The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 402, titled:
With Chris Brennan and guest Demetra George
Episode originally released on May 22, 2023
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 June 1st, 2023
Copyright © 2023 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode I’m gonna be talking with astrologer Demetra George about a recent archaeological discovery of the earliest Greco-Roman woman that we know of who was a practicing astrologer whose name was Heliodora. So, hey, Demetra, welcome back to the show.
DEMETRA GEORGE: Hey, Chris. I know. This is a very exciting episode to be part of—bringing the name of a woman astrologer from an ancient time period into the modern era.
CB: Yeah, so this is kind of a big discovery that we didn’t know about, that was actually recently unearthed through archaeology, where some researchers, three researchers, published a paper in 2021 that I just discovered recently, last month. Up to this point, up until recently, even though we knew that there were women that practiced astrology in the ancient world, there weren’t very many specific names that we knew of until many centuries later. But now, all of a sudden, they’ve discovered the tombstone of a woman who lived in Egypt in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, and it says that she was actually a practicing astrologer.
DG: I know. That is so important for all the contemporary women doing astrology now because over the years of teaching Hellenistic astrology we would go on about Valens and Ptolemy and Nechepso and Petosiris and all of the others. And there would always be questions in the audience like, “Well, where are the women? Weren’t there any women astrologers? Don’t you have any of their names?” And we’d have to say, “Sadly, no, we don’t have the names, we’re not aware of them,” and there was like this crestfallen disappointment that would happen over the audience. So this is monumental, truly, to have this beginning point. And, as we’ll see, we’ve sort of found a few other women also that we’ll tell you about that have astrological-like connections.
CB: Yeah. And it’s also so different compared to modern times where the majority of the practitioners and the majority of the people that use astrology are women. So it’s a weird thing going into ancient astrology where—in terms of the surviving sources up until now—it’s been so much reversed or so much the opposite in some ways.
DG: Right. I think at least part of that is that education was not readily available to ordinary women. If one came from a wealthy family and had an enlightened father, those daughters might be educated. But for ordinary women it was felt their job was to bear children and take care of families, and so it was useless. So women didn’t have access to the kinds of mathematics or reading or thinking or learning that would have allowed them to become astrologers. And, secondly, for most women it was frowned upon to have a profession outside of one’s marriage, that a respectable woman did not have a job or go to work, and if women did it was because of poverty and necessity. So I think those two factors of education and what was permissible for respectable women to do closed the doors for many women who might have otherwise gone into the profession.
CB: Right. But at the same time we do know that women were clients of astrologers or saw astrologers. And recently there have been some horoscopes that were discovered in Demotic Egyptian from the 1st century BCE, and they represent some of the earliest horoscopes or birth charts that have survived.
CB: And one of the things that I noted is that I think at least two or three of the clients were women, which means that some of the earliest horoscopes that survive were actually birth charts cast for women, presumably clients.
DG: Yeah. And it was during Roman times that women had many more freedoms and a more open lifestyle than they had in Classical Period Greece. And it was in the 1st century BC I guess the Romans would have just taken over Egypt at that time. So I’d be curious to know the Roman citizens in Egypt, or Egyptian women, and what their social status was that allowed them and gave them the opportunity to seek astrological advice.
CB: Right. And then we also know from some of the handbooks of the astrologers that survived—like Vettius Valens, or especially recently Firmicus Maternus—that they’ll have references when they’re instructing somebody on how to interpret a birth chart and oftentimes the default is for a man. But then they’ll say the same principle applies to women, or they’ll say you have to look at the chart from this perspective for a woman, and it’s different for a man or a woman in certain techniques. So there was an awareness and sometimes instructions about how to delineate a chart for a woman because that was presumably a pretty common occurrence.
DG: Yeah. Yes, that’s absolutely right, you can find that material. If you’re looking specifically for the variations for women’s charts then often you have to read carefully through the text to find those places where it will state that.
CB: Right. One of the common areas—they’ll say that Venus signifies marriage in a man’s chart, but in a woman’s chart they’ll say that Mars signifies marriage.
CB: So when I was researching this for my book, I had a chapter on all of the major Hellenistic astrologers, and I created a brief section talking about some of the few references to women astrologers that were known at that point, back when I published that in 2017. And one of the ones that I found was from the 1st century, in Juvenal’s Satires, where he’s sort of satirizing Roman society and the idea that women consult with astrologers so much that they become proficient in it and they start becoming astrologers themselves and seeing clients. So at one point he says, “Be sure to keep out of the way of that type too. You will see her carrying around in her hands, like a ball of scented amber, a well-thumbed ephemeris. She no longer consults, but rather she herself is consulted. When her husband is leaving for camp or home, she will not go too if Thrasyllus and his calculations detain her. When she decides to travel a mile, a suitable hour is produced from her book.”
DG: That’s wonderful. That’s really brilliant. We can see the image. And of course the first line, like, “Be careful to stay out of the way of this kind of woman,” there was this derision towards women who actually did that. But it’s beautiful—women walking around and holding the ephemeris like ‘a scented ball of amber’.
DG: I would love for you to have your AI-thing create a painting of a Roman woman carrying an ephemeris like ‘a scented ball of amber’.
CB: Okay. Yeah, I’ll see if I can come up with something.
DG: See if you can come up with it. I would just be brilliant to send that image around.
CB: Right. And so, it also has a reference there to Thrasyllus, one of the most famous astrologers of the Greco-Roman period who worked for the Emperor Tiberius.
CB: And we’re gonna talk a little bit about their family line ‘cause they had a family line of astrologers, of different men and women, over the course of two centuries. So we have the reference to Thrasyllus there and also to even electional astrology—to choosing an auspicious hour to depart for something or to do something—and the idea that that’s one of the ways that women would be using astrology in the 1st century. All right, that’s some of the context. And then aside from that, up until recently, the other earliest names that we knew of were people like Hypatia in the 4th century or 5th century, which is like a ‘maybe’ that she would have had some training in astrology since she did have a background in astronomy. And then I did a previous episode also on Queen Buran who lived in the 9th century in Baghdad.
CB: And I did that episode with Ali Olomi, and we talked about her, and these legends surrounding her and her skill with astrology in using it in order to avoid an assassination plot on the caliph at the time. But that’s all the way in the 9th century, so that just gives you some idea of the gaps in our knowledge up until recently. Which is part of the reason or part of the context of why this discovery is so important and is so striking, since this is a specific named person from the 2nd or 3rd century CE. All right, let me pull up the article. So the title of the article is “The Funerary Stele of Heliodora, Astrologer”—let me put it up on the screen—by Roger S. Bagnall, Cathy Callaway, and Alexander Jones. And if people just google the title, you’ll come up with links where you can read this article yourself, and you’ll see that what they discovered is essentially the tombstone of a woman that lived in the 2nd or 3rd century, and this is what it looks like from Greco-Roman Egypt.
And the tombstone has a picture of her. She’s reclining on a couch, with two pillows underneath her arm. She’s holding a cup, and there’s a little jackal—probably connected with the god Anubis—off to her left, who was the god that helped people that were heading to the underworld. And then below that there’s an inscription which gives her name and gives some epitaphs for her and for her life. So here it is, and it’s written in Greek. And the text, the translation says, “Heliodora, astrologer, chaste, without reproach, virgin, brother-loving, about 52 years old. [Farewell].”
DG: What happened to, “Be of courage?”
CB: I mean, I changed it.
CB: The literal translation is “Be of good courage.” But one of the other entries in the Liddell and Scott Lexicon said when it’s used in that context it means the equivalent to us of ‘farewell’.
DG: Okay, okay.
CB: So that’s the only thing we have that records her. But what’s notable about this is usually on these tombstones, they don’t frequently list the person’s profession, they don’t usually say a lot about the person. But what’s unique here is that it both says her profession—that she was a woman who practiced astrology—and then it gives a number of other little points about her life and what she was like. So this then becomes the earliest—at least in terms of the Greco-Roman or Egyptian astrological tradition—the earliest reference to a woman practicing astrology that we know of at least by name.
DG: So there are a lot of other pieces to the story that we can tease out of both what you said and some of the things that the article went on to say.
CB: Yeah. I mean, one of them is the mathematike. ‘Cause it calls her a mathematike, and I thought that might be our first point to talk about.
DG: Right. Mathematike is the feminine version of mathematikos, which is the masculine; it meant ‘someone who does calculations’. But that was the term that was used for astrologers because astrologers were always doing numbers that were necessary in order to erect the chart. And so, there we have that almost beautiful piece of insight into what was the primary and most fundamental work of being an astrologer—knowing the mathematikos, knowing the mathematics that allowed one to erect the chart.
