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Did Ancient Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BC practice Astrology?

Did Ancient Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BC practice Astrology?


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I'm aware that Ancient Egyptians did chart stars and have a relatively robust understanding of astronomy for the time. However, did they (say, in the 2nd millenium BC) practice astrology, such that they believed the stars and planets reveal or could be affected by human activities? Or did this only come about later, when it was more Hellenistic?


According to the main authoritiy on ancient astronomy and astrology, Otto Neugebauer, astrology was introduced to Hellenistic world from Babylon. (If you not know who he is, look at this Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Neugebauer). Here is what he writes on Egypt in general:

Egypt provides us with the exceptional case of a highly sophisticated civilization which florished for many centuries without making a single contribution to the development of the exact sciences…

This strongly contradicts to what many other authors (ancient and modern) say about Egyptian astronomy and mathematics, but on my opinion, Neugebauer had really studied this question carefully, unlike those other authors. The legends about Egyptian math and astronomy come from the Ancient Greece, and later they were uncritically repeated by other authors. Modern research shows that these are really legends.

Moreover, Neugebauer, who was mostly interested in the history of astronomy, also carefully studied Hellenistic horoscopes, trying to find there interesting information about astronomical knowledge. He places the origin of astrology at about -1000 in Babylon. This "science" penetrated to the West (including Egypt) after Alexander's conquest.

His book (second reference below) contains an interesting graph showing the number of known Hellenistic horoscopes distributed by years. (A horoscope is relatively easy to date precisely from the information contained in it). According to this graph, there are none before the year -100, and the sharp maximum falls on the year 100, with sharp decrease by 200, and very sharp decrease around 500, when pagan science (including mathematics and astrology) was formally banned by Justinian.

It is true that most horoscopes are found in Egypt, but this was Hellenistic Egypt, and majority were in written Greek, with some in (demotic) Egyptian.

Sources: A brief but very informative account is O. Neugebauer, The exact sciences in antiquity, Harper torchbooks, 1962. A comprehensive source is O. Neugebauer, A History of Ancient mathematical astronomy, in 3 vols., Springer 1975.

EDIT. I address some comments on my answer. Very few serious scientists would spend their time to study such nonsense as horoscopes. Neugebauer and his collaborators are actually the only scientists whom I know who did this. Surviving Hellenistic astronomy sources are so scarce, that literally everything which came to us from that time was carefully combed for even the smallest hints of relevant information. Perhaps I am missing something, and will be grateful if someone gives a reference to another reliable study. This does not include astrologers themselves, of course:-)


First off, in ancient cultures, astronomy and astrology were virtually the same discipline. There were certain practical aspects to the study of astronomy, particularly the measurement of time and the development of calendar systems, but outside of that, there was little or no abstract, scientific study of astronomy for its own sake:

Astronomy:

Astronomy is the oldest of the natural sciences, dating back to antiquity, with its origins in the religious, mythological, and astrological practices of pre-history: vestiges of these are still found in astrology, a discipline long interwoven with public and governmental astronomy, and not completely disentangled from it until a few centuries ago in the Western World (see astrology and astronomy). In some cultures astronomical data was used for astrological prognostication

Only at a relatively late period did the study of astronomy for its own sake begin to develop:

… A particularly important early development was the beginning of mathematical and scientific astronomy… The Babylonians discovered that lunar eclipses recurred in a repeating cycle known as a saros… Following the Babylonians, significant advances in astronomy were made in ancient Greece and the Hellenistic world…

So, if the ancient Egyptians were astronomers, we can be fairly certain they were also astrologers:

Astrology consists of several systems of divination based on the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world. Many cultures have attached importance to astronomical events, and the Indians, Chinese, and Mayans developed elaborate systems for predicting terrestrial events from celestial observations…

The very fascinating discipline of Archaeoastronomy has revealed that the ancient Egyptian temples and monuments were astronomically aligned:

The Orientation of Egyptian Temples:

The precise alignment of temples and pyramids was undoubtedly a result of astronomical observation. (A feature noticeably absent from Djoser's pyramid at Saqqara). Sir Norman Lockyer suggested that several of the great Egyptian temple complexes were orientated towards astronomically significant points on the horizon. His theories are disputed to this day even though there is now a substantial amount of supporting research in favour of his original suppositions…

A clear division can be identified between the orientation of ancient Egyptian temples of upper Egypt when compared with those of Lower Egypt. Lockyer (2), made note of the fact that whereas the early dynastic northern 'Memphite' pyramids, Giza pyramids, and Sphinx were orientated cardinally to face equinoxial phases of the solar cycle, the great temples in the south of Egypt, such as Karnack, the Colossi of Memnon and Abydoss, were all orientated to capture the suns rays on Solstice days of the year.

