The Case for Sidereal – I

I have been wanting to address this rather thorny issue for some time. There is a great deal of misunderstanding with regards to the tropical in relation to the sidereal, which requires a relatively simple approach. Strictly speaking, whatever that has been employed profitably for millennia requires no defence, but at this time. in the light of so much misinformation, an introductory case needs to be made. I shall begin with a brief explanation of the phenomenon responsible for the split between sidereal and tropical in the first place.

Figure 1 Earth Axis & Procession.

In understanding the nature of the sideral zodiac in relation to the tropical, we need to consider the Precession of the Equinoxes. The motion of the equinoxes along the ecliptic is caused by the cyclic precession of Earth’s axis of rotation.

Upon the compilation of the renowned star catalogue, which he completed in 129 BCE, Hipparchus observed that the positions of the stars had shifted from that recorded in earlier Babylonian (Chaldean) measures. He concluded that it was not the stars that were drifting. but instead the point of terrestrial observation. This apparent drifting backwards from the point of view on Earth is called precession and consists of a cyclic wobbling in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation with a period of 25,772 years

Hipparchus discovered another gem in his account of his discovery in On the Displacement of the Solsticial and Equinoctial Points, which Ptolemy subsequently described in his Almagest III.1 and VII.2).

Hipparchus measured the ecliptic longitude of the star Spica during lunar eclipses. He found that Spica was approximately  6° west of the autumnal equinox.  He then compared his own measurements with those of Timocharis of Alexandria, a contemporary of Euclid, who worked with a lesser-known Aristillus early in the 3rd century BC.  He realized that Spica’s longitude had lessened by approximately 2° Unfortunately. precise years are not offered in Almagest.

For many modern astrologers in the West, including contemporary traditionalists, the idea of using a sidereal zodiac is considered either irrelevant or anathema. The single most common reason for rejecting sidereal out of hand is in something that is neither technical or based on the perceived accuracy of outcome per se. It has to do with understandable protestations against changes in natal charts when tropical is converted to.sidereal.

There are other reasons, but this is by far the most common. That is to say, the detractors of sidereal do not act from a scientific or technical point of view. Of course, their position is understandable and not entirely without merit. One would require a very solid reason to switch from one zodiac to another. The better position from my point of view is to embrace both systems and apply either one of them wherever they are the better choice.  I will add here that reading both systems for a Nativity is not without reward.

The Precession of the Equinoxes produces an apparent drift of approximately one degree every 71.6 years. and it does so as if in reverse. A random tropical chart for 05 April 2019 – 3.50 PM GMT gives is the Sun at 16.32 Aries. If we calculate the same chart employing Fagal-Allen (sidereal) we have the Sun @ 21.32 Pisces..

Hipparchus of Nicaea (c.190 – c.120 BC), An image of Hipparchus from the title page of William Cunningham‘s Cosmographicall Glasse (1559)

Kenneth Bowser writes: “Late in the first millennium B.C., probably during the lifetime of Hipparchus of Rhodes (mid-second century B.C.), the Greeks introduced an innovation in zodiac reckoning that had heretofore been sidereal in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean world for many centuries: they began to reckon the positions of planets and stars from the northern hemispheric vernal equinox. Until that time the equinox had been described in terms of the degree of the zodiac the Sun traversed when it reached the equinox, variously in the Greek world as 15°, 12°, 10°, 8°, 5° and 3° of Aries as precession slowly changed the Sun’s position in the zodiac at the time of the equinox.” The Tropical-Sidereal Debate, Part 2: The Sidereal Point of View

Sidereal comes from the same root as consider- From Latin sīdereusfrom sīdussīder-constellation, star. The Sidereal view is anchored in the stars and not based in reference to the Solstice and Equinoxes in the Northern Hemisphere – the latter is a Greek invention and certainly has its uses, by the word astrology itself refers to the study or wisdom of the stars. Western sidereal astrology is based on the Babylonian sidereal zodiac

A common criticism of sidereal is that the constellations are massively unequal in size, but of course the same is true for tropical observations. In fact, if anything, sidereal ought to be commended for the emphasis it places on the stars themselves. Indeed, the Indian use of nakshatras stresses the importance of individual or small clusters of stars, usually three.

Usually, when the subject of fixed stars comes up with modern astrologers. it soon becomes plain that the stars are of some interest but in the same way that asteroids, outer planets or even hypotheticals. They are seen as one more thing you can add if you so wish, whereas to a traditional astrologer, particularly a sidereal one. the stars are primary and the name of our art tells us this.

figure 1 Spherica Precession Diagram

One of the most vexing issues for Tropical practitioners interested in the stars is the issue of stars being ‘pushed’ out of their constellations, For example, one may have a Sagittarius Ascendant conjunct Antares, the Heart of the Scorpion. What can one do in such a situation? Most obviously, we can pretend it doesn’t matter. But when the Heart of the Scorpion is ripped out only to be artificially re-located to another sign, of a different element and in aversion., one either accepts the contradictions or looks more deeply into what we really mean by signs and constellations, as they

This second-century-BCE wooden plaque from Gansu, China, presents an outline of the Big Dipper, surrounded by constellations.

work in a tropical zodiac.

However, things are not quite so simple in practise. Western astrology has been heavily invested in the tropical view for at least two millennia. Our view of the zodiac has become a brittle one. Even though the Hellenistic methods came to us from astrologers who either used both sidereal and tropical or (less likely) they didn’t know which they were using because at that time the two systems were close to the same. From what I have gleaned, Hellenistic astrologers before Claudius Ptolemy used a sidereal zodiac for at least some purposes.

figure 2

They took this sideral zodiac from the Babylonians. The Indians almost certainly took their system at least in part from Babylon, although many Indian traditionalists claim that Vedic is of greater antiquity. However, the only genuine solution, if one’s aim is to is retain the original positions of stars in relation to sign. – in which case the stars are back where they are in their own signs. Few things illustrate this better than the 27 Indian Nakshatras with four Padas each, arriving at a total of 108 – a sacred number.

