Jane Lightfoot looks at a very old belief-system and how it has—and has not—changed.

Hieroglyphic plan of the ancient zodiac

I am a Scorpio.  My chart for today tells me that ‘You feel the planetary alignment today as a positive aspect, supporting those who are willing to turn their good intentions into action.  The power of this transit is in experiencing the benefit of exercise and a healthy diet in your emotional life.’  ‘Issues regarding love and romance may be confusing today …  Try not to get too discouraged by whatever transpires as a result of this energy.’  ‘Your communication sector is expanding, giving you unique skills to get your point across to anyone … At the same time, your social circle changes as you weed out the people who aren’t serving you or your life’s goals.’

There are some very obvious things to note about the tone here.  The contents are a mixture of description and gentle advice.  I am addressed directly, in the second person.  The tone is solicitous for my personal welfare (my emotional life, my life’s goals).  It is new-agey (‘energy’, ‘a positive aspect’).  There is just enough technicality to impress (‘this transit’), but the emphasis is on care of the self, emotional well-being, and self-realisation.  (‘Try to focus on understanding what you want and putting it into words that let people know how they can help you most.’)  This person cares about me.  They are a proxy for my therapist.

A typical modern chart of the Zodiac

I have begun with this pop-psychological slush in order to set it next to ancient astrology.  In the high empire astrology was big business and, so far from being intellectually disreputable, subsisted alongside the hard-core mathematical science of astronomy (from which it wasn’t even distinguished), was furnished with what looked like cogent philosophical rationale — and was taken so seriously that it was periodically necessary to expel its practitioners from cities, so dangerous were its insights.  It made emperors tremble.  My argument in this essay is that if you set ancient and modern astrology side-by-side you can learn much about historically changing attitudes to the self.

For if we return to my chart, an ancient horoscope would not have sounded in the least like this.  It wouldn’t have addressed me in the second person, for a start.  Astrological treatises are written in an authoritarian, didactic, and sometimes highly technocratic style, as from an expert to a lesser practitioner or someone who needs to be set straight, but do not address the person whose horoscope is being cast.  So, not therapist to patient, but teacher to pupil: a vertical relationship of power.  (It is true that there is a place in the ancient world for anodyne advice and vague formulations which designedly leave open the door for confirmation bias.  These, however, are to be sought in oracles.  The consultant visits with a specific problem and is answered in vague terms and/or advised of some middle-of-the-road, uncontroversial action.  They are not in question here.)  More, there is a hardness about ancient astrology, given that it was set in a framework of unyielding determinism.  What the stars appointed was utterly unappeasable.  Some astrologers make the point that there is no point sacrificing to the gods or doing anything other than submit.  Squirming, attempting to resist, would just gall the recipient of the horoscope when the crash came.

It should be said that in antiquity there were two different kinds of astrological prediction.  The first is natal astrology, which, using mathematically-computed planetary data, casts charts for the moment you are born.  (Incidentally the technique as well as the style is quite different from the modern.  For ancient astrologers it is all about the distribution of the seven known planets — not Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto, but including the Sun and Moon — across the celestial sphere, and especially in their ‘houses’ or twelve equal and abstract divisions into which the sky is portioned.  That I am a Scorpio would have gone barely noticed.  It would have been much more striking that I was born at midday, with the Sun at its zenith, and the Moon exactly in opposition under the earth.  For a modern I have all the complicatedness of the Scorpion.  For an ancient, with the Sun directly overhead, I am king.)  The second is ‘catarchic’ (concerned with beginnings), which considered day-to-day movements of the Moon and allowed you to decide whether to embark on something based on whether or not the forecast was auspicious.  This does, then, allow for individual choice and scope for autonomous decision-making.  But catarchic astrology has nothing to say about the self: it tells you whether you are likely to recover a runaway slave with the Moon in Capricorn, then leaves it up to you.  So in practice it is natal astrology I discuss here, and its contrast with modern astrology in what it says about the self.

About this it gives no quarter whatsoever.  Natal astrology does describe the kinds of people who are born (Mercury engenders the quick-witted, Venus the lascivious, Mars the bellicose, Jupiter the magnanimous, Saturn the grim and morose), but this is not something the person — the native — can do anything about.  Not only is it essentialist; it describes, not your relationship with yourself, but how society sees you.  It employs conventional categories into which each human individual is made to slot, as into the bed of Procrustes.

In antiquity you were your social self — your career, the esteem in which you are held, the social capital you possess, the respectability of your wife.  Perhaps the area where the difference is most obvious between ancient and modern horoscopes is in their treatment of relationships.  Ancient charts look for concord between spouses, but hardly emotional fulfilment; the assumption is that a happy home is one blessed with offspring, and based on a disequilibrium of power between the parties except insofar as the wife can further her husband’s career with private wealth.  Again, the presentation of career is determined by a hierarchy of value (from kings to slaves; from prestigious lettered professions to degrading ones involving hard manual labour; one curiosity worth noting is the high status accorded to luxury craftsmanship, contrasting with the disdain élite sources evince towards manual labour tout court).  Modern astrology, once again, is ‘subjective’ (how one feels about one’s work; coping strategies; relationships with colleagues; self-fulfilment), though it has at least one overlap with ancient charts in that they agree on the importance of relationships — what an ancient would call philia (friendship), pistis (trust), systasis (political relationship, strategic alliance), and we, in our own idiom, networking.

So, modern horoscopes are about self-therapy.  Ancient ones are about a world in which one gets ahead (prokopē, advancement), or fails to do so, as a result of something preordained — ‘what something hidden from us chose’, in the words of Philip Larkin, except that the agency is not hidden from us, for the heavens’ grim writ is there to be read by the savant.  The key word is praxis (activity), which is associated with a go-ahead disposition, courage, masculinity.  The opposite qualities are sluggishness, cowardice, and effeminacy (unless you are a woman, in which submissiveness is good and masculine factors produce a shrew or, far worse, a lesbian).

