During Greco-Roman times, Ptolemy’s developed a mathematically-based system of planetary prediction that formed the basis of astrology, past and present. What has become of Ptolemy’s astrological system? Are there any differences between the star-based divination of ancient and modern times? If so, what are they?
While Ptolemy’s system had a lot to say about individual horoscopes, it claims priority for the collective national destiny with regards the general order of things. In this regard, divining the future of the ruler or kindgom is of more importance than the individual. In contrast, the modern system, as described in The Compleat Astrologer by Derek and Julia Parker, contains no reference to countries or leaders – the collective. Rather, all the book’s astrological applications are personal – the individual horoscope and personality.
We are at the other end of the cycle from the Chaldeans, who only stressed general applications. We see some residuals of the old system. Astrological publications regularly print the president’s horoscope. Further, the occurrence of an eclipse still generates considerable astronomic excitement. However, in popular modern astrological circles, the eclipse has little, if any, significance actively attributed to it.
Besides this emphasis on the individual character that is a characteristic of modern times, astrologers also make a much greater use of tables than did the ancients. In the first book of his Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy sets up the horoscopic system based on the 360˚ of the Zodiac. This system is primarily dependent upon the use of tables and charts. However in the second book, he probes the omen-like feature of atmospheric appearances, with headings like: “Of the Colors of the Eclipses, Comets, and the Like.” and ”Of the Significance of Atmospheric Signs.”
In contrast to Ptolemy, modern astrologers make almost exclusive use of tables. There is not one section in The Compleat Astrologer that mentions any significance of atmospheric signs, while an entire fifth of this book is devoted to planetary position tables. With this de-emphasis of the sky as a reference point has come a detachment from the stars.
Another feature has undermined the importance of the stars. The organization of the Zodiac, upon which the astrological signs were based, has changed substantially during the last two millennia. In Ptolemy’s time, the constellations were correlated with the degrees of a Sign. However, the stars have shifted their positions since then. Some constellations don’t exist; most have shifted out of their traditional signs. The Zodiac, instead of being star and constellation based, as it previously was, is now based exclusively on the solar year. The stars have little, if any, meaning now; while the solar system with the sun as the base has ultimate significance.
This solar orientation translates into an obsession with the Sun sign as the ultimate determiner of character. Modern astrology focuses much more on each sign as a whole, rather than breaking it into parts. People generally know their astrological sign, not whether they are in the middle, end or beginning of the sign. Great importance is attached to the exact minute a sign changes say from Aquarius to Pisces.
This exclusive focus upon Sun sign is modern, not ancient. Although Ptolemy states that his system is a simplification of older systems, one chapter in his highly influential book itemizes the effect of each part of a Sign on the weather.
“The sign of Taurus as a whole is indicative of both temperatures and is somewhat hot; but taken part by part, its leading portion, particularly near the Pleiades is marked by earthquakes, winds, and mists.” (Ptolemy p 201)
Although Ptolemy simplifies older systems, his system is still far more detailed than modern systems.
The astrological art follows the astronomical science. Astrologers employ the contemporary conceptions of the heavens to make their predictions or descriptions. In modern times, we find a cosmic system that is very different from the conception of the Greeks.
Here are some of the differences: 1) the closest star is over one thousand light years away; 2) the sun is at the center of our isolated solar system; 3) the Earth is one of nine planets, not the center of the Universe; and 4) the Moon is the only other celestial object besides the Sun able to affect a noticeable change on the Earth. This new conception of the universe has resulted in a new conception of astrology – the increasing importance of the Sun, Moon and planets and a de-emphasis of the stars.
The increasing importance of the Sun is reflected first in the Zodiac’s absolute determination by the Sun’s solstices and equinoxes. Another reflection is the tendency to characterize people by their Sun sign. In Ptolemy’s time, as seen by the existent horoscopes, all the planets were used to characterize an individual. Ptolemy gives an elaborate system for determining rulership of different spots in the chart.
“For thus it will come about that one beneficent or maleficent star will not be the ruler of all of them on the same occasion, for usually many contradictory events take place at the same time.” (Ptolemy. 449)
Although popular astrology places all emphasis on the Sun sign, the more sophisticated astrologers place a similar stress upon the moon sign and the rising sign, the constellation appearing on the horizon at the moment of birth. The Sun acts as a monthly indicator, the Moon as a daily indicator and the Rising sign as an hourly indicator. The rest of the planets serve to modify these primary influences. (Goodavage, p. 17)
The modern cosmic conception has forced the astrologer away from observation to the exclusive use of planetary tables. For instance, the outermost planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were only discovered in the last few centuries because they are only visible through the most powerful telescopes. As such, it is impossible for the average person to visibly chart their positions in the sky. While the Chaldeans made exclusive use of observation in their astrological system, modern astrologers base their entire system, not on the apparent [visible] universe, but on the theoretical universe as conceived by astronomers.
Besides the differences mentioned above in the line of observation and emphasis, there has also came to be a difference in purpose – from the predictive to the descriptive. The main emphasis of Ptolemy’s astrology was prediction. Note the chapter headings for the Tetrabiblos: “Of Length of Life”, “Of Bodily Injuries and Diseases.”
In contrast, the main purpose of modern astrology has more to do with personality projection. It deals more with how people of different Signs are going to get along together and what configurations mean about the personality, rather than futuristic projection. One finds articles on male chauvinism, love life, and the month of July, rather than on length of life, wealth or health.
