Kenneth Bowser


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Part Three

The Recovery of Babylonian Astrology

The sidereal zodiac is indigenous to the Near and Middle East.  The path that led to the West has to be briefly examined to bring western sidereal astrology into context.

Mount Vesuvius near modern Naples, Italy, erupted on August 24, A.D. 79.  The nearby towns of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae were buried under so much volcanic ash that they were not found until the first of the three, Herculaneum, was discovered by accident in 1709.  That surprise, in the course of digging a well, initiated a new surge of curiosity about the ancient world.  Excavations at Pompeii began in 1748. 

The ancient history of the West was not much explored beyond the texts of Classical Antiquity until the eighteenth century A.D.  At the time, knowledge of Latin and Greek were prerequisites for the study of history, yet interest in the subject was intense in Europe and its colonies.  When the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776, which drew extensively from Latin and Greek sources rendered into English, it immediately sold out and ran to three editions.  It was a long, dense read but such was the interest in the West that when the last and sixth volume appeared in 1788, it likewise sold fast. 

European interest in Palestine and Greece was especially strong in the eighteenth century due to deeply felt animosity toward the Ottoman Turks who had taken Transylvania and Hungary in the sixteenth century and been repulsed barely a stone’s throw from Vienna.  The Ottomans also controlled the Holy Land, the cradle of Christendom, Greece, the cradle of the West itself, as well as the Balkans, North Africa and the entire Near East.

Western sensibilities therefore, were acutely excited by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.  Attached to the French army were five hundred civilians among whom were artists, engineers and scientists including three astronomers, who studied the natural history, geography, monuments and art of the country.  Before they were driven out by the English in 1801 the French compiled a massive survey of the region which was the first time that modern Europeans had seen the architecture, art and lay of the land of ancient Egypt.  The work of the French civilians, the Description de L’Égypte, was published in ten folio volumes and two atlases.

In 1799 the French discovered a slab of basalt at Rosetta, a city at one of the mouths of the Nile, inscribed in three languages, Greek, Demotic and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.  That discovery led directly to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1821 and the founding of Egyptology.

Western interests in the region were ratcheted up again when the Greeks rose up in revolt against their Turkish masters in 1821 that became a revolution, notable for its savagery on both sides.  The war was followed with great interest in the West until the Greeks secured their independence in 1829.

Excavations in the Ottoman provinces administered from Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, in what is modern Iraq produced huge successes when in 1843, Paul Botta, a Frenchman, discovered the ruins of Khorsabad, a city founded by Sargon II (722-706 B.C.), king of Assyria.  Austen Henry Layard, an Englishman, worked tirelessly in Mesopotamia for more than a decade excavating monuments and cuneiform (the written form of Akkadian – the language of the Babylonians) inscriptions.  Layard discovered the city-states of Nimrud and Nineveh and the fabulous library of Assurbanapal destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 B.C. when they conquered the Assyrian Empire.  Layard also excavated the city-state of Babylon.  The science of Assyriology dates from the 1840s with the recovery of large quantities of cuneiform writing due initially and mainly to the work of Layard.  Within thirty years linguists had essentially deciphered cuneiform/Akkadian, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East before it began to be displaced around 500 B.C. by Aramaic.

While cuneiform was being sorted out, European interest in the Near and Middle East entered a still more rigorous phase with the construction of the Suez Canal from the first shovel of dirt turned in 1859 until the opening of the canal in 1869.  The canal was built almost entirely with French and Egyptian financing, European steam driven machines and Egyptian manpower, but the great majority of ships that passed through the canal were British from the very beginning of its operational life, since England had the largest navy, merchant marine and colonial empire in the world at the time. 

