feature for wellbeing's guide to astrology.
The History of Astrology
Ancient language of the stars.
By Sudha Hamilton
Looking back in time in search of the origins of astrology, we are faced with the question, what is astrology? Is it an advanced scientific hypothesis, based on the premise that the heavenly bodies give off an 'influence,' which affects individual events on earth, or is it primarily a universal language, as argued by Giovanni Pontano, the Italian Renaissance astrologer? Pontano's treatise, On Celestial Things, published in 1512, stated that astrology is "a language of the stars and planets that formed the letters of a cosmic alphabet that conformed in all essential ways to the language of humans." In my experience as an astrologer, it has been the latter definition, which has made most sense to me and encouraged me to take the journey of life guided by the stars above.It is generally agreed that humankind's look to the stars has been one that all the tribes of earth - indeed, every culture - has shared in. Evidence of this remains today on ancient cave and wall paintings, and on surviving archaeological tablets and texts in museums around the world. To look up at the night sky and witness the incredible changes of the celestial light show would have been profoundly awe-inspiring. It would also have stimulated the formation of a number of basic philosophical questions like: why are we here? What is nature of time? Who controls the movement of the stars across the heavens? When we ask, what is the history of astrology? We must consider that, incredibly, there once was a time when the inhabitants of this world did not know what time it was! Imagine how that would affect everything you did or wanted to do.
The quest to calibrate time is paramount to an understanding of humankind's history of astrology. Which leads us to the twin sister, astronomy and astrology - one now the realm of science's greatest achievements and the other, now considered a shabby con for the naïve and ignorant. It has not always been thus; in fact, both 'girls' started out from the same family, a Babylonian family. For it was in the latter stages of the Mesopotamian civilisation, around 1500 BC, that the emergence of mathematical astronomy made possible the journey towards the creation of the first 'star chart.' It would not be until the fifth century BC that Babylonian 'star gazers' would cast that first recognisable individual horoscope.
Within the Assyrian Empire there was a class of scholar-priests called the Ummanu, who served the Babylonian royal family. They would observe and correlate the patterns of the stars over scores of decades. It was their job to watch out for omens in nature and to advise how to ritualistically act to cleanse sin and thus avoid calamity. Eclipses, shooting stars, conjunctions and the like were, according to surviving Babylonian instructional texts in the British Museum, signs placed in the natural world by the gods to warn the king of impending dangers. This was, at the time, a divine science that was exclusively in service to the king, the god's representative on earth, and not for the general use of the larger population.
The Mesopotamians had a written history, like the Greeks and Egyptians (see Hermes and Thoth), that tells of divine teachers from ancient times who passed on special knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, law and wisdom to the Ummanu. The work of the Ummanu is also confirmed in certain passages within the Christian Bible's, Old Testament; for example, in the scornful words of Isaiah towards the Babylonian stargazers and soothsayers (Isaiah 47: 12-13) and in the Book of Daniel: "There is in your kingdom a man who has in him the spirit of the holy gods, a man who was known in your father's time to have a clear understanding and a godlike wisdom. King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, appointed him chief of the magicians, exorcists, astrologers and diviners. This same Daniel is known to have a notable gift of interpreting dreams, explaining riddles and unbinding spells" (Daniel 5: 11-12).Three Stars Each
Astrology, as we know it today, clearly had its birth in Babylon, although it was to be influenced substantially on its journey through Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Islam, India and then the Western world. It was injected with certain vital elements from each culture it spent time with and those strands have come together to make up what we know today as astrology. The mathematical astronomical foundation was developed in Mesopotamia, indelibly contributing to the technical ability to cast a horoscope.
Surviving tablets from around 1000 BC, known as the "Three Stars Each", are circular diagrams divided into 12 equal parts representing the 12 months of the year. For each month, three stars are listed as rising and becoming visible just before dawn - the 'helical rising'. The tablets are also split into three sections that show the northern sky (nearest the centre of the wheel), the sky directly overhead (in the middle) and the southern sky (the outer zone). The whole circular tablet is then a calendrical star-wheel that links each month to an astronomical event.
