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History of Astrology

Part 2

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It was the Greeks who took Astrology to new heights.  The Greeks enlarged the scope of astrology to encompass the known universe.  Botany, chemistry, zoology, mineralogy, anatomy and medicine, colors, metals, stones, plants, drugs and animal life of all kinds were each associated with one or more of the planets and placed under their rulership.

Look into any Magical Herbal, and you will see the Greek influences.  Each plant has listed its medicinal, and magickal aspects, but it also prominently shows the planet that it is ruled by.  By incorporating astrology into every aspect of life, the Greeks found a way to use all things for the purpose of seeing omens of what the future held.  The Fates played their role in introducing astrology to medicine. 

The Greek FatesSince the Greeks believed that a man was born to his Fate, spun, woven, and cut before he was born, it seems logical that ailments of the body or mind could be diagnosed, or even predicted by astrology. 

Different parts of the body were associated with the five known planets, the Moon and the Sun.  As the planets moved in and out of conjunctions, so too it was thought, the body and its parts weakened and strengthened.

This lead to the constellations being used for diagnosis and treatment as well.  The zodiac became a prototype for the human body.  Each sign of the zodiac had a body part it ruled.  The head was placed in the first sign of Aries, and each sign around the zodiac received a part of the body including organs, until finally the feet were placed in the last sign of Pisces. 

With the body neatly associated with planets, signs and individual stars, astrology became a significant aspect of medicine.  By the Renaissance, all physicians trained as astrologers because any ailment or disturbance of the normal functions of the body could be attributed to the relative positions of constellations, stars or planets.

After the Greeks, the Romans took up astrology, with some reluctance.  The Romans, being a more bloodthirsty culture, had relied on omens from animal sacrifice, and the reading of entrails for centuries.  Eventually, astrology gained acceptance, and was spread to the farthest parts of the Empire.  When the Roman Empire fell to the invasions of Goths, Gauls, and Vandals, and all of Europe was plunged into darkness, the Arab Era of astrology began.

The Arabs, or Saracens had conquered much of the old Persian Empire.  Unlike the Christians who came after, they kept much of the writings they found, and because most of the Arab astrologers were Persian, they took their traditional astrology and expanded upon it.  The Latin Translations of the 12th century brought this and other knowledge back to Europe, where it had been forgotten.

Arab astrologer/astronomers such as Albumasur and Al Khwarizmi were highly influential later as their writings were translated and read during the European Renaissance.  It was Arabs who first named stars such as Aldebaran, Altair, Betelgeuse (You always wondered how it could be spelled that way, and pronounced Beetle Juice), Rigel and Vega.  In astrology they discovered a system still known as Arabic parts, which gave significance to the difference or "part" between the ascendant and each planet. The Arabs were also the first to speak of favorable and unfavorable indications in astrology, instead of categorical events fated to happen.

Astrological HousesOne of the major changes to come from the Arab Era, was the adoption of the House System and Aspect Orbs.  In the Hellenistic system, the degree of the rising sign didn’t matter, it was considered to be the First House.  The second sign was the Second House, and so on.  This meant that planets within a sign would be conjunct to planets in another sign, no matter where in those signs they might appear.  A planet in Aries would always be Sextile to a planet in Gemini and Aquarius, square to planets in Cancer and Capricorn, and so on.

Arab astrologers adopted various House systems such as Porphyry and Alcabitius, which broke the one to one correspondence of House and sign.  These new systems started the controversy over proper choice of house system, which continues today.  As a result of these new systems, the Arab astrologers started to use aspects based on degrees instead of signs.

This meant that a planet at 5 degrees Aries was no longer Sextile to a planet at 25 degrees Gemini.  This gave a much greater detail to readings since planets now had to be more closely aligned to be in conjunction.  To off set this slightly, the Arabs started using “zones of influence” they called Orbs.  This orb was a specific number of degrees before and after the exact degree of aspect, in which the conjunction still had influence.  Unlike modern astrology where every planet has the same orb of influence, in Arab astrology, each planet had its own orb.

Arab astrologers also complicated their astrology by using a system of separating and applying aspects and such arcane relationships as translation, abscission and collection of light, refrenation, prohibition and frustration.  This system allowed them to pull large amounts of data about the interaction of planets past, present, and future, to work with and analyze.

While the astrology had started out as Hellenistic, by the time it was taken to the West as part of the “New Sciences” in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Persian astrologers had modified it to such an extent as to be completely different.  The Hellenistic influences were easily identifiable, but the lengths to which the Arab Era astrologers had gone to create detail was astounding.

The “New Sciences” that entered Europe from the Middle East, completely changed the course of history.  Astrology was only one of these sciences to make the journey.  Crusaders had been exposed to many new ideas while in the Holy Land, including a group calling themselves Hospitalers.  Before then, the idea of caring for the sick and wounded hadn’t really been a consideration.

