History of Astrology

Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620). Archimedes seated at a table deep in study of a diagram, his hand resting on a small globe.
Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620).
Astrology is now used mostly for printed newspaper horoscopes, but in the past it was used to manage affairs of state. It was also used to predict the weather. Later, it was used in alchemy and medicine, and also, to tell fortunes. From state to individual, from weather to the future; over time, the focus has changed as each conquering empire has put it to their own use.

There are two kinds of astrology:

  • Judicial astrology is predicting the future. Judicial astrology was sometimes considered heretical by the Church.
  • Natural astrology is a study of the effects of the cosmos in nature – on people and the environment, including in health and disease. Nobody had a problem with that – until something better came along.
The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. A broken clay inscribed with a linear script describing observations of Venus.
The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Enuma Anu Enlil Tablet 63. Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC. Nineveh, northern Iraq. Text about 1600BC.

Babylon

The earliest records of astrology go back to Babylon as far as 1800 BC. Astrology may reasonably go back to the Sumerians, or even earlier, but there is no evidence, and without evidence, we can only speculate.

Babylonian priests used astrology in temple rites to find out what the sky gods had to say. The Babylonians didn’t necessarily think any effects happened on the small, personal scale of today’s horoscopes, but that any effects would be most obvious and relevant at the scale of the empire. Babylonian astrology was about the affairs of state, and did not apply to regular people. The sky did not necessarily cause things to happen, but only provided signs – omens.

The Babylonian sky gods manifested in seven planets or “wanderers,” known to us as the then-known five planets (Mercury, Mars, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter), the Sun, and the Moon. Each god/planet’s influence was thought to depend on its position in the sky.

Priests watched for signs that could be associated with events on Earth. Because their King was divinely-appointed, and their gods, sky gods, the Babylonians reasonably assumed that there could be a connection between things happening in the sky and events down here on Earth. They set out to identify and catalogue all of the possible signs or omens that might be in the sky.

The Babylonians began a massive data collection and produced the Enuma Anu Enlil – a catalogue of almost 7000 sky (and weather) omens with their possible outcomes, detailed on about 70 clay tablets. The Enuma Anu Enlil encompassed the appearance of clouds, earthquakes, thunder, as well as the distant stars and planets.

Begun before 1500BC, by around 1100BC the text was essentially complete, and continued in use in that region to at least just before 200BC. By the time of Christ, the Enuma Anu Enlil had made its way to India.

The Babylonians also produced a number of astronomical star catalogues, such as the Three Stars Each in the twelfth century BC and the derivative MUL.APIN list compiled around 1000BC. The Babylonians invented the astrological zodiac and houses.

Persia

Through the centuries astrology has been a prize of war, won by successive battling empires ranging through the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Babylon was overtaken by the Biblical Cyrus in 539BC and became part of the Achaemenid Empire (c.550–330BC) ranging from west of Egypt to Pakistan. Headquartered in Babylon, the Persians were the New Babylonians – called (but not actually) Chaldeans – famed in the ancient world for their sorcery and divination. Babylonian astrology spread throughout their empire and was being practised as such in Egypt around 450BC.

By around 400BC, the Chaldeans were developing personal natal horoscopes for individuals based on the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and planets at the time of birth.

Greece

Alexander the Great occupied Babylon in 330BC and so Babylonian astrology made its way to Greece in the 4th century BC as part of Alexander’s conquest.

The Babylonian gods were unlike the Greek pantheon of human-like gods. Although the Greeks didn’t have sky gods – theirs lived no higher than Mount Olympus – the Greeks substituted the names of their own gods: Mercury, Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter for the Babylonian planets.

Babylonian Planets

The real names of the planets:

  • Mercury was Nabu (Nebo)
  • Mars was Nergal
  • Venus was Ishtar
  • Saturn was Ninurta (Ninib)
  • Jupiter was Marduk

To the Chaldean art the Greeks applied their knowledge of geometry, and not being the direct heir of tradition, they re-shaped astrology to suit themselves and their Greek philosophies, among which was a faith in the perfect order and harmony of the cosmos.

