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The Winding Courses of the Stars

Culture & Cosmos

Book Review

The Winding Courses of the Stars: Essays in Ancient Astrology - Edited by Charles Burnett and Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum

Special Double Issue of Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, Vol. 11 no. 1 and 2, Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter 2007

Reviewed by Kirk Little

It has been a quarter of a century since Patrick Curry convened the first seminar on the history of astrology at the Warburg Institute in the spring of 1984. Up to that time, astrologers interested in the history of their subject basically had two choices: either endure the smug condescension of serious scholars or content themselves with breezy historical summaries written by fellow astrologers or journalists. Of course there were notable exceptions such as Ellic Howe's Urania's Children, or Rupert Gleadow's The Origin of the Zodiac. Almost without exception, the scholarly tomes (mostly written for other specialists) carried a hostile bias toward their subject matter, along with the obligatory paragraph or two in which the author wondered how anyone with half a brain could ever have believed such nonsense. One byproduct of their dismissive attitudes was a failure to understand the craft aspects of astrology or to even deem them worthy of investigation. In the intervening years, a funny thing has happened on the way to the forum: an increasing number of these specialist scholars are themselves astrologers or at least scholars who have the good sense to not bash the topic they are discussing. The Winding Courses of the Stars is a product of this new type of scholarship and therefore should appeal to astrologers interested in the historical development of their craft. Fortunately, the two guest editors of this enlarged issue of Culture & Cosmos combine their technical skills as translators, intellectual historians and (in Ms. Greenbaum's case) as astrological practitioners, with a respectful attitude toward astrology. The result is most encouraging.

The Winding Courses of the Stars brims with serious scholarship, but astrologers not well versed in astrological history may wonder just what all this has to do with the discipline they practice. The twelve essays of this volume comprise the distilled thoughts of the "scholars and practitioners of ancient astrology" brought together at a workshop at the Warburg Institute in February 2007. Their avowed purpose was to facilitate "fruitful discussion" between academics and practitioners. Though the consensus of the workshop participants was that they had achieved success, if this volume is any measure, I would hazard that the academics carried the day. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the prospective reader should be clear that this volume is not a guide to enhanced contemporary practice. Though these essays contain much fascinating material, no one should buy this book looking for ancient tips they can use with their clients. Readers seeking that would be better advised to purchase Joseph Crane's recent book Astrological Roots: The Hellenistic Legacy. However, for those intrigued by exploring some of the less travelled roads of astrology's past or wishing to keep up with the latest historical scholarship on ancient astrology, this book is a must have.

This new generation of scholars has brought an increased awareness of the inadequacy of some of the older translations of astrological texts. I am happy to report that translations from Project Hindsight and the Archive for the Retrieval of Historical Astrological Texts, as well as the translations of independent scholars such as James Holden make multiple appearances in these papers, and not just those written by scholars. Perhaps here, I should add a word about the ubiquity of both Latin and Greek throughout this volume, especially in the footnotes. I don't read either language, but I was able to read most of these essays with profit, since the untranslated bits were usually used to support an argument presented in English. Since this is a volume about Hellenistic astrology, passages in Latin and Greek should be expected as part of the scholarly enterprise.

Notably, a number of the essays were written by professors of classics or philology whose interest in astrology seems to be a sidelight to their main area of expertise. This in itself is less of a problem for the interested reader than some of the other literary traits on display. By my lights, most of the academic contributors exhibit what Patrick Curry has dubbed an attitude of "enlightened but sympathetic agnosticism" towards astrology. Regardless of their area of specialization, it is the job of the scholar to write clearly and in this regard, some certainly fared better than others. Several of the essays are marred by a dull or dense style which obscures a few interesting points. One of the contributions used bullet points so relentlessly, it seemed to be little more than a slightly dressed up slide show. A few of the essays are so narrowly conceived that they would have little appeal for the non specialist and I pass over them. Mercifully, there are some notable exceptions and several of the essays written by academics should have a broad appeal to anyone interested in astrology's past. Of course, it helps that those are written in an engaging fashion.