By 1875 the Turkish viceroy of Egypt had run up debts so huge that he could no longer get credit from European bankers.  He was forced to sell his shares in the Suez Canal Company which the British government promptly bought.  That purchase gave the British controlling interest in the company but it did not allay their fears that a hostile power could take over or sabotage the canal, which had quickly become vital to British strategic interests.  Apprehension over the security of the canal caused the British to garrison troops in Egypt in 1882 when a rebellion there threatened the stability of the viceroy’s government.  The British remained the force behind-the-scenes of the Egyptian government until 1936.  It was the British presence in Egypt and subsequent expansion of British interests in the area that drew mostly European and American archaeologists and other scholars to the area in large numbers.  Scholarship, however, was merely a side issue after the completion of the Suez Canal.  Control of the region to ensure the security of the canal was the centerpiece of British Near East policy after 1870.

The material that had been recovered from Egypt and Mesopotamia in the first half of the nineteenth century was extensively translated in the second half.  The seminal work for sidereal astrology was a short article by Joseph Epping S.J. (1835-1894) entitled, “Zur Entzifferung Der Astronomischen Tafeln Der Chaldäer” (1) (On Deciphering the Chaldean Astronomical Tables) that appeared in 1881.  The work of Epping, Johann Strassmaier S.J. (1846-1920) and Franz Xaver Kugler S.J. (1864-1929) was central to the discovery that all of Babylonian astronomy and astrology was sidereal.  The vernal equinox was not used to reckon celestial longitude in any part of the corpus of astronomical/astrological data discovered and translated to date.  The equinox was however, mentioned often in texts, but used to reckon the varying length of daylight, the latitude of a place and to keep the Babylonian calendar synchronized with the solar year.  The Babylonians were content to merely compute the equinox.  It was not observed.

Epping was a professor of mathematics and astronomy, well equipped to take on Babylonian astronomical tables.  He deciphered lunar ephemerides and other observational texts which both solved the chronology of the Seleucid Period (began 311 B.C.) and demonstrated a degree of astronomical sophistication that was heretofore unknown for such an early date.  Father Epping published the first book length treatise on the subject in 1889 with his Astronomisches aus Babylon (2) (Astronomy From Babylon).  It was subsequently found that all the fundamentals of Hipparchos’ lunar theory can be derived from these early Babylonian sources and that extensive borrowing of Babylonian parameters hastened the development of Greek astronomy.  Hipparchos also employed the Babylonian sexagesimal (base 6) number system in common use today – look at your watch.  Most important, Hipparchos used the precise values of the Babylonian period relations of the planets (explained in part I) and adapted them to use in Greek systems.  Finally, his extensive use of Babylonian eclipse records and other observations extended back to 747 B.C. according to Ptolemy.

The next part of the seminal scholarship that relates to sidereal astrology is the work of Kugler whose Die Babylonische Mondrechnung (3) (Babylonian Lunar Reckoning) appeared in 1900.  In this book Kugler showed that the Babylonians used an equal division sidereal zodiac. His other major work, Sternkunde Und Sterndienst In Babel (4) (Starlore and Starwork In Babylon) that appeared in two volumes and three supplements beginning in 1907, was a thorough treatment of Babylonian astronomy and astrology based entirely on primary sources that had been dug up and translated in the nineteenth century.

The feature unique to Babylonian astronomy/astrology in the first millennium B.C.—until the Greeks adopted Babylonian parameters—was that the Babylonian model of the sky was predictive while the Greek model was merely descriptive.  That is, the Babylonians knew where planets would be many years in advance of a then current date.  From many centuries of observations and evaluation of those observational data, they developed period relations, ephemerides and other mathematical procedures for refining the positions of bodies in the heavens. The primary beneficiaries of Babylonian astronomical/astrological skill were the Indians and the Greeks.  The oldest Greek horoscope extant, however, dates from 71 B.C., but its positions are far from accurate.  Other early Greek horoscopes from Alexandria, Rome and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, have positions that are only wrong by a few degrees, usually between two and five when degrees are shown.  Horoscopes from the Greek colony, Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, which used mostly Babylonian parameters, are significantly more accurate and almost uniformly sidereal into the sixth century A.D. when the record ends. 

