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History of Astrology

Part 1

Tracking the history of Astrology is a history lesson in and of itself.  The two are inextricably intertwined.  There are a lot of very famous events, and even more famous people involved in the history of Astrology. 

Actually this shouldn’t be surprising, since Astrology was first used to Kiss A Witchforetell the future of tribes, nation states, and countries, before anyone thought to use it as a method of prediction for individuals.

Every ancient culture we know of used the stars and the night sky to foretell what events might come.  The reasons for this, while we will never really know for sure, are easy to understand. 

We who live in or near cities have forgotten just how powerful the night sky is.  The sky has become so polluted with light from the cities that we can no longer see any of the stars.

I can remember less than thirty years ago as a kid, looking up at the sky from the yard of my suburban home, and being able to see the major constellations at least.  Now even they have faded from the glare.  

If you get the chance to go up into the mountains, or to a secluded beach, or just out into the middle of nowhere, you will see a sky that is ablaze with its own light.

From such a secluded and isolated place, you can look up into the night sky, and see the rim of the galaxy, that river of stars in the sky known as the Milky Way.  You will see so many stars that you can’t even make out the familiar constellations, because you aren’t used to seeing them so crowded.  This is the sky the ancients saw.  

This is where the Gods lived.

The History

Fertile Crecent - courtesy of the University of ChicagoThe roots of modern Astrology go back to the Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Crescent, the land between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers.  This land was known as Mesopotamia.  Evidence indicates that as far back as 4000  B.C.E. this area had a population called the Ubaidians.  Very little is known about these people, except that early on, a new group moved in and began intermarrying with them. 

Cuneiform writingThis new group was called Sumerians.  It is the Sumerians who invented cuneiform, the oldest form of writing we know of.  Their language and culture took over and dominated that of the Ubaidians, who preceded them.

Around 2330 B.C.E. a Semitic group called the Akkadians, lead by Sargon of Akkad, conquered  the Sumerians.  This was the first of several Semitic empires, and it dominated not only Mesopotamia, but all the way to the Mediterranean, and Egypt.  The language of the Akkadians was the direct ancestor of the Assyrian and Babylonian languages, these later languages were in fact dialects of Akkadian.

Cuneiform Text

The Akkadian Empire fell around 2218 B.C.E. Somewhere in the early second Millennium B.C.E. two factions came to power, The Babylonians who had been culturally dominant for centuries in the south, and the Assyrians in the north.  These two groups co-existed for centuries.  The Assyrians dominated politically, but the Babylonians dominated culturally.  In fact the Assyrians used the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, as the official language for their records.

 Astrology Incorporated

King Hammurabi - Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThe earliest Astrological writings date from the time of Hammurabi, who unified the area around Babylon between 1792 – 1750 B.C.E.  There are some writings that refer to the Akkadian period, and may date as far back as 2300 B.C.E.  Just as with all the other major cultures, Astrology of the time centered around the State, and events or omens that would predict the future of the kingdom. 

For example, a translation of one of these writings states, “If Venus appears in the East in the month Airu and the Great and Small Twins surround her, all four of them, and she is dark, then will the King of Elam fall sick and not remain alive. 

There are two collections of Omen Lore from this period.  The most extensive is called the Enuma Anu Enlil, which were assembled sometime in the second millennium B.C.E. 

The second work, known as the Venus Tables of Ammizaduga, consists of systematic observations of the phases of Venus, combined with the omens each would signify.  These significations were clearly based on past observations. The general belief is that these tables date from the reign of Ammizaduga, about 146 years after Hammurabi.

There is some controversy over the dates assigned to the various documents.  The Babylonians attributed an antiquity to themselves and their observations, much like modern Hindus, that seem impossible to modern people of the West.  In some cases we’re talking hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years, that the Babylonians claimed to have made these observations.

It’s important to remember that each of these ancient peoples thought that the planets were either Gods, or the homes of the Gods.  The Sumerians called The Moon God Nanna, the Sun God was Utu, and the Goddess of Venus was named Inanna. 

As was normal for this period of history, as each new group came to power, they put their own names to the Gods already there. In most cases, the Gods were similar enough as to be the same God, just under another name.

