“Astrology was invented by an old Greek storyteller sitting in front of the fire under the stars.”
The romantic notion that astrology was invented by a sage in ancient Greece is so widespread that even a few astrologers believe it (Dean et al. 2013).
It was only in the last fifty years that excavations and translations of ancient clay tablets have revealed a different story. These discoveries come from what is now Iraq and the surrounding area, once known as Mesopotamia – a collection of civilisations – but here referred to by one of them, Babylon (Baigent 1994). Many of these tablets, from the second Millennium BCE onward, still lie in storage at the British Museum and elsewhere awaiting translation.
The Prehistoric Origins of Astrology
These fired clay tablets do not reveal the origin of astrology. There are many claims by researchers from prehistory ranging from Palaeolithic bones with notches (ca.350k BCE) to figurines in clay (ca.30k BCE), to the cave drawings in Lascaux, France (ca.15k BCE) to detailed carvings from stone of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey (ca.8k BCE), to the alignments of Nabta Playa observatory in Egypt (5k BCE) and the Neolithic megalithic monuments around 3k BCE: Stonehenge, the Boyne valley in Ireland to the Isle of Orkney. But were these monuments constructed for astrology, astronomy, religious ritual, art, land markers or simply technology to measure the calendar? Since, astrology requires knowledge of celestial cycles with posed correlations and there are no written records, these early origins remain speculative (Campion 2008).
The earliest reliable evidence of astrology comes from the Venus Tablet compiled at least 3,500 years ago. Over a 21-year period the Venus cycle was inscribed in cuneiform script onto a clay tablet. It was part of a series found in Babylon that set out omens based on celestial phenomena (Hobson 2009). From these early records, it is clear that astrology and astronomy were developing together into a proto-science.
Meticulous Recording of Observations above and below
Much later, during the first millennium, scholars from various civilisations in Mesopotamia (such as, Chaldea, Babylon and Assyria) observed the heavens often from ziggurats (seven-story skyscrapers) from dusk to dawn. Over more than six hundred years, these magi recorded nightly celestial movements and terrestrial events onto clay diaries known as menologies. So, for a certain date, they may log a full moon aligned with Venus in the constellation of Taurus, the price of grain, the water levels in the Euphrates river or an earthquake or other mundane events (Sachs 1988) (Rochberg-Halton 1991).
From collecting data to theories, models and predictions
Over time, these dedicated researchers built up the first known database. From their meticulous observations, they developed mathematical, astronomical and astrological theories and models using the same level of rigour. Analysis of their data enabled them to predict eclipses from their discovery of the 18-year Saros cycle (Neugebauer 1991). Meanwhile, the foundations of modern astrology were established empirically. The Babylonians derived the nature of the planets, the twelve signs of the zodiac and the birth chart. They also pursued early theories about sign rulership and elements. These academics are generally considered to be the first scientists.
So, the first known astrological discoveries appear to have been made using the scientific method. Observation was followed by data collection, analysis, prediction and finally onto publication. This earliest documented empirical experiment was conducted on a huge scale – comparable in time and resources with NASA’s space program or the Large Hadron Collider. Besides astrological and astronomical breakthroughs, the Babylonian discoveries in mathematics, time-keeping, agriculture and even psychology and religion still have a huge impact on our lives.
This earliest documented empirical experiment was conducted on a huge scale – comparable in time and resources with NASA’s space program or the Large Hadron Collider.
A Divine Mechanism
Some critics consider that the Babylonian stargazers weren’t scientists as they didn’t investigate the process that drove the phenomena (Ball 2016). However, ancient astrologers believed that the mechanism behind the cosmic order were capricious gods with human or animal-like qualities. This was a perfectly reasonable assumption given the limited amount of information available to ancient scholars. This is not so different from the supposition by cosmologists today who assert that we live in a universe of meaningless and purposeless physical forces. This model may well prove to be misguided by future generations.
Astrology continued to inspire Science
Long after the Babylonian Empire had returned to dust, astrology remained a stimulus for scientific advances. Nicolas Copernicus was inspired by astrology to put the Sun in the centre of the solar system. It is thought that mathematician John Napier invented logarithms to handle the vast numbers involved in astronomical and astrological calculations. Johannes Kepler discovered his third law through his quest for a harmonious pattern in the solar system based on astrology. And Isaac Newton learned geometry through studying a text book on astrology.
Ball, Philip (2016) Stop Calling the Babylonians Scientists. The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/babylonians-scientists/462150/
Baigent, Michael (1994) From the Omens of Babylon: Astrology and Ancient Mesopotamia. Arkana.
Campion, Nicholas (2008) A History of Western Astrology Vol.1 The Ancient World. Continuum Books.
Dean, Mather, Nias & Smit (2013) Astrology Under Scrutiny, pp.342-353 Section 26 The Discovery of Astrology. “astrology could not possibly be based on observation…. It was less discovered than made up, …” I outlined the history of the empirical origins of astrology to Dean in an email and later included it in a review of the book. Currey (2014) Correlation Vol.29 (2) p.61. When Dean et al updated this book in Tests of Astrology (2016), I hoped there would be a section revealing the empirical origin of astrology. However, the Discovery of Astrology section was removed.
Hobson, Russell (2009) The Exact Transmission Of Texts In The First Millennium B.C., Published PhD Thesis. Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies. University of Sydney.
Neugebauer, Aaboe; Britton; Henderson & Sachs (1991). Saros Cycle Dates and Related Babylonian Astronomical Texts. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. 81 (6).
Rochberg-Halton, Francesca (1991) The Babylonian Astronomical Diaries. Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 111, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1991), pp.323-332
Sachs, A.J. & Hunger, H. (1988) Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna.