history and philosophy of astrology

The Alleged Babylonian Aspect Doctrine

I spent the majority of Monday reading through Nick Campion’s paper Babylonian Astrology: Its Origin and Legacy in Europe and trying to understand the areas of continuity and divergence between the Mesopotamian and later traditions of astrology that developed in the Hellenistic world. I became quite excited and surprised by one statement towards the end of the paper to the effect that there appears to have been some sort of aspect doctrine in the Mesopotamian tradition which dates back to the 7th century BCE according to recently discovered cuneiform tablets. The exact statement was

Most significant of all, though is the discovery of a 7th century BCE omen commentary indicating the use of the ‘trine’, one of the five ‘aspects’ which were seen by the Greeks as geometrical relationships between the planets which were one of the central means by which Greek astrologers estimated the outcome of any situation. The trine was formed between planets separated by three signs, that is, which were in the same ‘triangle’, such as Aries-Leo-Sagittarius, or Taurus-Virgo-Capricorn. The suggestion that the Babylonians might have developed a geometrical view of the heavens removes at a stroke one of the main distinctions between Mesopotamian and Greek cosmology, that between mathematics and geometry.

From my perspective as someone who is interested in studying the history and transmission of astrology this was a rather important statement which called into question one of the key presuppositions of historians who have attempted to differentiate the astrology that was practiced by the Mesopotamians and that which was developed and practiced in the Hellenistic world during and after the last two centuries before the Common Era. I wanted to find out more about this discovery, but as there is no citation directly after the preceding statement I had to do a bit of detective work to find out the source of this revelation.

On a hunch I pulled out some papers that I had printed up by Francesca Rochberg a while ago where she examined some of the continuities between the Mesopotamian and Hellenistic traditions. The first one that I came across was written in 1988 and titled Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology. This paper is cited by Nick on the same page as the statement about Babylonian aspect doctrine, and it appears that it was from her that he learned of this discovery.

The paper is rather interesting, although I think that Rochberg’s use of Ptolemy and his causal model of astrology as the benchmark for the entire tradition of Hellenistic astrology is perplexing and questionable at best, perhaps even misleading.  This is important because she is following Pingree in arguing that the main difference between Mesopotamian ‘astal-divination’ and Hellenistic ‘astrology’ is that the Hellenistic system was supposedly based entirely on the notion of celestial causation, while the Mesopotamian system was entirely divinatory.  One thing that I found surprising was her statement about her reservations with regard to making blanket statements about Mesopotamian cosmology when she says that “…generalizing statements concerning Babylonian cosmological speculation as a whole are to be avoided…”, yet she does not extend the same cautionary measures to the Hellenistic tradition. It seems to me that many of the historians of astrology, outside of Pingree, who have written over the past 20 years might regard this as a major oversight at the very least.   At the very worst it is a generalized statement concerning Hellenistic cosmological and astrological speculation, of the same sort that she advised against with respect to the earlier Mesopotamian tradition.  The problem with this is that simply using Ptolemy as the benchmark for Hellenistic astrology, regardless of his popularity in later times, requires one to ignore the complexity and variety of cosmological, theoretical and practical divergence within the Hellenistic tradition itself.  With such a problematic oversight or generalization made by Rochberg in mind we should probably approach her conclusions about the continuity in the Mesopotamian and Hellenistic ‘aspect’ doctrines with a higher degree of caution than normal in order to ensure that similar oversights or oversimplifications were not made. As it turns out, that very well may have been the case here.

In this paper when she begins her discussion of the use of the ‘trine aspect’ in the Mesopotamian tradition she specifically defines the later Hellenistic use of aspects as “geometrical relationships between signs of the zodiac”, which included the now well known sextile, square, trine and opposition. This is an important point because in the Hellenistic tradition the ‘aspects’ between planets were geometrical in nature, and they served a very important function of providing means of interaction between the planets in a chart. They were defined both by sign based relations (i.e. a planet in Leo was said to be ‘trigonal’ to any planet in Sagittarius), as well as by degree based relations with specific ‘orbs’ (i.e. a planet in 15 degree of Aries is moving into a partile ‘square’ with any planet in 16 Cancer by virtue of being nearly 90 degrees away from it). The conceptual basis for these ‘aspects’ seems to have been based on some sort of optical theory where planets in sign based relationships were said to provide ‘testimony’ with one another, while those in degree based relationships were said to ‘look upon’ or ‘scrutinize’ one another. Indeed, even though the term ‘aspect’ has simply become a sort of generalized technical term in modern times to refer to geometrical relationships between planets, the meaning underlying the Latin word for ‘aspect’ still maintains these visual connotations. Planets that were not in one of these sign based configurations with one another (sextile, trine, square, opposition, or ‘conjunction’) were said to be in ‘aversion’ to one another. That is, they literally could not ‘see’ one another.

Rochberg states that “only the trine aspect has appeared thus far in Cuneiform sources.” Her use of the term ‘aspect’ here is questionable because, as she notes,

“the Babylonian grouping of three signs seems to be the result simply of the schematic arrangement of twelve elements (here zodiacal signs) into four groups of three elements each, rather than the result of some geometrical or spatial relation.”

And again

‘Clearly, the Babylonian version does not depend on a geometrical relationship, indeed was not exclusively applied to the zodiac, but seems rather to have been based on purely schematic correspondences and associations between elements in a series of twelve.’

Yet, for some reason she continues to insist on calling this Babylonian schematization a “trine aspect”. She refers the reader to a previous paper that she wrote on the subject in 1984 titled New Evidence for the History of Astrology. In this paper, which can be accessed on JSTOR, she first introduced her case about the Babylonian “trine aspect”, and even provides a translation of the relevant cuneiform tablets. She notes that

“an overview of the apodoses [in the tablet] reveals a lack of any overt parallelism here between Babylonian and Greek practice”, and that in fact “the technique of identifying the land effected by the eclipse with the wind blowing during that eclipse, known from [the] E[numa]A[nu]E[nlil], seems to be the only procedure applied in this text.”

