Copyright 1996 © by Robert Hand
Posted in the Newsgroup alt.astrology in March 1996...
The History of Astrology -- Another View
by Robert Hand
What did the Egyptians add to Babylonian astrology? We cannot say for certain,
but internal evidence indicates the following. The use of a rising degree may
or may not have been found in pre-Hellenistic Babylonian astrology. But the
Hellenistic writers attributed the use of houses, or signs used as houses to
Hermes. For Hermes we should understand a reference to Hellenistic Egyptian
sources. It is probable that aspects are also Egyptian but we cannot say for
certain. The lots are almost certainly Egyptian as well as most of the systems
of rulership. Only the exaltations have a clearly Mesopotamian origin.
At any rate it is quite likely that the entire apparatus of horoscopic
astrology was in place by 1 C.E., quite possibly several centuries earlier.
One of things that we have found in our studies of the later Greek writers is
that they are already dealing with a later era of astrology. They have their
"ancients" and they have already begun to misunderstand some of the ancient
teachings. One of these writers, Vettius Valens, actually went traveling
through Egypt looking for masters of the old traditions, much like modern
Americans have gone to India to study astrology and various sacred teachings.
While most of the Greek writers seemed to have studied from books, Valens
studied with at least a few living teachers of the old traditions. And it is
clear from his work that much of what they taught would never have been
written down but for Valens.
What Happened Next
Whatever may have been the language of Egyptian astrology when it first began
to come into being, by 1 C.E. it was Greek. This is not to say that there were
no astrology texts written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian, but
no clear reference to any has survived.
All of the Egyptian texts that are referred to in the later literature seem to
have been written in Greek. Possibly some were translations from Coptic. The
use of Greek had important consequences. Although the Persian empire was a
truly cosmopolitan empire with a considerable level of equality among the
races that made up the empire, no one language
came to predominate. No doubt Persian was used for official purposes, but
Babylonian and Egyptian also continued to be used in their own areas in
preference to Persian. But when Alexander the Great conquered all of Persia
and Egypt, and advanced all the way into northwest India, Greek became the
dominant language not only for official purposes, but also for any purpose
that involved communicating from one ethnic area to another. The original
languages continued to be used for local purposes, such as Aramaic (which
completely supplanted Babylonian) and Coptic. But a scholar or traveler could
go anywhere from Greece in the west to India in the east and Egypt in the
south and be understood. Any idea expressed in Greek could have a similar
range of travel.
Even after the Persian revival beginning first with the Parthians and later
with the Sassanids (see chronology given earlier), the Bactrian peoples of
what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to have Greek speaking rulers
until the early centuries C.E. Consequently the Babylonian methods embodied in
Egyptian astrology as well as the Egyptian methods themselves could travel
into India without difficulty. This accounts for the fact that all of the
technical words in Indian astrology whose origins can be found in another
language are Greek, not Babylonian, not Coptic, nor earlier Egyptian. What is
also interesting is that there appear to be few, if any, technical words in
Greek astrology that have their origins in any other language.
Below is a partial list of some of the terms in Hindu astrology that appear to
have a Greek origin.
1. Zodiacal Signs
All of the above had Sanskrit equivalents which probably preceded the
introduction of the above words into India, and which also eventually
completely displaced these words of Hellenic origin. The following are terms
for which there are no previous Sanskrit roots and appear to have come
completely from Greek. These words have remained standard astrological terms
in India to this day.
3. House and Aspect Words
||Void of C.
As the heading at the top of Table 3 indicates, these are all house and aspect
words, indicating that this was an area of Hindu astrology on which
Hellenistic astrology had great impact.
The question of the debt or lack thereof of Hindu astrology to Hellenistic is
an extremely controversial one. Many authors of the Hinduschool would like to
deny that there was any at all. This position is a bit hard to support given
the above, and also given the very frequent references to the "Yavanas" who
were Greeks or more precisely Greek speaking persons of various ethnic
On the other hand there are Westerners, of whom this author is not one, who
believe that Hindu astrology comes entirely from the West (or more precisely
Middle East). David Pingree in his study of the Yavanajataka does an extremely
thorough job of cataloging the parallels between the astrology of that work
and that of the Greeks, and even he is forced to admit that there are many
differences. However such differences do not require two different origins.
