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|Historians of Astrology
by Lester Ness
History of astrology is not yet a recognized academic discipline, the way history of astronomy is, or the history of esoteric thought is becoming. At the same time, for the last 100 years, there have been a thin black line of historians and other scholars concerned with astrology’s role in history. This file includes my choice of the most notable.
Choosing names has not been easy. Many have written on some aspect of history involving astrology, but few have made it a central scholarly concern. Astrology is still not intellectually respectable, although as a practice it has undergone a remarkable revival since Bouché-Leclercq wrote at the end of the nineteenth century. I have tried to chose scholars who either have written prolifically on astrology in history or who have written a few influential works. Some have done both, of course. Inevitably, the choice reflects my own interests, which include not only mathematical astrology, the interest of the majority, but also astrology in religion and astrology in art. I hope this list inspires debate and that others will come to study this fascinating theme in human history, and it’s students as well.
Scientific or Mathematical Astrology
Astrology could take many forms and be used for many different purposes. Mathematical astrology is the form which is the most common in the modern world and has gotten the most study from modern scholars. If one accepts the basic assumptions, it was potentially quite useful, e.g., for picking the best day for a wedding or a business trip.
AUGUSTE BOUCHÉ-LECLERCQ (1842-1924)
August Bouché-Leclercq was the first modern historian of astrology. By this I mean that he treated astrology as a normal historical subject, part of the history of ideas. His L’Astrologie grecque is a very thorough reference work, and all later historians of astrology have depended on it heavily. Together with his Histoire de la divination antique, it has been irreplaceable for a century. I hope with an English translation to make it available to a non-scholarly audience for another century.
L’Astrologie grecque is a work of literature as well as a scholarly reference work, written in the grand style. Nor does he hesitate to give his personal view, that astrology is folly. Nevertheless, he believed that the history of astrology was worthy of study because the great minds of the past had believed in it, and acted on their belief.
Some modern readers have objected to his harsh tone and have wondered why he would write at such length about something he hated. Perhaps he met similar criticisms in his own day, because in his preface, he denied that he hated all astrologers – just some of them. One explanation may be a general anti-clericalism, another, a desire to be seen as a bonafide scholar, not an apologist for a rejected discipline. In any case, the quality of his scholarship is not harmed.
FRANZ BOLL (1867-1924)
Boll was a German scholar and contemporary of Cumont. His most important work was probably his edition of the works of Claudius Ptolemy, and his biography of Ptolemy, Studien über Claudius Ptolemäus (1894), but Sphaera (1903), a study of the constellations, and Aus der Offenbarung Johannes (1914) rival it. (Cf. Malina, 1995.) He also wrote many of the astrological articles for the influential encyclopedia, the Realenzyklopaedie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, and collaborated with Gundel and Bezold on perhaps the best introduction to the history of astrology, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung; Die Geschichte und das Wesen der Astrologie.
GIOVANNI SCHIAPARELLI (1835-1910)
Schiaparelli was perhaps Italy’s most notable astronomer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He is perhaps most notable for "discovering" the canals of Mars and speculating upon the possibilities of intelligent life on Mars. We now know, of course, that the canals were optical illusions, but the idea of life on Mars has nevertheless been very fruitful in popular culture.
Closer to our major topic, his Astronomy in the Bible is the starting point of modern research on the subject. His identifications of the biblical stars and constellations, particularly the mazzaloth in the book of Job as the Pleiades, have largely withstood the test of time, although inevitably new information may lead to understandings. Common nouns, such as the names of stars, plants, animals and stones, are often the most difficult words to understand completely in the Hebrew Bible.
WILHELM GUNDEL (1880-1945)
Wilhelm Gundel was another German scholar of the early twentieth centuries. Perhaps influenced by Pan-babylonism and the History of Religions School, he wrote what is still one of the best introductions to the history of astrology together with Boll and Bezold.. His most original research was in Dekane und Dekansternbilder (1936), on the history and iconography of the Egyptian alternative zodiac. While much more research has been done on Egyptian astronomy and astrology, the illustrations remain valuable.
