About Hellenistic Astrology — By the term Hellenistic astrology we mean the kind of astrology that first made its appearance in Egypt and the surrounding Mediterranean region sometime between the Alexandrian conquest and the beginning of the Christian era. Not only are its origins hard to pinpoint more exactly than this, but its authorship is equally elusive, being associated with a small cast of semi-divine or semi-legendary figures. The mystery of its founding only grows deeper when we consider that it seems to have sprung forth virtually fully-formed in a singular act of autogenesis.
We will also use the term Hellenistic to describe the astrology of the Roman and early Byzantine period, even though technically much of it lies outside the Hellenistic era proper. This is justified because the astrology of the founders continued to be practiced in something like its original and unadulterated form during these periods as well. Thus, for us the term Hellenistic describes a type of astrology more than a historical era.
Hellenistic astrology marked an entirely new beginning in the history of astrology. The large majority of the concepts, techniques, and principles of interpretation that are the mainstay of Hellenistic astrology cannot be traced back to any earlier or contemporary source. They constitute a distinct and original astrology, differing in essential ways from the indigenous astrologies that developed in other parts of the world.
Hellenistic astrology is the primary source of all later Western astrology. The life-force breathed into Hellenistic astrology by its founders sustained astrological practice until well into seventh century. It also left an unmistakable imprint on the astrology of India. In the eighth century, it lent its vitality to Arabian astrology and assumed the central place in that syncretism. Thence it returned to the West to re-animate European astrology of the late Medieval era. Most of the concepts and practices that are defining for modern astrology are still recognizably of Hellenistic origin.
The Texts — The surviving corpus of Hellenistic astrological writings consists of a comparatively large number of texts. Most of these were composed in Greek, a few in Latin. The majority of the texts are devoted to the astrology of the individual (“natal” astrology), but there is a significant amount of material that concerns universal (“mundane”) astrology, as well as inceptional (“electional” and “event”) astrology. It is still an open question whether the Hellenistic astrologers practiced horary astrology.
Here is a brief overview of what survives and in what form: Four Substantial General Treatises , which survive relatively intact in their original languages, three in Greek and one in Latin: the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy, the Anthology of Valens, the Apotelesmatics of Hephaistio, and the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus (in Latin). There also survives a representative number of Greek fragments of a fifth such treatise by Dorotheus, originally composed in didactic verse, which also survives in a somewhat corrupt Arabic translation. These treatises all show much kinship of doctrine. A Substantial Didactic Poem in Latin, the Astronomica of Manilius, somewhat aberrant in doctrine, which may contain material deriving from the pre-Hellenistic Egyptian period. Two Shorter General Treatises , the Introductory Matters of Paulus Alexandrinus and a didactic poem attributed to one Manetho. Some small treatises, also relatively intact, devoted to specialized astrological subjects, like the delineation text of Anubio for planetary combinations and the Hermetic iatromathematical texts. Paraphrases, which may be “easier” paraphrases of works originally written in difficult Greek or prose paraphrases of earlier didactic poems, such as a paraphrase of Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos attributed to Proclus. Summaries , more or less detailed, of some of the above treatises and many lost books, such as the summary of the lost Introduction of Antiochus or the summary of the Tablet of Thrasyllus. These were mostly written during the Byzantine era. Formal Commentaries on some of the above treatises, such as the Olympiodorus commentary on the work of Paulus Alexandrinus and an anonymous commentary on Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. “Collections” of material excerpted from various treatises, often paraphrased from the original, such as the collection of Rhetorius. These have some structure or overall logic to their presentation. “Miscellanies” or random assortments of excerpts and paraphrases from various treatises, sometimes mixed with opinions and views of the compiler, like the Introduction of Porphyry and the Liber Hermetis. fragments of all sorts, excerpted from earlier writers, some short, some long, some evidently verbatim, others paraphrased; for instance, a fragment of a treatise on the decanates ascribed to Teucer of Babylon. Fragments are found in many places, sometimes even in non-astrological writings. Scholia (marginal comments added to various manuscripts by readers and copyists) that sometimes give helpful information. Evidence from non-literary sources, such as writings on walls and papyrus scraps. These consist largely of very spare astrological chart readings and a few fragments of procedural texts.
It is difficult to date many of these writings very precisely. The various astrologers who composed them span a period of about eight hundred years, from the early centuries B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. Except for a few short specialized works, only fragments remain of the writings of the founders or any other astrologers from the pre-Christian era. Almost all the writings that survive in something like the form in which they were originally composed come from the Christian era.