All it requires is a period of isolation between two branches of a tradition
after an earlier period of unity, such that the two branches can diverge, and
one, the eastern, merge with native traditions already in place. While we do
not insist that Hindu astrology is entirely or even principally an offshoot of
Hellenistic astrology, it must be said that the required period of isolation
did occur which could have caused a single tradition to become two.
After 126 B.C.E. the Parthians, a Persian people, rose up against the
Seleucids who succeeded Alexander the Great, and they reconquered most of the
old Persian Empire except for the portion near the Mediterranean, and the
portion in the northwest of India. The Parthians were extremely hostile to the
Greeks (and later the Romans) and effectively cut off communication (or at
least cut it down to a trickle) between the main body of Hellenistic peoples
toward the West and the Bactrian Greeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who in
turn remained in power until the early centuries C.E. The Bactrian Greeks
eventually converted to Hinduism and their language disappeared. However as of
about 200 C.E. they still existed as an identifiable group. These are the
Yavanas of the Yavanajataka.
Still later the historian Kay mentions Hindu records from the 4th and 5th
Centuries C.E. of a new Sun God cult coming in from the West. Given that
Christianity displaced the worship of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, it is
tempting to postulate that Hindu astrology received a second burst of input
from a new group of Yavanas fleeing Christian
persecution in the West.
The central problem is how much of Hindu astrology is indigenous and how much
comes from the West. Other than the few suggestions I have made here, this is
not the place to attempt an answer. In any case it is very clear that whatever
the Hindus got from the West they did not just take and passively apply. They
altered, modified, and quite possibly improved whatever they may have received
from the West and combined it with their own native traditions.
There is one other consequence of the Parthian separation. The Persian peoples
had always been enthusiastic astrologers. It seems logical to conclude that
they must have developed their own traditions from the astrology that they had
inherited from the Mesopotamians and the Greeks. Then in 227 C.E. they were
overthrown by the Sassanid Persians who would have continued the development
of the Persian traditions of astrology.
Unfortunately when the Arabs came, almost all of the literature of the
Zoroastrian Sassanids was destroyed. This includes their astrological works.
However we do have a strong clue as to what their astrology must have been
like. Most of the greatest astrologers in the Arab era were Persians! And the
astrology they taught is quite different from both the Hindu and the Greek. It
had orbs of aspect, the Great Cycles of Jupiter and Saturn, all of the
elaborate systems of planetary interactions such as Refrenation, Frustration,
Abscission of Light, Translation of Light and so forth. While Arab era
astrology clearly owes a large debt to Hellenistic astrology, it is also clear
that in the two or three centuries between the last known Hellenistic
astrologers and the
first known Arab era ones, something new had come into the stream. This could
have been, and probably was the Persian stream of astrology. And Arab era
astrology is the immediate ancestor of the Western astrology of today. Our
astrology may be in fact the successor to that third stream of ancient
A Final Note on Zodiacs
We have mentioned previously in this essay that the first Babylonian
birthcharts were cast in the sidereal zodiac. Also it has been traditional for
Hindu astrologers to use one or another sidereal zodiac. This whole matter is
as controversial as the issue of the indebtedness or lack thereof of Hindu
astrology to Middle Eastern astrology. But there is not enough space in this
essay to go into the matter at this time. In previous writings (in Project
Hindsight) we have stated that the zodiac did not seem to be an issue of great
import to the ancients. We still hold that position. But at some point in a
future introductory essay we will go into that matter in some depth. For the
moment it will have to suffice to say that the matter is far from closed in
favor of either zodiac.
Part II | Part I
Copyright 1996 © by Robert Hand.
Mr. Hand has been doing translations of ancient
and medieval astrology texts now for almost three years with Project Hindsight and that
effort has published
over 2000 pages of translations and commentary. If anyone is interested in
further information on Project Hindsight, they have a web page at
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