Naturally, astrologers will be interested to know how the contributions of their fellow travelers hold up. Quite well, thank you. By this reviewer's estimate, only four of the twelve essays were written by people who have actually practiced astrology and their names are familiar to those of us intrigued by astrology's history: Robert Hand, Dorian Greenbaum, Deborah Houlding and Joseph Crane. I will look at each of their efforts. Make no mistake; these practitioners are also serious scholars of their subject. They employ the full apparatus of academic scholarship and are familiar with the necessary languages: this means they read Latin and/or Greek. Not surprisingly, the astrologer/reader will discover that the contributions of these four authors have an immediacy and accessibility which seems to be lacking in some of the essays written by the non practicing academics. In other words, it is possible to see how the research of these fellow practitioners could eventually be applied to reading horoscopes.

That said, the fruits of historical research should not be measured by their immediate applicability, but by the contribution they make to our understanding of the past. Viewed up close, historical scholarship can seem instructive or petty, fascinating or irrelevant and these collected essays can seem all that and then some. Over time, the cumulative effects of good historical research challenge our pre conceived notions of the past and enable scholars to redraw the larger picture. Reading these essays is a bit like watching a painter execute a complex work where part of the canvas is the merest sketch, while other areas seem almost finished. It is important to keep this in mind, since some of these essays are painting in the details, while others are sketching outlines for future research.

A good example of the latter is the lead essay, Micah Ross' "A Survey of Demotic Astrological Texts." This is a logical, if not terribly exciting essay to open this volume, since Ross is essentially providing his fellow scholars with an update on the various lists of Egyptian astrological texts (he located 26) compiled by scholars over the past century. Certainly this is important scholarly work, but lists usually don't make for scintillating prose and this essay is no exception. Still, this scholarly recitation contains some nuggets which pique the imagination, especially for those intrigued by the division between omen-based astrology, which we associate with the Babylonians, and more the scientifically based astrology we attribute to the Greeks. Ross points out that some of the Demotic texts demonstrate a link between Mesopotamian and Egyptian solar omens and in doing so reminds us what a visual discipline ancient astrology was. We learn that in some texts, "the sun is frequently 'inside' black objects: clouds, webs and halos" while another text "considers the sun inside a black 'radiance'" (p. 9). While the meaning of such vivid imagery isn't always clear, Ross seems to suggest that omen texts provided a basis for the Egyptian vignettes or interpretive guides. This echoes a point Herodotus made about the Egyptians: they "have made more use of omens and prognostics than any other nation; they keep written records of the observed results of any unusual phenomena, so that they come to expect a similar consequence to follow a similar event in the future." [1] Equally intriguing is the variety of locations for such texts: in addition to papyrus rolls and stone tablets, they have been found on tomb ceilings, coffin lids and ostraca or pottery shards. The latter were a cheap, readily available writing surface, which suggests how widespread astrology was in Egypt in the fifth century BCE. In our computer driven practices with ever changing software and viruses, we may envy the longevity of these ancient texts, but consider this: one worm eaten papyrus was "so damaged that it could not be understood from beginning to end and Shabaka had to rewrite it" (p. 18). Hopefully Shabaka's client was able to reschedule.

Stephan Heilen's "Ancient Astrologers on the Horoscope of Rome" examines a practice familiar to all astrologers: identifying the correct chart for the founding of a particular entity, in this case, the capital of the Roman Empire. In this delightfully written essay, Heilen reconstructs how the first century BCE Roman astrologer Tarutius calculated not only the founding horoscope of Rome, but the birth and conception maps for Romulus, one of the putative founding brothers. Never mind that the whole thing is a fiction, Heilen's superb scholarship is in the service of a detective story filled with insights about the technical proficiency of this ancient astrologer. Think about it: Tarutius was attempting to calculate a horoscope set over 700 years in the past, without the benefit of a computer or even ephemerides. Modern calculations have demonstrated that he came pretty close. But Tarutius was no mere number cruncher; he was clearly guided by the symbolism. The resulting horoscope he rectified has the ring of truth: Mars is powerfully placed in Scorpio along with Saturn, Venus and Mercury. We learn that Virgil's Aeneid had described the city that Romulus founded as "Mars-City" (p.55). In drawing such connections, Heilen acts as a well informed tour guide; fortunately, he seems equally sure footed whether he is discussing chart technicalities or the literary allusions of three Roman poets. Throughout this essay, we are treated to interesting facts which illuminate his story, such as his discussion of the pinax, a "board which ancient astrologers used to illustrate planetary alignments during consultations with their clients." (p.47) Indeed, it is just such a pinax which graces the cover of this book. All told, Heilen's essay is a fine example of how thoughtful and imaginative historical scholarship can enrich our understanding of astrology's role in cultures. In this instance, we are certainly left with a sense of the pivotal role astrology had propping up Roman political theory and ideology.

