OMENS? DIVINATION? HOROSCOPES? THE ORIGIN OF ASTROLOGY
Scott G Rockhold
Polls show that millions of Americans firmly believe that astrology works. But most have no idea how this ancient practice actually began. Read here the eye-opening account of the origin of astrology.
Slowly the aged, white-haired Chaldean priest raised the long, sharp knife above his head. He paused for a moment, reverently addressing a prayer to the sun god Shamash, then swiftly plunged the blade deep into the belly of the young sheep tied across the temple altar. Blood spurted from the incision as the priest, assisted by junior temple officials, deftly slit the animal open. The priests expertly examined the now steaming liver, lungs, and intestines of the sheep. Suddenly the elderly chief priest gasped with fear and surprise as he saw a long yellowish mark on one side of the liver — a certain sign of coming destruction. Hastily, the old priest scurried out of the temple and called for his assistants to prepare a boat for the trip up the Euphrates to Babylon. He had to warn the king at once not to campaign against the Elamites in the east this year. The great gods had spoken through the body of the sheep — the abnormal mark on the liver meant the king and his army were certain to meet disaster!
Ceremonies similar to the one described above were carried out thousands upon thousands of times during the history of ancient BabyIonia and Assyria, located in what is now modern Iraq. As their religious documents and inscriptions clearly show, the Babylonians firmly believed that powerful gods communicated with man through all kinds of natural events and conditions — the markings on the entrails of a sacrificial animal, the behavior of animals or humans in the streets, the shape of a miscarried fetus, the pattern formed by smoke from an oil lamp or by water poured on oil, and, not least, the positions of planets and stars in the sky. Such events, believed to be messages of the future, are called omens, and the art of seeking and interpreting omens is called divination. Ancient societies believed omens were messages from the gods revealing future events. Many peoples of the ancient world — the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans — practiced divination. Probably the most popular form of divination in ancient Babylon was the examination of the entrails of animals, especially sheep, that were sacrificed to the god. Just before slaying the animal, the divination priest beseeched the gods to write his message on the entrails of the sheep. When the organs were examined, any unusual marks, lumps, or shapes were interpreted as the god's answer; even the normal configuration of the organs had significance. Hundreds of clay tablets have been unearthed from the lands of Babylonia and Assyria bearing detailed instructions to the priests on how to interpret the marks on entrails of sacrificial animals as well as how to interpret thousands of other ominous events and conditions. Such practices were known far and wide; the Bible even records that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon " looked in the liver" for guidance from the gods in his campaigns against Judah (Ezekiel 21:21).
The Stars and Planets
As the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, clearly shows, the stars and planets were believed to be the signs of the most powerful gods, and in some cases were actually gods themselves. Naturally, since the stars and planets were viewed as divine, or symbols of divine action and power, they became the objects of careful observation by the divination priests. Eventually, detailed records of the movements and positions of the planets were kept. These records and calculations based upon them became the foundation for not only astronomy, but astrology as well. Because the Babylonians and Assyrians believed the heavenly bodies were representative of the gods, their positions and movements were obviously of great significance to life and events on earth. We know that by about 700 B.C., the planets, including the sun and moon, were being carefully watched by the Assyrians for their impact on the life of the king. Numerous letters and state records tell us of warnings by the priests for the king to be careful, or to have rituals carried out to attempt to avoid the predicted disaster. Other astronomical omens were favorable to the king but unfavorable to foreigners. Langers' Encyclopedia of World History shows that the earliest development of astrology was associated with Babylonian magic and divination:
The most characteristic and influential features of Babylonian religion, aside from its mythology, were the elaborate systems of magical practices (incantations) and the interpretation of omens (divination), particularly the movements and position of the heavenly bodies (astrology), the actions of animals, and the characteristics of the liver of sacrificial victims (p.26).
The Babylonians were also the inventors of the zodiac. Their astronomers divided the heavens into sections in order to tell time at night as well as seasons of the year. At first there were some 36 sections or areas, corresponding to various stars or constellations. Later this number was reduced to 12, or one constellation for each month of the year. Some of the Babylonian constellations or "signs" bore the same names as they do today. Thus the Babylonian "bull of Anu" is the constellation (or sign) Taurus; "the Great Twins" are the constellation Gemini; "the lion" Leo; "the Scorpion" is naturally Scorpio. Other signs, however, were given different names by Greek astrologers some centuries later; the "modern" names for the signs of the zodiac arc actually Greek or Latin. Most, if not all, of the constellations of the Babylonian zodiac were mythological figures which we read about in the great Babylonian myths and epics. For instance the "bull of Anu" was sent by the goddess Ishtar to punish the hero Gilgamesh. The planets and the stars as well were considered divine beings: the god Shamash was the sun, the planet Venus (Babylonian Dilbat) was the "star" of the goddess Ishtar. By about 450 B.C., the planets, stars, and zodiac were all put together into one cosmic system of the gods that supposedly controlled or influenced an individual's life here on earth.
