A Reasonable Origin for Belief in Astrology

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by Neil Godfrey

I suppose I have always heard, read and assumed that the science of astronomy grew out of the pseudo-scientific practice of astrology. Well, maybe not so. I translate from a German study of the history of Mithraism first published in 1984.

The Stoic school, however, proceeded somewhat differently [from Plato’s proposal that the planets were self-willed and self-moving gods]: the logos (“thought”) governs the entire cosmos, within which there is harmony that regulates its parts. On Earth, the sun determines the alternation of the seasons, and the moon influences the female cycle; in the early 1st century BCE, the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apamea in Syria observed that the moon also caused the tides. Since the two great celestial bodies induced such effects, it was hypothesized that the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn also influenced human existence. Observations were collected regarding the connection between zodiacal constellations and human fate, initially with the legitimate intention of verifying a scientific hypothesis based on observed facts (a false hypothesis, but this was not known a priori). This led to the development of a vast astrological system, within which analogies and coincidences continued to be considered as probative elements.

(Merkelbach, Mithras 65 — translation from the Italian edition and compared with the German original)

Put like that, the claims of astrology become an entirely reasonable hypothesis. At least it seems very reasonable given a pre-Newtonian understanding of the universe. Unfortunately the testing that verified it for many was and has remained circular.

Another assumption I have long kept within arms reach is that a precise knowledge of regular planetary movements long preceded the Stoics. It was, I understand, a child of Babylonia. According to my Merkebach text however, that is another erroneous assumption long since superseded. I hope anyone who has a more up to date knowledge of the scholarly research into this question can correct me if needed.

During Plato’s time, an important astronomical discovery occurred. The planets—the Greek word means “wandering stars”—had always been considered celestial bodies that, unlike the others, wandered aimlessly. But Philip of Opuntius, a member of the Platonic Academy, observed that the planets moved “around the Earth” with regular revolutions.* They were not “wandering stars” after all, and law and order reigned in the heavens. Why did the planets follow regular, albeit complex, trajectories, the understanding of which would await the discoveries of Kepler and Newton? An unprovable hypothesis was formulated, which nevertheless seemed convincing: the stars were animated and followed regular orbits by their own will and judgment, as they were “visible gods.”

* It is not clear whether the regularity of the revolution of the planets was observed first in Greece or in Babylon. It was once assumed that, since ancient times, the Babylonians had precise knowledge in this field, but this hypothesis has proven to be unfounded.

(Translation of Merkelbach 65)

Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mithras. Konigstein/Ts : Hain, 1984. http://archive.org/details/mithras0000merk.
Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mitra. Il Signore Delle Grotte. Translated by P. Massondo. 2nd ed. ECIG, 1998.


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7 thoughts on “A Reasonable Origin for Belief in Astrology”

    1. So I also think I have subconsciously assumed. Certainly there was “fortune telling” through the reading of omens prior to the Hellenistic era — flights of birds, marks in liver of a sacrificed animal — and various seers supposedly inspired by the gods, including official sanctuaries for that purpose such as at Delphi. Further, in Deuteronomy there is a passage warning against the worship of the heavenly bodies — but if that is a warning against astrological practices then we need to consider the real possibility (I would say plausibility and likelihood) that Deuteronomy itself is a product of Hellenistic times. But even if it was from the Persian era, we do know Greek cultural influences were infiltrating the Levant then, too — and that would not necessarily precede Plato and the early Stoics.

      If astrology hangs on the belief in the regularity – and hence predictability – of the movements of the planets (as distinct from being exclusively free-will “wandering” bodies without predictable orbits) then it would follow, would it not, that astrology must indeed have arisen after the discovery that planets did have predictable movements? And if that was not known even in pre-Hellenistic Mesopotamia as I had always think I had assumed… ?

      The incidental comment in Reinhold Merkelbach’s Mithras does leave me thinking astrology as we understand it is no older than the Hellenistic era. I could do a serious delving into what scholarly works there are in the past twenty or thirty years to bring me up to date on the origins of astrology but right now I’m already over my head with a few other research projects.

      If anyone else has any reliable information and sources I hope they chime in.

    2. I should add for clarity that there was no doubt a great interest in the observations of the moon — but this was for establishing the beginning of months and times required for special observances and sacrifices. It was all calendar work. In Egypt the first appearance of the star Sirius was significant for similar reasons. But calendar work, determining the times of months and keeping them in sync with the seasons, special observances on regular times for new moons and full moons, etc — but astrology is another step after all of that, I should perhaps think.