I mentioned that the Hellenistic astrologer used sidereal at least some of the time, but there is evidence that even in very early Indian astrology, the tropical zodiac was used. The reason for this seems rather obvious. The tropical zodiac is designed so that the first degree of Aries always falls on the Spring Equinox. In other words, this system measures and marks the seasons as we experience them in the Northern Hemisphere. There were no ancient forms of astrology known in the Southern Hemisphere, that resemble those of the Northern Hemisphere, but astrologers in the South either ignore the distinction or reverse the horoscope so that Spring in the North is Autumn in the South.

Here, we are back to the wold of Hesiod, where stars and asterism mark the times of the year for various agricultural activities, rainy and dry periods and so on.  It seems quite plain that tropical is by far the better Farmer’s Almanac and other forms of astrology such as Mundane would usually operate with the tropical zodiac. see figure 3.

So it is my contention that sidereal works best when used in Indian astrology because the whole system is essentially based on it. For those interested in the stars, as am I.

Fragments of a Babylonian Star Calendar

sidereal is the obvious choice. I would add that Indian astrology – by far the greatest group of siderealists, are also very interested in the

figure 3 – traditional astrological calendar showing the seasons

circumpolar stars. Ursa Major or the Big Dipper has seven stars known to Indian as Rishis or Sages. This constellation is almost certainly the origin of the ancient swastika symbol. See figure 2. The ladle-like arms mark the seasons.

It is my hope that this has served as a decent introduction to the two zodiacs. It’s intended as an introduction that is light on the technical side of the subject. In a forthcoming article, we will look more closely at how the sidereal works seamlessly with Indian astrology,

It is certainly the case that exploring sidereal astrology from an Indian point of view will by no means ultimately interest everyone. Nevertheless, I contend that study in this area will prove to be enriching and time well spent.

 

Astronomical Code of the Ṛgveda: I

Sky battle of Kurukshetra

It has been my contention for a very long time, that if we were to somehow remove the Indian influence on astrology, we would have precious little left at the end of the day. Moreover, this source of wisdom goes back to the sages who composed the first of the Veda, know as the RgVeda. This would take us back perhaps 6,000 years and we can safely estimate that the oral wisdom predated even that by a considerable period of time. It is thought that Zarathustra was a Vedic priest, which would speak to the far reach of the Vedic cultures which extended also well into what is now Afghanistan.

The purpose of this article is to stimulate further research and increased dialogue with practitioners of ancient Indian astrology. However, it is merely an incomplete introduction and if it raises more questions than it answers, I shall be content with that. The title of this article is taken from Subhash Kak’s The Astronomical Code of the Ṛgveda (Third Edition)  2011 which has kindly been offered.to the public for personal use at no charge.

There are some splendid Western scholars Indian astrology, including such greats as Dr. David Frawley, James T.Braha, Hart Defouw, Robert Svoboda, Komilla Sutton, and others. At the same time, we can learn a great deal from Indian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Zoroastrian and another form of astrology as they exchanged knowledge in Alexandria. I have always seen this as a kind of alchemy wherein the end is much greater than its constituent elements. Many astrologers have found that Greek astrology, for example, seems to be missing pieces of the picture and this is complicated further by the fact that Greek astrologers didn’t provide anything like consensus to posterity.

Nevertheless, the number of Western practitioners who welcome what ancient Indian astrology may have to offer them is minuscule. I suspect that one of the chief reasons for this is a lack of knowledge regarding the background and we stall at the difficulties of transference. Most obviously, it is difficult to ask even a seasoned practitioner to adopt one of the Sidereal zodiacs. The requires one to accept different Signs for the same periods. Also, the philosophy, mythology and indeed mysticism of Rahu and Ketu and immeasurable more advanced and developed than any Traditional Western system. Again, one needs to go to the ancient sour es and attempt to understand a way of being that, according to scholars of ancient Indian astronomy, actually belongs in a different Yuga – one in which the gods lived on earth.

The astronomical accuracy of the ancient rishis is astounding. In the ‘Hidden Mysteries’, publication, Osho states::  The deepest laws of astrology were first discovered in India,” says Osho while speaking about the origins of astrology and the relationship between the sun and the human body” Ch 5, Part 1 of 6. Oshos’s assertion is impossible to deny. There is simply nothing that comes close to Ancient Indian Astrology in terms of sophistication and astronomical accuracy involving virtually unfathomable periods of time.. This implies that all other schools of astrology owe their beginnings to that tradition. Of course, the fact is, we know very little about who these rishis actually were and even less about how they attained their level of knowledge.

Pages from the Rigveda

As is the case in Persian astrology, there is sophisticated interrelatedness between the Creation stories and astrology. In my mind, the Classical pantheon as related to astrology seems rather thin and derivative.  Venus, for example, is a mere caricature of the goddesses of India, Persia and the Middle East. Writing on the Nodes in the Western tradition are mostly vague and never very useful. It’s painful to read William Lilly fumble over the meaning of the Nodes. It is entirely understandable that any reader that he isn’t quite sure what to do with them. Personally, I prefer to try things out for myself and I can say that no western writer has been as clear and profound as Indian ones with regard to that topic.

