Astronomy, astrology and astral divination in the Ancient East and Persia — Prof. Antonio Panaino
Ars Magia. Ars Theurgia Ars Thaumaturgia

Astronomy, astrology and astral divination in the Ancient East and Persia — Prof. Antonio Panaino

Astronomy, astrology and astral divination in the Ancient East and Persia

a lecture by Prof. Antonio Panaino


The following is an abstract of the lecture kept in Sophia at the New Bulgarian University on the 19th November 2009 by Prof. Antonio Panaino, the famous Italian Orientalist, Professor of Alma Mater Studiorum and Isiao – the Italian Institute for Africa and East.

I should thank Dimitar Kozhuharov who kindly sent me the file; bibliography and pictures mine.


Everybody believes to know what astrology is, but even between scholars there is a lot of confusion about the real meaning of this word, so it’s necessary to give some basic definitions about words like astrology, astral divination, astrolatry which are not necessary connected. In the same time we can shed some light on the idea that astronomy derives from astrology, being the latter the modern and rational offspring while the former is irrational and primitive source.


It is not like that.


In ancient cultures astronomical problems should be resolved before astrological ones, because astronomy was necessary for ordinary life. For example, when tax calendar should be scheduled it was necessary to know in advance harvest time, because taxes could not be required when men where still working in the fields, and these activities where in turn strictly connected with astronomical events- we can think to the heliacal rising of the star Sirius which in Egypt rose just before Nile flooding.


This kind of information took a lot of centuries because it was necessary collecting data, writing in a proper for, studying, calculating and just at the end of the process it was possible to elaborate data and calculate the real position of planets, the rising or setting of stars, sun and moon eclipses. Ancients were able to calculate moon eclipses, but they could not reach the same precision with solar ones. They can say when a sun eclipse would occur – even one in Australia- but they could not say if it would be visible or not in their location – we should not forget they did not know Australia.


Obviously we know that astronomy was not just linked to civil uses. It had even a religious meaning because stars and planets were considered Gods messengers. In every case a mathematical model of risings of Sirius or settings of Orion is not magic, it is a rational activity.


This kind of activity, we can call it astral divination is present in several different civilisations. We should not mistake it for astrolatry, which is the worship of the Sun, the Moon and some stars. This has nothing to share with astronomy, astrology or astral divination because it is a religious cult.


As you see, I did not use the word astrology. There are some scholars who use it, but I prefer the definition given by Otto Neugebauer (( Neugebauer, O., & Parker, R. A. (1960). Egyptian astronomical texts. Brown Egyptological studies, 3. Providence: Published for Brown University Press, by L. Humphries, London. )) in the book he wrote with Parker, and which was used even in a more specific way by David Pingree: astrology is that special kind of divination which is based on a horoscope. ((David Pingree – From Astral Omens to Astrology from Babylon to Bikaner, Roma: Istituto Italiano per L’Africa e L’Oriente, 1997.)).


Here I’m calling horoscope the nativity, ie an astral divination for the moment of the birth of a native, which contains several technical information, being the information that now we call ascendant, the point rising in the East ( which was called horoscope) one of the most important, together with other data which are needed in order to do some forecast about the destiny of the native. This calculation is grounded on a sophisticated theory of zodiac, divided into portion of 30 degrees of the ecliptic, the path of the five planets and the Sun and the Moon, and the Ascendant (this was important in Greek tradition, but ignored in the Babylonian one.)


In Greek horoscopes we find several elements deriving from the Mesopotamian tradition, strongly grounded on the spherical model of the Greek world (where SPHERICAL means that the position of the planets can be calculated by TRIGONOMETRY) and Aristotle’s cosmos based on the four pillars of the elements.


Other influences clearly derive from Egypt. For example the theory of 36 decans, three for every sign, which originally were demons which accompanied the soul of deads in their afterlife path, and which are listed in some Greek astrologers like Hephestio of Thebes, or Latin ones like Firmicus, who gives a better list.


  denderah zodiac


In the Greek horoscopic doctrine is peculiar that deep link between micro and macrocosm which is absent in other traditions. For Greeks was impossible changing their own birth chart and in the same way their destiny, while, on the contrary, in Mesopotamian tradition “cheating” and making “tricks” with Gods was always a possibility, so they often used apotropaic (from Greek apotrépein, to turn away) rituals which in some way turned way bad events heralded by astral omina.


One of the most famous example is the “farmer king” which was explained in a very detailed way by Hermann Hunger in a book published in Rome 1995: when a bad omen threatened the king, the king renounced to the power and a criminal was put on the throne as King substitute. When the danger was over, the substitute was killed and the king recovered his powers as “farmer king,” Gods are not stupid….The tradition was so consolidated that the same Alexander the Great is told to have his own substitute king.


So, recapitulating, we will use astrology for the Greek horoscopic tradition, astral divination for Mesopotamian tradition (but we can find some examples in Latin tradition too) where astral events which can be measured in an astronomical way could be connected with terrestrial events in a protasis- apotasis sequence (if something happens, then something else will happen) and astrolatry for the worship of astral entities.


We can date the beginning of astrological activity around the second century b.C. when some experts of astral divination put together Greek mathematics, geometry, trigonometry with several Egyptian, Greek, and Mesopotamian techniques, probably in some Egyptian city, maybe Alexandria. It is worthy reading the book of the famous scholar Franz Cumont “The Egypt of astrologers” (( Cumont, F. V. M. (1937). L’Égypte des astrologues. Bruxelles: Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth. )) where the Egyptian society is depicted through the questions of the querents to the astrologers.


