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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Astrology is the study of the impact of the celestial
bodies—Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter,
Saturn, the fixed stars, and sometimes the lunar
nodes—upon the sublunar world. It presupposes a
geocentric and finite universe. The influence of the
celestial bodies is variously considered to be absolutely
determinative of all motions of the four sublunar ele-
ments (Aristotelian physics is accepted as the basis for
describing this influence, in a form somewhat modified
by Neo-Platonic concepts); to be directional (that is,
to indicate trends which may be changed by future
astral influences or by the intervention of a super-
natural being, usually on the pleading or at the behest
of an astrologer or of a priest); or to be merely indica-
tive of the divine will. Astrology so defined could not
have existed before the Hellenistic period, and is cer-
tainly not of Babylonian, Egyptian, or Indian origin.

There are four broad categories of astrological prac-
tice. Genethlialogy relates the situation of the heavens
at the moment of an individual's nativity to all aspects
of his life. General astrology relates the situation of
the heavens at particularly significant moments—e.g.,
at the vernal equinox, at an eclipse, or at a conjunction
of the planets—to events affecting broad classes of
people, nations, or the entire world. Catarchic astrol-
ogy is the determination, from an examination of the
situation of the heavens, of whether or not a particular
moment is suitable for the commencement of a partic-
ular act. And interrogatory astrology is the answering
of specific questions on the basis of the situation of
the heavens at the time of the query. Other types of
astrology—e.g., medical astrology or military astrol-
ogy—are merely adaptations of methods used in the
four basic types enumerated above.

Celestial Omens (Omina). Though not properly
astrological, but rather only that part of the Mesopo-
tamian science of divination which is concerned with
super-terrestrial phenomena, celestial omina are fre-
quently combined with strictly astrological material in
post-Babylonian sources; in the West they are often
included under the rubric, “natural astrology.” Like
other omens, celestial phenomena were regarded by
the Mesopotamians as indicators of the will of the gods,
not as in themselves influential. And they never became
as important to Mesopotamian diviners as were, for
example, liver omens, probably because the gods could
not be questioned through them and because no ma-
nipulation of the procedures of divination by means
of them was possible.

Celestial omens first began to be used as portents
on a large scale in the period of the first dynasty of
Babylon (eighteenth to fifteenth centuries B.C.), though
it is probable that lunar eclipses had at an earlier
period been regarded as ominous. The collection and
codification of the celestial omens into a series, how-
ever, is not definitely attested before the beginning of
the first millennium B.C., though fragmentary material
in Hittite hints at a possibly much earlier date for a
primitive version of Enûma Anu Enlil. But the availa-
ble cuneiform tablets indicate that a standard version
was never attained; each copy had its own peculiarities.

As is true of most Mesopotamian omen-series, the
predictions of Enûma Anu Enlil relate exclusively to
the royal court and to the nation; the professional
reader of omens, the bāru, performed his duties solely
in order to advise the king of the future course of
events. The gods communicate their message to the
bāru by means of a symbolic language employing the
phenomena of nature according to a complex system
elaborately set forth on the tablets of his scholastic
tradition. The overriding characteristic of this, as of
all Babylonian omen-series, is the extreme systematiza-
tion of the material; even non-occurring phenomena
are, for the sake of symmetry, treated as omens.

The common organization of the elements of this
symbolic language in Enûma Anu Enlil is in four
sections. Sin, the Moon, contains omens relating to such


phenomena as lunar visibility, eclipses, halos, and con-
junctions with fixed stars; Šamaš, the Sun, omens
relating to solar eclipses, doublings (observations of two
suns simultaneously), and perihelia; Adad, the
weather-god, omens involving meteorological phenom-
ena and earthquakes; and Ištar, Venus, omens relat-
ing to the first and last visibilities, the stations, and
the acronychal risings of the planets, and their con-
junctions with the fixed stars. These omina, and espe-
cially those from Sin, are often referred to in the
reports of the diviners sent to the Assyrian kings in
the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., but seem to have
lost their popularity by the late Persian period, when
new attempts were made to discern the meaning of
the celestial signs revealed to mankind by the divinities.
But, before this replacement of the ancient system of
Enûma Anu Enlil, it had spread, under the aegis of
the Persian Empire, to Egypt, to Greece, to the Near
East, and to India.

A demotic papyrus based on an original of ca. 500
B.C. is our earliest evidence for the spread of Mesopo-
tamian celestial omina (in this case lunar) to Egypt
(R. A. Parker, A Vienna Demotic Papyrus on Eclipse-
and Lunar-omina,
Providence, 1959). The influence is
more impressively evident in the fragments of the
Greek astrological work composed in Egypt in the
second century B.C. and cast in the form of the instruc-
tions of the priest Petosiris to the king Nechepso; from
this source (and perhaps from Eudoxus, who is often
said to have written on celestial omens) it penetrates
the second book of Ptolemy's Ἀποτελεσματικά or
Astrological Influences” (ca. 150), the first of
Hephaestio of Thebes' Ἀποτελεσματικά (ca. 415), and
the Περὶ σημείων
(On Signs) of John Lydus (560). Fur-
thermore, a poem on divination from earthquakes, the
Περὶ σημείων, is attributed either to the Egyptian
Hermes or the Greek Orpheus. Many other such trea-
tises could be mentioned.

