The Transmission of Astrology into Abbasid Islam (750-1258 CE)

The Abbasid Caliphate 750–1258

Much discussion often arises as to the origins of astrology – most of it centered on whether what we know of the discipline, as it is practiced today, was birthed in Greece, where horoscopy was defined, or in Mesopotamia, where man first began to track the movements of the stars in order to interpret their language. However, the astrological tradition has been long-lived and well proliferated; it may then perhaps, be as accurate to argue that what has come down to us as astrology is as much as multicultural product as it is of either Greek or Babylonian genesis. In its lengthy and diverse history, there have been several significant astrological points of transmission crossroads. One of the most significant cosmopolitan intersections transpired in the Near East after the Islamic conquests of the Sassanian Empire in the 7th century. Arabic astrology as it developed during the Islamic Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), flourished as a high science which synthesized intellectual influences from Indian, Greek, and Persian scholars, with some cultural influences also streaming in from the Jewish and Sabian traditions. The following essay examines these different streams as they were represented by the Arabic authors and translators active at the Abbasid courts. While I have organized this survey by assigning astrologers to the stream that best represents the language of the majority of sources which they consulted, the majority of the Abbasid astrologers clearly relied on sources from all of these traditions.

The Pahlavi Sassanian Stream

All of the astrology of Persian origin which has been recovered can be traced to the second great Persian Empire period – that of the Sassanid dynasty (224-642). The Sassanians under Ardashir I, overthrew the Parthians and established an empire that rivaled in size that of the Acheamenids seven centuries earlier. At the time of Shapur I (241-272), the Empire stretched from Armenia and Iberia (Georgia) in the North, to the Mazun region of Arabia in the South, to the Indus Valley in the East, and to the Tigris and al-Qadisiya in the West. [1] Under Shapur’s reign, scholarship flourished and a massive translation project of Eastern and Western scholarly works into Pahlavi (middle Persian language) was undertaken.

Since no extant astrological manuscripts in Pahlavi  have been recovered, most of the corpus of Persian astrology was transmitted directly and indirectly to the Islamic courts of the 8th century via two, often culturally intersecting, geographical streams:one from the Indian tradition in the East, and one from the civilizations built upon the Near Eastern conquests, particularly Greece and Babylon. Of the non-astrological sources in Pahlavi containing astrological references, the most specific is a passage in the Bundahishn (the 9th century Zoroastrian scripture), which makes reference to a horoscope of the world. This horoscope is taken to be an adaptation of a chart found in the Yavanajataka – a manuscript of Hellenistic astrology but containing Indian adaptations and probably written by a Greek residing in India.[2] The Persian horoscope in the Bundahishn attests to Greek and Indian influences, but also contains what Pingree asserts to be a Sassanian innovation. Of Greek influence is the concept of a Thema Mundi – a chart for the creation of the world – while the practice of including both of the Lunar Nodes in the same categorical considerations as the other seven planets is typical of Indian practice. But it is the fact that both of the Nodes are also given exaltation signs (Sagittarius and Gemini) that Pingree considers to be a Sassanian innovation.[3]

While the Arabic translations of Pahlavi astrology reflect a mixture of influences – “largely Sassanian and Greek in origin, with Indian material entering in through its intermingled with the Greek and Iranian elements in Sassanian astrology” – most of the astrologers in the Abbasid courts of the 8th and 9th centuries were Iranians.[4] The following authors translated Pahlavi originals or Persian adaptations of foreign works into Arabic at the Abbasid courts, and were either of Persian origin or lived in Sassanian Iran:[5]

Newbakht  or al-Naubakht (679-777): Newbakht was a Persian who became an astrologer at the court of the 1st Abbasid Caliph: al-Mansur (the Victorious). It is said that he arrived at the court as a Zoroastrian, but soon converted to Islam. He wrote seven works but only fragments have come down to us. It is documented by al-Biruni, that he was chosen to head a group of astrologers in charge of electing[6] a chart for the founding of Baghdad in 762 CE. His son and grandsons succeeded him as Abbasid court astrologers.

Musa ibn Nawbakht (c.840-c.940): Musa ibn Nawbakht was a 6th generation removed descendant of Nawbakht the Persian (see above). He was the author of an extensive treatise on astrological history in the vein taught by Albumasar entitled Al-Kitab al-Kamil of which a modern Spanish translation, Horóscopos Históricos was made. His sources would have been both Arabic and Pahlavi.

id ibn Khurasankhurrah (probably writing c. 747-754): Sa‘id is the author of Kitab al-mawalid (The Book of Nativities),  “the oldest surviving genuine Arabic translation of a Pahlavi astrological work that we possess”. [7] The work is attributed to the sage Zaradusht but Sa’id asserts that he did not translate his version from the original Zaradusht manuscript, but rather from a version in newer Persian written by Mahankard in about 637. Pingree thinks the original work was written by a Greek astrologer known as ‘Aelius the Wise’ who would have lived in Harran around the 3rd century, where he may indeed have been a teacher to Zaradusht. The work contains methods of genethlialogy found in both Dorotheus of Sidon’s and Vettius Valens Greek treatises, but also Arabic transliterations of Pahlavi technical terms possibly representing Sassanian developments in natal astrology.

