A (Very) Brief History of Astrology

Astrology, in its Western origins and understanding of the planets and the Zodiac, is a form of divination that originated 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, or around modern-day Iraq. The earliest it was said to be practiced was 2000 BCE. From there, astrology went through various boom and bust cycles across Eurasia until it almost collapsed in Europe during the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century that astrology was revitalized in the West. By then, what is now called modern Western astrology looked and functioned very differently from its ancient Mesopotamian roots.

Before the development of light pollution, one could stand outside and view the night sky in all its glory. During the Mesopotamians’ time they did just that and discovered that there was some correlation between the movement of celestial bodies and events that occurred on Earth. They recorded these happenings as omens, or if-then statements where a celestial event coincided with a mundane incident. The oldest surviving archives of these omens were about lunar eclipses during the Babylonian period (2000-16000 BCE). For example, one cuneiform reads, “When Moon and Sun are in opposition on the 14th lunar day, the king of the realm will be possessed of an extensive ear.” What is interesting about these documents is that the Mesopotamians did not believe that the planets caused these events, but that the movement of the planets was their deities directly communicating with them. As a result, astrology at this point was akin to present-day “mundane astrology,” where the positions of the planets were interpreted to pertain to everyday life, such as the condition of the city-state and/or king. This led to astrology being supported by the state, understandably, where groups of astrologers were appointed under the king to interpret the deities’ intentions.

Ancient Mesopotamia
Source: Wikipedia

As time went on, the Mesopotamians realized they were a bit limited by simply observing the planets as they moved through the night sky. How could they know where a planet was previously and where it will be in the future when they did not have a complex database to reference beforehand? This led to the development of astronomy, more or less, where people developed complicated calculations to track the exact location of the planets as they passed through the sky. The specific path the seven observable planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) take even to this day is called the ecliptic. From Earth, the planets seem to move clockwise through a field of fixed stars that we now call constellations which we derive the Zodiac signs’ names from. The planets only pass through thirteen of the now 88 defined constellations in space. The constellations vary in size with some being rather small like Capricorn and Aries while others are rather large like Virgo and Aquarius.

It is likely because of the unevenness of the physical constellations that the Mesopotamians standardized the constellations into twelve “signs” with 30° in each segment. Although by this time (the 5th century BCE) the Mesopotamians allegedly did not assign any of the characteristics that we now take for granted to these Zodiacal signs, simplifying the Zodiac enabled the seeds of natal astrology to be planted as astrologers started to keep records of the planets’ positions during a person’s birth.

The Zodiacal wheel with the physical constellations
Source: Hillary Heydle

While the Mesopotamians were tracking the planets through the ecliptic and Zodiac, their neighbors to the West in Egypt were developing their own “astrology” via the fixed stars as well. The ancient Egyptian calendar was divided into twelve months of thirty days, where five days were added to the end of every year which gave them 365 days. (These five extra days, however, were primarily used for festivities.) Each month was then divided into thirds where each of those ten days was associated with a specific star or cluster of stars. This division became known as the thirty-six decans, which each had a unique name and deity assigned to it.

Some scholars believe the decans were created for timekeeping and/or calendrical reasons, but through the transmission of Mesopotamian astrology to the region, the decans began to be heavily linked with the twelve Zodiac signs. Indeed, by 200 BCE what is now called the “Dendera Zodiac” (a fancy name for a rendering of the Zodiac wheel a French artist found in The Temple of Hathor in Dendera, Egypt in 1799) began to appear on the ceilings of temples and on tombs. By around the 1st century BCE, the decans themselves were transformed into 10° segments within the Zodiac that had specific meaning. This development has led astrologers during the medieval and Renaissance periods such as William Lilly to transform the decans (also known as “face”) into an essential dignity, which described how auspiciously placed a given planet was.

The Dendera Zodiac
Source: Neues Museum, Berlin

This early synthesis was extremely important to the development of astrology because another mixing of the two regions’ own distinctive divination techniques blended once more during the Hellenistic period. From 323 BCE until 31 BCE, the Greeks ruled what is now present-day Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the western border of India. During the 3rd century BCE, it is believed that a Mesopotamian astrologer and historian by the name of Berossus diffused Mesopotamian astrology to the empire when he emigrated to a Greek island called Kos and set up an astrology school. Because this island was under the control of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt around 290 BCE, the island and the city of Alexandria were in direct contact. This connection allowed not only for a second synthesis between Mesopotamian and Egyptian astrological thought but also the birth of Hellenistic astrology, the precursor to modern-day Western astrology.

The Hellenistic period at its height
Source: Encyclopædia Britannica

Yes, it was in Hellenistic Egypt where the Egyptian understanding of the diurnal motion of the planets, where they rise, culminate, and rest at certain points of the day in relation to the decans met the Mesopotamian 360° rendition of the Zodiac that led to many innovative astrological methodologies such as the conception of the twelve houses along with the four angles. Some Egypt-based astrologers that became foundational to this newly forming astrology were Hermes, Asclepius, Nechepso, and Petosiris around the late 2nd century BCE or early 1st century BCE. The legend goes that Hermes Trismegistus wrote a text that was either foundational to astrology at this point in time or was derived from some other form of astrology that was already a mixture of Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions as mentioned above that got passed on to Ascelpius who passed it on to Nechepso and Petosiris. Things were added and tweaked which each passing but over time the writings of these four authors spread far and wide across the region to the point of being mythologized by later astrologers. Like the game telephone, this resulted in Hellenistic astrology becoming its own creature as we can trace the significations of the seven classical planets and the Zodiac (along with the essential dignities and debilities, triplicity lords, and four elements), sect, planetary joys, lots, and the whole sign house system back to these ancient peoples, especially when they were ruled by Rome where the practice flourished.

