Origin of Astrology

When trying to define a thing, it’s generally easier to point at all the things it is not than to state what it is. But the question remains. What is astrology?

I prefer to approach this question first by considering astrology’s history, in particular its origins. Astrology as we know it was inherited from the Persians by the Greeks, though the Greeks would say they got it from Egypt. Both statements are probably true. But that’s not where astrology began. Astrology stretches back beyond the origins of writing, thus before history.

Astrology is a practice we have inherited from prehistory. Let your imagination run wild on that one.

Seriously. Imagine how this practice came to be. I expect that it is, in some form, more ancient even than language. The highly intelligent apes our pre-linguistic ancestors were would have been fully capable of looking up at the sky and noticing that a few of the stars changed position over time. Venus’ motion especially would have been difficult to miss.

Imagine that, as an ancient pre-human species, as some sort of reflective intelligence who spontaneously emerged from the world, more or less a clean slate from our perspective, you are standing on a hilltop, as the awe-inspiring brilliance of the night sky emerges from behind a veil of blue while the Sun finishes setting in all its many colors. At some point in this process a very bright star catches your attention and you stare at it for a long time, wondering what it is, and marveling at its beauty. It is bright, yes, and beautiful, for sure, but much more than that. It is much more than just that. You can feel it. You know it.

Pause. Keep in mind that you are an ancient human being in this scenario, a highly intelligent pre-literate, possibly pre-linguistic primate. You view the world in a way entirely unlike the way we do now. You don’t have language, or perhaps very little, yet you are a social, empathic creature capable of understanding, even if in a crude sense, that other minds exist. Your siblings had other minds, the birds have other minds, the lions have other minds, and so does the river, and so do the clouds, the trees, and the rocks.

Clearly, over time, you see that the very bright star has a distinct mind of its own, moving as it does against the backdrop of the other stars, who all retain a definite position relative to each other. It is perfectly natural for you to see this behavior of the wanderer and not only attribute mind to it, but also motives and desires. Where is it moving to? Where is it going, and why?

Then you find four more stars who do this exact same thing, each with a distinct personality, as determined by its brightness, color, speed and so on. After looking up at the night sky with nothing else to do except maybe sleep, for months and years on end, this will be nearly impossible for any reflectively aware intelligence to miss.

These wandering stars, you automatically see, have a place within the community of spirits, whom you recognize permeate all things.

For many, many thousands of years this is all there is to it. Humans lived out their lives as hunters and gathers (or whatever), aware of the presence of the Sun, the Moon, the many stars, and the five wanderers in the sky, who move about and watch over them, perhaps benevolently, perhaps not, but certainly, unmistakably there.

That was the beginning of astrology in my mind. It emerged simply, naturally, seamlessly, from an animistic view of nature which was capable of seeing the planets in the sky.

Eventually, people started to use their numbers, and eventually, as like Pythagoras and his cult, really, really came to appreciate them. Appreciation of number, even their worship, we could say, has continued throughout history, perhaps peaking today when collections of equations have essentially taken up the role of deity in the dominant culture and are asserted to be more real than anything else.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the merging of this appreciation of mathematics with ancient Babylonian myth grew into the astrology we know today — not modern psychological astrology, but the kind we actually inherited from our ancestors.

From the moment of its conception, astrology was held as obviously true, in some fashion. The most serious-minded skeptics of astrology throughout history, for example, Plotinus, generally did not criticize astrology as a whole but particular conceptions of it. Plotinus didn’t disregard astrology in the Enneads, but seemed to ask astrologers — philosophers — to think about their art more seriously, in particular, he challenged two notions: that the planets had a physical influence, and, on the other side of the spectrum, that the planets were incarnated gods. Even as the Christians came around, they couldn’t reject astrology, and this is strongly evidenced by all of the astrological references in the Bible. The church usually didn’t care for astrology, but the primary reason was that it threatened to usurp some of its control over the belief systems of its followers. Even Martin Luther had difficulties as people would distrust him for not having a proper birth time to provide.

