Where Astrology came from

When we talk about Astrology, whether we know it or not, we are also talking about Astral Theology. It is widely accepted that most ancient cultures had some form of Astral Theology, but not all cultures developed an Astrological Technology. This Astrology article focuses on WHERE Astrology came from.

Sumerian/Babylonian Astrology

The roots of what we today understand as Astrological technology are in Sumerian Astral Theology (Millenniums V-II B.C. according to some scholars). The Sumerians were the first known civilization to observe the sky and associate their Gods with the planets, and then keep written records (clay tablets) for hundreds of years of planetary movements and events on earth, trying to establish a correspondence link between the two, without a cause-effect relationship being attached to this link.

Sumerian and Babylonian clay tablets with thousands of these recordings are being uncovered in excavations regularly.

Sumerian Star Map
Sumerian Star Map

This is how the original Omen Astrology was born, as a collective effort spanning hundreds of years of direct astronomic observation.

The understanding and general premise of this observational work was that what happened in the skies mirrored events on earth (planets did not however influence events, but rather signaled them), so the Astral Priests tried to figure out the patterns of the planetary movements, in order to foresee possible events on earth.

They followed alignment of major planetary configurations with groups of stars. Centuries later, Babylonian Astronomers/Astrologers improved the Astrological framework adding zodiacal constellations (12 rows of 3 constellations each, each constellation being on one of the three Paths of Anu, Enlil and Enki, the original source for our Modern Decans) and keeping accurate astral calendars through more precise mathematical theories and measurements.

Hellenistic Astrology

Thema Mundi - Central Concept to Hellenistic AStrology (firmicus Maternus)
Thema Mundi – Central Concept to Hellenistic AStrology (firmicus Maternus)

The Greek Astronomers in Ptolemaic Egypt (Egypt had been conquered by the Greeks during the campaigns of Alexander the Great in the 3rd Century B.C., and following his death/assassination his generals divided the conquered lands between themselves, and Egypt came to be ruled by Ptolemy I Soter who instituded a “ptolemaic” dynasty that ruled for 3 centuries) where fascinated by these innovations and imported the Babylonian System and developed it even further to what was to become the Foundation for Topical Astrology. It is at this point that the first domification system was probably developed: Whole Sign domification; we also have now planetary attributions, geometrical doctrine of aspects etc. This new Astrological Framework gave 1st place to the Horoscope (Ascendant), and was henceforth named Horoscopic Astrology (cca century V-II B.C.). Today we call this Hellenistic Astrology.

This Astrological development took place in a period of major philosophical effervescence for Greek thinking, namely the Alexandrian Golden Age (in this alchemical cooking pot for Philosophy is where Platonic, Aristotelian and Pythagorean western thought met and exchanged ideas with Oriental Philosophy). This lead to the development of Hermetic Teachings and Neo-platonism and Neo-pythagoreanism which focused on the Soul, its relationship with the Cosmos and the overall framework for the Journey and Destiny of the Soul.

There is an exceptionally written essay on the topic of Hellenistic Astrology here.

Hellenistic & Indian Astrology

Vedic Astrology
Vedic Astrology

At the same time, the Horoscopic Astrology core technology met with Vedic Astrology, who already had a Ritualistic Astrology technology (Lunar Astrology / Nakshatras) necessary for following the ritual indications in the Vedas. There seems to have been an adoption of the greek Astrological framework (translating the names in sanskrit) although both are closer to each other than to Modern Astrology, here is an extract from Robert Schmidt on the differences between the two:

Indian astrology makes extensive use of the naksatras, which are a division of the zodiac into 27 or 28 portions corresponding to the daily motion of the Moon. Although the “lunar mansions” are known in Medieval Western astrology, they are not found in the original Hellenistic material and seem to have been imported later from India. Then again, Indian astrology does not have the five fold irregular division of each sign into “bounds” (called “terms” in Medieval Latin), which is a central concept for Hellenistic astrology.

Indian astrology places far more importance on the lunar nodes than does Hellenistic, almost giving them the status of planets. Hellenistic astrology has an elaborately developed system of lots (often but mistakenly called “Arabic Parts”), which are lacking in Indian astrology proper, although they were introduced later as a result of Persian influence.

