Since the 1980s there has been an increase in interest in the history of astrology with the resulting revival of the translation of ancient astrological texts into modern languages (Holden 1996: 209). This academic curiosity seems to have given rise to a debate concerning the origins of western astrology and of the civilization that fathered it. Pointing to the fundamental theological and technological differences that clearly separate Hellenistic Greek astrology, which appeared around 200 BC, from the more rudimentary forms inherited from the Babylonians, certain sources have defined astrology in terms that are characteristic of Greek astrology, and then ascribed its origins to that culture on the basis that it meets these criteria (Culianu 1987: 472; Hoskin 1999: 20; Tester 1987:12). This is akin to arguing that all of physics was born in 20th century Germany because the innovations of special relativity are such an obvious departure from the simplistic Newtonian view of earlier physics. The issue of defining astrology is not only an important one in terms of communicating perceived and projected differences between the astrological distinctions of these two cultures, as Nicholas Campion points out (2000; 2), but it is — as will be argued — the foundation upon which rest the arguments that incorrectly place the birth of astrology in Alexandria. To this end, and before we can say anything about whether the arguments fit them, it is important to examine some of these operational definitions that appear to be constructed for the sole purpose of confirming an already established conclusion about the origins of astrological thought and practice.
The modern word astrology comes from the Greek which combines astron meaning star and logos meaning discourse (Webster’s Dictionary 1988). It implies therefore, nothing more than a discourse between man and the heavens. Webster’s however, has chosen to define the word as “the art of predicting or determining the influence (emphasis mine) of the planets and the stars on human affairs”. This is a misleading definition of astrology because it implies a physical interaction between celestial phenomena and earthly existence. In fact, the terms astrology and astral divination have been deliberately used by some sources to distinguish Babylonian divination from the Greek version which “drew on causation and physical influence.” (Campion 2000;1). But as we shall see, there is no evidence that leads us to think that either the Greeks or the Babylonians believed in this type of causative relationship.
Culianu, in the Encyclopedia of Religion, proposes a thorough definition that makes no mention of causative influences:
“Astrology superimposes 2 different complex systems: that of the heavens and that of the collective and individual destinies of the human beings on earth. Through the observation of the heavens (and the interpretation of those observations according to a framework of theoretical, non-observational assumptions), these systems attempt to account for the changes within the human system which are otherwise unpredictable, unobservable, and systematic“. (1987: 473).
Stating that astrology was a product of Hellenistic society, Culianu also mentions briefly, 3 pages later, that “Mars and Saturn were specifically designated as ‘malefics,’ a feature inherited from Babylonian astrology.” While he admits that Hellenistic astrology is a combination of “Greek science and Chaldean and Egyptian astral lore,” nowhere else in his essay does he mention the extent to which that “astral lore” influenced Greek astrology and astronomy. At the same time we are left with his definition of astrology, which can arguably be applied to the astral practices of the Babylonians if we recognize that any theology rests on both “theoretical and non-observational assumptions”.
Let us examine now the arguments and definitions that Tester — who also places the birth of modern astrology in the resumé of the Greeks — puts forth. While he does not deny that Babylonian astronomy and astrology were introduced into Greece via Egypt by the Chaldeans, Tester argues that this influence was little more than descriptive astronomical records combined with some omen literature. His definition of astrology thus reads:
“Astrology is the interpretation and prognostication of events on earth, and of men’s characters and dispositions, from the measurements and plotting of the movements and relative positions of the heavenly bodies, of the stars and planets, including among the latter the sun and moon“. (1987: 11)
There are two arguments that push the development of astrology, according to Tester, forward into the 5th century BC. One is the assertion that the Babylonian astronomy had not advanced mathematically or theoretically enough to be able to track planetary movements accurately enough to make prognostications, and the other is that even in the 7th century when it finally did, it was more concerned with the accuracy of lunar positions and eclipses. However, Tester’s definition says nothing about technical accuracy. It merely demands four things: 1) that astrology be able to interpret celestial phenomena; 2) that it be able to prognosticate earthly events based upon those phenomena; 3) that it do so for individuals; and 4) that all the heavenly bodies be plotted in the sky. The first two requirements of his definition can be seen to be fulfilled as early as 1600 BC in the Venus Tablets of Ammizaduga, which consist of systematic observations of the planet Venus along with prognostications based on its phases, and again in circa 1000 BC in the records of the Enuma Anu Enlil, a series of tablets consisting of some 7000 celestial omens and their interpretation. A typical entry reads: ‘When Jupiter enters the midst of the Moon, the market of the land will be low. When Jupiter goes out from behind the Moon, there will be hostility in the land’ (Tester 1987: 13).