There is still the puzzling question, however, of whether the Babylonian astronomers thought of the heavens as a sphere itself and why they did not create a model or working paradigm of the heavens in motion. This would be left to the Greeks and their cosmic theory of the celestial sphere. The "Three Stars Each" tablets also show that at this time the yearly passage of the Sun through the constellations of the zodiac has not yet been recognised by the Babylonians, for if it had they would have surely been used to mark the months.
The Babylonians were primarily interested in the Sun, Moon and Venus and believed they were manifestations of their gods Shamesh, Sin and Ishtar. The Sun and Moon were important, of course, because of their affect on the measurement of time. In the Babylonian creation epic, "Enuma Elish", the heavens are said to have been created in order to mark the passage of time and to give order to humanity's cosmos. This learning through recorded observation of the initial three solar entities led them to expand their search to include the motion of the five planets of the classical cosmos.Babylonian astronomy was cross-fertilised by the Babylonian's astral religion and the planets all had shared identities with their gods:
Marduk - Jupiter - creator and ruler of the heavens and god of life and justice.
Nergal - Mars - god of war and the Underworld.Nabu - Mercury - god of writing and intellectual pursuits.
Ninibe, or Ninurta - Saturn - god of the hunt.
The linking of the planets with these deities that affected everyday life was the primary motivator in the development of Babylonian astronomy. It was important to know the celestial positions of these gods/planets to aid in the prediction and understanding of their divine intentions. It can be posited that the development of mathematical astronomy would not have occurred without the astrological desire to know the will of the gods on earth.
Mesopotamians knew the planets as the gods of the night. By the seventh century BC, the extent of their astronomical knowledge was featured in a new series of tablets known as "Mul Apin", meaning 'the stars of Apin'. This is a complete compendium of their study of the stars, listing up to 70 individual stars with helical rising dates and tracing a lunar path through 18 constellations. It shows they used the movement of the Moon rather than the elliptic path of the Sun.
Here are the constellations and their modern equivalents:Mul (the Mane) - the Pleiades
Guanna (the Bull of Anu) - TaurusSibzianna (Anu's Shepherd) - Orion
Sugi (the Old Man) - PerseusGam (the Sickle Sword) - Auriga
Mastabbagalgal (the Great Twins) - GeminiAllul (meaning unknown) - Cancer and Procyon
Urgula (the Lion) - Leo
Absin (the Furrow) - Virgo
Zibantitum (the Scales) - Libra
Girtab (the Scorpion) - Scorpio
Pabislag (the Archer) - Sagittarius
Suhurmas (the Goatfish) - Capricorn
Gula (the Great Star or Giant) - AquariusZibbati (the Tails) - Pisces
Sirmmah (the Great Swallow) - Pisces and part of Pegasus
Anunitum (Goddess Anunitum) - Pisces and part of
AndromedaLuhunga (the Hired Man) - Aries
The Babylonians shared with the Egyptians the belief that the Sun spent the hours of darkness in the Underworld, only to emerge from out of the earth at dawn. Likewise, the stars returned to this Underworld at the rising of the Sun. It was some time around the sixth century BC that the step was taken to subdivide the path of the Sun into 12 sections, each named after a constellation and corresponding to the passage of one month of the calendar year. Interestingly, however, there is no surviving evidence linking the figures of the zodiac with Mesopotamian myths or particular deities. The only obvious connection is that the ancient sages who handed down the sacred knowledge to the Ummanu were described as having the forms of animals, or as being half man, half animal (like the centaur). Now, with the zodiac circle divided into 360 degrees and with each section evenly covering 30 degrees, we have the referencing system that can locate any celestial body.
There has survived a small number of tablets from the fourth to the first century BC that list the positions of the stars in the zodiac for individuals other than the king, telling us that the influence of astrology had by this time expanded into the wider Babylonian community. A horoscope from 235 BC reads: "Year 77 (of the Seleucid era), the fourth day, in the last part of the night, Aristokrates was born. That day: Moon in Leo, Sun in 12 degrees 30 minutes of Gemini, Jupiter in 18 degrees Sagittarius. The place of Jupiter means his life will be regular, he will become rich, he will grow old, his days will be numerous. Venus in 4 degrees Taurus. The place of Venus means wherever he may go it will be favourable to him. He will have sons and daughters…." From this we can see a clearly recognisable, albeit brief, chart and interpretation. An immense journey had already been made in the formation of astrology, from basic observation of celestial omens to a vast and complex star chart - that had begun to calibrate time in space while simultaneously weaving religious meaning into the movements of the cosmos. This placed humankind at the very centre of the universe.