In Judaic tradition one of the principal diviners had
been the prophet and oneirocritic (dream-interpreter)
Daniel. An Apocalypse of Daniel which circulated in
antiquity in the Near East dealt with various topics
from Sin, Šamaš, and Adad. It survives today in Greek,
Syriac, and Arabic versions. Other old texts of this
genre translated from Syriac into Arabic are ascribed
to Hermes, and presumably represent the lore of the
Harrānians. The Mandaeans of southern Iraq have also
preserved old Mesopotamian traditions in their Book
of the Zodiac;
and they are also to be discerned in
the Syriac Book of the Bee. The Arabic texts, in celestial
omina as in the various categories of astrology proper,
are extremely difficult to analyze as they represent
admixtures of this older Near Eastern element with the
derivative traditions of Greece and India.

In India the earliest surviving omen text is the origi-
nal of the (at least) three versions of the Gargasaṃhitā,
parts of which can be dated to the beginning of the
Christian era; but the sources undoubtedly go back to
translations made from Aramaic into Sanskrit during
the nearly two centuries that the Achemenids were the
dominant power in northwestern India. The Gar-
embraces not only the material of Enûma
Anu Enlil,
but also that of several other Mesopotamian
series. All was modified so as to fit into the Indian
conception of a society of four castes in which the
primary duty of the twice-born is the performance of
the saṃskāras, but the fundamental dependence of the
Indian on its Babylonian antecedent is clear from the
identity of many entire omen statements—both protasis
and apodosis.

A number of Sanskrit collections of omina, or
saṃhitās, are preserved, of which the most notable are
the Bṛhatsaṃhitā of Varāhamihira (ca. 550), the Jaina
Bhadrabāhusaṃhitā (tenth century?), and the
Pariśiṣṭas of the Atharvaveda (tenth or eleventh cen-
tury?); in works of the thirteenth century and later, en-
titled tājika, a massive infusion of the Arabic versions
of celestial omina, as transmitted through Persian
(Tājik) translations, is evident. But the main impact of
Mesopotamian omens on Indian ideas was in the fields
of military astrology (yātrā) and the common Indian
form of catarchic astrology (muhūrta), which will be
discussed in greater detail below.

Genethlialogy. In the Hellenistic world the various
philosophical schools developed theories of the places
of man and of the planets in the universe that facili-
tated the growth of astrology. Platonists and Peri-
patetics both emphasized the superiority of the celes-
tial spheres, the Platonists claiming that the motions
of the stars, being subject to mathematical laws, are
more perfect reflections of the divine Reason (νοῦς)
than are earthly activities, and the Aristotelians assert-
ing that the circular motion of the planets not only
is better (since eternal) than the linear motions of the
four sublunary elements (and therefore is evidence of
a fifth element and of more intellectual beings than
man), but also acts to transmit the initial motion of
the prime mover into the world of earth, air, fire, and
water. It also became a commonplace of the Hellenistic
world that the human body is an image of the cosmos,
and the human soul of the cosmic soul. These and sim-
ilar philosophical assumptions facilitated the acceptance
of astrology among intellectuals; the Stoics and Neo-Pla-
tonists were particularly prone to succumb to its allure.

By some as yet obscure personages in Egypt in the
early second century B.C. the microcosm-macrocosm
thesis was mathematicized and, in conjunction with the
methods of utilizing celestial omens at the moment of


an individual's conception and birth to predict certain
things about his life, which were developed in Meso-
potamia in the fourth and third centuries B.C., con-
verted into genethlialogy.

The astrologer conceives of the ecliptic as divided
into twelve equal parts, or signs, each containing thirty
degrees. Each sign is the house of a planet; and each
is divided into various subdivisions (decans, fines, etc.)
of which each is also ruled by a planet. Scattered at
various points throughout the zodiac are the planets'
degrees of exaltation (the opposite are their degrees
of dejection). Furthermore, each sign corresponds to
a part of the human body, Aries to the head and Pisces
to the feet. The four elements find their counterparts
in the four triplicities; and numerous Pythagorean pairs
of opposites (male—female, diurnal—nocturnal, hot—
cold, etc.) are attributed to consecutive pairs of signs.
Finally, a wide variety of substances in the sublunar
world and attributes of human character are rather
arbitrarily associated with each of the signs.

