Historical Astrology In Egypt
Astrology has played a major role in society since the beginning of civilization, and maybe even before that. Its influence can be seen in almost every part of the world. Astrology’s history is a long one, and common belief is that its origins lie with the Greeks. However, a closer look shows that the foundations for astrology were laid much earlier than that, and the Egyptians had much to do with this. The Egyptian influence will be discussed shortly; but first, it will be very helpful to describe the history of astrology up to the point that the Egyptians became involved.
The Sumerians, who settled in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, mark the first example of a people who worshipped the sun, moon, and Venus. They considered these heavenly bodies gods, or the homes of gods. The moon god’s name was Nanna, the sun god was called Utu, and the god of Venus was named Inanna. These were not the only gods the Sumerians worshipped; in fact, other gods, especially those of creation, were more important in the Sumerian pantheon. The Akkandians, near Sumer, adopted the sun, moon and Venus gods, changing their names. This was common with the gods in ancient times: the gods were accepted by a society, but their names were changed, depending on who had conquered whom.
The priests of the time who communicated with the gods were the first rulers. Temple systems were created and staffs of as many as several hundred to several thousand people in various roles were "employed" to fulfill various needs of the priests. There were junior priests, counselors, musicians, potters, etc. Later, it became necessary to have military leaders and some of these became kings. These kings usually had in their company a seer, or "baru-priest." This person was an interpreter of the skies -- he would read the sky for warnings, which usually involved eclipses of the moon. It could be said that the "baru-priests" were the first actual astrologers. In order to be able to communicate with the gods, mounds were built which represented shrines. These, over time, grew to larger structures called "ziggurats." (Later, these ziggurats would be used to map the star formations and to watch the sky for omens.)
The Sumerian baru-priests were under quite a bit of pressure to predict correctly. Predictions became more an art than science, since the priests had to be a bit crafty in their work. They did succeed in predicting eclipses with correct mathematics; thus contributing greatly to the later development of the laws of astronomy. (It may be useful at this point for some to make the distinction between astrology and astronomy. Astronomy is the scientific study of the stars and planets and their movements. Astrology is the pseudoscientific study of the influence those heavenly bodies and their movements have on humankind.) Astrology as we, or even the ancient Greeks, would consider it did not exist at this time. The priests were concerned with predicting natural events (weather, eclipses, etc.) in order to maintain their power. Their efforts, however, did contribute to the development of astrology -- they designed a calendar; identified the basic cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars; and divided their year into twelve months based on the moon’s twelve cycles during a year.
The beginnings of actual astrology can be seen during the Old Babylonian period, during the second millennium. The focus of the Babylonians was on the well-being of the kingdom and the king, not of the individual. For this reason, predictions revolved around things that would affect this well-being. The Babylonian priests correctly documented Venus’s appearances and disappearances and because of this erratic behavior (due to the fact that Venus revolves about the sun backwards) Venus became associated with love and war. Somewhere around 1300 BC, the precursors of the individual birth horoscopes were formulated. These were merely predictions based on which month a child was born in. By this time the astral bodies have become quite significant at this point.
The Assyrian Era marked a new phase in the development of astrology. This time period lasted from about 1300 to 600 BC The Assyrians conquered Babylon in 729 BC, and the inevitable changing of the gods occurred. At this time, the sun god, called Shamash now, was deemed high god. The state was still considered more important than the individual; thus the omens and predictions were still directed at the events that would affect the state. The Assyrians overcame a long time problem -- they created a consistent and accurate calendar. Star maps were plotted correctly, constellations were formed, and astrolabes, or lists of stars were made. Omens were very important to the Assyrians and the priests-astrologers-astronomers would present their omens to the courts often. Those who could forecast good things were well-respected.
As mentioned above, the Assyrians had developed constellations. In fact, they plotted eighteen all together. Later, by 600 BC, some of these would be combined and some would be deleted to form the twelve constellations of the zodiac. There is a certain amount of controversy over just how these constellations were named. The following is a list of the names: the Latin name first -- the name we are most familiar with, then the Babylonian name. Much of astrology today is based on the relationships these constellations have with the seasons. The constellations should not be confused with the traditional signs of the zodiac, as the latter had not yet been created.
|1) Aries - Luhunga||7) Libra - Zihanitum|
|2) Taurus - Guanna or Mul||8) Scorpio - Gir-tab|
|3) Gemini - Mastabagalgal or Mash||9) Sagittarius - Pah|
|4) Cancer - Nangar||10) Capricorn - Suhur|
|5) Leo - U-ra||11) Aquarius - Gu or Gula|
|6) Virgo - Absin||12) Pisces - Zib|
The Assyrians placed as much or even more importance on the five planets they had identified and their movements into these constellations. The reason for this is that they believed the planets were gods or at least the home of gods. The names given to these planets as well as the sun and moon were eventually replaced by the Greek names, then the Roman names, and eventually the English names. In Assyrian times the names were as follows: Sun=Shamash, Moon=Sin, Venus=Ishtar, Mercury=Nebo or Nabu, Mars=Nergal, Saturn=Ninurta, and Jupiter=Marduk. The various personalities and domains of these gods changed with time and change of rulership.