Conversely, Indian astrology has an extensive development of divisional (or “harmonic” charts), while Hellenistic basically employed only a version of the twelfth (and possibly thirteenth) harmonic. Then there is the nagging problem of the choice of the beginning of the zodiac, where Indian astrology has various alternative starting points for a sidereal zodiac; by contrast, there is reason to believe that many Hellenistic astrologers — certainly those influenced by Ptolemy — favored a tropical zodiac, although it is still unresolved whether the earliest Hellenistic astrologers used a sidereal or a tropical zodiac.

These two astrologies also differ on quite a number of points of detail.We may never know the full extend of the interaction between Hellenistic and Indian Astrologers, but we can now build a strong case for Hellenistic Astrology as a standalone astrological framework. (See Project Hindsight)

Claudius Ptolemy – Blessing and Curse to Astrology

Claudius Ptolemy - Astrology
Claudius Ptolemy – Astrology

In the 2nd century A.D. Claudius Ptolemy had a major and unique influence on Hellenistic Astrology. As a theoretical scientist he was working on his unified theory of Everything, and he adopted the Hellenistic Astrology framework, but he only kept what he understood (he really wasn’t a practicing Astrologer) and only what suited his worldview.

His basic understanding of the world implied that Humans living in the `sublunary sphere` received `influences` from the stars (based on Aristotelian principles, and ignoring the platonic foundation), which he then equated to a cause-effect relationship (again Aristotelian thinking) that was to develop in a stream of Astrological thinking on its own that would prove highly resistant in time.

Ptolemy captured his reasoning in the Astrological treaty Tetrabiblos, which had grown immediately very popular in detriment to other actual Hellenistic Astrological Treatises that were unfortunately lost to the ages. Up until 1990, there was only Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos to give a (heavily skewed) view of Hellenistic Astrology, but by then Hellenistic Astrology had already seen a number of transformations culminating with `Modern Western Astrology’

The “thorny” issue of Tropical vs. Sidereal Zodiac

Most Astrology Students grapple with this technical dilemma at some point in their study, and there are two widely accepted solutions:

  • The Tropical Zodiac for most Modern Western Astrology schools
  • The Sidereal Zodiac for most Vedic Astrology Schools

But what is the root of this dilemma? Let’s see if we can unravel this zodiacal mystery. Our first clue is the actual difference between the two zodiacal systems. In our modern days, this difference is about 24 degrees. In other words the Tropical Aries ingress corresponds to about 5 degrees in Sidereal Pisces, and this is due to the effect known as the “Precession of the Equinoxes“.

“In astronomy, axial precession is a gravity-induced, slow, and continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical body’s rotational axis. In particular, it can refer to the gradual shift in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation in a cycle of approximately 25,772 years. This is similar to the precession of a spinning-top, with the axis tracing out a pair of cones joined at their apices.”

In other words, the Ingress of the Tropical Aries is relative to the fixed stars background, and fixed relative to Earth’s own axis. Historically, this wasn’t always an issue. At the time of development of Horoscopic Astrology in the ptolemaic era, the two zodiacal systems were mainly in sync with each other, while it took almost 2000 years for a 24 degree difference to be “noticeable” enough to raise technical problems.

In Claudius Ptolemy’s time the precession of the equinoxes issue was already familiar to astronomers and Astrologers alike, and it was mainly Ptolemy who “decided” on the Tropical Zodiac for the Western world. Most later Hellenistic Astrologers that were influenced by Ptolemy’s theories followed the Tropical Zodiac.

So the real question is: Did the initial Hellenistic Astrologers used Tropical or Sidereal Zodiac? Since they practically coincided at the time of the coagulation of the doctrine, we can’t tell for sure… but what we can do is analyse the recovered Hellenistic Doctrine and put it to the test. Preliminary analyses show that they seemed to use both zodiacs, but for different purposes… and maybe herein lies the key to our answer. Maybe they used a combination of both Tropical AND Sidereal frameworks in their Astrological work.