Nabta Playa: (Stone Circle):

Article - Science Daily 1998

An assembly of huge stone slabs found in Egypt's Sahara Desert that date from about 6,500 years to 6,000 years ago has been confirmed by scientists to be the oldest known astronomical alignment of megaliths in the world.

Known as Nabta, the site consists of a stone circle, a series of flat, tomb-like stone structures and five lines of standing and toppled megaliths. Located west of the Nile River in southern Egypt, Nabta predates Stonehenge and similar prehistoric sites around the world by about 1,000 years, said University of Colorado at Boulder astronomy Professor J. McKim Malville…

And much more there: Egyptian Astronomy

If so, it's quite clear that the Ancient Egyptians believed that there were intimate connections between their earthly activities and religious practices, and those of the visible heavens, as expressed in these many astronomically aligned structures: Divination based on the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world.


Ancient Witchcraft: How Magic Was Used in Ancient Egypt

Weighing of the heart, from the Book of the Dead. British Museum

The basis for Egyptian witchcraft came from a range of sources. A practitioner of magic had to know alchemy, astrology, astronomy, animal concoctions, and herbal medicines. It took a combination of these with a touch of religion and relationship with a personal god to make someone truly skilled. The most powerful skills were written ones because so little of the population was literate that a written spell would be passed down among families.

Wands were also used and were intricately decorated and highly prized. They were used to summon magical beings and force the being to obey the magician, priest or witch that was calling them. Semi-circular ivory wands were known to be used around the second millennium BC. Some believed that they were used to draw protective circles around those that were vulnerable, such as women giving birth or those that were ill.

Amulets were also used for spells, protection and magic. They could be made by a skilled practitioner, either male or female, and would be worn by an individual for protection or used in spells. Strangely enough individuals performing spells was not frowned upon by the leaders or the priests because it was not common for anyone to do harmful magic. It was believed that only foreigners did bad magic.

The Egyptians themselves were only known to do truly bad magic against their enemies. If the state wanted to punish an enemy or a traitor they would write the name of person on pots, tablets or on bound figurines. These objects were then burned or buried in the belief that would weaken their enemy. There was also a ceremony that the priests could perform that would curse the enemies of the divine order such as the chaos serpent Apophis who was at war with the sun god.

Images of those that were believed to be threatening the divine order would be drawn on papyrus or modeled out of clay. These would then be trampled, burned and stabbed, then the remnants would be dissolved in urine. These ceremonies also allowed for any human enemies of the Pharaoh to be drawn and cursed as well.

During the reign of Ramesses III, a group of priests, harem girls, and courtiers decided to use a book of destructive spells against the king and his body guards. The harem girls were able to get the needed hair to place on the figurines in order to improve the power of the spells. However, the plot failed to bring down the king and all those involved were condemned to death. Proving that either magic was not as powerful as the Egyptians believed or that magic could not be used against the one the gods had chosen to rule.


Historical Astrology In Egypt

Astrology has played a major role in society since the beginning of civilization, and maybe even before that. Its influence can be seen in almost every part of the world. Astrologys history is a long one, and common belief is that its origins lie with the Greeks. However, a closer look shows that the foundations for astrology were laid much earlier than that, and the Egyptians had much to do with this. The Egyptian influence will be discussed shortly but first, it will be very helpful to describe the history of astrology up to the point that the Egyptians became involved.

The Sumerians, who settled in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, mark the first example of a people who worshipped the sun, moon, and Venus. They considered these heavenly bodies gods, or the homes of gods. The moon gods name was Nanna, the sun god was called Utu, and the god of Venus was named Inanna. These were not the only gods the Sumerians worshipped in fact, other gods, especially those of creation, were more important in the Sumerian pantheon. The Akkandians, near Sumer, adopted the sun, moon and Venus gods, changing their names. This was common with the gods in ancient times: the gods were accepted by a society, but their names were changed, depending on who had conquered whom.

The priests of the time who communicated with the gods were the first rulers. Temple systems were created and staffs of as many as several hundred to several thousand people in various roles were "employed" to fulfill various needs of the priests. There were junior priests, counselors, musicians, potters, etc. Later, it became necessary to have military leaders and some of these became kings. These kings usually had in their company a seer, or "baru-priest." This person was an interpreter of the skies -- he would read the sky for warnings, which usually involved eclipses of the moon. It could be said that the "baru-priests" were the first actual astrologers. In order to be able to communicate with the gods, mounds were built which represented shrines. These, over time, grew to larger structures called "ziggurats." (Later, these ziggurats would be used to map the star formations and to watch the sky for omens.)