The new ideas from the Middle East, brought back by the Crusaders, is what kick started the Renaissance Era.  As medieval civilization grew in size and complexity, the required knowledge of how to create, delineate, and interpret charts became more widely available.  It became common for Nobles, the wealthy, and even the Church to consult astrologers for guidance in their affairs.  This was even more prominent in the newly wealthy city-states of Northern Italy. 

As places of learning came into being, they had as part of their core, the study of astrology.  No university curriculum was complete without astrology, which had become a basic part of medieval world view, metaphysics, and philosophy.  This is how the simple observations made by those long ago Akkadians, came to be a foundation of the Renaissance.

Renaissance Fair

One of the key aspects of the Renaissance was the rediscovery of Classical knowledge.  With the revival of the knowledge, also came the rediscovery of those who had written about it.  Claudius Ptolemy was probably the most influential astrologer of the Renaissance, even though he lived in Greek Alexandria. 

Claudius PtolemyContrary to his name, Ptolemy was not a member of the dynasty that ruled Egypt at the time.  Ptolemy was a mathematician and scientist who lived from the mid first to the mid second centuries C.E.  His astrology text, Tetrabiblos had always been highly regarded, but in the Renaissance it became canonical.  This reverence got to the point where astrologers followed it religiously, rejecting any doctrine or technique it didn’t cover.

This dogmatic approach may be one of the reasons astrologers chose Tropical over Sidereal, even though it didn’t take into account for procession of equinoxes.  Some branches of astrology such as Horary and Electional, or techniques such as firdaria, were labeled “Arab Inventions” because they do not appear in the Tetrabiblos. 

Interestingly, it has been speculated by modern scholars that Ptolemy may not have even been an astrologer.  They note that he provided no examples and fails to mention such basic techniques as the influences of the planets in the signs and houses.  He also should have known about the procession of equinoxes, but didn’t mention it.

As each culture before had, the Renaissance astrologers attempted to test and refine their craft.  Astrologers such as Luca Guarico started creating charts for just about everything that could be said to have a birthdate.  In 1552, he published the Tractatus Astrologicus which gave charts for the foundation of various buildings, states, and natal charts of Popes, cardinals, princes, and anyone else who would have been considered prominent. 

Carefully studying the chart, he compared it to the life of the person it was created for. If that person was still living, he made predictions about the outcome of their life and career.

Many astrologers published books of natal charts for famous or historical figures. With the new Guttenberg Press, such books could be made widely available, and with the more affluent Merchant Class, and new Middle Class, the number of literate people made these books best sellers.

Along with publishing books of natal charts, Renaissance astrologers also made advances in new astrological techniques as well.  There were a number of new or more widely publicized house systems such as the Campanus and Regiomantanus systems.  New ephemerides were compiled, increasing the accuracy of chart creation.

Copernicus, who discovered Heliocentric Astronomy, made a major contribution to astrology by publishing Erasmus Reinhold in 1551.  This work published new tables called Prutenic Tables, which greatly aided astrologers in the accuracy of their computations. 

Johann Kepler, known today as an astronomer, was also an astrologer.  In 1627 he published the Rudolphine Tables which further improved the accuracy of astrological prediction and delineation.

By the early 16th century, astrology was enjoying an unrivalled popularity.  The Church viewed it in a favorable light, even Pope Gregory XIII, who had a distrust of it, allowed his natal chart to be cast.  That very chart has been preserved in the Vatican Library.  Other Popes, such as Leo X and Paul III gladly endorsed astrology.

Some who could afford to do so, were said to not even take a step outside without first consulting their astrologer.  Among these, were Catherine de Medici, whose astrologers included Michel de Nostradamus.  Even the coronation of Elizabeth I of England, on January 15, 1559 at precisely noon, had been carefully selected by her court astrologer, Dr. John Dee.

Even the not so wealthy could gain the wisdom of the famous astrologers.  Due to the availability of printing, inexpensive almanacs were being produced for the masses. 

Typically these almanacs contained a calendar of the year, astronomical events such as solar and lunar eclipses, as well as astrological predictions.  The wealthy, and high born had been getting this information for a long time, now just about anyone could obtain it.

By the mid 17th century, English astrologer William Lilly was publishing an annual almanac titled Merlinus Anglicus (the English Merlin).  It had an estimated annual circulation of 30,000 copies. 

The total number of almanacs printed in England during this time exceeded the total number of Bibles printed.  It was estimated that up to one third of all English households had at least one astrological almanac.

At the height of his popularity, Lilly was seeing 2000 clients each year.  While many were the well to do, his workbooks, which are held at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, show that fully a third of his clients were listed as ancilla (female servant). 

While the expected questions of romance, and business were the most frequent questions, Lilly used Horary astrology to answer a much broader spectrum of questions.  These included everything from health to truth or falsity of rumors, buried treasure to which spouse would die first, gender of a child and Witchcraft.

The Other Side of The Coin

Even with its popularity among all classes of Europe, astrology had its detractors, and its fair share of criticism.  The Catholic Church was never really comfortable with the Spiritual/Magical nature of astrology, especially where it might be contrary to established doctrine. 

