Ask the Stars: History of Astrology

Astrology is as old as the stars – after all, it only makes sense, right? Astrology is defined as the study of the movements and positions of the stars, and the interpretation of their connection with humans and the natural world and order. What’s in the sky has always been a mystery to humans, even from the beginnings of our existence on Earth. Naturally, it is human nature to question what we do not understand, and as our species has looked to the sky, we’ve developed an understanding of the astrological world and how powerfully significant it is in relation to our own lives. But where did it really all begin? For a brief history of astrology, continue reading to learn the ancient civilization’s history of astrology’s development and growth in the human world.

astrology

The Ancient World

The earliest origins of astrology’s beginnings can be traced back to 25,000 years ago, where evidence of human illustrations on cave walls and bones tracked the moon’s cycles. Using the sky and constellations to chart the seasons and weather conditions, such as floods, was done in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In the third millennium BC, there is evidence that suggests ancient civilizations were very aware of star and planet cycles, and may have even designed their architecture, such as temples, to align with star movements. During this period, evidence suggests that the oldest-known references to astrology were made. These texts derive from Babylon, around 1700 BC, and in Sumeria, an ancient civilization from Mesopotamia, around 2100 BC. These texts suggest that rulers consulted the stars and charted the celestial bodies.

Babylonia

Babylonia is often cited as having the first organized system of astrology during the 2nd millenium BC. From old Babylonian texts, around 1800 BC, through the middle Babylonian periods, scholarly texts exist, which supports the idea of a sophisticated astrological system within ancient Babylonian society. During the 16th century BC, astrology began to be used as a means of prediction and omens. At this time, it was used for weather-predicting purposes, and other political matters. By the 4th century, the astrology system began far more advanced with the incorporation of math, and Babylonians could accurately calculate planetary movements and positions. Babylonian astrology began to be used as more of an omen – meaning, humans were looking to the stars for meanings, messages, warnings, and signs. For example, if marks were found on the liver of an animal being sacrificed, the marks were thought to be “signs” as a message from the gods to the king. Babylonian society also viewed the stars as mediums for their gods. Bad astrological omens were thought to convey dissatisfaction from gods.

Egypt

Since ancient Egypt was conquered by the Persians in 525 BC, it only makes sense that Mesopotamia influenced astrology in Egyptian society. During this Hellenistic rule, Egyptian astrology combined with elements of Babylonian astrology. This created a new branch of astrology, called Horoscopic astrology, which focused on signs and the significance and importance of celestial eclipses. Egyptian’s divided the zodiac into 36 decans of 10 degrees, emphasizing the rising decan, planetary gods, and the ruling of signs. The decans were used as a system to measure time based on the celestial constellations. An astrologer and astronomer named Ptolemy, who lived in Egypt, created a work known as the Tetrabiblos, which became the foundation for Western astrology. This astrological text was one of the first to be circulated through Europe during the Medieval times, after being translated into Latin.

Rome and Greece

When Alexander the Great made his conquest of Asia, the Greeks were naturally introduced to the culture of Babylon, Mesopotamia, and other ancient civilizations. A priest from Babylon named Berossus, moved to Kos, the Greek island, to teach Babylonian culture and the astrology system to the Greeks around 280 BC. This move resulted in astrology being introduced and adapted, with different forms being introduced. By the 1st century BC, there were two types of astrology that existed. One called for horoscope readings that revealed details about the past, present, and future. The other type focused on the soul’s ascent to the celestial bodies in the sky. These two astrology types were interrelated, however, one sought information about life while the other sought personal transformation. Rome was then influenced by the Greeks and their system of astrology learned from Berossus. However, ancient texts suggest that the lower-order Romans were skeptical of the Babylonian practice of astrology, and were suspicious and untrusting towards the “star gazers”.

Islam

When Alexandria fell to the Arabs in the 7th century BC, the Islamic scholarly world showed an eager, keen interest in astrology. In the 8th century, Baghdad was a city founded especially for learning, and incorporated the study and translation of astrological texts. There are a few important Arabic astrologers whose work would go on to influence Europe and the rest of the world. Two of these important and significant astrologers are known as Albumasur and Al Khwarizmi. Through the study dedicated to the subject of astrology, the Arabs were able to significantly add to the knowledge of astronomy, and many commonly known star names today stem from the Arabic language, such as Aldebaran and Vega.

Europe

Astrology played a great role in the medieval and renaissance time periods in Europe. By the 13th century, astrology was part of European medical practices. Doctors combined everyday medicine with the studying of the stars, and by the end of the 1500s, it was a requirement for doctors to calculate the Moon’s position before performing complicated medical procedures. There are quite a few influential works from astrologers during these periods that had a great effect on astrological work, such as the book written in 1277 by the Italian astrologer Guido Bonatti. Medieval writers, such as Dante or Chaucer, incorporated astrological symbolism into the themes of their literary works. Richard Trewythian is known as one of the earliest English astrologers to document his practice in detail, claiming in his notebook that he had a wide range of clients, from low to high society, which indicates that astrology wasn’t just available to scholars or politicians. During the European Renaissance, astrology began to branch out into a new phase – that of scientific astrology.

Summary

The role that astrology had on ancient civilizations builds a foundation for understanding its history, and its powerful significance on the humans of the ancient world. To know where it all began, we must visit the ancient world and its civilizations. The brief history on astrology in the ancient world gives a perspective on how its practice shaped cultures, and how it spread to the Western world. Astrology’s role in these civilizations was important and was not viewed as bad or religiously wrong. However, after the Renaissance, astrology did indeed begin to take on a negative stigma amongst cultures, which paves the way for how it is viewed even today, in our modern world.

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