Hellenistic Astrology

According to Rob Hand in quoting Rochberg, the Babylonians passed on astrological techniques which included planetary exaltations, the micro-zodiac (dodekatemoria) or 2 ½ degree divisions of each sign, and the grouping of the signs into Triplicities, although these were not yet associated with the four elements as they are in modern astrology.[1]

The question, of course, is how these techniques were transmitted.  The fact that many of the texts which could specify this transfer are fragmented or lost doesn’t help.[2]  Nonetheless, a look at the history of the times indicates how this exchange of astrological ideas could have occurred, beginning with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Mesopotamia in 331 BCE.  As his empire spread, it took the Greek language with it to Syria, Babylon, Persia, central Asia and Egypt, each of whom had developed their own forms of astrology, sometimes over thousands of years.[3]  With Greek the standard language for communicating intellectual concepts, scholars in these other countries assimilated it into their cultures, greatly facilitating the exchange of ideas.  Human nature includes a sense of curiosity, especially about those who are different, and the Greek propensity for developing philosophies that united man with the cosmos further predisposed them to such an interest in their search for truth.

One individual who is believed to have directly participated in this transfer was Berossus, an astrologer and priest from the temple of Bel at Babylon who took it upon himself to teach Babylonian culture to the Greeks and for that purpose set up a school on the Greek’s home turf, the Aegean island of Kos, sometime in the early third century BCE.  Due to the fact that Hippocrates medical school had been located on Kos, it already had a favorable reputation for dispersing knowledge.  This island eventually came under the control of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt by the late 290s or early 280s.[4]  This naturally tied it into Alexandria, a center for intellectual activity famous for its library which is believed to have contained the bulk of knowledge and literature of the Mediterranean and Middle East which was known to be operational during the reign of Ptolemy II from 282 to 246 BCE.  Its first librarian, Zenodotus, had studied on Kos under the scholar and poet, Philetas, who eventually wound up in Alexandria where he tutored the future Ptolemy II.  This creates a clear connection between the Babylonia, Greece, and Egypt.  Evidence of this transfer includes the development by the Alexandrian astronomer, Hypsicles, of a mathematical method for calculating the exact zodiacal degree of the ascendant which derived from century-old Babylonian techniques.[5] 

Berossus’ book, the Babyloniaca, contained a section on astrology which was believed to be written around 280 BCE, but only fragments have been recovered.  Interestingly enough, the one paragraph related to astrology which has survived was paraphrased by the Roman writer, Seneca, where in a passage related to Platonic and Stoic theories he stated that great periods of history were separated by planetary conjunctions.  Berossus claimed that when all seven planets were in Capricorn the world is destroyed by water and when they are all in Cancer it’s consumed by fire.[6]   This statement became associated with Roman astrological historiography through Pliny, who believed the prophecy was coming true when Vesuvius exploded in 79 CE and the Jewish historian, Josephus, who claimed it confirmed Noah’s flood.[7]  This clearly shows that this knowledge was being transmitted throughout the prominent cultures of the time and beyond, as the planetary gathering theory became commonplace in medieval times and cited in the work of Louis Le Roy in 1594.[8]

Further evidence for transmission of Babylonian astrology to the Greeks is the fact that by 290 – 250 BCE Greek astrologers such as Apollonius of Myndus as well as Antipater and Achinapolus repeated Babylonian rules for predicting a person’s fate from the date of conception rather than birth.[9]  Critodemus, reputed to have been a student of Berossus, was quoted by second-century CE astrologer, Vettius Valens and the fourth-century CE astrologer, Hephaistion of Thebes, further indicating its transmission to Egypt.  In addition, there is evidence of the Babylonian zodiac in Egypt that is assumed to date back to 246-221 BCE which comprises Babylonian images with Egyptian decans and northern constellations.  The blending of astrologies from these two cultures is further substantiated by the Dendera carvings from the temple of Hathor.[10]

The Egyptian constellations were eventually dropped and replaced by the twelve Babylonian-Greek versions but the 36 decans were incorporated into ten degree segments of the ecliptic, demonstrating further how all three cultures eventually blended astrological techniques together.  The meaning of the zodiac signs merged somewhere between the fifth and first centuries BCE such that by the time of 200 CE astrologer, Vettius Valens, they were fairly consistent.  These evidences illustrate how the prominent cultures at the time interacted easily through the vehicle of a common language, allowing their astrological techniques to blend together and eventually evolve into what would become known as Hellenistic astrology, practiced from approximately the first century BCE until the seventh century CE.[11] 

To quote Chris Brennan, “Hellenistic astrology is the result of a synthesis of the earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian astrological traditions, with many new technical, conceptual and philosophical additions…[which] appears to have originated in Alexandria, Egypt.”[12]   This, of course, is no big surprise in view of the fact that, as noted earlier, the Great Library at Alexandria was the center of knowledge for that part of the world at that time.  This explains why Egypt is often credited with “inventing” astrology whereas it actually originated in different forms throughout that region, only coming together in this particular period due to the benefits of a common language which provided ease in the exchange of information while interacting with other cultures. 

