Astrology, as we practice it today, first came into its own, as a fully-developed system of prediction and analysis, in the Hellenistic period (323 -31 BCE), but for a fully-developed system to exist in Greek culture, a prototypical version of it must have existed much earlier than that.
There is evidence that astrology, as a science, cannot be attributed to any one place; as it draws heavily on both Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought prior to the Hellenistic period and was diffuse throughout the ancient world after the conquests of Alexander The Great. During this age of conquest, the two civilizations which contributed most to the legacy of Hellenistic astrology were Egypt and Babylonia -and Egypt is thought to have inherited its knowledge of astrology from Mesopotamia by way of the conquering Persians.
Rather than Greek, astrology is simply ancient; with similar religious beliefs shared throughout the ancient world underpinning its most fundamental ideas. This strongly suggests both a common origin and interwoven threads of localized evolution which combined, separated, and recombined many times over millennia of practice.
In Hellenistic Greece, their focus was on the solar zodiac. Elsewhere though, in the cultures of Mesopotamia, the Moon (and her lunar zodiac) held the religious attentions of the desert pagans for a millennia past the age of the Greeks 1 and earlier for millennia as well in the land we know today as Syria (Babylonia).
“He whose roof is Heaven, who has no other cover, over whom the stars continually rise and set in one and the same course, makes the beginnings of his affairs and his knowledge of time depend upon them.”Al Biruni
Tropical lunar mansions, those even divisions of a little more than 12.5 degrees which mark the Moon’s daily progress through her orbit, were much more popular in the lands which would eventually form Arabic nations. Presumably their partially nocturnal lifestyle (developed to avoid the heat of the day) and the vast expanse of the busy night sky above them kept this tradition strong.
As oriented as Greeks were to a solar approach to astrology, they had an indelible influence on the mythological storytelling of the stellar influences which provide the unique qualities of each mansion. The Greeks, with their extraordinarily complete mythological map of the cosmos, are the lens through which we, in modern times, interpret the likely much older Mesopotamian stories of creation and divine interaction which lay the foundations of esoteric knowledge.
The pervasiveness of Greek influence throughout the ancient world helps us establish a timeline for the origin and transmission of the astro-magical traditions of early Western and Near-Eastern civilizations. What the Greeks absorbed from Babylonia and Egypt was spread to the rest of the known world. By this we can reasonably theorize Arabian, Indian, and Chinese lunar mansions share a common ancestry.
“That the lunar mansions were originally Babylonian is fairly clear. They are behind the second century list of fixed stars of Maximus of Tyre; the Arabic lists of mansions of Alchandri (ninth century) and Abenragel (eleventh century) go back to seventh century sources, and a very similar Coptic list, with Greek names, must be earlier, since Coptic was ‘dead’ by then; they were known in Vedic India, and all seem to betray Greek origins.”Jim Tester, “The History Of Western Astrology”, Boydell & Brewer, 1987
“The Babylonian system reflects the most primitive form and is most likely the oldest of the four systems. lt appears that the Chinese system agrees with the Babylonian in naming in exactly those positions (20, 21, 22, etc) that may be oldest. The distribution pattern of the Babylonian system at least positions 20－28 also explains the later Arabian system.”David B Kelley, “The 28 Lunar Mansions Of China”, 1995
Far from the complexities of aspects, transits, and other advanced astrological techniques from the Hellenistic period, their systems of stellar prediction were limited by what could be learned from naked-eye observations. The Babylonians were famously obsessed with tracking the heliacal rising of Venus (Innana to them), for example, as a harbinger of war.
This awareness dates as far back as at least the seventeenth century BCE ; and this early date suggests that the practice of observing heliacal risings began with tracking this one, very accessible light in the evening or morning sky. Later records demonstrate an increasingly complex cosmology fueled by observing, recording, and making predictions on a selection of the other bright lights which chart the Moon’s journey across the stellar backdrop of the heavens.
During the Kassite rule (1595 – 1155 BCE) the Babylonians documented lists of important stars. 28 of these “fixed” stars, were fairly evenly spaced along the Moon’s orbit, which would have made it simple for these early astronomers to divide the night sky into the degrees the Moon transits during a lunar day. These divisions would then later being called ‘manzils’ (mansions) by the Arabic astrologers which inherited the system from the Greeks.
“The ancient Babylonians as well as Arabs each had a list of 28 stars that represented milestones in the moon’s monthly 27.3 day path through the stars. Those milestone places are called lunar mansions or lunar stations, with the former name more popular but the latter more descriptive because each is a single star.”John D. Pratt, “The 28 Lunar Mansions”, 2018
In Babylonian times this was most likely accomplished in pursuit of a standardizable lunar calendar -for the purpose of keeping time and anticipating the seasons. The Babylonians were also the earliest known civilization to produce a (prototype) zodiac -though its 17 ‘signs’ bear little resemblance to our own. Still, that constellations and asterisms formed the basis for Babylonian religion, ritual, and time-keeping provides clues for discovering where these ancient sages came by their esoteric wisdom.