The Sumerian baru-priests were under quite a bit of pressure to predict correctly. Predictions became more an art than science, since the priests had to be a bit crafty in their work. They did succeed in predicting eclipses with correct mathematics thus contributing greatly to the later development of the laws of astronomy. (It may be useful at this point for some to make the distinction between astrology and astronomy. Astronomy is the scientific study of the stars and planets and their movements. Astrology is the pseudoscientific study of the influence those heavenly bodies and their movements have on humankind.) Astrology as we, or even the ancient Greeks, would consider it did not exist at this time. The priests were concerned with predicting natural events (weather, eclipses, etc.) in order to maintain their power. Their efforts, however, did contribute to the development of astrology -- they designed a calendar identified the basic cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars and divided their year into twelve months based on the moons twelve cycles during a year.

The beginnings of actual astrology can be seen during the Old Babylonian period, during the second millennium. The focus of the Babylonians was on the well-being of the kingdom and the king, not of the individual. For this reason, predictions revolved around things that would affect this well-being. The Babylonian priests correctly documented Venuss appearances and disappearances and because of this erratic behavior (due to the fact that Venus revolves about the sun backwards) Venus became associated with love and war. Somewhere around 1300 BC, the precursors of the individual birth horoscopes were formulated. These were merely predictions based on which month a child was born in. By this time the astral bodies have become quite significant at this point.

The Assyrian Era marked a new phase in the development of astrology. This time period lasted from about 1300 to 600 BC The Assyrians conquered Babylon in 729 BC, and the inevitable changing of the gods occurred. At this time, the sun god, called Shamash now, was deemed high god. The state was still considered more important than the individual thus the omens and predictions were still directed at the events that would affect the state. The Assyrians overcame a long time problem -- they created a consistent and accurate calendar. Star maps were plotted correctly, constellations were formed, and astrolabes, or lists of stars were made. Omens were very important to the Assyrians and the priests-astrologers-astronomers would present their omens to the courts often. Those who could forecast good things were well-respected.

As mentioned above, the Assyrians had developed constellations. In fact, they plotted eighteen all together. Later, by 600 BC, some of these would be combined and some would be deleted to form the twelve constellations of the zodiac. There is a certain amount of controversy over just how these constellations were named. The following is a list of the names: the Latin name first -- the name we are most familiar with, then the Babylonian name. Much of astrology today is based on the relationships these constellations have with the seasons. The constellations should not be confused with the traditional signs of the zodiac, as the latter had not yet been created.

1) Aries - Luhunga 7) Libra - Zihanitum
2) Taurus - Guanna or Mul 8) Scorpio - Gir-tab
3) Gemini - Mastabagalgal or Mash 9) Sagittarius - Pah
4) Cancer - Nangar 10) Capricorn - Suhur
5) Leo - U-ra 11) Aquarius - Gu or Gula
6) Virgo - Absin 12) Pisces - Zib

The Assyrians placed as much or even more importance on the five planets they had identified and their movements into these constellations. The reason for this is that they believed the planets were gods or at least the home of gods. The names given to these planets as well as the sun and moon were eventually replaced by the Greek names, then the Roman names, and eventually the English names. In Assyrian times the names were as follows: Sun=Shamash, Moon=Sin, Venus=Ishtar, Mercury=Nebo or Nabu, Mars=Nergal, Saturn=Ninurta, and Jupiter=Marduk. The various personalities and domains of these gods changed with time and change of rulership.

The next phase in the history of astrology is the New Babylonian period (600-300 BC). Some of the prominent astrologers of this period were Kiddinu, Berossus, Antipatrus, Achinopoulus, and Sudines. Up to this point, really the only kind of astrology being practiced was omen astrology, or the foretelling of major events. It was during the New Babylonian period that the signs of the zodiac were invented and horoscope, or birth, astrology had its beginnings. As of 1996, sixteen Babylonian horoscopes have been found and it was not uncommon for these horoscopes to contain little or no prediction. They mostly consist of the position of the skies at the time of conception or birth of the individual.

The Greeks began their immense influence on astrology during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Alexander the Great managed to spread the Greek way of life, also known as Hellenism, to places such as Alexandria and Antioch. The Hellenistic period spanned from the time of his death in 323 BC to the middle of the second century BC, when the Romans took the eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks were responsible for incorporating mythology into astrology. The names we are familiar with today when we think of mythology came into existence. Up to this point, the same gods existed, just under different names and personalities.