Umar ibn al-Farrukhan al-Tabari (writing c. 800): Al-Farrukhan, also known as Omar of Tiberius was a translator of Persian descent of the Arabic translation from Pahlavi of Doretheus of Sidon’s 5 books on genethlialogy and catarchic astrology. While Masha ‘allah also translated Dorotheus’ works in  the 770s, of which we quite extensive fragments, Umar’s version, although contaminated, is thought to be more complete.[8] The contaminations consist of charts that postdate Dorotheus’ life, references to Hermes, Valens and Qitrinus al-Sadwali, and the typical Sassanian inclusions of Indian concepts. He is also known to have paraphrased into Arabic a Pahlavi version of  Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos in 812. His natal astrological work Book on Nativities, was translated into Latin by John of Seville.

Masha’ allah ibn Athari (c.740-c.815): Masha’ allah or Messahalla, as he is sometimes referred to in the west (a phrase meaning ‘what has God done’), was a Persian Jew living in Basra who became one of the leading astrologers of the late 8th century. According to medieval sources, his Hebrew name was Menasseh.[9]  Masha’ allah was among those who participated in the selection of the chart for the founding of Baghdad, even though he was still young at the time. He was familiar with Persian and Indian astrology and used astronomical tables compiled by a Persian in the 6th century but based upon earlier Indian versions.[10] His bibliography is extensive and consists of more than two dozen works, some of his own authorship, some of Pahlavi translations of earlier Greek works. In the 770’s, Masha’allah translated Dorotheus’ five volume genethlialogical treatise, Pentateuch into the Arabic Book of Nativities (Kitab al-mawalid) and then in his later years used it as the basis for his own genethlialogical work: Kitab al-mawalid al-kabir. While his natal treatise is fundamentally Greek in character, Maha’ allah transformed Dorotheus’ fifth book on Greek catarchic astrology into a work on interrogations after the style introduced via Indian astrology.[11] Masha’ allah also seems to have translated Vettius  Valens’ Anthology, which appeared in Pahlavi under the title Bizidaj (Choice) based upon a 6th century version by a Persian commentator named Buzurjmihr.

Some of the works attributed originally to Masha’allah are: The Revolutions of the Years of Nativities, a work on Solar Returns, The Revolutions of the Years of the World, an  astrological history based upon Aries Ingresses, Conjunctions, Letter on Eclipses, Reception of the Planets or Interrogations, a work on horary techniques, and The Construction of the Use of the Astrolabe.[12]

Sahl ibn Bishr (9th century): Sahl was also known as Zael or Zahel, and was a Jew from Khurasan, who also relied on Pahlavi sources. He was considered a master in horary astrology and was often cited by later Medieval astrologers who were in possession of his five works in Latin.

Ja‘far in Muhammad Abu Ma‘shar al-Balkhi (c.787-886): Albumasar, as he became known to the Latin West, was born near Balkh in Khurasan (present day Afghanistan). Balkh had been an outpost of Hellenistic culture and became during the Sassanian period, “a center for the mingling of Indians, Chinese, Scythians, and Greco-Syrians with Iranians”.[13] Holden says Albumasar is “the most imposing” of all the Arabic writers on astrology. [14] He began studying astrology at the age of  47, after having studied hadith (the teachings of Muhammad), because of an intellectual disagreement he had with Caliph al-Madhi’s renowned court philosopher, Al-Kindi. He “wrote what became the canonical textbooks on all branches of Arabic astrology.”[15]

Abu Ma‘shar was a member of the third generation of “Pahlavi-oriented intellectual elite”

“but he himself relied entirely on translations for his knowledge of Sassanian science. He mingled his already complex cultural inheritance with various intellectual trends current in Baghdad in his time, and became a leading exponent of the theory that all national systems of thought are ultimately derived from a single revelation (thus, in a sense, paralleling in intellectual history the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation, which he accepted philosophically in its Harranian guise).” [16]

Thus, Abu Ma‘shar contributed to the Pahlavi stream in so far as he grew up amongst and promoted the corpus of work begun by his Pahlavi-speaking colleagues and predecessors. At the same time, his original works drew upon such a culturally diverse array of sources that he should actually be classified amongst the key figures in the transmission of Greek, Indian, Iranian, and Syriac astrological, mathematical, cosmological, and philosophical thoughts. Among his sources, we find:

“the Pahlavi Greco-Indo-Iranian tradition in astrology, astronomy, and theurgy as preserved in Buzurjmihr, Andarghar, Zaradusht, the Zij al-Shah, Dorotheus, and Valens; upon a Sanskrit Greco-Indian tradition in astrology and astronomy from Varahamihira, Kanaka, the Sindhind, the Zij al-Arkand, and Aryaghata; upon the Greek tradition in philosophy, astrology, and astrology through Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Theon; upon Syriac Neoplatonizing philosophy of the astral influences and theurgy from al-Kindi and the books of the Harranians; and upon the earlier, less complete attempts at such vast syntheses among Persian scholars writing in Arabic…”[17]

Other Known Translations of Pahlavi Originals

There are a number of Arabic translations which have survived in manuscripts that claim to be of Pahlavi originals. According to Pingree, some of the translations are of genuine Pahlavi sources, while others are either more recent forgeries or of dubious origin. I will only list here those which have been attributed to a transcriber or translator and for which enough substantiated information remains.[18] All of them appear in a manuscript known as the Paris Arabe 2487, which was copied in Egypt in 1492.

