Astrology by Hand Week 28
The Evolution of Western Astrology
What follows is a very quick and short history of Western astrology, but it should make the point that I want to make. First, let me make a statement about jyotish and its history. Jyotish, or Hindu astrology, has had a continuous evolution since its beginnings, whenever they may be (a subject of great controversy). There have been no significant breaks in its history, and whatever may have been lost is simply due to the fact that things get lost!
The history of Western astrology has been quite different. It arose out of a synthesis of Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian ideas between the second millennium B.C. or earlier, and the second century B.C. Although documentary evidence is scanty, something that we would recognize as horoscopic astrology existed by 200 B.C. It continued to evolve along with some degree of controversy until the Christian Church took over the Roman Empire. In the sixth century A.D., it entered into a period of persecution. Practitioners went underground or headed east to Persia and India, both places that by this time had thriving astrological traditions of their own that were related to the Greek tradition. The result of this is a hiatus in the records from about 600 A.D. to 800 A.D. (very approximate dates). Beginning around 800 A.D., we see the clear emergence of the medieval astrological tradition, a synthesis of Greek, Persian and some Hindu astrological ideas. We do not know how much was lost during this first hiatus, but changes did occur.
The medieval tradition is the one that came back to the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. Arabic works and a few Greek ones were translated into Latin, and our astrological tradition began. However, I want to make a controversial point here. I believe that although the Latin writers got a good deal of the practical information concerning Arabic astrology, they did not fully understand the philosophical foundations of it. Arabic astrology, more than any other tradition, shows evidence of being based on a solid theoretical foundation. This did not come through into the West intact.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, astrology occupied a prestigious but often controversial position. The church employed it, but was always concerned about what they saw as its pagan roots. Astrology was studied by many of the best minds of its day and it was an established part of the intellectual mainstream of Western thought. Do not let any of the older academic books on history persuade you otherwise! They are either the result of misinformation or a deliberate attempt to minimize the importance of astrology historically. (This is the modern way in which astrology has been persecuted.)
Little changed in astrology’s status until the Renaissance and the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution. The successes of the new sciences in various ways led to a change in the basic philosophical underpinnings of knowledge. I have described the results at considerable length in previous columns. This left astrology in a state where it seemed to be inherently unbelievable to intellectuals, just as it does now in modern times. As a result, astrology lost intellectual respectability and began to lose the sponsorship of the universities. Astrology was no longer part of the mainstream.
Efforts were made to ”reform” astrology, but the reformers missed the point. Astrology was no longer in fashion! I believe that at some level, astrology had been somewhat misunderstood throughout the entire medieval and early modern period, but now it was completely misunderstood. Astrology ceased to be the province of intellectuals, even though there were, for a time, very intelligent people who pursued it. William Lilly in the seventeenth century, for example, was clearly a very intelligent man, but his pursuit of astrology was mostly at a practical level, aside from his interest in magic.
By 1700, the defeat of astrology was nearly complete. The last major representative of the astrological tradition in England was John Partridge. He was not a great astrologer by any measure, but being the last of a line, he was extraordinarily influential in later centuries. He undertook to ”reform” astrology. His reform consisted of eliminating everything that did not make sense to him, which was a lot!
There is something I’d like to say about the history of astrology: Ancient astrology was like a vast reservoir. A large water main was built to India. The modern West got a garden hose, and Partridge was the nozzle! By 1800, astrology was but a poor shadow of its old self in the hands of popular fortunetellers and a few, bright, artistic people who nevertheless did not have full access to the tradition. This was the second hiatus in the history of Western astrology. And this one was much more devastating than the first.
Next week I will take up the revival of astrology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and what it means to us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob Hand, author of Planets in Transit and other works, is now involved in the translation and publication of texts regarding ancient and medieval astrology through ARHAT Media Inc.
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