Monday, January 25, 2010


I was fifteen when I first returned to the home country. Stepping of the plane and travelling to meet my aunts for the first time, I was replete in the expectation of an expression of bittersweet gushing sentiments about the tyranny of distance that sunders familial ties and inexorable determinations of unity based on the fact the blood is of greater viscosity than water. What I received in its stead, was the following question: "What star sign are you?" My star sign is ambiguous as I was born on the 21st of May, something which is known as the "cusp,' whereupon depending upon which reading one adopts, I am either Taurus or Gemini and depending upon which facet of my character one has the misfortune to be exposed to, I display facets of both.
The Greeks of Greece are absorbed by astrology and the horoscope. The reading and ensuing discussion of the horoscope forms a significant segment of daily morning shows and plays an important consideration in matchmaking. On my first trip to Greece, I entered a taxi driven by a huge, hairy bear of a man with a lilting lisp. «Κούκλε μου, τι ζώδιο είσαι;» he asked, as I fastened my seat-belt, the primary give-away sign of the foreigner. Taken aback not only by his unsolicited display of camaraderie but also by my wonderment as to how a man of such mythical proportions could conflate them into the limited space of a vehicular exoskeleton and indeed, how this could possibly impinge upon my innocence, I decided not to antagonize the beast, stammering: Ταύρος.» «Τάυρος στον έρωτα;» he wheezed, in his impossibly high, insinuating voice, placing his hand on my knee. As I imagined myself disappearing slowly down the back of his cigarette-tarred throat, having first been immobilized by a crushed knee-cap, I hastily alighted. Relating my ordeal to my aunts hours later, they thought for a while and then pronounced: "He must have been a Virgo. All Virgan taxi drivers are perverted." After casting my horoscope through the use of a do it yourself astrological chart to be found on the back cover of «ΚΛΙΚ» magazine, sporting a particularly pneumatic semi-clad goddess, which at the time I found infinitely more absorbing, my aunts predicted that the people that will entrance, captivate and otherwise scratch indelible grooves upon the turntable of my psyche throughout the course of my life will be of the Scorpian persuasion. In this at least, they were uncannily correct.
Despite the threadbare mantra that would hold our race to be, at its best, a most dispassionate and logical one, we seem to be engrossed by the supernatural and this is a thread that transcends the ages of our sojourn as a collective identity upon this earth. After all, the term astrology is a Greek one, signifying the study of the stars, though it seems that
the origins of much of the astrological doctrine and method that would later develop in Eurasia are to be found among the ancient Babylonians and their system of celestial omens that began to be compiled around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Before Alexander's conquest, the practice of astronomy and astrology in Babylon flourished but was not yet of much interest to the Greek thinkers. Babylonian priests/astrologers, notably Berossus, who settled on the island of Cos, are thought to be responsible for introducing astrology to Greece and the surrounding area. Plato mentions those who seek celestial portents in the Timaeus while the student of Plato who authored the Epinomis paved the way for application of astronomical studies to astral piety.
Epinomis, most likely written by Phillip of Opus, demonstrates a transformation of the view of the heaven that soon paved the "western way" for astrology. This dialogue shows the transformation of the planets into visible representations of the Olympian gods, just as the Babylonian planets were images of their pantheon. The older names of the planets encountered in Homer and Hesiod designated their appearance rather than divine personification. Jupiter was shining (Phaithon), Mercury was twinkling (Stilbon), Mars was fiery (Pureos) and Venus was the bright morning star and evening star (Phosphoros and Vesperos). In the Epinomis, the planets are given proper names for Greek gods, though the author leaves open the question of whether the celestial beings are the gods themselves or likenesses fashioned by the gods. The author of Epinomis extends the sentiment of astral piety evident in the Laws, and goes so far as to say that the highest virtue is piety, and that astronomy is the art/science that leads to this virtue- for it teaches the orderliness of the celestial gods, harmony, and number. While Plato himself would never place the heavenly gods in direct control of a person's destiny, the distinction between the fatalism of such a control measured by astrology and an astral piety that permitted some intervention of gods in human affairs was not sharply drawn. Does the care of the gods for "all things great and small" mean that it is through their activities or motions they control, guide or occasionally intervene in human matters? While a clear distinction between astral piety and practical astrology is not apparent, later texts on mystery cults, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and magic demonstrate that someone who either worships stars, or is concerned with their ontological status, need not be technically proficient in astronomy. Nor must they believe that life is fated by astrally determined necessity. Likewise, the technical Hellenistic astrologers who calculated birth charts and made predictions did not necessarily practice rituals in reverence to planetary gods.