Book Concerning the Judgments of the Conjunctions (Kitab fiahkam al-qiranat ): This work is purported to have been transcribed by Jamasb the Wise in 1181 from an original unidentified manuscript that was brought to the court of the Caliph al-Iman al-Nasir sometime between 1180 and 1225. The work contains the an astrological world history based upon the 20-year cyclic conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn and their millennial recurrence in the sign of Aries. The history begins at about 2800 BC (thought to be when Zaradusht lived) and continues to 2300 CE. One curiosity about the work is that it makes reference to the planetary deities as having many hands, in the same vein as the Indian devatas.

 The Book of Conjunctions (Kitab al-qiranat): The work is attributed to Zaradusht the Wise, but also lists an ‘author’ by the name of Yahya ibn Muhammad al-Halabi. [19] Judging from internal astrological references, the work would have been transcribed c.1150. It too consists of an astrological history cataloguing every Jupiter/Saturn conjunction occurring with the Sun in Aries from a period of 1145-1624.

The Greek Stream

 Theophilus of Edessa (c.695-785): Theophilus originated in the city of Edessa, which became a major Christian center in the 3rd century, and which was located near Harran, a strategically placed city on the Nineveh trade route and major center for the cultivation of Greek astrology, astronomy, and Neoplatonism. He served in the court of the Caliph al-Madhi (775-785). Although a Christian, Theophilus saw no contradiction between its doctrines and astrology, which he makes clear in his Christian defense of astrology in the preface to Astrological Effects. Theophilus’ native tongue was Syriac but he was clearly also fluent in Greek and translated several texts from Greek into Syirac, including the two books of Homer on the fall of Troy, Aristotle’s Sophistici elenchi, Galen’s De methodo medendi. His Greek sources included Ptolemy’s Almagest, his Handy Tables and Astrological Effects, Dorotheus’ 1st century poem, Valens’ Anthologies, Rhetorius the Egyptian’s  7th century compendium, and Hephaistion of Thebes’ 5th century work entitled Apotelesmatics.[20]

His own three original extant works are all in Greek: 1) Labors Concerning Military Initiatives, a work on military astrology which shares many resemblances to Varahimira’s Sanskrit Brhadyatra, such as an indication that “the invader is indicated by the Ascendant, while the besieged is shown by the Descendant”.2) Apotelesmatics, his own introductory textbook with the same title as Hephaistion’s. It too contains some elements of Indian origin such as a zodiacal topothesia, similar to that found in the Yavanajataka. 3) On Various Initiatives, a work on interrogational astrology which shows influences from Dorotheus and Hephaistion and Pingree also suggests of Indian horary preserved through Syriac materials. [21]

It also appears that Theophilus may have spoken Pahlavi because his work on astrological history attests to the influence of Persian theory and techniques, and also because his work on military astrology above, would have been available to him in Pahlavi. [22]

Masha’ allah ibn Athari [also see above in the Pahlavi Sassanian and below in the Sanskrit Indian streams] Along with his translations from Pahlavi, it appears that Masha’ allah received a Greek compendium by Rhetorius of Egypt from Theophilus of Edessa at the court of al-Mansur.[24] Of the three Greek authors which he relied heavily upon (Dorotheus, Valens and Rhetorius), the latter is the only source written in its original language, but “he was also acquainted with some Greek material (perhaps through Arabic versions of Syriac texts”.[25]

As one of the 1st generation astrologers at the Abbasid courts, according to Hand, Masha’ allah is grouped together with Omar of Tiberias, Abu Ali Al-Khayyat and Sael as representing “a stage in Arabic era astrology in which Greek astrology provided almost the only basis for astrological practice”.[26] In contrast to what is found in Pingree, Hand asserts that elements of the Persian stream were introduced into the Abbasid courts subsequent to the introduction of the Greek influences, particularly because they surface “in a fully elaborated form in the writings of Abu Mashar, an ethnic Persian who would no doubt have had access to the pre-Islamic Persian astrological tradition”.[27] While it is true that the astrology found in the above mentioned authors is characteristically more Hellenistic than some of Abu Mashar’s work, this may be explained rather by Abu Mashar’s eagerness to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy and physics with his astrology and possibly incorporating many of Ptolemy’s Aristotelian astrological departures than because of any delayed introduction of Sassanian sources. Pingree clearly indicates that he was working with Arabic translations of Pahlavi sources which presumably would have been made by the ethnically Persian scholars of the late 8th century.

The Sanskrit Indian Stream

Theophilus of Edessa [see his entry in the Greek stream above for Indian influences apparent into his Greek works.]

Masha’ allah ibn Athari [see also above in both Greek and Pahlavi streams] In Greek fragments written by Masha’ allha, he describes the Indian theory of the navamsas and also describes methods for finding these lords in his Kitab al-mawalid al-kabir. There are also references to the Indian theory of planetary chords and to the “Era of the Flood” and its divergence from the Indian Kaliyuga in the Latin translations of De elementis et orbibus coelestibus (On the elements and celestial orbits) and in citations by al-Rijal of his Arabic work.[28]

