Moon Observations in Ancient Babylon

Moon Observations in Ancient Babylon

The moon and the sun have been attributed with different phenomena since time immemorial. Particularly, ancient cultures used the different phases of the moon to predict natural occurrences and plan for agricultural activities. In Babylon, the moon was used as the first measure of time, something that was used universally. The declaration of a new month coincided with the emergence of a new moon and was timed to last for approximately 30 days. The system was based on the length of the month and needed upon the sighting of another new moon at alternating months of 29 and 30 days (Neugebauer, 2013). Also, the moon and its phases were also used in approximating the length of a year which was declared after every twelve years. Also, the Babylonians used the moon in recording different times of the day with twelve periods being observed after approximately every two hours. The observations of the moon as record in ancient Babylonian history have practical applications in today’s modern world.

About five thousand years ago, the Babylonians had a calendar that was composed of twelve 30-day months making up a year. Also, the solar year as known then was divided into two seasons which today correspond to the summer and the winter. The first season of summer corresponded with the harvest of barley while the winter corresponds to today’s fall winter. The events of the moon dictated the start of new months and even days. Consequently, the first sighting of a new moon was reported to the king by the astronomers to signal the beginning of a new month. This system is used in modern times to depict the different months that are recorded in a calendar year. In fact, it is the lunar year that was devised by the Babylonians that is still used today to mark the beginning of new months and years (Steele, 2005). Consequently, the cultural observation of the moon and its phases among the Babylonians is practically used in today’s modern world.

In ancient centuries, Babylonians scaled their use of the moon observations to depict the measure of a year with much accuracy. The precision with which the lunar year was developed has its success based on the economic prosperity of the people of Babylon. A measure of a month or a year could effectively be defined using the observations of the moon without having to count the days. Consequently, barley loans were advanced to other farmers and the time of payment calculated using the different phases of the moon. In addition, the loaned person would effectively know the time of payment by observing the phases of the moon that corresponded to a month or year (Neugebauer, 2013). The definition of a month was also based on the phases of the moon and was an effective measure of the agricultural seasons. Moreover, the Babylonians had different names for different months thus making it more effective.

The application of moon observations was extended in the marking of days among the Babylonians. Counting from the onset of the new moon, every seventh day was set aside as a holy day during which the people would worship god. On these days, the people were prohibited from doing their normal work as it was considered evil to work on the days. Consequently, every seventh day was considered a day to rest and make offerings to different gods. Although the weeks of the moth had seven days, the last week was composed of either eight or nine days to fulfill the 29 or 30 day requirement for a full month. Extensively, the Babylonian calendar was based on the cycles of the moon and both the month and the year were dictated by the cycles of the moon. The calendar was extensively used in fulfilling ritualistic, administrative and commercial purposes of the people.

The composition of the Babylonian year was based on the observations of the moon and was marked to reflect changing phases. For instance, the year was made of twelve months with each beginning on the evening of the day that the first crescent is observed. The first crescent observed in anew month is usually immediately after the sighting of the astronomical new moon. The year on the other hand began during the spring equinox and was regulated through the insertion of intercalation months every nineteen years (Steele, 2005). Essentially, therefore, the moon was used in Babylon as a measure of time, days and even months. The different phases of the moon were used in declaring different time periods with the king issuing decrees to that effect. As has been seen, the mark of a new month was evidenced by the emergence of the new moon which coincided with other natural phenomena. Normally, the lunar month was composed of 29 or 30 days with the year lasting twelve lunar months. Further, the times within a day were recorded through observations of different moon locations to form twelve periods that were equivalent to two hours today.



Neugebauer, O. (Ed.). (2013). Astronomical cuneiform texts: Babylonian ephemerides of the seleucid period for the motion of the sun, the moon, and the planets (Vol. 5). Springer Science & Business Media.

Steele, J. M. (2005). Ptolemy, Babylon and the rotation of the Earth. Astronomy & Geophysics, 46(5), 5-11.



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