Nobody knows when astrology first started, although the study of the stars and cycles of time goes back into prehistory. The first lunar calendar, which was etched into a bone, dates to 32,000 BCE. And there are cave paintings at Lascaux that date to around 17,000 BCE which some say depict the earliest constellations, although this is hard to prove.
The most famous ancient monument aligned to the heavens is Stonehenge, which was built to track the movements of the sun and the moon. But a Mesolithic calendar dated to around 8,000 BCE was found more recently in Scotland which predates Stonehenge by 5,000 years.
Whenever stargazing began, it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time. Most ancient peoples had some kind of system for divining the future using the stars, but that isn’t astrology.
Origins of Horoscopic Astrology
Astrology as we know it – birth charts, or horoscopes – also has hazy origins. As far as we know, it began in Mesopotamia with the Sumerians and Akkadians. The earliest astronomical writings come from Babylonia in around 1,800 BCE, but some have also been found dating back further into the Akkadian era, around 2,300 BCE.
The Mesopotamians and the Babylonians made lists of celestial events based on observation, and it’s likely they were studying the skies and developing these systems for a while before it was all written down. This remains difficult to prove, but we do have systematic eclipse records dating from 747 BCE, and the first birth chart was drawn just over 300 years later. It was written in cuneiform for the date of 29th April 410 BCE.
These earliest horoscopes didn’t use a zodiac (a circle divided into equal portions), but were based on how near planets were to particular stars. The interpretations focused on kings and empires and were mostly concerned with fate and omens. All very prescriptive and determinist.
The Greeks are coming!
Horoscopic astrology really got going after Alexander the Great conquered Mesopotamia and the place was overrun by the Greeks, in 331 BCE. Many Greek texts claim Egypt as the birthplace of the horoscope, but Egypt was also influenced by Babylonian astronomy which reached them via – yes, you’ve guessed it – those marauding Greeks.
So astrology as we know it evolved gradually over the centuries through the interaction of several cultures who all input their own perspectives, interpretations, and calculations. Horoscopic astrology as we would recognise it today had all its various parts in place by around 2 BCE. The earliest zodiac was Egyptian and dated to the 1st century BCE:
The Egyptian influence on astrology included the use of decans, houses, sign rulers, aspects, the mathematical lots such as the Part of Fortune, and possibly the rising degree of the ascendant. While the Babylonian influence included the importance of eclipses, planetary exultations, and the arrangement of signs into triplicities.
The Fall and Rise of Western Astrology
During Medieval times, Western astrology declined and lost much of its sophistication, partly due to a loss of the astronomical basis of the art, and partly due to condemnation by the Church. But then the Persian and Arabic traditions reintroduced a more scientific approach.
Islamic astrologers used tables of planetary positions and exact calculations which put astrology on a firmer mathematic footing. This helped to revive astrology in Medieval Europe and by the 13th century it became a key part of medical practice. Astrologers could draw up a personal horoscope and use it to determine the fate of an individual. It was no longer the preserve of kings and empires. In fact, astrological references can be found in the writings of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.
During the Renaissance, astrology and astronomy were practised as one complete system. Astronomers such as Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler fed their astronomical knowledge and discoveries into astrology. However, this may have ultimately led to the demise of astrology when the two disciplines split apart.
“The period was one in which better instruments for precise work in astronomy were being invented, so that this branch of the work became an exact science, while with certain notable exceptions, astrology fell into the hands of less educated and more credulous people, who stressed the fortune-telling application of its truths and cared little for research and clear thinking.” – Margaret Hone, The Modern Textbook of Astrology
The scientific developments of the Enlightenment in the 18th century overtook astrology and it was consigned to the loony bin of history. Robert Hand calls this period the ‘Endarkenment’ in relation to astrology, because it almost died as a discipline.
It was revived – again! – in the 19th century but there was also a serious dumbing down of the basics and it became less technical and scientific. By now, most people saw astrology as meaningless fortune-telling. This branch of the art (if we can call it that) continues under the guise of sun-sign columns in newspapers and online. I’m going to write this next bit in capital letters just to ensure the message sinks in:
SUN SIGN ASTROLOGY IS NOT ASTROLOGY!
Modern Astrology Reborn
The 20th century saw another renaissance in the development of astrology and the art continues to develop. Many are now trying to bring back elements of pre-modern astrology (the stuff from before the 1700s) in order to instil greater intellectual rigour.
During the 1990s (when Uranus and Neptune were conjunct in Capricorn) the traditional forms of astrology were revisited and revamped. Depth psychology and spiritual insights were incorporated and the system became more holistic and genuinely useful to people. Astrology is now more focused on personal growth, subjective experience and Self-Actualisation, and isn’t about predicting events.
There are a multitude of different kinds of astrology: Psychological Astrology, Humanistic Astrology, Spiritual Astrology, Evolutionary Astrology, a revival of Traditional Astrology, and even Post-Modern Astrology.
Astrology has come a long way since its roots in Mesopotamia, and it’s still evolving. There are problems to address within the discipline (I’ll look at them in another post), but it remains a useful tool for self-awareness.
More Astrology Posts
Sources for this post:
- The History of Astrology: Another View – a talk by Robert Hand on Astro.com
- The Modern Textbook of Astrology by Margaret E. Hone
- History of Astrology – Wikipedia