CB: Right. So that’s really important. It calls her a mathematike. And in that time period, especially in the 1st and 2nd and 3rd centuries, mathematics was the common term that was used to refer to both astrologers, as well as the practice of astrology, just because of how much math and how much calculations were used. Prior to modern times, prior to the invention of computers, all astrologers had to know how to calculate a chart by hand, and there was a lot of different math and calculations involved in doing that.
DG: Right. And that was so important because if you wanted to be an astrologer, the first thing you had to do was learn how to do the math to erect the chart. If you couldn’t learn or figure out how to do the math, that was the end of your career in astrology; there wasn’t any place else that you could go. This was pre-computers and before you could get the chart online, or before there was astrological software, before there were computers. And to a certain point, before you could even send away to someone else to get it, that wasn’t possible until the early 1980s. So the critical, first principle of astrology is the mathematikos.
CB: Yeah, so that’s really important. And even recently in the episode just before this on Firmicus Maternus, Firmicus titled his book Mathesis, and commonly refers to astrology as mathematics essentially.
CB: So it wasn’t just an occasional thing, but it became just the common or the standard term in that time period.
CB: Almost to the extent that that was the fancier term that astrologers themselves preferred to use sometimes for astrology.
DG: Well, even Sextus Empiricus—who’s a little bit later, 2nd or 3rd century CE—when he was writing his work as a skeptic criticizing all forms of knowledge as being unable to know anything with certainty, one of the fields of knowledge that he included was astrology. And when you get various translations of it, or you’re looking to find citations, sometimes you’ll see that book titled Against the Astrologers, but other times, in a more literal way, it’s Against the Mathematicos.” And so, the mathematikos was a more academic title for the astrologer that continued to be used by philosophers as the time period went on.
CB: Right. I have a quote about that actually from Sextus’ own work. Let me share it. Here it is. So this is from the introduction to his polemical text, Against the Astrologers. So he opens by defining what he’s gonna focus on, and he says, “It is astrology or mathematics that the investigation lying before us is about—not the complete kind that consists of arithmetic and geometric, nor the predictive ability possessed by the followers of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, and the like, which some also call astronomy—but against nativity-telling, which the Chaldeans dress up with more solemn names when they call themselves ‘mathematicians’ and ‘astrologers’, elaborately insulting ordinary life, erecting a great deal of superstition against us in not letting us use proper reasoning to achieve anything.” So—go ahead.
DG: Yeah, I was going to ask, in the very first two words, ‘it’s astronomy or mathematics’, do you know if they used the word astronomia where they had ‘astronomy’, or did the translator put that in? That might be something you can check when you get the original text.
CB: I don’t have the Greek text in front of me right now, but I can look it up. Is this it? Oh, yeah, I actually have the Greek text right here. In the first one, it says “astrologias et mathematikes.”
CB: And then later, when it mentions the Chaldeans and what they call themselves, it says “mathematicus chi astrologos.” Oh, yeah, earlier, when he’s talking about Eudoxus and Hipparchus, he does use the Greek term astronomia; so, astronomers.
CB: So already there starting to be a differentiation there that he’s drawing between astrologer and astronomer.
DG: Right. Because in many texts the word for astronomia or astronomias is also interchangeable with the word for astrologer.
CB: Yeah, ‘cause in the Mesopotamian tradition the astronomers and the astrologers were one and the same and there wasn’t a differentiation. But then in the Greco-Roman tradition it seems like they started to diverge, but there was still a lack of standardization about what word to use for one or the other.
CB: Yeah, so Sextus Empiricus. That actually brings up an important point that even the Greek goddess of astrology was a woman.
DG: Right. That was Urania who was one of the nine Muses. And the Muses were sort of the spirits of divine inspiration that ruled over music, poetry, and drama. And Urania was the eldest of the Muses, and she both was of astronomy/astrology, as well as music, and her son was Linus who was credited with the invention of melody. And we have the fusion in Urania of music and astronomy, of the so-called ‘harmony of the spheres’ and the notion that the planets in their orbits created a huge symphony in the heavens. But going back to Urania, she is depicted in ancient statues often holding a globe of the world in one hand and a measuring compass in the other hand, by which she is measuring off the world coming from the heavenly realm. And later on we may talk about this notion of measuring cords for the heavens being brought down to Earth.
CB: Oh, yeah. We might as well mention that now actually because that would be a good digression, even though the episode’s not about that. But recently, in a lecture on his Patreon, Ali A. Olomi mentioned a much earlier woman named Enheduanna from Mesopotamia, a poet and priestess who wrote one of the earliest texts that survives. And in that text it talks about her using a measuring cord to measure out the heavens, which he pointed out then would be connected with astronomy and astrology.
DG: Yes. Enheduanna is a poet—she’s the author of The Hymns of Inanna—and she was the daughter of King Sargon, and she was a priestess of the city of Ur. So, again, she existed at the highest of social levels, being head priestess and the daughter of a king. And there are tablets associating her with consulting tablets and measuring off the heavens. Around this time period there was a Dream of Gudea, who was another king of Mesopotamia. And in his dream he was told to build a temple. And at the goddess Nanshe’s shrine was another goddess, Nisaba, and she was studying a tablet of stars to build a temple in accordance with the stars. And so, the notion of Enheduanna who holds measuring cords is connected with astronomy because she measures off the heavens and is surveying on Earth so that the temples are built in accordance with the alignments of the stars and planets, and this takes back to 2100 BCE in Mesopotamia. So we have this notion of women as astronomers, who were connected with bringing down the heavens into Earth in the shapes of the temples they built to honor the gods who are the planetary and celestial deities themselves.
DG: And then there’s a parallel to that with the Egyptian goddess Seshat who is attested to from early on in the 2nd Dynasty, and she was involved with wisdom. She was a scribe, an astronomer, and she was the wife of Thoth, who became the composite of the Greek god Hermes or Hermes Trismegistus. So Seshat was the feminine counterpart of that archetype. And from the 2nd Dynasty we go back to almost 3000 BC and she’s associated with the ‘stretching the cord’ ritual. And the cord was like a piece of string that was tied in knots at certain increments, so you could measure that. And she also used that cord in order to align astronomical alignments with the building of temples.
DG: So we have between these two goddesses that were I want to say roughly contemporary within 500 years or so—one in Mesopotamia and one in Egypt—women who were priestesses of goddesses or goddesses themselves, who were observers of the heavens and involved in bringing down the heavens into their earthly, sacred buildings and structures. And the cord, the measuring cord, is the key emblem or symbol of that process.
CB: Got it, okay. So that’s really early. That’s like 2000 BCE.
CB: And then moving forward, by the 7th or 5th century BCE, I know there was a student of yours that did a paper on another perhaps notable figure that could have been relevant in terms of some of this history as well, right?
DG: Right. This is Nadia Anderson who I did my classics studies at the University of Oregon. She was one of my fellow classmates, and we’ve remained friends since that time. She’s taken all three of the Hellenistic astrology retreat intensives, and part of the certification for that is writing a historical paper. And so, the paper that Nadia wrote was on Aglaonicê or Aglaonikê. It’s spelled A-G-L-A-O-N-I-C-E. If you break that down, aglao means ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ or ‘beautiful’, and then nikê is a variation of Nike, the goddess of victory. And so, just like Heliodora is ‘the gift of the Sun’, Aglaonicê. Here are images of her. And she was known to ‘bring down the Moon’, which is code for knowledge of being able to predict eclipses. The Greek historian Plutarch, in the 1st century CE, wrote about her. Plutarch was a historian, and he was also a priest of Apollo at the Temple of Delphi, which was the great divination site of the ancient world. And he wrote about Aglaonicê from Thessaly who was a skilled astronomer that knew about the timing and prediction of eclipses.
Now there are many pieces of this story that are fascinating to me. And Thessaly is in the north central part of Greece. It has long been known for its re-fusion of medicinal plants, and the women of Thessaly were known as pharmakis; P-H-A-R-M-A-K-I-S is the Greek transliteration. And that’s been translated as ‘witches’ by later people, but the literal translation is ‘healers’ or ‘botanical medicine women’; and we get the word ‘pharmaceutical’ from that. So these were women who knew the medicinal properties in all the plants to be able to make medicines, as well as poisons and their antidotes—the whole pharmacopeia, so to speak. And the knowledge of the phases of the Moon was a critical piece in ancient medicine-making for the timing of when to pick the plants, when to pick the roots, when to make the medicines, how long to make them sit. A lot of that was connected with lunar timing. And so, there is a tradition of the women of Thessaly having some kind of intimate knowledge of the Moon and, in particular, eclipses. “Aglaonicê—her name comes down,” as Plutarch says, “in many books; you’ve read about her.”