The First Horoscopes
Not coincidentally, it is just about this time that we have the first known horoscopes. These horoscopes, found inscribed on clay tablets in Babylonian cuneiform characters, were cast at the moment of birth, just as modern horoscopes are cast. And like modern horoscopes, they tell the exact positions of the planets in the zodiac and how they will influence the life of the newborn individual. The first known horoscope dates to the year 410 B.C. It is found on a clay tablet now kept at Oxford University. It reads:
Month Nisan, night of the 14th... son of Shumausur, son of Shuma-iddina, descendant of Deke, was born. At that time the moon was below the Horn of the Scorpion. Jupiter in Pisces, Venus in Taurus, Saturn in Cancer, Mars in Gemini; Mercury, which had set for the last time was still invisible... Things will be good for you (Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1952, p. 54).
Several other horoscopes, quite similar in form to this one, are known from about the same time. It is plain from these records that astrological horoscopes, applied to human individuals at birth, were a Babylonian invention.
The Greek Connection
By about 400 B.C., Greek scientists and philosophers were traveling throughout the Mediterranean world. Especially during and after the time of Alexander the Great, the Greeks began to learn of the beliefs and science of the Babylonians, Egyptians, and others. With the help of the Babylonian priest Berossus, whose treatise on astrology reached Greece about 250 B.C., they took over and modified the Babylonian system of astrology. The Greeks even kept many of the names for the astrological signs; to others they gave new names. However, it was clearly recognized that the astrological predictions and interpretations were still based on pagan Babylonian mythology. In the first century B.C., the Greek historian Diodorus wrote the following about the astrology of the Chaldeans:
Under the course in which the planets move are situated, according to them, thirty stars, which they designate as "counselling gods"; of these, one half oversee the regions above the earth and the other half those beneath the earth, having under their purview the affairs of mankind and likewise those of the heavens.... Twelve of these gods, they say, hold chief authority, and to each of these the Chaldeans assign a month and one of the sign of the zodiac, as they are called. And through the midst of these signs, they say, both the sun and moon and the five planets make their course... (Diodorus, II, 30, 30).
The Greek astrologers greatly modified and embellished the astrological system that the Chaldean divination priests had devised. They organized astrological methods into a complex scheme of houses, aspects, signs, and planets, with dozens, if not hundreds, of rules and variations. The greatest of the Greek astrologers was the Alexandrian astronomer and mathematican Claudius Ptolemy. His astrological work, The Tetrabiblos, became the handbook upon which all subsequent astrology is based. However, even in this "scientific" work, important traces of Babylonian and Greek mythology appear. Notice Ptolemy's comments on the influence of the planet Mars (in Greek and Roman mythology the god of war):
Mars... brings about wars, civil faction, capture, enslavement, uprising, the wrath of leaders, and sudden deaths arising from such cases... (Tetrabiblos, II, 8).
While many of Ptolemy's interpretations of the heavens stem from the (mistaken) astronomical beliefs of his day, it is clear that much of his astrology is ultimately based on pagan mythology, which in many respects goes back to the myths and beliefs of ancient Babylon. Furthermore, the elaborate astrological system worked out by Ptolemy actually forms the basis of much of modern astrology. This then is the origin of a practice followed by millions of twentieth-century devotees. Regardless of whether one actually believes in astrology or not, it is clear that such beliefs ultimately originated in the magic and superstition of the divination priests of ancient Babylonia and Assyria.
DOES ASTROLOGY WORK? By Robert A. Ginskey
Does astrology have a rational scientific basis? Is there any conceivable way that the celestial location of stars, planets, and nebulae at the time of one's birth could influence an individual's personality, health, marriage, career, and a host of other personal events? The accompanying article shows that the origin of astrology lies in pagan superstition. But does astrology work? Until the sixteenth century, the earth was believed to be the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars revolving around this all-important center of activity. But the heliocentric universe of Copernicus (1543) dethroned the earth. And since then, the advance of astronomical knowledge has relentlessly pushed the earth farther and farther from any privileged position in the cosmos. The sun, too, has been demoted to an inconspicuous suburb in a rather unexceptional galaxy in a relatively small group of galaxies in a universe of uncounted billions of stars. In such a universe, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the heavens were created to have a specific influence on the earth and on individual humans in particular. How would such an influence occur? Through gravity? Radiation? The immense distances counted in the universe — usually measured in light years — ruled any such influences. The gravitational attraction of the doctor standing at the delivery table will be far greater than the gravitational influence of any star or galaxy on a new-born baby. And the radiation from even the brightest star will be thousands of times weaker than a single light bulb in the delivery room. The conclusion seems inescapable: No known force emanating from the constellations of the heavens could be expected to exert a unique, life-long influence on anyone. Even if the stars did exert an ever-so-subtle influence at the time of an individual's birth, can anyone seriously believe their influence is important when compared to the multitude of much stronger environmental forces on earth that directly affect our lives? All life on earth is affected by periodic changes, in the environment. Such cyclic variations are often the basis for natural rhythms called biological clocks. The most obvious example is the rising and setting of the sun, a daily cycle of light and dark which directly affects the activities of virtually all plants and animals.