The planets' particular influences are related to those
that they exercised in Enûma Anu Enlil and to their
traits as deities in Greek mythology; but on them is
also superimposed the system of four elements, the
Pythagorean opposites, and lists of sublunar substances.
Furthermore, their motions are carefully taken into
account; their strength is largely determined by their
phases with respect to the Sun and distance from their
degrees of exaltation and their houses and fines, and
they exert a mutual influence on each other both by
occupying each other's houses and fines and by means
of conjunctions and aspects. Aspects are of four varie-
ties: opposition (to the seventh sign) and quartile (to
the fourth) are generally bad, and trine (to the fifth)
and sextile (to the third) good.

As the planets revolve through the zodiac by their
various motions, direct and retrograde, the zodiac re-
volves around the earth. From a particular spot on the
earth's surface this motion appears as a succession of
signs rising one after another above the eastern horizon.
The sign that at any moment—say, that of an individ-
ual's birth—is just rising, is the horoscope or the first
place; this determines the soul of the native for whom
a birth-horoscope is cast. The next sign below the
horizon, the second place, determines his wealth; the
third his brothers; the fourth his home; the fifth his
children; and so on through all the aspects of his life.

The astrologer, therefore, when informed of the
exact moment and place of a native's birth, casts his
horoscope by fixing the boundaries of the twelve places
with respect to the moving ecliptic and calculates the
momentary longitudes and latitudes of the planets. He
then can predict various aspects of the native's life by
examining the intricate relations of the zodiacal signs
and their parts and the planets to the appropriate
places and to each other. Of course any horoscopic
diagram will yield an enormous number of predictions
which will contradict each other or which will be quite
extravagant; the astrologer must use his knowledge of
the native's social, ethnic, and economic background
and his experience and good judgment to extract from
this congeries a satisfactory reading.

This methodology, expounded above in an extremely
simplified form, did not prove completely satisfactory;
and the history of astrology is a tale of the application
of ever increasing complexities to a system whose basic
flaw (allowing for the moment that the idea of astral
influence is a correct one) lies precisely in the fact that
the multiplicity of predictions it generates renders it
too imprecise to be useful.

We have little secure information about the
genethlialogy of the last two centuries before Christ,
but in the work of Dorotheus of Sidon, written in about
A.D. 75, we find three of the more important refine-
ments already present.

The first of these is the system of lots (κλῆποι), which
are points as distant from some specified points in the
horoscopic diagram as two planets are from each other.
Greek astrologers generally used only the two principle
lots—the Lot of Fortune and its counterpart, the Lot
of the Demon; but the list kept growing, until Abū
Ma'shar in the ninth century can enumerate well over
a hundred.

The prorogator (ἀφέτης) is a point on the ecliptic
(discovered by complicated rules) which determines the
length of life of the native. It travels, at the rate of
one degree of oblique ascension in a year, toward either
the ascendent or descendent point; and as it comes into
conjunction with a malefic planet, or is aspected by
one, the native's life is threatened or perhaps even
destroyed; at any rate he dies when the prorogator has
reached the point which was on the horizon in the
horoscopic diagram. The system is clearly a modifica-
tion of the older method, ascribed to the Babylonians,
of fixing the maximum length of a native's life as the
number of degrees of oblique ascension between the
ascendent and midheaven. A common variant on or
adjunct to the prorogator is the Lord of the Year, which
is the strongest planet in the horoscopic diagram; it
travels at the same rate as does the prorogator and,
as it moves with respect to the other, stable elements
of the horoscopic diagram, determines the events of
each year.

Finally, Dorotheus is familiar with a form of contin-
uous horoscopy designed to guarantee the astrologer
constant patronage. Continuous horoscopy assumes
that the basic natal reading is valid in general, but that
a new horoscopic diagram (antigennesis) must be cast


on every anniversary (or even at the beginning of every
month, week, day, or hour) and compared with that
of the native's birth. An elaborate system of planetary
transits of the places in the base-horoscope, then, will
give a specific reading (or set of readings) for the next
year (or month, week, day, or hour).

Associated with the Hermetic tradition is yet another
method of deciding the course of events at different
times during a native's life; this is the system of plane-
tary periods. According to this doctrine each planet
depending on its synodic period (but the Metonic cycle
for the Sun, the Egyptian lunar period for the Moon),
governs a specific fraction of the native's life, or a
specific number of months; then each period is divided
into subperiods according to the same proportions, and
each subperiod may be further subdivided ad infinitum.
The primary ruler of the period sets the tone of the
whole, but the rulers of the subperiods introduce their
own modifications. When the system of periods is
combined with that of the Lord of the Year and that
of continuous horoscopy, the assessment of the relative
weights of resulting predictions is a complex matter
indeed. No surviving Greek text provides a satisfactory
treatment of the problems involved in applying these

This may suffice to give the reader at least a rough
idea of the methods of genethlialogy. Though some
authorities, like Vettius Valens (ca. A.D. 175) and his
favorite source, Critodemus (beginning of the first cen-
tury A.D.?) describe strange new ways of manipulating
the horoscopic diagram, they were not very influential.
There are two intellectually respectable traditions of
parallel authority (in fact, they agree with each other
at many points): the Dorothean, whose principal
adherents are Firmicus Maternus (ca. 335) and
Hephaestio of Thebes (ca. 415), and the Ptolemaic,
which is followed by Porphyrius (ca. 250), Paul of
Alexandria (379), Hephaestio, and Rhetorius of Egypt
(ca. 520). But the papyri and fragments of lost works
indicate that the practices of popular astrologers were
much simpler and cruder than those outlined above.