The knowledge of the women of Thessaly being able to ‘bring down the Moon’ goes back at least into the 5th century BC. We don’t know, but Aglaonicê could have lived slightly earlier than Plutarch who wrote about her, in the 1st century, or she could have lived in the 3rd century BC or even the 4th. But in the 5th century, the Greek writers Aristophanes, Plato, Hippocrates—all spoke about the women of Thessaly who knew how to ‘bring down the Moon from the heavens’. Aristophanes, in one of his plays—he was a comedian—said, “Oh, if I could hire someone to do this, like the women of Thessaly, I could capture the Moon and put it in a box and the New Moon would never come, and I wouldn’t have to pay my debts on the first of the month.” So everyone in the audience laughs because they had knowledge of what that entailed and also saw the wicked humor in that line.
But Plato and Hippocrates wrote that women who know how to do this are ‘impious’ who are using ‘divine’ healing rather than ‘physical’ healing, and he associated that with the women of Thessaly who would ‘bring down the Moon’ in order to affect healings by divine means. And Plato also said women who do this it’s subversive; it’s going against the natural order of things. So, on one hand, there was an awareness by classical writers as early as the 5th century that women in Thessaly were doing all kinds of things, knowing how to bring down the power of the Moon for working with lunar and eclipse cycles, but they didn’t like it. And it’s part of the misogyny of men fearing women who have power that they may think is magical, that they don’t understand and feel threatened by, but that’s a sort of feminist perspective.
But shifting back to the astrological perspective, were those women doing astrology several centuries before Hellenistic astrology as we know it took shape in Egypt? There’s no evidence that they were casting charts, or they were looking at planets and signs with rulerships, or they were looking at houses or aspects or lots. But they were exhibiting this knowledge that certain celestial events and the ability to predict when they would happen had relevance to either effects that would then happen in the terrestrial realm, or using that time in order to influence events that could happen through the rituals that they did. And this is definitely a form of astrological thinking, as well as astro-magical thinking that was going on in Greece centuries before the kind of Hellenistic astrology that we take now as being the format that was being done.
And so, Aglaonicê, whose name was given to us by Plutarch, is one of our links to women doing astrology. And I hate to call it ‘folk astrology’, but certainly in the Middle Ages, when astrology died down in the West because no one could read the texts anymore, people were still using phases of the Moon for planting and building and marrying. And so, this idea of lunar cycles was a continuum that was often held by ordinary people, especially with the Moon’s role in child-birthing particularly by women.
CB: Yeah. And also, even just to the extent that there were women that were familiar with the ability to predict eclipses astronomically, and to the extent to which that was derived from the Mesopotamian tradition—because it was the Mesopotamians that had a long history of observational astronomy, as well as mathematical astronomy—the Greeks were relative latecomers to that. Some of that knowledge, if it was passed onto Greek women, was probably coupled with or was packaged to some extent with some of the knowledge of Mesopotamian omen astrology as well.
DG: Right. And this is something that Nadia Anderson goes into some detail in her paper, and perhaps we’ll be able to get a copy of that available from her. But she did some research that showed that in one of the letters to King Esarhaddon, who was an Assyrian king, that he was one of the kings who believed in astrology, and it was from his library that we have the texts he had. But ziggurats—their pyramid-shaped buildings—were astronomical observatories, and he had people taking the celestial omens and every day running to his capital at Nineveh, giving him advice based on the omens. And in one of the letters that was sent, it was about a potential enemy north of him in Syria. And there was a reference to either the messengers or the people who his messenger had spoken to, and it made the allusion to, “Yeah, their women are always ‘bringing down the Moon from the heavens’.” And so, in the 7th century BC, in Mesopotamia, we still have this notion of women having the knowledge of eclipses and the omen quality of it being potentially a dangerous time for kings through the prediction of those eclipses.
DG: Right. To what extent was that knowledge transferred to Greece? It was eventually. At what point? Based on Nadia’s work and my own research that could be another whole conversation, but I think what we’ve said is sufficient here.
CB: Sure. And then you mention briefly the Oracle at Delphi, and that’s another tradition of women being involved in divination as well.
DG: Right. And that was certainly not astrology, but it was more of a direct perception. And in the work of both Plato and Cicero, they spoke about two main branches in divination. One was direct, and that was when the mind of the diviner had a direct communication with the mind of the deity, and for the most part that was the kind of divination that happened at Delphi. There are two Greek words used in connection with that: ekstasis, from which we get ‘ecstasy’ and enthusiasmos, from which we get our word ‘enthusiasm’. And first the priestesses would go into a state of ecstasy—meaning to step outside of themselves; ek meaning ‘out of’ and stasis is ‘standing’—and then they would be filled with enthusiasma. And en is ‘in’ and thu is the root word for ‘god’. So they would be ‘filled with the divine spirit’. And from that they would give their oracle, their response to the suppliant who had come to the temple to request that spiritual guidance.
The other branch was indirect divination, and that was through the observation of signs in nature, like augury and liver divination and the direction of smoke over a ritual fire or part of that. And the chickens that the Roman soldiers traveled with, they’d throw out feed, and whatever direction the chickens went to eat that’s the direction they would go into battle for the next day. But those were all secondary through signs of nature where there was the belief that the deity who was giving the spiritual guidance put their answer in the entrails of an animal that was about to be sacrificed, or they put their guidance in the direction of the smoke that would flow from the ritual fire and so on, and astrology was a curious blend between the two because, on the one hand, one is looking at the movements of the planets themselves, so that there’s an intermediary between the astrologer and the insight. But to the extent that the planets were believed—at least in the Mesopotamian period—to be the emanations of the deities themselves then one could say that the astrologer through communing with the planet was receiving that direct communication. And so, astrology—being known as both an art and a science—carries both of those elements of working through that direct inspired voice and the indirect knowing how to calculate a chart and what the symbols mean, and how one fits that together, and there’s rules about that.
DG: The oracles at Delphi were doing the direct communication. And it’s interesting that Plutarch who’s a classical scholar—wrote all these essays and histories and biographies—himself was a priest of Apollo at the Temple of Delphi. And so, he was involved in having access, or at least knowing about that tradition of a kind of divine knowledge that comes in that direct manner.
CB: Got it, okay. And that’s the direct manner of divination versus the artificial or provoked manner of divination, which astrology later would fall into more of the category of. It involves the calculations of the planets, and it’s a more technical form of divination.
DG: Yeah, technical. I would definitely use the word ‘technical’, techne, rather than ‘provoked’. Provoked is the seer is asked a question. So you have a client that asks an astrologer a question and then the astrologer gives the answer and that’s provoked; it’s asked for. The ‘unprovoked’ is spontaneous where the astrologer, without being asked, has this vision of what some planetary alignment is going to portend and then waxes on about that.
CB: Right. That makes sense. Okay, so circling back around to Heliodora—
DG: Yeah, there’s lots more that can be said about her.
CB: Yeah, so let’s locate her geographically and in terms of her time period. So they found this tombstone. One of the things about it is that it was acquired by a museum in 2011, and it was previously owned by a private collector who got it at some point earlier in the 20th century, probably from a collector or a dealer from Cairo. And you can actually now see the tombstone. It’s housed at the University Missouri—
DG: You can almost see it. You can’t actually see it right now.
CB: Oh, it’s not on display?
DG: Right. One of my astrologer friends in Eugene, Molly Niffen, her family lives in Missouri, and she went there recently for a visit. And I told her, “Go to Columbia. Go to this place and look at this image.” And when she called to make sure it was there, they told her they were in the process of moving the art exhibits they have in that building to some other site, so that they weren’t available for viewing at this very moment.
DG: So unless anyone in that area suddenly got in their car right after listening to this episode, hightails it to see Heliodora, call first and see when and where she’ll be on display again.
CB: Okay, got it. Yeah, well, I hope once it is on display we’ll get some good pictures or some better pictures than the ones that we have, which are okay, but they’re a little pixelated. So let’s talk about the geographical and the timeframe. So we’re talking about Egypt in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. So this is a period several hundred years after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and then there was installed a series of Greek-speaking rulers that took over Egypt for the next several hundred years, the Ptolemies. And then by the 1st century BCE, the Roman Empire takes over Egypt famously when Antony and Cleopatra lost the battle against Octavian or Augustus, and that ended the Ptolemaic family line when Cleopatra and Antony committed suicide.
So then from that point forward we have the Roman Empire that’s in control of Egypt, and there we have the foundation of Alexandria and the Library of Alexandria and some of the things associated with it. And we also Egypt becomes the birthplace essentially of horoscopic astrology, or what we sometimes call ‘Hellenistic’ astrology, which is the system of astrology that uses the planets and the signs of the zodiac, the concept of aspects, and the concept of the 12 houses altogether in order to interpret birth charts. So that’s part of the context of Egypt. Egypt became the home essentially of this type of natal astrology that we’re all familiar with, roughly what we sometimes call ‘Western’ astrology. And around that timeframe of the 2nd or 3rd century CE, that’s roughly also the time frame of some of the most famous astrologers, like Vettius Valens, Claudius Ptolemy, and different figures like that who were also living in Egypt, probably in Alexandria.