Indian Astrologers at al-Mansur’s court:[29] In either 771 or 773, an embassy of astrological and astronomical scholars from the city of Sind in the Indus Valley, is reported by Ibn al-Adami in his Nazm al-‘iqd to have come to the court of al-Mansur. Among these scholars, one brought with him a text (probably entitled Mahasidhanta), a version of which was later rendered into Arabic by al-Fazari under the title Zij al-Sindhind al-kabir and by al-Khwarizmi in his own Zij al-Sindhind  (813-833). “Zij al-Sindhind” literally means the tables by the Hindu from Sind (al-Sindhind), and the lack of a name to identify this Indian scholar has generated some confusion among Arabic chroniclers. In the 12th century, Abraham ibn Ezra identified this unnamed Indian astronomer as Kankah al-Hindi (Kankah the Hindu). Abu Ma‘shar also expounded on Kankah as one of his 3 manifestations of Hermes – the founders of science in his astrological history Book of Thousands.[30] It is on the basis of this work that several legends involving an Inidan named Kankah were generated and taken as historical fact. Nevertheless, Pingree recognizes that there were probably two astrologers named Kanaka (the Indian version of the name) from Western India, one who wrote in Sanskrit and one who came to the Abbasid court.[31] The great Arabic bibliographer, Ibn al-Nadim lists several works by the second Kankah in his famous Fihrist. Among Kankah’s works are also listed works by other Indian scholars:

Kankah, the Indian: Book of the Secret of Nativities; Book of the Namudar Concerning (the Lengths of) Lives; Book of Conjunctions.[32]

Judar the Indian: Nativities

Sanjahil the Indian: Secrets of the Questions

Naq (Nahaq) the Indian: Nativities [33]

Pingree rejects the idea that the legendary Kankah listed in al-Nadim’s bibliography is the same Hindu of the al-Zij al-Sindhind[34]  since he says it was based upon the Sanskrit Mahasidhanta which “belonged to the Brahmapaksa of Indian astronomy”.[35] Of the Arabic speaking Kankah he says: “everything that we can discover concerning the doctrines propounded by Kanaka the Indian links him intellectually to Sasanian Iran, and not to India…Unfortunately, we do not know whether he learned this astrology while he was in India…or whether he picked it up in Iraq from his colleagues at the Abbasid court.[36]

Works Consulted

Armstrong, Karen. Islam; A Short History. A Modern Library Chronicles Book. New York. 2000.

Burnett, Charles, Keiji Yamamoto, and Michio Yano editors and translators. “Abu Ma ‘shar. The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology”. Islamic Philosophy Theology and Science. Volume XV. H. Daiber and D. Pingree editors. E. J. Brill. New York. 1994.

Campion, Nicholas. The Great Year. Arkana. London. 1994.

_______ “The Concept of Destiny in Islamic Astrology and its Impact on Medieval European Thought”.

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1998.

Gurney, Gene. “The Dynasties of Iran (Persia)” Kingdoms of Asia the Middle East and Africa. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York. 1986.

Holden, James Herschel. A History of Horoscopic Astrology. American Federation of Astrologers. Tempe, AZ. 1996.

Kennedy, E.S. and David. Pingree. The Astrological History of Masha’ allah. Harvard University Press. Cambrisge, MA. 1971.

Kusuba, Takanori and David Pingree. “Arabic Astronomy in Sanskrit. Al-Birjandi on Tadhkira II, Chapter 11 and its Sanskrit Translation. Islamic Philosophy Theology and Science. Volume XLVII. H. Daiber and D. Pingree editors. E. J. Brill. New York. 2002.

Omar of Tiberias. Three Books on Nativities. Robert Hand trans. Project Hindsight. Latin Track. Vol. XIV.  

Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology; From Babylon to Bikaner. Instituto Italiano Per L’Africa e L’Oriente. Roma.1997.

_______ The Thousands of Abu Mashar. The Warburg Institute University of London. London. 1968.

_______ “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. International Journal of the Classical Tradition. Vol. 8, No. 1, Summer 2001.

_______ “The Sabians of Harran and the Classical Tradition”. International Journal of the Classical Tradition. Vol. 9, No. 1, Summer 2002.

_______ “Astrology”. The New Encyclopedia Britanica. Vol. 25. 15th edition.

_______ “Abu Ma‘shar”. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. ed. Charles Gillespie. Vol. II. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1974.

_______ “Masha’ allah”. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. ed. Charles Gillespie. Vol. IX. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1974.

_______ “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator, Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Vol. 7. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1976.

 Tester, Jim. A History of Western Astrology. The Boydell Press. Rochester, N.Y. 1987.

Yamamoto, Keiji and Charles Burnett editors and translators. Abu Ma ‘shar. “On Historical Astrology”. Volumes One and Two. Islamic Philosophy Theology and Science. Volume XXXXIV. H. Daiber and D. Pingree editors. E. J. Brill. New York. 2000.


[1] Harper Collins Atlas of World History. p.78-79.

[2] Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.39.

[3] Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.40.

[4] Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.41

[5] Compiled from Holden pp. 99-129; Pingree’s four essays as specifically cited; and Tester pp. 156-175.

[6] Refers to the astrological technique of selecting the most propitious time and location for undertaking any enterprise. Elections are known in the Hellenistic tradition as catarchic astrology.

[7] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.44.

[8] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.46.

[9] Hand. Masha’allah, On Reception. p.ii.

[10] Holden. p.107.

[11] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.47.

[12] Holden. p. 105.

[13] Pingree. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 32.

[14] Holden. p. 111.

[15] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.66.

[16] Pingree, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 32.

[17] Pingree, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 33.

[18] For the complete list see Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. pp. 43-45.

[19] Pingree calls this the ‘author’ which I can only assume from his Arabic name that he is also the translator. It is common in ancient civilizations for the authorship of texts to be attributed to religious or wise sages or to mythological figures thought to be imbued with divine knowledge. Often, but not always, the text also names the transcriber or redactor, who may either be the divinely inspired author, or be copying an earlier work said to have been authored by the sage. In this case, I’m assuming the original Pahlavi authorship is being attributed directly to the sage Zaradusht but redacted into Arabic by al-Halabi.

