Thursday 2 February 2023

Book Excerpt: The Nature of Astrology by Bruce Scofield

Here's an excerpt from the book The Nature of Astrology - History, Philosophy and the Science of Self-Organizing Systems by Bruce Scofield. This section looks at the origins of Western astrology in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Origins of Western Astrology

The origins of Western astrology can be traced to ancient Mesopotamia.1 It was in this region of the world that humans first established large permanent settlements, developed agricultural techniques, and became organized into towns and cities. Social and cultural evolution accelerated by population growth, which was made possible by agriculture, led to organized religions, laws, and other means of controlling large groups of people. The history of this region comes into focus by the fourth millennium BCE when the Sumerians, peoples of uncertain origin who spoke an unclassified language and who had migrated to southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq), took over a number of older settlements and established major centers at Ur, Uruk, and Babylon. Over the next millennium, a complex religion/mythology was formalized, and cuneiform writing, a kind of notation on clay tablets, became widely used to record kinship linkages, ownership, commercial transactions, mythology, and astronomical data, the latter sometimes with interpretations. Other accomplishments include the use (and possibly invention) of the wheel, intensive agriculture based on massive irrigation projects, the sexagesimal counting system used today for time and circular measurement, the first calendars, and the naming of constellations. The Sumerians were the major cultural founders of the Mesopotamian region, but they were conquered about 2400 BCE by Sargon, King of Akkad (now northern Iraq), a Semite, who built the region’s first empire by joining Sumer in the south and Akkad in the north. For the next two millennia the power of city states rose and fell and empire followed empire. Of note were the empires of Babylon, the city itself being a major intellectual and cultural center, and Assyria (in place from 1800 to 800 BCE, during which time systematic observations and record keeping of natural phenomena were made, and many regard this as one of the roots of science). Change and decline of this long age of empires began with Persian dominance over the region beginning in the sixth century BCE, followed by Alexander’s conquests two hundred years later in the fourth century.

Of special interest to historians of science are the contents of the Royal Library of Nineveh. The learned king Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, searched for, collected, and organized historic tablets (of clay, wood, and wax) for his library, which became a time-capsule for Mesopotamian intellectual achievements. The library was discovered in 1853 and, in addition to intricate relief sculptures lining the walls, it was found to contain thousands of tablets that were then shipped to the British Museum where they have been repaired, organized, and translated. The contents of these tablets are mostly omen literature, astrology, and entrail divination, but also included are the Epic of Gilgamesh, ritual texts, astronomical data, medical formulas, dream books, and more. Among the roughly thirty thousand tablets found in Ashurbanipal’s library, and also at other archaeological sites in Mesopotamia, are two kinds of astronomical collections. One consists of star catalogs of astronomical events and star positions. Another is a set of tablets called the Enuma Anu Enlil, or book of Anu (god of heaven) and Enlil (god of Earth). This is the primary astrological text, ­essentially a compilation of interpretations of astronomical phenomena from ancient Mesopotamia that was organized around 1000 BCE, though it contains information dated to as early as the seventeenth century BCE. The Enuma Anu Enlil is composed of sixty-eight to seventy tablets (the total depending on how they are analyzed) and about seven thousand omens, depending on which of the existing copies is referred to.

1. Astrology also originated, or at least developed in its own characteristic way, in India, China, and Mesoamerica. Indian (Joytish), also known as Hindu, or more recently Vedic astrology in English-speaking countries, clearly owes some of its qualities to Western astrology, these attributed to Alexander’s intrusion into the region bringing with him Greek scholars. There is, however, an indigenous astrological tradition, mentioned in the Vedas, that is based on the lunar cycle. Burmese astrology is informed by Hindu astrology, and Tibetan astrology is a mixture of both the Hindu and Chinese systems. The astrological system of China is almost completely different in that it tracks planetary cycles, generalizes them into round numbers, and applies these on several temporal scales. While there are some similarities between Chinese astrology and the astrological tradition that developed in ancient Mesoamerica, particularly in the use of blocks of time as significators of specific processes, they differ in regard to key cycle lengths.

Bruce Scofield holds a doctorate in geosciences from the University of Massachusetts, a master’s degree in social sciences from Montclair University, and a degree in history from Rutgers University. Currently an instructor for Kepler College and president of the Professional Astrologers Alliance, he is the author of 14 books. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Nature of Astrology by Bruce Scofield is copyright © 2022 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.

You can view The Nature of Astrology on Amazon.

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