Category Archives: Philosophy

Ancient Astrologers Didn’t All Agree | Paradigms and Chart Lords

It is my hope that the great heterogeneity among ancient astrologers be apparent as a strong theme of this blog.  Ancient astrologers sometimes differed greatly in their preferred techniques and the way they employed them.  This is especially so in the Hellenistic period, where we see greater diversity rather than less diversity than in the medieval period. I believe that this is a very important point to make, as there is a widespread misconception that the Hellenestic system is simple, concise, narrow, focally concerned with a person’s objective success/failure, and informed by a single predeterministic philosophy.

This misconception is fed by both sides, those that would like to believe that Hellenistic astrology was that way, and those that dismiss Hellenistic astrology because they believe it was that way.  I will explore this in greater depth in this and additional follow-up posts to my “Ancient Astrologers Didn’t All Agree” polemic, because it really needs to be addressed repeatedly and at length to overcome the hype frequently disseminated, both by marketers and detractors.

Example

The most succinct quick example of this misconception of a single homogenous Hellenistic “system”, “paradigm”, “key technique”, and original “authority”, is from a Skyscript forum.  I stumbled upon the discussion, which you can view here, where the Hellenistic lord of the chart is discussed.  This conversation is so illustrative of the problem on so many levels.  I am not drawing attention to this conversation to put down the contributors on either side.  It is a rather informal forum, and people are simply sharing knowledge and opinions.  The forum post is probably the best online explanation of this particular chart lord technique (of Robert Schmidt) that you’re going to get on the web.  I don’t want my criticism of these attitudes as being driven by misconception to imply that I think that people informally sharing their personal views, preferred techniques, and opinions about things are doing something wrong or in merit of critical evaluation and judgment.  Rather, I think that the particular attitudes and debates there expressed are symptomatic of widespread views and attitudes about Hellenistic astrology, both for and against an exploration of the material of the period.  The forum thread simply serves as a very convenient and publicly accessible illustration of multiple facets of the issue in one place.

THE lord of the chart technique

First, someone presents THE method of finding various predominators used by Hellenistic astrologers, when in fact they are presenting a method discussed by Porphyry, which it’s not even clear he used, and which is among many varying techniques for finding lords of the chart.  The Greek word for ruler of the chart is transliterated as “oikodespotes”.  There are various techniques for finding the lord of the chart, which is typically associated with either best characterizing the personality and life of the native or dealing with matters of longevity (or a little of both, c.f. Julius Firmicus Maternus).  In Book III, Chapter XIX, Maternus noted a diversity of opinion in his day (4th Century CE), as did Porphry (3rd Century CE), and presented four distinct methods for finding the ruler of the chart (oikodespotes), while explicitly specifying a preference for the fourth method.  Many ancient astrologers didn’t put stock in the ruler of the chart issue, particularly for the native, as it can tend to be overly reductionist, assigning too much signification to one planet.  Others present and endorse varying viewpoints on the matter.  There is no such thing as THE Hellenistic method for finding the chart ruler, widely endorsed by many, let alone most Hellenistic astrologers.  This is obscured by the language in the post which is indicative of widespread adoption by Hellenistic astrologers, who, we’re given the impression, had a systematized collection of chart rulers working in concert.

THE One, Simple, Clearly Explicated Method

Second, it is presented as if it is a clean and orderly method, when in the actual discussion Porphyry clearly was referring to differing viewpoints and in his conclusion he even noted, “For there is much dispute about this, and almost all of it is very difficult [to understand]” (Holden, 2009, p. 25).

The initial fearful reactionary response in the thread of someone talking of astrology becoming smaller and more formulaic, etc. nicely illustrates the ready uncritical adoption of this viewpoint of ancient astrology and how this misrepresentation can become the focal point for evaluation of Hellenistic astrology as a whole.  If it’s so ideologically and technically narrow, fundamentalist, and authoritarian in scope, then it easily becomes a plaything for one’s ideological cause, rather than being explored and valued for what it is; a rich, varied, and valuable collection of astrological science, full of techniques and principles yearning for rediscovery, application, and evaluation, on astrological grounds. Additionally, it should be noted that astrologers of the tradition, even in the Hellenistic period, present a spectrum of philosophical beliefs about astrology and how it works.