[20] Pingree. “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. p. 14.

[21] Pingree. “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. p. 148 and “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. pp. 16-17.

[22] Pingree. “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. pp. 16-17.

[23] Abu Ma’shar. The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology. Burnett, Yamamoto, and Yano trans. p. ii.

[24] Pingree. “Classical and Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. pp. 236-237.

[25] Pingree, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 160.

[26] Omar of Tiberias. Three Books on Nativities. Robert Hand translation. p.ii.

[27] Omar of Tiberias. Three Books on Nativities. Robert Hand translation. p.iii.

[28] Pingree. “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. pp. 149-150.

[29] Pingree, “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. pp. 151-152; in From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. pp.51-62. and Holden pp. 103-104.

[30] Abu Ma‘shar. The Book of Thousands.

[31] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. pp.54-55.

[32] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. p.55

[33] The previous 3 authors are listed by Holden. p. 103-104.

[34] From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. p.52.

[35] “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. p. 151[36]From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. p.55.

Did the Greeks Invent Astrology?

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.

Meditations on Phoebus

by Maria J. Mateus

A comparison of sun deities of the Mediterranean and Near East may give us deeper insights into antiquity’s understanding of what it meant to be under the influence of the solar light.

Anatolian Imports

It is thought that Apollo may have been imported into Dorian and Minoan tribes from a Syro-Hittite cult in western Anatolia, as his name closely resembles that of the Luwian god, Apaliunas, on whom the Etruscan god, Apulu was also based. Apaliunas appears as one of the named deities guaranteeing a 13th century BCE treaty between Hittite and Trojan kings.1 This practice of signing treaties and contracts under a solar deity is one that is seen frequently in the Near East and Mediterranean over several centuries, as other solar deities of the Hellenistic age seem also to have had something to do with contracts, oaths and treaties. Apaliunas’ name also appears as one of three deities named on the walls of Troy itself, which was enough to inspire Homer to cast his Apollon on the side of the Trojans in the Iliad.

In the Hittite kingdom’s religion, which had influences from Mesopotamia, but still retained many of its Indo-European characteristics, we find a solar deity named Istanu (or Tiwaz in the Luwian language). As we’ll find in other Near Eastern sun gods, he’s a god of judgment, normally depicted wearing a winged sun on his headdress and carrying a crooked staff.

The following is a Hittite Hymn to Istanu: 2

O Istanu, my lord, just lord of judgment, king of heaven and earth! You alone rule the lands. 
And the boundaries you alone set; you alone give strength, to [the land] you give life.
You alone are just, you alone have mercy, you alone fulfill prayers.
You are a Sun-god of mercy, you always have mercy.
The just person is dear to you alone, and you alone value him. 
Istanu, fully grown son (of) Ningal, your beard (is) of lapis lazuli. 
Behold! The child of mankind, your servant, has bowed to you, is speaking to you:
In the circumference of heaven and earth, Istanu, you alone (are) the source of light. 
O Istanu, mighty king, son (of) Ningal, you alone establish custom and law in the lands. 
O Istanu, mighty king, among the gods you alone are established.
Strong lordship is given to you.
You (are) the just lord of government, you (are) father and mother of the lands!
When Istanu rises up early through the sky, your light alone, Istanu's, enters all the upper and lower lands,
(and) decides the case of the dog and the pig.
And the case of animals who do not speak with their mouth, that too he (Istanu) decides.
'The case of the bad and evil man you alone decide, 
and the man whom the gods scorn, (whom) they reject, him you reconsider and show mercy.
And this your mortal servant, Istanu, sustain, 
(and when) he begins offering bread and beer to Istanu; him, your just servant, Istanu, take by the hand.

We note from this hymn several significant characteristics about Istanu. First, he is above all, a “just lord of judgment”, not to be confused with a law-establishing deity such as Marduk. Istanu, like the Mesopotamian solar deities, judges and decides the fate of those who are to be shown favor as well as those who have defiled the established order. He is a champion of the lowly, and considers “the case of the man whom the gods scorn” and “shows him mercy”. He is the giver of life and strength. He takes the downtrodden and lifts them up, takes his servants by the hand, offers them bread and beer, and guides them on their path…

We also note that Istanu is the son of the goddess Ningal, the same deity who gives birth to Utu, the Sun god of Sumer. She was the consort of the male Moon good Nanna, and both were worshipped in southern Mesopotamia and in Harran, a major religious center in northern Syria. Not only is Istanu’s foreign lineage directly given in this hymn, but the hymn itself is remarkably similar in style and content to those dedicated to the solar deities of Mesopotamia.

Utu and Shamash in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is the birthplace of an astral religion that develops into a complex form of astrology. There, the planets and gods are one and the same. Unlike Greece, here an existing pantheon did not lend its names to the planets, which were perceived to be divinely possessed by their powers. Instead, the planets were deities themselves and part of the Assembly of the Gods that met regularly as a court of law, and who had the authority to elect or depose public officials, including the King.3 Thus, Utu was not ‘the star of the Sun’ but was in fact, the Sun itself.