Historians and archaeologists must be careful with theorizing too much without concrete historical evidence -to avoid spurious misinterpretations of their discoveries. Unfortunately this leads us to many dead-ends in history. We are forced to frame rational assumptions as “unproven” and stop short of exploring any time depths we can’t validate with the kind of hard evidence that endures millennia of social, geological, and political change -which is to say, very limited evidence. Yet, logically, the appearance of documented (and highly-developed) practices across thousand-plus-year timelines is highly suggestive of a long history of magico-religious traditions -passed orally- leading up to the invention of cuneiform scripts which made it possible to document preexisting oral traditions for posterity.
Speaking of cuneiform, if the Babylonians practiced stellar magic and lunar veneration these traditions beg the question: Where did they acquire their extensive esoteric and astrological wisdom?
Babylonia continued much of the Sumerian culture it absorbed through conquest and cultural transformation. Long before Babylonia’s cultural dominion over Mesopotamia, Sumer, before it, was the source of much of its knowledge, resources, and power. Where Sumer ended and Babylonia began is difficult to pinpoint because the land was traded via local conflicts throughout its history, but the generally accepted timeframe is around 1800 BCE with the ascension of Hammurabi to power.
Sumer has been a fertile source of illegitimate history as its few surviving fragments are so foreign to our sensibilities, and their civilization so complex, that attempting to explain their remarkable achievements invites fantastic interpretations (“ancient aliens”). There are, of course, suggestive visuals in their surviving religious art to fuel such speculations, but these are just artistic renderings viewed without context.
While evidence of extraterrestrial influence is thin, by contrast, the evidence for a cultural obsession with the cosmos is plentiful and conclusive. The earliest traces of astrology anywhere in the world date to Sumer between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE. Embryonic, and fundamentally simpler, Sumerian astrology pales in comparison to the breadth of Babylonian knowledge; which is, in turn, surpassed in every way by Greek contributions, thousands of years later. But it is safe to call Sumer the birthplace of formal astrology, though there are glimmers of early star lore which stretch deep into prehistory as evident from archaeological sites like Gobekli Tepi and Çatalhöyük.
We have always been fascinated by the celestial storyboard of the night sky and its full pantheon of mythic figures: gods, goddesses, monsters, heroes, sages, and tragedies. Star lore came first, preceded only by the Moon in her preeminent position. Lunar worship predates solar worship by tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands -or millions) of years. In conjunction with the Moon, the so-called “lesser” luminary, stars find the avenue of entry to weigh their heavy influence upon our world. Lunar mansions are an early expression of our awareness of this esoteric truth.
The remarkable consistency between lunar mansion systems, between the Arabic, Chinese, and Babylonian variants, specifically, can be attributed to the Moon and her dominion over the cycles of time. The lunar mansions are each 12.57x degrees of the lunar orbit, which contain a powerful fixed star, where the Moon “rests” (stations) during one of the 28 lunar days required to complete her journey around the Earth, thus describing her monthly cycle; to which many earthly cycles set their rhythms.
Before they were astrological, lunar mansions were calendrical; though that distinction is essentially meaningless. Certain days of the month eventually became considered “lucky” or “unlucky” in general, and the rest only fortunate or not in relation to particular activities. Thus the lunar mansions of Babylonia became recognizable as a system of astrological magic.
The threads connecting Babylonia to Sumer are physical, in terms of lands and genetics, but also esoteric, connecting ways of thinking and knowing to lineages reaching into unfathomable time depths of star lore; but it was in Sumer where history was first inscribed into enduring cuneiform scripts and thus they get the credit.
Without the Greeks we’d have no personal astrology, no republic, no philosophy (as such), and many fewer myths by which to understand the world. Without Babylonia, the Greeks could not have evolved such highly developed sciences and cosmology. But without Sumer, and its cuneiform inscriptions, civilized knowledge -modular and consistent- wouldn’t have been recorded, distributed, and remembered (accurately) over the millennia or more of Bronze Age conquest between prehistory and ancient history.
Sumerian sages practicing magico-religious rituals on their ziggurats in veneration of the Moon and stars are almost certainly the inspiration of thousands of years of practice of the arts of astrology and magic. Babylonia’s formal structure of 28 lunar mansions, which probably inspired the later variants, were themselves based on the Sumerian understanding of the Moon and stars. The chain of custody on this wisdom ends here, simply because of a lack of historical proof, but there is much evidence that the stars and the great lunar goddess have been with us -and influencing us- since the very beginning.
1 Tamara M Green, “The City of the Moon God”, 1992, Leiden: E.J. Brill
2 Anne Baring, Jules Cashford, “The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image”, 2000, Arkana