May we come to terms? Deborah Houlding certainly does in her tightly argued essay on the vicissitudes of this technical astrological ah…term. The exact definition of term has vexed dictionary writers from James Wilson in 1819 to Nicholas Devore in 1947 to Fred Gettings in 1985 and with good reason. If we ignore the subtleties and complexities, of which there are many, terms are subdivisions of signs which assign planets subrulership over degree areas. Thus the baleful influence of a malefic planet, say Mars is weakened by being placed in the term of a benefic planet such as Venus. Beyond that it gets complicated. What have confused past scholars are the inconsistent rules laid down by authorities in this matter. As Houlding points out, terms have come back into vogue with the revival of interest in Hellenistic techniques and especially with the revival of interest in horary astrology since the mid 1980's. The chief culprit for misusing terms is William Lilly, whose Christian Astrology published in 1647 (and republished in 1985) did not follow his own rules. Of course Lilly isn't the only culprit and if you push back the cobwebs, Ptolemy certainly had a role to play. (If this book were an opera, Ptolemy would be a major leitmotif: he is discussed in all but two of the twelve essays.) More accurately, Ptolemy's various translators through the centuries are most likely the ones responsible for sowing the seeds of confusion.

What Ms. Houlding succeeds in doing is unsowing them. Her essay is argued like a lawyer's brief, complete with diagrams of the crime scenes, in this case comparative tables of terms. As a piece of historical scholarship relevant to astrologers…at least those who care about the sometimes haphazard transmission of our tradition…this essay is a pure delight, since we are easily able to follow her reasoning as she unravels the tangled threads of the story. This essay is a prime example of scholarship which has benefited by the translations of Project Hindsight. As Ms. Houlding indicates, its singular version of the Tetrabiblos was produced by "the translation skills of Robert Schmidt with the editorial skills of astrologer Robert Hand". Most notably, these two gentlemen corrected some of the technical faux pas of the Robbins translation from 1940. Though initially Schmidt seemed to vindicate Lilly's version of terms, Houlding shows us how they both went down the same wrong alley. Through a careful sifting of Lilly's sources, Houlding is able to identify how Lilly reached his final position. But there is more. She also traces the Arabic line of transmission. A brief review cannot do justice to the richness of this essay, which certainly repays close reading, since her scrupulous attention to detail is what makes her argument so compelling. The interested reader may wish to pack Lilly's book, an astrological dictionary or two as well as the Tetrabiblos, if they wish to develop a full appreciation of her accomplishment. Though she provides no final answer, Houlding reminds us "For the moment all we can do is clarify what is and (more importantly) what is not presently understood with regard to the underlying principles of planetary dignities and their relevance in ancient astrology, and hope that as we expand our knowledge of ancient sources, we become not only more capable not only of following classical techniques, but also of truly understanding them, so that we may be more competent in completing the gaps and highlighting potential errors of transmission." (p. 307)

Giuseppe Bezza's "The Development of an Astrological Term-from Greek hairesis to Arabic hayyiz" attempts a similar feat with equal scholarship, but less of a pay off for the average astrological reader. Without doubt, Bezza's essay is addressed to fellow specialists as evidenced by the fact that nearly half the page space is devoted to footnotes, many of them in the obligatory Latin and Greek. Hairesis is the Greek term for sect or the division of the horoscope into day and night charts. Early on Bezza presents some fascinating material on the relationship between astral divination and hepatoscopy or liver reading. As Jack Lindsay has informed us in his rambling but scholarly Origins of Astrology, the liver, not unlike the night sky could act as a templum oriented by the four cardinal points and interpreted by the haruspex, just as the astrologer looked at the pattern in the heavens. Bezza reminds us that the text, be it a liver or the night sky "shows us a hieratic ritual and testifies to the theurgic function of astrology in the Hellenistic world." (p. 230) Once again, for those intrigued by astrology's epistemological status, this essay provides scattered clues to astrology's roots in various types of divination, but this is not Bezza's chief intent. Rather, he is interested in tracing the manner in which various Hellenistic authors have treated the concept of hairesis, as well as tracing the related Arabic term hayyiz --roughly a planet's domain---through various translations and traditions. For those wondering, hayyiz "signifies the (planet's) sphere of activity…A star in its domain is well placed" (p. 246). Bezza's discussion of how these two terms relate to the rising or setting Sun was less satisfactory and I found myself rereading it in hopes of clarification. One leaves this essay with great admiration for the dedication and stamina Hellenistic astrologers had to possess in order to master the rules of their craft.