His image is a personification of the shining light of the Sun, which brings forth life on earth. He is described as “long-armed”, since his influence is far-reaching, and he’s typically depicted wearing a horned hat and sporting a beard, although he is also frequently described as “youthful Utu”. In the morning, he’s believed to emerge from the doors of heaven located between two mountains to the east, then journey across the sky during the day, and enter the ‘interior of heaven’ through a second set of doors to the west at dusk. Presumably, the arched pruning-saw with serrated teeth that he carries is used to cut his way through these passages. He had two temples called ‘E-babbar’ or ‘White House’. One was located in the Sumerian city of Larsa, the other to the north in Akkadian Sippar.

This placement of solar temples both to the north and south of Sumeria is significant and tied to the Sun’s seasonal movement north and south along the eastern horizon over the course of the year. This journey of the Sun essentially divided the year into two seasons, one of growing light when Utu was traversing the northern lands and one of growing darkness, when Utu traveled in the south. The Babylonian preoccupation with balance is illustrated by the ritual practice that took place during the solstice months (IV and X) of exchanging priestesses from the temple of Esagil (House-of-the-Daytime) in the north, with those from the temple of Ezida (House-of-the-Night).4 This was thought to balance the fact that at the start of the summer, the nights are shorter and require the daughters of Esagil to go to Ezida, while in the winter, the reverse was desired.

An examination of a Hymn to Shamash — Utu’s Akkadian name — makes the Sun’s geographical scope even more clearly connected to one of his roles in society.5

You climb the mountains surveying the earth,
You suspend from the heavens the circle of the lands. 
You care for all the peoples of the lands, 
And everything that Ea, king of counselors, had created is entrusted to you.
Whatever has breath you shepherd without exception, 
You are keeper in upper and lower regions.
Regularly and without cease you traverse the heavens,
Every day you pass over the broad earth...
Shepherd of that beneath, keeper of that above,
You Shamash, direct, you are the light of everything.[...]
Of all the lands of varied speech,
You know their plans, you scan their way.
The whole of mankind bows to you,
Shamash, the whole of the universe longs for your light...[21-52]

The ability of Shamash’s rays to cover all of the known world make him truly an international deity capable of ‘caring for all the peoples of the lands’. It is for this reason that Shamash is often linked to travelers, as is explicitly related in the list of those who seek his protection:

Shamash, there confronts you the caravan, those journeying in fear.
The traveling merchant, the agent who is carrying capital. [138-139]

No other story exemplifies better Shamash’s role as personal guide to those on journey than the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. In it, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu decide to make a trip to the Cedar Forest to seek their fame. They are accompanied throughout their long journey through distant lands by Shamash, whose main role is as their protector. It is to him that they pray when they are fearful and in need of guidance. But because Shamash also spends half of his time in the Underworld at night, he is also protector of those about to travel below the earth. This is exemplified in the stories involving Dumuzi, the shepherd-king and his betrothed Inanna, the goddess of love and Utu’s sister. When an impudent Inanna sentences her lover to the Underworld for his neglect of her danger, Dumuzi appeals to his future brother-in-law Utu, for his protection from the demons that seek to imprison him below.

The two examples point not only to the Sun god’s role as protector and guide, but they point to his particular affinity with shepherd-kings, whose responsibility in Mesopotamia, it is to protect and guide their citizens, or “earthly flock”. Scholars have described Gilgamesh as a solar hero, and there are many reasons for this classification, not the least of which is his lineage, which makes him the son of the nomad shepherd king Lugalbanda. Like the story, which calls Gilagmesh’s city, ‘Uruk, the Sheepfold’, the hymn to Shamash also describes him as a ‘shepherd without exception.’

The metaphor extends to Shamash’s cosmic role of as divine shepherd. The astrological treatise, the Enuma Anu Enlil says:

The road (KASKAL) of the Sun at the end (šēpīt = foot)of the cattle-pen (TÙR) is the path of Ea (šūt Ea); the road of the Sun at the middle (mišil) of the cattle pen is the path of Anu; the road of the Sun at the beginning (SAG = head) of the cattle-pen is the path of Enlil.6

Reiner and Pingree interpret the ‘cattle-pen’ as the equatorially bound region along the eastern horizon – stretching from the northeast at the summer solstice to the southeast at the winter solstice – over which the Sun is seen to rise. The metaphor of the Sun’s path as a cattle-pen and the planets as wild oxen moving within this region is alluded to in tablets that refer to Utu or Šamaš as “shepherd of the land,” and where, says Samuel Kramer, “the ‘little ones’, the stars, are scattered about him like grain while the ‘big ones,’ perhaps the planets, walk about him like ‘wild oxen’.”7 Thus, as divine shepherd, it is Shamash’s role to designate the boundaries inside of which the planets are themselves permitted to travel. It is for this astronomical reason that in the myth called “Enki and the World Order”, we are told that Utu is placed in charge of both earthly and heavenly boundaries.8 It is curious that although the Sun did not ever occupy the head of the Babylonian pantheon, his cult became increasingly important at the same time as astrological developments begin to accelerate sometime after the 8th century BCE.

Just like his Anatolian counterpart, the most salient of Shamash’s functions is as judge and guardian of justice:

You give the unscrupulous judge experience of fetters,
Him who accepts a present and lets justice miscarry you make bear his punishment.
As for him who declines the present but nevertheless takes the part of the weak,
It is pleasing to Shamash, and he will prolong his life...[...]
You hear and examine them; you determine the lawsuit of the wronged.
Every single person is entrusted to your hands...[97-128]

As judge and protector of the law, it is under his vigilance that contracts and agreements are made and upheld. This chief role of solar deities is maintained well into the late Roman Empire where we find Roman soldiers swearing oaths in the name of Mithras, the Persian sun god.

