Book Review: A Brief History of Ancient Astrology by Roger Beck
It is not the purpose of this article to give a full review of Roger Beck’s new book on Hellenistic astrology titled A Brief History of Ancient Astrology. The major shortcomings of the book, as well as most of the issues that I have with it, have already been addressed in detail by Deborah Houlding in her review. Other reviews besides Houlding’s from Beck’s colleagues give him a bit more credit than he deserves. The purpose of this article is to point out one of the major flaws in the book that is due to a mixture of lack of knowledge of other scholarship or developments in the field, and lack of real familiarity or depth of understanding with the technical side of the subject matter, which probably stems from the sense of distaste that Beck exhibits for astrology in general throughout the course of his book.
While we might excuse Beck’s historical mistakes due to the fact that some of the recent work in the field that would have helped Beck to avert his errors were made by astrologers – and perhaps there is some justification in this excuse – I think that there is a deeper issue in the approach to scholarship that academics like Beck take that I want to address. First, we have to take a little detour.
In 1982 the astrologer, linguist and historian of astrology James Holden published a paper in the American Federation of Astrologers Journal of Research titled ‘Ancient House Division’. In this paper Holden, who reads Greek and Latin, pointed out that the original method of house division in the Hellenistic tradition was actually whole sign houses, or the “sign-house” system as he called it. According to Holden:
This was the origin of the houses of the horoscope. They began with the rising sign and were numbered successively in the order of signs. … Starting from the rising sign, the houses were numbered off in succession. … Note that the reckoning was by whole signs. This means that if the first house was Leo, the entire sign of Leo constituted the first house, the entire sign of Virgo the second house, and so on. This is the primitive form of Equal House division. It is found in the papyri (GH, pp. 16-75) from the earliest to the latest, and it is still in widespread use in India. (Holden, 1982)
Holden reiterated the same point in his 1996 book A History of Horoscopic Astrology. In the mid 90’s this argument was further confirmed and developed by Robert Schmidt and Robert Hand of Project Hindsight during the course of their translation project of Hellenistic astrological texts. Hand published a monograph which summarized their findings in 2000 titled Whole Sign Houses: The Oldest House System. Hand pointed out that not only were whole sign houses the original and primary method of house division in the Hellenistic tradition, but that early generations of Arab era astrologers in the 8th and 9th centuries were still using whole sign houses as well. (Hand, pg. 17) In the preface to his translation of book 3 of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos Schmidt pointed out that there was a distinction in the Hellenistic tradition between whole sign houses which provided significations for certain topics, and the quadrant or ‘dynamic’ divisions which were used to gauge planetary strength. (Ptolemy, pg. viii)
With these developments in mind as a backdrop, we turn to Roger Beck’s treatment of the houses or ‘places’ in the Hellenistic astrological tradition that was published just this year, in 2007.
Hellenistic House Division According to Roger Beck
To put it simply, Roger Beck appears to be pretty much unaware of the existence of whole sign houses in the Hellenistic tradition of astrology. His initial statements in his main chapter about house division, chapter 4, appear to implicate Equal House division more than anything else:
The places are numbered counter-clockwise from the ascendant. In other words, the first place runs from the rising point in the east back below the horizon for 30° (from 9 o’clock back to 8 o’clock as it were). (pg. 42)
In a footnote he mentions the practice of extending the influence of the ascendant 5 to 15 degrees above the actual degree of the ascendant, implicitly with reference to a procedure employed by Ptolemy in order to determine planetary strength. Then in the very next sentence Beck appears to switch gears and he begins talking about quadrant divisions where the arc between the ascendant, astronomical midheaven and other angles are trisected:
Strictly speaking, the lengths of the places vary over the course of the day, expanding and contracting as the midheaven and lower midheaven oscillate to and fro.
“However” he informs us, “in practice the places were usually treated as equal 30° arcs measured back from the ascendant.” (pg. 43) Here, one assumes, he is switching back to equal house division again, although earlier in the book, prior to this rather confused and terse exposition of house division, he spends quite a bit of time discussing quadrant divisions. He makes this clear with the matter-of-fact statement that
…if you were to assume that midheaven can be identified by subtracting 90° from the ascendant and lower midheaven by adding 90°, you would be mistaken. Sometimes the angular distance between the ascendant and midheaven is less than 90° and sometimes it is greater; likewise the distance between the ascendant and lower midheaven. (pg. 28-29)
Beck is of course describing the astronomical midheaven, rather than simply the 10th whole sign house from the ascending sign which is also called the ‘midheaven’ in Hellenistic astrology. In doing so he is obviously correct in stating that the astronomical midheaven is seldom exactly 90° from the ascendant. That is precisely what makes this amusing though, because it perfectly exemplifies the fact that he hasn’t the slightest idea that the classical astrologers were using the signs as houses, otherwise he would have qualified the statement. Even given his later passing reference to equal houses one would have expected some sort of qualification here. Instead he launches into a relatively lengthy discussion on why the astronomical midheaven moves back and fourth relative to the ascendant/descendant axis due to the obliquity of the ecliptic. (pgs. 29-33) This of course means that the “arc of the ecliptic from the ascendant to the midheaven will be longer than the arc from the midheaven to the descendant”, and vice versa. (pg. 29)
With this in mind, Beck then makes what I think is actually the grossest error in the entire book by proceeding to lambaste the Hellenistic astrologers for this astronomical issue with the midheaven, when they didn’t even use the houses in the sense that he thinks that they did for the majority of their history. It is essentially a faulty straw man argument. Well, an anachronistic straw man argument I should say, in the sense that he is actually projecting what is more of a problem with modern astrology into the Hellenistic period. While he says that he is gracious enough to spare us all of the gory details about the midheaven problem, he is more than willing to take what he perceives as an opportunity to take another dig at astrology:
Since this is a brief history of ancient astrology, I do not want to linger over this complication – and be assured, it is the most complicated piece of celestial kinematics I shall inflict on you. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored. It is an important factor in genethlialogy at any level above the most basic, and in discussing it we can appreciate how Greek astrology was an expression – a regrettable expression, if you will – of the astronomy of its times. Astrology’s error lay more in its false assumptions about celestial cause and terrestrial effect than any failure to comprehend or manipulate the basic positional astronomy required. (pgs. 30-31)
In fact, it is Beck’s own false assumptions and failure to comprehend even the most basic of astrological principles which is at fault here. Had he read any of the authors who he cites in his book a bit more closely, and perhaps with a bit less loathing, then he would have realized that they were primarily using the signs as houses, and that the midheaven issue and the question of the relation between the quadrant house divisions and the topical significations of the ‘places’ did not become an issue until much later. Such details escape Beck in his ‘brief’ treatment of ancient astrology though.