Nearly all the surviving writings have been published in “critical editions.” The editors of these editions have mainly been cl assicists and philologists, who scoured the European and middle-Eastern libraries for texts relating to Hellenistic astrology, and then prepared editions of these texts by comparing all the surviving manuscripts in an effort to produce a definitive text, usually without translation. This is a high-level craft, requiring an extensive knowledge of the language and also of hand-writing styles. These scholars also try to date these texts, identify their authors, and make cross-references of the doctrines to other texts; often times they index the technical terminology. Most of this work has been completed in the field of Hellenistic astrology, and we are grateful to these scholars for having performed this painstaking and often thankless task.
Preliminary Survey of the Contents of the Hellenistic Astrological Corpus — Upon first perusal, this body of material may give the impression of a vast miscellany of dissociated and heterogeneous doctrines and precepts, as if there had been numerous independent schools of Hellenistic astrology down through the centuries, each espousing its own doctrines and making its own original and idiosyncratic contribution to the astrological practice of this period. Further study reveals that this elaborate corpus is actually far more coherent than may have been expected considering the number of authors involved and the extended period of time over which these writings were composed.
For one thing, there is much overlap in the doctrines found in different authors. At the same time, nearly every one of the surviving authors includes some material not found in any of the others. In view of this, it is plausible to assume that what has come down to us is fragments of a large and complex system from which each author excerpted according to his own special interests and the sources available to him.
For another thing, all the authors employ the same specialized terminology, bespeaking a continuity of conceptualization. With only relatively minor differences, all the astrologers writing during this period associate the same kinds of human events with the planets, the parts of the zodiac, and the topical places (“houses”). Many of the techniques — that is, methodical procedures for investigating special topics in the life of the native or certain periods of life — are reported by two or more authors evidently working independently of one another. All this commonly accepted doctrine points to derivation from a common earlier source.
In fact, the lineage recorded by Firmicus Maternus gives credit to Hermes Trismegistus for the founding of this astrology, whom he says passed it on to one Asclepius, whereupon it was explicated by Nechepso and Petosiris and promulgated by Abram, Orpheus, and Critodemus. Moreover, most of the core doctrines that characterize Hellenistic astrology are independently ascribed to these same astrologers by later Hellenistic authors as well, often in the form of direct quotations of their writings or paraphrases of their doctrines.
To be sure, there are techniques and bits of lore found only in the writings of some single author without explicit acknowledgment of an earlier source. However, these astrologers rarely (if ever) claim originality for such doctrines, so there is no reason not to accept them provisionally as authentic pieces of the original astrology, pending further examination of their conceptual connections with those doctrines which may safely be ascribed to the founders.
On the other hand, it seems quite likely that the Hellenistic astrological corpus also contains some material that is ascribed to the founders even though it actually derives from Babylonian or pre-Hellenistic Egyptian astrology. Although some of these doctrines may have been deliberately integrated into the Hellenistic astrology by the founders, others may have been rejected even though they continued to be dutifully transmitted by later astrologers. Such vestigial material can usually be segregated by seeing the extent to which it was actually incorporated into the practice of later Hellenistic astrologers.
In fact, it is only in the details of the execution of techniques and the extension of their range of application that we find anything resembling a development of the original tradition. In the case of techniques reported by several authors, we often find differences of opinion over the fine points of procedure. But far from being evidence of innovation, such divergence of views suggests instead that the original source texts were not sufficiently explicit on many procedural matters — Vettius Valens himself frequently attests to the cryptic nature of his sources — giving later astrologers the task of fleshing out of what was merely suggested in the originals. Here again, the determination of which of these variants is a valid elaboration is not a textual matter; it requires an understanding of the conceptual issues that motivated the introduction of the technique in the first place.
There are also cases in which a basic technique is independently represented in more than one author (and thereby may be safely traced back to the founders), yet one of these authors applies this technique directly or analogically to situations or contexts not recognized by the other authors. Here the restraint of those other authors argues that such an extension of the range of application may not have been intended by the founders. Although this may be regarded as innovation of a sort, there is always the danger that the technique has been extended beyond its proper range. Once more, only a study of the intrinsic logic of the technique could legitimate such an extension.