One can, however, take what one has learned and apply it in the spirit of its significance rather than. with recourse to dogma. Indian and particularly Hindu culture is one in which nobody is held to account for worshipping and thinking what they see as truth. India is unique in this respect and is always amenable to diversity.  Dr. David Frawley writes”India’s vibrant democracy and diversity of spiritual and religious practices is owing to its Hindu majority culture and the vast rishi and yogic values it is based upon.”  This quality ought to suggest relative ease in incorporating Indian wisdom into Western astrology. As mentioned above, there are in fact significant hurdles today, which would have been far less so in antiquity.

Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that there was indeed a great deal of transference in antiquity:

“The Vedic system of knowledge, with an assumed linkage between astronomical and terrestrial events, implies a system of astrology as well. The planetary periods [sic] evidence from the Rgvedic code is at least a thousand years before such knowledge outside India. With these dates and the attested presence of the Vedic Indians in West Asia in early second millennium BCE, it becomes easy to see how the astronomical ideas of the ¯re altars and the Rgveda could have been transmitted to Babylonia and Greece.” (See Subhash Kak. The Astronomical Code of the Ṛgveda (Third Edition)  2011. In later times, there was a reverse influence, notably from the Greeks and Persians.

Most perplexing of all is internal material in the RigVeda and what it tells us of the ancient origin of the work:

In the Rigveda, reference is made to a certain constellation of the stars which could only have occurred ninety-five thousand years ago. Because of this, Lokmanya Tilak concluded that the Vedas must certainly be even more ancient: the constellation of the stars as the Vedas described it could only have occurred at a certain moment ninety-five thousand years ago so that particular Vedic reference must be at least ninety-five thousand years old.

That particular Vedic reference could not have been added at a later period. Other, younger generations would not have been able to work out a constellation that existed many years before. But now we have scientific methods which we can use to discover where the stars were at a particular moment in the distant past.” (Osho, Hidden Mysteries, Ch 5 (translated from Hindi), Part 1 of 6.)

To accept this, we would have to radically change our concept of history – yet this ancient constellation would have to be accounted for. What possible reason could there be for the writers of RigVeda to invent such an elaborate fiction? Conversely, If we accept the internal evidence, we would have to admit that our knowledge of the distant past is sadly lacking.

It may come as a surprise that the Rigveda there “were two kinds of year in use. In one, the year was measured from one winter solstice to another; in the other, it was measured from one vernal equinox to another. Obviously, these years were solar and related to the seasons (tropical).” (Kak p. 177).  Most westerners consider the Sidereal Zodiac to be of the essence in Indian astrology, but there is reason to believe that it was a later, perhaps foreign idea. The division of the year into 12 Signs and 27 Nakshatras or constellations is illustrated thus:

© Subhash Kak

The 27 Nakshatras are roughly equivalent to the Lunar Mansions (28), except the Nakshatras are considered far more in modern Indian astrology and I suspect this goes back a very long way.

A Russian by the name of …. discovered that rishis were aware of an 11 years cycle in which the Sun produced a massive explosion. He realized that the cycle was immediately connected to human life. He got into trouble for suggesting that revolutions and other major upheavals mirrored a corresponding Solar disturbance. The point here is that the outer Universe was known to be inextricably connected to all forms of human life which is the most basic definition of ancient astrology.

Pythagoras traveled to India and  Egypt and was particularly impressed by spiritual practice and beliefs he found in India. From the record we have, which is by no means comprehensive, his theory of celestial correspondence appears to beat in part indebted to the essential knowledge he discovered there and that this provided the impetus to develop his own system.

It should be understood that this modest article does little more than point to the relevance of the Rigveda and Indian astrology. However, there are some things that the western astrologer can learn from Indian astrology and indeed the Vedas themselves. Most importantly is the spirit of ancient Indian astrology. It is immensely practical and deeply mystical. At this point in history, I am somewhat pessimistic about Indian and Western astrology can incorporate each other, but that is no small part due to the changes that have come to be in the unfolding of Indian astrology itself. The simple case of the sidereal and tropical zodiacs is one such barrier.

In a subsequent article, I will look more closely at how the rishis were able to achieve such extraordinary accuracy with respect to the length of the years, the yugas and planetary cycles. At least as interesting is why the felt they needed to map such massive periods of time.

The Hindu Trimurti: Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva seated on their respective mounts. (Public Domain)

 

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

Münster Cathedral’s astronomical clock. Detail.

I have written quite extensively about the importance of the stars and astrological practise in Judaism and Islam as well as in non-Abrahamic religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. Here, I examine many of the same themes from the point of view of Christianity. I’ve been pondering this for a while now because authentic astrology has been under attack by both theologians and scientists for centuries, yet neither has taken the time to discover what astrology actually is. This makes this task a difficult one in which there is always the chance I will end up preaching to the converted.

To begin, I would like to distance myself from the various strands of the Zeitgeist Movement, that effectively attempts to destroy Christianity by discrediting it, claiming it is just one more Solar cult meant to deceives its followers for the benefit of an elite group. The gist is that a Solar cult was projected onto Christianity, rendering events such as the birth of Jesus as well as his Resurrection to be fabrications. Having said that, even people that are usually wrong can sometimes be right. It is nevertheless not a fruitful manner of investigating the relevance of stars in scripture or how they may have been read.

At any rate, I do not believe that astrology is for everyone, which, other than air, shelter, water and food, is true of everything else. Astrology is a kind of consciousness, one that engages in the language of the stars, from which we came, to explain and reveal certain realities. The stars do not make people do anything, any more than a clock makes time.  For those attuned to the Uranian Muse, the message of the stars is an inexhaustible mine of wisdom.

Very often the most difficult thing to communicate effectively is that which others think they already know –  even though they do not. The idea that astrology is inherently incompatible not only with Christianity but also with reason and science is taken for granted as if someone had proven it very long time ago,  I suggest a willing suspension of disbelief be maintained while the subject is examined.