While the ancients actively employed the stars to predict and thereby anticipate the future, modern usage tends to focus more upon describing personality. Most ask: “What sign are you?” – presumably to find out if someone is perhaps a rigid and detailed Virgo or a passionate and vengeful Scorpio. Rarely, if ever, does anyone inquire about planetary progressions. Rather than the general future, most are interested in what the stars reveal about individual personality.
Although the emphasis and purposes of the astrological art have changed since Ptolemy’s day, the system has remained the same. Although Ptolemy finds the moment of conception more effective as a starting point than the time of birth, the rest of the system is virtually identical.
”For to the seed is given once and for all at the beginning of such and such qualities by the endowment of the ambient [stars}; … But if they do not know the time of conception, we must follow the starting point furnished by the moment of birth; it falls short of the former only … [because] by the former it is possible to have foreknowledge of events preceding birth. … one source, the other beginning.” (Ptolemy. p225)
The moment of conception is considered the starting point, if possible. The accuracy should be determined to the quarter of an hour, whichever point is used. Then as now, the exact time of birth is as important as the day of birth.
After the horoscopic point is determined by the reliance on place as well as time of birth, the planets are placed in the Zodiacal circle. In Ptolemy’s time, the difference in place of birth was taken into account by the tables of climate, which were interpolated from Alexandria to arrive at the correct horoscopal point. (Neugebauer & Van Hoesen, p4) In modern times, the longitude and latitude of the place of birth are taken into account when determining the horoscopal point. Then as now, the position of each planet in each sign is determined to the nearest degree.
The above system determines the horoscopal chart. The interpretation of this chart is based on the same factors in both Ptolemaic and modern astrology. One looks at the sign each planet is in, whether the planet is in exaltation, depression, ruler, or in fall. One then looks at the relation of each planet to each other. In Ptolemy’s day this relation had to do with which planets followed which and how close they were to each other as well as the angles between them. In modern astrology with its heavy dependence on tables, the only relationship that is noted between planets is their angle or aspect with each other.
Except for minor differences in emphasis, the methodology is the same. This similarity becomes even more apparent when we compare the checklists of significant factors in both systems. Both include 1) aspects, 2) houses, 3) signs, and 4) exaltations.
Just as the methodology of the modern system has remained the same, The philosophy of astrology remains the same, although with a new terminology. Ptolemy gives a simple justification of why the planets act upon us physically. There are modern versions that attempt the same material justification, but employ current scientific terminology.
For instance, Ronald C. Davidson, President of the Astrological Lodge of London 1964, claims that our solar system is one big poly-phase transformer with the sun as the filament and the planets as the coils at different distances and of different metals. Further he asserts that the 9 main glands of the body are receiving centers for the solar energy reflected for the 8 planets and the Moon. There are many different theoretical justifications for astrology based on a physical model. (Davidson p. 19)
Other claim, as did Plato and Plotinus, that the heavens instead reflect the divine order. In some casual experiments, Carl Jung found a correlation between horoscope charts and marriage. He says “that correspondences of this kind, could not possibly be causally related; but he argues that the correspondences could not be denied and must therefore be accounted for one way or another.” He explains these unusual connections through his principle of synchronicity. Synchronicity is “a kind of non-causal but highly significant correspondence in which physically unrelated events could be synchronously linked together.“ (Compleat Astrologer, p 59)
Now as then, there are two explanations given for astrology. One is physical – based upon a causal link between planets and man. The second is mystical – denying the causal link as too limited, but positing a theory of universal correspondences and sympathies.
Davidson grapples with the problem of free will and determinism, in a similar way to Plotinus.
“The qualities denoted by all 12 signs are indispensable to the complete manifestation of the Universe. Whether or not the individual can express the qualities of any given sign harmoniously depends upon the capacity for response that he has developed within himself as a result of his life experience.” (Davidson, p.25)
Humans, as free entities, can manifest our identity any way we wish. Yet, there are positive and negative ways of manifesting the astrological signs of our horoscope. In order to attune ourselves with the positive manifestation, we must harmonize with the cosmic symbol – the planetary configurations of our birth combined with the current configurations. In such a way, synchronicity can perform its magic.
In conclusion: although astrology has had a long history, over 2000 years, its justifications have remained the same. The method, although used for differing purposes, has also remained the same. The nature of the civilization has determined the purposes for which astrology has been used. The sophistication of the cosmic model has determined the emphasis and subtleties of the astrological method.
To view astrology as a symbolic system is to view its physical being in minute detail; for a symbol is its physical presence. The physical being of astrology is the heavens. That the heavens are dotted with a multitude of diverse objects, i.e., pulsars, black holes, and exploding novas, suggests many new horizons for astrological symbols. Rather than these exotic features, modern ephemeredes have begun including the Zodiacal locations of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Whatever can be said pro and con, astrology is here to stay. Despite, its unscientific, hence superstitious, connotations, there are no indications that it is fading away any time soon. Whether its enduring appeal is due to actual divine correspondences or our universal human tendency to project order upon chaos, doesn’t really matter. Besides being fun and harmless, astrology has a rich symbolism that connects us with our Greco-Roman heritage. Whether it taps into subconscious understanding or really does describe reality, astrology has proved useful to humanity is some way or another for thousands of years.
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