For astrology in the Roman Empire, as well as being
regarded as a system of thought worthy of attempts
at scientific or philosophical validation or repudiation,
was practically applied on a large scale. The emperors
beginning with Tiberius found its influence dangerous
enough to warrant the banishment of all astrologers
from Italy and the forbiddance of the casting of the
Imperial horoscope. Yet the histories of the Roman
Empire are filled with sad stories of the credulity of
the Augusti and of those who aspired to their power.
The belief of the common people is attested by the
astrological papyri and by numerous inscriptions.

Among the intellectuals the conflict over the validity
of astrology revolved around two main points: free will
and the uniqueness and accuracy of any horoscopic
diagram. The latter argument was evolved by the
members of the Middle Academy, who claimed that
no horoscopic diagram applied to one individual only
and that the time of birth was not in any case subject
to determination with absolute accuracy. The astrolo-
gers could and did reply to the first point that the stars
are only one factor in determining the life history of
any particular individual (cf. especially Bardesanes),
and to the second that they could obtain a good enough
approximation to the true situation of the heavens at
the time of a native's birth to make their predictions

The other argument, that concerning free will,
derives from the necessity of ethics. Astrology could
not be allowed to relieve man of his responsibility for
his own actions. The astrologer could make two replies
to such an attack if he did not choose to assert that
ethics are superfluous. He could claim that the human
soul, insofar as it is divine, is not subject to astral
influences and can resist them; or he could claim that
astrology is only an attempt to interpret the divine
will, which is manifested by God in the heavens. It
is man's responsibility then, and not his necessity, to
see that his life conforms to the astrologer's predictions.
Neither argument sufficed to assuage the Christian

In the first half of the second century A.D. there was
written in Egypt, and probably at Alexandria, a Greek
handbook of astrology on a rather popular level which
exercised an enormous influence on vast multitudes of
men, though even its title is not now known. For, in
A.D. 149-50, it was translated into Sanskrit in Western
India by a scholar known to us today only as
Yavaneśvara—“the Lord of the Greeks.” His work,
through the versification made by Sphujidhvaja in
269-70, together with another lost translation utilized
by Satya, is the root of Indian astrology.

The basic methods of Indian genethlialogy are not
surprisingly, then, similar to those of its Hellenistic
counterpart. But the techniques only, not the philo-
sophical underpinnings, were transmitted; and the
whole was thoroughly modified so that the predictions,
originally meant to apply to Greek and Roman society,
would be meaningful in India; in particular, the caste
system, the doctrine of metempsychosis, the Indian
system of five elements (without Aristotelian physics,
of course), and the Indian system of values were intro-
duced. Moreover, the naksatras or lunar mansions
joined the zodiacal signs in having significance, and
an elaborate system of three categories of yogas or
planetary combinations was developed. Soon the Greek
methods of continuous horoscopy were developed into


new forms—the planetary periods into a dozen differ-
ent varieties of daśās, and the transits into the elaborate
theory of the aṣṭakavarga.

Indian genethlialogy in the pre-Islamic period
evolved increasingly complex forms. The two lunar
nodes were soon treated as new planets, making a total
of nine; a series of upagrahas or imaginary subplanets
took over, as it were, the place of the Greek lots, which
appear in Sanskrit texts only through translations of
Arabic and Persian texts. Fantastically complicated
rules were devised for ascertaining the relative
strengths and weaknesses of the planets and zodiacal
signs; and new subdivisions of the signs—horās or
halves, saptāṃśas or sevenths, and most importantly,
navāṃśas or ninths—increased the dominions of the
planets beyond the decans, the fines, and the twelfths.

This Indian system of genethlialogy, as all of Indian
astrology, flourished absolutely without opposition, as
its tenets in no way contradicted those of Indian phi-
losophy or religion. It could easily be subsumed as an
indicator of the chain of causality that links the acts
of a former existence with the circumstances of the
present, or regarded as yet one further manifestation
of the world of māyā from which the enlightened must
strive, by knowledge or by faith, to be released. Insofar
as we know it was never criticized in India for denying
free will, perhaps because free will has always of ne-
cessity exercised against the individual's fate or karma.
And astrology, itself so complex, when it impinged on
a social structure as intricate as that of India, could
effortlessly have evaded the assaults of the critics from
the Middle Academy had they come.