Astrology is not magical – it’s mathematical

The Greek analytical approach provided a provident toe-hold into understanding the mechanics of life. Mathematics were reliable, consistent, and highly effective.

The Greeks changed astrology to a study that linked the movement of the Cosmos with the destiny of each person and with their immortal soul.[1]

Egypt

The Greeks (via Alexander) brought their hybrid astrology over to Egypt around 300BC. In 30BC, Egypt became a Roman province.

In the 2nd century AD, Claudius Ptolemy (c.90AD–c.168AD) a Greek citizen of Alexandria in Egypt, wrote two books, the astronomical Almagest and the astrological Tetrabiblos.

Ptolemy drew primarily from Greek and Babylonian sources to organize and rationalize a syncretic (combined) astrology which included native Egyptian astrology.

His Tetrabiblos became the foundation text for much of Western and Islamic astrology, and his geocentric Almagest, lost to the West until translated into Latin in the 12th century, became the foundation text for Middle-ages astronomy.

Claudius Ptolemy (AD c100-170) guided by Urania, the muse Astronomy in Margarita Philosophica (1508) by Gregor Reisch. Ptolemy measures the stars and Astronomy as a tall, robed woman stands behind him, pointing.
Claudius Ptolemy (AD c100-170) guided by Urania, the muse Astronomy in Margarita Philosophica (1508) by Gregor Reisch.
Ptolemy (like Plato, Aristotle and others – but not all) visualized the Earth at the centre of a series of aetherial spheres in which were embedded the Moon, the Sun, the then-known five planets, and the distant stars. Outside of the outermost sphere was the primal force (Primum Mobile) that gave motion to it all. The Earth was central and unmoving.

Not all Romans were as convinced by astrology as Ptolemy. Almost 200 years earlier Cicero (106BC-43BC) wrote that he failed to see how something as distant as the stars could dominate breeding and life experience – nature and nurture both. Cicero’s sensible argument failed to sway the superstitious Romans and astrology prospered up until Christianisation of the Empire in the fourth century made it all forbidden.

The growth of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries in the Roman Empire resulted in an on-going, thorough, and harsh persecution of divination, magic and astrology, and so they declined in areas where Christianity dominated.

Europe

With the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, Latin-speaking Western Europe lost access to a lot of still-untranslated Greek literature (such as Ptolemy’s Almagest) and to the intellectual currents of the Empire. Trade collapsed, literacy declined, and travel was insecure.

Europe descended into a dark period of regressive tribalism and isolation that lasted centuries. Access to material in Greek, once the language of science, was only through those texts that had previously been translated into Latin by the Romans, since few could read Greek anymore.

Fortunately the Arabs preserved and improved on the old knowledge. From North Africa and the Middle East, the Islamic Arab Empire was ascendant and on the march into Southern Europe – into Spain and Sicily, and they brought astrology with them. At the same time they began formulating a syncretic astrology of their own, adopting the Ptolemaic system of astrology.

The Arabs conquered Spain and Sicily around the 8th and 9th centuries and established centres of learning where subjects like alchemy and astrology were studied. That knowledge soon spread into a Christian Europe that now had little memory of the old traditions, and little knowledge of Greek.

But by around 1050, Europeans were busily translating both Greek and Arabic texts (including newly discovered works of Aristotle) in a transformative transfer of ideas. The introduction of astrology to the Western world took a while simply because there was so much material to be translated.

By around 1300, however, astrology was becoming common among the governing elite, and soon became popular.

The classical revival included the rise and spread of astrology among the higher classes, encouraged with the translation of the mystical Hermetica in 1471, a book that was thought to have an ancient and consequently venerable authority (at least until the whole package was discredited by Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) who dated it as much more recent (although that dating is now less sure)).

