What are the sources and origins of Astrology? Can we gain useful knowledge
and perhaps decide some of the persistent questions that have dogged modern
Western Astrology? Astrologer and philosopher Steven Birchfield looks at
these issues in this, the first of a series on Hellenistic Astrology.
When I began studying Astrology many years ago, I started from our most
popular form for it today, "Sun Sign Astrology". The first book I
purchased was Linda Goodman's Sun Signs. As I read about Scorpio, I saw of
course that I had many things in common. Yet, there was a bit of a rebel
side to my nature that could not just accept that I was exactly the same as
another 8% of the world's population! That is the equivalent of three
hundred and twenty MILLION people! Were we all exactly as Linda Goodman
described? My experience with others of my sign said, NO! What was it that
then made us "kindred" but different?
These questions were the beginning of my "investigative" growth
stage. (You will notice of course, that I avoid the use of the word
"evolution" here. In the strictest sense of the word and theory it
is the acceptance that one species changes into another. An Astrologer is
not another species, although there are many who might argue that point with
me). Not knowing where to begin my investigations, I turned to a novelty
bookshop and purchased my first "Astrology" book. It was a reprint
of The New Waite's Compendium of Natal Astrology by Colin Evans [out of
print - Ed.]. In its pages, I discovered, much to my satisfaction, that
there was more to Astrology than just being born on a certain day of the
year. In order to cast a "true" Horoscope it was needful to also
have the time of day. To my astonishment there was needed a certain level of
mathematical and astronomical understanding! Terms like ecliptic, celestial
equator, right ascension, sidereal time, mean time, true solar time,
latitude and declination; now these were things into which I could sink my
figurative teeth. So began to unfold the world of Houses and aspects,
planetary rulers and dispositors. There were elements and qualities, planets
moving direct and those, which moved, retrograde. How exciting my newfound
Well as with every "silver lining" there was lurking, in the
background, a "dark cloud", I just as quickly found that there was
a certain amount of serious disagreement between Astrologers. This is no new
phenomenon either. Vettius Valens, a 2nd century C.E. Greek astrologer
recounts to us:
"And since in the quarrel over the general teachings of the
divisions, some made use of them in relation to the concomitants of the
bounds, others in relation to the minor periods, others in relation to the
twelfth-parts which are assembled from 10 years and 9 months, others in
relation to the exaltations, while the subdivisions of these signified
events, which were false. And so then, we spent much time wretchedly, and
while distressfully making changes of place, mixing with those who are
zealous about such matters." 
As you can see, our astrological forebears suffered as much from the same
human intrigues as us today. In fact, we find a fairly substantial rift
exists today between the various approaches and practices. There seems to
have been a distinct polarisation into two camps. In the modern camp are the
Uranians, Humanistic, Esoteric, Archetypal and Psychological approaches. In
the Traditional camp are those that practice Electional, Horary, Medieval,
Mundane, Hellenistic and Vedic. Since the mid-nineties, more and more
ancient texts have been translated and revealed. Unfortunately the division
seems to be growing wider and wider. No truer words have proven themselves
so accurately throughout history, "A house divided cannot stand!"
The question that has plagued me most is, where does one find then, the
necessary continuity that yields a solid foundation in the practice.
This has been the motivation for my quest back through the ages. To study
and learn from the experience of those that have formed astrology, who
shaped it to what we have today. To follow the winds and twists and
rediscover those threads of continuity that is missing today.
What is so special about Hellenistic Astrology?
This is the question most are probably asking and is more to the point of
this introduction. In order to answer properly however requires a closer
examination of our astrological history. When starting my investigations I
have to honestly admit that I was in no wise prepared for the enormous
amount of historical and philosophical evidence I was to have to examine. It
is a record that would and does in fact fill several volumes of books. My
recapitulation here of the historical record is therefore going to be much
I am not going to dwell in depth on the astrology before the Hellenistic
period. The reason being that Astrology as we know it today, where we fix an
Ascendant  point and divide the Zodiacal circle for the purposes of
analysing (natal horoscope astrology), answering of questions, picking
favourable times for doing things, etc, was not in existence prior to this
This fact alone makes the Hellenistic period unique and worthy of closer
examination. Before this period, Astrology was oracular in nature. That is
to say that the fixed stars, constellations and planets, as well as the
natural phenomena associated to them (eclipses for example), were examined
and interpreted as giving signs and omens concerning physical events. Those
plying the Astrologer's trade were interested in the state of the King and
kingdom and there was nothing "personal" about it.
However, the most noteworthy consideration about the Hellenistic period is
the transformation that occurred through the synthesis of the Persian and
Chaldean astrology, with Egyptian religion and astronomy, and the Greek
Natural philosophy. This single event would appear to be the catalyst, which
changed the oracular to the very personal. While I use the term event, I use
it rather loosely here. In the "time-line" of history, it fills a
rather large period from about 800 - 100 B.C.E. As you can see it did not
"happen over night".
The Pre-Hellenistic Advent: 800 - 400 B.C.E.
The political and cultural events leading into the Hellenistic period were
very instrumental in setting the stage for the transformation that was to
Assyria had established a "world" dominion by 730 B.C.E.
They controlled all of Mesopotamia and most of Persia, Syria, Palestine, and
Egypt. While it is politically correct to say that Assyria governed, it was
however Babylonian culture that pervaded the entire kingdom and for the
first time, there was a free "cultural" flow between the subject
territories. Up to this point, there were distinct differences in
astrological, astronomical and philosophical culture, one line moving from
the Babylonians, One from the Persians and one from the Egyptians. As it was
the first time that Egypt, Babylonia and Persia were under the same
political system, one has to recognise the importance of these great
cultures meeting. In 612 B.C.E, the Babylonians once again regained regional
domination only to be shortly thereafter subjugated by Persia. This was an
important time in the mixing of these three main astrology lines, Persian,
Babylonian and Egyptian.
Another important ingredient to the cultural "stew" that was
brewing was the Semitic influence and the monotheistic religious teachings.
When the New Babylonian Empire took the reigns of control, one of their
first conquests was the overthrow of Jerusalem and the captivity of Israel.
"In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came
ezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it.
And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the
vessels of the house of God: which he carried into the land of Shinar to the
house of his god; and he brought the vessels into the treasure house of his
"And the king communed with them; and among them all was found none
like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: therefore stood they before the
king. And in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king enquired
of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and
astrologers that were in all his realm.
And Daniel continued even unto the first year of king Cyrus."
"Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts,
and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the
governors over all the wise men of Babylon.
Then Daniel requested of the king, and he set Shadrach, Meshach, and
Abednego, over the affairs of the province of Babylon: but Daniel sat in the
gate of the king." 
One wonders just what kind of influence Daniel and his friends had as
"governors over all the wise men". It is interesting to note that
it is in this time period that the first Zodiac appears in Babylon as we
know it today, divided into twelve 30° segments. It is clear from the Bible
that Daniel's influence extended into the reign of Cyrus the Persian .