DG: Right. So what’s fascinating is that Heliodora was most likely living—not most likely—but was possibly living at the same time as Valens and Ptolemy.
DG: Can you show that map? Did you have the map of where the town was? Terenouthis? Did I see you flash that as one of your images?
CB: Yeah, so here’s one on Wikipedia. It’s kind of small. And I think if I click it, it’ll—yeah, not show it on the map of course.
DG: Okay. I was thinking of the map that was in the paper.
DG: But I can just talk about it.
CB: No, here it is.
DG: Okay. Yeah, so, you see where Terenouthis is, on the left-hand side of the Nile Delta. And the article talks about how that was a major crossroads coming from what was known as Memphis—the capital from the south—and from Alexandria in the north. It was a critical junction that led out into the Wadi Natrun, which was the desert where an important mineral was found that was used both in the glass-making and the textiles. So you have this as an important juncture of trade and traffic. And where trade and traffic happen there’s also the transmission of ideas. It was also in this town that there was a Temple of Hathor. And I think in previous episodes where Chris talked about the Temple of Hathor in Dendera in Egypt, that’s where we have some of the most complete Egyptian zodiacs: both a round zodiac with the signs and the planets in their exaltations, but there are also at least a half-a-dozen other rectangular strips of zodiacs from that temple that display different astronomical phenomena that haven’t been publicized as much. So the fact that this is an important center of exchange of ideas and commerce, and there was a Hathor temple there, places it in the midst of possible astrological vibrancy. And so, this is part of the setting for Heliodora being there.
CB: Right. I also noticed on the map that it’s not very far geographically from another town that’s important called Athribis, which is just right over there to the right of Terenouthis, where Heliodora was from. And Athribis is a place—there’s been some papers published recently—where some Demotic Egyptian birth charts have been discovered, which contain the astrological lots or Arabic parts and other concepts that were common to Hellenistic astrology. So it’s interesting just geographically in terms of other hot spots for astrology that have come up recently in terms of archaeological discoveries.
DG: Right. When I saw that was on the map, I had to smile, remembering the line from Valens where he was searching for time-lord methods that might work. And he said he traveled all over Egypt looking for esteemed teachers and looked for teachers in the Egyptian deserts. And I thought that would have been a natural route for him to have gone on from Alexandria to Terenouthis, and then to connect with routes that went out into the desert. And what if he met Heliodora? They were living at the same time, and he was seeking out teachers. He may have been drawn to either her or whoever she had learned astrology from in that area. I would love to see a movie, a historical fiction book, a Netflix docuseries on the fictional meeting of Valens and Heliodora.
CB: Yeah, for sure.
DG: I’m just being sort of frivolous here, but nevertheless it is something that certainly was in the realm of possible encounters.
CB: Yeah, for sure. I mean, he went to Egypt. He was supposed to be from Antioch, and he traveled to Egypt to the home and the birthplace of astrology in many ways, and then he was looking for different teachers and he tried out different people, but he wasn’t super happy with some of the techniques that he learned. And he gave up for a period of time, but then eventually he said that he was too drawn to the mystery of trying to unlock the key to astrology, so he went searching again and he found a teacher that he said was ‘a certain lover of learning’ who taught him this advanced time-lord technique.
DG: Yeah, I found that paragraph when I was looking for it, and I was just kind of stunned that he’s going on about looking and being frustrated, and he said—and this is Schmidt’s translation—“Until the wish for heavenly visitation brought about through a kind of provenance, the transmission, in a certain place, through a certain lover of learning.” And we have the line in Thessalus of Tralles who went to the Egyptian temple and requested a visitation, a vision, and then he was able to ask the priest about the teachings of Nechepso and Petosiris. It’s almost as if Valens is making the same kind of allusion that the insights he had were through an encounter with ‘a lover of learning’ and that that facilitated a visitation. So it could have been someone visiting him, or it could have been more of a sort of gnostic, direct knowledge visitation, the experience.
CB: Right. Like a transmission of gnosis of knowing.
DG: Mm-hmm. The direct communication, the oracle, where there’s that direct communication from the mind of the Divine to the mind of the diviner.
CB: Yeah, I’ve been reading about that recently because it seems like a lot of the early astrological texts from the tradition of Nechepso and Petosiris and Asclepius were written as revelations of this knowledge from agathos daimon to Hermes, and then from Hermes to Asclepius. Like the Nechepso and Petosiris text—part of it may have been framed as like a revelation that they received about the true nature of the cosmos from some higher spirit or being.
DG: Yes. That’s not unlike the Quran that was received by direct revelation. And Tibetan Buddhism talks about all of these mind termas of ancient teachings that are received through this direct revelation in the mind stream of the spiritual teacher. So it was definitely one of the forms of how the recipients of ancient spiritual knowledge claimed that that knowledge came to them.
CB: Right. Yeah, Firmicus—in reading Ben’s translation of Firmicus—is constantly talking about the Divine Mind and talking about that Hermetic and Neoplatonist idea of directly connecting with something that’s above the physical world, and how the Divine Mind is above that and is something that you want to return to. That when a person dies, their soul ascends through the planetary spheres and gives up certain qualities in order to return back to the Source.
CB: So with Heliodora, we’re talking about Egypt in the 2nd or 3rd century.
CB: And one of the things that the authors of the article talk about is that she’s displayed with a mixture of Greek and Egyptian motifs in the illustration, right?
DG: Yes. I found it fascinating that they said her hairstyle was Egyptian, and that it looked like she had a cap or a turban, or either it was braided really close to her scalp, and then the hairstyle comes down behind her ears in a series of curls or braids. However, her dress was a Greek dress, so here we have a blend. And it brings up, well, was she Egyptian? Was she Greek? The reality is that there was a fusion of Greco-Egyptian traditions happening at this time.
CB: Right. Last month, in the Egyptian astrology episode I did with Ian Moyer, we talked about this family that had these coffin lids that had zodiacs inscribed on them and how you could see a few generations of this family lineage. And different ones had Greek names or Egyptian names, and there were some instances where one would have a Greek father but an Egyptian mother. And so, over the course of centuries there’s just these different blendings of these different cultures and these different family lines, so that it’s not necessarily one or the other, but sometimes it’s both.
DG: Both. And we see elements of that, at least in how she’s depicted in her funerary stele.
CB: Right. So—
DG: Do you—no, go on. I wanted to continue that conversation a little bit, on the Greek-Egyptian.
CB: So other elements, on the left. Some of the normal—when I posted this last month—thought it was a cat. But on the left the animal is probably a jackal, which is connected with the Egyptian god Anubis, right?
DG: Right. And he’s the god of the underworld. The conveyor of the souls of the dead. And so, he’s very much a funerary symbol. And then the authors of the article said she’s holding a cup. If it was from a Greek representation, it would be receiving a drink. But if it was an Egyptian symbol, it would be offering a libation. So she’s offering a libation to Anubis. Sometimes libations are put into the ground during rituals or burials as offerings to the gods of the underworld to be able to receive the dead. So, again, there’s that ambiguity happening in her imagery. But then you have the inscription. You want to go through the inscription a little bit?
CB: Okay. But then the last thing in terms of the image, there’s a banquet below her that has either some flowers or some wheat. There’s a pot or a cup that might be on a tripod and different stuff like that that’s inscribed right below her. And a lot of these are very common motifs for this type of tombstone.
DG: Right. And that has to do with after the funeral, you invite people over to eat. And there’s the food of the dead being offered at burials as well in traditional societies. So the food and the banquet tables is an intricate part of funerary rituals in many different cultures.
CB: Okay. And then the very last thing is just—especially for the audio listeners—there’s two Greek-style columns on either side of her; and then at the top, the pointed or triangular top of a building above her.
CB: All right, so let’s get into the inscription more. So one of the things in terms of the inscription is it says that she was 52-years-old or about 52-years-old when she died. But one of the things that the authors of the paper emphasized is that it’s not super common for somebody to have their profession even listed next to their name, man or woman. It’s especially uncommon to see ‘astrologer’ listed, especially for a woman. But then one of the things they gave some numbers for was that it was also incredibly rare for her to be noted as being not married—an unmarried woman at the age of 52-years-old—and they speculated that this may have been connected with her choice of profession. They gave some numbers and it was something like 93-or-96% of women by the late 20’s or early 30’s were all married. So Heliodora would have fallen into a very small percentage of women that were not married, which is in and of itself really notable here.
