With this post, I’m kicking off my serie dedicated to exploring the origins of Astrology from a historically accurate (as much as my knowledge allows me) standpoint. This research report has been prepared by yours truly, consulting publicly available information taken from reliable sources, listed in the Bibliography at the bottom of each post, and it will focus on the roots of both the practice of Astrology and the myths and cults that converged in the Archetypes of signs and Planets, but doing so in a way that’s also accessible to those who don’t have an academic background in this kind of studies.
It’s the Myths and Religious aspects, however, that will be a dominant theme in this narration. The reason of this lies in the fact Astrology was originated and perfected in contexts where the Religious, Spiritual, and we could also say mythical aspect played a pivotal role in shaping the society and its rules, which means that private, ritualistic, juridical issues and operations were informed and permeated by the substratum of mythical and religious knowledge. In short, there was not such a thing as separation between the two spheres of Religion and Civil matters; the two simply collided, and Astrology was a part of one as much as the other. So you can’t discuss the origins of Astrology without tapping into the background of Religious beliefs and Mythical narrations belonging to archaic and ancient societies, and, most importantly, we can’t understand the complex system of analogies and associations if we don’t also tackle important matters like the syncretism of cults and worships and the circumstances that made it possible.
In this first chapter, I’m going to focus on the proto-Astrology practices known in the Fertile Crescent area, but from there onwards I shall elaborate a lot more on the developments occurred in the Greek World. This is because, while ‘Babylonian’/Mesopotamian culture has provided the basis for the rise of Astrology, most of the sources I did my research on agree on the fact that, in spite of the presence of Oriental elements, the philosophical rationale of Astrology, and its doctrine of interpretation are Hellenistic Greek in origin and mainly (although not exclusively, of course) explainable in terms of Greek tradition itself. I’m aware this is a simplification, but writing down an exhaustive and detailed report spanning millennia of human history would be too much of a pretentious task for someone with merely a BA in Anthropology, and those who have a deeper interest in the early stages of this process will find plenty of authors and documents covering that aspect (some of them are also suggested in the already mentioned bibliography). The present serie of posts is just aimed to provide a frame of reference that’s accurate and synthetic at the same time.
Some of you might have heard that Astrology was born in Mesopotamia. This is only true to some extent. In fact, Astral influence was sought in various areas of Mesopotamian science, but this was far from being developed into proper Astrology as we know it from the Greeks. Mesopotamians resorted to the Stars for mundane purposes, and they were mostly concerned with divination and astronomy. Therefore, there is an essential difference between the perception and understanding of celestial phenomena of these two cultures, that cannot be overestimated: Babylonians regarded celestial phenomena as potential signs (as they did all natural phenomena) in accordance with a view of nature as inseparable from the divine.
In this culture and context, celestial phenomena were regarded as signs which could indicate impending mundane events. While the first references to diviners and divination are to be found in the written sources of the third millennium b.C., the bulk of our evidence for Babylonian celestial divination dates roughly from the seventh century b.C., and mostly derives from the omen series Enuma Anu Enlil and its commentaries. This form of proto-astrology was practiced by professionals likely belonging to an élite, whose exponents would become known as “Chaldeans”. The connection made in the Greco-Roman world between the profession “astrologer” and the name “Chaldean” is attested in Hellenistic literature, with the term “Chaldean” gradually coming to be associated with a priestly class (such is the meaning of “Chaldean” understood by the more well-known Greek historians like Herodotus, Ctesias and Diodorus). Realistically speaking, these people were haruspexes turning to the stars to ask for reliable omens; there are also some indications that also parts of the exta examined for divinatory purposes were associated with celestial bodies, and the medical texts of this time and culture also bear reference to planets when discussing treatments. Cuneiform evidence confirms the transmission of only a very few elements of Babylonian celestial omen astrology (astro-mantic, as Italian scholar and author Ornella Pompeo Faracovi dubs it) to the Greeks. The evidence for the means of transmission remains exceedingly limited, but one of the elements we know for sure that was passed on from Babylonian culture to the Greeks was the Zodiac.
The Zodiac of twelve signs of equal 30-degree length itself, had its origin in Babylonia during the fifth century B.C., time of the development of scientific mathematical astronomy, and was invented for use in astronomical computation. It provided a standard reference system for the measuring of the daily (or monthly) progress of the sun. Prior to this invention, seventeen ecliptical constellations were used, both in early astronomical texts and in celestial divination, to indicate positions of the moon or the planets in the sky. This traces back the difference between Tropical and Sidereal Astrology to a rather far-out time. However, there are relevant themes to be extracted in the ancient constellations, as several of their traits persist in today’s understanding of the signs and archetypes of the Zodiac. As Alexander A. Gurshtein says, most ancient constellations can be subdivided into three categories: images belonging to the Air, anthropomorphic images walking the Earth, and images associated with Water. These three groups symbolize the Upper (air), Middle (earth) and Lower (water) Worlds of the ancients. Cuneiform texts reveal that the Sumerian-Akkadian sky of the second millennium b.C. was also divided in three pathways, that is to say those of the gods Enlil (associated to atmospheric phenomena and storms), Ea (depths, water and abyss) and Anu (the ultimate deity of beings in the Middle World), with the former located near the zenith, Ea near the southern horizon and Anu between them. This, beside bearing a non-casual resemblance with the tripartition of men, Olympic deities and Chtonic deities of Greek Mythology, is also connected with the link between signs and Elements in Astrology, with Air signs symbolizing intellect, Earth signs symbolizing the material plane, and Water signs denoting all that is submerged, secret, or unconscious (the maternal womb of Cancer, the personal unconscious of Scorpio, the collective unconscious / dissolution in the Spirit of Pisces).
With the Peace of Callia and the end of the Greco-Persian Wars, Greeks were starting to become more and more familiar with the Eastern civilization, and following the conquests of Alexander the Great, the contacts between these two different cultures were bound to become even deeper, allowing the two systems to collide on many levels. In the next chapter, I will elaborate on this meeting of the two civilizations and start to outline the background in which the astro-mantic practices were welcomed, the systematization of Western Astrology by Greek/Hellenistic Astrologers, and, most importantly, the Myths and Cults that shaped the Zodiac Signs into what is known to us today.
Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology. Author(s): F. Rochberg-Halton. Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 108, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1988), pp. 51-62
New Evidence for the History of Astrology, Author(s): F. Rochberg-Halton. Source: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 115-140Published by: The University of Chicago Press.
The Uses of Astrology. Author(s): Erica Reiner. Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 105, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1985), pp. 589-595
The Origins of the Constellations: Some provocative hypotheses link the origins of the constellations to the precession of the earth’s axis and the symbolic imagery of ancient peoples. Author(s): Alexander A. Gurshtein. Source: American Scientist, Vol. 85, No. 3 (MAY-JUNE 1997), pp. 264-273. Published by: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
Scritto negli Astri. L’Astrologia nella Cultura dell’Occidente. Author: Ornella Pompeo Faracovi. Venice, 1996.