Later, as the Copernican revolution sank into the collective psyche, the church’s near-complete hold upon the whole of western consciousness loosened and the Enlightenment took form, famously beginning with the statement cogito ergo sum, astrology began to fall out of favor, eventually to be fiercely opposed. Assumptions regarding how the world operated, and more importantly ideas about how and whether things can be known pulled the ground out from beneath astrology and cast it into the bin of “superstition.”

Superstition, by the way, is a meaningless word. The closest thing it has to a definition is, “Things I don’t believe and insist you don’t believe also.” This isn’t so obvious given that the dictionary has words in the place where a definition goes and that we expect dictionary definitions to be useful, but historically speaking a culture calls a superstition anything it doesn’t like of another culture. Consider Pliny, for example, the encyclopedist of the first century who hated the Magi of Persia passionately, and all things he called “magic,” yet who very clearly accepted as authentic quite a lot that we today would label as magic, such as the method of curing a headache by way of tying a plant that had grown on the head of a statue around your neck with a red string. To Pliny, the Magi were superstitious, to us, Pliny was superstitious, to others yet to come, we will be seen as superstitious for all of our hand-washing and probably  our fixations on our phones in the apparent implicit belief that they must be checked every fifteen seconds or something important might be lost.

But it might well be true. Any given thing labelled “superstitious” may well be true. Seriously, try Pliny’s headache trick, just for fun. Maybe it works. And maybe our phones are helpful, but hand washing is just a bunch of woo. Or vice versa. I don’t know.

Astrology was tossed into the bin of superstition for a number of reasons, and they’re all good reasons within the context of the given belief system — Enlightenment sensibilities — but astrology itself was never actually disproved. It was, rather, merely attacked mercilessly and wrestled into submission, eventually to be ignored and all but forgotten.

Western astrology practically died some time in the 19th century. When it began a small revival at the turn of the 20th century, it underwent a major transformation largely brought about by Alan Leo, father of Sun signs and modern psychological astrology. According to skyscript’s biography of the man, “He gradually discarded almost the entire list of zodiacal attributes, which had accumulated from the first to seventeenth centuries. He ignored physical characteristics to focus on inner character.”

Virtually no one who has learned astrology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has not been influenced by Alan Leo. The astrological tradition accumulated over those centuries had by his time mostly been lost in the first place. Modern astrology continued throughout the twentieth century, receiving special attention in the 1960’s, largely divorced from its origins. What remained of the tradition was mutated and repurposed. And so was the state of affairs until Robert Hand came along and in 1993, with Robert Schmidt, Ellen Black, and Robert Zoller (why are they all Robert?), began work on Project Hindsight.

By way of Rob Hand we are in a new phase of the astrological tradition in which people trained in the starved and corrupted astrology of Alan Leo are incorporating ancient techniques, associations, and insights, and yet others are learning astrology from the start directly from the ancient masters.

A lot of questions arise from this situation, and while I have so far had nothing nice to say about modern astrology I do not dismiss it out of hand, first because it does happen to exist, and second because the near-death and later reinvention of astrology brought us just a step closer to the position of that prehistoric man on the hill trying to figure everything out for the first time, while still living in the present. Granted, a good deal that has come of modern astrology is nonsense, as any decent modern astrologer can tell you of other modern astrologers, but modern astrology is primarily responsible for easing out the meanings of the outer planets — modern astrology is Uranian, Neptunian, and Plutonian. Modern astrology is, historically speaking, fresh, current. It is fuzzy-headed, high-minded (sometimes falsely), idealistic, escapist, and stubborn as all Hell. Eris came along with the revival of the old ways as the two smash together.

I’ll be clear. Attempting to revive the tradition by translating ancient books and learning the methods of the old masters through them probably will not of itself be fruitful. A tradition is a living thing passed on from human to human. No book can contain it without a human translator. Had that tradition not died out, it would have evolved with the rest of human thought. But it didn’t, couldn’t, do that, which leaves us to wonder what astrology should look like in the 21st century, informed by millennia-old manuscripts of nearly wholly alien worlds and modes of thought.