After so many debates and studies inside academic world – it was Neugebauer to rise the point- it is still not evident if Babylonians used Greek sources or Greeks used Babylonian sources; but we are sure that there was a cultural interdependence and there were very tight connections between the two countries.


The same Ptolemy – author of one of astrology pillars, but in the same time of one of the most important astronomical text of antiquity- the Almagest- surely knew Babylonian sources. it’s obvious from the way he makes his observations.


When in different cultures we find the same way of calculating- the area of triangle or fractions for example- we can be sure that we are not in front of similar myths or traditions, but that the method has been taken from a specific tradition.


When we have a calculation made in a certain way- for example dividing the circle in 360 degrees rather than radians (which are 1/400 of a whole circle) commonly used in army – the way we do calculation tells us which is its source, because the interpretation of nature is not nature, is culture.
In our example, when in Greek texts we find a 360° circle, we are sure that the method has been taken from Babylonian science and it is not an independent invention. Calculation method is not in nature, is in mind and gives the evidence of the cultural influence from a country on another: when Ptolemy uses the 360 degrees system used in Babylon, he does so both for the high consideration given to Babylonian astronomy and because as he says he was in possess of ancient texts on which he was basing his observations.

In the same way when in India we find lists of night hours which cannot be in agreement with those places, but rather with Babylonian area, we have evidence of a cultural interference and contacts between the two countries.


We cannot end this talk without mentioning the definition of astrology given by David Pingree for the lemma “occultism” in the Encyclopedia Britannica (( Pingree D., Encyclopedia Britannica, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., 1993), volume 25, pagine 75-98,on line at )) In addition to genethliac astrology – which concerns the individuals- we have the following categories:


1) general, about a country, or climate, or region of the world, or his king, because the king’s fate is connected with his country;


2) catharchic, from the Greek word for “beginning,” which is the branch of astrology which aim is to elect a special moment for starting a certain activity, in order to have the maximum profit.


This kind of astrology was very used because for several activities like the building of a temple or a royal palace it was necessary to check a great bunch of charts- the patron, the country one- and only after careful considerations was possible supplying a satisfying date. A very fashionable variant was military astrology, ie an election for the best moment to attack some enemy.


3) interrogative, the most ancient and similar to the astral divination, the branch of astrology which supplies answers to the querents’ questions, based on the positions of heavenly bodies in the moment of the question.


Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian sources organized and rearranged in such a brilliant way in Alexandria, then were translated in India around II century AD. Well known is the story of the Greek text translated in Sanskrit around 149-150 with the name of Yavana Jataka (which literally means treaty of Greeks) in which we can easy see how Indians adapted Greek/Mesopotamian/Egypt tradition to their culture and like astral divinities and decans were turned into demons and Indian Gods and Goddesses. David Pingree has published a very beautiful version with a comment and an English translation (( Pingree D., “The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja”, Harvard Oriental Series , 1978 ))


The Greek and Indian material was further elaborated some centuries after by the Indian astrologer Varahamihira and through a Sassanian translation, later translated into Arabics arrived to one of the most important Medieval astrologers, Albumasar, who incorporated the “Indian” stuff into the Great Introduction. The Arab text was then translated in Latin together with many other scientific, astronomical, astrological books in the Arabian Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews happily lived together.


A tourist visiting Giotto’s Palazzo della Ragione in Padova or Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara with its Salon of decans – one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance Italian art- will discover that there is no border between East and West, and even our Italian art would not exist without East, and just both, East and West, can explain what happened.


decans Ferrara


Salon of decans in Ferrara


Those Egyptian decans in Renaissance clothes painted on the wall of Ferrara palace – Aby Warburg, the founder of iconography patiently discovered their long travel- were the representation of a made in Italy copy of a Latin translation of an Arabian translation of a Palhavi document based of a Sanskrit source translated from a Greek text born from the melting pot of at least three different traditions- Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek one! There are many reconstructions of this story, but the best one is the one made by its discover, Aby Warburg (( Warburg A., “Arte italiana e astrologia internazionale nel Palazzo Schifanoia a Ferrara (1912),” in La Rinascita Del Paganesimo Antico Contributi Alla Storia Della Cultura, 1° ed. (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1966) )) .


astrolabium planum


The incipit of the only copy of Abano manuscript of Astrolabium Planum. From Prof. Vescovini who found the manuscript: “incipiunt ymagines super triginta gradus quorum quilibt habet suam ymaginem propriam ad predicendum naturas et exercitia hominum. Aries 1: Ascendit et apparet vir tenens in dextra manu falcem et in sinistra manu balistam.” The famous Warburg’ black man.


People interested in this subject should not miss Neugebauer and Van Hoesen’ s “Greek Horoscopes” ((Neugebauer O. & Van Hoesen H. B. , Greek Horoscopes, DIANE Publishing, 1987 )) and Bouche LeLeclercq “L’astrologie grecque” (( Bouché-Leclercq A., L’astrologie grecque, (Paris: E. Leroux, 1899). ))

There are still so many things to discover because libraries of all the world are still full of manuscripts which have not been translated: this means that the contribute of many young people who know ancient languages, astronomy, astrology, mathematics is fundamental.

All the things belonging to the past open the understanding of ancient world.



Original material on the website

Written by Margherita Fiorello, CIDA certified member, year 2015

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