The Assyrians gave the planets the names as follows:

Samash, Assyrian God of the Sun
Sun – Shamash
Sin, Assyrian Goddess of the Moon
Moon – Sin

Ishtar, Assyrian Goddess of Venus/Love
Venus – Ishtar


Nabu, Assyrian God of Knowledge & Writing
Mercury - Nebo or Nabu

Nergal, Assyrian God of the Underworld
Mars – Nergal

Ninurta, "God of the Earth"
Saturn – Ninurta

Marduk, Leader of the Assyrian Gods, with Tiamat
Jupiter - Marduk

 
While other cultures identified various stars or constellations with their Gods, for example the Egyptian God Osiris, was identified with the constellation we know as Orion, the Mesopotamians seem to have been the only culture that put an emphasis on the stars and planets as primary indicators of the Here and the Now.  This is probably what led to the studies that became what we now call Astrology.

Over the centuries, the Mesopotamian culture, especially the Babylonians, continued observing, and compiling data on celestial phenomena.  Eventually, based on observed recurrence of the cycles of the planets, they could accurately estimate, within reason, the position of the planets at any time, past, present, or future. 

Claudius PtolemyClaudius Ptolemy recorded that accurate and systematic eclipse records were kept as far back as 747 B.C.E., which continued on to the Hellenistic period after the conquest of Alexander the Great.  Even modern scholarship can’t dispute this claim.

From Astronomy To Zodiacs

One of the great questions about the Mesopotamian Astrological observations is, what system (if any) of zodiac were they using?  The earlier observations are sidereal placements in degrees from nearby stars.

19 degrees from the Moon to the Pleiades;
17 degrees from the Pleiades to Orion;
14 degrees from Orion to Sirius. . .

While these are accurate ways to document where a planet can be found, it is not a zodiac.  A zodiac requires a fixed point from where measurements are taken.  This is called the fiducial point.  There is also normally some number of fixed divisions to a zodiac such as our twelve signs of the modern zodiac, or the twenty seven lunar mansions of the Hindu lunar zodiac. 


Bartel L Van der Waerden argued that there were three distinct phases of Astrology.  The first was omen lore as described above.  The second was closely related but also had twelve signs of 30 degrees each. 

Close attention was paid to the transits of Jupiter through this zodiac at about one sign per year.  From this came the Chinese practice of assigning each year to a zodiacal sign, and probably the system of annual profections of later horoscopic astrology.  Van der Waerden dates this second phase from about 630 to 450 B.C.E.

The third phase of Astrology incorporates the use of horoscopes into that of the historically observed omens.  Various ancient sources mention "Chaldeans" who cast birthcharts for various persons, including Diogenes Laertius who said that according to Aristotle, a Chaldean forecast Socrates' death from his birthchart, and that Euripides' father also had his son's chart read getting a forecast of his brilliant career. 

The reference to ‘Chaldeans’ refers to astrologers.  This makes it clear that the art/science in this period was completely associated with late Babylonians, or Chaldeans.

Several natal charts have been found, written in cuneiform.  Most date to well within the Hellenistic Era, but the oldest was dated by Abraham Sachs, to April 29, 410 B.C.E. The translation by Cyril Fagan, follows as:

  1. Month (?) Nisan (?) night (?) of (?) the (?) 14th (?). . .
  2. son of Shuma-usur, son of Shumaiddina, descendant of Deke was born.
  3. At that time the Moon was below the "Horn" of the Scorpion
  4. Jupiter in Pisces, Venus
  5. in Taurus, Saturn in Cancer.
  6. Mars in Gemini, Mercury which had set (for the last time) was
    (still) in (visible).
  7. . . . etc., etc.

This is a very rough chart, with only sign positions given.  The other cuneiform charts, though much later in origin, are nearly as terse, though positions given are to a much greater precision.  The positions in the charts correspond more closely to a sidereal zodiac, using the Fagan-Allen ayanamsha, than to tropical positions.

While these charts are horoscopic in design, they still do not match the elaborate horoscopic astrology of the later Hellenistic Era.  There is not much concrete information about Astrology after the evolution of Astrology after the early Babylonian charts.  Project Hindsight contains many of these old texts, which point to the birthplace of Astrology as we know it, in Egypt.

Egyptian Astronomy

This is not the Egypt of the Pharaohs.  This is a much later Egypt, after they had made close contact with the Babylonians, and ideas had migrated. 

The earlier Egypt, that of the Pharaohs, had a great interest in astronomy.  This is evidenced in the alignment of too many buildings and temples, to be discounted. 

Pharaonic astronomy was centered around the stars, and paid little attention to the planets.  The Egyptians aligned their temples to the stars as a way of bringing about sympathy between terrestrial structures, and the stars they were associated with. 

