The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 280, titled:
An Overview of the History of Western Astrology
With Chris Brennan
Episode originally released on November 28, 2020
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Andrea Johnson
Transcription released January 10th, 2021
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CHRIS BRENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. Today is Monday, November 23, 2020, starting at 1:33 PM, in Denver, Colorado, and this is the 280th episode of the show. In this episode, I’m going to be giving an overview of the history of Western astrology.
The genesis of this episode is I recently did an interview with Kirah Taybourn on The Astrology Podcast, where she wanted to talk about the recent revival of traditional astrology that’s happened over the past 30 years and to place it in the context of the history of astrology. And it was a really good discussion, I really enjoyed having it, although it made me realize that I’d never given an overview of the history of astrology on The Astrology Podcast. Even though I’ve dealt with little individual topics, little pieces of the history of astrology or subtopics, I’ve never really gone over everything, so that’s going to be my goal here today.
All right, so why don’t we jump right into it, with that said. This is going to be one of those long, detailed overviews. So it is an overview, but I’m also going to get into some detail that’ll probably be one of those longer discussions, but think of this like a class; like a deep dive into the history of astrology, especially for those of you that don’t have any background in it and really want to know where it came from and how astrology in the West got started.
All right, so here’s my little slideshow presentation. As I said, I’m going to give a broad overview of the history and transmission of Western astrology. I’m going to focus especially on periods of transmission and synthesis, when astrology in the West was transmitted from one culture to another, which essentially inaugurates a new era in the history of astrology each time, every few hundred years.
I’m also going to discuss some similarities, when some of these transmissions took place and when there were these revivals of older forms of astrology and how that actually compares to now and how things are very similar in some ways. I’m also going to explore the role of tradition versus innovation, and by the end of this, I hope to give you sort of an idea and some reflections on where things are headed now based on the trajectory of astrology over the past 2,000 years–actually 3-or-4,000 years, I should say.
All right, so our story starts here, in ancient Mesopotamia, which is the term used to refer to the geographical area that roughly coincides with what is today modern-day Iraq. So it’s the area around the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, in between them, and where they converge. For all intents and purposes, the history of Western astrology starts here in Mesopotamia about 4,000 years ago, and what happened is that at some point, around 2000 BCE, give or take, the basic premise of astrology was formulated in Mesopotamia.
This is a translation from a much later text, from cuneiform, known as The Diviner’s Manual, that was translated by Francesca Rochberg, who’s a historian who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian astrology and astronomy. And this passage of the translation of this text says, “Sky and earth together produce omens each separate not divided; sky and earth are interconnected. A sign which is bad in the sky is bad on earth; [and] a sign which is bad on earth is bad in the sky.”
This is basically the fundamental astrological premise; and what I mean by that is that astrology posits that there’s a correlation between celestial movements and things that happen in the sky and earthly events. For example, in Mesopotamia, one of the things that they focused on was if there is an eclipse in a certain part of the sky and a king dies, or if there’s a certain eclipse in a different part of the sky and there’s a plague or a famine. So the notion that, for some reason, celestial movements can act as signs or omens of the events that are either happening on Earth in the present or that will happen in the future, this is part of the premise of astrology that was really formulated during this time.
Mundane astrology developed around 1500 BCE. There may be evidence that it came together a little bit earlier, from about 2000 BCE, but we definitely have records where the Mesopotamian astrologers started to write down observations of omens and what’s called ‘celestial omens’, which is basically observations of things happening in the sky and what they were thought to correlate with on Earth. So these omens were recorded as conditional statements where it was put in the framing of ‘if X, then Y’. For example, if there is an eclipse in this part of the sky then the king will die, or if there’s an eclipse in this part of the sky, a foreign enemy will invade the country or what have you; so a basic ‘if this, then this’ type statement.
The Mesopotamian astrologers began compiling these omens over the course of centuries on these little tiny clay tablets, using a wedge-shaped language known as cuneiform. Eventually, they started amassing hundreds of them and there would be these libraries, which would be part of the collective knowledge and wisdom of the astrological tradition, which would be passed down from generation to generation and from astrologer to astrologer.
Eventually, the high point of state-supported astrology in Mesopotamia occurred during the Assyrian Empire, somewhere around 750 BCE. At this time, astrology was state-supported and there were 10 different colleges of astrologers that were all over Mesopotamia who would send the king reports directly on mundane astrology, about their observations and about what they had seen in the sky and what predictions they were making about what that meant on Earth.
Astrology during this time was largely focused on what we call mundane astrology, which is when the astrological omens are taken as indicating things about the civilization as a whole or large groups of people, such as cities and nations. Or in some instances, the omens would be interpreted as impacting or being related to the life of the king, since the king was representing the state as a whole to some extent as the person in charge of the country. So mundane astrology was used; it got really popular by the 8th century BCE, by circa 750 BCE, and was being practiced all over the place.
Eventually, in the 5th century BCE, there was an important turning point in terms of the history of astrology. At this point, the zodiac was standardized to include 12 signs of exactly 30 degrees each, which is the basic structure of the zodiac as we know it today, where it has 12 30-degree signs. So prior to this, the zodiac was a collection of different constellations that laid on the ecliptic, and it was broken up into uneven sections based on the different sizes of different constellations and different asterisms. But at this point, it gets standardized to 12 signs of 30 degrees each.
Right around this time, they also started producing ephemerides, which allow astrologers to look up the positions of the planets and where they will be far into the future or where they were far into the past. So basically, the Mesopotamians started developing, or had developed by this point, an advanced mathematical astronomy, where because of the regular movements of the planets, you can predict where they’re going.
If you know enough about their planetary movements, you can predict where they’re going far into the future, and you can also recreate where they must have been far into the past, because those movements are periodic and predictable. But this is something that took centuries to develop. It wasn’t just something that happened overnight; it required astrologers who were also astronomers at the time because there was an interrelationship. There was no real huge distinctions between the subjects; the same people doing astronomy were the same people doing astrology and vice versa. So the astrologers would literally go out every night and observe the stars and observe the movements of the planets and write them down each night. And over the centuries, these observations led the astrologers and astronomers to be able to develop mathematical models to predict the movements of the planets, so this is kind of a big deal.
Around this time, a little bit later, the Persian Empire conquered Mesopotamia around 550 BCE. This may have led to some decentralization of astrology, because it’s not long after this point that astrology stops becoming simply a state-supported affair–where the astrologers are serving the kings directly and astrologers are limiting themselves to mundane astrology, which is predictions for entire cities or countries or predictions just for the king as the representative of the state–but all of a sudden, this new concept is introduced, which we refer to as natal astrology or the concept of birth charts.
The oldest birth chart dates to 410 BCE, and then after that point, we start to see birth charts appearing more and more frequently over the course of the next few centuries. And these birth charts were relatively simple; it was just a list of where the planets were placed on the day that a person was born, under the premise that the placement and the alignment of the planets at the day of a person’s birth will have something to say about the quality of a person’s life as well as their future.
So that was the new concept that was introduced, at least by the 5th century BCE, this concept known as known as natal astrology and this practice of using birth charts in order to make predictions about the lives of individuals. I speculate–I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about this–that perhaps it had something to do with that shift towards the Persian Empire and the decentralization of astrology. Maybe not having as much of a role as it did in the Assyrian Empire and other empires in Mesopotamia where it was state-supported, perhaps that was part of the impetus that led to the shift.
On the other hand, we also know that it was around this time that they started producing ephemerides, so that means they could look up where the positions of the planets were 20 or 30 years ago when a person was born. It wasn’t until that happened that they really had the opportunity to calculate birth charts, other than just observing the position of the stars on the day of a person’s birth. But that’s kind of tricky because if you’re not there to watch it or see it, you may not know where the planets were, so it involves some mathematical astronomy.
All right, so there’s the zodiac. Here’s a quote. This is from Francesca Rochberg’s book, Babylonian Horoscopes, which you can find out there and that collects all of the known, surviving birth charts that survived from the Mesopotamian astrological tradition, from about the 5th century BCE until about the 1st century BC. It says, “Nisannu, night of the 14th—so it’s listing the month and the date–son of Sumu-usur, son of Sumu-iddina, descendant of Deke, was born.” So it’s the person’s name–and who their parents were–was born. “At that time, the Moon was below the pincer of the Scorpion. Jupiter in Pisces, Venus in Taurus, Saturn in Cancer, Mars in Gemini. Mercury, which had set, was not visible.”
Then the text breaks off, like many of these cuneiform tablets, and it says something to the effect of–maybe the translator guesses–that “(Things?) will be propitious for you.” And then it goes on and it either starts giving another birth chart, or it starts listing some prediction for the person’s future–I’m not really clear–and then the text breaks off entirely. One of the unfortunate things about studying the ancient history of astrology is, oftentimes, when you get a text, as soon as it starts getting interesting usually the text breaks off, which is the Murphy’s law of studying ancient astrology, I think.
Anyway, that’s an example of what a birth chart was like when we’re talking about Mesopotamian birth charts. They were somewhat basic. They were just presenting, as far as we know, the positions of the planets or calculating what signs they were located in; and they may or may not have contained some basic predictions about the person’s life. Although one of the things that Rob Hand pointed out, in a lecture years ago, and always stuck with me was to remember that when we look at these ancient birth charts that just list the positions of the planets, that’s basically is analogous to a modern birth chart that somebody has gotten from a computer program and just printed the chart out on their printer, on a piece of paper, let’s say.
So the chart itself just presents the raw data that you need for the person’s birth chart. It calculates the birth chart and where the positions of the planets were when the person was born, but it doesn’t actually tell you much. Usually, historically, astrologers, in order to interpret the birth chart, it involved a verbal consultation; so there’s an oral or verbal exchange between the astrologer and the client and that’s where the delineation or the actual predictions of the future take place. And it’s not as often that you see interpretations of birth charts actually committed to writing, since it’s something that normally is done verbally.
You do, however, see instructional texts–textbooks that the astrologers themselves read and write–which instruct students how to interpret a birth chart or at least the theory of astrology. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of those from the late Mesopotamian tradition, so there’s a gap in our knowledge in terms of how a Mesopotamian astrologer would have interpreted some of these birth charts, even though at least a dozen or maybe two dozen birth charts survive from the Mesopotamian tradition. It actually may be a little bit more than that, so check out Rochberg’s book if you want more information.
All right, so now we have to shift over to Egypt because, along parallel lines, there were some important developments happening in Egypt where they were developing their own type of astrology. Egyptian astrology was based on this concept known as the ‘decans’, which identifies specific fixed stars or specific asterisms and it breaks them up into 36 groups or 36 clusters of these fixed stars or fixed star clusters.
The Egyptians were very much focused on the rising and the culmination of certain decans or certain fixed stars during different times, especially at night, in order to time different religious rituals; this is essentially how the decans develop, starting from 2000 BCE, as this tool for telling time and also for timing religious rituals especially. And this is important because it means that while the Mesopotamians were primarily focused on the movement of the ecliptic, which is essentially the zodiac, the Egyptians were more focused on what we call the ‘diurnal rotation’, which is where we see every morning the 24-hour cycle of the Sun rising over the eastern horizon in the morning, culminating somewhere around the middle of the day, and then, eventually, setting at night; then, eventually, the entire cycle repeats itself at sunrise the next day.
The Egyptian system was focused on that 24-hour cycle of the diurnal rotation, but focused on it in terms of identifying the rising and culminating of different fixed stars; these 36 clusters of fixed stars that we call decans. So eventually, at some point, there’s this text that we have only fragments of that’s known as the Salmeschoiniaka. And I have no idea if I’m pronouncing that right, so don’t sue me, but we have fragments of this text from the later Greek astrological tradition that records this tradition associated with the Egyptians, where they were focusing on the rising decan and then they were assigning topics to each of the decans based on where the decan fell relative to the rising decan that was rising over the eastern horizon at the moment of birth.
They said the 1st decan signified birth, the rising decan. Then the 28th decan, which would be the culminating decan at what we would call like the Equal House Midheaven–basically the 90 degree point from the rising decan–was associated with livelihood. The 25th decan was said to be associated with weakness. The 19th decan, which is the setting decan opposite to the rising decan was associated with injury. The 17th decan was associated with marriage and the person’s wife. The 10th decan was associated with death, and that’s the decan that would be associated with the equal house IC or the lowest point in the chart, in some sense. And then, finally, they called the 8th decan ‘the Door of Hades’, and it was the place that signified children.
