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The Ancient Origins of Astrology

Astrology is a type of divination based upon the idea that information about the future or about a person’s personality can be discovered through examining the alignment of stars, planets, moons and comets. Astrology attempts to interpret the influence of these celestial bodies on human affairs.

Our ancestors watched the constellations change their appearance in the night sky and, with the birth of agriculture, took note of the positions of the stars to assist in seasonal planning for planting and cropping. Over time they observed that the rising of star groups heralded annual floods, information vital to managing crops. We have evidence that as long as 25,000 years ago ancient peoples painted on cave walls and made marks on bones to record lunar cycles in an attempt to understand and predict the Moon’s influence on tides and rivers, the first astronomy calendars.

Only in recent times have astrology and astronomy been separated, so the history of astrology goes hand in hand with the history of astronomy.

It is difficult to know exactly when and where astrology appeared as it seems that astrology developed relatively independently in ancient Mesopotamia, India, China and Mesoamerica. What we do know is that the practice of astrology has been prevalent since ancient times in numerous cultures.

MESOPOTAMIA

Ancient Babylonian Horoscope
Ancient Babylonian Horoscope

The patterns formed by stars in the galaxy, or Prominent constellations as we know them, were recognised and named soon after 3000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). The five wandering stars, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, were identified which, along with the Sun and moon, formed the seven original planets. A sophisticated awareness of celestial cycles developed to the point that the Mesopotamians oriented their temples to create alignment with the heliacal risings of stars.

The oldest known astrological references are found in Babylonian Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. These are reputedly copies of texts dating back to the reign of King Sargon of Akkad (2334- 2279 BCE), although this disputed in academic circles. Other astological observations have been found on cuneiform tablets known as the Enema Anu Enlil, comprising seventy cuneiform tablets summarising 7,000 celestial omens These date to between 1350 and 1100 BCE.

Apart from being centres of medicine, Baghdad and Damascus were also known as centers of astrology and astronomy. Arabs were pioneers in astronomy before even the advent of Islam. The Babylonians were the first to name the days of the week after the Sun, Moon, and planets. They were also the first to set out the twelve houses of the horoscope.

EGYPT

Egypt was one of the most important places in the development of astrology and credit for its invention was often given to the Egyptians at the expense of the Babylonians. Some scholars believe that some of the astrological signs of the zodiac originated in Egypt. Ancient writers attributed astrology to the pharaohs such as Nechepso and Petosiris, although this is disputed by modern historians.

In the second century CE, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, Egypt codified astrology in his Tetrabiblos (four books). For Ptolemy, the Earth was the centre of the universe with planets and stars orbiting in a series of complex cycles and epicycles with hiss universe placed (cycles within cycles). This work laid the basis of the Western astrological tradition and was the main source of reference for a well-over a thousand years. It was translated from Arabic into Latin by Plato of Tivoli (Tiburtinus) in Spain in 1138 and was one of the first astrological texts to be circulated in Medieval Europe. Ptolemy’s way of understanding the universe was not abandoned until the late sixteenth century.

GREECE

ancient_greece_buildings
Ancient Greek Temple

By the first century CE the language of astrology was Greek with the planets and constellations being linked with the gods and goddesses of Greek myth. Previously, the focus of astrology had been on worldly activities and the affairs of state and kings, it now developed a role in casting the fortunes of people. The term horoscope is derived from the Greek “hora” meaning time and “skopos” meaning observer and was usually used to indicate the ascendant or rising sign.

The Greeks tried to predict the positions of celestial bodies relative to each other and the earth through knowledge of their orbital motions. By the first century CE the horoscopic astrology was in place, although it may date from earlier.

During this time, astrology was a part of astronomy. Later, astronomy became to be seen as an exact science and Astrology was seen as part of Theology.

INDIA

India has had its own system of astrology from as early as 1000 BCE, it is a matter of debate as to what extent Greek influence was possibly introducing the Western zodiac to India. We do know however that Astrology was practiced even in the Vedic times in India. Astrology is one of the six disciplines of the Vedanga, known as Jyotisha (jyotiṣa) which included predicting auspicious time for rituals, astrology and astronomy. 

The Hindus believe that human fortune or misfortune in life is due to karma, and karm is believed to be influenced by the movements of the planets.

In Modern India too, astrology is extensively used to determine the future and improve life. It is used to make decisions about marriage, starting a new business, or moving into a new house.

CHINA

ancient_chinese_zodiac
Chinese Zodiac

Chinese astrology emphasises the four elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Even the zodiac signs used by Chinese Astrology are different from other forms of astrology. China was isolated from the western civilizations for a long time. That is why for hundreds of years Chinese astrology was unknown to the western world.

The Chinese zodiac consists of twelve animals that first appeared in the Zhan Guo period [5th century B.C.]. No one knows the exact date as of when the zodiac was essentially created, but they were officially identified during the Han Dynasty [206 B.C.–9 A.D.], which was over 2000 years ago.

The zodiac became a popular way to determine a person’s birth year during the North Zhou Dynasty [557-581 A.D.] and is still very commonly used today. The zodiac is calculated by a cycle of sixty years in which each animal signifies a different year.

The lunar calendar paved the sequence of the Chinese zodiac animals. This calendar can be traced back to the 14th century B.C. Myths say that Emperor Huangdi, the first Chinese emperor, in 2637 B.C. invented the Chinese lunar calendar, which follows the cycles of the moon. (source https://depts.washington.edu/triolive/quest/2007/TTQ07030/history.html).

EARLY ARABIC ASTROLOGY

Following the collapse of Alexandria in the seventh century, Islamic scholars took up astrology with great enthusiasm. Baghdad acted as a centre of learning and included in its design a library/translation centre which provided a major impetus for Arabic-Persian translations of Hellenistic astrological texts. Early translators included Mashallah, who helped to elect the time for the foundation of Baghdad, and Sahl ibn Bishr (Zael), whose texts had a strong influence on later European astrologers.

meso-american-astrology
Mesoameican astrology

MESOAMERICA

A unique form of astrology was developed in the Mesoamerican region of the New World, today’s Mexico and northern Central America, possibly as far back as 3,000 years ago.

“The core of this astrological tradition is a sequence of 20 day-signs that cycle within a 260-day astrological calendar. This 260-day count of days and signs, sometimes called the sacred calendar or divinatory calendar, was used by all the major cultures of ancient Mesoamerica right up to the Aztecs, and it is still being used by the Maya in the more remote sections of Mexico and Guatemala. The Maya call it the tzolkin, which means day, sun and time.”

(source: https://astrologynewsservice.com/articles/learning-the-mesoamerican-zodiac).

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