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The Prestigious Planets

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The planets, seen as gods, played so early a part in prophesy and divination that evidence of their effect on the history of Babylonia is hard to come by. Even when it does present itself, it is extremely uncertain when concerned with dates earlier than the 10th century BC.

Copies of copies of documents from the library of Sargon of Agade, who ruled Babylonia in about 2000 BC, suggest that he instructed his astrologers to choose propitious moments for starting ambitious projects, and his library no doubt contained collections of star omens. But it is only with the mul.APIN, three thousand years later, which summarizes the astronomical knowledge of its time, that we approach the realm of fact rather than conjecture; here are accounts of genuine observations of the movements of the planets as they travelled three Roads - the Road of Anu, god of the northern sky, of Enlil, god of the atmosphere (the path which the Greeks christened the ecliptic, and later the zodiac), and of Ea, god of the deep. The laborious gathering of the facts enshrined in these tablets must have gone on for centuries: there are hints of a set of tablets dating from the time of Hammurapi, sixteen hundred years earlier, which record the movements of Venus - even then perhaps used in connection with the interpretation of certain omens.

It was in the 7th century BC that the earliest astrologers of whom we know were recorded, during the reigns of Esarhaddon (681-668) and his successor Assurbanipal. Esarhaddon employed Akkullanu, Balasi, Ishtar-shumeresh, Nabun-adinshum and Nabua-heriba; Assurbanipal's astrological advisers included Adad-shumusur, Mar-Ishtar and Belushezib. The astrologers were established in workshops or studios attached to the temple of Ea, the god of oracles and inventor of writing. At the outset of his reign Esarhaddon instructed them to calculate for him the best time at which he should start restoring the images of the gods and rebuilding their sanctuaries. He also asked more personal questions: was it a good time for his son to visit him? (his predecessor had been murdered by his offspring); would he find the coming eclipse dangerous? These simple questions are among the first personal enquiries on record.

The weight that Esarhaddon gave to his astrologers' interpretations of the movements of the planets sprang from his reverence for the planets themselves. The preamble of his important treaty with a Median king begins:

In the presence of the planets Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Sirius, and in the presence of Assur, Anu, Enlil, Ea, Sin, Shamash...

Thus the planet-gods are given precedence over the ancient territorial gods - even before Shamash the Sun and Sin the Moon.

Naturally, such prestigious personalities as these gods of the skies must control the most important matters within their dominions. Diodorus says that the Babylonians called the five planets the Interpreters because they decided the fate of both individuals and nations. The planetary forecasts that have survived naturally concern kings and governors, but it was accepted that at least one planet-god held sway over the birth of even the lowliest individual - and Diodorus reports that the Babylonians took into consideration the influences of twenty-four stars known as 'the judges of the world', and thirty stars called 'consulting gods'. Which stars these were, and whether there were fifty-four separate ones or the same star sometimes shared a dual function, we do not know.

It is doubtful whether the people of Babylonia - even, it may be, the rulers - knew much about the intricacies of the astrology practised by their astrologer-priests. They got a glimpse of astrological lore through the myths and legends of their civilization: most notably in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ruler of Sumer, surviving fragmentarily on twelve tablets from the library of Assurbanipal at Nineveh. Each of his twelve adventures relates to a sign of the zodiac: he meets a Scorpion Man in the sign of Scorpio, reaches the Waters of Death in Capricorn, consults a halfman, half-bull called Ea-bani in Taurus, and receives a proposal of marriage from the goddess Ishtar in Virgo. The Babylonians, on hearing these stories, learned to regard their own lives too as a quest for immortality, running parallel to that of the Sun god as he travelled through the constellations.

The earliest individual predictions were made without the help of the zodiac, and when they were made for a king were interpreted as applying to the whole kingdom: an unfortunate month for the monarch meant an unfortunate month for the state. Even so, some crude personal predictions have survived for non-royal individuals. There is a Babylonian omen text from the second half of the second millenium which predicts certain events from the month of a child's birth - crude indeed; as crude as the modern astrological paperbacks that tell you what your child will be like if he or she is born 'under' a certain sign.