Both these tablets attest to the diligent observation and recordings which the Babylonians made not only for all the known planets, but also for the earthly events that they observed to correlate with them. While it is true that the individual is not addressed in this early form of mundane astrology, the earliest known individual birthchart is also Babylonian and dates to 410 BC (Hand: 4). And while the heavenly bodies are not plotted against an astronomical system of measurement at this early point — such as is done after the introduction of the Zodiac circa the 4th century BC in Babylonia — there is evidence that many of the known constellations had been named as early as 687 BC in the Mul Apin (Hand:4). The insistence that astrology also be defined in terms of its ability to plot and measure the celestial bodies rules out early Babylonian efforts by regarding them as indistinct from other types of practiced divination methods, such as the reading of the entrails of sacrificed animals. But as Tester himself states, “the name ‘astrology’ appears to cover anything from a vague acceptance of stellar ‘influences’ on the lives of men to precise and fatalistic predictions of the future” (1987: 2). While he adopts a more restrictive definition upon which to base his conclusions about its origins, at its core and in its ancestral roots, astrology is “the divinatory use of celestial phenomena” (Campion 2000: 1). Holden also confirms that the Enuma Anu Enlil tablets were essential because they established the fundamental principle that celestial phenomena were related to mundane occurrences and spawned a rudimentary form of electional and natal astrology (1996:1)
However, even while one can restrict the definition of astrology to the terms that Tester requires and thereby place its origins no earlier than the 5th century BC, there is still the problem of the evidence that following the second Babylonian Empire (612 BC) and the Persian invasions (539 BC) the Mesopotamians were already practicing a more mathematically sophisticated astronomy for they had developed the fixed Zodiac system of twelve equal 30 degree signs along the ecliptic, approximately calculated the synodic cycles of the 5 known planets and their future geometrical relationships to the luminaries and to each other. A valuable tablet dated 523 BC basically indicates the existence of the first ephemeris (Cumont 1912: 12). During this pre-Socratic Greek period, philosophers and mathematicians in Greece such as the Milesians and the Pythagoreans were already developing mathematical and geometrical cosmological theories indicting perhaps a receptivity to the scientific influences that would come from the East. Admittedly, one can recognize that by the time Alexander the Great conquered Mesopotamia (331 BC), it becomes difficult to ascertain who influenced whom. But there are some early sources that attest to the influence of the Babylonians — or Chaldeans as the new Babylonians of the time of Nebuchadnezzar (612-538 BC) were known. Quoting Vitruvius (a Roman architect of the late 1st century BC), Tester acknowledges this influence through the teachings of Berosus, the first Babylonian to have introduced and taught astrology to the Greeks (1987: 15-16): ‘It must be allowed that we can know what effects the twelve signs, and the sun, moon and five planets, have on the course of human life, from astrology and the calculations of the Chaldeans. For the genethlialogical [natal astrology] art is properly theirs, by which they are able to unfold past and future events from their astronomical calculations. And many have come from that race of the Chaldeans to leave us their discoveries, which are full of acuteness and learning.’ Although Holden reminds us that the astrology that came out of Berosus’ school on the island of Cos was not the horoscopic astrology which was invented a century later in Alexandria (1996: 9), there is no doubt that even a crude form of natal astrology was already being practiced by the Chaldeans. The term Chaldean itself becomes an honorary title being used by the Greeks who had the privilege to have studied under Babylonian schools (Cumont 1912: 27).
Modern astrological historians, delving into the intermingling of the Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek civilizations in Alexandria after 323 BC like to see in the huge philosophical advancements of Classical Greece — which would give rise to much of the astronomical and cosmological debates of the Renaissance — the impetus for the current forms of astrology that we study today. In particular, there is a tendency to draw lines in the metaphorical Alexandrian sands that separate the Hellenistic version of astrology from the Babylonian on the basis of some pseudo-scientific distinction. And here again we are back to our operational definitions.