As the intellectual centre in Egypt, Alexandria oversaw major developments in Hellenistic astrology. Surviving Greek astrological writings, catalogued over a period of fifty years in a work called the Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, reveal that for the sake of credibility, many of the Hellenistic astrologers attributed the earliest astrological works to historical or mythologized figures such as the pharaoh Nechepso, an Egyptian priest associated with Petosiris. Hermes is a legendary figure credited with the invention of astrology. Some fragments attributed to Hermes survive while some of the Nechepso/Petosiris work from the mid-second century B.C.E. survives in quotes by later authors. Asclepius, Anubio, Zoroaster, Abraham, Pythagoras, and Orpheus are additional figures having astrological works penned in their names. There are late Hellenistic references to three Babylonian astronomers/astrologers, Kidenas, Soudines and Naburianos. The rivalry between the Hellenistic Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms may be reflected in the astrologers' varying attributions of the origins of astrology to Egyptians or Babylonians (called the Chaldaeans). By the second century B.C Babylonian astrology techniques were combined with Egyptian calendars and religious practices, Hermeticism, the Pythagorean sacred mathematics, and the philosophies of the Stoics and middle Platonists.
After a system or systems of Hellenistic astrology quickly developed, the later practitioners and writers did not follow any one philosophical influence as a whole. In fact, the surviving instructional texts only scantily betray the philosophical positions of the authors. Vettius Valens, whose Anthologiarum is one of the most valuable sources for historians of this subject, indicates Stoic leanings. The astrologer, astronomer, and geographer whose work greatly influenced later development of astrology, Claudius Ptolemy using Aristotelian influenced manners of argumentation that had been absorbed by other Hellenistic schools such as the Middle Platonists and the Academic Sceptics, sought to portray astrology as a natural science, while dismissing a good portion of doctrine due to lack of systematic rigor. The later Platonic Academy had its fair share of astrological interest - head of the academy in the first century, Thrasyllus, for example, acted as an astrologer to Emperor Tiberius and is credited for works on astrology and numerology. He also predicted his own death. Neoplatonists Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus all practiced or accepted some form of astrology conforming to their unique contributions to Neoplatonism. It is thus difficult to imagine that the practice of astrology would have been divorced from philosophy by philosophers who were also astrologers. The idea of astrology, as a systematic account of fate, had a pervasive impact on the influential thinkers of the time who helped to shape the theoretical and cosmological understanding of the practice. Thinkers in the skeptical Academy and Pyrrhonic schools sought to attack the theoretical underpinnings of the practice of astrology, using a variety of arguments centering around freedom, the ontological status of the stars and planets, and the logical or practical limitations of astrological claims.
Horsocopes too can be attributed to us and continued the debate about fate. Technical manuals by Greek-speaking astrologers used for casting and interpreting horoscopic charts date as early as the late second century B.C. Many surviving scrolls exemplify the practice of katarchical astrology, or the selection of the most auspicious moment for a given activity. Katarkhe was also used to ascertain events that had already happened, to view the course of an illness, or track down thieves, lost objects, and runaway slaves. This use of astrology implies that the astrologers themselves did not prescribe to strict fatalism, at least the kind that dictates that knowledge from signs of the heavens cannot influence events. Such fascination with either the fate or predisposition of individuals reflects a stronger concern in the late Hellenistic world for the life of the individual in a period of rapid political and social change.
Hermes Trismegistus, not a form of a venereal disease but a syncretic deity combining the Egyptian Thoth and Hermes, inspired the study of Hermetica, secret knowledge based on astrology, throughout the Middle Ages. Quite frankly, the whole thing makes the uninitiated see stars. The other day, an associate of mine confided in me that he will not do business with someone until he had cast their astrological chart, as this gives him unique insight into their psyche. He also advised that a knowledge of astrology is particularly useful in engaging otherwise disinterested females in conversation and determining which ones to pursue. In riposte to my incredulity and question as to what transpires should the charts fail, he came up with the following Cretan folksong: «Άστρα μη με μαλώνετε που τραγουδώ τη νύχτα,/ Ω, γιατί 'χα πόνο στη καρδιά και βγήκα και τον είπα.»
Until next week then, the diatribe horoscope leaves you with the following prediction: «ΤΑΥΡΟΙ ΣΤΟΝ ΕΡΩΤΑ!»


First published in NKEE on 25 January 2010