Episode 10: Prayer to the Gods of Night: The Near-Eastern Roots of Astrology

The idea that the heavenly bodies follow recurring patterns seems obvious, but it only became obvious when someone discovered it. In fact, the Greeks seem not even to have known that the planets ‘wandered’ until the fifth century BCE. It was the Mesopotamian civilisation of the Babylonians who were really going hard with this stuff. From about 1,000 BCE (speaking very roughly) we see both a well-developed omen-literature, attributing earthly effects to numerous astronomical phenomena, and the beginnings of mathematical models whereby the movements of the various astral ‘gods’ could be predicted. This developed into both the first mathematical astronomy (as we saw last episode) and the beginnings of the first astrology (as we see this episode).

We discuss:

  • How awesome the night sky is,
  • A basic, rough timeline of the development of the science of the stars in the Near East, setting the stage for the full-blown Hellenistic astrology whence we get the astrological sciences which inform the western thought-world thereafter,
  • The widely-flung Babylonian network of professional of star-observers, who, I argue, were probably the world’s first intelligence service, systematically spying on the astral gods for the good of the state,
  • The problem of astral determinism and the idea of eternal recurrence and episodic cataclysm.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

  • Pingree, D. (1992). ‘Hellenophilia versus the History of Science’, Isis 83 : 554-63; we cite p. 560.
  • St. Paul’s account of heavenly ascent, found at II Corinthians 12:2-4.
  • For documentation of the field reports of the world’s first intelligence service, see Hunger, H., 1992. Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings. Helsinki University Press, Helsinki.

Recommended Reading:

  • Barton, T., 2002. Ancient Astrology. Routledge, London.
  • Bohleke, B. (1996). ‘In Terms of Fate: A Survey of the Indigenous Egyptian Contribution to Ancient Astrology in Light of Papyrus CtYBR inv. 1132(B)’, Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 23 : 11-46.
  • Hunger, H., 1992. Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings. Helsinki University Press, Helsinki.
  •  Neugebauer, O., 1975. A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. Springer-Verlag, Berlin/Heidelberg/New York, NY. 3 serious volumes.
  • Rochberg, F. (1998). ‘Babylonian Horoscopes’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series 88 : 1-164.

The most thorough book-length survey of evidence for cosmic ascent in the west remains

  • Culianu, I. P., 1983. Psychanodia I. A Survey of the Evidence Concerning the Ascension of the Soul and its Relevance. Brill, Leiden.

 

Themes

, , ,