DG: Right. I know that—at least in early Medieval times—if some men wanted to become philosophers or scholars, like Abelard, and the learning was under the auspices of the Church, they had to take vows of chastity; they couldn’t get married. And certainly if one was a priestess, some of those words that were used—‘beyond reproach’ and ‘chaste’—were words that may have been used for the vestal virgins in Rome who tended the sacred flame and were unmarried. And, again, chastity was part of becoming initiated into a spiritual vocation, and often it was the temples that were places where learning was available to women if they didn’t come from upper-class families who had a value on that. So in looking at some of those inscriptions to her, I wonder if being unmarried, being chaste, being beyond reproach were indications that she may have been a temple priestess of some sort. But our paper said it was impossible that she learned astrology in a temple, and I’m assuming they meant an Egyptian temple.
DG: And that got me to wondering, well, maybe it was because she was Greek. And the other name, philadelphos, ‘brother-loving’, was a name that had been used by all the Ptolemaic kings and queens as one of their names and established their lineage as part of the Macedonian ruling family. And, again, I don’t know if that’s the case at all, but I was trying to understand why many of the epitaphs given to her—of ‘chaste’ and ‘unmarried’—had to do with priestess qualities, and at the same time it was clear that, as I said, her education in astrology was not through Egyptian temples.
CB: Yeah. I mean, I think that if she wanted to pursue a profession as an astrologer then it might have been a choice of hers that she had to make. If she had gotten married, she would have been expected to do all these other things, like run a household or have children or different things like that. I think one of the implications of the paper that the researchers were headed was that she remained unmarried and all those other things in order to pursue her specific career as an astrologer.
DG: Right. But in order to do that she would have had to have the permission of her family because many women did not have the choice of whether or not they got married; that was an expectation, a cultural expectation. The father’s like, “Hey, we’re not gonna support you any longer. You’ve got to go get married.” So she needed the permission of her family not to marry, and she needed the ongoing financial support of the family to continue being involved in the profession.
DG: Because otherwise it would have been her husband’s job to support her financially. And one could wonder if she was self-supporting as an astrologer receiving clients. Well, that’s a fascinating possibility. I don’t know enough about the social customs to explore it if that was in the realm of what was feasible at that time.
CB: Yeah. Well, I mean, the close, possible parallel here is Hypatia, also in Alexandria, Egypt a little bit later. She was in the late 4th or early 5th century. She died in the year 415 CE. She was the daughter of the famous—or not famous, but somewhat prominent astronomer, Theon of Alexandria, who wrote commentaries on the astronomical works of Ptolemy. His Almagest, as well as his Handy Tables—he wrote explicitly because he said there were astrologers that wanted to understand better how to use those tables, and so he was writing some of these commentaries to help facilitate that. So Hypatia learned and became really good at mathematics and astronomy, and potentially philosophy partially through being able to learn that with her father in Alexandria. And then they may have collaborated together; one of the manuscripts said that she collaborated with him on one of his commentaries on Ptolemy.
CB: So sometimes women in the ancient world would have that connection even though they weren’t usually afforded the same education as men. There was some context, especially through a father or other family connections, where they could have learned that stuff.
CB: But Hypatia is a good parallel because she also has a similar connection in terms of being unmarried and having similar qualities of potentially being a virgin and other things like that being associated with her and being independent in that way, ‘cause one of the things not being married allowed somebody was having independence and having self-determination.
DG: Right. Having a life that was not centered around bearing and raising children and feeding the family, which took up all of women’s time.
CB: Right. And it also reminds me of how even Valens in the 2nd century, in some of the Hermetic material, talks about how he didn’t focus on gambling and all these other things that he viewed as materialistic distractions, and instead he focused on his single-minded pursuit of astrology and the study of the stars and the planets. And he really makes this a central part of his ethical, almost qualification as an astrologer. And I wonder if somebody like Heliodora, living in Egypt at the same time period, would have had similar philosophical or ethical feelings in terms of her dedication to the subject.
DG: Right. No, I think you’re absolutely right with that. She did obviously dedicate her life to that, and chances are how she learned astrology most certainly came through the family connection of a father, brother, some relative, and having a family that valued women’s education, and that allowed her to pursue the life that she did.
CB: Right. And what was interesting is that one of the epitaphs she was given was ‘sibling-loving’ or ‘brother-loving’. On other tombs, there’s similar epitaphs for people that are like ‘husband-loving’ or ‘child-loving’, that they loved their children. But for her, she had some kind of connection with her siblings, and it potentially could have been her siblings who buried her since she was only 52-years-old. So maybe it could have been through them that she had either the financial support, or that she had the support of her family to somehow pursue this career as an astrologer.
DG: Yeah, I think that would have been essential that she had familial support in both learning and pursuing the career. But nevertheless she must have been very esteemed and respected and part of a notable family for the word mathematike to be inscribed on her tombstone and recognized as such. Because, as you started off saying, professions weren’t usually part of the inscriptions on one’s tomb, so it was special that it was. She must have had a certain amount of status or power or connections to have that even happen in the first place.
DG: So you wonder what her reputation was in her lifetime in order to merit that on her tombstone.
CB: Yeah, I mean, she would have been an astrologer seeing clients. She would have been reading people’s birth charts in this little small-to-midsize town in Egypt in the 2nd or 3red century. And that also means she would have had access to not just verbal teachings from whoever her teacher was, but also from texts. She would have had some of the texts that were common in that time period, which would have been some of the earlier texts, like maybe the texts attributed to Hermes or Asclepius or Nechepso and Petosiris. By the 2nd or 3rd century she could have even had access to the poem of Dorotheus that taught natal astrology and electional astrology. Even if she was a little bit later she could have even had access to the texts of Valens or the texts of Ptolemy.
DG: Right. Because it was such a juncture of trade and commerce, of people who had been attending Valens’ classes in Alexandria coming through and talking about this lecture that they heard last week, and being able to partake in a network and the popularity of astrology at that time and the flow of communication. She was in a place where there would have been a lot of flow of ideas and peoples passing through.
CB: Yeah. So she would have had the delineation texts that tell you how to interpret certain combinations. ‘Cause there’s just like so many combinations that everybody needs those initial guidebooks—at least at one point early in their studies—to learn what different aspects or placements mean. And then she would have done the calculations for charts maybe on a piece of papyrus, but archaeologists have found these different astrological boards that they think astrologers probably used in order to do actual consultations. And I’m hoping to do an episode on this pretty soon, but here’s an image for the video viewers of one of the more famous ones that’s like a wooden board that almost looks like a chessboard. And then on the inside it has the 12 signs of the zodiac, and on the outside it has the decans and the bounds or terms. And astrologers would have used a stone for each of the planets in order to recreate the person’s birth chart on the table for the consultation. So that’s something definitely she would have used.
DG: Right. So there are a lot of tools and resources available to her at that time.
CB: Right. And then going back, you mentioned the family connections. And it makes me think of somebody who also potentially would have been her contemporary, Paul of Alexandria, or Paulus Alexandrinus, who lived around the year 378 CE in Egypt, probably in Alexandria. And he actually wrote his textbook, his introduction to astrology to his son, and in his text he includes his son’s birth chart essentially.
DG: Right. So you’re speaking to the tradition of parents passing on their professions to their children.
CB: Yeah, I thought that would be a good segue to talk about family lineages.
DG: Yeah. Right. So you want to get into Julia Balbilla, or are you making your way to somewhere else?
CB: No, that’s good. So let’s talk about Thrasyllus and Balbillus and that whole family line of astrologers, which was one of the most prominent and long-running family lines of astrologers that we know about, that stretches from the 1st century BCE all the way through the 2nd century CE.
DG: Right. And so, the person I first spoke about during this presentation, we both started doing a little search for clues as to other women astrologers if they existed, or women connected with astrology, and we came across the name of Julia Balbilla who lived probably at the same time as Heliodora. Julia Balbilla was the great-granddaughter of Thrasyllus who was Emperor Tiberius’ astrologer. And this story tracing this lineage is part of my personal story of tramping around through Greece looking at different sites with a guidebook. And it was in the early 2000s that I wandering about Athens with Scott Silverman and Carmen Miller, and part of our itinerary that day was going to this monument called the Philopappos Monument that was on top of the Hill of the Muses because it had a great view and one could see the Acropolis in the distance that was on another hill across the way. And so, we found the path and wound our way up there.
And as we were looking at the monument, I looked at the base and I saw that the person whom the monument was dedicated was both a prince of the area of Commagene, and it was dedicated by his sister, Julia Balbilla. And that just started ringing off bells in my head because I knew that Commagene was an area in southern Turkey that was ruled over by Hellenistic kings in the aftermath of Alexander the Great, and that family had strong astrological interests. And the earliest Greek horoscope—which was of the line of Commagene, was a coronation chart of the first king, Antiochus—came from there.
CB: Here’s an image of it.
DG: Right. So that part was interesting. And then Julia—
CB: Can you expand on the ‘line of’ horoscope part?
CB: So here’s an image of it for those watching the video version.
DG: Yeah, go ahead, Chris. Why don’t you talk about the conjunction of the planets in Leo.
CB: So there’s this relief, this stone monument that was found in modern-day Turkey from this line of kings of Commagene. And one of the early ones has a depiction of a lion, which is Leo, with stars in it, and the Moon on its chest. And then it has three stars above it that are written in Greek. It writes out the names of those stars, which you can see just at the top. And researchers have been able to—the dates are debated—date it to sometime in the 1st century BCE, maybe as early as 100 BCE, or maybe a few decades later, but around that time period. And because it’s written in Greek, this then becomes one of the earliest recorded astrological charts that depict an actual astrological alignment that occurred perhaps at the coronation of this specific king.
DG: Right. So I knew that that place name had astrological connections, and the inscription indicated that Roman citizen, Julia Balbilla, who was his sister, had helped dedicate and build this monument to her brother, and that triggered off the name of Balbillus who was the famous court astrologer in Rome. So that sent me researching and discovering her lineage. And many of your listeners may have come across the name of Thrasyllus before as being one of the very early Hellenistic astrologers, who was the friend and astrologer to Emperor Tiberius and guided him through the entirety of Tiberius’ rule as a Roman emperor. And Thrasyllus came from Egypt—he was a scholar there—and a scholarly work he wrote was the whole compilation and arrangement of all of Plato’s books that are still used today. So he was a heavyweight in his own right.
And at a certain point, while Tiberius was emperor, they gave Thrasyllus a bride who was a princess, a royal princess of Commagene, whose family had astrological interests. And Chris had just shown you the coronation piece of the 1st century king, Antiochus. So here we have the mergence of the court astrologer to Tiberius with the royal family of Commagene, and their son was Balbillus. Balbillus was trained in astrology by his father Thrasyllus.
CB: Hold on. It’s just like crazy that Thrasyllus is the astrologer to Tiberius. He becomes the astrologer to the second Roman emperor basically. Tiberius was the second Roman emperor after the transition of the Roman Republic to the Imperial Period. And then once Tiberius became emperor, he arranged this marriage for Thrasyllus to a princess from this major royal line, from modern-day Turkey, and it was an astrological family, or a family that has documented astrological interests. So it’s like the merging of two astrological family lines in Thrasyllus who was one of the highest-ranking astrologers in history, right at the beginning of the 1st century CE. There’s just narratively and historically something incredibly interesting about that.
DG: Right. It’s fascinating that, “For my astrologer, I’m going to give you a royal princess whose family is aligned with your interest.”
CB: Right. And they would then start a family line of astrologers.
DG: Right. And Thrasyllus also was friends with Augustus and would often be invited to Augustus’ dinner parties where he would converse with the guests. So he was, yeah, in the highest echelons.
CB: What’s funny about that also is he probably would have known Manilius who’s writing his astrological text either towards the end of Augustus’ reign or the beginning of Tiberius’.
CB: So it’s like Thrasyllus and Manilius are contemporaries in the same circles of power in Rome.
DG: Yeah. So they have a son, Balbillus. Thrasyllus died a year before Tiberius did. And then Claudius became the next emperor and Balbillus became court astrologer to Claudius, and also to Nero as well. But there was a gap—it must have been Caligula that was the gap in there—and Balbillus gets sent to Egypt, where in Egypt he becomes the head of the Library of Alexandria. And he also becomes prefect of Egypt, which is like being the governor of the whole Roman province of Egypt. So here you have the son of an astrologer himself holding an extremely high academic title, as head librarian, and political title, as governor. And then Balbillus marries a woman in Egypt. They have a daughter, Claudia, who is then married to another prince of Commagene. So Balbillus’ child likewise receives a royal marriage from an astrological family, and from them come Julia Balbilla who we’ll get to soon, and Philopappos, whose monument we went to visit. And before I totally get to Julia, it was this idea that the great-grandson of Thrasyllus, the grandson of Balbillus, has a monument on a hill in Athens that’s at the same height as the Acropolis, the emanations of this astrological family continue to waft over the city and the country. And very few people actually have traced down Philopappos’ astrological connections, but they’re there. So Balbillus—
CB: Let me pull up—
DG: Pull up the monument?
CB: Yeah, just to give people context. ‘Cause there’s a whole Wikipedia entry on it, and it has some of the images.
CB: Like first it shows that it’s on top of this hill.
DG: The Hill of the Muses where the ancient seer Musaeus was said to be buried, who was a prophet and a seer. So this monument is sitting upon a legendary seer.
CB: Okay. And then also I know you wanted me to show the family tree from Frederick Cramer’s book, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics.
CB: So this shows Thrasyllus marries—we think her name was Aka, princess of Commagene—Cramer thinks around 2 AD or 2 CE. Then they have a child, which is Balbillus.
DG: Another great astrologer.
CB: Right. The famous astrologer Balbillus that serves a bunch of Roman emperors, becomes the governor of Egypt and the head of the Library of Alexandria. And then they have children.
DG: They have the daughter Claudia, and her first marriage is with Julius Antiochus Epiphanes of Commagene. So she marries another prince, the son of the king, from which Julia and her brother Philopappos are born.
CB: Got it. And then Philopappos is the one that the monument is dedicated to, and the dedication was done partially by the people of Athens, but also by his sister, Julia Balbilla, who died somewhere after 130 CE.
DG: Right. So by the time Julia is born, she is being raised in Rome under the patronage of the Emperor Vespasian, for whom her grandfather, Balbillus, is the court astrologer. Balbillus was Vespasian’s astrologer for the length of his reign. And so, she was said to have received a superb education under Vespasian’s patronage. Then in short order after Vespasian’s death, there are three emperors that all disappear in a year, and then we have the reign of Hadrian. And Hadrian was known for his astrological interests and Julia becomes a part of Hadrian’s entourage. So why don’t you say a few words about Hadrian before we bring the story of what Julia does to a close.
CB: I mean, the only thing I have is just that Hadrian—he’s one of the few emperors whose birth chart survives, and it’s from an astrologer named Antigonus of Nicaea, and it’s preserved in a text of Hephaistio of Thebes. So he’s one of the few emperors where we actually have their surviving birth chart. What were the other things that you wanted to mention about Hadrian?
DG: Well, he was an astrologer, and he would do his solar return every year himself.
DG: So he might have had court astrologers, but he, himself, had learned the art of astrology and used it in understanding his reign, year by year.
DG: So then Hadrian invites Julia to be part of his court. Perhaps she was a lady-in-waiting to his wife, or his wife’s companion. And she lived in the court and traveled with him, and one of their trips was to Egypt and to Thebes and the Valley of the Kings where so many of the Egyptian pharaohs were buried; and Thebes was a major spiritual center. And Julia’s education led her to become a poet, and she was asked to inscribe verses of her poetry into the statue of a great Egyptian pharaoh Memnon, which was a colossal statue that existed in Egypt. And it was somewhere on his legs that she inscribed three epigrams, three verses. Yeah, right down in here. And the final verse were the lines—do you have that, so that you can show the final lines acknowledging her parents?
DG: Keep going down.
CB: She mentions them twice. She says, “But I do not believe that this statue of yours will perish; I saved your immortal spirit forever with my mind. For my parents were noble, and my grandfathers, the wise Balbillus and Antiochus the King.” And then later they are again mentioned in a third epigram where she says, “For pious were my parents and grandfathers, Balbillus the Wise, and King Antiochus. Balbillus, the father of my mother, of royal blood, and King Antiochus, the father of my father. From their line I too draw my noble blood, and these verses are mine, pious, Balbilla.”
DG: So in some ways it’s stunning for a couple of reasons that she was able to immortalize the name of her astrologer grandfather Balbillus into an enduring monument in Egypt that was connected to an Egyptian royal dynasty. Especially because Balbillus himself, like Thrasyllus, came from Egypt, he was governor of Egypt; he was the head of the Alexandrian Library—and she was able to record his name for posterity. In ancient times there was not a widespread belief in reincarnation. The way that one achieved immortality was that one’s name be remembered after one’s death, and that she was able to sort of enshrine for the ages. Secondly, in Rome itself, she had both noble blood and the blood of a whole lineage of the most elevated astrologers. And whether or not she herself was an astrologer, we don’t know, but certainly she had been immersed in that kind of thinking and that kind of knowledge, and she then became, in her own right, part of a royal court. And that shows the status to which a woman who both had astrological and royal lineage could achieve in the course of her lifetime.
CB: Yeah. And the royal court of an emperor who was also a practitioner or a fan of astrology.
DG: Right. “Oh, yeah, you’re Thrasyllus and Balbillus’ heir—of course you should be part of my court.” And she was also a royal princess from the other side of her line.
CB: And this was in the year 130 CE. So this is almost a hundred years after Thrasyllus died in 36 CE. So it’d be like if Rob Hand had been the astrologer for Obama 10 years ago, and then a hundred years from now Rob Hand had a great-granddaughter who was then a poet or was connected to a president a hundred years from now who was also into astrology.