We don’t know very well the timing of this text and when it came from basically. We don’t know when this text dates to, but we think it dates to sometime around the 1st century BCE or maybe the 2nd century BCE. So it may represent this stage where the Egyptians were using the decans to create something like a prototype for what later became the concept of the 12 houses, which is where you divide the diurnal rotation into different sectors, and then you start associating or assigning it topics based on where the signs of the zodiac fall relative to the rising sign. In this context, it’s kind of like whole sign decan houses where you’re assigning topics based on where the decans fall relative to the rising decan, but this may have been a precursor to the type of astrology that came about later.
All right, so the next development in our story is the conquests of Alexander the Great, where there was this Macedonian named Alexander, he was the son of a Macedonian king, and he took over his father’s empire after his father was assassinated. Alexander took an army of Macedonians and Greeks–basically people that spoke Greek and had Greek culture–and they stormed out of southern Europe into Asia Minor, into modern-day Turkey, and they launched a war with the Persian Empire, which had been dominating the Mediterranean for the past couple of centuries.
So Alexander’s army storms out of southern Europe, it goes through Turkey, it goes down and sweeps through Egypt, which was under Persian control up to that point; they conquer Egypt, then they turn around and go back and conquer Mesopotamia. And then Alexander’s army goes all the way over through modern-day Iran, all the way over into the western-most portions of India before, eventually, he’s forced to turn back. He returns to Mesopotamia, to Babylon, which is now under Greek control, and then promptly dies under mysterious circumstances at a pretty young age.
What’s important about this is the two main areas that we were talking about earlier, Mesopotamia and Egypt, are suddenly both under the control of Greek-speaking rulers, and this inaugurates or this launches a period called the Hellenistic age or the Hellenistic period, which is usually thought to begin with the conquest of Alexander and go on for several centuries until about the 1st century BCE, when the very last Greek-speaking ruler of Egypt is overthrown by the Roman Empire, and then the Roman Empire becomes big at that point.
What’s important for our purposes is just that, all of a sudden, Egypt and Mesopotamia are under the control of Greek-speaking rulers, and it increases trade and commerce and interactions between those two areas. All of a sudden, Greek becomes the lingua franca of the ancient world, where everybody is speaking Greek and everybody knows how to speak Greek and uses it, especially for, not just trade and commerce, but also for scientific and religious and philosophical writings. Even if that was not the person’s primary language, it became sort of like English today.
Even if English isn’t your native language, due to the internet and due to the exporting of American culture and other things like that, English has become a standard language that’s common to speak around the world, and allows people to interact a little bit more and cultures to intermingle a little bit more and for exchanges to happen than it might otherwise. This is kind of what happened in the ancient world, especially in Mesopotamia and Egypt after the conquests of Alexander.
All right, so something important starts to happen at this point, which is that there starts to be exchanges that start happening between the astrologers in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the earlier astrological traditions from Mesopotamian and Egypt start being synthesized, at least by 300 BCE, where we start seeing the zodiac appearing and being merged with the Egyptian decans, in Egyptian temples at this time, and we start seeing the zodiac appearing in Egyptian temples. That’s kind of an important development because, all of a sudden, it indicates that the astrologers were exchanging information and their traditions were starting to interact in a really significant way.
So eventually, this reaches a really crucial but somewhat mysterious turning point around 100 BCE, when we see the emergence, over the course of the next century—basically, in the 1st century BCE–of what we now call today Hellenistic astrology. And Hellenistic astrology is a type of astrology that emerged during the Hellenistic period after the conquests of Alexander. It came out of Egypt, but Egypt was under the control of Greek-speaking rulers at the time, a dynasty that was started by one of Alexander’s generals named Ptolemy, who installed himself as the king or the pharaoh in Egypt; and then there was a long dynasty of rulers that came after that that spoke Greek. This is also when we get the founding of the famous Library of Alexandria and other things like that.
One of the things that comes about after a century or two of that is this new system of astrology kind of appears out of nowhere to some extent, and it represents the establishment of the ‘fourfold system’ of astrology that we still use today that uses the planets and most of the things that we associate with the planets today; the signs of the zodiac and most of the qualities that we still associate with the signs of the zodiac today; the concept of the 12 houses and most of the basic meanings of the houses that we still use today; and the concept of aspects, which is the fourth major piece of the system, which was introduced at that time; and for the most part, the core of it is still essentially the same today 2,000 years later.
The emergence of Hellenistic astrology represents the introduction of all of the basic concepts of Western astrology, or most of the basic core concepts that we still use to this day; it partially represents a synthesis of the earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian astrological traditions, and it also partially represents, at the same time, some new innovations and some new techniques that don’t appear to have existed prior to that point. So it’s this interesting and weird balance between inheriting the old traditions and synthesizing them together with some new innovations that are being introduced around that time, which is a thing that we’ll see come up over and over again in the history of astrology over the next several centuries.
All right, so what seems to have happened is they took the 12 signs of the zodiac, which is the movement of the planets along the ecliptic, and they started to merge it with the concept of the 36 decans, and especially the idea of looking at the rising and the culminating decan. So this basically represents looking at two different frameworks: one of them is the movement of the planets along the ecliptic–you could conceptualize that as moving against the backdrop of the constellations–versus the 24-hour cycle of the movement of the planets in the diurnal rotation, which is just how the Sun rises and culminates and sets each day, and then it repeats that cycle the next day and the day after that and so on and so forth.
The other planets do the same thing. At some point, during the day, the planet Saturn will rise over the eastern horizon, and at some point during the day, Saturn will culminate overhead, and at some point, Saturn will set over the western horizon, but it will do it at different times in the day, depending on where it is in its cycle than the Sun does.
So what happened during the Hellenistic tradition was the merging of these two different frames of reference, and once you do that, you start seeing in the Egyptian temples the decans being overlaid on top of the zodiac, so that the decans become 10-degree subdivisions, or 36 10-degree subdivisions of the signs of the zodiac, so that there’s three decans in each sign. For example, the first 10 degrees of Cancer is a decan, the second degrees of Cancer is the second decan, and then the third 10 degrees of Cancer is the third decan, so that the 30 degrees of the sign of Cancer are divided evenly between these three 10-degree decans.
Eventually, at some point during the Hellenistic tradition, once the decans and the zodiac were merged, they then started paying attention to the rising decan or the decan that was rising over the eastern horizon at the moment of birth and treating that as important, just like they had previously been paying attention to the rising and culminating decans in the earlier Egyptian tradition. Once they started transferring that and looking at the decans as a sort of subdivision of the zodiac, and looking at what decan was rising and then numbering them from there, that naturally led to looking at the entire rising zodiacal sign and treating that as important to the person who was born at that moment in time.
What that eventually led to at some point, in a text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, was this idea of looking at the rising zodiacal sign or the sign of the zodiac that was rising at the moment a person was born and then saying that the entirety of that sign would represent the 1st house, or what we call the 1st house of the native. And then the rest of the signs were numbered in zodiacal order from there, so that after the rising decan, which is the 1st house; the sign after that, which is Leo, if Cancer was rising, would become the 2nd house; Virgo, which is the 3rd sign from the rising sign becomes the 3rd house, and so on and so forth. This is what’s known today in modern times as the whole sign house system. And you can kind of see how that system then would have developed out of what was initially a ‘whole decan’ house system in the earlier Mesopotamian tradition going back to that mysterious text known as the Salmeschoiniaka.
So the concept of whole sign houses is introduced at this point, but what’s weird is that there were also a bunch of other very core concepts that also seem to have been introduced suddenly at this time. And what’s interesting about it is they are often introduced within the context of, or they seem to have these underlying conceptual or theoretical constructs or frameworks underlying them. One of the things that was introduced was the rulership scheme, that certain planets rule different signs of the zodiac, and another scheme that was introduced was the idea that certain planets are associated with one of the 12 houses. The conceptual constructs underlying these new ideas are two diagrams that we know as the Thema Mundi and the ‘planetary joys’ scheme; so I want to talk about those two schemes for just a few minutes.
The Thema Mundi is often introduced and is said to be like the birth chart for the birth of the world or the birth of the cosmos, and Firmicus Maternus, in the 4th century, tells us that it was a teaching tool that was used to explain the rationale for the rulership of the signs of the zodiac. So the Thema Mundi was said to have the Ascendant rising–so the Ascendant in Cancer–and the Moon in Cancer in the 1st whole sign house. Then the Sun was said to be in the 2nd house in Leo, Mercury was said to be in the 3rd house in Virgo, Venus in the 4th house in Libra, Mars in Scorpio, Jupiter in Sagittarius, and Saturn in Capricorn.
So it sets up this interesting scheme where the Sun is assigned to, in one hermetic text, 15 degrees of Leo because that’s the very height and the very middle of the summer in the Northern Hemisphere when the Sun is at the height of its power; the days are long and hot. The Sun, which is a fiery and hot celestial body, is said to be at the peak of its influence at that time, at 15 Leo; and then the rest of the planets are assigned, flanking out in zodiacal order, based on their relative speed and distance from the Sun.
Mercury, which can never get more than one sign away from the Sun before it turns retrograde, is assigned to Virgo; and then Venus, which can never get more than two signs away from the Sun before it turns retrograde, is assigned to Libra. Mars is the next furthest and slowest planet out, so it gets assigned to the next sign, which is Scorpio. Then Jupiter is assigned to Sagittarius as the next furthest planet; and then, finally, Saturn is assigned to Capricorn. Saturn is the furthest and the slowest of the visible planets, and Capricorn is the furthest sign from the starting point, which was Cancer and Leo.
So this provides the conceptual basis for the planetary rulership scheme, or at least half of the rulerships, and then what happens is the rest of the sign rulers are assigned by creating a mirror image of the Thema Mundi where the other planets are assigned, flanking out from the Moon in reverse or opposite zodiacal order, first, starting with Mercury, which is assigned to Gemini, which is the next sign after the Moon, which is already signed to Cancer. Then Venus is assigned to Taurus; Mars is assigned to Aries; Jupiter is assigned to Pisces; and finally, Saturn is assigned to Aquarius. This creates the traditional rulership scheme, which is a symmetrical rulership scheme that’s divided between the Sun and Moon axis and Cancer and Leo, and then assigns each of the visible planets to two signs, flanking out from the Sun and Moon.
From the traditional rulership scheme, we also get some of the qualities of the basic natures of the aspects. For example, if you draw aspect lines from the two luminaries, the Sun in Leo and the Moon in Cancer, to Venus–which is in Libra–and Taurus, then you get a sextile; and Venus is the lesser of the two benefics, and the sextile is said to be the weaker of the two positive or easy aspects. Then if you draw lines to Mars, you end up with the square; Mars is the lesser malefic, and the square is the easier of the two hard or difficult aspects.
The trine goes from the Sun in Leo to Jupiter in Sagittarius and from the Moon in Cancer to Jupiter in Pisces. The trine is said to be the easier of the two easy aspects or the more positive of the two easy aspects; and Jupiter is said to be the greater benefit. And then Saturn, which is the greater malefic, is configured by opposition to the Sun and Moon; and the opposition is said to be the more difficult of the two hard aspects. So from this, we’re already getting, not just the rulership scheme, but from the rulership scheme, we’re also deriving the basic natures of the aspects. So all these concepts are starting to intertwine and be interlocked in this really weird way.
So then when you take the idea of aspects, and you have the idea of planets either aspecting signs or not aspecting signs, it leads to this concept–when you superimpose that on the concept of the houses–where they said that any of the 12 houses that aspect the rising sign–since the rising sign is the primary sign of the 1st house that signifies the person who was born at that time, the native–then any houses that aspect the rising sign are going to be positive or supportive of the native, and any houses that don’t aspect the rising sign are going to potentially be negative or indicate things that are not supportive of the native who was born at that time.
This is why, even today, the houses that aspect the rising sign–the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th–are generally associated with positive topics such as siblings, parents, children, partners travel, career, and friends, whereas the houses that don’t aspect the rising sign–the 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 12th–tend to be associated with more negative things, especially the 6th with illness, the 8th with death, and the 12th with loss; so part of the reason for those significations of the houses is because of this underlying conceptual model.