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Author: cazimi3

Amateur philosopher, long-time monster trainer, and aspiring mad scientist turned starving artist.

7 thoughts on “Origin of Astrology”

  1. I like the metaphor of the star gazer on the hilltop. If on a windy night, you stand among the pines on a Mediterranean hilltop and you’re even a little bit sensitive to your surroundings, you’ll notice that everything around you dances with the air. At least in this tradition, the sky has always been the realm of spirits rising in significance the higher you go, which is probably universal if you consider that many cultures interpret windy nights as the wrath of the sky demons. In Pythagorianism, the air between us and the Moon is inhabited by the sky daemons who serve as the intercessors between us and the Gods who inhabit stellar space beyond the boundary of the Moon. Hecate as the Moon goddess is the gate-keeper, the daemoniarch, ruler of these spirits. When perception becomes unfocused from the mundane -animals like us and what we consider to have social meaning- and encompasses all sound, movement and the view of the heavens, a primordial cosmic terror seeps in. When I was watching the supermoon solar eclipse last year, my skin was crawling as the dark shapes in the trees moved and I hardly felt alone during the whole thing.

    Roman superstitio always seemed to me to be an attempt of social control. Magic and divination have usually been seen as socially dangerous -sometimes for good reason. Depending on what society someone espouses -and the Romans were into absolutism in the Imperial era-, citizens having more agency than simple subjects is a bad thing. Not that citizens having more agency is always a good thing, magical powers and the stress of feeling threatened can lead to mass hysterias. But the late Greek philosophical currents -Stoics and Epicureans mostly- that were sucking up to Imperial power at the time preferred the stable human universe of the Imperium where no outside force was overpowering so that focus on the self would be easier. Focus on the self. The upper Roman classes during those last few centuries before the end of Antiquity had started to construct a similar if not elementally the same kind of individualist selfishness that’s eating away at our modern societies like a cancer.

    I’m damn glad I can write under pseudonyms. In any public capacity I’d have to focus exclusively on aspects of social control and avoid saying anything bad about our modern status as consuming idiots.

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    1. I don’t see why you’d have to avoid saying anything bad about our modern status as consuming idiots. It isn’t novel or forbidden and few really disagree in general. Even they kind of get that look on their face to show they feel they’ve said something stupid. It’s my experience, anyway. It’s an elephant-in-the room topic, or rather a topic we’re all tired of hearing about, having heard it from so many sources for so long with no way of understanding a change from it that some people try to defend it merely for viewing it as inescapable — just how people who have been kidnapped can come to love their captors.

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      1. The problem is my starting point before I reach that conclusion. In my usual circle, if I say that the alienation resulting from the economic construction of consumer industrial societies has reached such a point that we’ve lost the poetics of love for example, most will agree, as long as I don’t dare say that there’s anything non-neuronal in all of that. But if I say that we’re losing an essential connection with a spiritual dimension that modern scientific culture doesn’t encompass, they’ll just tell me “what are you talking about you dirty hippy?”.

        In academic settings, and non-cultural humanities in particular, value judgements are seen as subjective and to be avoided, especially if the point of view that leads to them is spiritual a.k.a hyper-subjective but there’s a slight implicit tolerance to criticism if it somehow makes industrial Western civilisation to be the superior culture versus either ancient precedents or foreign ones. In cultural studies, you can probably reach that conclusion using spiritual arguments as long as you’re talking up some oppressed group that has developed some form of spirituality in their struggle against da man. If that’s not the case, you’re immediately called a reactionary and a crypto-conservative religionist. In that particular mine-field, you also get called a reactionary and a crypto-conservative proponent of scientism if you dare say that some group’s beliefs are completely irrational.

        You’re right that it’s a banal conclusion and everyone more or less agrees but they tend to agree only if the packaging fits their favorite ideological brand and while I agree with many of the politica/scientific/whatever arguments that also lead up to it, I get really tired of not mentioning the spiritual ones that I see as equally important.

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