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A Brief History of Astrology (Part 1)

17 September 2022by Frederick0
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You would have heard about astrology from the mass media such as the newspaper columns and cutie magazines. Astrology has indeed gained tremendous popularity in the 20th century, thanks to R.H. Naylor, a British astrologer who popularized the 12 Sun Signs of the zodiac by renaming them as “Your Star Signs” on newspapers. This weekly astrology forecast system became so famous that even here in Asia, there is a high chance you would have chanced upon this column when reading the newspapers.

"Your Star Signs" on Newspaper
“Your Star Signs” on Newspaper

But before I go any further on the flaws of this astrology forecast system by R.H. Naylor (or perhaps another time), let us first examine the origin of astrology.

Astrology is the study of celestial bodies and the interpretation of terrestrial events to discern information about human affairs and the individual’s wellbeing. Its origin goes way back to ancient times and different cultures have employed the use of astrology because they have attached significance to what they observed in the night sky.

In this first part of the article, we examine astrology from the Babylonian (Mesopotamian) and Hellenistic (Greek) cultures.

 

Babylonian Astrology (2000 BCE to 100 BCE)

Ancient Babylonia
Ancient Babylonia

Astrology, in its earliest form, was practiced as far back around the third millennium BCE in the cultures of Mesopotamia (George, 2019). Historically, the study of celestial bodies was reported to have begun during the late Old Babylonian era (c. 1800 BC) till the Middle Assyrian periods (c. 1200 BC) (Rochberg, 1998).

During that time, astrology was largely focused on the movement of the stars in the night sky. It wasn’t until much later during the 4th century BCE that a fairly organized system of forecasting planetary movements began. And with that, astrology was used to forecast the destiny of kingdoms and royal families. In short, astrology wasn’t meant for peasants. So, if you were educated and you knew astrology back in those ancient days, it’s likely that you belonged to the social class of the elites.

The earliest surviving evidence for natal astrology is now limited to only a handful of nativities, manuals, ephemerides and diaries listing the positions of planets in the signs, their interactions with fixed stars and the lunar phases (George, 2019). All these dates back to at least around 400 BCE.

 

Hellenistic Astrology (150 BCE to 625 CE)

Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece

The Greeks encountered Babylonian astrology as early as the middle of the fourth century BCE. And when Alexander the Great conquered the lands of Mesopotamia, Babylonian astrology was mixed with the Egyptian tradition of Decanic astrology to produce what is now known as horoscopic astrology.

Horoscopic astrology employs the use of the Ascendant (also known as horoscopos in Greek, which means the “hour marker” in English), and the twelve celestial houses. Drawing upon the practice of the astral omen divination and the use of the thirty-six star decans from both Babylonian and Egyptian cultures respectively, the Greeks added their components of philosophical thinking and mathematical astronomy into what is now known as Hellenistic astrology.

Hellenistic astrology features the use of the Ascendant (also known as the Rising Sign), planets in signs, the twelve celestial houses, aspects, Lots (Arabic parts), and a variety of timing methods. In fact, there are many similarities between Hellenistic astrology and modern astrology (Brennan, 2017). Over the next several hundred years, Hellenistic astrology spread throughout Europe, such as the Roman Empire, and even to the regions of Asia Minor, Africa, and the Middle-East. These astrological texts were all written in Greek and a few in Latin.

Parts of a birth chart
Parts of a birth chart

Hellenistic astrology was virtually forgotten in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and later, while the Byzantine Empire declines, Greek was made less relevant in Europe. The entire practice was lost during the Christianisation of Europe when there was wide-spread condemnations against pagan practices by both the church and state.

With the disappearance of Hellenistic astrology in Europe, its surviving manuscripts made their way to the cultures of India and Persia. The texts were later translated into Sanskrit and Pahlavi. More on Persian, Arabic and Medieval astrology next!

There are more to Hellenistic astrology, a form of astrology I practice and apply in my analysis of birth charts. I first came to know of it through The Astrology Podcast by Chris Brennan. He is one of the many astrologers who inspired me towards my path as a practicing astrologer and my quest towards a more in-depth study of Hellenistic astrology. If you are curious to find out more about Hellenistic astrology, you can check out Chris Brennan’s book, “Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune”.

 

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Stay tuned for the second part series on “A Brief History of Astrology”.

 


References
Brennan, Chris, 2017. Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune. Amor Fati Publications.
Goerge, Demetra, 2019. Ancient Astrology: In theory and Practice. Rubedo Press.
Rochberg, Francesa, 1998. Babylonian Horoscopes. American Philosophical Society.

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