The tājika texts of the thirteenth and later centuries
brought to Indian genethlialogy some elements of
Hellenistic and of Sassano-Arab astrology; the lots have
already been mentioned, and to them may be added
the prorogator, the Lord of the Year, and the triplicities
as employed by Dorotheus. Other ideas have more
recently been interjected from the West. But still the
joshi's principal text, which he consults when he casts
the horoscopes of perhaps ninety per cent of the popu-
lation of India, is the Bṛhajjātaka written by
Varāhamihira, ca. A.D. 550.

Iran, before the rise of the Sassanids, was evidently
open to the influence of some Mesopotamian theories
of celestial and other omina. The Sanskrit translations
of the pre-Mauryan period testify to the existence of
omen series in Iran in the Achemenid period. More-
over, the Greek fragments of the Magusean works
ascribed to Zoroaster, Ostanes, and others, though
probably composed outside of Iran in Asia Minor and
therefore reflecting a westernized version of Zoroastri-
anism, demonstrate a knowledge of some of the tech-
niques of late Babylonian genethlialogy. That system
of genethlialogy, of course, continued to be used in
Mesopotamia itself down to the first century A.D.,
though its possible dependence in its latest manifesta-
tions on the Hellenistic science developed in Egypt
has yet to be investigated.

But certainly not long after Ardashir founded the
Sassanian Empire in A.D. 226 a substantial transmission
of Greek and Indian astrological works to Persian took
place. The works of Dorotheus of Sidon and Vettius
Valens and some treatises ascribed to Hermes were
translated from Greek into Pahlavī in the third cen-
tury. Contemporaneously a Sanskrit text was trans-
lated, ascribed in the Arab sources (to which we owe
our knowledge of Sassanian astrology) to one Farmasb;
later translations from both Greek and Sanskrit into
Pahlavī continued to be made, at least till the middle
of the sixth century.

The Pahlavī originals of all of these texts are unfor-
tunately lost; but much can be reconstructed from
Arabic translations of the eighth and ninth centuries.
From these it is clear that Sassanian genethlialogy was
essentially an imitation of the Hellenistic (without,
however, all the philosophical overtones) onto which
were grafted some Indian features, such as the use of
the ninths (navāṃśas) and the Řaivite interpretations
of the Greco-Egyptian Decans; it specialized in various
forms of continuous astrology. This form of astrology,
but even more what we have called general astrology,
profoundly influenced society, and especially the upper
classes, in Sassanian Iran; we shall say more of this
later. Astrological ideas are also commonly met with
in Manichaean texts (as is to be expected in Gnostic
sources) and in the chiliastic theories of history of the
Zoroastrians; but the level of astrology encountered
in what survives of Pahlavī literature is abysmally low.

Genethlialogy reached Islam in three more or less
simultaneous streams, as did also astronomy. Greek and
Syriac texts representing the Hellenistic science, San-
skrit works of the Indian adaptation of that science,
and Pahlavī amalgams of the other two were translated
into Arabic in vast numbers in the late eighth and early
ninth centuries. Islamic astrology, then, combined the
Hellenistic basis, further fortified by a strong reliance
on a Neo-Platonic definition of the mode of astral
influence in terms of Aristotelian physics, transmitted
through the self-styled Ṣabians of Harrān, with the
Indian innovations and a Sassanian emphasis on con-
tinuous astrology. This combination is particularly ap-
parent in the astrological and astronomical theories of
Abū Ma'shar (786-886), Islam's most influential astrol-
oger. This material they refined and developed in their
own way, multiplying the number of lots, making more
complex the complicated rules governing the proroga-
tor and the Lord of the Year, and, in imitation of the


Indians and the Harranians, devising elaborate rituals
to avert or alter the influences of the planets. Their
innovations began to enter Byzantium in the tenth
century, the Latin West in the twelfth, and India in
the thirteenth, profoundly affecting the late pre-
modern developments of astrology in all three cul-
tural areas.

As in the Christian world, so in Islam genethlialogy
met with strong religious opposition, primarily over
the questions of free will and of the illimitable nature
of Allah's power. Its principal intellectual advocates
and defenders were those philosophers who were influ-
enced by Neo-Platonism, and religious leaders of
Shi'ite and especially Isma'īlī, inclinations. The intel-
lectuals in Islam eventually dropped it under the pres-
sure of the religiously orthodox as did those in the West
and in Byzantium; but it continues to survive and
flourish at a popular level among both Christians and
Muslims. In India it retains (except among the very
Westernized) all of its former intellectual respectabil-
ity, and continues to be seriously studied and developed
in institutes of higher learning.