Eventually the cultural origin of specific techniques was mostly lost and these hybrid versions acquired a life of their own.  Nonetheless, there were variations during that period as well, even as there are today as each individual astrologer imposes his or her own philosophies and experience into the craft.  Furthermore, regional astrology such as that practiced 2000 years before was not entirely lost by absorption, but still alive and well in Mesopotamia thanks to those referred to as Chaldeans.  The Persian priesthood, known as magi, were also still practicing their version of astrology, more than likely unaffected by the astrological tête-à-tête in progress in Alexandria.

The most obvious characteristic of Babylonian astrology that became lost entirely by the Hellenistic period is the concept of the planets representing a pantheon of gods imposing their whims upon the hapless humans below.  Greek philosophy pushed that aside in short order in favor of a more monotheistic and spiritual model.  Instead of being subjects of these impulsive and imperfect gods, man became part of the divine albeit absent creator, his children, if you will, whose destiny was somehow written in the stars and absorbed by each soul as it journeyed past the planets to Earth.  Nevertheless, the personalities of the planets eventually hailed from classical Greek mythology, replacing the Babylonian deities as evidenced in the Platonic Epinomis[13], even though the Greek mythological and astrological traits eventually diverged.[14]  From there, the ideologies and techniques continued to progress and evolve until they became their own variety of astrology identified with the Hellenistic period. 

Thus, one immediate difference between Hellenistic and Babylonian astrology is the fact that it was the result of multiple influences from several cultures whereas Babylonian astrology was primarily developed within Mesopotamia with minimal outside influences.  Furthermore, our knowledge of Hellenistic versus Babylonian astrology is greatly enhanced by the fact that we have four significant references which are still being scrutinized today as modern astrologers attempt to unravel exactly what it comprised. These references include Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica, Dorotheus of Sidon’s Carmen Astrologicum or Pentateuch, Vettius Valens’ Anthology and Claudius Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos or Apotelematika

Ptolemy (~70 CE) contributed a considerable number of techniques, though his insistence on “perfect” orbits and the development of epicycles also caused problems later when a heliocentric universe was clearly proven to be the case.  His mind-boggling table of essential dignities, which incorporate Babylonian, Egyptian and possibly other influences, is familiar to any astrologer working with traditional methods.  Valens tied the zodiac to the seasons, essentially creating the Tropical Zodiac, which cut its tie with the stars, or Sidereal Zodiac, another difference from the Babylonian zodiac.[15]   In the true spirit of sharing ideas, Valens’ work eventually made it back to the Byzantines and from there to the Persians and Islamic world until it eventually re-entered medieval Europe.[16] 

However, some similarities between Babylonian and Hellenistic astrology remain, further illustrating how Hellenistic astrology is virtually an astrological stew borrowing from multiple sources.  For example, planetary exaltations originated with the Babylonians and are still used today; the Babylonians named the benefic and malefic planets; defined Triplicities, albeit without the elements as they’re recognized today; and divided the zodiac such as to imply hard and soft aspects based on the signs, which was used by both Valens and Ptolemy.[17]  As Plato said, “The cycles of the stars and planets from day to day and year to year reveal the revolutions of Reason in the Heaven,”[18] a viewpoint that all versions of astrology had in common as well, i.e. that the heavens revealed the will of the gods, depending on which one you were most prone to listen to.

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[1] Hand, Robert, “Mesopotamia Astrology,” NCGR Research Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer 2010, p. 9.

[2] Campion, Nicholas, The History of Western Astrology Volume 1, p. 178.

[3] Campion, p. 173.

[4] Campion, p. 176.

[5] Campion, p. 177.

[6] Campion, p 177.

[7] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.7.2. as quoted in Campion p. 177.

[8] Campion, p. 177.

[9] Campion, p. 178

[10] Campion, p. 183.

[11] Brennan, Chris, “Hellenistic Astrology,” NCGR Research Journal Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer 2010, p. 15.

[12] Brennan, p. 15.

[13] Campion, p. 217.

[14] Campion, p. 221-222.

[15] Campion, p. 215.

[16] Campion p. 216.

[17] Campion, p. 217 – 219.

[18] Plato, Timaeus 47C as quoted by Campion, p. 223.

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