The History of Astrology -- Another View

by Robert Hand

Return to Astrology

Part III

What did the Egyptians add to Babylonian astrology? We cannot say for certain, but internal evidence indicates the following. The use of a rising degree may or may not have been found in pre-Hellenistic Babylonian astrology. But the Hellenistic writers attributed the use of houses, or signs used as houses to Hermes. For Hermes we should understand a reference to Hellenistic Egyptian sources. It is probable that aspects are also Egyptian but we cannot say for certain. The lots are almost certainly Egyptian as well as most of the systems of rulership. Only the exaltations have a clearly Mesopotamian origin.

At any rate it is quite likely that the entire apparatus of horoscopic astrology was in place by 1 C.E., quite possibly several centuries earlier. One of things that we have found in our studies of the later Greek writers is that they are already dealing with a later era of astrology. They have their "ancients" and they have already begun to misunderstand some of the ancient teachings. One of these writers, Vettius Valens, actually went traveling through Egypt looking for masters of the old traditions, much like modern Americans have gone to India to study astrology and various sacred teachings. While most of the Greek writers seemed to have studied from books, Valens studied with at least a few living teachers of the old traditions. And it is clear from his work that much of what they taught would never have been written down but for Valens.

What Happened Next

Whatever may have been the language of Egyptian astrology when it first began to come into being, by 1 C.E. it was Greek. This is not to say that there were no astrology texts written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian, but no clear reference to any has survived.

All of the Egyptian texts that are referred to in the later literature seem to have been written in Greek. Possibly some were translations from Coptic. The use of Greek had important consequences. Although the Persian empire was a truly cosmopolitan empire with a considerable level of equality among the races that made up the empire, no one language came to predominate. No doubt Persian was used for official purposes, but Babylonian and Egyptian also continued to be used in their own areas in preference to Persian. But when Alexander the Great conquered all of Persia and Egypt, and advanced all the way into northwest India, Greek became the dominant language not only for official purposes, but also for any purpose that involved communicating from one ethnic area to another. The original languages continued to be used for local purposes, such as Aramaic (which completely supplanted Babylonian) and Coptic. But a scholar or traveler could go anywhere from Greece in the west to India in the east and Egypt in the south and be understood. Any idea expressed in Greek could have a similar range of travel.

Even after the Persian revival beginning first with the Parthians and later with the Sassanids (see chronology given earlier), the Bactrian peoples of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to have Greek speaking rulers until the early centuries C.E. Consequently the Babylonian methods embodied in Egyptian astrology as well as the Egyptian methods themselves could travel into India without difficulty. This accounts for the fact that all of the technical words in Indian astrology whose origins can be found in another language are Greek, not Babylonian, not Coptic, nor earlier Egyptian. What is also interesting is that there appear to be few, if any, technical words in Greek astrology that have their origins in any other language.

Below is a partial list of some of the terms in Hindu astrology that appear to have a Greek origin.

                         1. Zodiacal Signs

Sanskrit    Greek       English         Sanskrit    Greek       English

Kriya       Krios       Aries           Juka        Zugos       Libra
Tavura      Tauros      Taurus          Kaurpi      Skorpios    Scorpio
Jituma      Didumoi     Gemini          Taukshika   Toxotes     Sagittarius
Kulira      Karkinos    Cancer          Akokera     Aigokeres   Capricorn
Leya        Leon        Leo             Hridroga    Hudrochoos  Aquarius
Pathona     Parthenos   Virgo           Chettha     Ichthues    Pisces

                             2. Planets

Sanskrit    Greek       English         Sanskrit    Greek       English

Hemnan      Hermes      Mercury         Ara         Ares        Mars
Asphujit    Aphrodite   Venus           Jeeva       Zeus        (Jove)
Heli        Helios      Sun             Kona        Kronos      Saturn

All of the above had Sanskrit equivalents which probably preceded the introduction of the above words into India, and which also eventually completely displaced these words of Hellenic origin. The following are terms for which there are no previous Sanskrit roots and appear to have come completely from Greek. These words have remained standard astrological terms in India to this day.
                      3. House and Aspect Words

Sanskrit    Greek       English         Sanskrit    Greek       English

Hora        Hora        Hour            Kendra      Kentron     Angle
Liptaka     Lepta       Minute          Panaphara   Epanaphora  Succedent
Hipaka      Hupogeion   Imum Coeli      Apoklima    Apoklima    Cadent
Jamitra     Diametros   Diameter        Drekana     Dekanos     Decan
Mesurana    Mesouranema Midheaven       Sunapha     Sunaphe     Applying
Menyaiva    Meniaios    No Equiv.       Anaphara    Anaphora    Separating
Trikona     Trigonon    Trine           Dauradhura  Doruphoria  Doryphory
Dyuna       Dunon       Setting         Kemadruma   Kenodromia  Void of C.