The worst obstacle to grasping the essence of true astrology is dished up every day, in virtually every newspaper. The Sun sign column is pure fraud and meant only to entertain and thereby sell more newspapers. It really has nothing in common with authentic astrology except that it refers to the signs of the zodiac.

Scientists such as Richard Dawkins dismiss astrology with spectacular arrogance and utter scorn as if they had had actually disproved it. Dawkins is a well-respected scientist and obviously well versed in the procedures of the scientific method. Nevertheless, he claimed he had discredited astrology for all time by conducting the following mockery of the same scientific method. He cut out the Capricorn entry from the Sun Sign column in the Manchester Guardian and read it to less than 20 passers-by. He asked people at random if the column was accurate, although only a few of the people were actually Sun sign Capricorns.

Now, as we all know, Sun sign columns are deliberately vague. If they were not, then nobody with anything better to do would read them. Readers want the horoscope to apply to them to cater to a need to imagine that virtually no information can explain things. She wants those new shoes. He wants that girl on the bus to notice him. Let’s examine this entry for Capricorn in the Guardian:

★ CAPRICORN 22 Dec-19 Jan “Saturn, Capricorn’s ruler, represents the ability to survive and prosper regardless of circumstance, through stoicism or ruthlessness (delete as applicable). With the ringed planet now at the apex of your scope, new professional phase dawn, one where you can seize control rather than be buffeted about by circumstance. Scheme on. Short term, you’re in a busy, profitable phase where commerce and good company overlap. Enjoy.”

Not only is this vague enough to apply to anyone, but the writer actually invites the reader to delete as applicable.”

Dawkins received mostly luke-warm responses, the majority of which were uncertain. As a result of this travesty of the scientific method, Dawkins claims himself triumphant and moves on to discredit homeopaths. I’m quite familiar with negative opinions of astrology ranging from skeptical to scathing, but I’m particularly disappointed when a scientist refuses to employ their own methods to arrive at a conclusion, rather than falling into the pit of prejudicial opinion. I believe Dawkins in spite of his intelligence is not so different from fundamentalist religionists – both believe that their understanding and perception are the only viable ones available and all other beliefs are the subject of contempt. Sometimes the belief is so strong that the contempt can afford to be polite.

The seven planets with their associated symbols, within the four winds. – 15th-century astrological woodcut.

Most religious people are opposed to Astrology because they don’t know what it is, yet believe it to be forbidden in scripture. I wonder what these people make of the cathedrals of Europe, so frequently and lavishly decorated with astrological symbolism. I have to assume that when even Catholics are persuaded that it is forbidden, that they have not read the Church Fathers or the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas. I also have to wonder why they never asked why most of the Popes, until recent times, had astrologers.

In the history of astrology, particularly in Christian Europe,  particularly prior to the 18th Century, the formula was simple “the stars impel, they do not compel.” England’s most celebrated Astrologer, William Lilly, wrote his most complete work on astrology with the title “Christian Astrology.” Into the 18th century, we find Isaac Newton as comfortable with astrology as with mathematics and physics, theology and alchemy. His good friend Edmund Halley wondered how could believe in astrology. The rather saturnine Newton replied, “because I have studied the subject and you have not.”

Chartres Cathedral Stained Glass – Bay (Labours of the Months / Signs of the Zodiac)

In the words of, the writer at Fish Eaters, ” no Catholic is bound to believe in astrology — i.e., no Catholic must believe the that the Heavenly bodies can and do influence us. A Catholic can consider it to be complete hokum; all of that is a question of fact and, ultimately, a matter of science, not of eternal Truths or dogma that we need to know to save our souls. But a Catholic may believe that “the stars” influence us, and he can be perfectly orthodox while doing so. It is perfectly licit to cast a natal chart to try to determine the planetary influences that may affect your inclinations. What is forbidden is the casting of charts to foretell the future as if it’s cast in stone by the stars (a form of divination), or to believe in any form of astrology that denies free will.”

Chartres Cathedral Stained Glass

This is what we find in scripture regarding the stars and signs. “God created the stars (Gen. 1:16) and positioned them in their precise position in the universe (Ps. 8:3). Stars were, “for signs and for seasons, and for days and for years, in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:14, 15).  It’s very personal. The stars all have names: ” He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” (Ps. 147:4). The Tanakh is replete with astrological references, as demonstrated in the work of Yaakov Kronenberg.

Although Christianity as we know it takes a myriad of forms, the single best generalization is that is in fact, Pauline theology.  Most of the references to astrology are found in what Christian refer to as the “Old Testament.” In the New Testament,  Paul is offered as a key source of the condemnation of astrology. But even here, the names give – such as fortune teller, sorcerer and so on, betray a degree of superstition beyond what could be said about what Paul fears. The theme is “God wouldn’t like that because it’s his job.” The case against astrology in the NT is exceedingly weak and based on misinterpretations. To place an astrologer with sources and necromancers is both silly and lazy.

To be fair to Paul, most of what he is said to have written about astrology is more in the imagination of the reader. For example, I found this listed as the main source of the prohibition against astrology:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; …”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-13.)

This is among the most beautiful prose written by Paul and it takes quite a leap to imagine he is discussing astrology. As it happens I agree with him on all points.

Nevertheless, the crux of the matter is that Paul and his ilk were responsible for a great deal of destruction in the Pagan world, including the destruction of the Temple of Artemis. Frankly, he isn’t a very reliable source and the apostles, Peter and James among them, were disturbed at his interpretations of a teacher he had never met, that had been a companion to them for several years. Be that as he may. Paul tells us he is “all things to all men” which ought to prepare anyone before reading his Epistles. There is an enormous amount of scholarship which answers to these very reasonable questions.