Astrology's time in its Babylonian birthplace was, however, coming to an end. In 539 BC, King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and for the next two centuries it formed part of the Achaemenid Empire. It was during this period that much of the meaning behind astrology's symbolism was engendered through its exposure to the mysterious cults of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. Indeed, it can be argued that these two mystery schools have profoundly influenced the spiritual nature of all the great Western religions of the world. Astrological knowledge had also by this time crossed into Egypt, where many wrongly thought it had originated. The historian Herodotus wrote of his visit to Egypt in 450 BC, "I pass to other inventions of the Egyptians. They assign each month and what disposition a man shall have according to the day of his birth."The Graeco-Roman world
Alexander the Great was the military ruler and political force who brought Babylon under the rule of Greece. By 330 BC the social landscape of the region had undergone enormous shifts through resettlement, opening the way for cultural and scientific exchanges. It was during the Hellenistic period that the science and mathematics of the Greeks merged with the esoteric religions of the East, and this was especially seen in astrology's development.
The underpinning concept to emerge in Greek astronomy was the celestial sphere, which could be geometrically charted. Parmenides was first to put forward that the earth itself was spherical. To Pythagoras the sphere was the most perfect shape in nature, and both Plato and Aristotle taught that the universe was a system of interlocking spheres. The Greek mathematicians, Eudoxus and Hipparchus, postulated that the language of geometry could be used to describe the movements of the stars. It was the visual quality of this model that proved to be such an epiphany. One name, Ptolemy of Alexandria, stands out in Hellenistic astrological history as the crowning executor of this new geometric paradigm that could plot the position of any known star or planet in time.
Once again, astrology was imbued with the philosophies of the culture in which it flourished, this time with Stoicism. The Graeco-Roman world embraced the concept that fate or destiny was identified with divine reason. "Apatheia" was the Stoic ideal, a state of acceptance of the unfolding of a divine purpose in life, and astrology provided an individual map of that unfolding. Posidonius, who was teaching in Rhodes in the first century BC, was a leading figure in the spread of Stoicism throughout the Roman world. Seneca and Cicero were influenced by Posidonius and they shared in the belief that nature offered signs of future events to those who could read them. Astrology was becoming acknowledged as the science that gave that code-breaking ability.
In the cities of Antioch, Pergamum, Athens, Rome and, in particular, Alexandria, astrology was well established in a form that would be recognisable to today's astrologer. There are surviving papyrus horoscopes, written in Greek and Demotic between the first and fourth centuries BC, that tell us astrologers were aware of exaltations, lots of fortunes decans. Marcus Manilius and Vettius Valens, in the first century AD under the rule of Emperor Tiberius, were the authors of the first two systematic treatises on astrology. Manilius' Astronomicon is written in verse, of all things, as apparently it was part of the literary challenge of the time to versify scientific work.
An important consideration of horoscopes of this time is that when they speak of the native being born under a certain sign, they are not referring to the location of the Sun within the chart. Rather, they indicate the particular sign that is present at the rising or contains a stellium of planets, or some other important point in the horoscope. The focus on the Sun sign in astrology is entirely a twentieth century phenomenon. There is also at this time no clear interpretive connection between planets and signs, unlike today's astrology. Aspects between the planets and points of interest were, however, of fundamental importance to the Graeco-Roman astrologer and expressed the Hellenistic mathematical ideals in the relationships of trines, squares and sextiles. The development of the astrological houses, or 'loci', originates here, following from the splitting of the heavens into quadrants. Two central axes cross the 360 degree circle of the chart, from the Ascendant to the Descendant and from the Midheaven to the Imum Coeli; these quadrants are then trisected into a total of 12 houses.
