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Unread 01-09-2012, 11:58 PM
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Origins of Hellenistic Astrology

Following up on Frank's thread on domiciles I thought it would be worthwhile to start a new thread on the origins and early history of Hellenistic (Greek and Roman) horoscopic astrology. A lot is unknown, but both astrologers and classical studies scholars are contributing more research. Feel free to add to, subtract from, modify, or debate the following! I can add more references if anybody is interested. The books should be available via

One type of source that we have to treat with a lot of caution are what ancient astrologers themselves said about the origins of their craft. There is a big literature among classical studies scholars demonstrating that the Greeks and Romans were often mistaken about the origins of their knowledge disciplines at any given time, including the origins of astrology.

Good general overview sources are these books: Nicholas Campion, The Dawn of Astrology; Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology; and the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

We might start with 3 ancient centres.

1. Mesopotamian/Babylonian (Chaldean). The Babylonians had a lot of really ancient "cultural astronomy" but much of it dealt with predicting eclipses and tracking planets as omens for king and country. We start getting horoscopic astrology for individuals in about the 6th century BC. However, the horoscopes are mostly in the form of cuniform writing on ostraca, or pottery pieces that ancient people used to write on. The horoscopes give some planetary placements, but hardly anything about how Babylonian astrologers interpreted their data.

Main contributions to western astrology: ephemerises, planets in signs, eclipses, dodekatemoira (dwads), planetary hours, rising times, and the trine aspect. Rochberg-Halton claims planetary exaltations (hypsomata), but another author (cited below) claims an earlier Egyptian origin. The Babylonians saw planetary placements as evidence of what the gods intended, not as bodies themselves having any ability to influence human events. Ptolemy gives both "Chaldean" and Egyptian terms. The Babylonians also established the "If....then...." nature of astrological predictions. The "If" conditions refer to specific astrological placements. The "then" material interprets the meaning of those placements for human outcomes.

The Babylonians did not use houses, nor many of the techniques that appear in Greek sources on astrology.

Good sources:
Ulla Koch-Westenholz, 1995, Mesopotamian Astrology (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.)

F. Rochberg-Halton, 1988, "Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology," Journal of the American Oriental Society 108: 51-62. (available through JSTOR)

Francesca Rochberg, 1998, "Babylonian Horoscopes," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, v. 88 parts 1-3. (available on Google Books.)

Francesca Rochberg, 2004, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge University Press.)

Gavin White, 2008, Babylonian Star-Lore (London: Solaria Publications.)

1. Egyptian. Historians of astrology generally haven't found much in Egyptian tradition to validate the ancient Hellenistic astrologers' claim for Egyptian roots to Hellenistic horoscopic astrology. Some of them traced astrology's origin to a King Nechepso and his scribe Petosiris, yet the Egyptians kept detailed king lists, and nobody by this name shows up. There were two pharoahs named Neko, but there is no evidence that they were astrologers. I personally believe that the ancient Egyptian religions of death and renewal were the origins of our thematic houses, but this would take a lot more research to demonstrate (or dismiss) conclusively.

Perhaps more relevant for the history of astrology is the blend of Greek, Egyptian, and other cultures that appeared in centres of learning like Alexandria, Egypt (home to Ptolemy and Vettius Valens) and elsewhere in the Greek and Roman empires. Egyptians emigrated to different parts of the Hellenized world, just as Greeks, Jews, and other ethnic groups moved to Egypt. When we first find archaeological horoscopes in Egypt, for example, they often appear in a script called "Demotic": the Egyptian language written in Greek characters. The Dendera planisphere (or zodiac) on the temple of the goddess Hathor shows a mix of Babylonian zodiac and Egyptian religious motifs. The multi-authored, esoteric "hermetic" literature attributed to a mythical Hermes Trismegestus (discussed by Campion, Dawn of Astrology) and the "Greek magical papyri" contain astrological material.

Main contributions to western astrology: The decans derived from the ancient Egyptian star calendar used to predict Nile floods and religious festivals. They had a detailed systematic system of star-watching in order to time risings and settings. They adopted the Babylonian practice of star and eclipse omens. They had their own system for planets in terms. They may be responsible for our orientation of the MC not only as "up" but also as "south." Their observation of the sun's passage across the heavens from east to west, re-emerging at dawn, in combination with their beliefs about the regenerative gods Hapi, Re, Isis, Osiris, and Horus may have a lot to do with our current house systems. Joanne Conman also gives them the origins of our system of planetary exaltations.

Good sources:

Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press) (not an astrological source, but highly relevant)

Joanne Conman, 2003, "It's about Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology," Studien zur Altagyptischen Kultur, 31: 42-57.

Joanne Conman, 2006-09, "The Egyptian Origins of Planetary Hypsomata," Discussions in Egyptology 64: (found on-line, sorry-- n.d.!)

Joanne Conman, 2010, "Origins of Astrology," Kepler College website at

O. Neugebauer, 1955, "The Egyptian Decans," Vistas in Astronomy 1:47-51.

R. A. Parker, 1974, "Ancient Egyptian Astronomy," Philosophical Transactions, Royal Society of London 276: 51-65.

Neugebauer, Otto, 1943, "Demotic Horoscopes," Journal of the American Oriental Society 63: 115-27.

Neugebauer, Otto and Richard A. Parker, 1960-1969 Egyptian Astronomical Texts, 3 vols (Brown University Press)

3. Greek and Roman (to be continued)
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