the advice, and thus refused the food which would have made him and his descendants immortal.

Among the other legends of Babylonia may be mentioned those of Namtar, the plague-demon, of Erra , the pestilence, of Etanna and of Anzu. Hades, the abode of Ereshkigal or Allatu, had been entered by Nergal, who, angered by a message sent to her by the gods of the upper world, ordered Namtar to strike off her head. She, however, declared that she would submit to any conditions imposed on her and would give Nergal the sovereignty of the earth. Nergal accordingly relented, and Allatu became the queen of the infernal world. Etanna conspired with the eagle to fly to the highest heaven. The first gate, that of Anu, was successfully reached; but in ascending still farther to the gate of Ishtar the strength of the eagle gave way, and Etanna was dashed to the ground. As for the storm-god Anzu, we are told that he stole the tablets of destiny, and therewith the prerogatives of Enlil. God after god was ordered to pursue him and recover them, but it would seem that it was only by a stratagem that they were finally regained.

Besides the purely literary works there were others of the most varied nature, including collections of letters, partly official, partly private. Among them the most interesting are the letters of Hammurabi, which have been edited by LW King.

Science and Mathematics

Among the sciences astronomy and astrology occupy a conspicuous place in Babylonian society. Astronomy was of old standing in Babylonia, and the standard work on the subject, written from an astrological point of view, which was translated into Greek by Berossus, was believed to go back to the age of Sargon of Akkad. The zodiac was a Babylonian invention of great antiquity; and eclipses of the sun as well as of the moon could be foretold. Observatories were attached to the temples, and reports were regularly sent by the astronomers to the king. The stars had been numbered and named at an early date, and we possess tables of lunar longitudes and observations of the phases of Venus. In Seleucid and Parthian times the astronomical reports were of a thoroughly scientific character; how far the advanced knowledge and method they display may reach back we do not yet know. Great attention was naturally paid to the calendar, and we find a week of seven and another of five days in use. The development of astronomy implies considerable progress in mathematics; it is not surprising, therefore, that the Babylonians should have invented an extremely simple method of ciphering or have discovered the convenience of the duodecimal system. The ner of 600 and the sar of 3600 were formed from the sons or unit of 60, which corresponded with a degree of the equator. Tablets of squares and cubes, calculated from 1 to 60, have been found at Senkera , and a people who were acquainted with the sun-dial, the clepsydra, the lever and the pulley, must have had no mean knowledge of mechanics. A crystal lens, turned on the lathe, was discovered by Austen Henry Layard at Nimrud along with glass vases bearing the name of Sargon; this will explain the excessive minuteness of some of the writing on the Assyrian tablets, and a lens may also have been used in the observation of the heavens.

The Babylonian system of mathematics was a Censored page or base 60 numeral system (see: Babylonian numerals). From this we derive the modern day usage of 60 seconds in a minute and 360 degrees in a circle. The Babylonians were able to make great advances in mathematics for two reasons. First, the number 60 has many small divisors (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30), which made calculations easier. Additionally, unlike the Egyptians and Romans, the Babylonians had a true place-value system in which numbers written to the left represented larger values (Just like in our base ten system 734 = 7×100 + 3×10 + 4×1). Among the Babylonians mathematical accomplishments were the determination of the square root of two correctly to seven places (YBC 7289 clay tablet ). They also demonstrated knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem well before Pythagoras as evidenced by this tablet translated by Dennis Ramsey dating to 1900 BC:

4 is the length and 5 is the diagonal.
 What is the breadth?
 Its size is not known.
 4 times 4 is 16. 5 times 5 is 25.
 You take 16 from 25 and there remains 9.
 What times what shall I take in order to get 9?
3 times 3 is 9. 3 is the breadth.

See also

This article was originally based on content from the 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica. Update as needed.

Last updated: 02-19-2005 17:41:44
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01