History, Myths, Religion – Chapter Two. From Babylonians to the Greeks (via Egypt)

egyptiancalendarIn the previous episode, I introduced this serie, outlining a short summary of Mesopotamian evidences about Divination and Astro-Mantic practices from the third Millennium before Christ to the seventh century before Christ. In this second entry, I will focus more on how these practices ended up spreading well beyond the Mesopotamian world, to be taken up by different civilizations with their own cultural background and serving as the foundation for a systematization of Astrology in the Western sense of the word. I will extensively elaborate on the Greek culture, since all sources agree in stating that Astrology, as we know it today, is essentially a product of this civilization. I will especially dwell on myth and cults to shed Light on how deities and attributes came to be associated with the signs and planets throughout the centuries – from this point of view, Religious and worship practices will constitute an important part of this narration.
The Greek World absorbed both elements from the scientific Babylonian traditions and the Egyptian/Hermetic current that took shape in Egypt as a result of the contact with other populations. Babylonian Astral Mantic became known in Egypt after the Persian conquest [VI – IV before Christ]. Lacking an Astrological tradition of its own, Egypt elaborated a complex system of astral divination whose elements would have been passed on to Greeks nonetheless. Its corpus of techniques was based on time measurement system centered around the figures of ‘Decans’, the Lords of Time, to whom different segments of time were assigned. Egyptians were especially interested in the art of determining favourable moments, particularly in regards to agriculture. References to personal horoscope were almost totally absent, and the differentiation between “auspicious” or “inauspicious” days was used in a very general fashion to predict good or bad fortune basing on the day of birth. Decans added up to the sacral value of this system, their use being attested ever since the Middle Kingdom (2100 – 1700 b.C.). Egypt was then Hellenized under the the Ptolemaic dynasty that Ptolemy I Soter founded after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, at which point the system of theories and practices that had in the meantime become Greek Genethlialogy was absorbed, leading to further elaborations.
Contacts between Greeks and Asia supposedly intensified after the Peace of Callias, the treaty established around 449 BC with Persia, ending the Greco-Persian Wars. Shortly after, around 400 BC, the first references to genethliac Astrology appear in the Hippocratic Corpus, or Hippocratic Collection, a collection of around 60 early Ancient Greektumblr_l04wx8uwc61qbpyz1o1_500 medical works of unknown authorship. Around this time, the known lands were transitioning into a vivid social and political climate. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, a trend of religious syncretism and cultural exchange started to settle throughout the Greek world, and in Asia Minor, with  the influx of Oriental religious ideas sweeping into the Occident, introducing a number of customs and techniques. It is the dawn of the Hellenistic Age that brought forth a definite development of Astrology. In fact, in spite of the general and undeniable awareness of the “Orient” on the part of the Greeks from about the 8th  century b.C. (reflected also in mythology and religion, as I will explain) evidence for an in-depth knowledge of Babylonian history or culture before the Hellenistic period is notably small. It’s in the later Hellenistic era that an intensified Greek interest in ancient Babylonian traditions begins to be in evidence. Elements from Babylonian tradition (divination and astronomy) were taken up and adapted to the local context, originating an elaborate theoretical structure, whose complete outlines are known to us primarily through late treatises (2nd century A.D. onward), and which remains a Hellenistic Greek product. A mindset shaped by Aristotelic and Platonic theories and dominated by the philosophy of Stoicism provided a fertile ground for these proto-Astrologic notions to be assimilated, and so did the rich mythological scenario of ancient Greeks, which was, in fact, already permeated with Oriental elements, and which came to be associated with the traits and attributes of Planets in Astrology.
Greeks were Polytheists. Polytheism, much like Astrology, is intrinsically connected with seasonal cycles, as it’s thought to have developed simultaneously with the rise of agriculture and pastoralism (both of which are of course dependant on seasonal patterns).
The Greek Pantheon of Gods attained explicit formulation during the Archaic Age (around 8th Century b.C.), an age that is itself traditionally thought to begin under Orientalizing influence. This period marked the beginning of Greek literature, with the works of Hesiod and Homer, extensively revolving around the stories concerning gods and heroes, and the relationships between them. Hesiod’s Theogonia is especially relevant in this context since it’s essentially a systematic treatise about the Greek Pantheon, its narration starting from Zeus’ victory over the Titans. Homer and Hesiod’s writings Raffaello,_concilio_degli_dei_02can thus be considered the sources of Greek Religion. In Classical times, around 5th Century b.C., the deities were established in a standard number of 12, the main ones being the twelve Olimpians Zeus, his wife Hera, Poseidon, Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, and Dionysus. Chtonic deities included Hades, king of the Underworld, and his wife Persephone.
