An Ethiopian Journal

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Ethiopian Astronomy/Zodiac

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Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization Part 2
By John G. Jackson (1939)

In the study of ancient affairs, folklore and tradition throw an invaluable light on historical records. In Greek mythology we read of the great Ethiopian king, Cepheus, whose fame was so great that he and his family were immortalized in the stars. The wife of King Cepheus was Queen Cassiopeia, and his daughter, Princess Andromeda. The star groups of the celestial sphere, which are named after them are called the ROYAL FAMILY (the constellations: CEPHEUS, CASSIOPEIA and ANDROMEDA.) It may seem strange that legendary rulers of ancient Ethiopia should still have their names graven on our star maps, but the voice of history gives us a clue.

A book on astrology attributed to Lucian declares that: “The Ethiopians were the first who invented the science of stars, and gave names to the planets, not at random and without meaning, but descriptive of the qualities which they conceived them to possess; and it was from them that this art passed, still in an imperfect state, to the Egyptians.” The Ethiopian origin of astronomy is beautifully explained by Count Volney in a passage in his Ruins of Empires, which is one of the glories of modern literature, and his argument is not based on guesses. He invokes the weighty authority of Charles F. Dupuis, whose three monumental works, The Origin of Constellations, The Origin of Worship and The Chronological Zodiac, are marvels of meticulous research. Dupuis placed the origin of the zodiac as far back as 15,000 B.C., which would give the world’s oldest picture book an antiquity of 17,000 years. (This estimate is not as excessive as it might at first appear, since the American astronomer and mathematician, Professor Arthur M. Harding, traces back the origin of the zodiac to about 26,000 B.C) In discussing star worship and idolatry, Volney gives the following glowing description of the scientific achievements of the ancient Ethiopians, and of how they mapped out the signs of the zodiac on the star-spangled dome of the heavens:

Should it be asked at what epoch this system took its birth, we shall answer on the testimony of the monuments of astronomy itself, that its principles appear with certainty to have been established about seventeen thousand years ago, and if it be asked to what people it is to be attributed, we shall answer that the same monuments, supported by unanimous traditions, attribute it to the first tribes of Egypt; and reason finds in that country all the circumstances which could lead to such a system; when it finds there a zone of sky, bordering on the tropic, equally free from the rains of the equator and the fogs of the north; when it finds there a central point of the sphere of the ancients, a salubrious climate, a great but manageable river, a soil fertile without art or labor, inundated without morbid exhalations, and placed between two seas which communicate with the richest countries; it conceives that the inhabitant of the Nile, addicted to agriculture from the facility of communications, to astronomy from the state of his sky, always open to observation, must have been the first to pass from the savage to the social state; and consequently to attain the physical and moral sciences necessary to civilized life.

It was, then, on the borders of the upper Nile, among a black race of men, that was organized the complicated system of the worship of the stars, considered in relation to the productions of the earth and the labors of agriculture. Thus the Ethiopian of Thebes named stars of inundation, or Aquarius, those stars under which the Nile began to overflow; stars of the ox or bull, those under which they began to plow, stars of the lion, those under which that animal, driven from the desert by thirst, appeared on the banks of the Nile; stars of the sheaf, or of the harvest virgin, those of the reaping season; stars of the lamb, stars of the two kids, those under which these precious animals were brought forth. Thus the same Ethiopian having observed that the return of the inundation always corresponded with the rising of a beautiful star which appeared towards the source of the Nile, and seemed to warn the husbandman against the coming waters, he compared this action to that of the animal who, by his barking, gives notice of danger, and he called this star the dog, the barker (Sirius). In the same manner he named the stars of the crab, those where the sun, having arrived at the tropic, retreated by a slow retrograde motion like the crab of Cancer. He named stars of the wild goat, or Capricorn, those where the sun, having reached the highest point in his annuary tract, imitates the goat, who delights to climb to the summit of the rocks. He named stars of the balance, or Libra, those where the days and nights being equal, seemed in equilibrium, like that instrument; and stars of the scorpion, those where certain periodical winds bring vapors, burning like the venom of the scorpion.
(Volney’s Ruins of Empires, pp. 120-122, New York, 1926)

The traditions concerning Memnon are interesting as well as instructive. He was claimed as a king by the Ethiopians, and identified with the Pharaoh Amunoph or Amenhotep, by the Egyptians. A fine statue of him is located in the British Museum, in London. Charles Darwin makes a reference to this statue on his Descent of Man which is well worth reproducing: “When I looked at the statue of Amunoph III, I agreed with two officers of the establishment, both competent judges, that he had a strongly marked Negro type of features.” The features of Akhnaton (Amennhotep IV), are even more Negroid than those of his illustrious predecessor. That the earliest Egyptians were African Ethiopians (Nilotic Negroes), is obvious to all unbiased students of oriental history. Breasted’s claim that the early civilized inhabitants of the Nile Valley and Western Asia were members of a Great White Race, is utterly false, and is supported by no facts whatsoever. A similar racial bias is shown by Elliot Smith in his work, The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe, p. 30, New York & London, 1911. “Not a few writers,” says he, “like the traveler Volney in the 18th century, have expressed the belief that the ancient Egyptians were Negroes, or at any rate strongly Negroid. In recent times even a writer so discriminating as Ripley usually is has given his adhesion to this view.” (The writers referred to here, are Count Volney, the French Orientalist and Professor William Z. Ripley, of Harvard University, an eminent American Anthropologist.) Professor Smith is convinced that these men are wrong, because he holds that there is a “profound gap that separates the Negro from the rest of mankind, including the Egyptian.” (Ancient Egyptians, p. 74.) Another English scholar, Philip Smith, is far more rational in discussing this point:

