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Practices of astrology through ancient cultures

How did ancient societies use astrology for guidance and decision-making, influenced by their unique cultural and spiritual beliefs?

Practices of astrology through ancient cultures

Astrology, defined as the study of celestial entities and their impacts on human affairs, centers on the zodiac, which covers a specific region of the sky. In ancient cultures, the sun and moon were key deities, but their visibility was limited by day and night cycles. Planets, however, were consistently visible at night, making them reliable symbols in the dynamic celestial realm.

Mesopotamian Astrology: Tracing its Roots and Evolution

Late Babylonian clay liver model tablet, c.7th – 6th century BCE, Source: The British Museum

The earliest substantial evidence of astrology originates from the Old Babylonian period around 2000 BCE. The Babylonians recognized the sun, moon, and five planets, linking each to major deities like Shamash (sun), Sin (moon), and others, including Jupiter with Marduk and Venus with Ishtar. This connection mirrored the attributes of similar Greco-Roman gods, such as the fertility association between Ishtar and Venus.

Initially acknowledging 18 constellations, the Babylonians later focused on twelve. Their Assyrian neighbors, sharing a similar pantheon, adopted these astrological beliefs, which were eventually embraced by the Hittites as well.

Mesopotamian priests played a crucial role, using divination and liver models from sacrifices to predict future events and communicate divine messages. These practices evolved into sophisticated astrological interpretations that influenced decisions in politics, environmental management, and daily life, with the king acting as a mediator between gods and humans. Through these celestial studies, astrology provided a framework for understanding and responding to various aspects of existence in ancient Mesopotamia.

Greek and Roman Astrology: From Ancient Constellations to Horoscopic Practices

Greek wine cup, seemingly earliest known depiction of Greek constellations, c.625 BCE, Source: Ancient Origins
Greek wine cup, seemingly earliest known depiction of Greek constellations, c.625 BCE, Source: Ancient Origins

Astrology in ancient Greece initially blended local traditions with Babylonian techniques during the intellectual renaissance that followed the Greco-Persian Wars. By Alexander the Great’s era, Hellenistic astrology, enriched by Near Eastern influences, had gained widespread acceptance. Berossus, a Chaldean priest, later established a significant astrological school in Kos around 280 BCE, marking a period when Greek philosophers increasingly dominated this field, albeit still heavily reliant on Near Eastern and Egyptian cosmologies.

The Greeks viewed the cosmos as an interconnected whole, with astrology applied both judicially and personally to determine individual destinies and auspicious timings. Notable thinkers like Plato and Aristotle also engaged with astrological ideas. The development of astrological houses during this period, attributed to the mythical Hermes Trismegistus, differentiated Greek horoscope-based astrology from other contemporary forms.

Following their conquest of Greece in the second century BCE, the Romans assimilated many Greek astrological concepts. The poet Marcus Manilius encapsulated this knowledge in his work “Astronomica,” composed around 30-40 CE, which detailed the zodiac and celestial dynamics. However, as Christianity ascended in the West, astrology declined, only to be revived in the 12th century through renewed interactions with the Arabic world, where it had continued to flourish.

Egyptian Astrology: A Timeless Observation of Celestial Patterns

The Dendera Zodiac, a carving on the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Source: The Louvre
The Dendera Zodiac, a carving on the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Source: The Louvre

In Egypt, celestial phenomena played a vital role, with the Sun and Moon prominently featured in cultural expressions and tomb decorations dating back to the third millennium BCE. Egyptians embarked on meticulous celestial studies around 2100 BCE, developing a calendar that closely mirrors the modern astronomical year with 365 days.

Their year was divided into three seasons of 120 days, further broken into months of thirty days, and days into decans—a division of the night sky related to 36 star patterns. Each decan, linked to a specific zodiacal span and an Egyptian god, also marked the Nile’s influence, integrating astrology deeply into both daily life and the overarching cosmic philosophy.

As empires expanded and contracted, Babylonian, Hellenistic, and Egyptian astrological practices continuously merged, influencing each other deeply. The zenith of this integration occurred in Hellenistic Alexandria under the Macedonians, where scholars formalized horoscopic astrology, setting the foundation for modern astrological practice by studying the precise date, time, and location of events.

These historical intersections highlight the rich tapestry of cultural exchange and intellectual evolution that shaped astrology as a discipline, influencing its practice across different civilizations and laying the groundwork for its resurgence in medieval Europe.