General Astrology. Babylonian celestial omina, as
we have seen, were designed to provide predictions
relating to all of society or to its representatives, the
court; these omina, as modified by Greek diviners,
continued in use in the Hellenistic period and after.
But neither the Greeks (the Romans of course banned
astrological predictions regarding the Emperors) nor
the Indians in general developed techniques of apply-
ing horoscopy to general astrology, though there were
horoscopes cast at the founding of cities in the Roman
Empire. This innovation was left to the Sassanians who
accomplished it by combining the Zoroastrian belief
in the creation and destruction of the material world
at the beginning and end respectively of a 12,000-year
period with Hellenistic continuous astrology. The basic
concept was chiliastic, the fate of the cosmos being
represented by a point moving 30° on the zodiac every
millennium; but other points were invented which
traveled 30° a century, decade, and year, or 1° a
millennium, century, decade, or year. These points,
then, are analogous to the Lord of the Year in continu-
ous astrology.

An approximation of the millennium was observed
in the fact that the two superior planets, Saturn and
Jupiter, conjoin within the same triplicity twelve con-
secutive times in 240 years or thirteen times in 260
years and travel, then, through the four triplicities in
something very close to 1,000 years. In this form of
astrology a simple conjunction every 20 years deter-
mines the fate of noble families and kings, the transfer
of the conjunctions to a new triplicity every 240 or
260 years the change of a dynasty, and the revolution
of the conjunctions through the four triplicities in 1,000
years the rise of a new prophet. The details are deter-
mined by the horoscopic diagram of the vernal equinox
of the year in which the conjunction takes place. Simi-
larly, horoscopes were cast at every vernal equinox to
decide the year's events, a practice popular in Europe
until the seventeenth century and still extensively
practiced in India. This method of prediction is, of
course, based on the antigennesis used in the continuous
astrology of genethlialogy.

A third technique is to grant certain lengthy periods
of time (fardārs) to each of the planets to rule in turn;
and each planet in turn shares a subperiod of the fardār
with its ruler. This system is modeled on that of the
seven planetary periods embracing the native's life-
span in genethlialogy.

These and similar practices allowed the Sassanians
to make astrology a potent source of political propa-
ganda; and we have many Arabic astrological histories
which culminate in a future absolute victory for the
author's chosen party. Already in the late eighth cen-
tury general astrology was used by an unknown
Byzantine writer to prove the imminent collapse of
Islam, and at the same time Persian partisans were
predicting the restoration of the Sassanian empire. In
the thirteenth century certain aspects of general as-
trology were introduced into India, where they con-
tinue to exercise a strong influence on people's attitudes
toward political, meteorological, economic, and agri-
cultural developments; and in the fourteenth century
it became extremely popular in Western Europe. The
millennial aspects in particular appealed to Christian
and Islamic audiences (the Isma'īlī are particularly
fond of them), but are utterly ignored by the Indians
who think in terms of tremendous periods of time
between Brahma's inbreathings and outbreathings of
the material world.

Catarchic Astrology. The idea behind most forms
of catarchic astrology is that any act is influenced by
the horoscope of its inception as is any individual by
the horoscope of his birth; for certain types of activity,
however, celestial omens are also significant. Whoever,
then, wishes to perform an act should select the time
for its beginning at which the planets are most favor-
ably positioned for the successful completion of that
act. The astrologer, in conceding that a person has the
free will to choose the astrologically propitious mo-
ment for commencing his activities, to some extent
negates the genethlialogical predictions; he may reply
to his critics, however, that both the genethlialogical
and the catarchic horoscopes influence the course of
any particular enterprise, and it would be folly to
attempt to gauge the future without considering both.

Catarchic astrology begins in the second or first


century B.C. with Hermetic texts on iatromathematics
(the application of astrology to medicine) and on gen-
eral catarchic astrology and with the work of Serapion.
From its beginning the use of specially devised Lots
(κλῆροι) played a prominent role; their number in-
creases in the course of time till they reach their peak
in the works of Abū Ma'shar. They still play a rela-
tively modest role in the fifth book of Dorotheus of
Sidon, which is the main font of the tradition of
catarchic astrology in the West. Dorotheus also em-
phasizes the cardines and their lords, the decans, the
Sun, and especially the Moon. The Dorothean tradition
is continued by “Manetho,” Firmicus Maternus,
Hephaestio of Thebes, Maximus, Rhetorius, Theophilus
of Edessa, and pseudo-Palchus; it also influenced
strongly the Islamic tradition. It is in the form of
catarchic astrology that astrology had its greatest effect
upon society as a whole; for before one could enter
into a marriage, begin a business venture, or set out
on a journey the astrologer had to determine the proper
and propitious moment.

In India catarchic astrology has its roots in the ne-
cessity to perform certain Vedic rituals when the Moon
is in particular nakṣatras. Certainly by the fifth century
B.C. a form of muhūrtaśāstra—the science of deter-
mining the proper moment—already existed. It was
primarily applied to the samskāras, or rites (classically
sixteen in number), which a dvija underwent during
the course of his life; the timing of other agricultural,
domestic, and governmental activities could be deter-
mined on the same principles, however.