The earliest surviving horoscope, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, is dated 410 BC, and is for the son of Shuma-usar, son of Shuma-iddina, descendant of Deke, who was born when 'the Moon was below the Horn of the Scorpion, Jupiter in the Fish, Venus in the Bull, Saturn in the Crab, Mars in the Twins. Mercury, which had set ... was ... invisible.' There is no interpretation given for this child; a modern astrologer would say that he was sensual and loving, possessive and jealous, with powerful instincts and emotions, had a strong sense of patriarchal tradition, was financially shrewd and ambitious, prone to periods of restlessness and possibly incapable of consistent steady work. A later horoscope, for 4 April 253 BC, though much damaged, did offer an interpretation: 'He will be lacking in wealth ... His food will not suffice for his hunger. The wealth he had in his youth will not stay. His days will be long. His wife, whom people will seduce in his presence, will ...' And there, alas, the story breaks off.

It should be pointed out that these earliest horoscopes were not set out within the familiar circle of a 'modern' horoscope, representing a map of the sky for a particular moment and place, nor in the earlier square form which persisted until the 17th century, and is sometimes seen even today. They were merely lists of the positions of the planets.

The word horoscope, incidentally, derives from the Greek horoskopos, meaning the sign ascending over the eastern horizon at a given moment (from hora, time, and skopos, observer).

By the 3rd century BC astrologers had at their command a proper almanac giving the positions of the Moon and planets at regular intervals over a number of years, together with conjunctions of the Sun and Moon. These suggested an order in an otherwise orderless, incoherent universe, an order man should strive to emulate; the movements of planets in the skies had meaning which man was capable of understanding, and related to his life - otherwise why should the planets move at all? It could not be that they were the products of accident. This theory had great political importance, and is advanced again and again over the next two thousand years throughout Europe, as an argument in favour of order in society.

The idea that the influence of the planets was all-pervading, and that a true interpreter of that influence was of enormous value, was widely spread in the centuries just before the death of Christ, by the Chaldeans. The term should really always be written in inverted commas. Chaldea was properly a province of Babylonia, whose citizens soon became the Úlite of the country, virtually dominating its ruling class as early as the 8th century BC. Eventually, 'Babylonia' and 'Chaldea' became interchangeable terms; but for some reason the popular meaning of the term 'Chaldean' came to be 'astrologer'. In the Book of Daniel, for instance, 'Chaldean' always meant that - or mathematician, astronomer, wizard or magician!

Many leading astrologers were literally Chaldeans, although many no doubt came from other areas of Babylonia or other parts of the Middle East. Even countries not noted for a special interest in astrology had a contribution to make. Persia, for instance, produced El Hakim, otherwise Gjamasp, a court astrologer to the semi-legendary king Hystaspes of Iran in the 6th century BC, who wrote a book in which he examined the effect of the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn on the history of the world. Judicia Gjamaspis offered predictions that have been interpreted as foreseeing the birth of Christ and the rise of Islam.

In India, certain predictions were already possible by the 6th century BC, as we see from the works of Varaha Mihira, whose astronomical textbook, the Brihat Sambita, suggests that the portents to be seen in the skies are so many and so complex that every astrologer should have at least four assistants, and that 'the king who does not honour a scholar accomplished in horoscopy and astronomy, clever in all branches and accessories, comes to grief.'

But it was the Chaldeans, predominantly, who carried astrology to other nations and broadened its scope, claiming for the first time for instance that not only a man, but a city, could have its 'moment of birth', and that therefore an astrologer could advise on the laying of the foundation stone at an auspicious moment, in order to give the city a horoscope encouraging security and prosperity. One of the first instances we find of an astrologer offering advice on that subject is in about 312 BC, when Seleucus I founded the city of Seleucia on the Tigris. Seleucus was a devout adherent of astrology (unlike his chief antagonist Antigonos, who ignored the prediction that Seleucus would kill him on the field of battle, which he did, in 301). When he was planning Seleucia he consulted a number of Chaldeans. These were, like the Babylonians, against the idea of the new city, which they suspected (rightly) would in time mean the desertion and ruin of Babylon itself. They therefore worked out the least auspicious time for the cornerstone of the new city to be laid, and advised Seleucus accordingly. He issued his orders; but his workmen were so eager to raise the city that they started work before the given time, thus providing the city with a highly propitious horoscope!

