It’s likely that humans were looking up to the stars in awe and wonder long before they had means to record their observations, predict planetary movements or infer any special meaning to what they saw.
Today astrology is widely popular and is a source of fascination for many. How did we get from ancient humans to modern sun sign horoscopes? How did we get from priests in astronomical star temples to kings and presidents employing personal astrologers? Why was astrology so widespread during the Renaissance period only to fall out of favor in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries?
The history of astrology as we understand it today is long and quite complex, but for the history buffs among us, here’s a quick overview:
Astrology in Pre-history
Amazingly, early humans were tracking lunar cycles as long ago as 4,000 B.C., as we know from animal bones marked with lines and patterns to track the movement of the Moon. We know that our early ancestors would have needed a working knowledge of the path of the seasons so that they could plant and harvest, and we also know that worship of the Sun and Moon in some way was common in pre-history.
By the time great stone megaliths such as Stonehenge were constructed, our ancestors evidently had sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, constellations, astronomical movements and measurements.
Sumerian and Babylonian Astrology in Mesopotamia
In the area we now call Iraq, the ancient Sumerian culture is known to have had a sophisticated understanding of mathematics and astronomy, and this society widely used various forms of divination, interpreting celestial omens all around them.
By around 750 BC, Babylonian astronomer/astrologers had divided the sky into 18 zodiac signs, created the horoscope circle diagram we recognise today and had developed a system for accurately predicting future planetary movements. They later refined the zodiac down to 12 signs or constellations, around 600 BC.
Classical Greek Astrology
The ancient Greeks further developed Babylonian ideas of astrology and astronomy, with both Pythagoras and Plato working on the idea that humans reflected the universe in miniature. We can also thank the ancient Greeks for the four astrological elements, fire, earth, air and water. In classical Greece, astrology was closely linked to medicine and healing, and the four elements were used along with four humours to diagnose and treat ailments.
The modern names for the planets and zodiac signs come to us from Greek mythology. One of the most famous early astrologers was Claudius Ptolemy, whose astrological text Tetrabiblos was widely used until the 17th century and laid down the foundations of astrology we still recognize today.
Ancient Egyptian Astrology
From around 350 BC, the Egyptian people adopted the classical Greek astrological system, but used the names of their own gods and goddesses for the signs. For example, Aries became Amun (who had a ram’s head), and Taurus become Apis (who had a bull’s head). It was the Egyptians who first devised the calendar we would recognize today, with 365 days in the year and twelve months, and they were responsible for assigning the signs to the months and seasons.
Many important ideas flowed from ancient Greece to Ancient Rome, and astrology was no exception. However, the Romans had a somewhat love-hate relationship with astrology. Ancient Rome was a highly superstitious place, but sometimes a paranoid one too. Astrology charts were believed to have a magical power of their own and in the heated politics of the Roman era, some emperors feared that astrological knowledge could be used for political ends. Augustus, in 11AD, attempted to crack down on astrology and exiled several prominent astrologers. However, his successor, Tiberius, had his own court astrologer, who was tasked with discovering which prominent politicians had the potential to usurp the Emperor – so that they could be removed. The Emperor Nero considered it treason for anyone else to view his birth chart, a crime punishable by enforced suicide. However, in the second century AD, it was the astrologer Claudius Ptolemy who inadvertently became the father of modern geography via astrology – he was obsessed with increasing the accuracy of astrological charts, for which he needed to have maps created which were much more accurate than before.
Astrology in the Dark Ages
Although astrology was largely forgotten in Europe during the dark ages, the Arab world continued to study and develop astronomy, astrology, mathematics, philosophy and many other disciplines.
Astrology in the Medieval and Renaissance Eras
Between the 11th and 17th centuries, Western astrology saw a great revival in Europe. Every astronomer was also an astrologer; astrology was widely taught and literature from these periods is often full of astrological, constellation and zodiac references.
This was an era during which medical astrology came to the forefront. Indeed, in some universities, as late as the 18th century, one could not qualify as a doctor without first being qualified in astrology. It was during this period that the zodiac signs came to be most strongly associated with particular regions of the body. Bloodletting was done according to Moon phases and signs, and other treatments were considered to be advised or forbidden according to the current planetary positions and movements.
Popes, kings, queens and nobles had personal astrologers and astrologers were widely consulted in the planning of everything from wars to dynastical marriages. It was during the 16th century that the French astrologer Nostradamus made his infamous predictions, while almost exactly one hundred years later, astronomer William Lilly used astrology to correctly predict the Great Fire of London, some 14 years before the event.
Many famous scientists of this period were also astrologers, including Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler.
Astrology in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries
With the advancement of the Age of Enlightenment and an increasing focus on new scientific discoveries, astrology fell out of favor in the West during this period. The Catholic church was partly behind this, but there were many factors at play, including the arrival of the industrial revolution and the rapid pace of change in an expanding world.
It was during the 17th century that astrology and astronomy came to be considered as separate disciplines – previously, they had gone hand in hand, with virtually all astrologers being astronomers and vice versa. However, with new discoveries in astronomy and a new emphasis on science, astrology and astronomy gradually parted ways for good.
By the time the 19th century arrived, rationalism was the key philosophical theory, and astrology was largely ridiculed or practiced under cover. Many astrologers worked under pseudonyms or practiced in secret societies.
20th Century Astrology – and into the 21st Century
Astrologer Alan Leo is widely credited with re-popularising Western astrology in the early 20th century, having founded the Astrological Lodge of London in 1917. Throughout the next few decades, astrology became more widely used by those in positions of power.
Elsewhere, astrology slowly began to become more widely used as a psychological or counseling tool rather than as a predictive one. Astrologer RH Naylor boosted astrology’s popularity no end when he wrote an astrological horoscope piece making predictions for the life of Princess Margaret shortly after her birth in 1930. This proved so popular that he was asked by the newspaper to write a regular column. He had to find a way to simplify astrology into something everyday readers could follow, and so he invented the system of Sun sign horoscopes, which were immediately popular.
In 1955, French psychologist Michel Gauquelin published his research into astrology, which found a correlation between sporting prowess and the position of Mars in the birth chart. His work was highly controversial, but it was an important step in modern attempts to ‘prove’ astrology, or to demonstrate the astronomical mechanism by which it might work. Sadly, the scientific community has not been open towards much further serious research.
In the latter part of the 20th century, with newspaper horoscopes well-established and a growing interest in all things ‘new age’ and esoteric, astrology became increasingly popular – today there are few people who could not tell you their Sun sign or their sign of the zodiac, even if they don’t believe in astrology or aren’t really sure what it’s all about.
Today, modern astrology occupies a rather peculiar position in society – hugely popular with the general public, it is nonetheless openly scorned and ridiculed in the scientific and skeptic community. We know that some US presidents and other world leaders have consulted astrologers, and we also know that many very high-profile banking and finance leaders depend heavily upon financial astrology – yet most of them would probably never admit it!
Modern astrologers cannot explain a physical mechanism for how astrology works, simply because we’re not sure there is such a mechanism. Instead, the modern view tends to be that astrology is a psychological tool for self-understanding. Psychological astrology is a symbolic language, a reflection within us of the movements in the sky above us, rather than a direct cause of anything – after all, we all retain free will.
The Spiritual Shift and Astrology
As we move ahead, the earth faces incredible challenges, whether from irresponsible world leadership or devastating environmental damage. Many believe that humankind is on the brink of a major spiritual shift which will enable us to cope with and mitigate these problems, moving humanity forwards towards a brighter future.