DG: Right. She went to a huge statue and inscribed Rob’s name so it wouldn’t be forgotten.
CB: Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
DG: Yeah. So we also see that she also could have been a contemporary with Heliodora. So we have two examples of women connected with astrological knowledge and lineage who must have moving or functioning at a high status level in their respective worlds. And it also speaks to the status astrology had at a certain period of time during the 2nd century; 2nd-3rd century.
CB: Right. And it also brings into focus the idea of family lineages of astrologers, in the Greco-Roman tradition. But also, we have to remember back in the Mesopotamian tradition, a thousand years before that, in the earlier versions of astrology, we already know that there were these family lineages of astrologers and sky-watchers, and that these astrologers would go out every night and observe the stars and record their positions over the course of hundreds of years. And then some of them became the astrologers to specific kings and would send their reports to kings, and we know sometimes that these positions were passed on from generation to generation, usually from father to son. But I think it’s impossible within that context of having a family of astrologers that some of that knowledge isn’t also talked about in the household, and that some of the daughters would have also learned astrology and even practiced it to some extent within that context.
DG: Right. Just quickly, in the hymns of Enheduanna, going back to 2000 BC, inscribed on the cuneiform tablets was that she ‘measures off the heavens’; she looks at the stars and measures off the heavens. So we have this notion of women astronomers going back to the earliest Sumerian-Babylonian history.
DG: And then do you want to say a few words about Buran as also being part of a lineage? Are we there yet?
CB: I mean, I did so much already on that episode with Ali that I’ll probably just link to it in the description below this episode. And people should search for ‘Queen Buran: Astrologer’; that’s the episode I did. But, yeah, she was connected with, again, another family lineage of really prominent astrologers in Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries. And there were legends of her practicing astrology and using it in different, very interesting ways. Yeah, so family lineages. And then also one of the things I was thinking about recently is you and I both learned yesterday about the death of an astrologer, a woman that we both knew named Ellen Black, who was one of the founders of Project Hindsight. And she was the wife of the translator, Robert Schmidt who’s one of the major figures that helped to revive Hellenistic astrology in the 1990s and 2000s through the work of Project Hindsight and through their partnership with Robert Hand and Robert Zoller and a number of other scholars and astrologers, that’s led to both you and I writing our books eventually on Hellenistic astrology, and the way that that’s transformed the astrological community over the past 30 years.
So we were both sad to learn of Ellen’s passing this past Wednesday. Today, I meant to say, is May 15, 2023. But also, just you and I know—because we were there—that Ellen was the one that originally was interested in astrology in the 1980s and got Schmidt interested in it, and told him that this was a subject where there was something there and it was worth looking into. Even though his background up to that point was in ancient mathematics and philosophy and classics and things like that, she was the one that got him into astrology. And then she was also the one that played a pivotal role in doing the marketing for Project Hindsight, and I’m sure innumerable other things that might not be recognized because it was part of her partnership with Schmidt where there were things that were done behind the scenes that people won’t know about. And I’m sure that’s also a really common theme when it comes to women and that notion of women behind powerful men or what have you, not having their contributions recognized.
DG: Right. Exactly. I’m glad we’re saying this in this part of the episode, that Ellen did many things behind the scenes. One of them that I remember, she was very skilled in getting librarians all over the world to send her copies of manuscripts of the astrological texts, as well as critical editions that were very difficult to obtain, so that Bob was able to translate and have the resources that he needed. And that is one of the things that is relatively unrecognized—but we saw that happen—and was an essential piece of what Project Hindsight was eventually able to do.
CB: Right. And she was the one that would actually photocopy some of those critical editions, which then Schmidt and Hand and Zoller would translate from.
CB: So that’s also probably a major theme just in terms of the history of astrology as well, the number of different women that played major roles whose names have been lost, but were nonetheless major contributing factors in the history of astrology.
DG: Right. Yeah, I mean, there is evidence that the discovery of Uranus was by Caroline Herschel, who is William Herschel’s sister. And there are books now on women astronomers where that is brought forth, but for the most part that piece is glossed over. And so, we see the continuity of that practice.
CB: Right. And Hypatia was another one where it’s like we don’t fully know or we think that she helped or contributed with her father on some of the commentaries that they did or may have co-authored together, but what role, we can’t really say. And then things by the modern period start to change eventually, and by the 20th century you start getting some of the most prominent astrologers in the world are women, and the astrological community is being led and shaped by women in really significant ways in the 20th century.
DG: Right. It’s a very interesting topic of how previous to the 20th century virtually all of the names of astrologers that we have are men; we’ve pulled forth the names of a couple of women here. But throughout the Arabic time period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, into the early modern, we have men who are the practitioners and the authors of texts. And then it’s not until the 20th century where, for various reasons—whether it was due to the gap in the transmission of the traditional approach, or the reshaping of astrology into being more of a psychological and esoteric art—that we see the entrance of women into astrology. Now if we look at the astrological conferences and our clients and who shows up on Zoom talks, most of the participants are women, and there are many women astrologers themselves, and the client base is filled with women. So there has been a transition that’s happened in the last 120 years of who are both the creators and the practitioners of astrology and who are the recipients and clients and students of astrology.
CB: Right. And I did an episode—Episode 137 of The Astrology Podcast—on Elsbeth Ebertin. It was titled, “Elsbeth Ebertin and the Rise of Women in Astrology, with Jenn Zahrt,” who had done a lot of work on Elsbeth Ebertin, who was like the mother of Reinhold Ebertin, and who was a major astrologer in Germany in the early 20th century; and is a good example of that shift and that trend. By the time of the 1960s, in 1968, we get the publication of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs book, and that becomes one of the highest-selling astrology books of all time, which just sold millions and millions of copies. So that’s a big shift from before that of maybe the text of Claudius Ptolemy being the highest-selling astrology book of all time or what have you, as well as the publication of more advanced technical works by other people like Liz Greene, or you and your work on the asteroids and subsequently Hellenistic astrology and different things like that.
DG: Mm-hmm. So in general I don’t know that we can say that with increased opportunities for the education of women—even back in 1830 there were no free colleges for women; there was someone in New York who instituted the first college for women. So it’s only with the widespread education and literacy of women as a body, and many receiving the vote and then having more professions open up for them that we could see the talents of women having an environment that was encouraging and receptive for them to bring forth their knowledge and insights. And so, I think there were many factors that allowed for the entrance of women into the field that didn’t exist socially in earlier time periods.
CB: Right. And one thing I should say is also while we know for sure that that’s the majority or the major emphasis of things, there’s still a lot about history that we don’t know, partially because there was this filtering mechanism to some extent in terms of the transmission of the texts that survived and made it through the Medieval tradition; just because texts had to be copied over by hand from scribes and only a small percentage of the texts in the ancient world that were written actually survived through to modern times. And I know new work is being done on this subject and new discoveries are being made. I know that Ali Olomi is working on some research about other notable women in the Arabic astrological tradition and the Islamicate tradition that were maybe not recognized very much until recently that he’s gonna be publishing.
CB: And I also talked to, on Twitter, an astrologer from India. When I made a post about chart calculation—this is from Saurabh Sharma—he said, “In Sanskrit texts too, a word often used for astrologer is ‘ganaka’, which means ‘arithmetician’,” and he says there’s a very early example of this. So he was noting that basically there’s a parallel in the Indian tradition to the Greek and Latin astrologers using mathematike or mathematician and that you had something similar in Sanskrit texts. So when I asked him about the earliest reference to women practicing astrology in India, he said, “The oldest reference I know of is Queen Chandradevi, consort of King Purugupta, 467-473 CE, who was skilled in reading and writing horoscopes according to 7th century Chinese sources.” But then he goes on to say that, “Women in ancient India received education in a traditional subjects, including vedangas like jyotisha [or astrology].”
CB: So the situation may have been different in different cultures. And what we’ve tried to focus on for the most part here is just the references that we know of in the Greco-Roman or Greco-Egyptian tradition. While we have some of those allusions and other references that are a little uncertain, Heliodora is like the first one where we know her name and we know that she was a professional astrologer, and in that way, it makes her unique. But it means it’s also the tip of the iceberg in terms of a lot of other things that we just don’t have documentation of.
DG: Right. Yeah, with ongoing archaeological discoveries that are happening, we expect that there’ll be more and we hope that they will be uncovered and we will get to see them.
DG: If there’s one, that means there’s got to be more than one.
CB: Right. And that’s a really important point that there have been a string of really striking archaeological discoveries over the past few years that are starting to change our understanding of the history of astrology; this discovery of Heliodora’s tomb is one them. But also, last month, part of what made me find this article by Alexander Jones talking about Heliodora was that he published another article where a lost work, a lost text of Claudius Ptolemy had been rediscovered after they used X-rays in order to X-ray another manuscript, where somebody had written over and erased over a work of Ptolemy’s. And so, they were able to reconstruct a lost work of Ptolemy’s based on this new technology.