This was the age of such famous forerunners of modern science as Plato, Pythagoras, who asserted that the earth was round and traveled around the sun Leucippus, whose theory would later be the beginnings of atomic science and Aristotle. Other scientists involved with the study of astronomy, such as Eudoxus, held the opinion that astrology was ridiculous and no one should believe prediction about his life based on which day he was born. Nevertheless, astrologers such as Critodemus, Apollonius of Myndus, and Epigenes of Byzantium continued to refine horoscopic astrology.

The Romans were not as accepting of astrology. About 250 BC, a large number of the common citizenry became interested in astrology, but the conservatives fought against most any outside religion, including Christianity. They presented quite logical arguments against the use of astrology and horoscopes, saying that people born on the same day at the same time had very different destinies, and that people born on different days at different times sometimes died at the same times. Nevertheless, astrology spread into Rome, despite several attempts to expel all astrologers from the empire. Eventually, astrology gained acceptance, mostly because the Romans had a certain respect for the Greeks education. If the Romans had not finally allowed astrology into their culture, things might have been very different as far as the Egyptians contributions to the art.

In 331 BC, Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria. This marks the beginning of the Graeco-Roman period in Egypts history. Alexandria became one of the most famous of the Hellenistic capitals. Hellenism is the term describing the Greek way of life. The people of Alexandria retained some of their Egyptian culture, but it became mixed with that of the Greeks, Romans, Macedonians, Persians, Syrians, Jewish, and Chaldeans. When the Roman Empire began its decline, Alexandria managed to maintain its prestige as a center for cultural activity. By the time Alexandria began its decline, the scientific revolution was over, and astrology was accepted and believed by almost everyone. It was at this time that Claudius Ptolemy surfaced.

Almost nothing is known about Claudius Ptolemy. It is known that he was not Greek and was not even a Ptolemy (that is, he was not related to the Ptolemaic rulers). He was an Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, and geographer who lived in the vicinity of Alexandria. Bits and pieces of information from his writings and from comments from his contemporaries are the only sources of information about Ptolemys life. He was born in Upper Egypt, and some say that he was the head librarian at the museum or library at Alexandria.

Ptolemy worked from the data of past astrologers to map over one thousand stars. He compiled a list of 48 constellations, and, for the most part, described the longitude and latitude lines of the earth. He was a believer that the earth was the center of the universe and worked to advance this theory. His effort in this area was in his thirteen volume work called the Almagest. Here, the Ptolemaic system is described, thus explaining why some planets seemed to move backwards for periods of time in their orbit around earth. He theorized that each planet also revolved in a smaller circle as well as a larger one. This was called the "epicycle." This theory would survive for 1400 years, until it was finally accepted that the earth was itself another planet in orbit around the sun.

Ptolemy also dabbled in other areas of study. He wrote the book, Geography, and in it created maps and latitudes and longitudes. He studied the refraction of light in his book, Optics. Also, he studied harmonics and wrote yet another book describing his findings. However, it was his work called Mathematical Treatise in Four Books, also referred to as The Prognostics Addressed to Syrus, that would be the foundation for modern astrology as it is practiced in the West. The name we use for the work today is the Tetrabiblos. Nothing is known about how Ptolemy acquired his data for this work however, his access to the library at Alexandria would be the best guess.

No original version of the Tetrabiblos still exists. All that remain are translations and copies of it, the oldest of which is Arabic and dates only to AD 900. Eventually, the Latin translations became familiar to the Europeans. The English version was translated from that of the Greeks in 1940. There were four books to this work, and each dealt with a different aspect of astrology:

The first book defined Ptolemys reasoning for practicing astrology as well as astronomy, for by this time, there were many who opposed astrology. He said that it should not be abandoned merely because there are a few people who abuse it. This book also deals with the various alignments of planets, the moon, and the sun. Ptolemy describes in detail which positions are favorable and which are not. He also explained the signs, when they begin, and why they begin there.

The second book of the Tetrabiblos describes astrology as it relates to countries. Ptolemy makes the point that astrological events of countries and race supersede those of the individual. He details which planets rule over which country, and makes the distinction between human signs and animal signs. He notes that human signs cause things to happen to humans and animal signs affect animals. Finally, Ptolemy explains how the planets affect earth. For example, Saturn was thought to cause cold, floods, poverty, and death. Mars caused war and drought. Comets and shooting stars were thought to also affect the weather.

The third book dealt with the individual. The Tetrabiblos examined conception and birth, saying that it was better to work with the conception date and that this date should be known by observation. Several key factors were involved with this aspect of astrology. The sign that was rising at the time of conception, the moons phase, and the movements of the planets were all taken into consideration. The fathers influence was shown through the sun and Saturn, while the mothers was shown through the moon and Venus.

