Ancient Oracles and Astrology

The further one goes back into history the more enmeshed astrology, astronomy and divination become. The Mesopotamian scribe of the 2nd millennium B.C. could in fact embody all of these roles. Only in the course of time did they separate. So that in our own time each is quite distinct. No respectable astronomer would consider predicting the position of a planet or the exact time of an eclipse as anything extraordinary. This was once a great feat! Nor would any respectable astrologer want to have himself classed as a soothsayer, even though he might practice predictive astrology. I would like to explore some common features of astronomy, astrology and divination.

The Mesopotamian – I will use this term generally for Sumerian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Assyrian, etc. – was a great recorder of events, particularly celestial events:

Early Babylonian observations are not especially precise. (The remarkable accuracy of the Babylonian observers is a silly fiction that one still frequently encounters in popular writing about astronomy.) The important thing is that there was a tradition of actually making observations and of recording them carefully and a social mechanism for preserving the records. ( James Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, p. 14)

Any natural event, such as rainbows, eclipses, anomalies on a sheep’s liver was seen to be as a sign of the activity of a god or goddess. They were omens. And these were collected and catalogued. Over centuries. The sheer mass of material allowed them to see patterns, and so they were indeed able, through understanding the pattern of past lunar eclipses to generally predict future eclipses. They arranged lunar eclipses in 18 year groups. This understanding of patterns and their interconnections underlies the development of both later astronomy and astrology. I think that the hermetic axiom, “As above so below” has roots here. What we would today call predicting an astronomical event is usually described in the scholarly literature, a certain embarrassment arises when it comes to astrology.  But many of the astrological attributions in the tradition also have their roots in the search for and grasping of patterns. For example what are called the ‘terms’ or ‘bounds’ are likely to have their origin in ancient Mesopotamian astroscience, whether they are called ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Chaldean’ or ‘Ptolemaeic’. They have inherited the character of a patterned cuneiform tabular presentation.  A celestial event was observed, recorded and then compared with similar observations recorded in tables of omens. So for example if a blood red sunset was observed in the month of March the following text might have been looked up:

“If in the month of Nissun (March), the sunset is bloody and Nergal (Mars) rises, then there will be bloodshed and revolt.”

But something similar could also be found in extispicy (sheep-liver oracle). Here an omen tablet might say:

“If a Design is drawn from the centre of the top of the Station to the Gate of the Palace and a ‘weapon’-mark points parallel to it: a leader will leave his country.” (Station and Gate of the Palace are parts of the liver. For an excellent description go to Higher Education Academy)

The Sheep-Liver oracle and astrological oracle had many similarities. I would like to list three that are of particular interest to us because they can be easily associated with signs, houses and planets or sensitive points:

  • The celestial sphere was divided into 12 signs at a fairly early period. In a similar fashion the liver was also divided into generic regions.
  • Along with the signs was the division into regions. Whether these regions can also be understood as an early form of houses is an open question. It is possible that there was no distinction made. On the other hand there are any number of sheep liver models which have grids on them along with indications.

    Sheep liver model found in the British Museum

    Sheep liver model found in the British Museum

  • Then there were the planets that could be found in particular regions at given times. The same was with anomalies on the sheep’s liver. They had meaning based on quality (colour, pattern, convex/concave) size and position.

Fortune telling tablets have also been discovered by archeologists. Their appearance seem to have been inspired by the more ‘scientific’ depictions of constellations, or yes, liver models. These were tablets with a grid marked with various indications, but these were only activated when a lot was cast on the tablet and landed there. A god or goddess is invoked and they guide the lot to the correct answer. The metaphor of the casting of a die or lot is to this day present in the English language; the ‘casting’ of a horoscope.

In following some discussions I am not always sure whether some in their endeavor to find the roots of astrological science – always laudable – may not in their enthusiam adopt practices which might be the antique equivalent to the modern day computer-generated horoscope interpretation? For example some say that whole houses are the original system used in the Hellenistic period and advocate a return to their use. But is there sufficient evidence that a soothsayer’s tablet is not being confused with a chart based on astronomical calculation? Or that the method that is ‘discovered’ was used by a soothsayer and not an astronomer/astrologer? We know that the Mesopotamian did not yet have trigonometry and did not use the geometrical methods used by the Hellenes. This was a major advance both mathematically and astronomically/astrologically. Without it other techniques, such as primary directions, etc. could not have been developed. What does this tell us? Explore, experiment, try to understand ancient techniques, but don’t let enthusiam lead to the trap of exclusiveness/exclusion. Nicolas Culpeper would say, “Don’t forget to consult Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience.”


2 thoughts on “Ancient Oracles and Astrology

  1. Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for this very interesting article and for Dr. Nustuabuk’s amusing introduction to the subject.

    Do you (or the dear Dr.) intend toexpand this into a series of articles about ancient priestly oracles of various cultures ( “Urim and Tummim” for example) or is the above a singular instance ?

    Naggie 🙂

  2. Hello Naggie!

    That is a very good suggestion! Maybe I will. Urim and Tummim might be a good start. Any particular aspect, other than the astrological connection, that would interest you especially?

    You are very welcome! And thank you for your support. 🙂


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