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A Brief History of Ancient Astrology by Roger Beck

Book Review

A Brief History of Ancient Astrology
by Roger Beck

ISBN: 1-4051-1074-0, Paperback, 159 pages.
Published by Blackwell Publishing, November 2006.
Price: £14.99/$21.99 + p&p.

Reviewed by Deborah Houlding

My first dissapointment with this book was the confession in the preface that the title has little connection to the subject matter. The book is indeed brief (the main text being just 136 spaciously set pages), and it is about ancient astrology; but Beck confesses that his 'history' "will actually be something less ambitious, more in the nature of an account of various aspects of the subject". This account is to be centered "on the system itself, how horoscopes were constructed and interpreted", with the claim that "depth and detail" has been chosen over "breadth of coverage".

This is fair enough, except that depth and detail tend to be built upon a secure knowledge of basic principles, and for much of this book the reader is assumed to be a complete novice to the subject. A great deal of the text is therefore given to explaining what the basic principles are, why the signs of the zodiac are not the same as constellations, what the zodiac is, how geometrical shapes connect the aspects, the importance of diurnal revolution, the four angles of the figure, the meaning of the 12 places [houses], and an introduction to the seven planets.

Perhaps Ancient Astrology for Dummies would have been a better title? This is the kind of book that passes so superficially over intricate and essential principles that it is likely to leave the novice bewildered and the more informed reader feeling cheated of the content promised in the title. The introduction to technique is either inadequate or redundant, depending upon the reader's prior knowledge. And sadly, for the most part, the promised "depth and detail" are lacking. What we get instead is an overly complex treatment of some elementary concepts that are laboured far beyond reason. The following example is taken from the explanation of what it means to say the planets are 'in' the signs (p.24):

The positions of the planets in the signs are facts. Accordingly one can make verifiably true statements about them. Thus, if today I say that Venus is in Taurus I am making a claim which you can verify by observation or by reference to an ephemeris or to a table of planetary motions. My claim is true if and only if Venus actually is in Taurus, otherwise it is false. The two little words "is in" carry a good deal of freight, but fortunately you and I agree about their intent (or we would not be having this conversation). We agree that we are talking about the current position ("in Taurus") of a certain point source of light (Venus). Technically, we mean that Venus (so intended) is - or is not - somewhere between longitude 30° (the beginning of Taurus) and longitude 60° (the end of Taurus and the beginning of Gemini). Note that our "truths" are the truths of appearances. Put another way, they are the truths of positional astronomy only.

This 'conversation' continues for another three paragraphs; I am not quite sure why. The author is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, so presumably feels the need to introduce abstruse arguments to gain the veneer of academic respect. Another motivation may be his need to claim respect for the study of ancient astrology, as having at least a factual basis in its astronomical measurement. Not that ancient astrology in itself deserves any respect, we should understand.

In chapter one, Beck claims that he will not be overly concerned with "the scientific distinction between astronomical fact and astrological fantasy". I see that other reviewers have taken him at his word, suggesting that he sensitively handles his subject, and (whilst in no way seeking to vindicate astrology as a form of divination), aims to make his readers respectful of the subject.[1] This is simply not true. Those who have a genuine respect for both the study and subject matter of ancient astrology, will find his constant need to reassert his intellectual sanity, (by taking sideswipes at astrology and ancient astrologers), wearying, biased, and demonstrative of a failure to grasp a true understanding of why its philosophy was so far reaching in the ancient world. There are references to the separation of the "astronomical gold from astrological slag", and the unnecessary implication of greed in motive: "so your astrologer tells you, for a fee, the positions of the planets… perhaps you ask the astrologer to interpret it for you verbally (for a further fee?)" (p.38). There are also several naïve and worryingly uninformed remarks on how ancient astrology is little different from modern astrology; and frequent reminders of how (of course) we will not be taking the astrological judgements seriously. All this, so that Beck can push home his point that he does not wish to detract from the value of his study by admitting astrology is bunkum: "within my frame of reference, that is not a very interesting fact: astrological predictions don't work, quid novi, so what else is new?" (p.2).

There is nothing in this book that allows me to balance my criticisms by details of its merits. No new knowledge is presented, whilst a great deal of relevant knowledge is omitted. Despite his academic qualifications, Beck shows such a superficial knowledge of his subject matter that I cannot see how he justifies the publisher's claim to be "an expert in the field". Valuable opportunities to be informative are lost, squandered in Beck's eagerness to fill his limited space with derogatory remarks on modern astrology, which he then reflects back to his own subject matter. In his chapter on the different types of astrology, he gives one paragraph to a definition of ancient interrogational astrology and how this differs from genethlialogy. Here is how it is wasted:

Interrrogatory astrology answers questions with reference to the current configuration of the heavens. The ubiquitous astrological columns of newspapers are of this type. Since a single prediction would both strain credibility and offend the reader's sense of individuality - how can one size possibly fit all? - these columns throw in a variable: the outcome of today's configuration depends on the sign of the zodiac in which the sun shone on the day of your birth. To determine this, all you need to know is the day and month of your birth (the year is irrelevant) and from that you can determine your "sun sign". Born on January 11, I for example am "a Capricorn". Twelve sizes, not one, fit all.

In no way is this an acceptable explanation of what ancient interrogational astrology is. Nor is this paragraph relevant to the subject of ancient astrology. On the basis of an inappropriate title and misleading marketing, I believed that I was purchasing a book that would present a reliable and scholarly overview of the origin and development of astrological techniques in the ancient world. I expected some coverage of the social influences behind its transmission between cultures and the subsequent impact this made. Possibly the political context and pressure upon its practice, or an introduction to the pertinent historical texts and their authors. How about an historical timeline of developments within its discipline; or some illustrative examples of its employment set in context? At least some coverage of these issues?

No. Most are missing. The first three chapters touch upon some historical details, but so lightly as to be completely pointless. The history of transmission 'Via Egypt', for example, is neatly wrapped up in less than two pages. Of course then, it is easy to deride the subject, because there is no real appreciation of how it has developed and evolved as a philosophy that has stimulated human curiosity and ingenuity, being integral to the rise of civilizations.

The worry is that this book is intended to act as an introduction to the topic of astrology for scholars of ancient history and the classics. Having set the seed from the beginning, many will no doubt go on to perpetuate the expectancy of ridicule. They will fail to realise the extent to which astrological tenets have underpinned the mindset and characterised the spirit of the age they are so interested in. They will treat as a meaningless co-incidence the fact that those societies which wholeheartedly embraced and fully exploited astrology were also those which had the greatest intellectual stimulation and technological progression. And they will not ask the question, why? What was there about this subject that was so powerfully persuasive that it held the attention of some of the greatest minds in history? What does this say about the role of ancient belief in society?

I am quite prepared to appreciate historical reports which assume that astrology cannot be objectively verified. But surely we have passed the point where, in order to justify how influential astrology was in ancient times, one must continually dwell upon how it ought not to have been? Even that could be tolerated if there was something genuinely new and informative in the content. This book, disappointingly, failed on all levels. I can only imagine that the author's motivation in writing this book, was the fee.


Deborah Houlding
August, 2007

Notes & References:

  1] See for example, the favourable review by Katharina Volk, Columbia University; reproduced online at (accessed August 2007).
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