The most characteristic of these definitions, which resonates with a modern proclivity to separate astrological convictions from astronomical certitude and to see our present day astrology as a distinct “species” that developed from a more “scientifically” oriented branch of the evolutionary tree, is to be found in The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy (Hoskin ed. 1999: 20). It states: “The early Babylonian skywatchers are often thought of as astrologers, but if astrology is to be understood in the Greek sense, as the study of the direct and unavoidable consequences for individuals that result from the configurations of heavenly bodies, this is a mistake”. The argument here is that the Babylonians considered the heavenly changes as omens of potential events that could be avoided not the causes of those events. In other words, the Babylonians did not see a causal relationship between the movements of the heavens and the events that they presaged. This is basically correct, since both were attributed to the will of their Gods and it was thought this will could be appeased. But what is implied by these correspondences, and what we can assume is that they perceived a correlative relationship. The other part of the argument here is that the Greek version of astrology does by contrast assume direct and unavoidable consequences for the individuals due to the influence of these bodies. A “consequence” implies a cause and effect relationship, and indeed Hoskin points to the early Milesians as indicative of the fundamental shift from early mythological cosmology to one in which an impersonal mechanistic law is seen to operate through nature. (1999: 25). And then two pages later, we are told by him that Plato and Aristotle’s agreement that there was structure (“cosmos”) to the Universe and that this structure, manifesting as correspondences between the microcosm and the macrocosm — formed the theoretical underpinnings for astrology. While this statement is perfectly true, there are two things wrong with his argument in terms of the Greek influence on astrological thought: 1) there is no causative physical influence between heavenly bodies and human events implied in the Greek perception of the Universe as ordered, and 2) the macrocosm/microcosm conception which he attributes to these Greek philosophers is actually a basic Babylonian concept that underlies their religion as much as their astronomy and forms the basis for astrology (Cumont 1912: 18).
Of particular interest to the first point speaks Plato’s “Myth of Er” in the Republic Dialogues (Jowett 613e-621d). Plato recounts a story wherein Er, the hero, is temporarily taken to the heavens and shown what happens to men’s souls between lives. Man is asked to choose his fate and with the aid of the three Fates (Greek goddesses) and the planets who form the mechanism that will accomplish this — man’s fate is sealed by his own free choice. This myth indicates the need for even Plato to rely on theological speculations to explain the mechanisms at work in the fate of humans within his ordered cosmos. The Greeks, although they attempted to reform their religion by removing the Gods from the secular activities of humans, could not completely divorce them from the fate of those individuals. It seems to the Greek philosopher/astrologers that there was a rational ordered process at work in the fate of humanity, but we cannot explain Hellenistic astrology by assuming that the mathematical and mechanistic cosmologies prevalent at the time constituted a fundamental break in the theoretical basis of astrology as it was handed down to the Greeks. It seems more likely that astrology went through expected evolutionary developments throughout history that built upon its fundamental essence as “the divinatory use of celestial phenomena” (Campion 2000: 1).
Campion, Nicholas. “Babylonian Astrology: Its Origin and Legacy in Europe”. Astronomies Across Cultures. Forthcoming Kluwer Academic Press, 2000.
Culianu, Ioan Petru. “Astrology” in Eliade, Mircea. Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: MacMillian, 1987.
Cumont, Franz. Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans. Montana: Kessinger Publishing Co., 1912.
Hand, Robert. Chronology of the Astrology of the Middle East and the West by Period. Archive for the Retrieval of Historical Texts.
Holden, James Herschel. A History of Horoscopic Astrology. Tempe: AZ: American federation of Astrologers. 1996.
Hoskin, Micheal. The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1999.
Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization – A brief History. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1997.
Plato. “The Rewards of Justice after Death. The Myth of Er”, Republic.
Plato. Timaeus, trans. R.G. Bury, Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press 1929..
Tester, Jim. A History of western Astrology. Woodbridge: UK: The Boydell Press. 1987.