The birth chart of Seleucia is lost. That for another of Seleucus' cities, Antioch, has survived - calculated for 22 May 300 BC - as have those for Constantinople, Alexandria, Gaza, Caesarea; sometimes representations of parts of these were engraved on coins minted in the cities concerned.

From Babylonia, the Chaldeans carried astrology into Egypt, and more importantly into Greece. The enormous importance in Egypt of myths about the sky gods, the travels and adventures of Sin, the Moon god, Shamash the Sun god, or Ishtar the personification of Venus, have led people to believe that that country must have made a great contribution to the development of astrology. In fact, its interest in the planets came fairly late - apart from a devotion to Venus, which anyway was seen as a star of the morning and evening rather than as a planet.

The impression that the Egyptians had a long tradition of astrological knowledge probably arose because they were jealous of the older tradition of Babylonia. When in 260 BC Berosus (supported by Diodorus and Cicero) claimed that the Chaldean astrological texts were almost half a million years old, Egyptian astronomers countered by claiming that their texts dated from at least 630,000 BC.

Just as with the other advanced civilizations, there was certainly an early interest in astronomical events. Egyptian texts dating from as early as the 13th century BC show a familiarity with the positions of the stars; but the Egyptian obsession was more with the devising of a workable calendar than with any astrological significance. They turned to other omens for prediction: the cry of a new-born child, for instance, or its appearance. If it turned its eyes towards the Sun, it was a sign of early death. They interpreted dreams, too, and employed necromancy.

Discussion about the place of the pyramids in the development of astrology in Egypt seems fruitless. It is no doubt the case that some if not all of the pyramids were constructed for astronomical purposes, or at the very least with astronomy in mind; and since astronomy was indistinguishable from astrology, there is no point in denying that for instance the Great Pyramid, built in about 2500 BC, has a place in astrological history. But what place?

Innumerable theories have been advanced to explain the pyramids and to discover their secrets. As early as 1883 it was suggested that they had been erected as astronomical observatories and star clocks. Years later, it was proposed that the Egyptians who built the Great Pyramid must have known that the earth was round, and flattened at the poles, that they could measure the precise length of the year and had mastered a system of map projection.

The claim that the first horoscope was cast in Egypt in 2767 BC is suspect, although there is certainly a diagram of that date representing a particular moment of time - not, as far as we know, connected with the birth or life of a particular individual, but an early affirmation of belief that a particular moment of time had an individual significance (a proposition echoed in the 20th century by the psychologist C.G. Jung). Its existence shows that the early Egyptians were capable of close observation of the heavens; they may have used the pyramids for that purpose.

When the tomb of Rameses II was excavated, it was found to contain two circles of gold marked in 360 degrees, and with symbols showing the rising and setting of stars. This suggests that he was interested in ascending degrees - the degree of the ecliptic rising over the eastern horizon at any particular time, an important matter in astrology. Rameses II - Ozymandias, the builder of the temple at Abu Simbel - reigned from about 1292-1225 BC; and the tomb of Rameses V contained papyri offering astrological hints for every hour of every month of the year.

There is evidence too that astrologers in the Egypt of thirteen hundred years before Christ knew about the four fixed signs of the zodiac (astrologers divide the signs into quadruplicities or qualities - cardinal, mutatable and fixed). In the sarcophagus of Seti I (c 1317 BC) the four jars containi the intestines were protected by four deities, represented with a human head (Mestha), a dog's head (Hapi), a jackal's head (Tuamutef) and a hawk's head (Qebhsennuf). These clearly represented the four fixed signs with Mestha as Aquarius, Hapi as Leo, Tuamutef as Taurus and Qebhsennuf as Scorpio. But this is not a sign that advanced astrology was practised: the four Suns of Horus were the gods of astronomical myths, with astrological associations.