The other conceptual model that I mentioned is the ‘planetary joys’ scheme, where you have the 12 houses and then each of the seven visible traditional planets is assigned to one of the houses. So Mercury is assigned to the 1st house, the Moon is assigned to the 3rd, Venus to the 5th, Mars to the 6th, the Sun to the 9th, Jupiter to the 11th, and Saturn to the 12th. So my friend, Ben Dykes, and I made a discovery back in 2012 that the ‘planetary joys’ scheme actually provides a similar conceptual rationale as the Thema Mundi does for the signs of the zodiac, but the ‘planetary joys’ scheme does the same thing for the 12 houses, where some of the basic significations of the houses were derived from the ‘planetary joys’ scheme and there were also other conceptual structures that were derived from this scheme as well.
There’s actually a lot of really interesting things about this. Some of the names of the houses were derived from the ‘planetary joys’ scheme. So the 9th house in Hellenistic astrology was called the ‘place of god’, and it was opposite to the ‘place of goddess’; and that’s why the Sun has its joy in the 9th and the Moon in the 3rd. The 5th was called ‘good fortune’, and it was opposite to the 11th house of ‘good spirit’, which is the opposition between Venus in the 5th and Jupiter in the 11th. And then the 6th place was called the ‘place of bad fortune’, and it was opposite to Saturn, which is called the ‘place of bad spirit’. Finally, Mercury, which has its joy in the 1st house, is called the ‘helm’, as well as the ‘hour-marker’.
I don’t want to go into this too much, but what Ben and I pointed out in a paper that I wrote on the ‘planetary joys’ scheme in 2013–which you can find by just doing a search for my name and ‘planetary joys’–is what was happening is that whoever came up with this scheme was distinguishing between the top-half of the chart–and they were associating it with the solar hemisphere, which they were associating with the concept of the soul, the mind, and the spirit–and the bottom-half of the chart, they were associating with the lunar hemisphere and the concepts of fortune, the body, physical incarnation, and matter, which creates this interesting distinction in terms of what significations you assign to each of the houses, if you’re saying that the bottom-half of the chart indicates bodily things and the top-half of the chart indicates things that pertain to the mind or to the spirit.
From the ‘planetary joys’ scheme, the other discovery we made in 2012 is that this is also where you get the origins, the motivating factor for the assignment of the four elements to the signs of the zodiac. Previously, it wasn’t known how the signs of the zodiac came to be associated with the four classical elements of Greek philosophy, which are earth, air, fire, and water. But it turns out there’s actually a reason for those assignments that’s embedded in the ‘planetary joys’ scheme, and it has to do with this interesting thing that I probably shouldn’t go into because I’m already making this a little bit longer than I wanted to by going on a bunch of digressions; so I’ll leave you to search for that. Just do a search for ‘the planetary joys’, ‘Chris Brennan’, and you’ll find my paper, which is titled, “The Planetary Joys and the Origins of the Significations of the Houses and Triplicities,” which I published online after publishing it originally in an ISAR in 2013.
All right, so we won’t get bogged down in that. Eventually, through these schemes, it led them to develop the basic significations of the 12 houses. While some of these significations that I’m showing here, for people watching the video version, are still the same as they were 2,000 years ago, when this system of 12 houses was introduced, some of them have changed, but for the most part, it’s still pretty standard.
The 1st house signifies the body and the spirit; the 2nd house signifies livelihood and possessions; the 3rd house signifies siblings and travels; the 4th house signifies parents and home; the 5th house signifies children; the 6th house indicates injury, illness, and enemies; the 7th house signifies marriage, the spouse, and partnership in general; the 8th house is death and inheritance; the 9th house is travel, divination, and astrology; the 10th house is action, reputation, and advancement; the 11th house is friends, gifts, and hopes; and the 12th house in Hellenistic astrology is things like suffering, enemies, weakness, and dangers.
For the most part, many of those significations, they’re introduced 2,000 years ago, but they’ve stayed relatively consistent with some minor changes over time due to the transmission of astrology over the centuries. But what you have to understand is that most of those significations were introduced relatively quickly, early in the late Hellenistic period, and in the century or two after that.
All right, so the core of the new system of astrology, of this fourfold system, the first part was the planets, which includes many of the significations of the planets that we still use today, the meanings of the planets, as well as the concept of benefic versus malefic; the concept of sect, which is the difference between day and night charts; also, the concept of attributing gender to the planets; and the idea of temperaments being associated with the planets as well as some other qualities. In terms of the zodiac, at this time, in the Hellenistic tradition, the domicile and triplicity rulership schemes were introduced, so were the classical element schemes of earth, air, fire, and water. The zodiac also attributed the gender of masculine or feminine, as well as modalities, which is cardinal, fixed, and mutable, and the concept of reception was introduced at this point as well.
In terms of the houses, we see the introduction of whole sign houses, equal houses, and quadrant houses all pretty early in the astrological tradition, which I talk about in my book titled, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune. I have a chapter on the origins of the different systems of
house division, but also the significations of the houses that I was just talking about, the ‘planetary joys’ scheme, the concept of angularity of good and bad houses, as well as the concept of ‘lots’, which was a subset of looking at the significations of different houses.
Finally, the concept of aspects–there was a distinction between sign-based aspects as well as degree-based aspects. They also introduced the concept of right- versus left-sided aspects, overcoming versus striking with a ray, aversion, enclosure, and other types of aspect doctrine-related concepts were introduced at this time. So these are most of the core things of Western astrology that persisted for centuries after this point, and even though some of these concepts were lost by the time you get to modern, 20th century astrology, for the most part, the core of that system is still very much intact today.
All right, so eventually what happens is the Roman Empire becomes the dominant superpower in the Mediterranean in the 1st century BCE, and it takes over Egypt, which is the birthplace of Hellenistic astrology, as well as most of the areas surrounding the Mediterranean. So the Roman Empire culminates and reaches its largest extent by the 2nd century CE, and this also appears to be roughly around the time of the high point of the practice of Hellenistic astrology.
Meanwhile, around this time or not long after, Hellenistic astrology gets transmitted to India either, at the earliest, probably by the 2nd century CE or sometime in the next few centuries. There were some books on Hellenistic astrology that went over to India that were written in Greek and then were translated into Sanskrit, and then they were merged with the preexisting traditions of astrology that existed in India up to that point, including the 27 sign lunar zodiac known as the nakshatras. This then created a long and flourishing tradition of astrology in India over the next 2,000 years, all the way up until the present time. But it’s important to note that some of it happened partially as a result of this transmission, and again, another interaction between cultures where astrology written in Greek started interacting with astrology that was in Sanskrit at that point, and it created a new tradition, or it created a new system that then flourished in India after that point.
There was a similar transmission in the 3rd century CE or so, where texts written in Greek onHellenistic astrology were transmitted to Persia and translated into the Persian language at that time. After this point, the documentation about Persian astrology is a little spotty because of the destruction of a lot of Persian texts, but they seem to have developed and advanced different forms of mundane astrology; especially the use of Jupiter/Saturn cycles, and their conjunctions in different triplicities, seems to have been really developed in the Persian tradition during this time, from the 3rd century onward.
This is a diagram which shows the 27 sign lunar zodiac known as the nakshatras and how it interfaces with the 12-sign zodiac from the Babylonian and Hellenistic traditions, and how that gets merged together. Those two systems become merged and then they start assigning planetary rulerships to the different nakshatras, which then leads to some interesting timing systems, like the Vimshottari Dasha system, which is a timing technique that’s very popular and very widely-used in Indian astrology. I did an episode of The Astrology Podcast on that with Freedom Cole just last year. So do a search for that on The Astrology Podcast website or YouTube channel where you can learn more about that technique.
This is a diagram that just shows–from the later Renaissance tradition–the different Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions. And what astrologers noticed at some point, probably in the Persian tradition, was that the Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions happen every 20 years, but they tend to happen in the same zodiacal triplicities for these 200-year spans of time. We’re about to have one of those shifts later this year in 2020, where the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction is about to take place in Aquarius, which is a shift into the air triplicity compared to the past 200 years, where the Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions tended to take place in the earth signs; so we’re having a shift now from 200 years of earth to about 200 years of air. The ancient Persian astrologers started noticing these conjunctions and used it to group and to divide long time spans of history into thousand-year periods, and they used that to predict the rise and fall of different religions and different dynasties within the context of mundane astrology.
All right, so eventually we get to the end of the Hellenistic tradition, where Hellenistic astrology kind of peters out or ends, by the latest, the 7th century CE, where for the past couple of centuries, we see the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Europe; so the decline or the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Astrology stops being practiced, for the most part, in Western Europe at this time. There’s a decrease in learning and literacy during this time. Astrologers are not around as much and not practicing it in an advanced, complicated, mathematical form. Additionally, there’s increased hostility towards astrology from Christianity.
In the early Roman Empire, astrology was seen as a type of divination, and it was seen as more permissible, just like other types of divination were within a ‘pagan’ context. But then, after the 1st century CE and the introduction of Christianity, Christianity and astrology had a very tense relationship. And when Christianity becomes eventually the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, it ended up being bad news for astrology, just because Christian theologians tended to not like astrology for different reasons. One of was due to the issue of fate and free will and due to the focus on free will in Christianity, whereas astrology had more of a focus towards the concept of fate due to the premise that you could predict a person’s future based on the alignment of the planets at the moment that they were born; so that created a tension between those two subjects.
The third thing that contributed to the end of the Hellenistic tradition was the advent of the Arabian Empire. Egypt fell to the Arab armies in 641 CE. The birthplace of Hellenistic astrology, Greek had been used as the primary language in Egypt all the way up to that point, but then, all of a sudden, a new culture, with a new language came in and took over Egypt. That was very slowly and gradually put an end to Greek being the primary language there, and astrology, similarly, went into a period of not being practiced as much in Egypt during that time.
This is a map from Wikipedia that shows, starting in the Arabian Peninsula, where modern-day Saudi Arabia is, the Islamic Empire started, and then it started expanding from the 7th and 8th centuries. It eventually took over Mesopotamia and took over the Middle East, all the way to the western-most portions of India. It also took over portions Mesopotamian portions of Turkey, and then, eventually, most of North Africa, all the way into Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, all the way over on the top-left. So that, at its height, was the extent of the Islamic Empire in the 7th and 8th centuries; so it was just as massive as Alexander the Great’s empire and the Roman Empire were in different ways, depending on what century you’re talking about.
This basically leads to another tradition of astrology; so we have the end of the Hellenistic tradition by the 7th century. And what happens is that by the 8th and 9th centuries, there is this flourishing of science and philosophy that occurs under the Abbasid dynasty of Islamic rulers, who spoke Arabic in the 8th the 9th century. This dynasty was very favorable towards learning and philosophy and science, and also, astrology. So there was a shift in focus, and at one point, the new rulers wanted to move the capital to this new city, which became the city of Baghdad. They got together a group of astrologers and asked them to pick an electional chart for the founding of this new city that would be the new capital of the empire; this chart actually survives, and it’s set for 762 CE.
Let me see. Actually, this is the chart itself. The Baghdad electional chart, it’s preserved by a later historian named Al-Biruni, and he said that it had Sagittarius rising, with Jupiter in Sagittarius, the Sun was in Leo in the 9th house, the Moon was in Libra in the 11th house, and Venus was in Cancer in the 8th house. For those looking at the video, you can see the rest of the placements, but that’s the basic electional chart that they picked for the founding of Baghdad.
And then what happened is Baghdad flourished for several centuries and became a center for science and philosophy, and also, astrology. At this time, they set up translation projects in Baghdad in order to translate astrological texts from Greek and Persian and Sanskrit into the language of Arabic, which became the new language that everybody was speaking at this time, just like Greek was the common language several centuries earlier at the birth of Hellenistic astrology.
So during this time, works of earlier Hellenistic authors, such as Dorotheus, Vettius Valens, Rhetorius, and Ptolemy, were translated, and they recovered some pieces of the older traditions and then synthesized them together with some new techniques and new things that had developed in the interim between the traditions. One of the things that happened at this time that was important in terms of the history of astrology is that horary astrology gets fully established as a full-fledged, fourth branch of the tradition at this time.