THE Authority to Appeal to

Third, from what I’ve gather, this version of the technique is not so much Porphyry as Robert Schmidt.  This is significant as Schmidt seems to have believed that this particular passage from Porphyry was drawn from Antiochus of Athens, as many of the passages in Porphyry have.  However, Porphyry drew on many astrologers, not just Antiochus, and given the very different style and language implying differing views, I’m less than convinced that the material is from Antiochus (and in fact, in Schmidt’s original 1993 reconstruction of Antiochus the passage is not included).  If it were from Antiochus, that would also be interesting, as it would suggest that there was also widespread disagreement and confusion about the technique where Antiochus practiced around what is likely the 2nd Century CE.

This implicit appeal to Schmidt, and from Schmidt to Antiochus, is interesting from the standpoint of attributing so much importance to a “technique” which is sourced from Porphyry, not particularly well-known for his astrological work, who was compiling differing views, and associating Antiochus as the representative of THE ONE Hellenistic system, allowing for language indicative of widespread adoption by most astrologers of the Hellenistic period to be used.

THE Paradigm of “Hellenistic Astrologers”

Fourth, the technique is placed within a nautical paradigm, which is presented as if it is THE metaphor or paradigm of Hellenistic astrology.  There is no such paradigm with look-outs and all other such manner of detail in Porphyry, but rather a couple subtle nautical metaphors, without any explication or advocacy of a paradigm as such.  Of course metaphor is an important part of language.  However, a metaphor used a little bit, in one passage, is very different from THE metaphor or paradigm by which the astrologer fully conceptualizes the technique, let alone the paradigm of Hellenistic astrology as a whole.  Hellenistic astrologers are people, and metaphor is a vital element of human language, so there is much use of various metaphors throughout ancient astrological texts.  I seem to even recall a metaphor concerning horses or horse races in Valens.  Metaphors are useful in conceptualizing something abstract in more concrete terms, but they can also have their limits, as one distinct thing is conceptualized in relation to a different distinct thing, and they are not the same.  It is important not to confuse one modern-day astrologer’s favorite metaphors for describing things from a systematic metaphorical paradigm used by most Hellenistic astrologers or serving as an inspirational platform (so-called “grande paradigm underlying Hellenistic astrology“) for the elaboration of the ideas of the earliest Hellenistic astrologers.  In my opinion, the evidence for anything amounting to a single metaphorical paradigm for Hellenistic astrology is spurious.

Take-Away

Besides pointing out that ancient astrologers didn’t all agree, and that there is widespread misconception regarding the scope and diversity of Hellenistic astrology, there are other reasons why I feel such a discussion is needed more than ever at this time.  Diving into the ancient literature, it becomes clear that astrologers will have their work cut out for them in subsequent decades, sifting through, adopting, prioritizing, and evaluating often-conflicting techniques and methods.  Still in the traditional community there is a tendency to cite an authority, give one or two chart examples, and go on one’s way.  This will not suffice, now that the full diversity of astrology, so rich in the Hellenistic period, has come to light.  Astrologers will have to pick and choose techniques, fit them into their own art, and actually develop their own art of astrology based on ancient fundamentals and resources, rather than simply being familiar with sections of the large body of science and cherry-picking from it.  The literature is rich and varied enough, that we can honestly find whatever we are looking for in the chart if we look hard enough and have a large enough set of sources to cherry-pick from.  That is not effective astrology, that is effective bullshitting.  Never before have astrologers had such access to accurate charts, calculators,  researching tools, and astrological texts.  This is a very important time for astrology, and an exciting time to explore the beautiful, rich, ancient traditions, not in search of a quick and easy fix on fate, but to provide the principles and inspiration for an art of astrology that surpasses anything ever before seen in terms of accuracy and descriptive depth.