As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, Assyriology was providing academic careers throughout Europe and the United States.  Many academic journals are even today devoted to it because Akkadian is the best link to the ancient Middle East.  There are more ancient documents written in Akkadian than any other language in that part of the world.  The register of cuneiform texts in the British Museum exceeds 100,000.

Most of this new scholarship fell upon deaf ears in the astrological world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the exception of the cream of the crop among British astrologers: Alfred John Pearce (1840-1923, a.k.a. Zadkiel III) and Walter Richard Old (1864-1929, a.k.a. Walter Gorn Old, a.k.a. Sepharial).  It is abundantly clear from their work that they understood the implications for astrology of what was uncovered in the Middle East.  They both completely grasped precession (see part one) and the concept of the fixed versus the moving zodiac, which Pearce addressed at length; yet they were both so completely wedded to the tropical zodiac that they were not prepared to admit the legitimacy of the sidereal zodiac. 

Cyril Fagan (1896-1970), Irish by birth, a career British civil servant and later expatriate to the United States, was one of very few astrologers of the first rank in the twentieth century.  He was a voracious reader, fond of study, at home in libraries and well aware of developments in Assyriology and Egyptology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  His father was a surgeon but Fagan couldn’t pursue a similar career due to severe deafness that was the result of scarlet fever he suffered as a child.

Fagan began his study of tropical astrology in 1916 and passed through the twenty-year apprenticeship, still necessary today in order to speak with authority.  He founded the Irish Astrological Society in the 1920s, was a regular contributor to magazines by the 1930s and well respected by his fellow astrologers.  Astrology may have been a substitute for an academic career; at any rate it was perfect for an independent scholar who couldn’t hear a lecture in a classroom situation.  Accordingly, after almost three decades of private scholarship, Fagan realized in 1944 — forced by the evidence that had become available over the previous hundred years — that astrology had been sidereal in the ancient world until the Greeks created the tropical signs reckoned from the equinoxes and solstices (explained in part I), as distinct from the stars that define the sidereal signs.  It is one thing for academics to make this distinction but quite another for an astrologer to grasp it, especially a tropical astrologer, because to make the leap constitutes a paradigm shift

The information was available by mid-twentieth century that allowed an independent thinker, steeped in both ancient and contemporary astrology, to see what Assyriologists had seen and dismissed as only modestly remarkable because they weren’t students of astrology.  Even today there is no onus attached to studying astrology in academia as long as one doesn’t believe the precepts of the art.  To believe them and admit it is anathema in academia, where the occult arts are held in contempt, and sufficient to ruin a career or destroy any chance for promotion for someone without tenure.  Academics, therefore, were not shouting from the rooftops that astrology was originally sidereal because they didn’t believe in its inherent legitimacy from a tropical or sidereal perspective.  Tropical astrologers, with Fagan perhaps as the lone exception among the most serious tropical astrologers in the 1930s and 1940s, were not reading or stimulated by academic journals that contravened their basic premises, primary among them, that Aries is reckoned from the vernal equinox.  Fagan obviously realized that the Northern Hemisphere spring equinox had held Taurus, not Aries, at the beginning of recorded history and that the stars were the original frame of reference in the ancient world.  His leap was to see that for the Babylonians, the sky alone was invested with meaning inasmuch as astrology is, in the final analysis, divination by the sky, and by this reasoning it was easy to embrace what all subsequent siderealists have seen and rallied around: tropical reckoning confounds the seasons with the zodiac.  Advocates of the tropical zodiac reject this premise, which is the pivot of contention between the two schools. 

