Astrologers are fond of saying that their discipline is thousands of years old
Astrologers are fond of saying that their discipline is thousands of years old, that it is rooted in timeless observation through millennia, and that it began to be codified deep in ancient times. While they’re right about those things, until very recently it has been difficult to sort out just what began when and where.
Until the 1990s, relatively few translations of ancient astrology texts were available. It was in the early years of that decade that a dedicated group of astrologers became determined to discover the roots of astrology. For some, it involved learning Greek and Latin, not to mention decoding obscure astrological terms that had been out of use for centuries.
Like any other field of knowledge, astrology has changed over time. There are multiple ‘original’ sources, and each has developed in a unique way. Many have spread to new geographic locations, where they are perceived and utilized by new cultures, and where they often blend with other forms of astrology. Various philosophical and religious traditions have left their marks on the diverse kinds of astrology, as well. Perhaps most importantly, humans have evolved different and more complex ways of thinking and feeling, and astrology has evolved along with our consciousness.
After a relatively fallow period, astrology began to reemerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reaching a new flowering in the 1970s and 80s that has continued to today. During the early decades of this reemergence, there was a tendency to view ancient astrology as more primitive and less sophisticated than modern astrology – despite little direct knowledge of ancient astrology. The work of scholars since the 1990s has done much to dispel that perception of ancient astrology, but none has approached the subject as thoroughly as Hellenistic Astrology by Chris Brennan, a book that represents a significant milestone in astrological scholarship.
The book is thick and looks somewhat intimidating (but for the same reason also looks great on a coffee table or bookshelf), and in fact it isn’t a book that should be skimmed lightly. On the other hand, while scholarly, Brennan keeps the book from becoming heavy. My initial fears that it would contain only technical descriptions of complex techniques turned out to be totally unfounded. In fact, the book presents some of the best and most readable accounts of the origins of astrology written thus far. The reader is indeed challenged to pay attention to the plot – but as in any good history, the effort is well rewarded with a deeper understanding of the complexities of the subject.
Hellenistic Astrology begins with several chapters on the history of astrology, honing in to astrology in the Hellenistic period. This history includes a chapter on the various known astrologers of the era – which is quite helpful for those of us who know these writers only through isolated quotes. The next section of the book takes up Hellenistic astrology itself, dealing with both philosophical and technical matters. As the book progresses, it gets more technical, although the reader who has followed along won’t be lost in jargon (although there is a great deal of terminology, it is benign in the hands of Brennan’s lucid writing). The presentation of technique is clear, and is coupled with examples and plenty of visual aids.
This book isn’t light reading (although it made fine summer reading for this astrologer), but for those with an interest in the origins of astrology, it is indispensable. It would also make an important contribution to the knowledge of those interested in classical philosophy and the culture of the Hellenistic Era. Part detective novel, part history, and part philosophy, in Hellenistic Astrology Chris Brennan shows us how Hellenistic astrologers shared a common thread of knowledge while they often differed in techniques and viewpoints. It is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.