Let’s get to the core of the issue. I for one would never refer to myself as a “fortune teller” and most certainly, not a sorcerer. Seasoned astrologers with an understanding of the basis of astrology, do not pretend to predict the future of anyone.  We deal with what the Tibetan Buddhists refer to as “causes and conditions.” This is precisely what we read in the Nativity. To indicate medical predispositions, forms of creativity and particular interests, strengths and weaknesses. Imagine that you have a collection of seeds and you have been trained by guidance and experience to identify them. With that knowledge, we can infer how the seed will grow and in what kind of soil. Imagine again, that you are a meteorologist. Predicting weather is not considered as “fortune telling.” The use of this term when applied to astrology is an attempt to discredit but says much more about the accuser. It shows that he has no real idea about what he is dismissing.

medieval astrological medicinal chart

Astrology has several forms. We have Electional Astrology. This is extremely difficult for a number of reasons, but it can provide the most auspicious moment to do something. I agree that this has a spiritual dimension, but in essence, this isn’t much different than consulting the meteorologist to find a sunny day for the wedding.  What we do is much more detailed, but again this is not fortune telling.

Medical Astrology is particularly useful. It tells us what kind of vessel we have to navigate through our lives. It also shows weakness and therefore allows for the avoidance of some kinds of food or activity.  astrology and Medicine have worked for hand in hand since the earliest times.

Mundane Astrology requires not only mastery of astrology, but plenty of associated knowledge, such as geography, history and politics. Mundane astrology was considered the jewel in the crown of all the available forms. It has also been used since the earliest of times, in no small part because it was useful to the governing and survival of states. Reason tells us that if what Mundane did was provide absolute knowledge of future events, with little or no interest in the season, the climate, the current political reality and so on. it would likely fail – and it has. If however, we look at the same issue as did the writer of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

The desire to know which season fits which purpose is a pursuit of wisdom.  This can be known by way of consulting the stars. However, one of the greatest challenges facing ancient astrologers was whether it was better to tell the ruler what she wanted to hear or risk execution by telling an inconvenient truth,

Zodiac floor. Basilica of St Denis, Paris, France

Modern Mundane astrology takes different forms, depending on which tradition is being utilized. I believe a great deal of humility is required lest we become Icarus, falling from the heights of hubris.

This leaves us with Horary Astrology. This is a most peculiar beast. It allowed William Lily to find out who had stolen his fish and Portuguese onion. Horary is good for finding things and it responds best to yes, no or were questions.  It might be compared to hiring a cosmic private investigator – but it isn’t fortune telling.

The tragedy of the misunderstanding of what astrology actually is therefore found in the Epistles of Paul and in the popularization of the newspaper horoscopes.  None of the forms I have discussed above would be any more evil than meteorology, medicine or  But the illusion persists. What little souls don’t understand, they call evil or simply “unscientific.” even though a rigorous, scientific enquiry has never been conducted. Moreover, it may never take place because of the essential elements of astrological practise are ignored or misunderstood. One would think it would be obvious that no intelligent person is likely to believe that space rocks determine human destiny.  Sadly, such is not the case.

Indian Cosmology : Astrological Mysticism in the The Surya Siddhanta – I

A Panchānga, shown above, is a Hindu calendar and almanack, It presents important dates and their calculations in a tabulated form. It is Jyotisha

Earth is a sphere

Thus everywhere on [the surface of] the terrestrial globe,
people suppose their own place higher [than that of others],
yet this globe is in space where there is no above nor below.

Surya Siddhanta, XII.53
Translator: Scott L. Montgomery, Alok Kumar

Many people who are familiar with Indian Epic the Ramayana, will recall the many deeds of Ravana, including the capture of Sita. Less known are the extraordinary feats of King Maya. According to the legend, the Hindu Sun god, Surya, imparted highly specific knowledge of the universe to Maya. The series of treatises on that subject is known as the Surya Siddhanta. It is the most ancient book on astronomy believed to exist and it’s alarmingly accurate.  In the history of astronomy and astrology, it is a key document of inestimable value.

To define our terms, Surya is the Sun or Sun god. Solar deities are ubiquitous for reasons that are plain enough. Without the Sun there is neither light nor heat, rendering life impossible..

Siddhanta is a Sanskrit term denoting the established and accepted view of any particular school within Indian philosophy. Literally “settled opinion or doctrine, dogma, axiom, received or admitted truth; any fixed or established or canonical text-book on any subject” (Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary).  Surya (the supreme light) was the main solar deity in Hinduism; and also represents the Sun in India and Nepal. He is one of the core elements of Hindu astrology;  “Surya was the chief of Navagraha and the Classical Planets. He had 3 wives; Saranyu, Yama, and Yami. From northeast India, 11th century CE”. (Curator at National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK)

A sculpture of the Hindu sun-god Surya. The god is in a typical pose holding lotus flowers. Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, India, c. 1100-1150 CE. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

It has become increasingly apparent, with the re-discovery of Hellenistic and Arabian astrology that we don’t have all the pieces. Without the study of Persian and Indian astrology, metaphysics and astronomy, we are missing elements that cause the relative break down in later systems. I notice this often in the venerable Greek texts, where I’m not alone left wondering what on earth the writer was thinking. Moreover, some of the techniques handed down to us from these sources lack consistent credibility. Some appear to be next to useless after decades of experimentation.

It would be quite impossible of course to do more than provide an introduction to the Indian systems and to point to particularly relevant sources of influence. I believe the greatest synthesis of early astrological synthesis was achieved in ancient Persia. This is only natural as Persia is like a geographical bridge between the Hellenistic, the Babylonian and Indian. This is the first of what I anticipate will be three articles.