Wilhelm Gundel also published two important bibliographical works, "Astronomie, Astralreligion, Astralmythologie, und Astrologie. Darstellung und Literaturbericht, 1907-1933," in Bursian's Jahresberichte (1934), pp. 1-149 , which covers the heyday of Pan-babylonism, and Astrologoumena: die astrologische Literatur in der Antike und ihre Geschichte. (1966), published in collaboration with his son, Hans Georg Gundel. It lists, with excellent annotations, nearly all the known astrological works known from classical antiquity.
OTTO NEUGEBAUER (1899-1990)
Perhaps the most groundbreaking research on the history of astrology has been done by Assyriologists. The most important of them is unarguably Otto Neugebauer. His published lectures, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (1957) have been many people’s introduction to the subject. Astronomical Cuneiform Texts (1955) is an indispensable resource. The same is true for his collaboration with Robert Parker, Egyptian Astronomical Texts, especially volume III, Decans, Planets, Constellations and Zodiacs, Texts (1969) and for Greek Horoscopes, another collaboration, this time with H. B. van Hoesen (1959).
Neugebauer was primarily interested in the history of mathematics and looked to astrological works in hopes of finding traces of mathematical techniques used by astrologers after they had been abandoned by astrologers. He had no great interest in astrology per se and sometimes is verbally contemptuous towards astrologers. Nevertheless, he defended the study of the history of astrology in a famous letter to the journal Isis, "On the Study of Wretched Subjects," reprinted in his selected essays (1983). Like Cumont, he was a prolific author of articles as well as books, covering a wide range of astronomical and astrological subjects.
(http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Neugebauer.html gives some of Neugebauer’s biography.)
Brown is one of the successors of Otto Neugebauer. His recent doctoral dissertation, Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology (1999) demonstrates that the ability to predict what the planets will do in the future was developed during the Neo-Assyrian empire, in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This ability to predict is what distinguishes true astrology from the astral omen watching which existed earlier and elsewhere. He argues that this is the first Kuhnian paradigm shift in recorded history. The book also includes an interesting prosopography of Neo-Assyrian astrologers and a very useful list of the various names Neo-Assyrians gave to the stars and planets.
Rochberg-Halton is another contemporary scholar of Mesopotamian astrology. Her most important research has been to show Mesopotamian precursors to such practices as the Hellenistic triplicities. She has also published Babylonian Horoscopes (1998), the most up-to-date collection, replacing the one made in the 1950s by Neugebauer’s colleague, A. Sachs.
Koch-Westenholz, another Assyriologist, has written a good, up-to-date, introduction in Mesopotamian Astrology: an Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination (1995). It is the first work I know of to identify the Ways of Anu, Enlil, and Ea as zones on the eastern horizon, not bands in the celestial sphere. She is probably correct. The first is in line with Mesopotamian thought, the second is a Greek way of thinking. More recently, she has turned her attention to an edition of the corpus of liver omens.
Erica Reiner’s most important astrological publication is her text, translation and commentary, in collaboration with David Pingree, of Enuma Anu Enlil, the canonical Mesopotamian catalog of astral omens. Three fascicles have appeared to date. When finished, they will replace Weidner’s German extracts. "The Uses of Astrology" (1985) is a rare account of Mesopotamian astrological practices which are neither omens nor mathematical horoscopy.
E. F. WEIDNER (1891-1976)
Weidner was a student of cuneiform astrology in all its forms. Active for most of the first half of the twentieth century, his important publications include an edition of MUL.APIN, the oldest work of mathematical astronomy, texts and German translations of lengthy excerpts of Enuma Anu Enlil, and "Gestirn-Darstellungen auf babylonischen Tontafeln," (1967) which demonstrates that the iconography of the Greek zodiac came from Mesopotamia.