Various things should be noted about the Greek Pantheon: first, Greek religion did not contemplate orthodoxy. Dogmas and rigid beliefs about the identity of the Gods, like those adopted by the various monotheisms, were lacking in this culture. The Gods’ supposed anthropomorphism as it was portrayed in literature was actually far from being commonly recognized as a dogma, as well – several philosophers would argue about Gods (and Planets) simply epitomizing sheer forces, a multitude emanating from Oneness. We can see how this is relevant to Astrology since when we speak of Planets in Astrology, we’re speaking of deities and vice-versa. One thing that surely struck us at some point as we started to delve deep into Astrological subjects was that every sign or planet can epitomize a multitude of traits and/or features that are seemingly unrelated; this dates back to very ancient times and reflects the cultural climate of Ancient societies as well as a different mindset than ours. Precisely because dogmatic beliefs were unknown to these societies, and beliefs around Gods and their identities were more fluid, a system of interconnections, complex yet logical, came to be established.
The common substratum of Greek mythology is connected to far wider roots. Greeks were Indoeuropeans. As such, names and originary features of their Gods are derived from Indoeuropean models. For example, Zeus is linked to Indoeuropean Dyaus Pitar, who was envisioned to be the father of all things. In the most ancient evidences, hypothetic Indoeuropean mythology doesn’t survive in a pure form, but it’s rather already mixed up with Near East elements. Parallelisms between semitic goddess Ishtar and Aphrodite can hint at the fact that the Greeks’ conception of Aphrodite was partly molded on these Oriental deities. The structure behind Hesiod’s Theogonia was also derived from Oriental models, and we have seen Orient is also where the techniques that informed the birth of Astrology came from.
This syncretism would persist through the following centuries, since Greeks contemplated procedures to allow foreign cults in their towns, which at times resulted in the adoption of said cults. Foreigners residing in Athens who wished to build sanctuaries in honour of their deities would have to ask permission to the popular deliberative assembly. Moreover, even Panellenic deities could assume different specific traits according to the towns and demes in which they were worshipped.  There was a deep-rooted sense of interconnection and symmetry that can be sometimes hard to grasp for our modern mindset, but that informed the way Astrology and its symbolism came to be structured.
This flexibility is also mirrored in the fact that, nowadays, the Archetypes of Deities ruling the Zodiac sign also include figures that weren’t properly regarded as deities, such as Uranus and Saturn. They were titans, and we find them in Hesiod’s Theogonia. Titans were characters lacking in a definite personality – today, Astrology regards them as transpersonal entities that affect the generations more than the individual. Their inclusion in the Zodiac, however, goes well with the cosmological tripartition that sees an Uranic/Celestial/Transpersonal world coexisting with an Earthy World and a Chtonic/Underground World.
Aristotle propounded the concept of the Divinity of the Celestial Bodies, in which he saw eternal principles. According to him, the antromorphism of myth was but a social expedient to influence the masses. Stoics believed Olympic Gods to be aspects of the immanent divinity. Plato deemed the stars as “visible gods,”‘ the planets as living bodies animated by the Life of the supreme being. So, the Ancients’ understanding of planets and gods as “forces” was more sophisticated than we might assume, and they’re not far removed from modern astrology’s belief in Planets as cosmopsychic principles that operate within the Soul and personality of the individual.
It’s this Pantheon and the aforementioned Stoic mindset that welcomed protoastrological practices: in fact, it has been said that Astrology cannot antedate the Hellenistic period since its development as an actual science is largely dependant upon the idea of a finite spherical and geocentric universe, viewed in accordance with Aristotelian principles of physics and cosmology. This development had much to do with the favorable climate provided by the Platonist and Peripatetic schools, each of which came to regard the celestial spheres as superior to Earthy, mundane sphere. It’s among the Stoic scholars that we find the first references to personal Horoscopes. This signals the two major forms taken by Hellenistic Astrology: genethlialogy (or horoscopy), or formulation of personal predictions for a specific individual, and universal (or general) astrology, with predictions aimed at political states and collective groups.
Sources for actual Hellenistic astrology largely stem from the latter half of the Hellenistic period, therefore reflecting astrology in its most elaborate Greco- Roman form.
In the next entry, I’ll cover Ptolemy’s revision of Astrology, the birth of individual Horoscope, and the encounter between Greek culture and Roman religion.


Fusion of the Gods: A Religio-Astrological Study of the Interpenetration of the East and theWest in Asia Minor. Author: J. B. McMinn. Source: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Oct., 1956), pp. 201-213

Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology. Author: 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: F. Rochberg-Halton. Source: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 115-140. Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Scritto negli Astri. L’Astrologia nella Cultura dell’Occidente. Author: Ornella Pompeo Faracovi. Venice, 1996.

Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Author: Simon Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

Comments (1)

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