We do see some earlier references to horary in the Hellenistic tradition, but they’re references in passing, in the text of Dorotheus. And then, eventually, we see a few horary charts that survived from the 5th century, but we don’t have any full textbooks or works on horary astrology from the Hellenistic tradition for some reason, and it’s not referenced very much. For the most part, natal astrology seems to be the primary focus of most of the astrologers in the Hellenistic tradition. But by the time we get to the early Medieval tradition, horary astrology is a major player at this point, and we do see some of the first full-fledged texts on horary astrology from authors such as Masha’allah, Sahl ibn Bishr, and Theophilus of Odessa; yeah, so that’s really important.
I should define horary astrology. So horary, the premise is that you can cast a chart for the moment that a client asks an astrologer an important question that’s important and personally relevant and somewhat pressing to them, and that the chart cast for the moment of the exchange of the question will tell you something about not just the nature of the question itself–that the chart will describe the nature of the question–but that the chart also will describe the outcome of the question or what the answer is to the question just based on looking at the chart for that moment. This is important because we get the establishment of horary.
Up to this point, we’ve seen Mesopotamian astrology primarily used in the Mesopotamian tradition. Then we see the introduction of natal astrology using birth charts in the late Mesopotamian tradition, and that became the primary technique that was used and refined and that the Hellenistic astrologers focused on, birth charts and natal astrology. We, also, in the Hellenistic tradition, see the introduction of electional astrology, which is choosing auspicious moments to begin new ventures and undertakings under the premise that you can cast a chart for when you start a new action or begin a major venture, and that chart will tell you not just the quality of what you’re starting at that time, but also its future.
So that’s the founding chart for Baghdad that we talked about, where the astrologers picked a chart that they thought would be positive for the founding of this city. They made sure that they picked a chart where Jupiter was in Sagittarius, and they put Jupiter in the rising sign–so Jupiter in the 1st house–and considered that to be an auspicious indication for founding that new city. That’s basically the concept of electional astrology, that you can pick out auspicious moments to start new ventures and undertakings, from very big ones, like founding a city, to very small ones, like taking a trip or getting married or what have you; so that’s basically the premise of electional astrology.
By the time horary is introduced that basically gives us the traditional fourfold system of astrology–or I should say ‘the four major branches’ of astrology. Earlier, I talked about the fourfold system of astrology that’s applied to birth charts, but what this sets up is the ‘four traditional branches of astrology’, which are ‘mundane astrology’, which applies to cities and nations, ‘natal astrology’, which applies to the birth of individuals, ‘electional astrology’, which applies to the charts of new ventures and undertakings, and then, finally, ‘horary astrology’, which is the astrology of questions of answering single specific questions that are posed to an astrologer.
All right, so at this time, in addition to making horary a full-fledged, fourth branch of the tradition, there were also some innovations in the aspect doctrine. They introduced some concepts that seemed like they were connected to some of the new developments in horary astrology, like the idea of ‘transfer of light’, ‘collection of light’, and other advanced, somewhat exotic aspect combinations, which allow astrologers to answer hoary questions in different ways because of how approaching query questions is answered. Additionally, there’s some elaboration of the Persian mundane astrological doctrine that involves the Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions, and we see an increased focus on things like ingress charts, like the Aries ingress chart for indications about what’s going to happen in mundane astrology in the coming year and other similar ingress charts.
One last thing I should say about the four traditional branches is that most other applications of astrology are just subsets of one of these branches, or they’re combinations of two or more of these branches. For example, there’s ‘medical astrology’, which involves sometimes looking at the birth chart of an individual to determine their temperament or determining things like propensity to illness or injuries. Medical, also, sometimes involves electional astrology and horary astrology for diagnosing what is wrong with a person or diagnosing an illness, for example.
There’s other later types of astrology like ‘magical astrology’, where astrologers would make talismans and amulets and sometimes that’s an application of election astrology. Even in modern times, there’s things like ‘business astrology’ or ‘stock market astrology’, which is just an application or a subset of mundane astrology, where you’re looking at outer planet cycles and seeing how that applies to countries or seeing how that applies to the stock market; or you’re looking at the inception chart for businesses to see how that business chart will do, which is a subset of electional astrology, and so on and so forth.
So even though astrology’s changed and grown, and there’s many different applications of it over the centuries, these four branches are still pretty standard for the most part today, even if there are many different subsets of astrology within them. Even things like ‘relationship astrology’, for example, is, generally speaking, a subset of natal astrology, where you have synastry; where you’re looking at the birth charts of two individuals and how they overlay on each other; so that would, again, just be a subset of natal astrology.
All right, so those are the four branches that are firmly established by the early Medieval tradition, in the 8th and 9th centuries. Here’s a diagram that shows the concept of transfer of light. Let’s say you’ve got a slow-moving planet like Jupiter at 15 degrees of Aries and you have an even slower-moving planet like Saturn at 9 degrees of Aries; those two planets, as long as they’re direct-in-motion, would be separating from each other. But according to the doctrine of transfer of light, if there’s a faster-moving planet, like Mercury, that separates from one of them, like Saturn, and applies to Jupiter, then it can create a connection between those two planets, which becomes necessary in horary questions.
Oftentimes, in horary questions, if your two primary significators are separating, it can indicate that the answer to the question is ‘no’ or negative, whereas if your two planets are applying to each other or share some connection, it indicates that the question is ‘yes’ or is affirmative. That’s why I think some of these new aspect doctrine concepts were introduced by the time of the early Medieval tradition because of their necessary application in horary astrology. This may have been a development in the late Persian tradition that we don’t have a lot of documentation for, due to a loss of texts.
All right, so eventually we get to late Medieval astrology or the later Medieval tradition, where what we know of today as Spain and the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim rule since the 8th century. But in the 12th century, Europeans from the northern part of the year Iberian Peninsula started pushing downwards and started the Reconquista, the reconquering or taking back of lands–that previously had been occupied by Europeans–from the Muslim rulers, from the 8th century forward.
Let me see if I have a diagram. Yeah. here it is. So here’s an example where you have some of the Islamic Empire in Northern Africa, all the way up into the southernmost portions of Spain. And then you have these different European kingdoms that start pushing downwards and taking land back from the Islamic rulers at that time.
This is important for our purposes, this shift in the 12th century, because what happened is when the Europeans started reconquering some of those lands in Spain, they ended up getting a hold of these huge libraries that contained hundreds and hundreds of Arabic texts, including scientific and philosophical texts, but some of these texts covered astrology. All of a sudden, this spurred a translation movement, where scholars from all over Europe started flocking to Spain and started translating texts from Arabic into other common European languages at that time, like Latin. So there was this huge translation movement of hundreds of astrological texts, which got translated from Arabic to Latin from the 12th century forward, and this led to a revival of the practice of astrology in Europe from the 12th century forward.
Up to this point, astrology had sort of died out after the fall of the Roman Empire–it sort of died out in most of Europe–so this represented a reintroduction of astrology to Europe at this time; but it was a reintroduction of it through these Arabic sources. So it was the type of Arabic astrology that had been created in the 8th and 9th centuries from translating other texts from Greek, but also from Sanskrit and from Persian, and then synthesizing that together to create a new tradition of astrology in Arabic, in the 8th and 9th centuries.
And I forgot to mention that the Sanskrit part of that is interesting. Sanskrit was one of the texts and one of the traditions that influenced the early Medieval tradition in the 8th and 9th centuries. That was astrology from India basically coming back and then starting to influence the Western tradition in the early Medieval period. So it was never just a one-way transmission of Greek astrology or Western astrology to India, but also India at different points has influenced the development of Western astrology as well through occasional or through periodic transmissions of astrology from Sanskrit to the West; Sanskrit texts to the West.
Anyway, this translation movement in the 12th century led to the revival of astrology in Europe. There were major universities that were set up in Europe around this time and forward that started setting up chairs for astrology; so there would be a head professor of astrology in some of the major universities. And medical astrology especially flourishes during this time, where the use of different things, like temperament theory, and the idea that the planets literally affected or influenced our bodily temperament in different ways could be used to treat different ailments and different issues that might arise as a result of inflammation or as a result of different diseases or other things like that.
Astrology became very integral to the practice of medicine at this time, not just for diagnostic purposes–where they would sometimes use things like horary astrology or inceptional or electrical astrology to diagnose a person’s sickness and how long it would last and what was causing it–but they would also do other things in order to maintain overall health and wellness as part of a holistic-type approach, to use a modern term, to health and well-being.
So astrology becomes a big deal in Europe again from the 12th century forward, after it’s transmitted back to Europe through these Arabic sources and translated into Latin. If we jump forward a century or two, one of the notable things that happens is the invention of the printing press in 1440. This ended up leading to a proliferation of astrological texts, and in order to understand why that is, you have to understand that prior to that century, all texts, especially astrological texts, were hand-copied. If you wanted to get a copy of a book on astrology, a specific book, you would have to get a scribe who would take one copy of it and put it next to another copy, and then literally, with their hand, copy it word-for-word and sentence-for-sentence until you had a full book.
This is a very time-consuming and laborious process, and it’s one of the reasons why we have only a small percentage of the ancient astrological texts that were written in the Roman Empire to survive into modern times. The transmission of these books on astrology was kind of spotty just due to this process of, not just copying books over by hand, but also sometimes having to translate them from one language to another, which adds an additional complication or problem, obviously.
So after the printing press was invented, one of the things this allowed them to do was mass-produce astrological texts, and it led to a proliferation of astrology texts all over Europe at this time. And what happened is really interesting because what they started doing was printing the Latin translations of earlier Arabic texts that had been translated starting in the 12th century. So when the Europeans started flocking to Spain and translating those texts from Arabic to Latin, now all of a sudden, the printing press was introduced and invented, and they were looking for what would be the most popular things that people want to buy. One of those first things that they really started printing a lot of was the translations of astrological texts that had been translated from from Arabic to Latin, so this leads to a proliferation of astrological texts.
At the same time, the fall of Constantinople, the last remaining remnant of the Roman Empire, occurred in 1453, and this led to an exodus of some of the few remaining Greek texts, which were then transmitted to Europe at this time. This led to a revival of interest in classical learning and philosophy and culture, including a revival of interest in Platonism and Hermeticism, and astrology was very much connected to and intertwined with Hermeticism in the Greco-Roman tradition; so that had some impact in terms of the influence then of astrology in Europe during the Renaissance.
This is a nice little diagram from Wikipedia that just shows all of the different towns that had printing presses when printing became very major in Europe at that time, where some of the major centers for printing up books on printing presses were, and where they’re clustered around different areas. This is a copy of the front page of a printed text, where they typeset and they printed up, using a printing press, a Latin translation of an Arabic text from the 8th century, by the astrologer named Masha’allah. Masha’allah lived in the late 8th century, let’s say, 775 or so, give or take. He wrote his text in Arabic around 775, then it was translated into Latin around the 12th century, and eventually got printed up several centuries later after the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th-century.
You can kind of see this leapfrogging of astrology from culture to culture, and time period to time period, every time there’s transmissions, and when there’s new technological advancements, like the printing press. This can sometimes lead to this explosion in the proliferation of astrology as one of the ways that new technologies are often used by astrologers or ways that a culture is influenced by astrology and vice versa.
All right, so eventually, we get to the later part of the astrological tradition, what I call ‘late traditional astrology’, where astrology started to enter a decline in Europe by the 17th century. The last great flourishing of astrology occurred in England in the 17th century, where one of the most important events was the publication of William Lilly’s book, Christian Astrology, in 1647. So this was the first, full English language textbook on astrology, which is kind of a big deal in the West, and in terms of the English-speaking world.
Up to this point, most books, most philosophical and scientific and astrological works were written in Latin, which was the common language that was used in Europe, and it was the common scientific language that everybody printed important intellectual works in; but Christian Astrology was written in English. Lilly wanted to make it more accessible to people that spoke English and didn’t necessarily read Latin, so he decided to write it in English, in his primary language; which is kind of an interesting and important turning point in terms of that being the beginning of English language literature–not literature, but English language textbooks on astrology. After that point, other astrologers followed suit and started writing their textbooks in English as well.
Lilly’s textbook emphasized horary astrology especially because that seemed to be his primary practice. Christian Astrology is broken up into three books: the first book introduces basic concepts; and then the second book, right away, jumps into horror astrology and how to answer specific questions, just based on the chart cast for the moment of the question; then eventually, in Book 3 of Christian Astrology, he does get into natal astrology and how to interpret birth charts. But it seems like his primary practice and his primary focus in Christian Astrology, especially in terms of the order of importance, was putting horary first and foremost, by making that the first subject he jumped into in Book 2.
