Hellenistic Astrology is Diverse
It is my hope that the great heterogeneity among ancient astrologers is apparent on 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 even greater diversity than in the medieval period. I don’t adopt any single astrologer’s approach to reading a chart, but like to explore multiple approaches, compare and contrast them. Our job is to find the techniques that work best and point out those that seem less than promising.
However, there is a widespread misconception that the Hellenistic system is narrow. In this view Hellenistic astrology is a single system of techniques that is concise, simplistic, focally concerned with a person’s objective success/failure, and informed by a single deterministic philosophy.
The misconceptions are 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. It needs to be addressed repeatedly and at length to overcome the hype frequently disseminated, both by marketers and detractors.
One Perspective Presented as the Perspective
The most succinct quick example of this misconception of a single homogeneous Hellenistic “system” or “paradigm” is from a Skyscript forum discussion. I stumbled upon a 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 (specifically 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 merit 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. The forum thread simply serves as a very convenient and publicly accessible illustration of multiple facets of the issue in one place.
The One Approach to Chart Lords
In the post, someone presented THE method of finding various predominators used by Hellenistic astrologers. In fact, they are presenting a method mentioned by Porphyry (3rd century CE). Additionally, it’s not even clear Porphyry used the specific technique. Finally, the technique is among many varying chart-lord techniques discussed in the period
The Greek word for the 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). Maternus presented four distinct methods for finding the ruler of the chart (oikodespotes), and stated a preference for the fourth method.
Many ancient astrologers didn’t put stock in a single ruler (or narrow set) of a chart. It tends to be overly reductionist, assigning too much signification to one planet. Many astrologers 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. Additionally, we’re given the impression that Hellenistic astrologers had a systematic collection of chart rulers working in concert.
One, Simple, Clearly Explicated Method
The method is presented as if it is a clean and orderly method. However, in the actual discussion Porphyry clearly was referring to differing viewpoints and noted, “For there is much dispute about this, and almost all of it is very difficult [to understand]” (Holden, 2009, p. 25).
See the initial fearful and reactionary response in the thread. The responder talks of Hellenistic astrology as being smaller and more formulaic. It nicely illustrates the ready uncritical adoption of this viewpoint, The misrepresentation can become the focal point for the evaluation of Hellenistic astrology as a whole. If it’s ideologically and technically narrow then it is just a plaything for an ideological cause. It is no longer worth 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. In reality, astrologers of the tradition, even in the Hellenistic period, represented a spectrum of philosophical beliefs about astrology.
A Single Authority to Appeal to
From what I’ve gathered, this version of the technique is not so much Porphyry as Robert Schmidt. 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 been. However, Porphyry drew on many astrologers, not just Antiochus.
Antiochus or Porphyry?
Considering the style of the passage and Porphyry’s note about differing views, it appears unlikely that the material is from Antiochus. In fact, in Schmidt’s original 1993 reconstruction of Antiochus, the passage is not included. If it were from Antiochus, that would be interesting, as it would suggest that there was widespread disagreement and confusion about the technique even in Antiochus’s day (1st to 2nd century CE).
This implicit appeal to Schmidt, and from Schmidt to Antiochus, is interesting. It is a means of avoiding the need to attribute the source as Porphyry. Porphyry is not particularly well-known for his astrological work and he was compiling differing views. It is convenient to attribute the material to someone other than Porphyry when looking to promote it as the “original” reconstructed method.
Antiochus and Reconstruction
Antiochus of Athens is often looked to as the representative of THE ONE Hellenistic system. He wrote a set of definitions that lays out such basic principles as aspect types and planetary configurations. Those attempting to “reconstruct” a Hellenistic system often look to him as someone close to the source. Most Hellenistic astrologers did not appear to employ all the features of his aspect doctrine. This bolsters the possibility that it was an original fuller doctrine.
However, we really don’t know if he was closer to the source than other early Hellenistic astrologers (such as Valens). Perhaps, he just had a greater concern with defining terminology than most. Additionally, the possibility that Antiochus may have added additional features to a more basic and widespread preexisting aspect doctrine is also plausible. The lack of clear dating for Antiochus further complicates the practice of using passages attributed to him in the reconstruction of a single original “Hellenistic system”. Porphyry is our early source for the Antiochus material. He is from the late 3rd century.
Might Antiochus have been a reasonable astrologer who wanted to lay out the various principles and techniques used by 2nd century Hellenistic astrologers into a more cohesive set of definitions? His particular set of definitions does not line up perfectly with those provided by other astrologers such as Serapio. There are numerous points of agreement, but some differences in terminology between them. It is possible that each Hellenistic astrologer of the age in which Porphyry lived may have presented a slightly different set of definitions had each taken up the task. It is likely there was already a diversity of opinion on some principles and configurations in the earliest foundational texts.
The Supposed Nautical Paradigm of Hellenistic Astrology
The technique is placed within a nautical paradigm. The nautical paradigm is presented as if it is THE metaphorical paradigm of Hellenistic astrology. However, there is no such paradigm with look-outs and these other details in Porphyry. There are a couple subtle nautical metaphors in the passage, but no explication or advocacy of any paradigm. Of course, metaphor is an important part of language. However, a metaphor used a little bit, in one passage, is very different from giving a paradigm by which the astrologer fully conceptualizes the technique, let alone the paradigm of Hellenistic astrology as a whole.
There is frequent use of various metaphors throughout ancient astrological texts. I recall a metaphor concerning horses or horse races in Valens. Metaphors are useful in conceptualizing something abstract in more concrete terms, but they rarely imply paradigms. It is important not to confuse one modern-day astrologer’s favorite metaphors for a systematic metaphorical paradigm underlying Hellenistic astrology (the so-called “grande paradigm underlying Hellenistic astrology“). The argument for a single metaphorical paradigm for Hellenistic astrology is a spurious one.
There are widespread misconceptions regarding the scope and diversity of Hellenistic astrology. Diving into the ancient literature, it becomes clear that astrologers have their work cut out for them. We must sift through, adopt, prioritize, and evaluate often-conflicting techniques and methods. Currently, in the traditional community, there is a tendency to cite a single authority, present it as the way it was done in traditional astrology, 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 actually develop their own art of astrology based on ancient fundamentals and resources. It is not enough to cherry-pick delineation that fit one or two examples. The literature is rich and varied. We can 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. Hellenistic astrology does not provide a quick and easy fix on fate. It provides the principles and inspiration for an art of astrology of thre greatest accuracy and descriptive depth. Armed with thousands of pages of pointers from the ancient astrologers, we can get there. However, it’s going to take a lot of critical thinking, consistently applied principles, and an aversion to self-deception.