Astrology's time in Rome was punctured by its use and abuse by emperors; it was debated in the senate by proponents and opponents and generally embraced by its citizens. Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) employed a 'secret police' of astrologers to identify possible political rivals. He also enjoyed testing astrologers by inviting them to predict the time of their own deaths, before proving them wrong by executing them on the spot. It was a time when astrologers needed to do a lot of quick thinking on their feet if they were to remain on them for long. The evidence of astrology's popularity in Roman society can be seen in the naming of the seven day week after the planetary gods.A thousand years in the darkness
With Emperor Constantine's official endorsement of the Christian faith in 312 AD, astrology was plunged into "a thousand years of darkness", and removed from Western consciousness. The new church state began a program of eradication, which included any pagan practices that were not prescribed by the theological authorities. Astrology became a crime punishable by death. Rome and the Church were divided into two distinct areas, the east and west, with the eastern Byzantine sector far more forgiving of its pagan past. Here astrological study managed to continue until around 549 AD, when the last pagan school of learning was closed in Athens.
Christian theological thinkers such as Tertullian (160-220 AD) and St Augustine (354-430 AD) were fiercely uncompromising in their condemnation of astrology and their attacks were characterised by the notion of Christian 'free will' versus the classical idea of 'fate'. The real closure on astrology, along with many other 'sciences' in the Latin West, can be attributed to the decline of classical learning as the Christian Church ushered in the "Dark Ages". Many of the classical texts were in Greek, and the Church's control ensured they were not translated into Latin. Ptolemy's treatise on spherical astronomy, Almagest, was not translated, nor were any tables of pre-calculated astronomical positions. Without these texts it was near impossible for aspiring astrologers.Islam
As with many things in life, if something is suppressed in one region, it often moves to where it can still flourish; in this case, astrology moved to the Islamic world. From available evidence, astrological knowledge journeyed to India around the second century AD. The recorded sources are Hellenistic, although there are also signs of earlier Babylonian -influenced celestial omens. Persia was the cultural point where the classical Hellenistic world and India crossed, and the adaptation caused some interesting new ideas to bloom. Five elements instead of the usual four, plus the transmigration of souls, were added to the astrological mix. The lunar nodes became a more important focal point of the horoscope and new calibrations of the zodiac were made, dividing it by seven and nine into saptamas and navasamas. Astrology continued to flourish in India, unharmed by state or religious persecution, and is widely practised to this day.
The Islamic culture embraced astrology as much for its philosophical qualities as for its predictive usefulness, and it was here that many consider it reached its highest state. "As above, so below," the old maxim tells of the oneness of existence, encapsulating astrology's appeal to Islamic thinkers. It was here that the astrolabe and the "Zig", two devices for calculating the time and the degree of the elliptic in the ascendant at any time from celestial positions, were perfected. Abu-Mashar (787-886 AD) is known as the founder of Islamic astrology and his theories on planetary conjunctions have been immensely influential. His work on the importance of the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions throughout history has filtered down to us today.
Astrology returned to the Latin West from Islamic sources via Toledo in Spain when, during the Reconquista, Islamic cultural centres fell under Christian control in 1085 AD. Here scholars were able to translate the major works of Greek science that had never before been translated into Latin. A new font of learning was opened and this would feed down through the centuries. As Christianity became a little more magnanimous, now that it was long established and felt far less threatened, Church scholars absorbed the new learning and sought to integrate it with their religious principles. Leading thinkers such as Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas were all in agreement that the movements of the stars affected life on earth. Geoffrey Chaucer had a special interest in astrology and composed the first English treatise on the astrolabe. His poetry is full of references to the stars and a few of his stories are actually allegories for particular astrological star groupings.
Astrology still trod a dangerous path during the rule of Christian kings, and burning at the stake and astrologers being hung, drawn and quartered (still very mathematical) were not uncommon occurrences. Astrologers were often in service to kings as advisers for when was the best time to go into battle, and to 'would be kings' for advice on their chances of succession. It was, I imagine, a job fraught with danger when things did not work out according to the stars, or to the king's desire. Shakespeare is a great source of historical evidence for the role astrology played in the Middle Ages. Astrological almanacs were published every year in most cities throughout Europe, proving popular with the general community and listing likely weather for the growing of crops, the phases of the Moon and fortuitous times of the year.The Renaissance
The Renaissance in the 15th century was the culmination of the rediscovery of the treasure trove of classical knowledge. The Medici rulers in Florence were the greatest political supporters of this unfettered exploration but it also flourished in many other European cities. Rome, Paris, London and the like all sported intellectuals and artists who once more began to stretch the limits of humankind's knowledge. Astrology flowered here like it had not done so for an age, as great thinkers discovered the pearls of wisdom that had been hidden for hundreds of years in the obscurity of the East.