Islamic Astrology: Blending Science and Spirituality in the Middle Ages

Bowl with Islamic zodiac imagery, c. 12th-13th century Iran, Source: The Met Museum
Bowl with Islamic zodiac imagery, c. 12th-13th century Iran, Source: The Met Museum

Islamic astrology, rooted in Persian, Hellenistic, and Indian traditions, played a pivotal role in both the practical and spiritual aspects of Muslim life. Knowledge of the stars was crucial for night-time navigation through deserts and for determining the qibla, the direction of Mecca, which is essential for prayer. This necessity fostered a profound understanding of astronomy and, by extension, astrology.

The founding of Baghdad in 762 CE by Caliph al-Mansur marked a significant development in astrological studies. Situated near the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon, Baghdad was envisioned as a new intellectual hub. The establishment of the Bayt al-Hikma, or The House of Wisdom, attracted scholars worldwide, enhancing astrological practices and scientific advancements. This period also saw the refinement of scientific tools, increasing the precision of astrological studies and thereby broadening social mobility opportunities.

Art from this era often featured astrological motifs, believed to possess talismanic powers. These included adaptations of Greek zodiac symbols and original Islamic interpretations, like a sage with a turban for Jupiter or a female musician for Venus. Despite the religious controversies surrounding astrological divination, the consensus held that celestial orientations significantly impacted earthly affairs.

Chinese Astrology: An Ancient System of Cosmic Harmony

Jade set of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, Source: The Met Museum
Jade set of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, Source: The Met Museum

The Chinese astrological system, which likely developed independently during the Zhou Dynasty, incorporates unique elements that distinguish it from Western and Middle Eastern astrology. Central to this system are the concepts of Yin and Yang and the association of the visible planets with the five elements: wood, metal, fire, earth, and water. These associations determine an individual’s fate based on celestial positions at their time of birth.

The Chinese zodiac, based on Jupiter’s twelve-year orbital cycle, assigns an animal to each year, segmenting Jupiter’s orbit into twelve parts. This system is part of the broader Stems and Branches calendar, a 60-year cyclical calendar combining a ten-year cycle of heavenly stems (representing the five elements in Yin and Yang forms) and a twelve-year cycle of earthly branches (the zodiac animals).

Unlike the Western focus on the zodiac sign of one’s birth year, the Chinese system also considers the month, day, and hour of birth, which correspond to different “inner animals.” This multi-layered approach provides a more comprehensive understanding of an individual’s character through the interplay of these various elements.

Both Islamic and Chinese astrologies illustrate the deep integration of celestial observations with cultural and spiritual life, highlighting the diverse approaches civilizations have taken to understand and harness the powers of the universe.

The Maya Calendar: A Cosmic Cycle Beyond Traditional Astrology

The “Venus Table” from the Dresden Codex, c.11th century, Source: Sci-News
The “Venus Table” from the Dresden Codex, c.11th century, Source: Sci-News

The Maya Calendar stands apart from other astrological systems detailed previously, offering a unique perspective on astrology that differs significantly from the more familiar natal divination or zodiacal frameworks. For the Maya, astrology was less about individual destinies and more about an intricate organization of time, meticulously recorded and observed.

Renowned for their astronomical accuracy, the Maya developed one of the most precise ancient calendars, combining a 260-day ritual calendar with a 365-day solar calendar. This combination enabled them to predict celestial events such as eclipses and the movements of comets with remarkable precision. A notable example of their advanced astronomical understanding is the “Venus Table” from the Dresden Codex, a Mayan manuscript that demonstrates their knowledge of Venus’ cycles and leap years.

The cyclical nature of time, as perceived by the Maya, influenced their belief in the recurrence of historical events—whether over short spans or across centuries. This cyclical concept is reflected in their calendar’s design and the rounded shapes of the glyphs used in their writings.

Each of the thirteen segments of the Maya ritual calendar consists of 20 days, with each day governed by a guardian associated with one of the four cardinal directions. These guardians, represented by specific glyphs, were believed to imbue the days with particular traits. For example, the “House” glyph was associated with optimism and patience, while the “Crocodile” symbolized good leadership and protectiveness.

Unlike other cultures that primarily used living creatures or gods as symbols, the Maya’s astrological signs included a diverse mix of beings, objects, and abstract concepts. This range included the knife, death, and wind, providing a stark contrast to other traditions such as the scales of Libra in Western astrology or the river Nile in Egyptian astrology.

The Maya’s approach to astrology offers a profound insight into how ancient civilizations could intertwine their observations of the cosmos with cultural and spiritual life, creating a system that was both a tool for predicting celestial events and a deeply ingrained part of their worldview.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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