Pingree is the US’ most eminent historian of astrology. Neugebauer’s successor at Brown University. He has concentrated upon Greek, Islamic, and Indian astrology. His most important work has been a series of texts and translations from Sanskrit, Arabic and Greek, often of works which have not received scholarly attention since the Renaissance. With Erica Reiner, he is slowly producing an edition of Enuma Anu Enlil. Over the years, he has published much on Picatrix, a work of Arabian and Sabian astrological magic quite important in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Most recently he has published a text and translation of the Medieval Latin version. Its introduction promises editions of Renaissance French, English and Italian versions, as well. Quite recently, he has co-authored, with Herman Hunger, a survey, Mesopotamian Astral Sciences (1999).
Bartel L. VAN DER WAERDEN (1903-1996)
B. L. van der Waerden was primarily a mathematician, with a deep interest in the history of mathematics and astronomy. He began by attending Neugebauer’s lectures, and, like Neugebauer, he was interested in astrology as a source for information earlier than Ptolemy and the other Greek mathematicians. His most notable book is Science Awakening: The Birth of
Astronomy. He was quite correct in saying that astral religion was an important aspect to astrology, although one should not push the details of his outline of astral religion too far. More is known about Zoroastrianism today than fifty years ago, and astrology did not become an element until rather late. Besides his famous and readable book, he was the author of many articles. (http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Van_der_Waerden.html gives an outline of his life and career. http://www.ams.org/notices/199703/interview.pdf is the English text of an interview with him.)
FREDERICK CRAMER (1906-1954)
Cramer was perhaps the foremost historian of astrology’s political role in the Roman Empire. His Astrology in Roman Law and Politics (1954) tells the story from the end of the republic to the time of Diocletian. A promised second volume, bringing the story down to the time of Constantine, never appeared in print, although xerox copies do circulate informally.
Flint’s The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (1991), is the best account of the decline and re-emergence of astrology in medieval Latin Christendom.
Curry’s, Power and Prophecy; Astrology in Early Modern England (1989) continues the story astrology into the later middle ages, emphasizing the political role of astrology.
Howe’s Astrology: A Recent History Including the Untold Story of its Role in World War II (1968) is the major account of the revival of astrology in the nineteenth and twentieth century West. It gives much coverage on astrology in Weimar Germany, but does not deal much with the years after WW II.
Hunger is a major scholar of astrology in Mesopotamia. His Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings (1992) is a collection of the most primary of sources, the reports the Assyrian astrologers made of their observations. (It replaces Thompson, 1900.) Parpola, 1970, is a companion piece. MUL.APIN. An astronomical Compendium in Cuneiform (1989) is a new and more complete edition of a reference work on rising times and other information important to early astronomers and astrologers. Mesopotamian Astral Sciences (1999), jointly written with David Pingree is another up-to-date introduction.
Parpola is another of the many Assyriologists involved with the history of astrology. His Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (1970), together with Hunger (1992) is one of the most important collections of primary texts.
LYNN THORNDIKE (1882-1965)
Thorndike’s A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 volumes (1923-1958) deals with astrology along with much else. To date, it is the most detailed account of the history of astrology for the entire period from antiquity to the seventeenth century.
Ullmann’s Die Nature- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (1972) is the standard overview of astrology and other occult sciences in the classical Islamic world. It is part of the well-known series Handbuch der Orientalistik and is a companion volume with Ullman’s Der Medizin in Islam. It has an excellent bibliography.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR
An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrine. Conceptions of Nature and Methods Used for its Study by the Ikhwan al-safa, al-Biruni, and Ibn Sina (1978) An excellent account of the Islamic development of Hellenistic cosmology, including astrology. Good on the Ikhwan al-safa (the Brethren of Purity), who in turn relied on the Sabians.