The Egyptian obsession with the stars was greater than any other culture before or since.  Pharaonic death rituals inside the Great Pyramid included strapping a phallus to the sarcophagus of the dead king, and aligning it with a shaft in the wall. 

This shaft ran to the outside of the pyramid, and aligned with the star they called Isis, so that the dead Pharaoh could, as his last act, impregnate the Goddess to give birth to the next Pharaoh. 

Take a look at a satellite view of the Giza Plateau with the Nile running beside the pyramids.  Then take a picture of the constellation Orion, with the Milky Way running next to it.  

You will find that they are duplicate images, the three Great Pyramids being the belt. This is an extreme that no other culture ever thought to go to.

The critical factors which lead to the fusion of Egyptian ideas, and Babylonian astronomy was one or both of two historical events.   The conquest of Egypt by Persia, and the conquest of both Persia and Egypt by Alexander the Great. 

In both cases, Egypt and Babylon were ruled by the same regime at the same time.  In the case of the Persian Empire, the Persians became ardent devotees of astrology.  This would have assisted the movement of astrological ideas into Egypt.

The ancients clearly knew that astrology had something to do with Babylon, they called Astrologers Chaldeans, but they gave principal credit to the Egyptians.  

Most academics pass this off as being fashionable for the time, with no historical basis.  Ancient writers did in fact attribute astrology to persons dating as far back as the Pharaohs.  

Still, there is no reason to assume that the ancients were not correct in their association of Egypt with being the primary source of horoscopic astrology.  It just wasn’t as far back as they thought.

So what did the Egyptians add to Mesopotamian astrology?  Here things get really messy.  There is no way to know for sure.  Most evidence is supposition based on logic from what little we do know. 

The use of a rising degree may have been pre-Hellenistic Babylonian.  Hellenistic writers attribute Houses, or signs used as Houses to Hermes.  This would be a reference to Hellenistic Egyptian sources. 

It is probable that Aspects are Egyptian, but no one can say for sure.  The lots, as well as most of the systems of rulership are almost certainly Egyptian in origin.  Only the exaltations have clear origins in Mesopotamia.

It is most likely that the entire system of horoscopic astrology was in place by the first year C.E.  It may have been in place centuries earlier, but we don’t know.  One of the facts that Project Hindsight believes they have found, in their studies of the later Greek writers, is that those Greeks are already dealing with a later era of astrology. 

It’s Greek To Me!

One of these writers, Vettius Valens, actually went traveling through Egypt looking for masters of the old traditions, much like modern Americans have gone to India to study astrology and various other sacred teachings. 

While most of the Greek writers seemed to have studied from books, Valens studied with at least a few living teachers of the old traditions. It is clear from his writings that much of what they taught would never have been written down but for Valens.

Whatever the original language used to record Egyptian astrological data earlier, by 1 C.E. it was all in Greek.  All the Egyptian texts that are referenced in later literature were all written in Greek.  Some may have been Greek translations of earlier Coptic writings, but any such Coptic texts have long been lost.

The use of Greek for writings is significant.  Even though the Persian Empire was massive, and included many cultures, no single language came into domination.  Persian was most certainly used for official purposes, but otherwise, the language used, both spoken and written, depended on the geographic location. Egyptians still spoke Egyptian, Babylonians still spoke their Akkadian Dialect, and wrote in cuneiform.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and Persia, and advanced as far as India, he brought with him the Greek language, culture, and writing.  Greek was not just the language for official purpose, it became the standard language used for any communication between ethnic cultures. 

Egyptians still spoke Egyptian and wrote Coptic among themselves, but any communication with another culture would have been done in Greek.  Anyone could travel from Greece in the West, to India in the East, or Egypt in the south, and been able to communicate effectively in Greek.  Any idea expressed in Greek would have the same range of travel.

Even after the Persian revivals, the Bactrian people of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to have Greek speaking rulers up into the early centuries of the Common Era.  This means that Babylonian methods, embodied in Egyptian astrology, not to mention Egyptian methods, could travel to places such as India very easily. 

This accounts for the fact that all of the technical words in Indian astrology, whose origins can be found in another language, are Greek. They are not Babylonian, nor Coptic, nor earlier Egyptian. What is also interesting is that there appear to be few, if any, technical words in Greek astrology that have their origins in any other language.

Love the VooDoo that Hindu

Following is a partial list of some of the terms in Hindu astrology that appear to have a Greek origin.