Rob Hand's "Signs as Houses (Places) in Ancient Astrology" is written in that clear, analytic style so familiar to astrologers who have read his books; his essay demonstrates his ability to cut through complex technical issues and make them accessible to those less technically astute. To anyone who has ever bent their head around the issue of house (er, place) division, Hand's clarity is most welcome. His basic thesis is that ancient astrologers weren't avoiding intermediate house cusps out of laziness or technical incompetence (who could blame them?) but "were using the zodiacal signs themselves as places counting the signs from the rising sign…" (p. 138) Though Ptolemy comes in for his ritual whipping for his "idiosyncratic" use of places, Hand makes it clear that Ptolemy had less influence "on astrology as practiced both in the ancient world and later on, than is generally supposed" (p. 139). To make his point, Hand engages in some textual comparisons of various translations of the Tetrabiblos, but his interpretations are firmly grounded in his experience as an astrologer. Unlike some of the rather dry textual analyses of the academic writers found elsewhere in this volume, here the reader is shown why such things matter. Though Hand is known to modern astrologers as one of our pre eminent theoreticians, it is his background as an astrological practitioner which lends this essay its air of authority. Thus, when we read that "an ancient practicing astrologer was not necessarily any more oriented to observational astronomy than his modern counterpart", we begin to understand why they opted for equating sign and house divisions. He notes that the Midheaven lacked significance for early astrologers and since house division as we know it usually trisects the arc between the Midheaven and the Ascendant, it makes sense that the ancients acted as they did. His essay enables us to understand and appreciate ancient practices; it also reminds us why Hand is so revered in astrological circles.

Another essay which places greater emphasis on astrological practice is Dorian Greenbaum's "Calculating the Part of Fortune and Daemon in Hellenistic Astrology". She focuses on two of the primary lots used in Hellenistic astrology: the Lots of Fortune and Daemon. Once again, we reap the benefit of someone who has practiced astrology, as well as someone who knows how to present her ideas clearly. The notion of astrological "lots" has barely survived into the modern era; occasionally one still hears someone discussing their lot in life, but it is easily forgotten that such phrases are rooted in ancient practices. Lots certainly played a greater role in ancient astrological interpretation than the Midheaven did: Greenbaum discovered Lots of Fortune in 89 of the 300 ancient horoscopes she inspected and 33 Lots of Daemon, whereas Hand reports only 32 references to Midheavens in an equal sized batch of horoscopes. What Greenbaum does so well is tell us why we should care: her essay is carefully laid out to instruct the reader, first by discussing the cults of Fortune and Daemon, then by showing how their lots are calculated. Her style is didactic, but never pedantic. One almost expects to find an example chart of Brad Pitt delineating how his Part of Daemon relates to his choice of movie roles.

We learn that the notion of a personal daimone (a spiritual intermediary or inner genius) had been known since the time of Plato and was popularized by Plutarch toward the end of the first century AD. In our day, James Hillman's best seller The Soul's Code has performed the same service, while daimones have been brought to the forefront of astrological circles by Geoffrey Cornelius' The Moment of Astrology. For her part, Greenbaum makes clear that the daimones were related to both the Sun and the Moon, the two planets used to calculate the Lots. Hellenistic astrologers used these lots to determine the length of life as well as guide people in their everyday actions. Not afraid to get her hands dirty, Greenbaum pops open the hood to show her readers how the ancients devised these spiritual carburettors. Ever helpful, she provides a handy table which lays out the attributes of the Sun/Lot of Daemon and the Moon/Lot of Fortune. Her accompanying figures are clear and useful, but it is her careful historical reconstruction of astrological practice which will appeal to the astrologer. As always, she supports her contentions with a close reading of primary sources, but here the footnotes don't become the main story. Once again, we see how imaginative scholarship can enhance not only our understanding of ancient practices, but contribute to the revival of a style of practice where techniques connect us to astrology's theurgic function.

