The Nature of Mesopotamian and Non-Western Astrology
By Bruce Scofield
In the inhabited world of ancient times, four general regions saw the rise of great agricultural civilizations. These four cultural centers produced great art, complex codes of conduct, religions and philosophies to explain the meaning of life, and countless labor-saving devices. All of this was made possible by successful agriculture. As would be expected, these centers of culture and civilization had early on developed a sophisticated science of astrology/astronomy/calendrics. Successful agriculture is possible only with this knowledge. In Mesopotamia history records the growth of cities and federations of cities along the Tigris/Euphrates Rivers. In the valley of the Indus River at places like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, Indian civilization began. The valley of the Huang Ho (Yellow River) was the place where Chinese civilization took form and along the Gulf of Mexico, near present day Veracruz, Mesoamerica produced its earliest cities and cultural centers. Each of these four regions tackled the challenge of conquering time in its own distinctive way and the astrological traditions that grew out of these earliest of scientific efforts are likewise unique.
As Westerners, we are most familiar with the astrological tradition of the West, one which is built on foundations laid in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. In ancient times, skywatchers on ziggurats carefully observed the risings and settings of Sun, Moon and planets and noted any phenomena occurring in human lives that correlated with sky changes. They named the patterns of stars that the Sun, Moon and planets moved through and interpreted them in terms of the cycle of life. Although there has been some considerable displacement between the seasons and the constellations over the past 4,000 or so years, the sequence of zodiac signs does seem to be a symbolic map of the year. The fact that there are 12 signs is probably a result of what is obvious in nature, that the Moon cycles approximately 12 times in one year.
From ancient Mesopotamia comes our 7-day planetary week and the Planetary Hours. In counting time, we have seen that the day itself must be the primary unit. But counting 365 days for the year is unwieldy, so smaller units were created. Seven days is 1/4 the roughly 28-day cycle of the Moon, and there are 7 visible planets, including the Sun and Moon. Each of the 7 days is named for a planet and is said to be ruled by it. We can see these planetary names in any of the romance languages; English uses the Nordic equivalents of the Roman gods associated with each planet. Each day was divided into 24 hours, 12 for daylight and 12 for night. These weren't equal hours, they varied according to the length of the day which changes during the year. But the system was definitely astrological because the hours were ruled by the 7 planets in a definite order, the order of their average rate of motion against the sky. The 7 planets that rule the hours cycle 3 times during the entire day and after 21 hours a new cycle begins. Whichever planet rules the first hour of the day, the hour after sunrise, gives its name to that day -- hence, the names of the days and the order of the week. What we have here is an astrology that names, and consequently gives meaning to, blocks of time – the planetary hours. As we will see, this same concept appeared in ancient China and Mesoamerica and formed the core of their astrological systems.
The astrology of Mesopotamia was an astrology also concerned with sky omens, especially those of the planets. Conjunctions and oppositions were observed in the clear, unobstructed skies of the ancient Middle East. Planets on the horizon, just rising or setting, were studied and this emphasis survives as the Ascendant and Descendant points in the modern Western astrological chart. When the Greeks rose to power in the ancient Near East, they began to geometricize Mesopotamian astrology until it became almost entirely spatial. They added aspects, house divisions, and made the ecliptic-based 12-sign zodiac the showpiece of the system. True, much of what they did was built on older ideas, but to them must go the credit for constructing a tight system. By Roman times, astrology was a specialized discipline with a clear cut methodology, described in books and practiced by experts. Today, this tradition is still very much alive and constantly evolving.
In ancient India, skywatchers also learned to make calendars and predict where planets would be in the future. The Vedas, the sacred writings of ancient India, reveal a sky-knowledge that dates back to very early times. In 323 BCE Alexander the Great extended his empire into part of India and opened the flood-gates for an exchange of cultures. Greco-Mesopotamian astrology found its way into India and influenced the form that Indian astrology eventually took. By the 5th century CE the first Indian astrological treatises appeared.Parashara authored the first major astrological text, Hora Sastra, a text that strongly influenced later Vedic astrological writings. By the time the great 6th century Indian astrologer Vaharamihira published his masterwork on astrology, the Brihat Jataka, the distinctive elements of Indian astrology, a blend of ancient Vedic and Greco/Mesopotamian astrology, were in place.
Today, Vedic astrology seems to be the preferred term for the indigenous astrology of India, the term obviously referring to the Vedas. In the recent past it has also been known as Indian or Hindu astrology. The Indian name for the study of both astronomy and astrology is Jyotish. In India, Jyotish is taught in universities and practiced by professionals.
The exchange with Western astrology brought in the 12 sign zodiac, but in India, it's first point became attached to the constellation Aries, not the vernal equinox as has become the tradition in the West. Today, Indian astrologers practice a sidereal astrology, placing the planets in signs that use the same names as in Western astrology, but are displaced from that zodiac by about 24 degrees. The distance between the two is called the Ayanamsa, a distance that is set officially by the government astrologer in India, though there is still debate among experts who use different figures.