Western culture, beginning with the Greeks, developed a taste for, and some ability at, writing more or less objective histories. Cultures who valued reason and logic over the mythological have strong advantages and many disadvantages. Indians did not make absolute distinctions between history and mythology and appear to have been particularly adept at finding a way for reason and mysticism to flourish. The Vedas were never considered ‘fiction’ as such. A linear narrative has no place in this view and in fact, most Indians believe the Vedas have neither a beginning nor an end.  They are immortal. They are spiritual. They offer practical guidance and even mathematical knowledge. At the same time, the age of the universe is the age of Brahma.

The easiest way to realize the difference, which I have admittedly simplified to some extent, is to ground the understanding in the infinite, a reality in which the temporal is subordinate to the infinite in all respects. The infinite is, of course, the source of the temporal, but Western culture became amnesiacal about this a very long time ago. Logical categories can be helpful but they can quickly become nothing more than cookie cutters. This system attempt to reduce the complexities of human existence by making things appear to be smaller, more manageable and separate from each other. However, consolation is not always the road to truth.

The Surya Siddhanta is a treatise on traditional Indian astronomy, said to date back over 1500 years and attributed to Mamuni Mayan, a Promethean hero in Tamil culture. There is a vibrant tradition that tells us the work is 2 million years old.  Be that as it may, it forms the basis of the Hindu and Buddhist calendars. Subsequent mathematicians and astronomers such as Aryabhata and Varahamihira frequently referred to it.

In his own work, entitled Pancha Siddhanta, the esteemed Varahamihira,, besides the Paitamaha Siddhantas (more or less identical to the “classical” Védanga Jyotisha ) of Siddhantas Paulisha and Romaka (directly inspired by Hellenistic astronomy ) and Vasishta Siddhanta. Varahamihira was one of the only renowned Indian Astronomer, Mathematician and Astrologer whose name became familiar throughout India.

The book Surya Siddhanta has clearly been reworked more than once. However. it is not impossible that there was a volume with the same title from the Mauryan Empire, providing a date sometime in the third century B.C. in southernmost, including what is now Sri Lanka. Al Biruni’s India is a rich source of astronomical knowledge in India at that time.

Of immediate interest to the student of the history of astronomy and astrology, we are provided with rules allowing us to assign to the stars movements in accordance with their position in the sky. It provides the positions of several different stars of the lunar nakshatras and even addresses the calculation of the solar eclipse.

In the upcoming series of articles, I intend to look closely at some core elements in the Surya Siddhanta in light of astrological theory. One such element is the importance of the Nakshatras.

Hindu Metaphysics – Yantra Mandala illustration

The Introduction to the work tells us that “The Surya Siddhanta is at the top of this class of revelations. It was revealed to Maya an Asura, in all probability an Assyrian or rather a Babylonian.” (See Surya-Siddhanta (11935)    The Assyrian and Babylonian element is not at first particularly obvious, but as the work progresses we find some markedly interesting parallels. much of it in the realm of what in these days referred to as visible astrology, the periods and phases of the planets and more. Yet The work itself tells us that the Surya-Siddhanta was “revealed more than 2,164,960 years ago, that amount of time having elapsed, according to Hindu reckoning, since the end of the Golden Age” (p.I)

It is these massive periods that have left many astronomers aghast, although the late Carl Sagan was fascinated by them. We do, after all, look through a glass darkly and the ordinary human mind is not equipped to deal with concepts such as infinity or to fully grasp the significance of the knowledge that the light of stars that died a million years ago that haven’t reached us yet. What we are seeing in deep space is the distant past.

The antiquity of the transmission is calculated using the Nakshatra system – the matching of an asterism at the very point at which it would have to have occurred in this system.:

“In calculating the conjunction (yoga) of a planet and an asterism (nakshatra), in determining the setting and rising of a planet, and in finding the elevation of the moon’s cusps, this operation for apparent longitude (drkkarman) is first prescribed.” (p. 190)

 

  1.  Cf. Bhāskarācārya, Bapu Deva Sastri, la traduction en anglais du Surya Siddhanta, Lancelot Wilkinson (ISBN 3-76481-334-2lire en ligne [archive])
  1. This painting from a manuscript depicts the Sun and Moon. The deer is associated with the moon in Indian culture and often used to symbolize the Moon in pictures. Image by British Library (copyright CCO 11,1 Creative Commons).

Secrets of the Antikythera Mechanism: 1 & 2

Approximately three hours of lectures on the Antikythera Mechanism. This is of great interest to Hellenistic astrologers, as well as astronomers, historians, and others. The mechanism even calculates Saros cycles, phases of the Moon, planetary motions and much more. The third video shows a Virtual Reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism (by M. Wright & M. Vicentini)

Hermes in Sassanian Iran – Transmission Part 1

Sassanian Empire

This article barely touches on a very important issue in the history and transmission of ideas, and in particular to those that are related to the celestial arts and related cosmologies. This should be read as one might read the newly exposed contents of a roll-top desk. The topic is potentially so extensive, that a small library would be required to cover even the main points. It should, however, serve as a decent introduction and I have referenced some particularly useful sources for those who wish to delve further. My hope is that this and the articles which follow will ignite further interest in this topic by cultivating informed reflection and discussion.