  1. I can suggest :
    – Campbell Thompson, Reginald, Reports of Magicians and Astrologers (Babylonian & Assyrian), cfr. http://www.archive.org
    – Hunger, Hermann & Pingree, David, Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia (Handbook of Oriental Studies 44) Brill (1999)
    – Koch-Westenholz, Ulla, Mesopotamian Astrology – An introduction (1995)

    1. The first listed, published 1900, lists interpretations of various states of the moon and planets but that looks no different from other forms of omen reading — of birds, of fire, of livers, dreams etc. It’s not the kind of predictive calculations and the causative power planets have on earth that we understand by astrology.

  2. Well, this was a real surprise to read today. I also assumed astronomy came out of astrology, much like chemistry came out of alchemy.
    But it does make a lot of sense for things to go this way, at least for the West. I know other cultures see constellations too, and do astrology. Wonder how it went for, for example, the Chinese and the Mayas.

  3. Okay, but I’ve got to get this somewhat out of my system — I am trying not to be too much sidelined by this topic since I really am focused on other studies more relevant to biblical (and Christian) origins, but here are a few quotations from a few texts that seem to support the note by Merkelbach in the post.

    From Koch-Westenholz, Ulla. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination: Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1995.

    On the pre Hellenistic remains of Babylonian texts relating to planets as subjects for omen interpretation:

    Finally, it may be asked why Babylonian divination would be essentially more empirical than any of the thousands of deductive divinatory systems known from all parts of the world. (p 16)


    Finally, it may be asked why Babylonian divination would be essentially more empirical than any of the thousands of deductive divinatory systems known from all parts of the world. (p. 17)

    Examples of that kind of extispicy (my new word for the day):

    “If the King-star approaches the moon and stands there: the king will live many days, the land will not prosper.”

    “The sign which is evil for the king is good for the land, the sign which is good for the land is evil for the king.”

    “If an eclipse occurs on the 14lh Ululu …. revolt for the king. If the eclipse does not affect the king: Rains in the sky and flooding of the rivers will cease. There will be famine in the land, the people will sell their children.” (p.19f)

    Then comes the change:

    The zodiac, which arguably was invented for astronomical purposes – it is used as a reference point in mathematical astronomical texts – was incorporated into astrology, both the new form, horoscopy, and in developments of old-fashioned omen texts. The shorthand forms of the names of planets and the zodiacal signs was used both in astronom­ical as well as in late astrological and magical texts.

    With the rise of mathematical astronomy in the fifth century B.C., by which it became possible to calculate the movements of the planets and predict eclipses, it is hard to understand how such events could be seen as portentous accidents or willed communications from the gods. In fact, the whole discipline of astrology became fundamentally changed, both in its basic principles and its uses as will be described below, Chapter 8. (p.22)

    That remark looks like it hits the bulls eye of what Reinhold Merkelbach was referencing (quoted in the post).

    Turning to Chapter 8….

    The most significant innovation was perhaps the zodiac, the division of the ecliptic into twelve equal parts or signs. It replaced the earlier series of 17 constellations on the “Path of the Moon … The zodiac was first used in Babylonian astronomy in the fifth century B.C.,3 but soon came to play an important in role in astrology and astro-magic. . . .

    3See van der Waerden (1952-53). Some of the earliest examples of the use of the zodiac are the horoscopes from 410 B.C. (Sachs (1952) p. 54 f, Durand, Textes babyloniens d’époque récente (1981) pl. 52). The zodiac is also attested in astronomical texts that list phenomena from the fifth century along with later material, see Aaboe-Sachs, Centaurus 14 (1969) p. 17, Neugebauer-Sachs, JCS 21 (1967) p. 197, Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (1975), p. 593 f. (p. 163)

    and on the first use of horoscopes:

    Babylonian horoscopy . . . . span the period from 410 – 62 B.C., the bulk falling within the last three centuries B.C. . . .

    Horoscopy depended on the recent advances in astronomy. One of the revealing features is the use of the zodiac as reference, and that the position of the planets are computed rather than the result of observation. Another is the interest in using astrology for personal predictions. (pp 173f)

    And from Rochberg, Francesca. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008:

    The Babylonian horoscopes come mostly from the city of Babylon, with the exception of five from Uruk and one (of Achaemenid date) from Nippur. This corpus of horoscopes, with the exception of two documents from the fifth century b.c., belongs for the most part to the last three centuries b.c. The chronological range is from the oldest at 410 b.c. to the youngest at 69 b.c. (p 99)

    Similar notes about the change (towards mathematical predictions) in the latter half of the first millennium BCE are found in Baigent, Michael. Astrology in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Science of Omens and the Knowledge of the Heavens. 2nd Edition, New Edition of From the Omens of Babylon. Bear & Company, 2015.

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