The Hermetic texts, then thought to be ancient writings purporting to be the words of the Egyptian deity, Thoth, to his disciples, were translated by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). These made a huge impact on the thinkers of the day, and it was experienced as a validation of the concept of a lineage of philosophers and teachers passing on wisdom down through the ages to the present time. (It was later suggested by Isaac Casaubon, in the 17th century, that the Hermetic writings, because of the language used, dated from the second century AD and not from antiquity, a view universally subscribed to today.) Also, the words of Plato and Aristotle were resonating through the halls of learning for the first time in nearly a thousand years.
Astrology was at this time being taught in universities all over Europe and, in particular, had great appeal to doctors for use in diagnosis. Paracelsus and Ficino both considered astrology the core of medical doctrine. The popular practice of bleeding patients (phlebotomy) was usually undertaken in conjunction with knowledge of astrological medicine. In fact, the various veins, along with parts of the human body, all fell under certain astrological signs. You would not, for example, bleed someone from the thighs if the Moon was in Sagittarius, as it was considered dangerous, even fatal. The Moon, ruling the tides in nature, was seen to be the major influence over the body's internal fluids.
Of course, astrology's uneasy relationship with the Church continued. Girolamo Cardano, the brilliant Italian mathematician, physician and astrologer, was but one of many who fell victim to the Inquisition. His crime, was having the audacity to publish the horoscope of Jesus Christ, in his treatise on Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. Although the date of the chart 24 December 1 BC - is thought to be incorrect, that was not why he was eventually prosecuted. Rather, it was blasphemy to say that Christ's body was subject to the will of the stars.
It was not the Church, however, that would this time play the decisive role in the fall of astrology from its lofty intellectual position, but the rise of the 'new god on the block' - science. Galileo's revolutionary discovery that the earth and all the other planets in our solar system, rotated around the Sun , not around the earth as previously believed, was a fatal blow. So too was Copernicus' idea that the universe might be infinite, making the closed concept of the zodiacal constellations obsolete. Prior to this, scholars had invoked the names of the great classical thinkers to add weight to their treatises; with these revelations, much of what came before was suddenly incorrect; it was suddenly 'a new world'. All these revered ancient texts became wrong in their most basic assumptions. Of course, this did not happen overnight; it took many years for the dismantling. Indeed, it was not until the 17th century that the split between astronomy and astrology was clearly seen in academic circles. Astrology was on its way to that dirty 'fairground'. The later discoveries of the planets Uranus and Neptune were also seen as further discrediting the astronomical 'facts' of the classical universe.Rebuilding
From the 1800's onwards, astrology in the West entered the 'underworld' once more, existing on the streets in trashy books and in secret societies like the theosophists and other groups of spiritualists. It was from these groups that astrology reinvented itself as an adjunct to spiritual growth. The old, negative, classical interpretations were junked in favour of character building ones. Astrologers like Englishman Alan Leo (1860-1917) contributed to rebuilding interest in a new, positive astrology that used esoteric knowledge for growth. German astrology was another driving force in the rebirth of astrology.It has been astrology as a psychological language, however, that has kept my interest. In particular, the work of Carl Jung (1875-1961) has mined a fertile vein of mythological information. Astrologer Liz Greene continues this exploration today and her books are a rich source of old knowledge seen through new eyes - discovering philosopher's stones to alchemical equations.
The history of astrology is like the history of humankind itself- enormous. I have only been able to give you the broadest of outlines and a few bon mots. I would like to acknowledge Peter Whitfield's History of Astrology (The British Library 2001) as my main source of information and encourage those who have enjoyed this introduction to pursue it further with Mr Whitfield.
©Sudha HamiltonAppeared in WellBeing Magazine