However, this knowledge is very new to Western astrologers. The numerous conquests of the areas where astrology developed and thrived led to a fracturing of the practice across many millennia. As was mentioned above, although what is now called Hellenistic astrology was born during the Hellenistic reign of Eurasia, the system actually grew during Rome’s (27 BCE–476 CE) expansion into the region (225–133 BCE). However, as the empire declined and slowly became Christianized, astrology similarly began to decline and be outlawed as well due to its perceived fatalism.

The Roman Empire at its biggest
Source: Andrei Nacu

While astrology was dying within the empire, it lived on in the surrounding areas as Hellenistic texts were translated and transmitted to other cultures, the most significant including India around the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, Persia in the 2nd century CE, and the Islamic empires and states of the 600s to the 1000s CE. Only by the 10th and 11th centuries CE did astrology suddenly revive in parts of Europe. Since Greek was still a commonly understood language in some Byzantine cities, including the capital of Constantinople, this allowed many scholars to read the numerous astrological texts that were preserved in the libraries of these cities. Byzantine astrologers even translated some medieval Arabic astrological texts into Greek as well. These developments turned to be tremendously important to the transmission of astrology to the rest of Europe around the 12th century CE due to the Second Crusade (1147–1149 CE).

The extent of the Byzantine Empire over the course of its life
Source: Encyclopædia Britannica

As Muslims conquered and ruled North Africa along with Spain and France from around the 600s to later 1400s, they stored countless astrological and scientific texts, including translated Greek material, into large libraries. As the crusaders took back parts of Spain, scholars across the continent flocked to these libraries and began translating these texts from Arabic into Latin. This led to a revitalization of astrology to the rest of Europe after several centuries of it effectively being dead in the region. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Europe was additionally gifted with more Greek astrological texts such as those by Claudius Ptolemy and Marcus Manilius which helped to establish astrology as both a widespread and accepted practice during the Renaissance period.

Although astrology really came back with a bang in Europe during the 14th and 16th centuries, it began to decline by the end of the 17th century. It seemed as though astrology was once again on its deathbed in the West until the late 19th century into the early 20th century. During this time people such as Theosophist Alan Leo in England was able to popularize astrology but in a simplified form in the early 20th century through his postal horoscope service, books, and his founding of the Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society. Others like Dane Rudhyar introduced in the 1930s what is commonly referred to as “psychological astrology” where a natal chart is interpreted as an extension of one’s self and psyche. Thus, delineations were focused less on prediction and more on character analysis and consultation, which became very popular during the New Age Movement in the ‘60s and lasted until the ‘80s.

Sun sign columns also made an appearance during the ‘30s and ‘40s in newspapers. The first horoscope column was written in the London’s Sunday Express on August 24, 1930. The paper’s editor John Gordon was brainstorming new ideas for a story when the princess was born. That’s when he thought a column foretelling Princess Margaret’s future would draw in the readers. He tried reaching out to the infamous astrologer Cheiro to pen the article. Born William Warner, Cheiro was an Irish astrologer who learned his craft (along with palmistry [cheiromancy] and Chaldean numerology) during a stay in India. Back in the UK, he read the fortune of many celebrities and royalty including Oscar Wilde, the Prince of Wales, and Thomas Edison. Likely because of his reputation, Cheiro himself was unable to read on the new princess, but his assistant Richard Harold Naylor did in an article titled, “What the Stars Foretell for the New Princess.” Unlike the horoscope columns we see today, Naylor looked at the Princess’s full natal chart, noting not just her Sun sign but other prominent planets such as her angular Saturn, Uranus, and Venus as well. The piece proved immensely successful and quickly became a weekly feature called “What the Stars Foretell” where Naylor described both mundane and birthday forecasts for each weekend. And the rest was history as other publications in newspapers to magazines and eventually books began churning out more modern yet simplistic takes on astrology.

The front page of The Express where Naylor read on the princess
Princess Margaret was an Aries rising, Leo Sun, and Cancer Moon
Source: Zodiacaidoz

So, where does that leave astrology today? Well, thanks to the internet, anyone with a decent connection can be exposed to any and all sorts of astrology from modern to traditional Western astrology to Indian, Celtic, Egyptian, Mayan, Chinese, or Islamic astrology. While horoscopes are not as popular as they used to be, the general public seems very knowledgeable about their Sun sign at the very least and the common, if not stereotypical, associations with it. Over the last decade or so, however, people’s individual understanding of astrology has seemed to become more nuanced as many young people in my age cohort can list off their Ascendant and Moon signs as well if not their entire chart. They may have varying levels of comprehension of these placements but the exposure to both certified and uncertified astrologers and enthusiasts online likely has had a hand in this new development.

Now I want to hear from you all. When did you first get exposed to astrology? Have you’ve stuck with it since then or are you more ambivalent towards it? Which type do you practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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