No people have bequeathed to us so many memorials of its form complexion and physiognomy as the Egyptians. If we were left to form an opinion on the subject by the description of the Egyptians left by the Greek writers we should conclude that they were, if not Negroes, at least closely akin to the Negro race. That they were much darker in coloring than the neighboring Asiatics; that they had their frizzled either by nature or art; that their lips were thick and projecting, and their limbs slender, rests upon the authority of eye-witnesses who had traveled in the country and who could have had no motive to deceive. The fullness of the lips seen in the Sphinx of the Pyramids and in the portraits of the kings is characteristic of the Negro. (The Ancient History of the East, pp. 25-26, London, 1881.)

We read of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, in Greek mythology, to be exact in Homer’s Iliad, where he leads an army of Elamites and Ethiopians to the assistance of King Priam in the Trojan War. His expedition is said to have started from the African Ethiopia and to have passed through Egypt on the way to Troy. According to Herodotus, Memnon was the founder of Susa, the chief city of the Elamites. “There were places called Memnonia,” asserts Professor Rawlinson, “supposed to have been built by him both in Egypt and at Susa; and there was a tribe called Memnones at Moroe. Memnon thus unites the eastern with the western Ethiopians, and the less we regard him as an historical personage the more must we view him as personifying the ethnic identity of the two races.” (Ancient Monarchies, Vol. I, Chap. 3.)

The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia are sometimes called the Chaldeans, but this is inaccurate and confusing. Before the Chaldean rule in Mesopotamia, there were the empires of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The earliest civilization of Mesopotamia was that of the Sumerians. They are designated in the Assyrio-Babylonian inscriptions as the black-heads or black-faced people, and they are shown on the monuments as beardless and with shaven heads. This easily distinguishes them from the Semitic Babylonians, who are shown with beards and long hair. From the myths and traditions of the Babylonians we learn that their culture came originally from the south. Sir Henry Rawlinson concluded from this and other evidence that the first civilized inhabitants of Sumer and Akkad were immigrants from the African Ethiopia. John D. Baldwin, the American Orientalist, on the other hand, claims that since ancient Arabia was also known as Ethiopia, they could have just as well come from that country. These theories are rejected by Dr. II. R. Hall, of the Dept. Of Egyptian & Assyrian Antiquities of the British Museum, who contends that Mesopotamia was civilized by a migration from India. “The ethnic type of the Sumerians, so strongly marked in their statues and reliefs,” says Dr. Hall, “was as different from those of the races which surrounded them as was their language from those of the Semites, Aryans, or others; they were decidedly Indian in type. The face-type of the average Indian of today is no doubt much the same as that of his Dravidian race ancestors thousands of years ago. And it is to this Dravidian ethnic type of India that the ancient Sumerian bears most resemblance, so far as we can judge from his monuments. And it is by no means improbable that the Sumerians were an Indian race which passed, certainly by land, perhaps also by sea, through Persia to the valley of the Two Rivers. It was in the Indian home (perhaps the Indus valley) that we suppose for them that their culture developed.  On the way they left the seeds of their culture in Elam. There is little doubt that India must have been one of the earliest centers of human civilization, and it seems natural to suppose that the strange un-Semitic, un-Aryan people who came from the East to civilize the West were of Indian origin, especially when we see with our own eyes how very Indian the Sumerians were in type.” (The Ancient History of the Near East, pp. 173“174, London, 1916.) Hall is opposed in his theory of Sumerian origins by Dr. W. J. Perry, the great anthropologist, of the University of London. “The Sumerian stories or origins themselves tell a very different tale,” Perry points out, “for from their beginnings the Sumerians seem to have been in touch with Egypt. Some of their early texts mention Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha. Dilmun was the first settlement that was made by the god Enki, who was the founder of Sumerian civilization. Magan was famous among the Sumerians as a place whence they got diorite and copper, Meluhha as a place whence they got gold. Dilmun has been identified with some place or other in the Persian Gulf, perhaps the Bahrein Islands, perhaps a land on the eastern shore of the Gulf. In a late inscription of the Assyrians it is said that Magan and Meluhha were the archaic names for Egypt and Ethiopia, the latter being the south-western part of Somaliand that lay opposite.” (The Growth of Civilization, pp. 60“61, 2nd Edition, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1937, Published by Penguin Books, Ltd.)

Written by Tseday

September 14, 2008 at 5:10 am

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