Lilly’s approach, and the approach of the other astrologers of this period, is interesting because it represents a synthesis of the methods of earlier astrologers, in addition to some of the new advancements and developments that occurred in his own time period. William Lilly drew on authors like Ptolemy, Claudius Ptolemy, from the 2nd century, but also Masha’allah from the 8th century, Guido Bonatti from the 13th century, and Jerome Kardan from the 15th or 16th century, who’s only a century or two before Lilly himself. So you can see in that way that Lilly’s drawing on the entirety of the astrological tradition, or at least the pieces of the astrological tradition that he had access to up to that point.
One of the interesting things though about that is there was what’s sometimes referred to as a ‘back to Ptolemy movement’, where there was a tendency to want to emphasize the older sources or the oldest source under the premise that the oldest source was the most authoritative. And for Lilly, one of the oldest sources, or the oldest and most authoritative source available at his disposal was the Tetrabiblos of Claudius Ptolemy from the 2nd century, which was a four-book, highly influential set of books from the Hellenistic tradition.
Sometimes Ptolemy’s work differed from and conflicted with some of the later Medieval Arabic authors like Masha’allah or Bonatti. And in cases where there was a conflict, Lilly would tend to side with Ptolemy, under the premise that Ptolemy was the earlier and more authoritative author. But one of the things that was interesting about that or ironic about that is that Ptolemy himself, in the 2nd century, was a bit of a reformer of astrology, and he introduced some new techniques and modifications to the system which set him apart or made him unique in some ways compared to his contemporaries, such as Vettius Valens or Dorotheus of Sidon. And it turns out that some of the Arabic authors were actually more influenced in some ways by that other stream of the tradition, by authors like Dorotheus and Valens, so that they were in some ways following the earlier Hellenistic tradition more closely.
But when later authors from the 17th century, like Lilly, looked back, they didn’t necessarily have access to Dorotheus or Valens, so they didn’t realize that the later Medieval authors were actually being more faithful to the tradition than they had realized, and that creates some interesting tensions in terms of using some of Lilly’s methods and whether to go with his adoptions of Ptolemy’s approach or whether to go with other Hellenistic astrologers that might be more in line with the later Medieval tradition.
I mention this just because it’s an interesting precedent, an interesting lesson from history, when we’re drawing on older sources. Sometimes we don’t have the full vantage point or the full bird’s eye view because only a few texts survive from any era, and so, all you can do is do your best to assess what some of those earlier traditions were. But even once you do that, your perspective is still going to be somewhat limited based on whatever texts survived from that era and what you have at your disposal to work with, in terms of inheriting the texts and the techniques from the earlier astrological traditions.
All right, so at this point, from the 17th century onward, we enter a period called the–it’s not usually called this–but you might call it the ‘Astrological Recession’, where astrology goes into a decline, especially in the West, in the English-speaking world in particular; but also in Europe, in general, due to a mixture of different social and scientific and religious changes. So one part of that is the scientific revolution and some of the advancements that occurred in astronomy, for example, which overthrew and disproved Ptolemy’s cosmology.
Part of what happened is that Ptolemy’s text–this is almost a whole separate episode unto itself. But Ptolemy, as I said, in the 2nd century, he was a scientist and a polymath who wrote major works on several different fields, including astronomy, astrology, geography, harmonics; pretty much, you name it, Ptolemy wrote a text on it if it was like a major scientific field. And with his astrological texts, he tried to situate astrology and to reform it a little bit to make it look a little bit more acceptable from a natural or what we might call a scientific standpoint by conceptualizing it as working as a result of the planets influencing somehow life on Earth.
Prior to that time, astrology was primarily conceptualized as a form of divination, where the planets were seen to indicate things about, let’s say, a person’s birth chart or a person’s life by acting as signs or omens of the future without necessarily causing those events in the person’s life to happen, but Ptolemy tried to reconceptualize it as more of a causal science. On the one hand, that was a somewhat positive thing because it allowed astrology to survive some of the attacks that then started to ramp up on it from Christianity, where the Christian Church basically tried to stamp out astrology as a form of pagan learning and divination and started connecting it with magic and other practices like that. But some forms of astrology, which were conceptualized as natural or just working as part of the natural world just like the weather, were seen as acceptable; and this is partially what allowed astrology to survive the Middle Ages and the Medieval period, and then, eventually, to make a comeback in Europe and hit a high point during the Renaissance.
But the downside is that Ptolemy’s model was based on a certain cosmology that placed the Earth at the center of the cosmos. After some of the discoveries that occurred in the scientific revolution showed that the Sun is actually the center of our solar system and the Earth revolves around it, that threw off Ptolemy’s cosmology and made it questionable, which then had a sort of domino effect in questioning and disproving some of his other models that were based on it, including his rationale for astrology.
So to make a long story short, that’s one part of what happened that led to the Astrological Recession and a decline in astrology in Europe and the West, from the 17th through the 19th centuries. In reality, there were a lot of other cultural and religious and social issues that were going on during that time as well. The decline of astrology is not simply the result of the scientific revolution, and it wasn’t really a result of astrology being disproved at this time, which is a common misconception.
Scientists didn’t just come out of nowhere in the 17th century and do statistical tests on astrology; in fact, statistical tests of astrology didn’t really start until the 20th century. So it’s not that science disproved astrology in the 17th century, it’s just that there was this major shift and some of those scientific and religious and cultural and conceptual shifts ended up having a negative effect on astrology and astrology fell out of favor, especially with intellectuals. So astrology disappears from the universities during this time and stops being taught there and is no longer seen as a legitimate subject or legitimate form of wisdom or information or what have you.
Astrology only survives at this time, from the 17th and the 19th centuries, for the most part through the form of popular almanacs, which were low-level astrology that continued to survive and be popular in a minor sense during that time. But for the most part, this was after the heyday of astrology, during the Renaissance in Europe, and there were not as many astrologers practicing and not as many astrological textbooks that were being produced during this period, from the 17th through the 19th centuries; even though there were still some, the practice was greatly reduced and went into a low point for a couple of centuries.
Eventually, we get to the rebirth of astrology in the 20th century and part of the contributing factor was, again, another change in culture, where there was this–in the mid-19th century–growth of spiritualism and eventually the Theosophical Society; and the beginning of what we know of today as the modern-day, New age movement began in the mid-to-late 19th century and then really took off by the early 20th century.
This was a period where people became more open to and it became more fashionable to talk about things like karma and reincarnation and ghosts and the afterlife and spirits and talking with spirits and different things like that. So it was a whole period where interest in paranormal and occult topics suddenly became trendy or came into vogue again and astrology was one of the things, as a side effect of that, led to a renewed public interest in astrology basically.
In the English-speaking world, there was an astrologer named Alan Leo who’s often credited with instigating the revival–or at least having a major role in impacting the revival of astrology at that time and making it more accessible–by setting up different astrological associations, and also, especially because of his publication of a bunch of books on astrology that helped to popularize the subject in English; some of those books were also translated into other European languages, which had some impact on spurring a revival to some extent in other languages across Europe as well.
Alan Leo was a Theosophist, so his books not just incorporated Theosophical and New Age ideas, but also through the major publishing arm of the Theosophical Society, that allowed him to have a huge reach across the world and have his books reach a lot more people than it would have otherwise; and that’s part of the reason why he’s credited with instigating or at least contributing to the revival, even though there were other astrologers around that time that were writing books and participating in organizations and magazines and other publications as well.
So Alan Leo sought to simplify the system and make it easier to learn because he found it to be very complicated when he first started learning it as a student. Part of his goal was to break it down and simplify it just to make it easier for new students to take up the subject because he was very passionate about it and he wanted to share that with lots of people.
He also had a greater focus on character analysis, and we start seeing a shift in astrology–in the early 20th century that goes through and accelerates throughout the 20th century–from astrology being more about prediction in traditional astrology to eventually being more about character analysis. And then, later, after the birth of depth psychology in the 20th century, it eventually became very much focused on psychological analysis and introspection as well, but this is something that we already see going really heavily with Alan Leo and his focus on character analysis; he liked to repeat the phrase, “Character is destiny.”
Also, at this time, astrology largely becomes associated with the New Age movement and New Age concepts like karma and reincarnation and other fringe topics like that or other philosophical topics that were being mixed together to form a new philosophy of some sort. I don’t want to go on a whole digression about what the New Age movement was; that’s a whole topic into itself.
All right, so in modern astrology, there’s a few developments that we need to talk about in the 20th century. First, we see the introduction or at least the popularization of Sun-sign astrology from the 1930s forward. In newspapers and magazines, they start to present astrological columns that focus on the 12 signs of the zodiac, where you’re supposed to be able to look at it just based on knowing your birth date. You only have to know your birth date because that will tell you roughly what your Sun sign is, and whatever the position of your Sun is in the 12 signs of the zodiac, that becomes your sign and then you’re able to read a forecast for that specific sign.
This wasn’t as common of a concept prior to the 20th century. If you go back and look at the Hellenistic texts, when they talk about ‘your sign’–or other traditional texts–they’re usually talking about your rising sign, and that’s supposed to be the most personal part in the chart that has more to do with your personality or personal characteristics, whereas what happens in the 20th century is that part of the popularization of astrology was a shift towards Sun signs. So that gets going from the 1930s onwards and then becomes extremely popular and helps to repopularize astrology in the public consciousness.
Additionally, there were some astrologers that continued the push towards character analysis that was initiated by Alan Leo and other astrologers around that time period. Another astrologer, a few decades later, Dane Rudhyar, in the 1930s, starts bringing in concepts that are being introduced from depth psychology, and in particular, he starts incorporating, from a very early stage, the work of the psychologist Carl Jung into astrology. One of his first books was titled, The Astrology of Personality. I did a whole episode on Dane Rudhyar with Chet Zdrowski at one point, so you can check that out if you’d like to learn more about that. And I also did a whole episode on the revival of astrology in modern times with Nicholas Campion at one point, so you can check that episode out for more about that as well.
But anyways, this really accelerates this push towards a tendency to focus on internal states in 20th century astrology, and astrology shifts so that it becomes more of a tool for psychological analysis and counseling rather than something that is strictly predictive or deterministic or fatalistic or what have you. Increasingly, 20th century astrology starts to differentiate itself from the earlier traditions, which it starts conceptualizing as more fatalistic and a lot of the excitement starts being about depth psychology and the integration of astrology and psychology.
Additionally, in the 20th century, or at least by the 20th century, we see the real incorporation of outer planets which have been around. Uranus and Neptune were discovered over the previous two centuries, but eventually, in the 1930s, there’s the discovery of Pluto; and then other bodies, including different asteroids start being discovered as well, and from the 1980s forward, there’s a huge push to integrate things like asteroids.
By that time, the outer planets had been fully integrated into astrology and were even starting to replace some of the traditional planetary rulers as rulers of the signs of the zodiac. Uranus, in modern astrology, in 20th century astrology, came to replace Saturn as the ruler of Aquarius; Neptune came to replace Jupiter as the ruler of Pisces; and some astrologers eventually assigned Pluto to the sign of Scorpio. So this represented for the first time in almost 2,000 years, a major overhaul and change to the fundamental makeup of the astrological system where the rulership scheme itself started being tinkered with by modern astrologers.
In general, one of my feelings or one of my impressions about modern astrology in the 20th century is that there was this emphasis on innovation rather than tradition. In some instances, this was deliberate; in some instances, it was just the thing to do and was more unconscious. But there seems to have been an emphasis on inventing new techniques and coming up with the next big thing rather than just passing on the tradition and copying it over slavishly; there was more of an emphasis on innovation as part of one of the things that seems somewhat characteristic about 20th century astrology. This led to a great flourishing and proliferation of many new techniques and new ideas in 20th century astrology, in addition to the new things that were happening just as a result of new discoveries–like new outer planets being discovered–necessarily causing the astrologers to start changing the system.
There was in the 1960s a large influx of younger astrologers that came in partially due to the counterculture movement in America, for example, the hippies and different cultural groups like that. There seemed to be an influx of astrologers into the community at that time in the 1960s and ‘70s, in the US. Linda Goodman published her book–what’s it called–Sun Signs in 1968, and it sold some ridiculous amount, like millions of copies; it became a high watermark in terms of the perception of astrology in public culture, where everybody knew what their Sun sign was. Astrology became mainstream once again after not being mainstream for several centuries, but the way in which astrology was mainstream was different in the 20th century compared to earlier due to this shift in emphasis towards character analysis and the shift towards Sun-sign astrology.