By way of extending this discussion, I’ve decided that it will best be done by a reasonably detailed account of the part played by three Persian astrologers and polymaths: Māšāʾallāh b. Aṯarī, a Persian Jew from Baṣra, was one of the leading astrologers in the ʿAbbasid caliphate from the founding of Baghdad in 145/762, Biruni, Abu Rayhan (362/973- after 442/1050), scholar and polymath of the period of the late Samanids and early Ghaznavids and one of the two greatest intellectual figures of his time in the eastern lands of the Muslim world, the other being Ebn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Abū Ḥafṣ ʿOmar b. Farroḵān Ṭabarī was an astrologer from Ṭabarestān who translated Pahlavi works into Arabic (for example, the five books on astrology by Dorotheus of Sidon) and paraphrased Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatica Tetrabiblos in 812. The few astronomical theories with which his name is associated are Indian; he presumably derived them from Pahlavi books.  Biographical details courtesy of Encyclopedia Iranica.

There is a great volume of scholarly editions and studies of the Greek Hermes Trismegistus. Although the origins remained murky in the early European Rennaissance, that did nothing to quell the enthusiasm of Marsilio Ficino and those 0f ensuing generations of scholars, philosophers, and demagogues.  However, when we look to the Hermes of the Persians and Arabs, there are precious few studies. One exception to this otherwise bleak outlook is the work of Kevin Van Bladel The Arabic Hermes. The title of this article is the name of a pivotal chapter in that work. In the 2010 edition of the Classical Review, Bryn Mawr provides an admirable summary of the work:

Modern Iran

“Kevin van Bladel has produced an admirable study of the Arabic Hermetic tradition, fleshing out in considerable detail the evolution of Hermes’ image, his identification with Qur’anic prophet Idris as well as the forces driving this transformation, and his connections, real, imagined, and still controversial, with the Harranians, the last organized group of astrolators to continue functioning within Islamic civilization.” .

The most direct source of the reception of Hermetic knowledge in the oriental tradition was Sassanian Persia, the last period of the Persian Empire before the Islamic invasion. The empire took its name from the  House of Sasan who governed from 224 to 651 AD. The Sassanians succeeded the Parthian Empire and was a leading regional and ‘world’ power,  alongside the Roman-Byzantine Empire. Iy held this position for four centuries. This empire was perfectly situated to be a  cultural conduit between India, Greece, Rome and the Middle East and this had been the case for a very long time. Even to this day, the strategic geography of Iran is extraordinary, sharing borders with Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan,, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and beyond. The US military currently has Iran surrounded in ten countries to make sure she is contained. Persia had long had relations with Asia, including China long before the onslaught of Alexander the Great and the subsequent Hellenizing of much of the known world.

In Alexandria, Priests of Isis mixed with Hindus and Buddhists as well as  Jews, Christians and a wide array of Greek philosophers, Gnostics, and Pythagoreans. Ideas, traditions, and wisdom were not merely shared but in many cases, syncretized.  It has been said of the Parsis in India that they are like sugar in milk. This is true of many traditions. It is difficult, for example, to read Plotinus without being reminded of Hindu metaphysics or to read St, John’s Gospel without being reminded of Philo, a brilliant Hellenized Jew. It is not always an easy task to see where one tradition ends and another begins.

Until the Islamic conquests, which began in the lifetime of Muhammad and spread from Spain to India within 60 yrs of his death, the desert-dwelling Arabs had a primitive, but fascinating desert culture. It mostly consisted of an oral tradition and the level of literacy was not high. Written language had no great utility beyond that used in trade. Indeed the Prophet himself was known to be illiterate. The Arab tribes were frequently at war with each other, which further impeded a scholarly tradition, As a trading people, they did, of course, come into contact with other cultures.  However, there were no centers of learning and those who were identified as learned were most often the Christians, Jews and to some extent the Chaldeans. The work of transposing the spoken word of the Prophet into the written Quran would have mostly fallen to Jewish scribes.

Massive invasions are usually violent and demonstrate little or no interest in the culture being conquered unless it can be readily turned into profit,  either of monetary or propagandistic.  The second form takes places when places of indigenous worship are destroyed and replaced with the religious symbols of the invading force. This has been the key to the creation of hegemony since earliest times. Typically, indigenous languages are also replaced by the language of the conqueror. This was certainly the case with Arabic. The Persians had not taken the threat of an Arab invasion seriously. That was a fatal mistake and one that proved that a sufficiently riled up group of illiterate desert dwellers could do hitherto unimaginable damage to a greatly advanced society. The Armies of Islam would prove the same point, time and time again. Temples were razed. Religions outlawed and Mosques built where previously sacred places were celebrated by the vanquished indigenous culture. Conversely, invading forces are exposed to cultural ideas, including ones seen as scientific, that serve to edify the culture of the invader.

Van Bladel writes: “Middle Persian, the language of the Sasanian court and administration of government, as well as their Magian (Zoroastrian) religion, was displaced by Arabic after the Arab conquest and colonization of Iran in the seventh and eighth centuries.3 Arabic, the prestigious language of the new rulers and of their new religion, Islam, superseded written Iranian languages almost entirely. Education and literacy in Middle Persian and other Iranian languages became practically obsolete for Iranians who converted to
Islam. The children of converts learned Arabic, the language of their scripture, as their own literary medium.” (p.21)

An illustrated leaf from the Sharafnama of the Khamsa of Nizami: Queen Nushaba recognizes Iskandar [Alexander the Great] by his portrait, Persia, circa 1490-1500 miniature 15.5 by 11.2cm.

However, Persia had already suffered a much earlier blow at the hands of Alexander and beyond the savagery and brutal destruction, Persian culture was to attain the advantage of being part of the Hellenized world which, ironically perhaps, helped preserve core texts, even if many were lost forever. Alexander must have seemed a complete monster to the Persian and to this day he is known in Iran as “the horned one.”  It is an irony that beggars belief that Alexander would be included in the line of the Prophets of Islam.