So, you may be asking yourself, as I often do in these instances, how could such an accomplished scholar, whose previous work I actually really respect, who has enough knowledge of Greek and Latin to read the texts in their original languages overlook the fact that the Hellenistic authors regularly refer to the houses within the context of the signs? Perhaps to a certain extent we can’t really fault Beck because this specific issue with house division and the existence of whole sign houses doesn’t appear to be widely acknowledged in the academic community at this point, and the mistaken assumptions about Hellenistic house division probably go much further back than Beck’s book.
In Neugebauer and van Hoesen’s classic work Greek Horoscopes, which was published in 1959, the houses are defined as either being of “constant length, [with] 30° each, or obtained by accurate trisection of the arcs between the ‘centers’ or rather points which precede the centers by 5 degrees.” (GH, pgs. 7-8) The reference here is somewhat murky in that it may implicate either equal house or whole sign house divisions in the first case, and then clearly to normal quadrant style division in the second case, in a way that is identical with Beck’s definitions. On the following page of Greek Horoscopes the ‘midheaven’ is simply defined as the “culminating degree of the ecliptic”, or in other words the ‘astronomical midheaven’, even though the Greek term for midheaven (μεσουρανημα) is just as often applied, if not more often, to the 10th whole sign house from the ascending sign than it is to the actual degree of the astronomical midheaven. Even a cursory glance through works such as Vettius Valens’ Anthology will reveal this. Neugebauer points out as much on page 184 of GH when he says that
…the accurate determination of the culminating point (M) is not yet of any importance in the Anthology. Though “Midheaven” is often mentioned, it is generally simply the third sign from the Horoscopos [i.e the 10th whole sign house].
On the other hand, the preeminent historian of astrology David Pingree appears to have been fully aware of whole sign houses very earlier on in his career, probably partially due to his familiarity with Indian astrology, where that system is still employed as the primarily means of house division to this day. As early as 1969 in his entry on astrology in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas Pingree wrote
As the planets revolve through the zodiac by their various motions, direct and retrograde, the zodiac revolves around the earth. From a particular spot on the earth’s surface this motion appears as a succession of signs rising one after another above the eastern horizon. The sign that at any moment—say, that of an individual’s birth—is just rising, is the horoscope or the first place; this determines the soul of the native for whom a birth-horoscope is cast. The next sign below the horizon, the second place, determines his wealth; the third his brothers; the fourth his home; the fifth his children; and so on through all the aspects of his life. (Pingree, 1969, pg. 120)
This is a far more concise, elegant and accurate account of house division in ancient astrology than Beck was able to manage in his several tortured pages on the subject.
So what gives? It seems to me that the deeper issue here is the question of whether or not a person can set aside their own personal beliefs and prejudices in order to conduct a thorough, perceptive and accurate account of something that they intend to study. Or perhaps it is not an issue of if a person can remain objective when dealing with a subject that they have a certain degree of contempt for, but rather it is an issue of what sort of impact their contempt for the subject actually has on their research and their ability to accurately assess the discipline under question. Perhaps I’m blowing this little major technical oversight of Beck’s out of proportion, or drawing an unwarranted conclusion about his personal beliefs adversely effecting his research, but it is still an interesting question to think about. If Beck had spent less time in his book berating astrology, would he have been forced to pay closer attention to the technical details of the system under question?
For the most part I actually really admire and commend the work that all the scholars in this field have done. The research that scholars such as Pingree, Neugebauer, and even Beck have done on the history of astrology and astronomy should be commended- especially by astrologers. To a certain extent I think that their skepticism or disbelief in astrology has actually strengthened much of their work and many of the conclusions that they have come to in many instances.
However, every once in a while when I see a major mistake like this that is passed off along with copious amounts comments about the failings of astrologers and the flaws of astrology, I can’t help but want to return the favor by pointing out some flaws as well.
- Roger Beck, A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2007.
- James Holden, Ancient House Division, The American Federation of Astrologers Journal of Research, Vol. 1, No. 1, Tempe, AZ, August 1982, pp. 19-29.
- James Holden, A History of Horoscopic Astrology, The American Federation of Astrologers, Tempe, AZ, 1996.
- Robert Hand, Whole Sign Houses: The Oldest House System, ARHAT Publications, Reston, VA, 2000.
- Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Book 3, trans. Robert Schmidt, Project Hindsight, 1996.
- O. Neugebaur & H. B. van Hoesen, Greek Horoscopes, The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 1956.
- David Pingree, Astrology, in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, 1969 ed.