The next phase in the history of astrology is the New Babylonian period (600-300 BC). Some of the prominent astrologers of this period were Kiddinu, Berossus, Antipatrus, Achinopoulus, and Sudines. Up to this point, really the only kind of astrology being practiced was omen astrology, or the foretelling of major events. It was during the New Babylonian period that the signs of the zodiac were invented and horoscope, or birth, astrology had its beginnings. As of 1996, sixteen Babylonian horoscopes have been found and it was not uncommon for these horoscopes to contain little or no prediction. They mostly consist of the position of the skies at the time of conception or birth of the individual.
The Greeks began their immense influence on astrology during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Alexander the Great managed to spread the Greek way of life, also known as Hellenism, to places such as Alexandria and Antioch. The Hellenistic period spanned from the time of his death in 323 BC to the middle of the second century BC, when the Romans took the eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks were responsible for incorporating mythology into astrology. The names we are familiar with today when we think of mythology came into existence. Up to this point, the same gods existed, just under different names and personalities.
This was the age of such famous forerunners of modern science as Plato, Pythagoras, who asserted that the earth was round and traveled around the sun; Leucippus, whose theory would later be the beginnings of atomic science; and Aristotle. Other scientists involved with the study of astronomy, such as Eudoxus, held the opinion that astrology was ridiculous and no one should believe prediction about his life based on which day he was born. Nevertheless, astrologers such as Critodemus, Apollonius of Myndus, and Epigenes of Byzantium continued to refine horoscopic astrology.
The Romans were not as accepting of astrology. About 250 BC, a large number of the common citizenry became interested in astrology, but the conservatives fought against most any outside religion, including Christianity. They presented quite logical arguments against the use of astrology and horoscopes, saying that people born on the same day at the same time had very different destinies, and that people born on different days at different times sometimes died at the same times. Nevertheless, astrology spread into Rome, despite several attempts to expel all astrologers from the empire. Eventually, astrology gained acceptance, mostly because the Romans had a certain respect for the Greeks’ education. If the Romans had not finally allowed astrology into their culture, things might have been very different as far as the Egyptians’ contributions to the art.
In 331 BC, Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria. This marks the beginning of the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt’s history. Alexandria became one of the most famous of the Hellenistic capitals. Hellenism is the term describing the Greek way of life. The people of Alexandria retained some of their Egyptian culture, but it became mixed with that of the Greeks, Romans, Macedonians, Persians, Syrians, Jewish, and Chaldeans. When the Roman Empire began its decline, Alexandria managed to maintain its prestige as a center for cultural activity. By the time Alexandria began its decline, the scientific revolution was over, and astrology was accepted and believed by almost everyone. It was at this time that Claudius Ptolemy surfaced.
Almost nothing is known about Claudius Ptolemy. It is known that he was not Greek and was not even a Ptolemy (that is, he was not related to the Ptolemaic rulers). He was an Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, and geographer who lived in the vicinity of Alexandria. Bits and pieces of information from his writings and from comments from his contemporaries are the only sources of information about Ptolemy’s life. He was born in Upper Egypt, and some say that he was the head librarian at the museum or library at Alexandria.
Ptolemy worked from the data of past astrologers to map over one thousand stars. He compiled a list of 48 constellations, and, for the most part, described the longitude and latitude lines of the earth. He was a believer that the earth was the center of the universe and worked to advance this theory. His effort in this area was in his thirteen volume work called the Almagest. Here, the Ptolemaic system is described, thus explaining why some planets seemed to move backwards for periods of time in their orbit around earth. He theorized that each planet also revolved in a smaller circle as well as a larger one. This was called the "epicycle." This theory would survive for 1400 years, until it was finally accepted that the earth was itself another planet in orbit around the sun.
Ptolemy also dabbled in other areas of study. He wrote the book, Geography, and in it created maps and latitudes and longitudes. He studied the refraction of light in his book, Optics. Also, he studied harmonics and wrote yet another book describing his findings. However, it was his work called Mathematical Treatise in Four Books, also referred to as The Prognostics Addressed to Syrus, that would be the foundation for modern astrology as it is practiced in the West. The name we use for the work today is the Tetrabiblos. Nothing is known about how Ptolemy acquired his data for this work; however, his access to the library at Alexandria would be the best guess.
