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The History of Western Astrology

The transmission of western astrologyI made a video today which outlines the history of western astrology in 10 minutes.  It is ten  minutes long because that is the restriction for all YouTube videos, although I covered quite a bit of ground in such a short clip.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, although I was surprised that I was able to pull it off in only one take.  You can watch the video from YouTube above.

What follows is simply a transcript of the video, with only a few slight emendations.

A History of Western Astrology In 10 Minutes

This is a history of western astrology in 10 minutes.   Since this is a history of western astrology it won’t cover the Chinese or Mesoamerican traditions, which are for the most part separate.

The Origins of Astrology In Mesopotamia and Egypt

Western astrology has its roots primarily in Mesopotamia, which is roughly located in what is now modern day Iraq.

Originally astrology was developed as another form of divination, in addition to other forms of divination, in order to determine the future, and in order to determine what the intentions of the gods were, since the planets were seen as the literal, physical manifestations of the gods.

MesopotamiaThe Mesopotamians developed the fundamental astrological premise that there is a correlation between celestial moments and earthly events – that when something happens in the sky there is a similar correlation that happens on earth.  This is the fundamental astrological premise that permeates all later western traditions of astrology.

As their tradition went on, the Mesopotamians eventually developed the zodiac and the concept of natal astrology, where the life of an individual can be determined, or events and the nature and course of their life can be determined, based on the position of the planets at the moment that they were born.  Both the zodiac and natal astrology appear to be fully formed by the 5th century BCE.

While this was occurring in Mesopotamia, over in Egypt the Egyptians had been developing what is known as the decans, which are 10 degree segments of the ecliptic.  Each of the decans are associated with certain fixed stars, and are thought to have certain astrological meanings.

The Advent of Hellenistic Astrology

By the 1st century BCE the Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions of astrology were synthesized together.  This synthesis likely took place in Alexandria, Egypt during the Hellenistic period, and this created a new form of astrology called horoscopic astrology.  This was also the beginning of a tradition called Hellenistic astrology, which is a tradition of horoscopic astrology.  While Hellenistic astrology was the first tradition of horoscopic astrology, there were several later traditions of horoscopic astrology because horoscopic astrology is essentially any form of astrology that utilizes the ascendant, and other things derived from the ascendant such as the houses.

At this point concepts such as the houses, aspects, time-lords, etc. were all introduced as a part of a fully formed system, and this was essentially the birth of the full technical apparatus of western astrology.

Transmission of Astrology to India

At this point, and thereafter, Hellenistic astrology spread out all over the world.  For example, in the 2nd century Hellenistic astrology was transmitted to India, through a text known as the Yavanajataka that was written in Egypt and then was transported to the western coast of India on a Greek trading ship, where it was subsequently translated into Sanskrit.  This was the birth of all subsequent traditions of horoscopic astrology in India, which is still practiced there today, nearly 2,000 years later.

The Influence of Claudius Ptolemy on the History of Astrology

Also in the 2nd century, Claudius Ptolemy wrote his four book work on astrology known as the Tetrabiblos (‘The Four Books’).  In this four book series he re-conceptualized astrology as a causal science.  Ptolemy wanted to put astrology on a more solid footing with the sciences of his day, so he tried to argue that astrology worked through some sort of literal, celestial influences that were coming down from the sky.

This was a departure from the previous Hellenistic and Mesopotamian traditions that saw astrology more within the context of divination, or at least more within the context of celestial events coinciding with earthly events, but not necessarily causing them to happen in a literal sense.

After this point there was always this sort of disconnect or debate in the astrological tradition over whether astrology was a causal science, that worked through direct causes and effects from celestial objects, or whether it was based off some other principle of correlation but not necessarily causation.

At this time Ptolemy also established the tropical zodiac as the primary reference system, using the vernal exquinox as the first degree of Aries, and later western astrologers followed Ptolemy in adopting the topical zodiac.

The Transmission of Horoscopic Astrology to the Persians and Arabs

At some point in the 3rd century works on Hellenistic astrology were transmitted to the Persians through translations of Greek texts into Pahlavi, the Middle Persian language.

Islamic empireA few centuries later, as Europe declined into the Middle Ages, the growing Islamic empire started acquiring texts on astrology and translating them into Arabic.   So, while Europe is going into a decline as far as astrology and learning and other things are concerned, there was this great renaissance or florishing of astrology in the Islamic empire.

At this time the Arabian and Persian astrologers perfected the practice of certain forms of astrology, such as mundane and horary astrology.

The Transmission of Astrology Back to Europe

In the 12th century astrology was transmitted back to Europe through Latin translations of Arabic astrological texts.  The Crusades had this interesting side effect of causing a bunch of European scholars to go down to Spain when it was reconquered from some Muslim rulers in order to translate texts on astrology from the vast libraries that were housed there.

In this way astrology went from Mesopotamia to Hellenistic Egypt to Medieval Persia and Arabia, and then was transmitted back to Europe through these translations of texts.

Astrology started flourishing in Europe again at this point, and by the 15th century it had started to reach a sort of peak.  Astrology became widely practiced in Europe again, thanks in part to the invention of the printing press which allowed for many of these Latin translations of Arabic texts to be printed and widely distributed.

The Decline of Astrology in the 18th and 19th Centuries

By the 17th century the practice of astrology was in decline again in Europe, with the latest hotbed of activity being in England with people like William Lilly.