Astrology and religion can work together in many forms. In Mesopotamia, the stars and planets were assumed to be gods without question, from the earliest times, down the early Islamic Sabians of Harran. Mesopotamians worshipped the planets with offerings and expected favors in return, something which remained part of medieval and even modern ritual magic. Egyptians had similar attitudes, especially towards the Sun.
The philosophical monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, had and have more ambiguous attitudes. Thinkers wanted to preserve free will and avoid determinism, moralists wanted to avoid any compromise of monotheism. Scientific astrology could be reconciled with belief in a single omnipotent God more easily than astral religion, and we often see a compromise saying that the planets rule the natural world, under the supreme God’s command, but that the human spirit remained free and therefore responsible. The debate between monotheistic opponents and defenders of astrology is a major element in the history of the discipline.
A third type of astral religion was Mithraism, one of the mystery (or privately celebrated) religions of the Roman Empire. Little is known of it’s ideology, but it used astrological symbolism rather heavily in its art. In particular, it’s cult images of Mithras killing a bull are almost always connected with a picture of the zodiac in some form. Other mystery religions also included astral elements, but usually less than Mithraism.
MUHAMMAD IBN ISHAQ al-NADIM
Al-Nadim’s The Fihrist, [the Catalog] 2 Vols., ed & tr. Bayard Dodge (1970) is an annotated catalog of books available in ninth century Baghdad, when that city was a second Alexandria. It includes much on astrology and is a major source on the Sabians.
Beck is a specialist in Mithraism, a mystery religion popular in the Roman Empire which used a great deal of astrological symbolism. His Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras (1988) has a great deal of technical information on the different orders astrologers used for the seven planets and the reasons why.
The Sabians of Harran were the last pagans in the Middle East, active well into the Islamic period. They practiced an astral religion, probably developed from classical Mesopotamian religion, along with Hellenistic Greek input. They claimed to be mentioned in the Koran as a People of the Book, and claimed Hermes Trismegistus was their prophet. Some of them, such at Thabit ibn Qurra, were important scholars in the early Islamic period, both as translators of technical works from Greek or Syriac into Arabic and as astronomers and astrologers in their own right. Picatrix, the well-known compendium of astrological magic, claims to use Sabian religion. Chwolson, in Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus (1859; reprinted 1965) collects nearly all Arabic texts relating to the Sabians along with German translation. Al-Biruni’s Chronology of Ancient Nations is the only major text to come to light since Chwolson’s time. .
FRANZ CUMONT (1868-1947)
The greatest historian of astrology, in my view, was Franz Cumont. Bouché-Leclercq stuck to the technical, mathematical side of astrology, and he has been followed by most later scholars. Cumont expanded his interests to include the use of astrology in religion. His Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans (1912) is still the best general book on the subject. Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (1929), and translated into several languages, was long the standard work. His pioneering works on the mystery religion of Mithras, The Mysteries of Mithra and, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra (1899), emphasized its use of astrological art and symbolism. While few still agree that the mystery religion dates to Vedic India, his collection of Mithraic art remains valuable. L’Égypte des astrologues (1937) is an early attempt to derive social history from astrological texts. Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum (edited with many others, of course) made a far greater number and variety of astrological documents available to researchers. The fact that he pursued the history of astrology throughout a scholarly lifetime of writing is most impressive. He was a prolific author, both of books and articles, too many to list here. He was also involved with the famous archaeological excavation of Dura-Europus in the 1920s. His emphasis on the religious aspects of astrology and the astrological aspects of religion remains unusual.
(http://www.academiabelgica.it/cumont.html is an interesting web site devoted to Cumont and his research. Among other attractions, it includes a catalog and photographs of his personal library of astrological books. Eventually, the site will host his entire correspondence.)
Green’s The City of the Moon God; Religious Traditions of Harran (1992) continues Chwolson’s work on Harran and the Sabians.