This simple version of muhūrtaśāstra, largely
dependent on the position of the Moon, began to be
contaminated by Hellenistic catarchic astrology in the
first or second century A.D.; one notices this mixture
in the earliest form of the Gargasaṃhitā and in the
Yavanajātaka of Sphujidhvaja. But we have no works
devoted exclusively to muhūrtaśāstra before the
eleventh century. Thereafter it assumes increasing
importance, and correspondingly becomes increasingly
complex. It is now perhaps the most frequently practi-
ced form of astrology in India as the timing of the
saṃskāras (including marriage) as well as many com-
mercial, agricultural, and governmental projects is
dependent on the decision of the expert on muhūrtas.

In Islamic countries catarchic astrology is, as one
would suspect, a combination of the Dorothean and
Indian systems with some admixture of material of
pre-Islamic Arab origin relating to the manāẓil
(“mansions of the Moon”). Catarchic astrol-
ogy in Arabic is often called aḥkām al-nujūm—the
judgments of the stars, a name from which we derive
our term “judicial astrology.” As such it was the subject
of a number of vast compilations; the most noteworthy
are those of al-Saymarī, al-Qasrānī and 'Alī ibn abī

Interrogations. This final form of astrology that we
shall consider is based on the idea that the horoscope
of the moment when someone formally presents a
question about a specific subject to the astrologer,
determines the correct answer. In divination one dis-
tinguishes between omens which naturally occur,
which are the freely vouchsafed indications of the
divine will, and omens requested of the gods, which
represent their answers to man's questions. Other forms
of astrology are parallel to the first type of divination,
interrogations alone to the second.

In Babylonian divination, and in the divination of
other cultures, the successful practice of the second
type normally depends on the ritual preparation of the
diviner (and sometimes of the interrogator as well)
before the question is put. In Greece we do not know
that any religious rites were performed by the astrolo-
ger before he cast the horoscope of an interrogation,
though Firmicus Maternus does indicate that the
astrologer should possess “religious” qualities of purity.
Rather, in the West interrogations seem to have devel-
oped naturally from catarchic astrology when the cli-
ent asked the astrologer not only, “When should I
begin an act in the future?” but “What will be the
result of the particular course of action I am engaged
in now?” Again, the primary text is Dorotheus' fifth
book, though interrogations are fairly infrequent before
the Byzantine period.

In India, however, where interrogations like
genethlialogy were introduced in the second century
by the Yavanajātaka, the relationship of the art to the
second type of divination (familiar through the versions
of Babylonian omen literature in the saṃhitās) was not
ignored; from the earliest times the need for ritual
purity and preparation is stressed. Interrogations, or
praśnajñāna, never achieved the popularity of
genethlialogy or catarchic astrology in India; but there
do exist some early works on the subject, notably by
Pṛthuyaśas, Varāhamihira's son, by Bādarāyaṇa, and by
Bhaṭṭotpala. Only insofar as it influenced military as-
trology was it of any great significance.

In Islam interrogations experienced their greatest
development. From the late eighth century on, one
of an astrologer's main occupations was the answering
of queries, and we have numerous manuals offering
them guidance. These apparently are exclusively
dependent on the Dorothean tradition mingled with
some Sassanian material; there is no trace yet identified
either of Indian ideas or of the necessity for ritual
purity. The most interesting texts in this field are the
collections of examples, of which the foremost is the
Mudhākarāt of Abū Ma'shar's pupil Shādhān. Histor-


ically many of these examples are extremely valuable
as they involve interrogations about their chances of
success posed by aspirants to political or military

Astrology and Religion. In Mesopotamia it was
customary to call the planets the stars of certain deities
(Šamaš and Sin, the Sun and Moon, were of course
always divinities), though cuneiform texts are not
always consistent in connecting the same god with the
same planet. But there were no religious activities
directed to these gods in their character as planetary
deities. The planets were divine, but they were not
gods to whom prayers, supplications, vows, or offerings
would be made. As there was no astrology in Mesopo-
tamia there could be no developed form of cults of
the planets.

This was true in pre-Hellenistic Greece also, of
course; the planets did not even receive their names
until the fourth century B.C. But already in the
Epinomis (which was probably written by Philip of
Opus) honor is to be paid to the planets, though more
through the study of astronomy than through priestly
ritual. As the concept of the cosmocrator (ruler of the
cosmos) developed, however, the position of the planets
in a hierarchy of divinities became clear.