Modern astrology has pulpy pseudo-psychology.  Ancient has a mixture of theoretical models, which one might describe as trivialised or banalised versions of what other disciplines have in a ‘harder’ form.  The most important is a sub-Aristotelian physical conception of the hot, the cold, the wet, and the dry, and the effects of their mixtures.  The implications are not only physical, for the nature of the planets, but also temperamental, physiological, and medical, for the natives themselves.  ‘Wet’ and ‘cold’ influences (above all Saturn) produce those lacking spirit, dynamism, resolution, those who are sluggish and ineffectual, but also those afflicted by wet diseases (humoral pathology; dropsy; nerve diseases).  They may also die by drowning.  Hot and dry influences, on the other hand, produce courage, but also recklessness, anger, martial rage; the fate of such a person often involves blood-letting, violent death by wounds.  Mixtures of hot and cold produce melancholy.  Bile is wet and naturally cold, but is a liquid that can be heated up and made to bubble like soup or porridge: astrology is important in the intellectual gestation of this disease.

Ptolemy is the arch theorist of Aristotelian categories.  He systematises and does his best to rationalise what he had inherited as a rag-bag of a system, and sometimes, in an attempt to impose order and coherence, idiosyncratically departs from what other astrologers agree on (for instance, that Saturn is wet: for Ptolemy, it is dry).  But astrology has long employed these pseudo-physical models, in a rather muddled form — doing so, simultaneously, with other, quite different, mental models, as part and parcel of its ominvorous and quite uncritical approach to whatever is ‘out there’.

So alongside Aristotle there is demonology, where the most dramatic and spectacular presentations of sickness are sometimes attributed to possession by evil spirits, as indeed they are in the Gospels (consider the demoniac(s) of Gadara and the unfortunate swine).  Indeed, the similarity of the nosology of the two types of text, with their entirely different intellectual matrices, is quite remarkable: the diseases Jesus cures are almost precisely those to which astrology gives most prominence.  In the ancient world people did not live long enough to die of the diseases that will kill us (cancers, cardiovascular diseases, the neurodegenerative conditions of old age), so what the texts focus on are principally those with impressive and sometimes terrifying physical manifestations — epilepsy (which is barely differentiated from mental disease, and from ‘lunacy’), paralysis, what the Gospels call palsy and the astrological texts, ominously, ‘spasms’; also leprosy and diseases that make the skin flake and peel, erysipelas, elephantiasis, dropsy.  Blindness is extremely common, as it is in the Gospels; this reflects what a bane eye conditions must have been in a world which had no remedies even for the banal problem of short sight.  My modern therapist gives me some milk-and-water advice today that could be Gwyneth Paltrow on a de-tox: ‘Concentrate on making your diet a mirror reflection of what you feel is right: heavy on the vegetables, low on the sweets, look for protein in legumes and lay off on the saturated fat!’.  An ancient author, on the other hand, tells me at birth that I will suffer hidden pains, and identifies the agency responsible (planets govern different parts of the body in the system of melothesia).  It is not quite true, however, that I can do nothing about it; catarchic astrology will tell me when it is advisable to operate, and, through the associations of planets and herbs (astrobotany), is able to provide some pharmacological relief.

Hidden diseases are interesting; the Gospels do not have them.  So far I have been talking about popular conceptions hoovered up in an uncritical medley, but it seems not to be the case that ‘hidden diseases’ are a feature of ‘popular medicine’, if we think of that as being exemplified by temple medicine practised in sanctuaries of the healing deity Asclepius and written up in inscriptions reporting miraculous cures.  Hidden diseases seem to be specific to astrology and to reflect its obsession with hiddenness and secrecy in general, the quality presided over by close-guarded, morose Saturn.  It is profoundly equivocal.  Hidden treasure is definitely a good thing in a world with a stagnant economy, where windfalls were really one of your main chances of breaking out of whatever rut you were in.  Secret knowledge and hidden texts, though — often mentioned as a specialism of those born under Saturn and Mercury — are ambivalent and suspect.  And close-guarded persons who lack openness and fail to partake of sociability in a world where it was all-important are regarded with deep distrust and dislike.  I suggest that the difficulty with secrecy is a particularly good indication and reflex of the outwardly-oriented world of astrology, which is disquieted by that which cannot be seen by the eye and infringes the norms of visibility, transparency, and interpretability.  Also that it is another good indication of the difference between the public orientation of ancient astrology, and modern astrology’s schmoozy preoccupation with feelings and the private self.

I shall not conclude either that ancient and modern astrology are totally different or that they have more features in common than at first appears.  I shall, however, conclude that they are both forms of discourse which speak to conceptions of the self in their respective societies.  In the one, you jostled for position in a crowded world, where you were evaluated pitilessly by what of you was outwardly visible.  The other may be no less pitiless, but at least as a coping strategy encourages self-scrutiny with a hand-holding mentor who offers you choice, autonomy, and the capacity for personal growth.  The ancient world does not.  The implacable stars knew no such thing.

Professor Jane Lightfoot F.B.A. is Charlton Fellow and Tutor in Classics at New College Oxford.  Her edition of some of the corpus of astrological poems attributed to Manetho from the 2nd century AD will be published next year by Oxford University Press, for whom her editions and commentaries include other works of imperial didactic poetry (Dionysus Periegetes, 2014) and sub-élite verse (The Sibylline Oracles, 2007).

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to articles index