With his Zodiacus Christianus. Juedisch-christliche Adaptionen des Tierkreises von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (1983) and Die Eigenschaften der Tierkreiszeichen in der Antike. Ihre Darstellung und Verwendung unter besonderer Beruecksichtigung des Manilius (1982) continues the tradition of the Gundels. The former is particularly useful to students of Christian and Jewish use of astrology.
BRUCE J. MALINA
Malina’s The Genre and Message of Revelation: Star Visions and Sky Journeys (1995) explains the astrological symbolism in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Not only are the seven candlesticks and the twelve tribes, foundations, etc., meant to remind us, but the various bowls, phials and swords may be interpreted with the symbolism of comets. Very imaginative. Cf. Boll, 1914.
Molnar is primarily an astronomer, but he has written extensively on the early Christians and astrology, particularly the star of the Magi mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. The Star of Bethlehem, The Legacy of the Magi (1999) details his theory that they followed a royal horoscope, not a comet or a supernova.
(http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/ for Molnar’s thesis in brief.)
I hesitate to write of myself, but I believe it is honest to say that I, Lester Ness, am the main historian of Jewish astrology, particularly as it appears in ancient synagogue art. My major publication to date is Written in the Stars: Ancient Zodiac Mosaics (Warren Center, Penn.: 2000), an up-date and revision of my doctoral dissertation, Astrology and Judaism in Late Antiquity. Briefly, I explain the presence of zodiac mosaics in a group of ancient synagogues in the light of the broader history of astrology, especially it’s religious and artistic uses. (I also have an on-line Bibliographical Guide to the History of Astrology, http://www.smoe.org/arcana/bibs.html).
Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987) is different from most of the works mentioned here, in that it deals with astrology in the early republic period of the United States. Quinn shows that in a time and place in which we usually think astrology was dead, it was in fact quite lively. Among other things, Quinn demonstrates that Joseph Smith, founder of well-known new religion, wore astrological talismans, probably copied from Scot’s seventeenth century Discoverie of Witchcraft.
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries; Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (1989) is one of the more imaginative historians of Mithraism, a religion of the Roman Empire which used astrological art and symbolism very extensively. Very briefly, Ulansey believes that the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes was seen as the discovery of a new god.
Astrology in Art
Astrology had many uses, which can be grouped in several ways. One is to distinguish between mathematical or scientific astrology on the one hand, and religious or symbolic astrology on the other. In the Roman Empire, in particular, astrology was much used in artistic symbolism, to praise a king or a god. However, the practice was common in the Medieval and early modern periods as well.
HANS GEORG GUNDEL
Hans Georg and Wilhelm Gundel formed an unusual father and son team of historians. Hans Georg continued his father’s research into astrology, even revising Sternglaube und Sterndeutung. His book on astrology in the Greek magic papyri, Weltbild und Astrologie in den griechischen Zauberpapyri (1968), is an excellent analysis. His most important research was on astrological art, however. The article "Zodiakos" in the Realenzyklopaedie der Klassischenaltertumswissenschaft lists and describes nearly every example of the zodiac in art known to that time. It was eventually published as a separate small book. More recently, he also published Zodiakos : Tierkreisbilder im Altertum: kosmische Bezüüge und Jenseitsvorstellungen im antiken Alltagsleben (1992), on the zodiac in art, this time with many illustrations, including 8 pages of plates.
FRITZ SAXL (1890-1948)
Saxl was associated with the Warburg Institute and his Verzeichnis der astrologischen und mythologischen illustrierten Handschriften des lateinischen mittelalters ..., 3 volumes in 4 (1915-53) is a major source for medieval astrological art.
Henry Stierlin is another historian of astrological art. His L’Astrologie et le pouvoir de Platon à Newton is outstanding both for its analysis of the political use of astrological symbolism in buildings such as the Pantheon or Nero’s rotating dining hall, and for its illustrations. It exists also in a German translation, Astrologie und Herrschaft.
All rights reserved © 2003 Lester Ness