A major contribution to the early history of astrology was, however, made by Egypt: the invention of the decans by the division of the circle of the ecliptic into thirty-six sections, three decans or sections of 10 degrees to each sign. The earliest sight we have of these is on a coffin lid of the Middle Kingdom, on which the sky is shown with the names of the decans in columns. The zodiac did not then exist: the decans were geared to the constellations, and it was not until the Hellenistic age that they were linked with the zodiac and became truly astrological in significance. It seems that they were contrived because of the Egyptian belief that every moment of time should have its presiding deity.

Stobaeus, who collected valuable extracts from Greek authors in the 5th century AD, in an essay addressed to his son, claimed that the decans:

exert their influence on bodies from on high. How could they not act on us as well, on each in particular and on all men together? Thus, my child, among all the catastrophes of universal scope due to forces emanating from them, we may cite as examples - mark well my words - the changes of kings, the uprisings of cities, famines, pestilences, flux and reflux of the sea, earthquakes. Nothing of all that, my child, occurs without the influence of the decans.

The decans were later to be specially important in medical astrology, when different ailments were specific to different decans (stomach trouble, for instance, being attributable to the first decanate of Virgo).

Despite their interest in star patterns, Egyptian astrologers were not nearly as advanced as their Babylonian colleagues. Their mathematics were even more cumbrous and the zodiac reached them comparatively late - the earliest of which we have a report was engraved on the ceiling of a hall north of Esna some time before 22I BC. There are only slight differences between the earliest surviving Egyptian zodiacs (at Esna and in the chapel of Osiris at Denderah, built at about the time of Christ) and those of Babylonia; clearly the zodiac came to Egypt directly from there. And what use was made of astrology in Egypt? There were certainly predictions for the Pharaoh and for the country: 'the Flood will come to Egypt'; 'many men will rebel against the King'; 'seed and grain will be high in price'; 'the burial of a god will occupy Egypt.' All these predictions were made on the basis of movements of the Dog star, Sothis - 'If Sothis rises when the Moon is in the Archer', or 'If Sothis rises when Mercury is in the Twins', and so on.

Another papyrus, from the Roman period, makes predictions for individuals based on the presence of Venus and Mercury in the 'houses' of the horoscope at the time of birth. (The 'houses' are twelve divisions within the circle of the horoscope, relating to particular areas of life. The system was invented by the Babylonians and persists even now, although astrologers have disagreed about the system of house division.)

Astrology had a part to play in formal religion, and sometimes a major one. Clement of Alexandria, a distinguished Christian writer born in about AD 150, describes an Egyptian religious procession of his own time, but with traditional and ancient elements:

First goes the Precentor carrying two of Hermes' books, one containing the Hymns of the Gods, the other directions for the kingly office. After him follows the Horoscopus, an expert in the four astrological books of Hermes. Then succeeds the Hierogrammateus, or sacred scribe, with feathers upon his head, and a book and rule in his hands, to whom it belongeth to be thoroughly acquainted with the hieroglyphics, as with cosmography, geography, the order of the Sun and Moon and five planets ...

'The four astrological books of Hermes' came from that legendary collection of ancient texts the Hermetic books. These were allegedly collected together by the Egyptian god Thoth, later known to the Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus, and still later to the Romans as Mercury. Some authorities believed that there were forty-two volumes of these texts; other historians were more adventurous Seleucus claimed that there were twenty thousand volumes, and Manethon was particular, having counted 36,525.