It would appear that the actual importance of the tablet that she is discussing is not in demonstrating some sort of Babylonian ‘aspect’ doctrine, which it does not, but rather it is important because it appears to be associating the trigons with certain ‘winds’ and ‘directions’, which actually was something that was picked up and incorporated into the later Hellenistic doctrine of the ‘trigon lords’. Rochberg says as much, but her somewhat confused use of astrological technical terminology in not differentiating between the doctrine of ‘trigon lords’ and the ‘trine aspect’ seems to blur the significance of what she is presenting and confuses the issue of what was in the Mesopomian tradition and what apparently was not. The statement that “this excerpt tablet affords the best insight into the particular use of the zodiacal signs found in BM 36746; namely, an old system of “triplicities” of twelve months has simply been applied to the twelve zodiacal signs” is correct, but the extrapolation of that to form the statement that this is a “trine aspect” seems to be quite misleading. This is especially so given Rochberg’s statements about Mesopotamian mathematical theory when she says quite explicitly that “an absence of geometrical concepts characterizes a large part of Babylonian mathematics and astronomy”, and the even more damning statement that

The omen text BM 36746, when seen in the schematic manipulation of winds, countries, and months into groups of three, four, and twelve, is characteristically Babylonian in its use of zodiacal signs without an accompanying geometrical concept.

Ultimately the translation that she provides at the end of the paper is sufficient to clear up any lingering doubts as to the actual nature of this discovery, despite some of her more misleading statements about it. For example

If the Moon is eclipsed in Leo and finishes the watch and the north wind blows, Jupiter does not stand (in) the eclipse; Saturn and Mars stand in Aries or in Sagittarius or The Field; variant: in its eclipse [a halo surrounds the (the Moon) and Regulus stands within it].

For this sign: [the king] of Akkad will experience severe hardship… it will seize him, and in a revolt they will oust him from his throne.

His people will experience great famine; brother will kill his brother, friend his friend, in battle.

… etc. …

If the Moon is eclipsed in Virgo and [finishes the watch] and the south and east winds blow, Venus is not visible in its eclipse…

Saturn (and) Mars […] … […] in Taurus or in Capricorn are visible; eclipse […the king of (?)]

Elam in … [will be d]estroyed; his possessions … together will be plundered; the king of Elam together with [his k]in [will be slaughtered; …]

…etc. …

Clearly there is some sort of grouping of three signs into four sets in order to determine the direction in which the effect of the eclipse will take place, but it seems to be a bit of an overstatement to say that this is actually some sort of an ‘aspect’ doctrine, with all that is implied in the concept of ‘aspects’. The Mesopotamians also recognized the significance of the full Moon and the new Moon, as well as the notion of ‘parans’ where one star is rising while another one sets, but that does not necessarily imply that they recognized the opposition and the conjunction ‘aspects’ or that there was some sort of conceptualization of an ‘aspect’ doctrine per se. Although, perhaps one could argue that it does, or that these are clear forerunners of the more geometrically based aspect doctrine that would come about later. Regardless of if this is the case, the classification of this particular example as a ‘trine aspect’ seems to be more of a projection of later developments and definitions into a previous tradition than it is a genuine aspect doctrine in the Mesopotamian tradition itself.

3 replies on “The Alleged Babylonian Aspect Doctrine”

I should point out here that the confusion surrounding Rochberg’s use of the term ‘aspect’ and ‘trine’ is due in large part to the obscurity of the Greek term that was used to refer to three separate concepts.

The Greek word trigōnon (τρίγωνον), which just means ‘triangle’, was used in Hellenistic astrology to refer to the notion of (1) the “triplicities”, or groupings of the signs into different elements, (2) the trine “aspects”, which connect planets that are 5 signs or 120 degrees apart, and (3) the trigon “lords”, or specific planetary rulers of certain signs based on a fourfold division.

The word trigōnon is often used to refer to all three of these separate technical concepts, and it is only by looking at the context of the passage that you can distinguish between which specific technique the astrologer is talking about.

Modern astrologers and translators have had to adopt subtle translation conventions to distinguish between the three different concepts that this Greek term refers to, such as triplicity, trigon, etc., even though these are all just different ways of translating the same term.

From this perspective it is understandable how Rochberg could accidentally end up using the phrase “trine aspect” in order to refer to what should probably be called “triplicities” or “trigons”. However, it is still important to point out the issue because without having made the distinction it gives rise to a false historical notion about the origin of certain technical doctrines, and surely this was not Rochberg’s intent.

In a discussion on Babylonian matehmatics Nemet-Nejat states:
“The Babylonians displayed a considerable knowledge of geometric shapes and geometric formulas.They even used the Pythagorean theorem more than a thousand years before Pythagoras and applied principles of similarity. However, whenever a geometric problem was posed, its purpose was to find length, width, volume, and so on. That is, the method os solution was algebraic. Triangles were usually righ-angles or isosceles. Areas of quadrilaterals, regardless of shape, were generally solved by an approximate formula which averaged the opposite sides and multipled them by each other. This formula was used in calculating the size of fields. The Babylonians generally used a gross approximation of pi = 3 (see also 1 Kings 7:23, pi=3), though a coefficient list from Susa suggested a more precise value of pi- 3 1/8.
Babylonian mathematics lacked basic geometric terms and concepts; there were no words for angle, slope, perpendicular, or parrallel. The invention of the geometry of angles must be credited to the Greeks.” (Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia)

You’re right Chris, Rochberg is referring to a simple schematic arrangement dividing months of the year intro three parts.