Hellenistic Astrology in the Middle Ages

Horoscopic Astrology in the western world survived in its pure form up until the V-VII centuries A.D. growing into separate streams (Ptolemaic Astrology and Hellenistic Astrology), and then went underground in the Middle Ages due to loss of interest (rise of Christianity, Inquisition etc.), although it resisted in a weak stream due to Ptolemy’s treaty being so popular among the Christian Church officials! Even so, Medieval Astrology was heavily influenced by Christian theology.

From then, actual Hellenistic Astrology resurfaced in the Arabic world via the then ancient Greek Hellenistic manuscripts that they imported and translated in the golden era of Arabic Knowledge Seeking (roughly our Middle Ages), it is these scholarly open minded arabians that actually ensured the continuation of Astrological thinking in the Western world.

Astrology in the Renaissance Age

Astrology later on re-emerged in Europe in the Renaissance Age when Arabic Astrology treatises (translations of older Hellenistic treatises) were imported and translated to Latin (at a time when Platonic theology was rediscovered in Europe mainly through Marsilio Ficino‘s translation effort, after also having been forgotten for centuries).

In the Western world then, Astrology was revived through the conservative effort of the Arabic scholars, and was actually included as curriculum in most universities in Europe at the time of the Renaissance… This is what is called today Medieval Astrology (Guido Bonatti, William Lilly, etc.), although its body of knowledge was already corrupted with Ptolemy’s Aristotelian reasoning.

(NO) Astrology in the Enlightenment Age

After the Renaissance Age, came the Enlightenment Age in the West with its focus on scientific thinking and materialism, which gave another blow to Astrology in Europe… and then it only declined further and was rather forgotten except for the efforts of  some brave Astrologers who endured public and academic criticism.

Astrology again went underground, being adopted in some esoteric cults (Rosicrucian Society, Free Masonry, etc.) who adopted the Astrological (now ptolemaic) framework to describe the journey of the Soul in the Cosmos.

New Astrologies in the Modern Age

Modern Sun Sign Astrology
Modern Sun Sign Astrology

After the Enlightenment Age, Astrology barely survived in the general view of the public until the XIX-XX century, and only as an greatly simplified Ptolemaic doctrine (less than 10% of the original Hellenistic doctrine of the stars), when it saw a revival during the Psychological revolution where it was seen as a way to unravel the mysteries of the psyche (see Alan Leo).

And this is mainly how the  Psychological/Personality Astrology framework was born, viewing Planets as functions of the Psyche. But then, with the “Spiritual enlightenment” of the XIX century, and the advent of imported oriental doctrines of reincarnation, karma, etc. in the West, Astrology took another form: Spiritual/Karmic/Evolutionary Astrology, merging these concepts with the previous Personality/Psychology Astrology. And this fusion, later on came to be what we generally view today as (modern) Western or Sun Sign Astrology, which only retains less than 10% of the original watered down (after Ptolemy) body of Hellenistic Techniques, but integrates most 20th Century concepts regarding Personality and Spirituality.

Vedic Astrology During the Ages

Vedic Astrology (featuring a large part of the initial body of Hellenistic Doctrine) suffered only small changes because the Hindu cultural and spiritual landscape remained roughly the same over the intervening two millennia, and this is why when we compare Vedic Astrology with Modern Astrology we see such a wide gap.

Vedic Astrology imported the technical doctrines, infusing them with their core Philosophy regarding the Self & Destiny, and then grew into a direction of its own.

Preliminary Conclusions

From this short introduction in Astrology History it follows that what we call Astrology today actually came as a concept from the Sumerians that lived millennia ago, and this concept was further developed by the civilizations that inherited this astral legacy. The core Hellenistic Astrology doctrines have been re-discovered and translated from original Greek Astrological treatises, starting with 1990’s in the works of Robert Schmidt, Robert Hand  et al. See Project Hindsight for more resources and info.

Want to learn more about Astrology?

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The Hermetic Astrolabe

This fantastic journey that Astrology has traveled so far inspired me to design an original map of the heavens created specifically for the purpose of serving as a study guide for Astrology Students. I call it the Hermetic Astrolabe and you can read more about it below.

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