The texts, however many there were, enshrined traditional knowledge about religion, art, science, geometry, alchemy, astronomy, astrology and many other subjects. They were held to be sacred, and only the highest of Egyptian priests were allowed to touch them. Alas, no one has yet discovered the tomb of Alexander the Great, in which the Emperor Severus is supposed to have entombed the last complete set. It may be that the extreme veneration in which the texts were held was a major factor in their not surviving; they were so sacred that only a few people were permitted access to them, and perhaps there came a time when those few had all died without ensuring that their charge had been passed on to posterity. However, the absence of any real knowledge of the texts has not prevented an enormous literature growing up about them, and it has never been doubted that any large collection of traditional wisdom, however put together, would certainly have contained much ancient theory about astrology.

Hermes was supposed to have devised an astrological system of his own, and among the Hermetic books was, apparently, one on medical astrology, another on the decans (including a detailed catalogue going back beyond 150 BC), one on zodiacal plants, and one on the astrological degrees. Hermes' writings are quoted freely by many later astrologers, including Thrasyllus, perhaps the most influential of all astrologers of Imperial Rome, Antiochus of Athens, and Sarapion, a pupil of Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer.

To what extent pieces of the original texts have survived - and obviously there were original texts, whether or not they were written by Hermes - it is difficult to say; large claims have been made (and not only by the ancients, at that). Some fragments of very early astrological texts have come down to us, via the Greeks. In the 5th century AD; a Latin text, Liber Hermetis, translated from the Greek, gives a muddled mixture of theory about the decans, conjunctions, the meanings of certain planets in certain signs, and advice on personal matters - how to predict the day of death, useful or difficult days, marriage, duration of life - which seems to derive from a very early original. It pays special attention to the decans: the third decan of Gemini is responsible for muscular pains, the first of Virgo controls the stomach, the first of Cancer the heart, and so on. It is in this text that the Astrological Man makes his first appearance: onto a figure of the body is imposed the zodiac circle, straightened out - the first sign, Aries, at the head, and the last, Pisces, at the feet. Between them various parts of the body fall under the influence of the signs in their order. It is a system still used today, although with some amendments: Libra for instance is now said to 'rule' the kidneys, whereas Hermes claimed it affected the buttocks.

A passage from the Liber Hermetis will do very well to summarize the general attitude to astrology as it was when the Chaldeans had passed it on to the Greeks as a systemized whole:

Man is called by the informed, a World, since he is wholly correspondent with the World's nature. Indeed at the moment of conception there spurts from the seven planets a whole complex of rays that bear on each part of the man. And the same thing happens at the birth-hour, according to the position of the twelve signs. Thus the Ram is called the head, and the head's sense-organs are shared out among the seven planets. The right eye goes to the Sun, the left to the Moon, and ears to Saturn, the brain to Jupiter, the tongue and uvula to Mercury, smelling and taste to Venus, all the blood-vessels to Mars.

If then at the moment of conception or birth one of the stars finds itself in a bad condition, there is produced an infirmity in the member corresponding with that star. For instance, a man has four main parts: head, thorax, hands, feet. One of these has become infirm at the conception-moment or at birth somewhere by its heavenly patron having been itself in a bad way; an eye, the two eyes, an ear, the two ears, or again the teeth have undergone some damage or speech has been blurred; the ray of a malevolent planet has come to strike one of those parts, spoil and corrupt it.

It is interesting that the anonymous writer or writers apparently believed that the planets' position should be observed not only at the moment of birth of a child but at the moment of conception. Throughout the history of astrology there have been arguments about this. The moment of birth is obviously the more convenient to record - indeed, it is normally impossible to know the precise moment of conception, although if personal astrology works because of the overt influence of the planets on the forming embryo, the moment of conception must surely be nearer the time when the influence is exerted than the moment of birth. But the presentation of man as microcosm and the world, or even the universe, as macrocosm, is one to which almost every astrologer since AD 400 has subscribed.

The Hermetic texts, in as far as we can guess at their total content, presented astrology to the Western world not only as a method of divination but as a religious conception of the world and man's place in it. It was to be inseparably combined with Greek philosophy, and to be increasingly important not only to philosophers and rulers but to the man in the street.