Lastly, the Hymn to Shamash alludes to one final role for the solar king: that of seer and grantor of omens.

You manage their omens; that which is perplexing you make plain.[...]
You grant revelations, Shamash, to the families of men,
Your harsh face and fierce light you give to them...
The heavens are not enough as the vessel in which you gaze,
The sum of the lands is inadequate as a seer’s bowl...[129-155]

It is the light afforded by him that enlightens and gives clarity. We find a similar divinatory function displayed by Apollo, the Greek Sun God.

Apollon in Greece

There are actually two deities associated with the Sun in the Greek mythological literature: Helios, who personifies the actual Sun and Apollo, who represents the solar light, as well as having multiple other functions. Helios is the Sun who rises from a swamp in the East, rides in his chariot pulled by white winged horses, and sets to the West in the ocean in the Hesperides.

Like Shamash who sees all, Helios is said by Pindar to be: ‘the god who plumbs all hearts, the infallible, who neither mortals nor immortals can deceive either by action or in their most secret thoughts.’9 For Helios there are no secrets and it is he who tells Demeter of her daughter’s rape and abduction and who divulges Aphrodite’s adultery to Hephaestus.

However, unlike Shamash, Helios needs to seek out the king of gods in order to attain justice. This hierarchy is illustrated by an episode in Homer’s Odyssey, when his sacred horses are killed and eaten by Odysseus’ men and he must seek restitution from Zeus, rather than act directly. His sacred sanctuary is at Rhodes where a giant statue of him (the Colossus of Rhodes) once straddled the harbor where ships sailed under his legs.

While Helios may have represented the actual Sun, he was not nearly as important a figure in the Olympian pantheon as was Apollo, the son of Zeus and second in importance, after his father. He was given dozens of epithets sometimes being called Phoebus‘the brilliant’, or Xanthus, ‘the fair’, or Chrysocomes ‘of the golden locks’,10 and like Utu, he represents the epitome of youthful masculinity. As the god representing the Sun’s beneficent rays, he was responsible for the growth of fruits and was protector of crops. Perhaps due to the Sun’s beneficent qualities, Apollo, like his son Asclepius, the god of medicine, was also given patronage over healing. In this capacity, Apollo was invoked in purification rites and healing oracles.

But just as the sun’s rays can be murderous, Apollo had the power to cause sudden death with his arrows and was also a god of plague. It is not uncommon to find plague and disease associated with extreme heat in deities of the western Levant and Anatolia. An old form of Apollo’s name is a verb meaning ‘to destroy’.11 Like his sister Artemis, his bow and arrows also point to his role as god of hunting and he is sometimes associated with a stag or roe or pictured with lions.

In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, we read that “at birth he said: ‘Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.’ As god of music, it is no surprise then that song and dance are signs of his presence and that he is often depicted playing a lyre constructed and given to him by his brother Hermes.

Similar to Shamash, one of Apollo’s functions is to grant the gift of prophecy and divination. He was especially invoked at Delphi by the Pythia, a priestess who entered into a trance to make her pronouncements. One of his most well-known stories involves the slaying of the Serpent Python, whose place of death consecrated the sacred site at Delphi where the Oracle was established in his name. The Homeric hymn to Apollon may be divided into two parts: one that takes place in Delos, and involves his mother Leto’s delivery of the god, and the other in Delphi, which involves his journey to establish cult centers all over the Greek islands culminating with Delphi. It has been noted by Charles Penglase, who draws on many parallels between this hymn and the Mesopotamian myths involving the cult of the shepherd Dumuzi, that both sections of the Homeric hymn involve several journeys:

“These journey sequences and activities in them express many ideas about the god, but as in Mesopotamian myths, where they are also central features, they are employed to establish and express the god’s power.”12

Again, the same motif of the journey we saw in the Epic of Gilgamesh, are present in this and countless other stories involving solar heroes and deities.

Sol Invictus in Rome

the Sun’s favor among the Greeks did not go unnoticed by the Romans, who not only adopted Apollo as one of their own, but transformed his religious significance into a handy instrument to legitimate political power during the unsettled years of the late Empire. As deliverer of Augustus’ victory at Actium, Apollo soon gave way to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, who would be adopted as protector of the state and official state religion by Emperor Aurelian. However, the cult of the Sun went through various stages of transformation from the early Republic to its disappearance after the reign of Constantine and the conversion to Christianity—but not without some syncretization between the two religions. In Rome, there was an ancient indigenous cult to the Sun, Sol Indiges on the Quirinal, which was celebrated in the ancient Republican calendar on August 9th. As early as the 3rd century BC, coins appear with the Sun god shown with rays radiating from his head. However, this indigenous Sun god bears little resemblance to the solar god that would be imported from Syria centuries later.13

Still, the practice of equating living Emperors with the solar deity began soon after Augustus’ homage to the Greek Apollo. It was the Emperor Caligula that compared the ascension of the emperor to power as the invincibility of the Sun rising upon the eastern horizon. And the Emperor Nero is said to have been received by the king of Armenia who said to him: “I have come to you as my god, to worship you as Mithras.”14 But it was Commodus who first used Invictus as part of the official imperial title.