The signs in Vedic astrology are called Rasis. The horoscope used in India, called the Rasi Chakra, is very similar to the square charts used by astrologers in Roman and Medieval times. Like Western astrology, Indian astrology became quite spatial and aspects and house positions are fundamental to the system.
Although very wide orbs are used in Vedic astrology when interpreting aspects, other techniques are employed that reveal subtle details about the distribution of the planets in the zodiac. Each zodiac sign is divided into thirds, fifths, sixths, sevenths, eighths, ninths, etc. A chart called the navamsa chart, based on a division of signs into ninths, is commonly used in modern Vedic astrology to analyze marriage and relationships. It is also said to reveal one's deeper spiritual tendencies in addition to marriage karma. Essentially, this chart is a 9th harmonic chart, and it shows novile aspects between planets, a minor aspect of 40 degrees that most Western astrologers ignore, as conjunctions.
In India, one’s Ascendant, called the Lagna, is considered the strongest point of personal identity. The Moon’s nodes play an important role in Vedic astrology. Rahu is the name for the north node, Ketu is the name for the south node. The Sanskrit names for the planets are as follows: Sun = Ravi, Moon = Chandra, Mercury = Budha, Venus = Sukra, Mars = Kuja, Jupiter = Guru, Saturn = Sani.
One very unique and probably indigenous element of Indian astrology are the Nakshatras, the 27 lunar mansions or signs of the Moon. These are each 13 degrees and 20 minutes in length and begin at the first point of Aries. The Nakshatra in which the Moon at birth is found is the foundation for perhaps the most interesting technique in Indian astrology, the computation of the Dasas. In this forecasting technique, the spatial position of the Moon determines the sequence of time periods that affect the native throughout the course of life. In other words, space is turned into time. The Dasas are then time-periods, blocks of symbolic time.
India was certainly influenced by Greco-Mesopotamian culture, but China, far more isolated, was much less so. In China, astrology took on forms very different from those in the West. First of all, the planets, Sun and Moon were not measured against the ecliptic-based zodiac, they were measured against the equator. The pole star that never moves was a point of great importance to the Chinese and it is the celestial equator, not the ecliptic, that relates to this point. Twenty-eight unequal lunar mansions on the equator, called Hsiu, divided the sky. The position of the Moon in each of these zones acquired a meaning. But this is about as far as Chinese positional or spatial astrology went. The real core of the system lies in an interesting interplay of time cycles that may have originally been based on a combination of numerology and astronomical motions.
In very ancient times the Ten Celestial Stems, a sequence of ten consecutive symbols, became established as symbolic cycle. It’s most ancient origins may lie in the counting of fingers on two hands, and it may possibly also be a surviving artifact of an ancient 10-day week. Later the Twelve Terrestrial Branches, another cycle of stages perhaps influenced by both the 12-year cycle of Jupiter and the division of the solar year into 12ths, was combined with the ten Stems to create a cycle of 60 days, or 60 years. In a 60-day or 60-year period there are six cycles of the Stems and five cycles of the Branches. Each day or year in the cycle would then have two names, one for the Stem, one for the Branch. This sexagenary cycle applied to years is said to have been created by the legendary Emperor Huang Ti in the year 2,677 BCE.
This same interplay of ten and twelve, using the same names, was also applied to months and hours. In the case of months, one year will, with fancy adjustments, contain 12 months and so five years will yield 60 months. In terms of hours, five days of 12 hours each gives us the number 60 again. The year, month, day and hour of one's birth, the Four Pillars of Destiny as they are called, are then designated by a pair of names. Associations with the five elements of Chinese astrology (fire, earth, metal, water and wood) and the polarities (yin and yang) further individualize the information about the birth moment. Today, Chinese astrologers still utilize the system and almanacs are regularly published containing tables for determining the astrological qualities of any given day.
A full Chinese astrological reading, however, actually takes into consideration more than just the four pillars of destiny. The 28 lunar constellations are said to rule a day each, such that every four weeks of seven days begins the cycle anew. These constellations are said to indicate the factor of chance and are used not only in interpreting a birth, but also for choosing auspicious days. Another factor considered in a reading is the animal that rules the year of birth. This is a cycle of twelve years (not to be confused with the Twelve Terrestrial Branches), each named for an animal and beginning with the Chinese New Year in early February. It is this element of Chinese astrology that has become so popular in the Western world, but as we have seen, is in reality only a small portion of a complex system. The influence of the year of birth is said to denote the moral character of the person. It is thought that this 12-year cycle is based on the cycle of Jupiter.
We come now to the fourth, and least known, of the world's great astrological traditions, the time-based astrology of Mesoamerica. Around the time of the ancient Greeks (800 to 200 BCE) a civilization along the eastern coast of today's Mexico was flourishing. Today known as the Olmecs, these forerunners of the Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs built pyramids, ceremonial centers and created a complex astro-calendrical system portions of which have survived to the present day. During the Classic period of the Maya, when Europe was in dark ages, this system evolved into one of the worlds most sophisticated intellectual constructions. Scholars have long marveled at the precision achieved by the Maya in measuring the year and the cycles of the Moon. The purpose of all this astronomy was, however, to improve their astrology.
The Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs and other pre-Columbian cutures of Mesoamerica based their astrological analyses on the interplay of day-counts, not at all unlike the Chinese. They used a cycle of 13 numbers and a cycle of 20 signs which interfaced every 260 days as the core of their system. Also like the Chinese, they projected this cycle onto a larger frame of reference dividing their creation cycle of 5,125 years (also called the Long Count) into 260 units of 7,200 days called katuns. The present creation cycle is due to end on 12/21/2012, and it is this event that 1987's Harmonic Convergence (where the term "Mayan Calendar" was used in place of the academic term Long Count) was heralding. On 4/6/1993 the last, or 260th, katun of the series that began in 3114 BCE began. Note that the Mayan creation cycle of 5,125 years is exactly 1/5 of the average cycle of the Earth’s precession, the movement that drives the shifting of the Western astrological ages.
The key concept in Mesoamerican astrology is the notion of time as a sign. As we have already seen the astrology of the West is mostly spatial. The most important yardstick in that system are the signs of the zodiac, each measuring 30 degrees of space along the ecliptic. The astrological houses and the aspects are also spatial. A conjunction of planets or an eclipse is interpreted according to the sign it occurs in. In ancient Mexico, however, astrologers interpreted a conjunction or eclipse according to the 13-day sign it occurred in, as well as other symbolic time frames.
Perhaps the most carefully watched planet in ancient Mesoamerica was Venus. Its 584-day synodic cycle was divided into four periods: inferior conjunction, morning star, superior conjunction, and evening star. The two appearance intervals of Venus, morning star and evening star, each last for 263 days on average. It has been suggested that this is one of several astronomical facts behind the selection of 260 as a master number in Mesoamerican astrology. Throughout Mesoamerica, it was believed that when Venus was conjunct the Sun and moving retrograde (the inferior conjunction) leaders would be struck down and there would be trouble in the land. The motions of Venus were recorded in books in the form of complex, and very accurate tables. They Maya were well aware that five synodic cycles of Venus are equal to eight solar years and it formed an important part of their astrological-cosmological symbolism.
In terms of a horoscope for a birth, Mesoamerican astrology was similar to Chinese astrology. There was no circular chart, per se, just a list of factors that need to be considered in the analysis of character and destiny. First came the year of birth, one of four signs that were part of a 52-year cycle. Next were the 20 day-signs and the 13-day periods that the birth fell into. The Day-Sign, perhaps the most important and personal of the significators, was studied closely. In ancient times it was often used as a part of a person's name. Each of these twenty signs was linked to one of the four directions, which themselves function in many ways like the four elements in Western astrology. The ruler of the hour of birth and the phases of the Moon and Venus extended the interpretation. For mundane events, such as dedications and cornonations, the stations of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were considered important factors in the quality of any given day.
Because the Spanish friars did a thorough job in eliminating anything they saw as pagan, we are not completely sure about the elements of a traditional Mesoamerican astrological reading. What we do know of this great tradition is based mostly on the works of archaeoastronomers and anthropologists. However, in remote parts of Mexico and Guatamala, an oral tradition that retains some of the ancient astrological knowledge has survived and is becoming better organized and resistant to the constant pressures from Christianity. Academic researchers, practicing what they call ethnoastronomy, are also recording and documenting pieces of this lost knowledge.
For further reading:
Baigent, Michael. From the Omens of Babylon: Astrology and Ancient Mesopotamia. London: Arcana. 1994.
Gleadow, Rupert. The Origin of the Zodiac. New York: Castle Books. 1968.
Tester, Jim. A History of Western Astrology. New York: Ballanoks. 1987.
Braha, James T. Ancient Hindu Astrology for the Modern Western Astrologer. Florida: Hermetician Press. 1986.
DeFouw, hart and Svododa, Robert. Light on Life: An Introduction to the Astrology of India. London: Penguin Arkana. 1996.
Dreyer, Ronnie Gale. Indian Astrology: A Western Approach to the Ancient Hindu Art. England: The Aquarian Press. 1990.
Frawley, David. Astrology of the Seers: A Guide to Vedic/Hindu Astrology. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press. 2000.
Harness, Dennis.The Nakshatras: The Lunar Mansions of Vedic Astrology. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press; 1999)
Kermadec, J.M. H.de. The Way to Chinese Astrology. Trs. N. Derek Poulsen. London: Unwin Paperbacks. 1983
Walters, Derek. Chinese Astrology: Interpreting the Revelations of the Celestial Messengers.England: The Aquarian Press. 1987.
Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1980.
Scofield, Bruce. Day-Signs: Native American Astrology From Ancient Mexico. Amherst, MA: One Reed Publications. 1991.
Scofield, Bruce. Signs of Time: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Astrology. Amherst, MA: One Reed Publications. 1994.