By the end of the sixteenth century however, the Roman Catholic Church would finally condemn astrology, and in the Catholic countries of Europe, astrology would fall into decline.

The Church & European Renaissance

Many in the Church appreciated the value of many of the rediscovered ancient texts, and incorporated Greek concepts of the cosmos into their own image of God’s heavenly presence observing and permeating the cosmos.

The alignments and movements of heavenly bodies affected natural processes in both unique and predictable ways. Astrology was routinely applied in weather forecasting and health and medicine. However, using it to divine men’s futures particularly offended the Church.

Divinatory or judicial astrology (fortune telling) by its nature suggested that something about the stars made human actions predictable. This conflicted with the Christian belief that humans had free will which made them answerable to God for their actions. It had serious implications for Christian salvation to those who felt that humans had to freely chose salvation.

Without some careful rationalisation, practising divinatory (“judicial”) astrology could get one accused of heresy for fatalistically arguing that if you didn’t worship God – or get out of bed in the morning for that matter – it was because God had clearly decided you weren’t going to. Looking into the future also ran the risk of annoying God, because it was impertinent to peek.

So for these and other reasons, judicial astrology was variously officially accepted and rejected by Christian Europeans over centuries.

Faust

The real-life sixteenth century Johann Georg Faust of Protestant Germany was a university-trained professional astrologer. Astrology was well established, and people like Faust managed to make a living at it, though they were wise to respect boundaries.

Astrology was studied at universities as one of the liberal arts. It was studied as a natural science. Book work and mathematical training were required to be adept at astrology, and proficiency was difficult. It was a legitimate pursuit, and Faust’s knowledge of it did not presage a slide into infamy – that was magic.

Astrologers made money selling fortunes, as they do now. Its mundane use was in weather forecasting, farming, and the practise of medicine, as well as calendrical functions. Astronomy was needed to determine the dates of Easter.

However, if one was an effective astrologer – or alchemist – or anything, really – and maybe a little creepy, one was open to being accused of witchcraft.

In Europe astrology, like alchemy, had become imbued with spirits too – angels or demons depending on your outlook. They had a place in the Cosmos. At the popular level, people associated astrology with elements born out of pagan traditions and basic superstition, supposition, and ignorance – and a love of the occult.

Demonic Superstition

Humans have seen the stars and planets as either being spirits in themselves, or in being the abodes of spirits.

The association of spirits with astrology goes back in time, evidenced by the probably post-exilic (e.g. about 300BC) Book of Enoch, which could have been written as late as the 1st century CE.[2]

In the early Renaissance, astrology was associated with other disciplines like medicine and alchemy, acting through occult talismanic correspondences of the Sun and the Moon and the planets to the body and to chemical compounds. There was power in the stars, and perhaps, as the Hermetic writings contended, that power could be controlled.[3]

Astrological correspondences and influences suggested a mechanism of some kind, and an intelligent, directed one at that. Surely an intelligence could be negotiated with, supplicated, and perhaps commanded, and magic was a tool to that end. Astrology was foreign, and if God chose not to reveal his secrets to men like Faust, then demons – certainly demons – would, were anyone foolish enough to ask.

While for some, astrology was closely associated with spirits and demons, this was not a true part of astrology, but a superstitious add-on that corresponded with Christian, Jewish, and Pagan visions of the powers of priests and saints, demons, witches, and angels.

Pure astrology never involved invoking spirits, but logically if there were spirits among the spheres, they would have special knowledge about astrology and the order of the cosmos. If the Church didn’t know, if God wasn’t telling, and if the angels weren’t giving it up, only demons were left. It had to be the demons.

The End of the Old World

Astrology provided the startling evidence that God’s cosmos wasn’t at all as envisaged, and that Man was clearly not the centre of the new “Universe,” when astrologer/astronomers began to discover the true nature of the cosmos.

That the Earth wasn’t the centre of the cosmos and that the infinite stars were yet more distant suns, left the distasteful sense that we weren’t so special after all, and that it was almost conceivable that God didn’t even know we were here.