Even then, western knowledge of eastern religions was distorted, mostly out of disinterest. For example, both Greek and Latin sources treated the Magians somewhat vaguely as representatives of eastern cults.  Distinctions between a Magian, a Brahman, and a Chaldaean were of little interest:

“although it was known that they were from three different countries, Persia, India, and Babylonia. But their activities seemed interchangeable, at least from the first century CE onward. Therefore, the ‘wise men’ mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew are called Magians, although the correct term for people observing celestial omens would have been Chaldaeans, mathematicians or astrologers (Chaldaioi, mathematikoi or astrologoi).” (Magians after Alexander.

This is usually interpreted as a diminished occidental view of the orient and it may very well be that. Nevertheless, it may also be a case of a general recognition and familiarity, since European groups such as the Druids were also similar in almost all respects. It may be a case of “a rose by any other name.” Certainly, all these came together in Ficino’s prisca theologia  This is the doctrine that asserts “that a single, true theology exists, which threads through all religions, and which was anciently given by God to man.” (Yates, F., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Routledge., London, 1964, pp 14–18 and pp 433–434)

In light of the many considerations, it may very well have happened that the ‘un Islamic’ Persian Hermetica would have been lost to history. As it happens, much of it not only survived but made its way into the Islamic world and the Arabic language.

Van Bladel tells us: “The name Hermes was invoked in Sassanian Mesopotamia as a source of occult power. A few surviving texts of Syro-Mesopotamian origin provide the attestations: two Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls containing the same formula, found at Nippur (modern Niffar) in Iraq, once part of the Sasanian Empire, and a magical amulet written in Syriac on parchment dating to Sasanian times.11 Incantation bowls are a type of popular magical apparatus inscribed with texts in different Eastern varieties of Aramaic made from about the fourth to the seventh century, that is, under the Persian Sasanid dynasty, in Mesopotamia.

Unfortunately little is known about exactly how they were used.12 The two bowls mentioning Hermes invoke him as a magical power, so that the protective operation is performed not only in the name of four angels but also in the name of “Hermes the Great Lord.” One of these bowls was made for the benefit of “Yazīdād, son of Yazdāndukh(t),” both Middle Persian names indicating a Persian, perhaps aristocratic, recipient. As for the parchment amulet, although it was written in Syriac, it was made for the protection of a certain ¢warrawehzād, called Yazdānzādag, daughter of De¯nag, whose name is also clearly Middle Persian” pp.25-6).

These types of bowls were not uncommon: “Across the ancient world, demons and other forces of evil were treated as genuine threats to reckon with. In Sasanian Mesopotamia from the fifth to the seventh centuries CE, clay Aramaic incantation bowls, commonly known as magic bowls were widely used to expel demons and protect houses.” See the work of Avigail Manekin Bamberger, a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University. It needs to be said that these bowls were used for the same purposes by Jews and Christians.

Al Kindi

One could fairly ask, why the Islamic and Arabian world couldn’t have simply taken the Hermetic teachings from the Greeks. particularly during this time period, when there was no dearth of excellent translators and as had been mentioned, various cultures had been blending for a very long time. It was not a Persian, but Al Kindi who was largely responsible for the transmission:

Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī, known as “the Philosopher of the Islamic empire.” He was an Arab Muslim philosopher, polymath, mathematician, physician, and musician. :

“A description of Hermes and his teachings is preserved in the collection of wise sayings made by al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik in Fātịmid Egypt, Kitāb Muxtār al-ḥikam. These passages are treated extensively in sections 5.2 and 5.3 in this volume, but a brief summary here will help to make this survey of testimony about Ḥarrānian Hermetica complete. Al-Mubaššir’s source describes Hermes:

“as a prophet teaching pious commandments in the form of maxims, as well as an outline of rules for Hermes’ religion and his wise advice. Although al-Mubaššir’s treatment of Hermes and his instructions include no direct references to Ḥarrānians or to Ṣābians in general, the religion taught by Hermes in this account is similar to as-Saraxsı’s description of the Ḥarrānian Ṣābian religion: it included feasts at astrological conjunctions and at the sun’s entry into a new zodiacal sign, as well as sacrificial offerings to the planets at the appropriate times. Hermes is also said to have commanded them “to perform prayers that he stated for them in ways that he described.” On the other hand, the religious laws of Hermes given here bear close resemblance to Islamic law: they require ritual purity, abstinence from intoxication, gˇihād against the enemies of the religion, alms (az-zakāt), and prescribe most of the punishments called ḥadd punishments in Islamic law. All this leads me to conclude that the “religion of Hermes” described here was developed and described well after the establishment of Islam and Islamic law.” (pp 94-5).

This was a clever maneuver but certainly not unprecedented. Most importantly, it ensured that something of the indigenous religion of Iran would prevail and with this many other elements entered the Islamic world.  This was also the case with the Angelology of Zoroastrianism. It not survived but was exalted by Islamic Persian artists in some of the most exquisite miniatures. Core beliefs of the Persians were passed on. It may well be surmised that without this transmission the Golden Age of Islam would have been far less likely to have occurred.

Persian miniature (1555)

With regard to the import of the book, we began by discussing is brilliantly summarized by “Bryn Mawr in the same classical review article.  I leave the closing words  of this first part of the study to him:

“Hermes the prophet of science is a combination of “ancient Judaean lore” concerning the biblical Enoch with Hellenistic astrology, including stories of heavenly ascents in order to receive science from the angels. ….. With Hermes as its prophet, science becomes revelation and as such is superior to the musings of the philosophers.” (Classical Review 2010.02.63).

In articles to follow, we will look at a variety of other Persian and Indian sources.