CB: Elsewhere there were excavations and they found horoscopes written in Demotic Egyptian just in 2021 that contained new things, and contained some of the earliest birth charts that survive, which, as I said earlier, some of them were charts cast for women. So there’s new archaeological discoveries being made all the time, and there’s still a lot of work to do and there will probably be new discoveries in the future.
DG: Right. We hope that some of our astrological community will move themselves into studies and disciplines where they can be part of this process of uncovering and discovering and bringing more of our tradition into light and focus.
CB: Yeah. And that’s part of what you did. You were an astrologer by training and by profession and practice. But in the 1990s, you went back to school and got a degree in classics and learned Greek and Latin so that you could access some of this tradition and learn it and work with it.
DG: Exactly. And it was such an incredibly enriching experience. It took my astrology in a direction that it would never ever have gone without that training and education I received in languages and the history of the ancient time period. And in some ways it was because I had learned to read and translate ancient Greek that Robert Schmidt helped me create a course for Kepler students in Hellenistic astrology.
DG: From that all kinds of things emerged from those initial years when that was taught to the students and the work that has happened as a result of that dissemination.
CB: Yeah. And that brings things full circle because then you became one of the first teachers to actually teach Hellenistic astrology from 2,000 years ago, from Heliodora’s time period; one of the very first people to teach that to students at an astrology school in modern times almost 2,000 years from when that astrology first originated.
DG: Right. So that’s part of the lineage. Whether it’s blood lineage or not, I often see astrology as this living chain of light. And each of us individually is gifted with being able to receive the light of astrology for a certain period of time during our life, and we’ve received it from someone and then we pass it onto someone else—and that’s how we have kept the tradition flowing. The Jyotisha in India—they call astrology the ‘science of light’. And it is the light that’s being passed forth through all of the various practitioners. So it’s like a real gift to even have a small toehold in that ring.
CB: Yeah, that’s beautiful—the passing on of that tradition that Heliodora was involved in—and I’m really glad now that we can recognize her. And even though we know so little about her, we know enough now that she can take her place in history as one of the astrologers that was part of our tradition.
DG: Right. All of the contemporary women astrologers when asked, “Were there any ancient women astrologers?” can say with a high degree of certainty, “Yes, we know the name Heliodora, ‘gift of the Sun’.”
CB: Right. Beautiful.
DG: Yeah, so another one of the traditions that I hope to pass on now is the course I’m going to teach this summer through Astrology University on how to hand-calculate a chart.
CB: Yes, that’s really important before that is lost. Because that provides such an important piece of the tradition that had always been there, which is the ability to know what you’re doing when you’re calculating charts and the astronomy that it’s based on.
DG: Yeah. I spent really since last fall, almost a year developing it, so that it’s complete and it’s based on the math itself. And so, simply having an ephemeris and a table of houses and my style of going through it painstakingly—step-by-step with explanations and instructions and worksheets and so on—bringing in the process from time, place, and date to the constructed chart and how to calculate all the exact degrees. And in the process, what became part of my own new learning was integrating some of the astronomy of the great circles into each lesson. So when you’re calculating the Midheaven, for years it was like, “Oh, yeah, the Midheaven is where the local meridian intersects the ecliptic.” Well, what exactly does that mean? Well, I can point to it on a diagram. But when I went out and looked up at the sky, it was like, “Well, what am I looking at?” And so, that started me off on trying to understand the conceptual framework. So when we get to the calculation of the Midheaven, the calculation of the Ascendant, or declination, what is it exactly that these numbers that you’re crunching represent in the physicality of the celestial sphere that surrounds us? So I have done that.
And after I completed the course, Tony said to me, “Could you do a bonus lesson on how to use the tables?” And I said, “Okay. Well, I need to revise certain sections of it, so that it becomes more amenable.” So I unpacked a lot of what I did and restructured it so that you can also learn interpolation tables that shortcut some of the steps. But if you don’t have the tables, I’m actually teaching how to do it without the tables. And if you simply know how to add and subtract and multiply and divide—if you can’t do it longhand, you can just have a little hand calculator to do that—you can generate the chart. Now what’s important is not just being able to generate the chart. What’s important is preserving a lineage that can be passed on. So all of the things that we’re saying about the lineage that gets passed on—knowing how to do the chart was the first and primary act of being an astrologer. And that has merit in some people knowing it and then being able to teach it to other people, and how it is that that can be done with the most rudimentary of the resources.
CB: Right. And that was part of being a mathematike.
DG: Right. That’s what ‘doing the numbers’, so to speak, entailed. So that course will start July 17. It’ll be offered through Astrology University. And if you sign up on my mailing list through my website then you’ll get notified when registration for that opens.
CB: And your website is—
CB: Got it, okay. And really quickly, in college you were studying math to be a math teacher, weren’t you?
DG: I was.
DG: I got all the way through student teaching, and I had to take a few more humanity classes, one of which was philosophy of science. And then all of a sudden I got to year five and I switched my major to philosophy because that happened.
DG: I did have a math major and I tutored classical physics to young college students.
CB: It’s funny then how things come full circle.
DG: Full circle.
CB: Right. All right, and then you’re giving a workshop at the Northwest Astrology Conference later this month, right?
DG: I am. It’s just in two weeks now that NORWAC will happen. It will be a workshop on mitigations and Hellenistic planetary condition. So what I’ve realized is that a lot of people, now knowing a little bit of Hellenistic astrology, look at their chart and go, “Oh, my God. I’ve got something really terrible in my chart.” And so much of that assessment, so many factors are involved, it’s relative. But then there’s also a whole list of other factors that mitigate what you may think is a difficult situation that you have with the planet that suppresses it, prevents it, transforms it into a source of good, and so laying out how to recognize those mitigating factors. And so, the first part I’ll be laying out the principles, and then the second part I will be taking examples from the audience. And so, the audience members will be both those who are there in person—and the conference is being offered virtually—and we’ll also be taking examples from the virtual attendees. And so, I think there may be still a few places left for full registration, for the workshops. you don’t have to be registered for the main conference if you want to attend in person. And then if you can’t get there in person, and you want to do it virtually, you can go to the NORWAC website. And it will be Friday morning, I think the 26th of May. Let me just see my calendar. Yes, the 26th of May at 9:00 AM.
CB: All right, so people can find out more information about that at norwac.net. They can go to your website, DemetraGeorge.com. And if they sign up for your mailing list then they’ll get notified when that chart calculation course comes out next month, as well as when you sell the recording of the mitigations workshop from NORWAC after that conference is over. And then I think later this year, you’re also doing an asteroids workshop?
DG: I’m doing a three-day asteroid retreat in Palm Springs the first weekend in December. And I’m giving some asteroid lectures in the fall; one for the EA community and another one for the AstroMagia community. And for the retreat everyone will get their 23,000 asteroid list, and I will take the participants through the process of how to find the mythic and the name and place asteroids that are most significant in their chart, and then how to be able to research, if they’re mythological, and even draw psychological, archetypal, and practical meaning from them. Now with that huge push with Hellenistic—I’m on the other side of it—I’d like to do a little bit more with the amazing, mind-bending places that the asteroids can take us to.
CB: Nice. Yeah, and balancing things out and having a foot in both worlds, in the ancient and the modern worlds.
DG: Yeah. And so much of the mythic asteroids—I’m still in the ancient world. I’m still working with the mythologies of ancient cultures and how those myths are totally relevant and speak to the dramas, the eternal dramas that people still go through. So even though I’m looking at new planetary bodies rather than the old seven visible, it still is connected to the ancient classical studies.
CB: Right. Awesome. Brilliant. All right, well, that’s exciting. I’ll put links to your website in the description below this video or on the podcast website, so people can go there for more information. But otherwise thanks for joining me today to talk about Heliodora.
DG: Yeah, I’m thrilled that we were able to do this today, and that we all now will know her name.
CB: Yeah. All right, well, thanks everyone for watching or listening to this episode of The Astrology Podcast, and we’ll see you again next time.
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If you’d like to learn more about my approach to astrology then I’d recommend checking out my book titled Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune where I go over the history, philosophy, and techniques of ancient astrology, taking people from beginner up through intermediate and advanced techniques for reading birth charts. You can get a print copy of the book through Amazon or other online retailers, or there’s an ebook version available through Google Books.
If you’re really looking to expand your studies of astrology then I would recommend my Hellenistic astrology course, which is an online course on ancient astrology where I take people through basic concepts up through intermediate and advanced techniques for reading birth charts. There’s over 100 hours of video lectures, as well as guided readings of ancient texts, and by the time you finish the course you will have a strong foundation on how to read birth charts, as well as make predictions. You can find out more information at courses.TheAstrologySchool.com.
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