The History of Astrology -- Another View
by Robert Hand
Mesopotamian Astrology First Stages
If Venus appears in the East in the month Airu and the Great and
In the beginning Mesopotamian astrology was much like that of other cultures,
a simple examination of the heavens for omens that might affect the kingdom.
Often these observations of omens would include weather phenomena intermixed
with true astronomical ones. What made the Mesopotamians different is that
they began at an early time to make systematic observations of phenomena with
an eye to finding regular patterns in the heavens that might correlate with
patterns in human events.
According to Van der Waerden (Science Awakening, Vol. II, Oxford Univ. Press)
the earliest astronomical writings known in Mesopotamia are from the old
Babylonian period, roughly the time of Hammurabi. It is not known whether the
Sumerians were involved in astronomical studies or not, but it would seem
plausible that they were. There are also some writings which refer to the
Akkadian period and which may date from about 2300 B.C.E. Here is an example
of one of these early writings.
Small Twins surround her, all four of them, and she is dark, then
will the King of Elam fall sick and not remain alive.
The most extensive omen lore was contained in a compilation referred to as
Enuma Anu Enlil. These were assembled somewhere in the second millennium
B.C.E. Another collection of omens is an important work, the dating of which
is extremely controversial, the Venus Tables of Ammizaduga. This consists of
systematic observations of the phases of Venus combined with their omen
significations, the significations being clearly based on past observations.
The general belief is that these tables date from the reign of Ammizaduga
about 146 years after Hammurabi. Based on the astronomy, van der Waerden
assigns the following years as possible dates for the observations, 1702,
1646, 1638, and 1582 B.C.E. One of the reasons that these dates have become
controversial in certain circles is that if these dates are correct, then
Velikovsky is seriously in error. That controversy is outside of this scope of
this introduction however, and we will continue on the assumption that
orthodox scholarship is at least reasonably correct. Still I urge readers to
take the dates with extreme caution. The Babylonians themselves, much like
modern Hindus, attributed an antiquity to themselves and their observations
that seems fantastic by modern Western standards, hundreds of thousands, even
millions of years. Such antiquity is not consistent with the evidence of
scholarship, but we have to keep something of an open mind. Scholars are often
limited by their very specialization with the result that one discipline, such
as modern astronomy for example, may often have powerful consequences for
another such as archeology. The work of Gerald Hawkins on Stonehenge comes to
mind. But first someone has to bring the two disciplines together. This may
yet happen in Mesopotamian studies in such a way as to radically alter our
Van der Waerden concludes that the Venus tables were compiled and preserved
out of motives of astral religion, i.e., the Mesopotamians believed that the
stars and planets were associated with, or were in fact themselves the gods.
Ishtar-Venus was one of the major divinities of the Mesopotamian peoples. Many
other ancient peoples had similar notions. The Egyptians identified the
constellation of Orion with Osiris. But Osiris was a dead god who ruled the
underworld. His transportation to the heavens was very similar to other
transportations made in classical mythology. The Mesopotamians seem to have
been unique in their emphasis on the stars and planets as being the primary
indicators of divine will in the Here and Now. This is the probable motive of
the studies that led to astrology.
Over the next centuries the Mesopotamians, especially the Babylonians,
continued observing and compiling lists of phenomena eventually getting to the
point where, based on observed recurrence cycles of the planets, they could
reasonably accurately estimate the positions of the planets at any time in the
future. Ptolemy records, and modern scholarship does not dispute this, that
accurate and systematic eclipse records were kept from 747 B.C.E. onward into
the Hellenistic period after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
An interesting question about which there is much controversy is what kind of
zodiac were the Mesopotamians using? In the earlier material they simply
recorded planets as being so many degrees from a star.
19 from the Moon to the Pleiades; 17 from the Pleiades to Orion;
14 from Orion to Sirius. . .
This is de facto a sidereal observation, but it is not a zodiac! A zodiac
requires a fiducial point, a point on the circle from which measurements are
made. Also normally a zodiac has some fixed number of regular divisions such
as the twelve signs of the modern zodiacs, the twenty-seven lunar mansions of
the Hindu lunar zodiac and so forth. But all of these early observations are
like this one in using individual stars as markers for positions.
Van der Waerden argues that the evolution of astrology went through three
phases. The first phase consists of the omen lore that we have already
described. The second phase is closely related to this but has a zodiac in the
modern sense, twelve 30 degree signs. There is no personal horoscopy in this
middle level, but great attention is paid to the transits of Jupiter through
the signs at the rate of approximately one sign per year. From this is clearly
descended the Chinese practice of assigning each year to a zodiacal sign, and
probably also the system of annual profections in later horoscopic astrology.
There are also of course no houses of any kind. Van der Waerden dates this
middle phase as being from about 630 to 450 B.C.E.
The zodiac at this point is clearly a sidereal one and its ayanamsha is at
least close to the Fagan-Allen value.