 

References

Porphyry, & Serapio. (2009). Porphyry the Philosopher. (J. H. Holden, Trans.). Tempe, AZ: American Federation of Astrologers.

Link: The Definition of Astrology

Just a quickie!  I found this awesome article by Chris Brennan, one of the foremost experts on Hellenistic astrology, on the definition of astrology.

It has some interesting insights into how mainstream definitions, and especially skeptic definitions, of astrology tend to characterize astrology as necessitating a belief that there is some sort of causal force emitted by planets that accounts for a set of astrological “effects”.  He shows how most ancient and even modern astrologers tended and do tend to view astrology in terms of correlation and signification rather than in terms of causation and physical forces.

It’s a great article with great insights!

Personally, astrology to me is no more or less mysterious than the mind-body problem, and is no closer to a real solution.  I actually view the mind-body problem and the celestials-signs problem as not only being parallel, but probably the very same problem.  Some have claimed to have bridged it, in both areas, but I think they are on very shaky ground.  There is no necessary and logical reason that a certain physical electrical configuration through the brain should cause or even correlate with the non-physical thought about say, your investments or Barney the purple dinosaur, even though sure enough some physical happening will correlate with that thought at that moment.

This could make for a great discussion in the comments.

Ancient Astrologers Didn’t All Agree: Respect for Authorities vs. Appeal to Authorities

I was reading some of Tamsyn Barton’s (1994) work, “Ancient Astrology” last night.  A passage at the end of her Chapter 5 on “Astrological Practice” really spoke volumes to me.  She discussed how there were a number of contradictory responses possible for any astrological situation, making it hard, if not impossible, to known what a chart indicates from a text alone, necessitating that astrologers work out their own preferences in practice and apprenticeships (Barton, 1994).  The passage is quoted below for you convenience:

To any one question, a large number of contradictory responses were available, and there were no clues as to how to choose between them.  This finding demanded and explanation. (Barton, 1994, p. 141-142)

Furthermore, on analogy with other fields of knowledge, didactic texts were not the means of teaching, but rather of displaying knowledge.  Secondly, I pointed to the importance of the institution of the ago¯n, or public debate, in Greco-Roman intellectual culture.   (Barton, 1994, p. 142)

She also emphasized the possible role played by initiations, apprenticeships, and being able to provide more elaborate explanations in debate (Barton, 1994, p. 142).

Not a Singular Set of Methods Passed Down

Anyone familiar with ancient Hellenistic and Persian astrological texts will note that there is quite a large range of variation in terms of techniques and special methods, and that different astrologers will do things a bit differently.  Many astrologers communicate the same basic principles, but then seem to put different degrees of stress on them in their chart work.  For instance, in Valens and especially in Maternus we find a strong stress on sect as an important force for beneficence/maleficence in all delineations, whereas in later Persian authors sign-based “dignity” becomes more prominent.  Valens is much more interested in predictive techniques and longevity, while Maternus is much more interested in natal delineation, and Ptolemy is more interested in re-inventing astrology within the bounds of Aristotelian physics and evaluating topics based on natural significations, avoiding the more magical or numerological houses and their accidental significations altogether.  Paulus Alexandrinus evaluates the indicator for the professional skill in a very different manner from Ptolemy.  Persian astrologers tend to evaluate personality based on the ruler of the Ascendant and on Mercury, while later astrologers rely more on the ruler of the Ascendant, Ptolemy doesn’t consider houses and looks right to Mercury and the Moon and their rulers, and Maternus seems to rely on the lord of the geniture, which he finds in a very unique way, while citing 4 or 5 other ways that astrologers use in his time that he finds less effective.

The ancient astrologers, many of which were the premier natural philosophers of the age, were critical thinker par excellence.  They had a strong duty to know their “science”, i.e. the body of knowledge, yet based their “art”, i.e. practice (and their opinions on the science), on their own empirical work.  In other words, they seem to have felt that prior astrologers, their “ancients”, had something important to say that should be studied and worked with, but they didn’t feel one should just attempt to imitate them or that some “historically accurate reproduction” of their practice was a possibility.  I feel that this contrasts sharply with both the way that modern astrology is typically conducted and traditional astrology is typically conducted in this modern era.

