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Babylonian Science and the Gods

As early as 2500 BCE in Mesopotamia, Babylonians were systemizing their ideas about the material world. This is described by Sir William Dampier in his book, A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion. Dampier writes of rulers in Babylon realizing the importance of fixed units of physical measurement and of their maintaining standards of measurement in length, weight and capacity.

In Babylon, mathematics and engineering were developed, including a decimal system that made working with fractions easier – the decimal system based on our number of fingers. It was applied to construction, surveying, town planning and map making, including a map of what they perceived to be the world.

Today we know of Babylonian mathematics from some 400 clay tablets with Cuneiform script, unearthed since the 1850s. The majority of these tablets dated 1800 to 1600 BCE, around the time of Hammurabi, and the tablets covered topics such as fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations.

The Babylonians also measured time, drawing perhaps from the fact that there were 12 lunar months in a year. Seeing lunar months as a creation of the gods, units of 12 were important to them. They divided the year into 12 months and 360 days. They divided day and night into 24 hours (two 12-hour periods), and sticking with their attachment to units of 12 they divided the hour into 60 minutes (5 times 12) and minutes into 60 seconds. (Maybe because we have five fingers on a hand.) Tying measurement to the gods produced an overly simple result that was not accurate regarding the length of year, and to compensate for the inaccuracy they occasionally added days as gifts from the gods.

Babylonian civilization worked with measurement holding to the view that what they were measuring was controlled by the gods. They looked to the movement of stars to discern the intentions of their gods. Their calculations produced an astronomy that was also astrological. Seeing gods permeating everything, they made no distinction between astronomy and astrology.

Babylonian civilization had its ritual specialists, up from the voluntary shamanism that had preceded Sumerian civilization. Babylonians were devoted to expertise. Among their healers were experts in magic, building from the belief in magic and the ever-presence of gods that had also preceded Sumerian civilization. In associating events with gods, a successful prediction was seen as prophecy, and the gods were seen as selective in choosing whom they leaked their secrets to, and seen as stingy in that leaking. Mesopotamian civilization was creating oracles who often communicated in riddles – a vagueness that allowed a more creative interpretation.


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