Additionally, in the second-half, and especially, the fourth quarter of the 20th century, the rise of computers and personal computers and then eventually the Internet made it easier to calculate charts. You didn’t have to know how to do all of the math by hand. Instead, you could get a chart calculated in a matter of seconds rather than the period of time that it would take, up to that point, to calculate it by hand.
This is kind of a big deal because for centuries, up to this point, in order to calculate a birth chart, you needed to know the underlying astronomy and the underlying math in order to be able to do it. You would have to have an ephemeris, which would tell you the planetary positions in the past for every day and every year covering the time period where you wanted to look up somebody’s birth chart of the day they were born, and you’d also have to use other tables in order to calculate the houses or in order to calculate what time zone was in effect to know what part of the day and what the rising degree was so you could calculate the Ascendant correctly. It was kind of an involved process to calculate a birth chart and it created a barrier to entry, where you had to at least be able to do the basic mathematics involved and have the basic reference books in order to be able to calculate a birth chart and then interpret it.
So in the past few decades, first, with the rise of personal computers, and then more recently, with the rise of websites that will calculate birth charts for you, or even nowadays, mobile phone apps, anybody can calculate a birth chart. All you need to know is your birth date, birthplace, and birth time and you can get a chart calculated in a matter of seconds. That lowered the barrier to entry and made it so that anybody can do the complex mathematical calculations of astrology relatively easily.
This is an interesting shift compared to previous centuries, where for many centuries, the astrologers were also astronomers, and the astrologers were sometimes mathematicians or people that were capable of doing the advanced calculations that were necessary in order to calculate a birth chart, like Johannes Kepler, or Claudius Ptolemy, or other famous astronomical figures who were also astrologers. Nowadays, that’s changed just due to the advent of computers, and that’s an interesting thing that we’re still getting used to in our culture–what sort of implications that has for the practice of astrology and its prevalence around the world.
Later, in the 20th century, we start to see the revival of traditional astrology, and the context for this development is that there weren’t a lot of texts from the earlier tradition that were available to modern astrologers in the 20th century until very recently. Part of this is just due to availability–the texts not being available or not being widely available in print form because they weren’t kept in print. The other thing is that in order to read some of the old texts from, let’s say, the Medieval tradition or the Hellenistic tradition, or even the ancient Mesopotamian tradition, you have to have special language skills in order to be able to read those texts.
You have to know Latin to read some of the Renaissance texts, or you have to know Arabic in order to read some of the early Medieval texts, or you have to know ancient Greek in order to read some of the Hellenistic texts, or you have to know cuneiform in order to read some of the ancient Mesopotamian texts, and if you don’t have those special language skills, like most astrologers don’t or didn’t in the 20th century, then you’re just out of luck; so that’s one thing; even when certain texts were available, astrologers couldn’t read them. Also, prior to the 20th century, a lot of these texts weren’t readily available; they were just lying around in Europe, in handwritten manuscripts, waiting to be translated and waiting to be collected and put together.
So two things happened. One thing that happened is that there was a group of scholars in Europe that got together and decided to collect all of the ancient Greek astrological texts that survived in the early 20th century. They decided to create a catalog for them and started putting them together, publishing them in modern printed book form for academic purposes because they wanted to study them within the context of ancient cultures.
They didn’t believe in astrology or think that the astrological content was valuable in it of itself; instead, they just thought studying the history of astrology would tell you something about ancient cultures and would help you get an additional vantage point that was valuable from that perspective because, typically, when astrologers do delineations for clients, they’re also describing something about their worldview and something about how their culture is perceived at the time.
Basically, there was this rise in this movement in academia to study ancient astrology as part of the history of science and as part of the history of of Western culture; that was an important development in academia, but it was happening independent of the astrological community, and astrologers, for the most part, were not paying attention to what the academics were doing; but then, by the 1980s and 1990s, astrologers started to get interested in going back and studying the history of ancient astrology and studying the older astrological tradition from prior to the 20th century.
One example of this was Robert Zoller, who wrote a book on the Arabic Parts in 1981, which was based largely on his study of the texts of the 13th century astrologer, Guido Bonatti, who Zoller had read because he learned Latin in college. So Zoller got a printed version of the text, and then he was able to read parts of Bonatti by translating it for himself and then started to practice some of the techniques that he learned from that 16th century, late Medieval text. But for the most part, Zoller was kind of on his own in being one of the lone people in the US that was studying and trying to promote traditional astrology at that time.
Over in the UK, there was a revival of traditional astrology that centered around horary astrology and especially around the work of William Lilly from the 17th century, who wrote the earliest English textbook on astrology. There was a push to reprint, and eventually, through Regulus Publications, they ended up reprinting the original textbook of William Lilly in the mid-to-late-1980s. This led to a sudden flourishing of interest in practicing older methods of astrology–especially horary, based on Lilly and some of his contemporaries–that developed a lot of steam and got a lot of energy starting in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
At the same time, the historian and astrologer, James Holden published a paper on whole sign houses in 1982; the title of this paper–and you can find it online on my website–is called Ancient House Division by James Holden. He was the first astrologer and historian to point out the use of whole sign houses in the early Western astrological tradition in 1982, and he also translated and started publishing astrological works, like the book of Abu Ali Al-Khayyat, which Holden published a translation of in 1988 through the American Federation of Astrologers.
So Holden studied classics in college, and he actually did his master’s thesis on William Lilly and his work. And Holden had been translating texts from Greek and Latin for himself, privately, from the 1950s forward, but he’d never published them. He had a whole separate career as an electrician or something for several decades before he retired from that in the 1980s, and he became the research director of the American Federation of Astrologers.
But the AFA, or the American Federation of Astrologers, wasn’t very popular in the 1980s and ‘90s. There was some sort of split that occurred with the younger generation of astrologers in the 1970s and 80s, where a lot of that generation that came in the ‘60s split away from the AFA and set up their own separate organizations, such as the National Council for Geocosmic Research, the International Society for Astrological Research, and the Association for Astrological Networking. So as a result of that, Holden’s work wasn’t as well known as it could have been otherwise, even though he was translating texts and publishing some of them.
Eventually, in 1992-1993, a group of people got together and founded the Project Hindsight/ARHAT Translation Project, where they started translating ancient astrological texts from Greek and Latin–and maybe one or two other languages–into English, and they started publishing them; they were entirely funded by the astrological community at that time. So this started a revival and a great flourishing of interest in older forms of astrology, where for the first time in centuries, astrologers were able to go back and read some of the oldest astrological texts in Greek and Latin from the Hellenistic and Medieval traditions in their own language, in English, in a modern language, which is a pretty big deal.
The main focal point of activity for this translation project was especially between 1992 and 1998, where they published something like two dozen translations or preliminary translations of some of these ancient astrological texts from Greek and Latin; and this translation project was primarily headed up by the astrologers, Robert Schmidt, Robert Hand, and Robert Zoller. Unfortunately, most of the activity was confined to that translation project, in terms of their output to the 1990s; that’s when the majority of their translations were produced. But then ‘the three Roberts’, during the course of the project, ended up splitting up, so that the project itself didn’t complete its goal of translating all of the ancient astrological texts which it had originally set out to do.
Interestingly, around this time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, important to note there was also a sudden surge in interest in the practice of Indian astrology in the West at this time, and one of the first organizations which was dedicated to promoting Indian astrology and its practice in the West, in America, was founded. The Council of Vedic Astrology was founded in the early 1990s, around the same time that all this is taking place.
So part of the traditional revival was not just a revival of interest in older forms of Western astrology, but also a revival, a sudden surge in interest in studying Vedic astrology as well, which represented a 2,000-year-old tradition that had been practiced continually in India up to that point. The Indian tradition had a much more continuous tradition over the past 2,000 years than we’ve had in the West because there weren’t as many starts and stops and breaks in the tradition.
Due to its integration with Hinduism and integration with religious doctrines and culture, astrology continued to be permissible in India over the past 2,000 years, while it fell out of favor in Europe and in the West. So as a result of that, some practices in Indian astrology today, in modern times, are actually much more similar to how Western astrology was practiced in ancient times in the West than modern Western astrology is, at least in the 20th century, to ancient Western astrology, so that’s another interesting piece of that.
And finally, as a result of all of these different translation projects–not just from Project Hindsight, which was one of the main things in the 1990s; there’s been other translators and other groups that have produced translations–now there are dozens of translations available from many different astrological traditions from the past 4,000 years that are available for astrologers to study. This is a really unique time in history because it means there’s more translations that are available now from different traditions of astrology than have been available at any other time in history, which puts us at a very unique nexus in terms of the timeline in the history of astrology.
One of the side notes that I want to mention at this point is the Uranus-Neptune conjunctions; the planets Uranus and Neptune form a conjunction approximately every 172 years. One of the things that I noticed that was really interesting is when I lived at Project Hindsight–I studied there for just over two years, from 2005 until 2007.
One of the things I was always really curious about was what was going on in 1992 and 1993 when this translation project was started because it wasn’t just that translation project; also, the revival of of traditional astrology in the UK had turned into a full-blown thing at that point and there was a lot of excitement surrounding traditional astrology. There was the founding of the American College of Vedic Astrology around 1992-1993 as well, and there was also the foundation of Kepler College, which was an attempt in the West to create a school for astrologers and to bring astrology back into academia, in some sense.
So there was a lot of stuff going on around 1992-1993, especially with the revival of ancient wisdom, and I was curious what was going on astrologically and if there’s anything that coincided with that, that sort of stood out. One of the things that I noticed was that there was this conjunction–this somewhat rare conjunction–of outer planets between Uranus-Neptune that occurred in 1992 and 1993, right when all of this was going on. I thought that that was curious, and I decided to look back and see what had happened at other times in the history of astrology when Uranus-Neptune conjunctions occurred.
And what was weird is I started noticing that at the start of many of these major traditions of astrology, especially at the point where there was a transmission of older forms of astrology which were then merged with whatever the prevailing astrological tradition was at that time, there would often be a Uranus-Neptune conjunction.
That’s been the subject of other talks. Sometimes I go through the different Uranus-Neptune conjunctions, but just to give you an idea, there was a Uranus-Neptune conjunction in 61 and 62 BCE, which roughly coincides with the emergence of the Hellenistic astrological tradition. There was another conjunction in 794/795 CE, which was when Masha’allah and some of the early Arabic authors were writing in Baghdad, and they started their translation project in Baghdad in order to translate texts from Greek and Sanskrit and Persian into Arabic. That was in Baghdad, under the House of Wisdom, that translation project; so there was a Uranus-Neptune conjunction that perfectly coincided with the start of the Medieval astrological tradition.
Then right in the middle of the 12th century translation movement, there was a Uranus-Neptune conjunction from 1135 through 1137 CE; so right in the middle of that huge movement of scholars who were flocking from all over Europe to Spain to translate texts from Arabic to Latin, there was a Uranus-Neptune conjunction. And remember, when William Lilly published Christian Astrology in 1647, that was within two or three years of another Uranus-Neptune conjunction, which occurred between 1649 and 1650.
So these are actually just a few of them. The full version of this lecture I’ve given at different points over the past 15 years–2006 was the first time I gave this lecture–and I integrated the Uranus-Neptune conjunctions throughout it. I didn’t want to make that the focal point of this lecture, but I still wanted to include something as a side note about that because I think that it really helps to contextualize the current period of transmission and synthesis that we’re going through now; where just like in history, periodically, this revival of older forms of astrology are transmitted and recovered and then synthesized with whatever the prevailing approaches to astrology are at that time, and it ends up creating a new astrology that then becomes the standard over the next century or two.
When you break down the astrological traditions–this isn’t a complete breakdown–we have, let’s say, the high point of Mesopotamian state-supported astrology in the 8th century under the Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia; then we have the birth and the introduction of natal astrology in the 5th century BCE in Mesopotamia. We have the birth of Hellenistic astrology and the birth of the four-fold system that uses planets, signs, houses, and aspects in the 1st century BCE. Then we have–this is a little bit more rough–the Indian and Persian traditions; we have that transmission of Hellenistic astrology to India, into Persia, at least by the 3rd century or possibly a little bit later.