It would seem, then, that the later Hellenistic astrologers were for the most part a very conservative group, who attempted to remain as faithful to the original tradition as possible. They understood their own work to be that of preservation and transmission, interpretation and development. In this their attitude was true to the spirit of the times. In an era more characterized by commentary than originality, where creative thinking could only take place within parameters and categories established by the founders of schools and disciplines, it would indeed have been astonishing for any substantial innovation to have occurred within a tradition whose founders were regarded as semi-divine beings. The appearance of heterogeneity in this corpus is partly due to the practice of selective excerpting by later astrologers, and partly due to divergent readings of ambiguities in the source texts.
Reconstructing the Practice of Hellenistic Astrology — The question of the coherence of Hellenistic astrological practice thus effectively reduces to one of the integrity of the doctrines of the founders. Accordingly, we must next ask whether this group of doctrines consists of separate and unrelated practical insights on the part of the founders, each of which makes an independent contribution to the reading of a nativity, or whether these doctrines fit together into an orderly system. This is a question that modern scholarship has hardly bothered to raise, let alone to address, evidently regarding Hellenistic astrology as a chimerical patchwork of anthropomorphic concepts, arbitrary interpretations, and bizarre techniques. But here again, closer analysis reveals something hitherto unsuspected: that these doctrines can be collected together and organized into a systematic and orderly practice.
First of all, we note that the Hellenistic astrologers themselves tend to collect many of the numerous concepts related to planetary "condition" into several different groupings. These same constellations of concepts are represented in many different authors, and some are so common as to have their own collective names.
Secondly, it can be shown that the manifold and seemingly unrelated meanings (in terms of human events) of the seven planets individually have a common notion underlying them, just as the numerous and often disparate definitions of words can be seen to derive from a basic meaning by applying the rules of word formation. Furthermore, the meanings of different planets can be interrelated with one another according to an orderly pattern of “synonyms” and “antonyms.” In addition, in the case of planetary combinations the atomistic significations grow into more complex phrases or molecules of meaning according to a determinate syntax, giving evidence that these delineations were generated by a rational principle. Similar remarks apply to the various meanings of the twelve topical places ("houses") and the characteristics of the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Thirdly, the Hellenistic astrologers themselves often group their techniques in a coordinate or hierarchical manner. Techniques addressed to topical inquiries into specific areas of human life are often cross-linked to techniques designed to investigate certain seasons of human life, and vice versa. The separate components of a given technique can often be seen to have been motivated by the requirements of the topic or timing technique in question.
Thus, the practice of Hellenistic astrology displays a threefold systematic character: an articulate system of concepts, a system of meanings, and a system of topics and seasons of life addressed by well-motivated techniques.
What assurance is there that the systematic features just mentioned were part of the original system and not imposed by later Hellenistic astrologers? By paying careful attention to the technical astrological terminology, which was clearly introduced by the founders and stable throughout the era, we see that the clusters of concepts related to planetary condition have their underlying unity in the concrete anthropomorphic paradigms suggested by the terminology. The paradigms underlying the various modes of planetary combination provide descriptions in human terms of the syntactical structures that may be uncovered by the study of the delineations. Finally, the anthropomorphic language used in the procedural texts likewise suggests how the techniques used in topical inquiries or in the study of time periods should be interpreted.
In short, the more this material is studied in detail, the more it takes on the appearance of a complex but orderly system, whose various pieces are scattered about in numerous astrological treatises.
Uncovering the Theory Underlying Hellenistic Astrology — It is generally acknowledged that the founding Hellenistic astrologers flourished in the first or second century B.C.E. If this discipline was fully operational by the beginning of the Christian era, as seems to be the case, this means that that the conceptual framework, interpretive principles, and basic technical apparatus of Hellenistic astrology were devised in a relatively short span of time, perhaps less than a century. How could such a coherent astrological system have developed so quickly?
It is preposterous to assume that the propositions of Hellenistic astrology were derived inductively from empirical studies correlating celestial phenomena with events in the human world. Apart from the anachronism of such a view, Hellenistic astrology came on the scene far too quickly for it to have developed in this way, even supposing that its founders had had access to empirical data compiled earlier, say, in the form of Babylonian omen texts. This observation does not, of course, preclude the possibility that the doctrines of Hellenistic astrology could not have been tested empirically.