The third phase is horoscopic astrology. Various ancient sources mention
"Chaldeans" who cast birthcharts for various persons, including Diogenes
Laertius who said that according to Aristotle, a Chaldean forecast Socrates'
death from his birthchart, and that Euripides' father also had his son's chart
read getting a forecast of his brilliant career. The reference to Chaldeans of
course refers to astrologers and makes it clear that the art in this period
was completely associated with late Babylonians, i.e., Chaldeans.
Several birthcharts have been found written in cuneiform. Most of them date
from well within the Hellenistic era, but the oldest has been dated by A.
Sachs to April 29, 410 B.C. Here is the translation as given by Fagan.
1 Month (?) Nisan (?) night (?) of (?) the (?) 14th (?). . .
2 son of Shuma-usur, son of Shumaiddina, descendant of Deke was
3 At that time the Moon was below the "Horn" of the Scorpion
4 Jupiter in Pisces, Venus
5 in Taurus, Saturn in Cancer.
6 Mars in Gemini, Mercury which had set (for the last time) was
(still) in (visible).
7 . . . etc., etc.
As the reader can see this is a very rough chart with only sign positions
given, and no delineations at all. The other cuneiform charts, though much
later, are almost as terse, although positions are given to much greater
As Cyril Fagan correctly points out, the positions in the charts also
correspond more nearly to those of the sidereal zodiac using the Fagan-Allen
ayanamsha than to tropical positions.
But do we have at this point anything like the elaborate horoscopic astrology
of the later Hellenistic era? No we do not! Although academic historians have
not uncovered much concrete information about the evolution of astrology after
the early Babylonian charts, there is considerable internal evidence for the
place of origin in the earliest texts. Many of these old texts are contained
within this volume (referring to the Project Hindsight volume). According to
these texts the birthplace of astrology as we know it is Egypt.
This would not have been a surprise to Cyril Fagan. He maintained almost alone
that Egypt had been the birthplace of horoscopic astrology. The trouble with
his theory however is that he believed that horoscopic astrology came into
being in the Egypt of the pharaohs. For this there is very little evidence
outside of Fagan's own somewhat questionable interpretations of the evidence.
It was a later Egypt that gave birth to horoscopic astrology, an Egypt that
had made close contact with the ideas of the Babylonians.
Pharaonic Egypt had a great interest in astronomy. This is evident in too many
ways to mention. But it was the kind of astronomy that involved stars rather
than planets. The Egyptians were masters of aligning buildings, temples and
especially the pyramids to fixed stars, apparently in an effort to bring about
sympathy between terrestrial structures and the stars with which they were
Their ability to survey and align buildings with stars was incredibly
accurate, often within minutes of arc of the perfect alignment. But they do
not seem to have had any planetary theory, nor did they have the proper
The Mesopotamians inherited the sexagesimal system of numbers from the
Sumerians, a system which used place notation in numbers much like our modern
decimal system, and which had sexagesimal fractions very similar in kind to
our decimal fractions. This enabled the Mesopotamians to do complex
computations that would have been difficult in any other ancient system of
numerical notation. The other ancient peoples paid Mesopotamian mathematical
notation the supreme compliment. They used it whenever they had to do similar
calculations of their own. The Egyptians had nothing like it. But they did
have a strong sense of a need for terrestrial matters to be brought into
synchrony with the heavens.
The critical factors in the fusion of Egyptian ideas with Babylonian astronomy
was one or both of two historical events, the conquest of Egypt by Persia, and
the conquest of both Persia and Egypt by Alexander the Great. On both of these
occasions Egypt was brought under the same regime as the Babylonians. In the
case of the Persian Empire, the Persians themselves became ardent devotees of
astrology which no doubt assisted the movement of astrological ideas into
And if you were to examine the texts included in the volume on the Sages, you
would discover something that is not all obvious from history texts that deal
with astrology. The ancients clearly knew that astrology had something to do
with Babylon (after all they did call astrologers Chaldeans) but the principle
credit was given to the Egyptians. It is customary among academics to pass
this off as something that was merely a fashion among ancient writers with no
real historical basis. And in fact the ancient writers did often attribute
astrology to persons dating back to the pharaohs such as Nechepso and
Petosiris. Nevertheless, there is no reason to assume that the ancients were
not correct as to Egypt's being the primary source of horoscopic astrology; it
was just somewhat later than they supposed.
Copyright 1996 © by Robert
Our thanks to email@example.com (Tees Reitsma) for initiating contact with Mr.
Hand and securing his permission to post this material to the Oracle-a list. And our thanks
to Mr. Hand for giving us permission to post his material here.
Mr. Hand has been doing translations of ancient
and medieval astrology texts now for almost three years with Project Hindsight and that
effort has published
over 2000 pages of translations and commentary. If anyone is interested in
further information on Project Hindsight, they have a web page at
Small warning: have your modem at maximum speed. The graphics take a long time
Click your BACK BUTTON to return to the Astrology Deepartment
AccessNewAge Home Page
Looking Deeper Magazine