Then in the 8th century, we have the beginning of the Medieval Arabic tradition. In the 12th century, we have the Medieval Latin tradition, which flourishes as a result of translating texts from Arabic into Latin. Then we have the 15th century Renaissance tradition, which really gets going after the invention of the printing press; and then the 17th century English tradition, starting with William Lilly and some of his contemporaries, at the very end of traditional astrology before its decline. And then, finally, we have 20th century modern astrology, especially starting with William Leo, being fully reconceptualized by astrologers such as Dane Rudhyar, and then reaching its peak in especially the last quarter of the 20th century; so that pretty much brings us to where we are today.
So I wanted to have one quick little reference where, roughly speaking, these are the astrological traditions, or you could break them down into five eras. On The Astrology Podcast, when I refer to ‘Mesopotamian astrology’, I’m talking about the type of astrology that was practiced in Mesopotamia from roughly 2000 BCE until about 100 BCE. When we’re talking about ‘Hellenistic astrology’, we’re talking about the type of astrology that was practiced in the Mediterranean region between the 1st century, roughly 100 BCE, and 650 CE; that’s the Hellenistic tradition.
When we talk about ‘Medieval astrology’, we’re talking about the type of astrology that was practiced between roughly 750 CE and about 1300 or so CE. And that tradition in and of itself can sometimes be divided into the early Medieval tradition, which is in Arabic in the late Medieval tradition, which tends to be more in Latin; but generally speaking, they’re so close most of the time that they’re treated as a group, as just Medieval astrology.
Then there’s what I call ‘Renaissance astrology’. There’s not really a good name for this tradition; I know some people call it ‘late modern astrology’, or ‘early modern astrology’ is sometimes the term used for William Lilly’s type of astrology. But if you were to do like we did with the Medieval tradition and try to group it more together to make a distinct unit, then what I’m calling Renaissance astrology would be the type of astrology practiced in Europe between 1400 CE and 1700 CE; it’s roughly what we might call the Renaissance tradition. And then, finally, there’s ‘modern astrology’, which is the type of astrology practiced in the West between roughly 1900 and 2000 CE.
So that brings us to where we are now, where we’re in the early 21st century or still in the first quarter of the 21st century, and I don’t really have a name for what this tradition is going to be called. 20th century astrology tended to be called ‘modern astrology’, but astrology is already starting to change a lot compared to what was practiced even just a few decades ago because of the revival of all of these different older forms of astrology that are now being introduced into the mainstream, and it’s having some interesting effects on the astrological tradition already.
For example, through even simple technical things like the rediscovery of whole sign houses as a form of house division, that’s already become, over the past decade or two, one of the most popular forms of house division; whereas prior to its rediscovery by James Holden in the 1980s, and then subsequently Robert Hand and Robert Schmidt in the 1990s independently, it wasn’t known about as a form of house division prior to that time. So that’s a pretty radical shift to go from not a form of house division anyone’s using in the West in the early 20th century to suddenly it being the second-most popular form of house division by this point in 2020.
Sometimes these revivals are already changing astrology significantly, and we’re going to have at some point a question about what to call whatever new tradition emerges at this time from the synthesis of all of these different modern and ancient traditions that’s starting to go on as they intermingle.
In general, I did want to mention something here about the value of studying tradition, and not just from a technical standpoint, but also from a historical standpoint. Part of the purpose of studying the history of astrology is understanding how astrology itself developed, and this can tell you where the techniques came from and how they were originally developed, which is important from a conceptual and a practical standpoint.
It can also result in us rediscovering techniques that otherwise had been lost, such as techniques like whole sign houses, which I just mentioned; but there’s other techniques like sect. There’s techniques like the ‘Arabic Part to the Lots’ that have been reintegrated into the tradition. There’s techniques like the ‘time-lord’ techniques. Also, there’s some techniques like horary astrology, which was still practiced in the 20th century, but then there was the rediscovery of traditional-style hoary astrology from William Lilly and earlier authors, which was a little bit different than how horary had been practiced up to that point in the 20th century. So sometimes it can take us back to the roots in a sense and let us get a different perspective on earlier versions of the astrological tradition, which sometimes are different than how we experience the tradition today.
Sometimes going back and studying the history of astrology or studying the older traditions can help us to understand techniques that we still use today, for example, where the significations of the houses come from. There’s some ancient techniques like ‘annual profections’ that help us to enhance certain techniques that we still use, like the concept of transits, where you can use annual profections to identify which transits are going to be more important and which transits are going to be less important to a person in the upcoming year; which can have a very useful, filtering effect on using that technique.
Additionally, sometimes when we study the history of ancient astrology and the astrological tradition in general, it can give us a clear insight into the conceptual and philosophical basis of the astrological tradition. So there’s some things that we do that we just take for granted, but we don’t know why we do that. We don’t know where that technique came from or how anybody came up with it, but we just use it as part of the tradition, or at least until recently that’s how it’s been done.
But going back and studying some of these ancient texts, in some instances, has actually given us greater insight into why certain techniques and how certain techniques were developed, which is incredibly useful and puts you on a much more certain footing about deciding which techniques you want to use and which techniques you don’t want to use; or which techniques have a more solid conceptual or philosophical or practical basis versus which techniques may not have as solid of a basis and that can be useful in different ways for practicing astrologers.
Finally, going back and reviving the traditions can reconnect us with the empirical traditions of astrology, where astrologers have been practicing this subject for thousands of years and have been writing down their observations and their experiences for centuries. Having access to the collected wisdom of centuries’ worth and hundreds and thousands of lifetimes’ worth of astrologers observing the stars and seeing what happened in terms of those movements correlating with earthly events can only help us in terms of enhancing our ability to practice astrology today, by letting us not have to reinvent things from a blank slate. We can take on some of the useful observations that our predecessors have made in order to give us a shortcut instead of just having to invent everything from scratch.
I feel like that’s important because I feel like that’s one of the things that was almost like a skipped step in modern astrology with the push towards innovation and breaking out on your own in order to explore new vistas, which is important and was a necessary and useful and helpful thing. So don’t get me wrong. I think that break in the 20th century that modern astrology had from the ancient traditions allowed us to introduce new things and explore new vistas that we might not have introduced otherwise or explored otherwise, and I think that was actually very important and valuable and should be honored and many of those innovations should be retained.
Not having access to the ancient astrological tradition meant sometimes reinventing the wheel, and sometimes there were pieces from the older traditions that were perfectly valid and useful that we simply didn’t know about because we didn’t have access to them. But now that we do again through these translations of ancient texts, there’s no reason not to take some of those things into account or not to draw on and partake in some of the wisdom from those ancient traditions.
The upshot here and what I think I’ve shown at this point is that astrology is going through another one of its periodic periods of transmission and synthesis. One of the things I wasn’t able to show as well here–because this was not as much of a technical lecture as much as it was just a broad overview–is every time astrology is transmitted to a new language or to a new culture, it changes in some way.
So while our goal needs to be to go back and look at the ancient traditions, study and understand and reconstruct them as best as we can, in some ways, there may be instances where we misunderstand or misinterpret certain things, and that in and of itself will cause changes and deviations in the tradition; so that’s one source of periodic changes in the tradition, just misunderstandings. Another cause for changes is just receiving two different or multiple traditions at once and sometimes having to make a choice between them when they go in different directions. So that’s another reason why there’s changes that sometimes happen when there are these revivals of older forms of astrology.
So what’s happening now and what will happen is that a new type of astrology will emerge, and one of the things that I think is important and would be good for us to talk about is what are some of the best things from each of the ancient astrological traditions that each ancient and modern tradition has to contribute to any future synthesis. What are some of the best pieces that were good innovations that would be worth continuing or passing on to the future?
Obviously, we’re not all going to agree on what was the best piece of each tradition that should be passed on, but it’s still an interesting dialogue to have because some pieces of the tradition always inevitably get passed on and some pieces of the tradition sometimes get lost or set aside for different reasons–and some of those reasons are good and some of those reasons are not as good–but to whatever extent we can have a conscious discussion about that today, I think it would be useful.
Traditionalism doesn’t require the rejection of every aspect of modern astrology. And one of the things that I’ve tried to say continuously on The Astrology Podcast and I tried to end the last chapter of my book with a rejection of fundamentalism because I generally think we should try to avoid astrological fundamentalism of any sort.
It’s okay for people to have preferences for different traditions or different techniques or different approaches, and we have to make room for people to be able to advocate for the techniques or the approaches or the traditions that they prefer and that they want to show their love for and share with other people so there has to be room for that. But we also want to be careful that in going back and digging up some of these different traditions that it doesn’t lead to a sort of fundamentalism in terms of saying that my approach to astrology is the best, and if you don’t practice that approach to astrology that you’re an idiot or you’re a bad astrologer or something like that.
While that’s a tendency that can sometimes happen or that some astrologers have, some astrologers, for example, like Rob Hand talk about astrology as a language and different traditions of astrology being like speaking different languages. If you’re comparing two languages, like English and French, they’re just different languages and different ways of talking. It doesn’t make one better or worse, but instead, they’re just different ways of doing similar things.
So to some extent, I think astrology is like that and it would be more productive if we, in comparing the traditions, tried to focus more on what we like about different aspects of them rather than the things that we dislike about different aspects of them to whatever extent we can in order to encourage
inclusivity, realizing that there’s many different ways to practice astrology both historically, in ancient times, as well as in modern times. To try to stamp out certain types of astrology is almost like an attempt to erase that diversity. Instead of attempting to erase that diversity, I think it would be better to embrace it in some way by looking at it as something that’s interesting; that astrology can be practiced in different ways rather than something that’s somehow negative, if that makes sense
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while: What are the contributions of each tradition? This is not a comprehensive list; it’s just some of my offhand thoughts about some of the things that I find interesting about the different traditions that they could contribute if you were trying to synthesize them together.
From the Mesopotamian astrological tradition, I really like and appreciate and think is important is their ‘observational astrology’, where they had a much closer connection to actually looking at the sky and
observing the movements of the planets and the stars with the naked eye and on their own–not always relying on books or relying on computers or what have you–to calculate the positions of the planets. They were going out each night and they were looking and had a personal relationship with the stars and with the sky.
That approach to observational astrology I think is very important and something that we can draw on and learn from in terms of studying the Mesopotamian tradition. They also had a very close connection with ‘omenology’ and with the relationship between astrology and other types of divination. Understanding astrology within the context of other types of divination, in terms of reflecting on how astrology works and how to conceptualize and use it, would be very useful.
From Hellenistic astrology, since that’s of course my primary tradition, I think we can learn things like understanding the core technical structure of the system, since many of the core techniques that we use in Western astrology over the past 2,000 years really fully came together around that time. We can also recover a lot of lost interpretive distinctions, like sect, overcoming, which is an aspect doctrine thing, as well as concepts like whole sign houses that I’ve already mentioned. There’s also some advanced timing techniques such as the time-lord systems, which includes things like annual profections, but also other more advanced time-lord techniques such as zodiac releasing that I think are useful things that we can recover from Hellenistic astrology.
From Indian astrology, we can recover something about the sidereal framework. Even if one isn’t switching to the sidereal zodiac but looking at the nakshatras and their connection with the fixed stars, bringing that framework back into Western astrology in some form may be useful and important. In Indian astrology, they also have other things like the dasha systems, which is a continuous tradition of basically the Indian version of the time-lord systems using their framework. And the way that the Indian astrologers use the dasha systems could tell us a lot about how Western astrologers could use some of these techniques, like time-lords, now that they’re being revived in modern times.
From the Medieval tradition, there’s a lot of great techniques for mundane astrology using the Jupiter-Saturn cycle, as well as other world cycles and other mundane techniques, like Aries ingress charts and other types of ingress charts, so there’s some very good mundane stuff. There’s also some great stuff from medical astrology and temperament theory that really got going in the Medieval tradition and really started to be refined at that point, which is useful for character analysis, but also for different applications of astrology in a medical context in different ways.
From the Renaissance tradition, it really became the high point of certain types of refinements in horary astrology and the practice of horary astrology after inheriting it and synthesizing it from the previous tradition, and there’s much more extensive textbooks on horary astrology that survive from, for example, William Lilly compared to some of the earlier Medieval authors. There’s also some interesting stuff from Renaissance astrology from works, like Marsilio Ficino, on sympathetic magic and different ways that astrology can be conceptualized in a magical context that’s interesting and potentially useful in modern times.
