The old art of stargazers and prognosticators known today as Hellenistic astrology emerged in Alexandria, Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies around 150 BCE. Astrology was practiced in the Near East before that time, but it took another form and was almost exclusive to political and religious elites. After Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire at the end of the 4th century BCE, Egypt was a focal point for Hellenic culture as well as those of other neighboring lands. It was in this historical setting that Hellenistic astrology was developed and flourished. Some of the earliest texts that reference it date back to the early first century CE. The system was already well developed, and thus scholars assume that it first began to take shape after the Ptolemies began dynastic rule.
Hellenistic astrology was a new system with unique features. A distinguishing aspect of Hellenistic astrology was that it took the horizon and hour seriously. As a horoscopic form of astrology, it incorporated the tropical zodiac and was thus based on the equinoxes rather than the constellations of the zodiac or seasons. Ancient astrologers believed that the view of the positions of the five visible planets and two luminaries from the latitudes near Alexandria could tell much concerning a person’s life and destiny. The astrology that was practiced was a synthesis of Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions as well as new innovations, and it core texts were written in ancient Greek.
The traditional astrology of ancient Alexandria has a long history. In fact, Hellenistic astrology was practiced throughout the Roman world, for roughly seven hundred years. During that time, many astrologers wrote books describing how to practice the ancient art. Some have been lost, and others are still with us today. According to some texts, the founders of Hellenistic astrology were Nechepso, an Egyptian pharaoh, and Petosiris, the pharaoh’s minister. Other sources list Hermes Trismegistus as the founder of the tradition. Famous early astrologers that wrote works on astrology were Thrasyllus, Antiochus, and Dorotheus. In the 2nd century CE, two major astrologers wrote works that contributed heavily to the practice. These astrologers were Vettius Valens and Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy wrote the Tetrabiblos, and Valens wrote the Anthology. Near the end of the Hellenistic tradition, some of the more famous astrologers were Hephaistion, Firmicus Maternus, and Paulus Alexandrinus. Hellenistic astrology, a tradition that lasted hundreds of years, was preserved in the works of the ancient astrologers who practiced it.
Hellenistic astrology disappeared after the onslaught of the Arab invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries CE. Though the tradition was transmitted and tolerated throughout the Abbasid caliphate, the cultural environment that birthed it had ceased to exist. Arabic replaced Greek as the language of the region. Medieval astrologers like Sahl Bin Bishr, Abu Mashaar, and Mashallah added their own contributions to the tradition. The astrology that was practiced in the Roman world was largely forgotten.
Recently, the lost practice was revived. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholars discovered astrological texts in old libraries and monasteries. They started the CCAG, a compilation of the many versions of ancient texts found. Just a few scholars that read ancient Greek and Latin were aware of the texts and their contents, but that changed in the early 1980’s. A handful of astrologers had increased their interest in traditional texts including Robert Zoller and Robert Hand. Another astrologer named James Holden had translated some ancient texts before that time but never circulated them widely. In the 1990’s, Robert Schmidt linked up with Robert Hand and formed Project Hindsight, the first attempt by members of the astrological community to translate and make readable the ancient texts that had been obscure for almost 1,300 years. In the mid 2000’s, Kepler University student Chris Brennan interned at Project Hindsight and afterwards created his Hellenistic astrology course as well as podcasts and websites dedicated to the art. The efforts of scholars, translators, and astrologers to make ancient astrological texts accessible and teach them has restored the foundational horoscopic system. As a result, traditional astrology is making a comeback and its popularity continues to grow.
Hellenistic astrology is quite different from the forms of astrology that followed it. First, there is an emphasis on prediction. While medieval astrology continued to use predictive techniques, many of the timing technique systems were first developed in the Hellenistic period. Second, it was more willing to assign designations of good or bad to phenomena, which is not a feature of modern astrology. Third, it utilized some interpretive principles and methods that were not used after the Islamic conquest of the Near East. Therefore, Hellenistic astrology, while the ancient forebear of the later Medieval, Renaissance, and modern astrological paradigms that followed it, had its own distinct system.
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