And even if the principles of Hellenistic astrology had been developed much earlier, as the legends about Hermes Trismegistus would have it, there are simply too many variables at play simultaneously for its propositions to have resulted from such an empirical process without manifold a priori assumptions. Furthermore, some of its concepts (such as lots) are of such a nature that they could not even in principle have been discovered empirically. A sign of this is the fact that the vast legions of modern astrologers never stumbled upon them in their own studies. Finally, many of the techniques of Hellenistic astrology are so arcane and so non-intuitive that they could not possibly have been contrived by simply trying things out to see if they “worked.”
Setting aside the possibility that Hellenistic astrology was revealed to the founders as a complete system in an inspired moment, it is more plausible to assume that it was some sort of rational construct devised by the founders. To be sure, this construct must have been based on a vision of the cosmos and the place of human life within it that would have made room for the possibility of astrology in the first place, and it is not absurd to regard such a vision as an inspired revelation. However, this initial vision would then need to have been adequately worked out and sufficiently articulated to suggest how the details of the practical astrological system could be derived in a non-arbitrary and conceptually consistent manner. Some vague notion of “as above, so below,” or some simple hypothesis of “cosmic sympathies” or “correspondences” would not suffice for the purposes of a full rational construction and could not account for the coherence of the system.
Unfortunately, we search in vain for evidence of this postulated cosmological vision and subsequent constructive reasoning in any of the excerpts or paraphrases of doctrine by later Hellenistic astrologers which may be safely traced back to the founders. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the early writings contained explicit theoretical statements or expositions, for we do not find any such citations in the polemics or justifications of astrology on the part of contemporary philosophers. Instead, we find the rejection or acceptance of astrology argued almost exclusively on the basis of the philosopher's own metaphysical views and his own understanding of what was presupposed by the terminology and details of astrological practice.
The speculation has been made that the philosophical dialogues of the so-called Corpus Hermeticum contain the theoretical foundations of the “technical” Hermetica, which include Hellenistic astrology. We will not here enter into the ongoing controversy surrounding the dating of these dialogues. Currently their date of composition has been pushed forward to the first few centuries of the Christian era, although it has been suggested that they may draw on earlier doctrine. For the purposes of our own inquiry, they are relevant only to the extent that they contain doctrines antecedent to or contemporaneous with the founding of Hellenistic astrology. These dialogues do indeed contain a number of explicit references to astrology as set in a philosophical context, most notably the idea that the planets are the servants of fate, but there is no trace in them of the principles that would allow one to deduce the practical system from such a notion. At best they record the cosmological vision behind Hellenistic astrology, but we cannot even be sure of this until the constructive principles are restored. However, when all is said and done, what we are faced with is a collection of practical astrological treatises with no explicit philosophical framing.
For those who argue, as we do, that Hellenistic astrology must have been a rational construct, it is usual to assume that this kind of astrology was anchored in the metaphysics of Stoicism, Middle Platonism, and/or Neo-Pythagoreanism, the prevailing philosophical trends of the day. This assumption is then “confirmed” by quoting philosophical asides by one of the later Hellenistic astrologers such as Vettius Valens or Firmicus Maternus that espouses a Stoic conception of fate, or by mentioning that the astrologer Thrasyllus was a Middle Platonist who arranged the Platonic dialogues into tetralogues, or by noting some kind of numerological argumentation by one of these later astrologers.
There is a dubious historicism implicit in this view. It carries with it the insinuation that the founders of Hellenistic astrology were slavishly accepting of the philosophical tenets of their day and incapable of original theoretical thinking in response the unique demands of their subject matter, or at best capable of clever eclectic syncretism. But even apart from this, the simple fact is that there is absolutely no evidence for supposing that the later Hellenistic astrologers were any more privy to the original theory than the philosophical contemporaries of the founding Hellenistic astrologers. It is equally possible, and in our view far more likely, that when these later astrologers exhibit doctrines of the schools, they were simply reflecting the prevailing philosophical sentiments of their own day and taking sides in the ongoing learned debate over the possibility of astrology.