In discarding the seasons as a frame of reference Fagan saw the zodiac as it had originally been recognized in antiquity.  The logic of this stance is simple yet potent: there is no symbolic signpost in the sky that says, “Vernal Equinox here → !”  Astronomy and astrology were visual.  The equinox changes fast in astronomical terms with respect to the sky.  One cannot reckon celestial longitudes from a position unmarked in the sky that changes constantly and discover what the period relations of the planets revealed to Babylonian astronomer/astrologers; and this, for the very reason that Hipparchos abandoned the stars for the equinox: the equinox moves.  At least something was moving about the pole of the ecliptic heretofore unnoticed until his time.  He was not sure if the stars were in motion as a frame of reference or individually or both, or if the solstices and equinoxes were themselves in motion about the pole of the ecliptic; but his successor, Claudius Ptolemy, was convinced that the equinox is forever fixed in space and that the stars are in motion about a fixed pole.  That conviction posits that a moving figure is not really moving but that the fixed background behind the figure is the mover.  The confusion that arises around relative motion is analogous to being on a train in a station.  In the absence of sufficient visual cues it is often difficult to tell, when one observes motion, whether one’s own train is moving, if another train is moving or if they’re both moving; and if this last condition is the case, which train is moving faster.  Sidereal reckoning returns figure and ground to the status that they assume in the moment when one gets one’s bearings and understands the relationship between trains.  In any case, however, it is irrefutable that sidereal zodiac reckoning is fixed and that tropical zodiac reckoning moves against the background of stars by almost five thousand seconds of arc per century.  Notwithstanding that reality it is Ptolemy’s vision that was handed down in the West.  Though brilliant, Ptolemy got it backwards yet the entrenched resistance to acceptance of the truth of the Sun-Earth-sky relationship is ultimately what the tropical – sidereal argument is about.

In 1948, with the mathematical assistance of fellow Irishman James Hynes, Fagan discovered that the exaltation (5) degrees of Mercury Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the heliacal (6) phenomena of those bodies for the parallel of Babylon for the lunar year, i.e. the civil year, 786-785 B.C.  The positions of the Sun, Moon and Venus are the sidereal positions of those bodies at First Nisan (7) (New Year’s Day in the Babylonian soli-lunar calendar) in 786 B.C.  Fagan and Hynes calculated first Nisan as April 3, 786 B.C.

The exaltation solution was presented in Fagan’s first major work in support of the sidereal zodiac with the publication in 1950 of Zodiacs Old and New (8). Fagan considered the exaltation solution his crowning achievement because the origin of the exaltations was lost by Ptolemy’s time.  The exact degrees, which are sidereal in origin, were repeated even in Late Antiquity by Julius Firmicus Maternus (9) in his Mathesis, circa A.D. 334, but in a tropical context.

Fagan published Symbolism of the Constellations  (10) in 1962 and the work for which he is best known, Astrological Origins (11) was completed in 1969 (published 1971) as well as a monthly column in American Astrology Magazine from 1953 until his death in 1970. 

1. Joseph Epping, “Zur Entzifferung Der Astronomischen Tafeln Der Chaldäer,” Stimmen aus Maria Laach (Freiburg im Breisgau), no. 21 (1881): 277-292.

2. Joseph Epping, “Astronomisches aus Babylon,” Stimmen aus Maria Laach (Freiburg im Breisgau), no. 44 (1889): 419-608.

3. Franz Xaver Kugler, Die Babylonische Mondrechnung (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herderschen Verlag, 1900).

4. Franz Xaver Kugler, Sternkunde Und Sterndienst In Babel, 2 vols. (Münster In Westfalen: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1907-1909/1910).

5. The exaltations are positions in the zodiac where planets have their greatest power.

6. Heliacal phenomena are the dates when planets and stars appear and disappear at sunrise or sunset for the first or last time that begin their periods of visibility and invisibility that may last for weeks or months depending on the terrestrial latitude of the place.

7. The first appearance of the New Moon closest to the spring equinox.

8. Cyril Fagan, Zodiacs Old And New (Los Angeles: Llewellyn, 1950).

9. See Ancient Astrology Theory And Practice, trans. Jean Rhys Bram (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1975), 34.

10. Cyril Fagan, The Symbolism of the Constellations, Moray Series, no. 6 (London: Moray Press, 1962).

11. Cyril Fagan, Astrological Origins (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1971).