As the heading at the top of Table 3 indicates, these are all house and aspect words, indicating that this was an area of Hindu astrology on which Hellenistic astrology had great impact.

The question of the debt or lack thereof of Hindu astrology to Hellenistic is an extremely controversial one. Many authors of the Hindu school would like to deny that there was any at all. This position is a bit hard to support given the above, and also given the very frequent references to the "Yavanas" who were Greeks or more precisely Greek speaking persons of various ethnic extractions.

On the other hand there are Westerners, of whom this author is not one, who believe that Hindu astrology comes entirely from the West (or more precisely Middle East). David Pingree in his study of the Yavanajataka does an extremely thorough job of cataloging the parallels between the astrology of that work and that of the Greeks, and even he is forced to admit that there are many differences. However such differences do not require two different origins. All it requires is a period of isolation between two branches of a tradition after an earlier period of unity, such that the two branches can diverge, and one, the eastern, merge with native traditions already in place. While we do not insist that Hindu astrology is entirely or even principally an offshoot of Hellenistic astrology, it must be said that the required period of isolation did occur which could have caused a single tradition to become two.

After 126 B.C.E. the Parthians, a Persian people, rose up against the Seleucids who succeeded Alexander the Great, and they reconquered most of the old Persian Empire except for the portion near the Mediterranean, and the portion in the northwest of India. The Parthians were extremely hostile to the Greeks (and later the Romans) and effectively cut off communication (or at least cut it down to a trickle) between the main body of Hellenistic peoples toward the West and the Bactrian Greeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who in turn remained in power until the early centuries C.E. The Bactrian Greeks eventually converted to Hinduism and their language disappeared. However as of about 200 C.E. they still existed as an identifiable group. These are the Yavanas of the Yavanajataka.

Still later the historian Kay mentions Hindu records from the 4th and 5th Centuries C.E. of a new Sun God cult coming in from the West. Given that Christianity displaced the worship of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, it is tempting to postulate that Hindu astrology received a second burst of input from a new group of Yavanas fleeing Christian persecution in the West.

The central problem is how much of Hindu astrology is indigenous and how much comes from the West. Other than the few suggestions I have made here, this is not the place to attempt an answer. In any case it is very clear that whatever the Hindus got from the West they did not just take and passively apply. They altered, modified, and quite possibly improved whatever they may have received from the West and combined it with their own native traditions.

There is one other consequence of the Parthian separation. The Persian peoples had always been enthusiastic astrologers. It seems logical to conclude that they must have developed their own traditions from the astrology that they had inherited from the Mesopotamians and the Greeks. Then in 227 C.E. they were overthrown by the Sassanid Persians who would have continued the development of the Persian traditions of astrology.

Unfortunately when the Arabs came, almost all of the literature of the Zoroastrian Sassanids was destroyed. This includes their astrological works. However we do have a strong clue as to what their astrology must have been like. Most of the greatest astrologers in the Arab era were Persians! And the astrology they taught is quite different from both the Hindu and the Greek. It had orbs of aspect, the Great Cycles of Jupiter and Saturn, all of the elaborate systems of planetary interactions such as Refrenation, Frustration, Abscission of Light, Translation of Light and so forth. While Arab era astrology clearly owes a large debt to Hellenistic astrology, it is also clear that in the two or three centuries between the last known Hellenistic astrologers and the first known Arab era ones, something new had come into the stream. This could have been, and probably was the Persian stream of astrology. And Arab era astrology is the immediate ancestor of the Western astrology of today. Our astrology may be in fact the successor to that third stream of ancient astrologies.

A Final Note on Zodiacs

We have mentioned previously in this essay that the first Babylonian birthcharts were cast in the sidereal zodiac. Also it has been traditional for Hindu astrologers to use one or another sidereal zodiac. This whole matter is as controversial as the issue of the indebtedness or lack thereof of Hindu astrology to Middle Eastern astrology. But there is not enough space in this essay to go into the matter at this time. In previous writings (in Project Hindsight) we have stated that the zodiac did not seem to be an issue of great import to the ancients. We still hold that position. But at some point in a future introductory essay we will go into that matter in some depth. For the moment it will have to suffice to say that the matter is far from closed in favor of either zodiac.

The End

Rob Hand

Top of Page

Go to Part II

Return to Astrology

Bonnie's Links
created by Bonnie Lee Hill,
last modified on June 8, 2009