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.
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.
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.