               

Zodiac Signs

Sanskrit                Greek                   English

Kriya                      Krios                      Aries

Tavura                   Tauros                  Taurus

Jituma                   Didumoi               Gemini

Kulira                     Karkinos               Cancer

Leya                        Leon                      Leo

Pathona                Parthenos           Virgo

Juka                        Zugos                    Libra

Kaurpi                    Skorpios              Scorpio

Taukshika             Toxotes                Sagitarius

Akokera                Aigokeres            Capricorn

Hridroga                Hudrochoos        Aquarius

Chettha                 Ichthues               Pisces

Planets

Sanskrit                Greek                   Latin/English

Hemnan               Hermes                Mercury

Asphujit               Aphrodite           Venus

Heli                        Helios                    Sol/Sun

Ara                         Aries                      Mars

Jeeva                     Zeus                       Jupiter (Jove)

Kona                      Kronos                  Saturn

All of the above words had equivalents in Sanskrit, which most likely preceded the introduction of the Greek into India.  Following are words which have no Sanskrit equivalent or roots, and seem to have completely Greek origins.

House and Aspect Words

Sanskrit                 Greek                       English

Hora                        Hora                          Hour

Liptaka                    Lepta                       Minute

Jamitra                   Diametros              Diameter

Mesurana              Mesouranema      Midheaven

Menyaiva              Meniaios                 No Equivalent

Trikona                   Trigonon                  Trine

Dyuna                     Dunon                      Setting

Kendra                   Kentron                   Angle

Panaphara            Epanaphora            Succedent

Apoklima              Apoklima                 Cadent

Drekana                 Dekanos                  Decan

Sunapha                Sunaphe                  Applying

Anaphara              Anaphora                Separating

Dauradhura         Doruphoria             Doryphory

Kemadruma        Kenodromia           Void of Course

The extent to which Hindu astrology is based on Hellenistic astrology is extremely controversial.  Many authors of the Hindu School would like to deny any basis at all, but considering the House and Aspect words, this is unlikely.  There are Westerners who believe that Hindu astrology came entirely from the West, or more accurately, the Middle East. 

There are differences between Hindu and Hellenistic astrology, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same or similar origin.  All that would be required is a period of isolation after unity, long enough for divergence so that the Eastern branch could merge with native traditions already in place.  Hindu astrology may not be a principal offshoot of Hellenistic astrology, though the required period of isolation did occur, which would allow a single tradition to become two.

After 126 B.C.E. the Parthians (Persians) rose up and re-conquered most of the old Persian Empire from the Seleucids, who succeeded Alexander.  The Parthians retook everything of the old Empire except the part nearest the Mediterranean, and in the northwest of India.  They were extremely hostile to the Greeks, and later, the Romans, cutting off communication between the Hellenistic peoples in the West, and the Bactrian Greeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Sol InvictusHindu records from the 4th and 5th centuries C.E. mention a new Sun Cult, coming from the West.  Since Christianity displaced the worship of Sol Invictus, (The Unconquered Sun) it may be that Hindu astrology got input from a new group fleeing Christian persecution in the West.  Whatever ideas Hindu astrology may have gotten from the West, it is clear that they changed, modified, and adapted it with their own native traditions.

Modern Astrology – The Birth

The Parthian separations would have had another effect.  Persians had always been enthusiastic astrologers.  It seems only logical that they would have built on what they got from the Mesopotamians and Greeks.  When they were overthrown in 227 C.E. by the Sassanid Persians, they too would have continued Persian traditions of astrology. 

When the Arabs came, most of the literature of the Zoroastrian Sassanids was destroyed, including their astrological works.  Fortunately we have a good idea of what their astrology may have looked like.  Most of the great astrologers of the Arab era were Persian.  The astrology they taught is very different from both Hindu and Greek.  It had orbs of aspect, the Great Cycles of Jupiter and Saturn, all of the elaborate systems of planetary interactions such as Refrenation, Frustration, Abscission of Light, Translation of Light and so forth.

While the Arab Era astrology has clear roots in Hellenistic astrology, in the two or three centuries between the last Hellenistic astrologers, and the first Arab Era astrologers, something new had come into play.  This was most likely the Persian form of astrology.  Arab Era astrology is the immediate ancestor of modern Western astrology of today.

 

References:

Material for this history was taken primarily from “The History of Astrology – Another View” By Robert Hand 

The Assyrian names for the planets comes from “Historical Astrology In Egypt” 
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