Chris Mitchell

The History of Astrology

Chris Mitchell


The MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology weaves together numerous strands of astrology, cosmology and culture. Previous articles in the Newsletter have discussed many of the modules taught on the MA. Some have covered how astrology is used as a tool, whether it is Western psychological astrology in the twenty-first century, or watching the sky for omens in ancient Babylon; some have investigated the intimate relationship between humanity and the sky, and how this relationship is portrayed in art and in sacred landscapes and buildings. The History module looks at where our astrology comes from, and how it has developed and changed over time.

Fig. 1. Astrolabe. Cairo 1236. British Museum

Fig. 1. Astrolabe. Cairo 1236. British Museum

This is an important strand, since the various forms of astrology practiced in the world today do not sit in splendid isolation from the cultures around them. The Vedic astrologer in India dispensing marriage advice and the Jungian therapist in London using astrology to help her clients may be applying very different techniques, but those techniques haven't materialised out of nothing - they have a long history that helps us put those techniques into context, and tell us something about how astrology has survived and grown over time, through numerous cultures, religions and power structures.

Dr Nicolas Campion opening the conference

Fig. 2. Mulapin. Babylonian Cunieform Tablet. c1000BCE British Museum

The History module covers a broad sweep of history, starting with the sky-watchers of ancient Babylon, and going up to the astrology revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It looks at the transmission of ideas in astrology - how astrological concepts travelled through time and place, from the omen literature of Babylon developing into a visual astrology and a proto-zodiac with names we would all recognise, into classical Greece where these ideas were formalised into a more mathematical framework, and via pagan Rome into the neighbouring Persian empire. In the 7th century, the new burgeoning religion of Islam, in contrast to its polytheistic forbears, might have been hostile to such pagan concepts, but instead embraced astrology from the classical world, Persia and India (to where classical Greek concepts had found their way during the time of Alexander the Great). These classical ideas were stirred together in the melting pot of great centres of Islamic learning stretching from Afghanistan to Spain.

Fig. 3. Gemini. Persian. c1630. British Museum

Fig. 3. Gemini. Persian. c1630. British Museum

Islamic and Jewish scholars kept the tradition alive and well, translating classical texts into Arabic and Hebrew as well as innovating astrological techniques in this new monotheistic Islamic world. Despite the clash of cultures between medieval Christianity and Islam and the appalling brutality of the Crusades, these Arabic and Hebrew texts provided a treasure-trove for scholars in the twelfth century, who enthusiastically devoured the newly-discovered Arabic science. They translated long-lost classical texts from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin and started a mini renaissance of learning that was adopted by the new universities appearing across Christian Europe.

This learning carried on into the Renaissance, where new discoveries about the structure of the solar system eventually led to a schism between astronomy and astrology, and astrology faced new challenges, with some scholars attempting to reform it, while others rejected it out of hand. Classical astrology languished in the doldrums for a while, but was revitalised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when movements such as Theosophy redefined astrology as a spiritual tool, and its subsequent development into psychological astrology.

Fig. 4. Blagrave. 1682. British Museum

Fig. 4. Blagrave. 1682. British Museum

I would argue that the history of astrology is an important topic to study, since in the twenty-first century the mainstream perception of astrology is one of horoscope columns and zodiac signs, used merely as a form of light entertainment. Popular science documentaries portray it as a ridiculous pseudo-science, while the Catholic catechism condemns astrology as "contradicting the honour, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone" in a section that also forbids "recourse to Satan".[1] It is therefore important to put the history of astrology into context.

Fig 5. Maimonides. Cordoba. 2013. Photo: Chris Mitchell

Fig 5. Maimonides. Cordoba. 2013. Photo: Chris Mitchell

It is true that the Catholic church has had a difficult relationship with astrology since the church's inception, but nevertheless it was an essential requirement of the church to be able to understand lunar and solar cycles in order to calculate the date of Easter. Similarly, although Jewish scholars were divided on the legitimacy of astrology, many were active astrologers. The Persian Jew Masha'allah worked for the Islamic caliph al-Mansur and was part of a team that used electional astrology to determine the best date for the caliph's new capital of Baghdad, and ibn Ezra in the eleventh century wrote various astrological texts. However, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher and astronomer Maimonides was opposed to astrology and wrote a cutting response to the rabbis of Southern France who wrote to him enquiring about the use of astrology, describing it as "foolishness".[2]

Fig 6. Astrological Conference. Groningen. 2014. Photo: Chris Mitchell

Fig 6. Astrological Conference. Groningen. 2014. Photo: Chris Mitchell

Thus astrology has always been something of a controversial science, and treated by religious authorities with a certain amount of suspicion. Nevertheless, its perceived usefulness meant that astrology - including its use in prediction and for decision-making - was taught in monastic schools and formed an integral part of the curricula of universities with the church's blessing. It was considered a science in the broadest sense throughout the medieval period and has driven the development of scientific disciplines.[3] Astrological terms and imagery abound not only in medieval art and the literature of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but in the English language of today. Throughout its long history, astrology has been an essential component of science, religion, literature and art and an integral part of humanity's fascination with the sky. This module examines its growth and development, and it is an essential one as it is vital for students to be able to put their own specialist topics into context.

(Tutors on the History module are: Nick Campion, Dorian Greenbaum, Darrelyn Gunzburg, Bernadette Brady and Chris Mitchell).

Images:
Fig's. 1, 2, 3, 4, Can be seen in the British Museum. Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum; works licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.
Fig's. 5, 6, Chris Mitchell, 2013. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence".


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116
[2]'The Correspondence between the Rabbis of Southern France and Maimonides about Astrology", Meira Epstein, ARHAT 1998].
[3] See for instance Thorndike, L.. (1955). The True Place of Astrology in the History of Science. Isis, 46 (3), 273-278





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