This re-vision of human insignificance in the Universe began about the time of Faust (about 1500). The proof that thousands of years of astrology had been based on false assumptions heralded astrology’s own demise, the weakening of religious power in Europe, and the advent of modern man with a new tool for discovering truth called science that made astrology yesterday’s news – continuing scientific proofs would show it was clear that no church held the undeniable key to “truth” by those standards.

England

In England, astrology underwent a renaissance in the sixteenth century, but still maintained a low and discrete profile with the exception of high-placed enthusiasts like John Dee. Astrology became more widespread among the common folk with the publication of home-grown almanacs in the first half of the 16th century, and then its spreading debasement around the 1650s alienated the educated classes that might have promulgated it.

Largely pre-occupied with tossing out the old regime of Kings and Roman Catholicism through the 16th century, the newly established powers had less of a stake in preserving the old status quo. The model of a material and mechanical universe fit right in with their brave new world of opportunity for the unfettered rational man.

Those same opportunities were available to the old-time astrological man, too, though his stature was diminished.

Descent

In England astrology’s popularity was invariably hampered by charlatans, and tempered by ridicule.

William Lilly (1602 – 1681), was a famous astrologer tried in Parliament for starting the Great Fire of London because 14 years earlier he seemed to have predicted it would happen. That the authorities were unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt foreshadowed the treatment astrologers could expect from the police in the coming years.

However Lilly was viewed, his close contemporary Simon Forman, and many others in England in the 17th century through the 18th century were often not so much astrologers in the classical tradition as opportunistic rascals who fed the prurient populace’s penchant for private and personal prognostication.

Portrait of Elizabethan alchemist, occultist and herbalist Simon Forman.
Simon Forman in William Lilly’s history of his life and times from the year 1602 to 1681, by William Lilly

The printing of yearly almanacs fed the popular demand for astrology. Lilly wrote one for forty years and before him, William Parron had contributed to astrology for the masses by the publication of almanacs around the year 1500.

Queen Dies 43 Years Too Early

Parron undid all his service to the astrological cause some years later when his brightly optimistic prophecy of long life for King Henry VII and his wife turned out to be horribly wrong, when the Queen immediately died after childbirth – something their son, the future King Henry VIII was unlikely to forget.[4]

Partridge Dies on Time

In 1708 a new up-and-coming astrologer, Isaac Bickerstaff (Esq.), upset the reputation of popular astrologer John Partridge by predicting his death that March. It was subsequently published that Partridge had actually died on that day, making Bickerstaff briefly famous as one astrologer who apparently had got something right.

Despite the dramatic announcement, however, Partridge had not actually died. Such was the power of Bickerstaff’s revelation that despite Partridge’s perpetual protests, many people believed or preferred to believe that Partridge had actually died, making Partridge’s life miserable at times. Partridge never found out his tormenter was the satirist (and Church of England cleric) Jonathan Swift, better known to us as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

Astrology Doesn’t Die as Predicted

Astrology was discredited and mocked, where it wasn’t outright forbidden. It was antiquated and irrelevant, an obstacle to the new industrial age. The useful stuff had already become astronomy. It fell to the more credulous and superstitious to support a black market of dubious practitioners and occultists.

In 1824 it was finally made illegal to practise in England because it was considered fraud to purport to be able to divine the future, when any rational person knew you couldn’t.

Of course, we know that this wasn’t the end of astrology. Generations revive it to explore old avenues in new ways and it remains popular.

Notes and references

  • Jacobi, M. (1907). Astrology. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 3, 2011 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02018e.htm
  • Whitfield, Peter. Astrology: A History. Published by Harry N. Abrams. 2001.

Footnotes

  1. Whitfield p. 39. []
  2. Jacobi, M. (1907). Astrology. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 3, 2011 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02018e.htm []
  3. Whitfield, p. 147 []
  4. Whitfield p 142 []