No original version of the Tetrabiblos still exists. All that remain are translations and copies of it, the oldest of which is Arabic and dates only to AD 900. Eventually, the Latin translations became familiar to the Europeans. The English version was translated from that of the Greeks in 1940. There were four books to this work, and each dealt with a different aspect of astrology:
The first book defined Ptolemy’s reasoning for practicing astrology as well as astronomy, for by this time, there were many who opposed astrology. He said that it should not be abandoned merely because there are a few people who abuse it. This book also deals with the various alignments of planets, the moon, and the sun. Ptolemy describes in detail which positions are favorable and which are not. He also explained the signs, when they begin, and why they begin there.
The second book of the Tetrabiblos describes astrology as it relates to countries. Ptolemy makes the point that astrological events of countries and race supersede those of the individual. He details which planets rule over which country, and makes the distinction between human signs and animal signs. He notes that human signs cause things to happen to humans and animal signs affect animals. Finally, Ptolemy explains how the planets affect earth. For example, Saturn was thought to cause cold, floods, poverty, and death. Mars caused war and drought. Comets and shooting stars were thought to also affect the weather.
The third book dealt with the individual. The Tetrabiblos examined conception and birth, saying that it was better to work with the conception date and that this date should be known by observation. Several key factors were involved with this aspect of astrology. The sign that was rising at the time of conception, the moon’s phase, and the movements of the planets were all taken into consideration. The father’s influence was shown through the sun and Saturn, while the mother’s was shown through the moon and Venus.
Finally, the forth book of the Tetrabiblos handled matters of occupation, marriage, children, travel, and "houses" of the zodiac. The particular angles of various planets were used to calculate these things.
The Tetrabiblos compiled almost all of the astrological works up to that point. Only very few modifications have been made since then, and most of what we know as astrology comes from this work. Critics claim that it is "tedious and dry" to read, and that there are some contradictions in Ptolemy’s ideas. Furthermore, he did not take into account the precession of the equinoxes. He undoubtedly knew about this phenomenon, an overlapping between signs and constellations that gets larger over time (about 5 degrees per three hundred years), but why he did not examine or explain this is a mystery and one of the biggest flaws of his work.
There were also problems with his correlation between astrology and the seasons. His belief that the conception time was preferable to birth time is a misguided one, as conception time for an individual is actually rather difficult to calculate. There were other errors in his work, mostly dealing with beliefs of the time and misinformation about astronomy; however, for the most part, the Tetrabiblos has proved invaluable to this day.
Ptolemy himself seemed to be quite egotistical. It is thought that he may never have actually practiced astrology, and there has not been a single horoscope found that was created by him. Some say that his writing almost reflects an embarrassment about astrology, and suggest that perhaps he might not have been a scholar of the art, but more a reporter of it.
Probably the most disturbing accusation against Ptolemy is that his figures were intentionally skewed and doctored to fit his hypotheses. A study of Ptolemy’s figures was done in 1977, and the findings were that most of his data was fraudulent. For more on this subject, one should refer to the book by R. Newton, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy. It is hard to hold this against Ptolemy; he was, of course, working in ancient times. However, had he used correct numbers in his work, it might not have taken future scholars 1400 more years to correct wrong ideas concerning the universe.
In his defense, he was living during a time when "politically incorrect" beliefs could be grounds for punishment. It actually may not have been safe for him to expose the truth; instead he may have been forced to make his numbers fit into incorrect theories. He knew enough about the truth...the precession of the equinoxes and the theories that postulated that the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun. Apparently, fear for his own life is the reason why he did not act on his knowledge.
After Ptolemy, many astrologers followed. Some notable Egyptians in the field were Paul of Alexandria, Hephaestion of Thebes, and Palchus, though little other than their names are known about these people. Ptolemy’s work was continued and commented on by the Alexandrian mathematician Pappus, the mathematician/astronomer Theon of Alexandria, and the Greek mathematician Proclus, who wrote a paraphrase of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos.
After about AD 500, astrology died away for a while. It came alive again in the eighth century when Islam began practicing Hellenistic astrology. It was Albumasar, a Muslim intellectual, who was instrumental in bringing astrology as we know it to the Western world.
In conclusion, it can be said that Egypt has played a major role in the development of astrology. Egypt has had the pleasure of experiencing many different cultures in its land, which has enriched Egypt’s history and aided its people to become innovators of new ideas that would last for centuries and even on into today.
1. Abetti, Giorgio. The History of Astrology. Henry Schuman, New York. 1952.
2. Doig, Peter. A Concise History of Astronomy. Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London. 1950.
3. Dreyer, J. L. E. A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler. Dover Publications, New York. 1953.
4. Newton, R. R. Ancient Astronomical Observations and the Accelerations of the Earth and Moon. The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore and London. 1970.
5. Stewart, J. V., M. D. Astrology: What’s Really in the Stars. Prometheus Books, New York. 1996. 6. Taub, Liba Chaia. Ptolemy’s Universe. Open Court, Illinois. 1993.
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