Of course, these remarks do not entirely rule out the possibility that Hellenistic astrology was erected on the foundations of one metaphysical school or other. The effort to think through such possibilities is at least a rewarding philosophical exercise. For instance, an astrologer familiar with the first section of Plato's Timaeus could very well have understood the following propositions to support an epistemological model for astrology: 1) That the cosmos is a living animal, with both body and soul 2) That the cosmic soul possesses a rational consciousness, capable of knowing the events that befall individual human beings in this world of coming-to-be and passing away; since rationality was conceptualized by classical philosophers as internalized logos, or the soul speaking to itself, the cognitive acts taking place in the cosmic soul have the structure of a language. 3) That the observable celestial phenomena are "expressions" of the inner states and cognitive events of this cosmic consciousness (just as we express our inner states through our facial expressions or body language). 4) That the role of the astrologer is to surmise the thoughts that the cosmic mind entertains relative to any individual human life, by attending to the observable phenomena that are expressions of those thoughts. This same astrologer could also have been tempted by the second section of this dialogue, insofar as it suggests that the physical causes that are responsible for events in the human world may themselves be subject to a kind of formal causality originating in a higher realm, a notion that might be understood to complement the first model.
It must also be acknowledged that there are numerous passages in the Hellenistic corpus that demonstrate that the Hellenistic astrologers (including the founders) were at home with the natural philosophy of the time. For instance, nearly every Hellenistic astrologer describes the effects of a planetary transit to a natal planet in terms of the intensification and relaxation of a planetary quality, which was the classical way of conceptualizing the variation in degree of a quality. They often make use of the four primary qualities and the four elements. The notion of seven planetary rays and the difference between planetary rays cast forward and those cast backward in the order of signs seems to be a clever adaptation of Greek optical theory. In my opinion, Hellenistic astrology is deserving of serious study for these reasons alone, since in the astrological writings we find these technical concepts actually applied in concrete settings rather than merely written about in theoretical treatises, as was the habit of the Athenian philosophers. But again, should we conclude from this that, like other eclectics of the day, Hellenistic astrologers simply borrowed whatever terminology they needed from the common store of contemporary jargon? Or worse, that they adopted this terminology for want of exact concepts to express their own astrological ideas?
Indeed, there is another reason for questioning whether the founders of Hellenistic astrology based their rational construct on the metaphysical precepts of the schools. One would assume that these purported influences would show themselves in the technical terminology employed by the Hellenistic astrologers. But unlike the philosophical dialogues of the Corpus Hermeticum, which, according to Iamblichus, deliberately employed the metaphysical jargon of the schools, there is only sparing evidence of such language in the technical astrological texts.
This does not, however, in any way mean that Hellenistic astrology was not worked out in full cognizance of the metaphysical doctrines of the Greek schools. In fact, careful reading shows that the Hellenistic astrologers went out of their way to avoid contemporary metaphysical parlance, developing a technical vocabulary of their own that consists of terminology partly synonymous with the standard terminology, and partly antonymous to it. The question is why they engaged in this practice.
Given this state of affairs, the only approach to recovering the principles underlying the theory of Hellenistic astrology is a detailed study of the technical terminology, interpretive texts, and the practical system itself, guided by the supposition that the theory of Hellenistic astrology was somehow fully embedded in the practice.
The real question is whether the development of a systematic astrology — a discipline designed to treat of the concrete particulars of daily human life — was a problem that could even in principle be addressed by the metaphysical precepts of the contemporary schools. In our view, this is a dubious proposition. Metaphysics after Plato and Aristotle became the study of being, formulated in various ways: the study of that which is insofar as it is, of that which is most really real, of the ultimate causes of that which is, of the ultimate elements underlying that which is, etc. But being was always understood as that which was permanent and unchanging, essential and not accidental, independent and not contingent. Even when the philosopher directed his gaze at the material world of coming-to-be and passing away, he sought these eternal formal principles to the extent that they were present there. Accordingly, the philosopher was interested in studying man as man—not man as tall or olive-skinned or eminent or as one possessing children or wealth. In numerous places, Aristotle even explicitly banishes accidental or contingent being from the province of metaphysics and the "primary philosophy."
It is my contention that the framers of Hellenistic astrology took on the systematic study of the accidental and contingent in the world and in human life as their special province, with the intention of reinstating it as a proper subject of metaphysical inquiry. Where the Athenian philosophers were concentrating on the "is," the Hellenistic astrologers would focus on the "can be," the "may be," and the "ought to be." Theirs was a philosophical program unique and unprecedented in the ancient world, which nevertheless had to be pursued with all the care and rigor characteristic of the Athenian philosophical schools themselves. This would be no easy matter. Many of the basic themes of Athenian philosophical inquiry would have to be addressed anew. For instance, the concepts of place, time, motion, and event would have to be re-conceptualized; the very idea of causality would have to be rethought in this new context, and even the meaning of logical inference. It is my opinion that they succeeded in their program.