Evidently it was first in Hermeticism that the posi-
tion of the planets as intermediaries between the One
and the sublunar world, which man inhabits, was
established; they operate in the celestial spheres as
manifestations of the divine will, and the demons act
on their behalf below the sphere of the Moon. With
this conception begins the long tradition of approach-
ing the One through the planets or the demons, a
tradition whose most common manifestation is in the
talismans of the theurgists. The theological quibbles
which arose over the interpretation of the precise
nature of planetary or stellar divinity need not detain
us here; it will suffice to mention Mithraists,
Chaldaeans (that is, followers of the Chaldaean
), and Neo-Platonists among the number of
those who normally believed that the astrological
power of the planets existed as part of the plan of the
Cosmocrator, and that the planets were in some sense
divine beings worthy of their own cults. A Cosmocrator
is also frequently met with in the various city-religions
of Syria in the first and following centuries A.D.; and
at Heliopolis and Palmyra anyway he is shown as
controlling the planets. But a cult of the planets in
this region at that time cannot be established. How-
ever, the Syrian background of such philosophers as
Bardesanes, Porphyrius, and Iamblichus make one sus-
pect that perhaps there was more to these religions
than the monuments tell us.

In many Gnostic sects the position of the planets
as subordinate to the supreme deity disappears, though
their astrological powers remain an integral part of
the cosmological system. They become the instruments
of the Spirit of Evil's plans, however, a part of the
vast machinery of the physical world devised by Satan
or his equivalent to serve as the prison of the captivated
portion of the Good which is shared by the souls of
men. The planets, then, are not gods to be praised and
propitiated, but demons to be overcome by the supe-
rior power of the soul cleansed of the impurities of
the elementary world.

In India the worship of the planets goes back to the
time of the introduction of planetary omens into San-
skrit literature on divination; it is, in fact, particularly
prevalent in the texts on military astrology. But it
flourished in India because Indians did not have the
Greek view of the celestial spheres as forming a cosmos,
as being a perfectly constructed and eternally moving
expression of the ideas of the demiurge. The planets,
of course, are divine, as are all parts of the world; they
particularly ought to be worshiped as they possess the
capability of affecting man's life. In this capability they
dispense of their own power, not that of a Cosmocra-
tor. They are, then, more easily persuaded to alter the
edict of Fate than would be, for example, the Neo-
Platonic planets.

In Sassanian Iran doctrines close to those of the
Gnostics prevailed; but there was some controversy
over whether the planets in their motions acted on
behalf of Ohrmazd or Ahriman. In any case, the imperial
iconography represented the King of Kings as a Cos-
mocrator ruling the motions of the heavenly bodies;
and the use of talismans to influence the planets, those
intermediaries between man and the supernatural
powers, was evidently widespread.

The most interesting case of an elaborate cult of the
planets, however, was at Harrān in northern Mesopo-
tamia. There the religious tradition—a mixture of
Hermetic, Neo-Platonic, Sassanian, and Indian ele-
ments known to us mainly through Arab descrip-
tions—centered entirely about the indirect worship of
the One through the planets and through certain Ideas.
To this end all of the paraphernalia of the rituals,
including the material and shapes of the temples, the
apparel of the officiating priests, and the objects sacri-
ficed were determined by astrology. In accordance with
the precepts of the Epinomis the Harrānians manifested
their awe of the planets by studying the science of their
motions, and are to be numbered among the foremost
astronomers of the ninth century; but they also magni-
fied the significance of astrological theories and prac-
tices beyond what any previous group had attempted.
The Muslims rewarded their faithfulness to the stars
with utter destruction.


The rise of modern science in the West has just as
effectively caused the annihilation of astrology as an
intellectually important idea at the present time,
though its popularity among the masses in the West
is increasing and it still has a significant following
among educated people in India. These last believers
better than I can foretell its future fate.


The following bibliography is intended only to acquaint
the reader with the most convenient guides to the vast
literature on astrology.

Babylonian celestial omens: P. Hilaire de Wynghene, Les
présages astrologiques
(Rome, 1932) and previous hit E next hit. Weidner, “Die
astrologische Serie Enûma Anu Enlil,” Archiv für
14 (1941/44), 172-95 and 308-18, and 17
(1954/56), 71-89. Greek astrology: A. Bouché-Leclercq,
L'astrologie grecque (Paris, 1899) and W. and H. G. Gundel,
Astrologumena (Wiesbaden, 1966). Indian astrology: D.
Pingree, Census of the Exact Sciences in Sanskrit
(Philadelphia, 1970, and following). Islamic astrology:
C. A. Nallino, “Astrologia previous hit e next hit astronomia presso i Musulmani.
1. Astrologia,” Raccolta di scritti editi previous hit e next hit inediti (Rome 1944),
5, 1-41. Astrology and religion: D. Amand, Fatalisme et
liberté dans l'antiquité grecque
(Louvain, 1945); F. Cumont,
Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans (New
York and London, 1912), and idem, Lux Perpetua (Paris,
1949); R. P. Festugière, La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste,
4 vols. (Paris, 1944-54); and H. Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles
and Theurgy
(Cairo, 1956).


[See also Cosmic Images; Cosmology; Demonology; Dual-
ism; Free Will and Determinism; Gnosticism; Hermeti-
Islamic Conception; Neo-Platonism; Prophecy;
Pythagorean...; Stoicism.]