Of course, imagination in historical scholarship must be grounded in the "facts" discovered in ancient texts. The fourth astrologer-scholar, Joseph Crane asks us to ponder the philosophical basis for another fundamental component of astrological interpretation. His essay "Ptolemy's Digression: Astrology's Aspects and Musical Intervals" asks us to reconsider the author of the Tetrabiblos, not as the Aristotelian-Stoic compiler of Hellenistic astrology, but as a Platonic Pythagorean whose theory of aspects was based on the intervals of musical harmony. Close readers of the Tetrabiblos will wonder how they missed something so obvious, but it turns out that Ptolemy's "digression" into Platonic thought is found in his Harmonics, a work which "deals with a universal field of knowledge for which music and geometry are considered subsets." (p. 220). Because this essay is largely theoretical, Crane's extensive experience as an astrological practitioner matters less here than in the essays written by the other astrologer-scholars. In other words, if he is correct, it won't affect how astrologers use aspects, but it would change how we view Ptolemy. This is an important issue, since most intellectual historians of astrology, such as John North, consider Ptolemy to be a chief proponent of Aristotle's doctrine of efficient causation. Thus, the question whether one considers this essay groundbreaking, creative scholarship or unfounded speculation will be based on whether one thinks Crane makes his case.

Crane's argument stands or falls on whether we accept his contention that Ptolemy made an exception to using the "natural philosophy of his day" (that is, Aristotelian physics) to explain aspects and resorted instead to a Platonic model of sympathy. But it is fair to ask: why would Ptolemy abandon the theoretical underpinning he used for the rest of his treatise? Given Ptolemy's rather skimpy remarks on aspects in his Tetrabiblos and the fact that they were based on whole signs, not degree separations between planets, the reader may be forgiven any skepticism concerning Crane's dramatic recasting. This scholar-practitioner asks us to think of Ptolemy as some sort of ancient polymath, whose studies in musical theory enabled him to see the analogy between the mathematical relationships of musical notes and the distance between planets in a horoscope. In this model, aspects are based on "hearing" the difference between a square and a trine, not seeing their geometrical relationship, which seems strange given the visual basis of so much ancient astrology. Still, he may be onto something, since Ptolemy may not have been as philosophically consistent as we expect our scientists to be. But Crane's essay asks much of his reader, since it entails a consideration of Ptolemy's aspect ratios in terms of the proportional fractions of harmonic scales. In other words, get out your calculators, since Ptolemy's "superfractions" will certainly be challenging to any reader who blanches at the thought of reviving their skills with normal fractions. While Crane's reasoning is clear and the diagrams are helpful, many readers may wish to simply take it on faith that the figures add up (or in this case, divide up). As to Crane's larger argument, this reader still has his doubts, but I was thrilled by his theoretical daring.

Viewing this latest collection of essays as a whole, we should all be thrilled that so much scholarly attention is being paid to the historical origins of our craft. Though there remains a healthy tension between the academic and practitioner approaches to the study of our tradition, taken as a whole, both approaches enrich our understanding of how astrology was perceived and practiced in ancient times. Thankfully, some academics have realized that hostile attitudes toward astrology actually create an impediment to a better understanding of their subject. Certainly as astrologers, we should be proud of the latest efforts of our fellow practitioner-scholars, who have shown they can hold their own with other scholars. Their efforts have demonstrated that sound scholarship may yet yield interesting new approaches to better practice. Both scholars and astrologers should take satisfaction from the fact that The Winding Courses of the Stars represents a break from their habitual attitudes of condescension and mistrust and instead marks the beginning of a healthy dialogue between the classroom and the consulting room. The Warburg Institute and its two editors should be commended for their efforts in making such a fruitful dialogue possible. I recommend this volume to all astrologers who are interested in seeing this dialogue continue.

Kirk Little
Gorham, Maine
January 4, 2009

Notes & References:

  1] Jack Lindsay, Origins of Astrology (Muller, London 1971) p. 141
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