After that point, in the 18th and 19th centuries, astrology survived in popularized form mainly through the publication of almanacs, but there weren’t a lot of practicing astrologers in Europe during this time.

The Modern Revival of Astrology

The modern revival of astrology began in the late 19th and early 20th century, largely due to the advent of Alan LeoSpiritualism and the Theopsophical Society.  Many of the major astrologers in the early 20th century were Theosophists, such as Alan Leo, Sepharial, Marc Edmund Jones, and Dane Rudhyar.

Alan Leo had a large part in this early revival of astrology, although a large part of his efforts were directed towards simplifying the practice of astrology so that it was easier to learn, while at the same time shifting the emphasis of astrology more towards character analysis.  His famous motto was “character is destiny”.

These efforts were carried on by later astrologers such as Marc Edmund Jones and Dane Rudhyar, who advocated more of a psychological approach to astrology, and tried to put astrology more in the domain of psychology, by using the birth chart of an individual in order to interpret things about their psyche.

Carl Jung and the Theory of Synchronicity

In the 1930’s the psychologist Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity, and he developed the theory of synchronicity in order to explain how events can be connected simply by occurring at the same moment in time, outside of any sort of causal framework.   The principle of synchronicity, as often interpreted by astrologers, is essentially that two events that coincide at the same moment in time, if they share and equivalency of meaning then that is sufficient for there to be a connection, regardless of if there is any sort of direct causal interaction between the two.

The development of the theory of synchronicity was important because it provides the underlying theoretical premise for astrology in the modern period.   The notion that astrology works through the principle of synchronicity rather than through the principle of causality, such as for example through the gravitational effects of the planets providing the basis for their astrological meanings.  Most astrologers don’t think that astrology is based on some sort of known or unknown causal mechanism at this point, but instead they view astrology as working through this principle of synchronicity, as originally developed by Jung, and then expanded upon by later astrologers.

The Expansion of the Field, The Traditional Movement, etc.

In the 1960’s and 70’s there was a large influx of astrologers into the community, largely due to the counter culture movement, the hippies, the new age movement, etc.  This brought a large group of young astrologers into the field, and they went about setting up various astrological organizations and expanding the practice of astrology in general.

In the 1980’s a revival of traditional astrology began, and some astrologers began looking back into the tradition in order to see what astrology was like prior to the late 19th and early 20th century.  They found that there was quite a bit of a discontinuity in the tradition, largely due to the break in the transmission that occurred in the 18th and 19th century.

This is still a large part of the movement that is going on now – the effort to reunite the modern traditions of astrology with the older or more traditional ones, from the Mesopotamian, Hellenistic, Persian, Arabian, and Medieval/Renaissance European traditions.

And that is pretty much where we are at today.  In the midst of this great revival and flourishing of astrology, but also a synthesis of the older traditions with the newer ones.

14 replies on “The History of Western Astrology”

Thank you so much for your efforts, I am studying this material myself right now, Your relaying it in such a thorough but compact manner has been very helpful for me to get a better grip on it.
Thank you again

I was wondering why you missed out Psychological Astrology which started in the 70’s.

I think that the development of psychological astrology began a bit earlier, first with Alan Leo and the move to a more character based astrology, and then with Jones and Rudhyar and the adoption of psychological models such as Jung’s. Most of the psychological astrologers in the 60’s and 70’s were basing a lot of their work off of Rudhyar’s, so it makes a bit of sense to locate the origins of that movement a bit earlier. You are right that it wasn’t until the 70’s that this approach to astrology really started to mature and take off though. The 10 minute time constraint on YouTube may have caused me to gloss over some details that I would have emphasized otherwise.

I think a strong case can be made for psychological astrology starting much earlier all the way back to the Delphic Oracle 8BC, ‘know thyself’. It’s development into a more predictive/deterministic art is seen as a deviation, by some, and misunderstanding of it’s more esoteric intentions.

Leo, perhaps somewhat unknowingly, reminded people of these speculative roots and then it was Jung’s model of the psyche that allowed for the possibility of astrology. Jung influenced Rudhyar et al but not all that deeply so I think it’s amiss to regard pre-70’s astrology as particularly psychological. Further it’s not accurate to suggest Rudhyar was so pivotal an influence with these thinkers with many very keen to distance themselves from these theosophical orientations.

However I think you did well in the 10 minutes other than this rather large oversight.

Dear Chris, two addenda: 1) You say “By the First Century BCE the Mesopotamian & Egyptian traditions were synthesized together”. Actually they were not “synthesized” on their own but the Greeks synthesized them. After Alexander’s conquests the Greeks got fascinated by astrology and applied to it their own philosophical and mathematical systems, THUS transforming the mesopotamian-egyptian astrology into the Hellenistic one 2) You totally neglect Byzantium’s huge contribution to western astrology.

There is some evidence that Mesopotamian astral omens were already being adapted in Egypt prior to the advent of Hellenistic astrology, so it is not clear that the entirety of the synthesis took place under the Greek speaking peoples who developed Hellenistic astrology. But as a general point you are right, and I don’t disagree with you here.

With respect to the Byzantine empire, I include the early part of it in my basic definition of Hellenistic astrology, which I date from approximately the 1st century BCE until about the 7th century CE. However, after the 7th century the majority of the innovations in the astrological tradition were taking place in Baghdad with the Arabs, and I think that the largest contribution that the Byzantine empire made during this time was simply in preserving the earlier tradition.