Feete Asks:


“I was doing a project on astrology and I think that your site is okay if you want to play, but not if you actually want to learn something. It bugs me that you give no information whatsoever on the history of astrology. How did it get started? Who started it? Why? None of these questions were answered in your website.”

Natalie Asks:

“I’m doing a report on horoscopes. When did they originate, from who [sic], the year, etc?”

Kevin Answers:

Feete and Natalie,

Although humans have always been fascinated by the night sky, the first Western culture to actively take notice of the movements of the heavens was the Sumerian culture in the valley of Mesopotamia, as early as 6000 bc. Around 2400 bc, the Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans) build on these observations, and recorded the first astrological tables, and over thousands of years, they developed the first system of astrology (which, by the way, was also astronomy: the two were synonymous until the 1800s) based on observations of the planetary cycles and how they related to important events in their civilization.

Babylonian astrology was quite different from modern day astrology. They certainly didn’t have computers; and more than that, they also didn’t have lists of the positions and motions of the planets. All that they could do was to observe the planets in the night sky, and track when they first appeared, when they appeared to change direction, and when they disappeared. The Babylonians first started to pay attention to the zodiac as we know it today around 700 bc, although the oldest known Babylonian horoscope dates only back to 409 bc.

When Alexander the Great conquered Chaldea in 331 bc, the Greek culture inherited the Babylonian astrology, although it was not until the foundations of Greek medicine and science had been established that the Greeks began to take an active interest in astrology. Even if astrology came to the party late, the advances that the Greeks had made in the fields of mathematics, medicine, geometry and philosophy not only advanced and enhanced the practical applications of astrology as a science, but also made it clear to the Greeks that astrology was in fact the core of the seven fundamental sciences in that it incorporated all of the key elements of the others.

The modern names for the planets and the signs, as well as the foundations of our modern understanding of them, come from the Greek literature. By far the best known person from this period is Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) who published, in 140 ad, the Tetrabiblos, one of the most famous works on Astrology ever written. In this book, Ptolemy presents a system of astrology that employs planets, signs, houses, and aspects, and is very much the heart of Astrology as we know it today. Ptolemy was not, however, an astrologer himself—he was an encyclopedist, and simply created a comprehensive record of the philosophies and techniques that had been used at the time.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western astrology all but disappeared for almost 500 years. Fortunately, the Arabs became the caretakers of the Greek astrological knowledge (because during the height of the Greek and Roman civilizations, there was free and open trade between the West and the East, and this included a great deal of sharing of astrological knowledge between the two cultures), and both preserved it and mixed it with their own systems of astrology. When the West finally started to pay attention to higher education again, Ptolemy was required reading for all scholars, and astrology was once more a cornerstone of Western education.

Astrology continued to evolve and develop through the Middle Ages and until the end of the Renaissance. Advancements in mathematics and measurement opened the door for the creation of many of the modern house systems (the Greeks used whole-sign houses). Advances in timekeeping enabled astrologers to generate more accurately timed charts than ever before possible. Astrology was a fundamental part of the culture of the times, practiced by healers and physicians, as well as by court-retained royal astrologers. Any educated person of the time would have had a strong foundation in astrology, both in theory and in practice. Natal Astrology developed during this time period as something available to the common man (in earlier days, only royalty were deemed important enough to have their natal charts calculated and analyzed).

One of the most important Astrologers at this time was William Lilly, who in the mid-1600’s published his astrological legacy, Christian Astrology. In addition to being an exceptional look at the types of astrological techniques that were used during this time period, Christian Astrology is one of the most detailed and comprehensive textbooks on Horary astrology ever published. In addition to laying out the rules and techniques of Horary, Lilly includes a number of examples of Horary charts with his interpretations. Lilly’s track record with predictive astrology was exceptional—and this got him in a lot of trouble! He predicted the Great Fire of London fifteen years before the plague and the fire; after the actual event, Lilly was investigated as a possible contributor to the fire! (He was acquitted, of course.) One of Lilly’s students, Nicholas Culpeper, grew to become one of the definitive sources for medical astrology and herbology.

With the Age of Reason, however, and the increased power and influence of the Church, the practice of astrology in the West once again fell into decline. Once esteemed members of the nobility and advisors to Kings, astrologers were rapidly demoted to the rank of parlor magicians. In 1666 astrology was officially banished from the Academy of Sciences in France. Although general interest in astrology remained quite high, astrologers were no longer as respected or considered to be part of the mainstream.

During this time period, the discovery of Uranus in 1781 caused a tremendous upset in the astrological community: this new planet forced the reevaluation of the entire system of Western astrology. Although Neptune’s and Pluto’s subsequent discoveries certainly caused stirs, Uranus was the planet that really shook things up.

Astrology didn’t begin to rise in popularity again until the 1890’s with the renewed interest in spirituality, mysticism and the occult that was most prominent in England. Astrology was practiced more openly and with greater interest in Europe; notably, Carl Jung incorporated many of the symbols of astrology in his psychological work, particularly relating to his concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious. England still had very strict laws against fortune-telling at the time, and Alan Leo, a prominent astrologer, attempted to change the focus of his approach to astrology away from fortune-telling and present it as a form of psychology. Although this ultimately didn’t keep Alan Leo out of jail, it did mark the start of Natal Astrology as we know it today.

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, as the astrological community in America began to grow and develop, new techniques were proposed and tested. One significant trend during this period was to move away from the frequently negative and fatalistic interpretations that had been used in classical astrology and to look for more empowering ways to interpret a birth chart.

Also during this period, the “sun sign” horoscope columns that first appeared in England in the 1920’s saw a surge of popularity. Astrology was a part of popular culture again—or at least a very watered-down, packaged version of it was.

One of the greatest challenges of astrology was the time and precision that calculating a chart required. Now that computers have made this a non-issue, many modern astrologers have the ability to experiment with a wide range of classical techniques, both to rediscover our roots, and discover how to translate the time-tested approaches to interpretation into a more modern context.

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