Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of January 5th - January 11th,  2001

Astrology in the Ancient World

Columns Archive


   There is little doubt that at the height of paganism in the ancient world, astrology ruled supreme. The question is, how far back does this influence extend? The general outline is that after it's beginnings on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Babylonia, it subdued the cults of Syria and Egypt, and under the Empire, transformed even the ancient paganism of Greece and Rome. There is also no question that as the mathematical models of the Babylonians were surplanted by the trigonometry of the Greeks, the ability to predict the motions of the planets and stars took a quantum leap forward.

   At the end of the nineteenth century, the development of history increasingly came up against the influence of astrology in earlier civilizations, and reluctantly felt that it had to incorporate an examination of this dated discipline. To quote from Franz Cumont, in his Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans, p. xii-xiii,

A treatise on astrology

A treatise on astrology

   "It is an exact science which was superimposed on primitive beliefs, and when classical philology, enlarging its horizon, brought fully within its range of observation the development of the sciences in antiquity, it could not set aside a branch of knowledge, illegitimate, I allow, but indissolubly linked not only with astronomy and meteorology, but also with medicine, botany, ethnography, and physics. If we go back to the earliest stages of every kind of learning, as far as the Alexandrine and even the Babylonian period, we find almost everywhere the disturbing influence of the astral "mathematics." This sapling, which shot up among the rank weeds by the side of the tree of knowledge, sprang from the same stock and mingled its branches with it..."

   "This pseudo-science is in reality a creed. Beneath the icy crust of a cold and rigid dogma run the troubled waters of a jumble of worships, derived from an immense antiquity; and as soon as enquiry was directed to the religions of the past, it was attracted to this doctrinal superstition, perhaps the most astonishing that has ever existed..."

   "It is not only, however, because it is combined with scientific theories, nor because it enters into the teaching of pagan mysteries, that astrology forces itself on the mediations of the historian of religions, but for its own sake (and here we touch the heart of the problem), because he is obliged to enquire how and why this alliance, which at first sight seems monstrous, came to be formed between mathematics and superstition. It is no explanation to consider it merely a mental disease. Even then, to speak the truth, this hallucination, the most persistent which has ever haunted the human brain, would still deserve to be studied. If psychology today conscientiously applies itself to disorders of the memory and of the will, it cannot fail to interest itself in the ailments of the faculty of belief, and specialists in lunacy will do useful work in dealing with this species of morbid manifestation with the view of settling its etiology and tracing its course. How could this absurd doctrine arise, develop, spread, and force itself on superior intellects for century after century. There, in all its simplicity, is the historical problem which confronts us."

   Do you suppose that when he talks about specialists in lunacy, he means those strongly influenced by the Moon?


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