The early history of astrology is closely interrelated with the history of astronomy. Both may be studied separately, but the result may prove one-sided and one may fail to notice things of great consequence. The history of ancient astronomy must be treated jointly with the history of astrology, whose contribution to the history of science has often been underestimated. This situation has begun to change only recently. The number of academic publications suggests that in addition to ancient philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, more and more attention is being paid to ancient astrology, which has played an important role in the history of human thought.
The concept of astronomy
The term ‘astrology’ (‘science of stars’ or ‘study of stars’) derives from Ancient Greek and is made up of two words – asteer ‘star’ or ‘constellation’ and an intricate form logos that may denote very different things – reasoning, intellect, story, word, etc., that we, perhaps, may here translate as ‘study’. Although the names of several modern sciences such as philology, geology and biology end with the same combining form, we cannot consider astrology as the ‘science of stars’, which in fact is the general definition of astronomy. The term ‘astronomy’ is formed with the word nomos, or ‘law’, thus the direct translation of ‘astronomy’ is the ‘law of stars’. Before the Middle Ages the word ‘astrology’ was often used to designate the science of stars, sometimes the above terms were used synonymously. The modern definition of astrology describes it as a discipline that characterises and foretells things and events according to the configuration of celestial bodies, and presently does not include it among sciences proper. Therefore, to avoid confusion, in the following we will use the terms astrology and astronomy in the modern sense, even though they may conflict in form with source texts. For example, instead of our term ‘astrology’ Tetrabiblos by Claudius Ptolemy uses the expression prognostication through astronomy, whereas both words denote ‘astronomy’ (Ptolemy 1964: ix).
The outlines of western astrology already materialized in ancient times (Tester 1987: 11), with the Greek background (Barton 1994: 21) and Egyptian traditions (Lindsay 1971: 153-180) playing an important role. Most of it, however, developed in Hellenic Egypt and Rome. Claudius Ptolemy (1964) has gathered and systematised Alexandrian astrology. Early Roman astrology is first and foremost associated with Marcus Manilius (Hübner 1982) and Dorotheos (Nikula 1993: 56), the later period with Vettius Valens (Tester 1987: 45), and the final period with Firmicus Maternus (Bram 1975: 4-7; Knappich 1967: 74). Hubert Korsch (1935) has summarised the known connections of prominent figures of antiquity with astrology.
The early history of astrology
Astrology was by no means the only method of prediction in Mesopotamia, where the art of foretelling, often interrelated with healing magic, was regarded very favourably. The future was read from the condition of animal livers, by considering eclipses, from atmospheric phenomena, the migration of birds, etc. In this sense the culture located between the Tigris and Euphrates was not unique – using livers and bird migration for foretelling the future was also characteristic of the Etruscans and the Romans. Astrology, however, has at least three important advantages over all other arts of prediction – the divine nature of stars, the universality of celestial phenomena and the fact that these phenomena could be forecasted.
Similarly to the history of Mesopotamian astronomy that can be divided into three distinctive periods (Neugebauer 1975: I 2), Mesopotamian astrology also passed through three periods of development: (i) early or augury astrology, (ii) primitive zodiacal astrology and (iii) horoscopic astrology (van der Waerden 1991: 184). As the history of Mesopotamia is very long and complex, it is important to know the specific period or location on which the statement is based, otherwise it is easy to come to wrong conclusions. If we make generalisations over the whole history of Mesopotamia, it would be virtually impossible to analyse, say, the names of planets (Brown 2000: 53; Kasak & Veede 2000: 1244).
A prophecy written on the 2nd millennium BC says: If a child were born on the twelfth month, it would live long and bear many children. Although the prophecy shares a striking similarity to the daily horoscopes published in today’s newspapers, it is still an example of primitive prediction rather than astrology proper. In the course of time astrology transcended all other methods of prediction, due to the Old Babylonian astral religion, the universality of celestial phenomena as omens, and the ability to forecast. Babylonian astrologers knew how to compile birth horoscopes but the technique was elaborated in the later period. The system of astrological houses and zodiac symbols does not originate in Babylonia, although in the period of horoscopic astrology certain divisions of the ecliptic -signs of the zodiac – gradually began to replace constellations. Whether it was inspired by Egyptian influence or devised by the Chaldeans themselves is still uncertain.
Primitive zodiacal astrology developed in the state of Chaldaea or Late Babylonia that emerged after the destruction of Assyria by the Babylonians in alliance with the Medes. The impact of Zurvanism, the predecessor of contemporary Iranian religions, the cult of Mitra, and Zoroastrism on Babylonia was immense. According to Zurvanism everything that happens in the world is predestined by eternal time (Time God Zurvan, the ancestral being of everything in the world). Stars function as indicators of predetermination. When the stars assume their original position at the end of the «great year», all events to the smallest detail will recur. This doctrine has also been called astral fatalism (van der Waerden 1991: 169-171). Even Greek philosophy contains traces of this doctrine. Pythagoras has argued that everything that has ever happened will recur at a predetermined time in the future and is not utterly new. According to the Stoic philosophy the world will be destroyed by fire when all planets have returned to their original position and a new world will emerge. In his book Anthropologia Nemesios Emesenos, the clerical figure and philosopher in the Early Byzantine Empire, claimed that as long as stars follow their usual course, everything will recur exactly as it happened even in the smallest detail. Heraclitus believed that the great year lasted for 18,000 years, whereas the Stoics, as Simplikios has written, considered it 360 times longer.