The Ancient Astrologers vs. The Modern Astrologers: Naïveté

Unfortunately, most modern astrologers are little interested in ancient science.  They typically use basics re-invented within the last couple centuries, use modern astronomical definitions of what a “planet” is rather than original astrological definitions of “planet”, and their techniques draw strongly on 20th century astrological inventors and at times even a completely self-constructed idiosyncratic system.  This would be the astrology of the naive, where the origins of the science are of little importance, and astrology is almost completely re-invented in subservience to modern disciplines like archetypal psychology.  Those modern astrologers that view astrology as more than mere entertainment may get involved in creating and testing hypotheses against charts, and many such astrologers are actively involved in organizations like the NCGR where research is important.  However, overall there is a lack of respect for the ancients, the original authorities that brought and passed on the system, and thus the basics used and tested tend to have very little resemblance to Hellenistic astrology.

Some positive attributes of modern astrologers include that they can be critical thinkers, disagree with authority, and they’re not afraid to tinker and try to improve something.  If this group gets over their mistrust and misconceptions of ancient astrology, then they are likely to be the ones that can take the ingredients, together with today’s technology and abundant chart collections, infuse that with their critical thinking, creativity, and independent spirit, and produce truly amazing chart work.  I should add that these misconceptions are largely the fault of the traditional community which has represented traditional astrology as homogenous in basics, techniques, and philosophical outlook, giving the impression of a fatalist fundamentalism.

The Ancient Astrologers vs. The Traditional Astrologers: Appeal to Authority

Many traditional astrologers today tend to view ancient astrology as having an orthodoxy, or a correct way of doing things arrived at not by empirical work but by appeal to the proper authorities.  It is true that through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance astrology did become more homogenized.  By following astrologers of this period verbatim, one has a ready appeal to authority and can reuse their references to cite older sources in a cherry-picking way as if that’s the exact way things were done since horoscopic astrology began.

Rather than a respect for authority, like the ancient astrologers had, we see an appeal to authority.  In debates about technique, they will tend to cite authority rather than supporting and contrasting examples.  They seldom realize that one can practice astrology very differently from the way that they do and still be completely relying upon ancient principles and techniques.

There is a draw with this group toward a few astrologers whose work emerged over 1,000 years after the traditional began.  Names like Bonatti, Lilly, Morin have come to be the primary authorities of “traditional” astrology, ignoring the fact that the house systems, aspect doctrine, absence of sect, dignity weighting doctrine, and the choice of considerations to emphasize or de-emphasize, are nearly all innovations added about a millenia after the horoscopic astrological tradition began.  It may be tempting to view later astrological work as part of a refinement of astrology in its march of progress.  However, in my experience with charts, this is not so.  The decline of astrology in these latter periods towards more and more charlantry also indicates that this may not have been so.  It is surprising that a group of astrologers who can see through modern scientific triumphalist attitudes about knowledge and wisdom, whig history of science, and religious fundamentalism, could be so triumphalist and fundamentalist in their chart work, confusing their cherry-picking appeals to ancient authority with a respect for ancient astrology.

Conclusion

I do much to characterize “many” and “most” astrologers of different schools, and perhaps this is an unfair straw man.  I’d like to think so, but it’s going to take a new breed of astrologers to break me from my tendency to stereotype when it comes to these matters.  My own appeal to authority is a simple one, do as the ancients did: think critically, rationally, and empirically, study ancient astrology and draw upon its rich set of vocabulary and techniques, recognize that there is no single philosophical “right” understanding of astrology, and distinguish good practice which is consistent, coherent, and effective from ancient science which is a vast pool of rich resources.

Questions?  Comments?  Please add to the discussion.

 

References

Barton, T. (1994). Ancient Astrology. NY, NY: Routledge.