Astrology, Science, and Culture: Pulling Down the Moon

By Roy Willis; Patrick Curry | Go to book overview

Appendix

The subject of this brief appendix, for which Patrick Curry is responsible, may strike the general reader as excessively technical. It concerns the current scholarly consensus on the historical origins of divinatory astrology. The author is not an expert on this particular subject, and so writes under correction (not to say with trepidation); nonetheless, it is too important to let pass.

As an intial comment, let me remind the reader that the various kinds of astrology include natal (nativities), mundane (e.g. political), elections (choosing a propitious time to start an enterprise) and interrogations or horary (enquiring of the stars their will concerning an enterprise); and that katarche was the ritual act of enquiring of the gods (or fates) as to their will respecting a human enterprise, a practice that was already extant in Greece at the time of the transmission thereto of Babylonian astrology. The affinity between interrogations and katarche is obvious.

A major presence in this field is Professor David Pingree. In his influential entry on astrology in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas (1969), Pingree defines astrology as ‘the study of the impact of the celestial bodies upon the sublunar world’ a view which clearly presupposes a causal and specifically Aristotelian astrology. But Ptolemy’s work was an intervention in, and not the starting-point of, the history of astrology; and to thus exclude Babylonian astrology as such seems arbitrary at best. It is true that ‘Astrology so defined is certainly not of Babylonian origin’; but the definition is surely wrong.

That impression is further strengthened by Pingree’s formulation of the belief behind katarchic astrology as being ‘that any act is influenced by the horoscope of its inception as is any individual by the horoscope of his birth’. That is true of elections, but there is a very significant difference between them and interrogations. In the former case it is the person who selects the moment and therefore its cosmic import; whereas in the latter the moment is chosen not as a propitious one but precisely without already knowing (or taking into account) its characteristics, in order to let the gods (qua celestial bodies) speak, and thereby say whether the time is propitious or not. That difference is why the Ptolemaic root-metaphor of a seed-moment, which Pingree has adopted, can be stretched to cover elections but not interrogations. It is also presumably why Ptolemy notoriously failed to include and discuss interrogations in his otherwise comprehensive re-statement of astrology.

Pingree’s programme has recently found restatement in his book From Astral Omens to Astrology (1997), wherein he describes catarchic astrology as the kind

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