During the 3rd century, the Syrian solar deity called Elagabalus made a brief intrusion into Roman politics through Emperor Septimus Severius’ marriage to Julia Domna, the daughter of a Syrian high priest to the god. Her 14-year old grand-nephew, himself a high priest of Elagabalus, adopted the deity’s name and briefly became Emperor of Rome after Severus’ death, until the incursion of his foreign religion got him assassinated.

The cult of Sol Invictus reached its maximum heights with the Emperor Constantine, who was considered the personification of the Sun on earth and used the title Sol Invictus Imperator. In 325, Constantine proclaimed Sunday the official day of rest of the state. While, it is true that Constantine moved away from the worship of pagan deities and eventually converted to Christianity, the central position of the Sun continued unchallenged. Scholars claim that it was during this time that Christ became associated with the Sun: “Constantine’s god was a fusion of the Unconquered Sun and Christ the Victorious, but he remained god of power, not of love.”15

The Astrological Sun

Astrological interpretation is a product of historical imprinting. To ignore centuries of deity associations in regions that practiced astrology all over the Near East, while fixating solely on rote delineations in astrological manuals, is to miss the understanding of astrology as historical process. Having said that, for the purposes of discerning cultural influence, I will nevertheless include the typical delineations found in Hellenistic astrological texts on the Sun:

The all-seeing Sun, then, being truly fire-like and the light of the mind, the organ of perception of the soul, is significant at birth for kingly office, hegemony, mind, practical wisdom, outward form, motion, height of fortune, public registration, action, popular leadership, judgment, father, mastership, friendship, persons of high repute, the honors of images, statues, and crowns of office, arch-priests of the fatherland…of places.16

Having made a peripheral inquiry into the mythological history of this deity, certain odd attributes from this list become clearer. Friendship, and practical wisdom, for example, are attributes found in eastern solar deities, such as Mitra and Shamash. While judgment, is also a prominent attribute of eastern deities, here it appears late in the list, only after several other significations. What is conspicuously absent in the list of solar significations is the Sun’s oracular capacity. Yet we do find in the astrological tradition, that the 9th place in the chart – considered the place of ‘the Sun’s joy’—is the place of divination, astrology, and oracles. In the same way that Apollo presided over the Pythia’s pronouncements at Delphi, this subtle difference, may indicate that the Sun was not understood to possess oracular skills himself, but to delight in and enable their occurrence in others.

The predominance of the motif of recognition, leadership and the attainment of kingly office, clearly derives from the oldest and most ubiquitous practice of considering kings to be manifestations of the Sun, whether they be shepherd-kings in Mesopotamia, the Invincible Sun in Rome, or the personifications of Ra in Egypt. One can only speculate on who ‘the arch-priests of the fatherland’ were. But if we are to believe that the Sun is ‘phos noeron’ (the light of the mind), than one might reasonably expect that an Aristotelian influence, which describes the Good ‘as like the Sun’ or “Father”17 was a part of the astrological tradition and the arch-priests of the fatherland as those who worshipped some form of the Sun, such as in the case of Mithras. For this reason alone, there is traditional precedence for considering the Sun emblematic of the father.

As 21st century astrologers, we can begin to look at the Sun as carrier of all these motifs, yet dressed in a modern guise. Above all, the Sun illustrates one’s capacity to elevate one thing over another, that is, to choose, and to do so with practical wisdom, judgment and clarity. The Sun is never just a neutral vehicle for one’s Zodiac sign. He represents the soul’s perception, its ability to focus the will in the direction of its choosing, and in so doing, to forge the path that will carry us forth along our journey. To invoke him, is to dispel the dark clouds that have rendered that path indistinct. To swear an oath to him, is to make one’s vision become Truth.


1 John Lawrence Angel, Machteld Johanna Mellink. Troy and the Trojan War: a symposium held at Bryn Mawr College, October 1984. (PA: Bryn Mawr Commentaries, 1986). p.42.

2 Jonathan Slocum and Carol Justus trans. Great Sun Hymn. KUB XXXI 128: I, 1-21 & 39-51. Indo-European Texts. Linguistics Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

 3 Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (London: Yale University Press, 1976). pp. 86-87.

4 Mark E. Cohen, The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient near East (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1993). p. 319.

5 W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1960). p. 127 ff.

6 Reiner and Pingree, Babylonian Planetary Omens, Part 2. p.43.

7 Samuel Kramer, Sumerian Mythology. A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievements in the Third Millennium B.C., revised ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961).

8 Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. p. 85.

9 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. p. 142.

10 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. p. 113.

11 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. p. 119.

12 Charles Penglase. Greek Myths and Mesopotamia. (New York: Routledge, 1994). p. 99.

13 John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970); and Halsberghe, Gaston H.. The Cult of Sol Invictus. (Leiden. Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1972).

14 Ferguson, p.46. Mithraism was a secret hierarchical mystery cult inspired by astrological symbolism based on the Persian solar deity known as Mithra, a god of light who ruled over truth, contracts, oaths, and order. Mithras became quite popular throughout the late Roman Empire among soldiers and his name was often used interchangeably with the title of Sol Invictus. See Franz Cumont. The Mysteries of Mithras. Dover Publications, Inc. NY 1956, among others.

15 Ferguson, John. The Religions of the Roman Empire. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970). p.46.

16 Vettius Valens, The Anthology: Book I, trans. Robert Schmidt, 1st ed., vol. IV, Project Hindsight Greek Track (Cumberland, MD: The Golden Hind Press, 1993). p.1.

17 See the entry on Nous, #16, p.137 in F.E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms, (New York: New York university Press, 1967).