Specifically, the Church voiced concern over the perceived implication that, if in fact the stars absolutely determined all actions, then astrology denied man's free will.

Some pointed out that the stars and their movements were created by God, and therefore astrology was simply giving man a tool to see God’s Will.  They also pointed out that while certain events may be predestined, that didn’t mean that a person’s entire life was. 

Astrology didn’t always say “this will happen”, most of the time it said, “The best time for this to happen is at this time”. Knowing this didn’t remove free will, it simply allowed a person to know opportune timings for action.

Disputations against Divinatory Astrology published in 1496 by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, detailed problems with astrological theory and technique.  It condemned the denial of free will that Mirandola saw in current astrological practice. Interestingly enough, the date of Mirandola's death was predicted accurately by a Renaissance astrologer, Anthony Grafton.

In 1586 Pope Sixtus V issued a papal bull that condemned all forms of magic and divination.  This included horary, electional and natal astrology.  While some astrologers, such as Italian Jerome Cardan, were held under house arrest by the Inquisition on suspicion of violating the papal bull, others such as William Lilly in England, seem to have avoided prosecution. Of course, Elizabethan England was much more tolerant of such things.

The Great Conjunction of 1524

In February 1524, astrologers announced that there would be both a Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and a conjunction of all the ancient planets in the sign of Pisces.  The reaction of this news caused turbulence of historical proportion. 

The wide availability of print allowed almost anyone to read the wild predictions such a significant event might cause.  Because the conjunction was to happen in a water sign, most predictions centered around flooding.  This included speculation of inundations of Biblical proportion as had happened in the time of Noah.

Other, more sober analysis of the charts predicted an abundance of rain and snow, but nothing more.  According to a meteorological diary kept by a Bolognese astrologer, it was in fact a wetter than normal year.

Controversy also centered over the use of the Great Conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter as a technique of prediction.  This was criticized as an Arabic technique that had replaced the older Ptolemaic use of eclipses.  

There were a number of treatises decrying not only the reliance on Great Conjunctions, but the use of solar revolutions also. Neither of these had been set forth in Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos.  Even so, while there was a trend toward the Ptolemaic practices, most astrologers continued to use the techniques that had come down from the Arab Era.

It should be noted that modern astrological software reveals that the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter took place on January 30, 1524 before all of the seven planets were together in Pisces. 

On February 13, 1524 Mercury entered Pisces so that all of the traditional planets were now in Pisces, except for the Moon in Gemini. On February 20, 1524 Venus entered Aries with the Moon in Sagittarius. (Tropical)

Needless to say, the actual non-event didn’t live up to the hype, sort of like Y2K.  This caused a general consensus toward distrust of the astrological sciences.  Masses tend toward hysteria if given a chance. 

It can be assumed that the relief of nothing happening was far over shadowed by the disappointment of all those who had wasted time and effort, perhaps on a par with the Great Disappointment which lead to the formation of the Seventh Day Adventists in the 19th century.

Astrology had been proclaimed the Queen of the Sciences.  It was thought capable of providing an explanation for the birth, growth, and decline of everything in the material world. 

The zodiac, or Celestial World, was the key link in the Great Chain of Being.  It had acted as the essential intermediary between the Divine world of Platonic ideas and angels, and the everyday material world made up of the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

Astrology had been seen as a unifying force, uniting all things in existence.  It was an ancestor and precursor of Einstein’s elusive Unified Field Theory.  Disappointment in astrology’s ability to accurately predict events of even the highest potential significance, lead inexorably to its decline.  

The dawn of the Enlightenment of the 18th century pushed astrology out of fashion.  The increasing acceptance of the mechanical theory of Causality, with observation of empirical evidence, overtook the interpretation and calculation of astrology.

With the movement away from the Spiritual in favor of the scientific, the more Spiritual and esoteric sciences lost favor.  Renaissance science hadn’t disagreed essentially with religion, it couldn’t.  In the Renaissance, the Church still held the power of, and over the people. 

As the “hard” sciences began to take hold, people started to put their faith in only those things that could be observed.  This caused a split between science and spirituality that is with us today.

With the Enlightenment, the Bible and its stories were no longer Absolute Truth.  They were seen merely as stories and parables.  It was no longer required that you believe the Truth of the stories, as long as you understood the ideas which they related. 

The downfall of astrology didn’t cause the decline of the Church. They were both victims of humankind’s need and desire to know the unknowable.  Both had had their chance to satisfy this hunger, and both had failed.

Unfortunately, this has caused a conceptual imbalance.  Because there is no longer a link between the Spiritual and the Scientific, it has become inappropriate for a Biologist to talk to a Theologian and Mystics are dismissed by Philosophers. 

The pendulum has swung yet again, this time to the other extreme.


Material for this history was taken primarily from “History of Astrology in the Renaissance” originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, October – November 2002.

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