And then, finally, from modern astrology, things like psychology and counseling are super interesting and useful skills for astrologers, especially when you’re practicing natal astrology, which involves talking to people about their lives and about their future and potentially about their fate; and there’s some things where even though an astrologer can say something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they always should. I think there’s a lot of great insights and advancements that were made in modern psychological astrology and counseling astrology that are useful things for traditional astrologers to take into account and integrate into their practice.
Additionally, I think some of the developments with other celestial bodies being incorporated into modern astrology were useful advancements, like the integration of the outer planets Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. There is going to be an issue where so many additional planetary bodies, like minor planets or asteroids or other things, have been discovered and are continuing to be discovered and will be discovered in the future that there’s going to be an issue of where to draw the line in terms of how many bodies you want to integrate into your practice.
Each astrologer will have to draw the line in a different place to some extent and some of that will be somewhat arbitrary or somewhat unique to each practitioner based on their own interests and philosophy and everything else, but I think there are interesting things from some of these new astronomical discoveries that could be incorporated into astrology without doing too much violence to the astrological tradition.
Finally, the last thing that I want to talk about is something that I’ve been thinking about for the past few years and that I refer to as the Hermetic nature of astrology where, traditionally, astrology was said to be ruled by the planet Mercury. Astrologers were said to be signified by Mercury in astrology, in general; for example, in the texts of Vettius Valens in the 2nd century, it was said to signify astrology.
Part of the reason for this is that astrologers were thought to be translators in some way who could read and translate the speech of the stars; and that’s actually what astrology means, if you translate the word ‘astrology’ literally from Greek; it means something like ‘star speech’. So astrologers in some sense translate this language that is written in the sky and in the stars for individual human beings and relate it to what the stars have to say about individual lives.
So one of the issues though with this is that the mercurial or Hermetic nature of astrology–if astrology is truly a Hermetic- or Mercury-type thing–is that often it means or it results in there being dueling approaches to the same thing, where there can be two different, mutually exclusive approaches to the same thing, but both of those approaches, even though they seem mutually exclusive, can potentially work or have some value in their own right. And we see this crop up in a bunch of different areas in astrology where there are these sometimes dueling approaches to doing the same thing.
One of these great debates in the astrological tradition is whether to use the sidereal zodiac versus the tropical zodiac, and some astrologers very adamantly use the tropical zodiac and some astrologers very adamantly say that there’s something valuable to use about the sidereal zodiac. So there’s two, what seem like mutually exclusive approaches, but they may have some independent value in their own right.
Similarly, the history and the debates over house division. For example, more recently, there’s been debates about whole sign houses versus quadrant houses. Each group thinks that their system works really well, and so they prefer it and they defend it sometimes very aggressively, but there may be independent value to both of those systems rather than it just being something where one is right and the other is wrong. In other instances, there’s debates like the modern versus traditional rulership scheme, psychology versus event-based astrology, or character analysis versus prediction. There was also a debate since the 1990s about whether astrology is science or whether it’s divination and so on and so forth.
There’s all of these dueling approaches or dichotomies–I can’t really think of the right word–where there are these mutually exclusive ways of practicing or conceptualizing astrology, where astrologers are often pitted against each other in thinking that you have to pick one or the other and it can’t be both; but in reality, there could be some validity to both at the same time. The sooner astrologers realize that as part of the basic nature of astrology, the sooner we’re going to be able to reconcile some of those tensions and truly understand astrology on its own terms for what it actually is. So that’s something I wanted to end this talk about and have you think about because it may be important in moving forward, as we try to reconcile some of the different astrological traditions. Much of what we have to realize is that astrology straddles the line between both and there may be parts that are true on both sides as part of the very nature of astrology.
All right, so in terms of the future, we are obviously going through another period of transmission and re-synthesis. What’s happening right now is we’re starting to combine the modern and the ancient traditions, so there’s some steps that we need to finish and wrap up before that can fully take place and before that can fully be finished. One of those is we need to finish reviving the tradition by translating the rest of the surviving ancient astrological texts because they haven’t all been translated or revived yet; there are some scholars who have done an amazing job of translating these texts in both the astrological and academic communities over the past few decades.
There’s been some scholars that have translated texts, like David Pingree, who was an academic that translated a number of texts or preserved them from ancient languages. There’s also astrologers such as James Holden, Benjamin Dykes, Robert Schmidt, Robert Hand, Robert Zoller, or Levante Laszlo– recently who started a new translation project for ancient Greek astrological texts–who are doing a lot of that important work right now, but we need to support some of those efforts either by contributing to those translation projects, by buying those translations, and basically helping out the people who are translating those texts.
Alternatively, if you want to learn an ancient language to help in that translation effort, if you have some sort of aptitude for ancient languages, for example, then maybe you, yourself, could take part in that translation project because there’s still lots of work that needs to be done, not just in translating the texts, but also in reconstructing those texts even once we have translations. Sometimes, even once you have a translation of an ancient text, it still takes some work to understand and interpret it to correctly receive the information that the original author was attempting to convey through their words, and sometimes that can be more difficult than it sounds like it should be.
So once we do that there’s going to be a new synthesis of astrology that emerges in our time over the next few decades. Part of that is going to happen organically, just through astrologers reading ancient texts and reading modern texts and intermingling with each other and exchanging information. Every time you put two astrologers in a room together, they will start to talk and will start to exchange tips and exchange views, and their views will tend to rub off on each other, one way or another, and that’s just the way it’s always been throughout history and that’s still the way it is today.
When there’s other traditions of astrology that are practicing in close proximity, they always start to influence each other in some way. So some of that’s going to happen organically and some of that might also happen deliberately as a result of astrologers going out of their way to create some sort of synthesis of different traditions, by sitting down and deciding and talking about what are the best parts of astrology from each tradition that should be put together and contributed to the future.
So I think it’s really important and really crucial then as part of that process to foster dialogue between the astrological traditions. And we don’t have to agree on everything. It’s okay to have debates or arguments and disagreements sometimes, or sometimes even strong ones, but it’s important to stay respectful because it’s just part of the process. There’s not necessarily a reason to personalize it or to make it something that’s negative; instead, it’s something that is just a natural part of the growth and transmission and the evolution of astrology that’s been going on for centuries and for thousands of years. In doing this, we’re all going to be following in the footsteps of our predecessors who have carried out this process for over 4,000 years now. And I think that’s something that’s reassuring and puts us in good company by understanding that, even though the end result isn’t clear now.
Nobody knows for sure exactly what the synthesis is going to be that’s going to come out of this time period in the next few decades. We know at least if we approach it with a sense of being humble and honest and eager to do our best as astrologers in modern times that we will be able to pull it off, to some extent, and contribute something that will then outlive us and will live on and eventually will pass on to our ancestors–not our ancestors, but our to whoever it is that takes over astrology in a century from now, or whoever recovers the texts that we’re writing today, 1,000 years from now, 5,000 years from now, or what have you. They’ll be able to, ideally, look back on us and say that we did a good job with the tradition in putting it together to the best of our abilities during this very brief period of time when it was in our possession.
So I like to end lectures like this by saying the catchphrase, “By looking back into the past, we can create a better astrology for the future,” not by going back into the past and staying there, but by going back and looking into the past and taking some of the best techniques from it forward and bringing them into our time and merging them with some of the great innovations that have taken place in the past century. And I think by doing that we will, in fact, create a better astrology for the future, or at least that’s my hope.
All right, so that’s it for this lecture on the history of Western astrology. There’s a couple of books that I want to recommend for further reading. If you want to learn more about the history of Western astrology, my favorite book on the history of astrology is by James Holden, and it’s a book titled, A History of Horoscopic Astrology.
Holden focuses more on talking about individual astrologers in the astrological tradition and giving a history of astrology that’s based on what were the most important astrologers and what were the most important texts at different points in the history of astrology. So it’s almost like a biographical approach to talking about the different eras of astrology. I love that approach. It’s something that always stuck with me, and my way of dividing up astrological history is very much influenced by his, as you’ll see if you read his book.
His book is one of the ones that really gave me a passion for studying the history of astrology, so I always recommend his book as one of the core books that every astrologer should have. So check that book out, A History of Horoscopic Astrology. I also highly recommend the two-volume series by Nicholas Campion titled, A History of Western Astrology, where Nick Campion approaches astrology more from a cultural context.
He gives a great additional perspective and a much more detailed perspective in terms of the history and philosophy of astrology from ancient to modern times and how astrology has both been influenced by different cultures at different points and times and what their religious and philosophical beliefs were. Also, Nick Campion talks very well about how astrology itself has influenced different cultures at different points in time and what kind of cultural impact astrology has had in different eras.
And it’s two volumes. It’s divided into ancient astrology and then modern astrology, but both of those volumes, if you get that together with Holden’s book, are just an amazing overview of the history of astrology that goes into much more detail and much more nuance than I was able to cover in what is otherwise still a very long lecture.
Finally, if you want to learn more about ancient astrology, I would check out my book titled, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune. I have a huge section in the beginning dealing with the history of ancient astrology, as well as a section that talks about the transmission of Hellenistic astrology all the way through to modern times. It was really important for me to give a historical backdrop, where the first-half of my book, or the first-third of my book, is just establishing the history of ancient astrology and trying to document as best as I could how Western astrology originally developed in the in the Hellenistic period.
And then in the second-half of the book, I go into the actual techniques of ancient astrology and use a bunch of example charts in order to demonstrate how ancient astrologers used and practiced and conceptualized astrology; but the historical component is very important there as well, so I recommend checking that out if you’d like something that’s kind of like a blend between the history of astrology as well as the practice.
Let me see. I think that might be it for this lecture. That is. That is the last slide in this lecture. So thank you very much. This is my website, theastrologypodcast.com.
If you made it all the way through this lecture, this was my brief overview of the history of astrology. Any one of these traditions, we could have sat down and broken it down into a bunch of different subsections and gone into more detail. I hope in giving an overview of these different traditions that I haven’t done a disservice to any of them. I mean, there’s some that I only touched on very briefly, like the history of Indian astrology; that’s something I hope to go into more detail about at some point.
Part of my purpose with The Astrology Podcast and one of the things I’ve been doing with it over the past eight years, since I started it in 2012, is if you look through the archives of The Astrology Podcast, you’re going to find a bunch of episodes where I’ve already dealt with a bunch of subtopics on the history of astrology. I love doing historical episodes where we go and do a deep dive into some of these topics every once in a while.
Like I said, I’ve done episodes on Dane Rudhyar, and different modern figures like Dane Rudhyar and Alan Leo. I did an episode with Kim Farnell on Alan Leo last year. I’ve had Nick Campion on to talk about the revival of astrology in modern times. Nina Gryphon and I did an episode on William Lilly last year. I’ve just done a ton of different episodes on different historical figures or different historical eras and topics, so be sure to look through. If you go to theastrologypodcast.com/episodes, you’ll see a concise list of the titles of all 280 episodes, and you’ll get a sense of what other ones on the history of astrology you could check out in order to go further into some of these topics.
All right, I think that’s it. I guess the only other thing is if you want to learn more about ancient astrology, I teach courses on Hellenistic astrology. I have an online course that has lots of lectures like
this one, where I go into detail, not just about the history of ancient astrology but also about techniques. My main course is my course called The Hellenistic astrology Course, which you can Google, or you can find out more information about at theastrologyschool.com. And I also teach electional astrology, as well as one other course on how to set up a professional practice as an astrologer.
So I think that’s it for this episode. Thanks to everybody for listening or watching this episode of The Astrology Podcast. Thanks to all of the patrons who support my work through my page on Patreon, and in return get early access to new episodes and other benefits. I really appreciate you. You’re the only reason I’m able to keep doing the episodes like I do each month at this rate, so thanks a lot for your support.
And I guess that’s it for this episode of The Astrology Podcast, so thanks a lot for listening, and I’ll see you again next time.
Thanks to all the patrons that supported the production of this episode of the podcast through our page on Patreon. In particular, thanks to the patrons on our Producers tier, including Nate Craddock, Maren Altman, Thomas Miller, Catherine Conroy, Michelle Merillat, Kristi Moe, Ariana Amour, Mandi Rae, Angelic Nambo, and Sumo Coppock. For more information about how to become a patron or have your name listed in the credits, please visit patreon.com/astrologypodcast.
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