The material presented here originally was an introduction that I wrote to a volume of Project Hindsight translations called “The Record of the Early Sages in Ancient Greek.” It consisted of fragments and quotations that either were directly from the oldest sources in Middle Eastern and Western astrology, or were paraphrases of material that *derived from these sources.
Since there has recently been posted on alt.astrology an article called “A Brief Introduction to the History of Astrology” which contains a large number of factual errors. We at Project Hindsight thought it a good idea to present another view. We do not expect everyone to accept the views presented in this paper, but the readers should be aware that these views are close to those shared by the majority of responsible scholars in the history of astrology. (No, I am not calling all who disagree with these views irresponsible, although no doubt some may be.)
For those who may not be aware of it, Project Hindsight is a project which aims at nothing less than the translation of the entire corpus of surviving Greek astrology as well as the translation of as much of the Medieval Latin tradition as is practical. We are and will be also doing translations from Hebrew, Sanskrit, and we hope Arabic. At this point I believe that we can say that our collective work represents the largest available body of material on the History of Astrology in English today. Therefore I believe we have some idea of what we are talking about even while recognizing we may have to change our views based on what further research brings forth. We can be contacted at
The Golden Hind Press
P.O. Box 002
Berkeley Springs, WV 25411
Tel. (304) 258-5873
Or http://www.projhind.comThe Paper
The account which we present here is mostly derived from mainstream academic sources, although we will also present some of our own speculations in areas where there is no clear evidence. We do not present such speculations whimsically but only where internal evidence seems to justify them, and always they will be presented with clear indications that they are speculations.
On the other hand, because we have drawn from Western academic sources, one could object that this account does not take into consideration possible alternate views that might be derived, for example, from the study of the astrologies of India. This might be a valid objection, but we would like to assure the reader that we do not accept academic positions on the history of astrology uncritically. We try to accept only what is consistent with the internal evidence of the texts themselves. We also recognize that what we say here is not to be taken as definitive. There is much to be learned about the history of astrology, especially now that it is being carefully studied by those who are not hostile to the subject.
Based on the above considerations, it is the thesis of this author that astrology as we know it came into being only once in time and in one place; the place is Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq) and the time is to be discussed below. Having said this, another point needs to be made; what we mean by “astrology as we know it” is horoscopic astrology, i.e., astrology the intention of which is the picking of favorable times for doing things, the answering of questions, the forecasting of mundane events, and the analysis of individual destiny, all based on a peculiar instrument, the theme, genesis, or birthchart.
And that chart has a particular degree or sign which is marked as the beginning point of analysis. It is usually the degree or sign ascending, although for particular purposes the Sun, Moon, or Lot of Fortune may be used as well.
The reason for making this very specific definition of “astrology as we know it” is that in a broader sense some kind of astrology is nearly universal among ancient peoples and is not limited to either one time or place as its point of origin. Almost every ancient people had some system of examining the heavens for divinatory purposes. Native Americans, Greeks (long before they encountered Mespotamian astrology), the peoples of India, whoever it was that built Stonehenge and New Grange in the British Isles, and the ancient Nordic peoples, to give a partial list. Much of the controversy concerning the antiquity of various peoples’ astrologies stems from confusion over this very point. The study of celestial omens without a chart does not constitute astrology as we know it.
Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Two Rivers,” is one of the so-called “cradles” of civilization, along with Egypt, China, the Indus Valley and Meso-America. It also appears to be the oldest of these. The evidence indicates an urban civilization as early as 4000 B.C.E. The first people in the area were a people known as the Ubaidians. We know virtually nothing about these people except that at a fairly early period another people began moving into the area and intermarrying with them. These were the Sumerians who became dominant and whose language replaced whatever was the language of the Ubaidians. Also the Sumerians invented the oldest known form of writing, cuneiform, which is done by impressing wedge-shapes into soft clay.
After a period of time Semitic peoples began moving into the area as well. The first of these were the Akkadians centered around their city of Akkad. In about 2330 B.C.E. Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerians and created the first of several Semitic empires that would dominate not only Mesopotamia but also the Mediterranean coast and eventually even Egypt. The language of the Akkadians was the direct ancestor of the Assyrian and Babylonian languages, these being in fact dialects of Akkadian.
The Akkadian Empire fell in about 2218 B.C.E. After this various Semitic and other peoples struggled for control of the area. This constant struggle among various peoples in fact marks the major difference between the Mespotamian civilization and that of Egypt. Egypt had many centuries of relative peace with occasional periods of disturbance, but nothing like the chaos of Mesopotamia.
After a period of time in the second millennium B.C.E. two peoples began to assume dominance, the Babylonians who had been culturally dominant for many centuries in the south, and the Assyrians in the north. As it turned out, while both groups were politically dominant at times, in general it can be said that the Assyrians were more often politically dominant while the Babylonians were culturally dominant. In fact the Assyrians even used the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian for their own official records.
Here are some dates in Mesopotamian history from this point on. All dates assume that something like the modern system of chronology. Even in modern sources these dates vary. The ones here are from the 1994 version of Microsoft’s Encarta®.
- 1792-1750 B.C.E. Hammurabi unifies the area around Babylon.
- 1350 B.C.E. The rise of the Assyrian Empire.
- 730-650 B.C.E. Assyrian Empire controls all of Mesopotamia, parts of Persia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. This is also notable as the first time that Egypt and Babylon were under the same regime.
- 612 B.C.E. The fall of Assyria and the rise of the Second Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian people that brought this about were also known as Chaldeans, hence the term Chaldean Empire.
- 539 B.C.E. The conquest of Babylonia by Persia. For a second time Egypt and Babylon were under one regime.
- 331 B.C.E. The conquest of Mesopotamia by Alexander the Great. The entire area becomes dominated by Greek language and culture. The Seleucid dynasty descended from Alexander’s general Seleukos ruled the area including Mesopotamia.
- 126 B.C.E. The Parthians, a Persian tribe, conquered Mesopotamia.
- 227 C.E. The Sassanids, a people from the central area of Persia, overthrow the Parthians and establish the Second Persian Empire, or Sassanid Empire.
- 635 C.E. The Moslem Arabs overthrow the Sassanid Empire and Mesopotamia comes under the rule of various Caliphates.
Before moving on to a discussion of how and where astrology evolved, let us give a similar chronology for Egypt.
- 3200 B.C.E. First evidence of strong political forces in the Nile basin. Also the earliest hieroglyphic writings. Evidence of a fairly high culture in the area precedes this by several centuries.
- c.2755-2255 B.C.E. The Old Kingdom. The pyramids date from this time. The first solar calendar was developed.
- c.2255-2134 B.C.E. Interregnum.
- c.2134-1668 B.C.E. The Middle Kingdom.
- c.1668-1570 B.C.E. The second interregnum, the period of the Hyksos, a race of probable Semites dominated Egypt during this period.
- 1570-1070 B.C.E. The New Kingdom. This is the period of the Kings Amenhotep, Akhnaten, Tutankhamem, and the various Kings Rameses. The exodus of the Israelites is widely believed to have occurred in this period.
- 1070 – 671 B.C.E. The third interregnum. Various regional dynasties ruled. In 671 B.C.E. the Assyrians conquered Egypt for a time.
- 525 B.C.E. The Persians overthrew the last native ruler of Egypt.
- 332 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. It then came under the rule of the Ptolemies descended from Ptolemy I, another of Alexander’s generals.
- 30 B.C.E. Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, dies and the Romans take over.
Subsequently Egypt fell under Arabic rule at about the same time as the Sassanid Empire was overthrown.