Finally, the forth book of the Tetrabiblos handled matters of occupation, marriage, children, travel, and "houses" of the zodiac. The particular angles of various planets were used to calculate these things.

The Tetrabiblos compiled almost all of the astrological works up to that point. Only very few modifications have been made since then, and most of what we know as astrology comes from this work. Critics claim that it is "tedious and dry" to read, and that there are some contradictions in Ptolemys ideas. Furthermore, he did not take into account the precession of the equinoxes. He undoubtedly knew about this phenomenon, an overlapping between signs and constellations that gets larger over time (about 5 degrees per three hundred years), but why he did not examine or explain this is a mystery and one of the biggest flaws of his work.

There were also problems with his correlation between astrology and the seasons. His belief that the conception time was preferable to birth time is a misguided one, as conception time for an individual is actually rather difficult to calculate. There were other errors in his work, mostly dealing with beliefs of the time and misinformation about astronomy however, for the most part, the Tetrabiblos has proved invaluable to this day.

Ptolemy himself seemed to be quite egotistical. It is thought that he may never have actually practiced astrology, and there has not been a single horoscope found that was created by him. Some say that his writing almost reflects an embarrassment about astrology, and suggest that perhaps he might not have been a scholar of the art, but more a reporter of it.

Probably the most disturbing accusation against Ptolemy is that his figures were intentionally skewed and doctored to fit his hypotheses. A study of Ptolemys figures was done in 1977, and the findings were that most of his data was fraudulent. For more on this subject, one should refer to the book by R. Newton, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy. It is hard to hold this against Ptolemy he was, of course, working in ancient times. However, had he used correct numbers in his work, it might not have taken future scholars 1400 more years to correct wrong ideas concerning the universe.

In his defense, he was living during a time when "politically incorrect" beliefs could be grounds for punishment. It actually may not have been safe for him to expose the truth instead he may have been forced to make his numbers fit into incorrect theories. He knew enough about the truth. the precession of the equinoxes and the theories that postulated that the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun. Apparently, fear for his own life is the reason why he did not act on his knowledge.

After Ptolemy, many astrologers followed. Some notable Egyptians in the field were Paul of Alexandria, Hephaestion of Thebes, and Palchus, though little other than their names are known about these people. Ptolemys work was continued and commented on by the Alexandrian mathematician Pappus, the mathematician/astronomer Theon of Alexandria, and the Greek mathematician Proclus, who wrote a paraphrase of Ptolemys Tetrabiblos.

After about AD 500, astrology died away for a while. It came alive again in the eighth century when Islam began practicing Hellenistic astrology. It was Albumasar, a Muslim intellectual, who was instrumental in bringing astrology as we know it to the Western world.

In conclusion, it can be said that Egypt has played a major role in the development of astrology. Egypt has had the pleasure of experiencing many different cultures in its land, which has enriched Egypts history and aided its people to become innovators of new ideas that would last for centuries and even on into today.

1. Abetti, Giorgio. The History of Astrology. Henry Schuman, New York. 1952.

2. Doig, Peter. A Concise History of Astronomy. Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London. 1950.

3. Dreyer, J. L. E. A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler. Dover Publications, New York. 1953.

4. Newton, R. R. Ancient Astronomical Observations and the Accelerations of the Earth and Moon. The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore and London. 1970.

5. Stewart, J. V., M. D. Astrology: Whats Really in the Stars. Prometheus Books, New York. 1996. 6. Taub, Liba Chaia. Ptolemys Universe. Open Court, Illinois. 1993.


Horoscopes

A horoscope is a map of the zodiacal circle with Earth at the center. The top of the circle represents the Sun at its highest point during the day and left and right of that are the eastern and western horizons.

Your horoscope charts the relative positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars at a specific time and place of your choosing (e.g., the date, time and location of your birth). Astrologers don't use "clock time." Rather, they measure it as "sidereal" time, as measured from the sun's position at the spring equinox.

Once the date and time are selected and calculated as sidereal time and the location known and plotted, the astrologer consults an astronomical ephemeris (a table listing the locations of the Sun, Moon, planets, and constellations at any given time) to construct the chart.

While all this used to be tedious and exacting, computer software programs have made it extremely easy. The science of constructing a chart, however, is only the first step. Proper interpretation of the chart is both an art and a science. Properly done, it reveals personality insights and current trends, and should only be entrusted to a highly trained and accredited astrologer.


The Book of the Dead

The much celebrated Book of the Dead states that the main gates to distant, other world will never open to you, until you know your secret name or when you utter it an incorrect manner.

Egyptians were the first people to maintain and chronicle a number of superb books containing innumerable formulae, incantations, recitations, verses, poems, spells, charms and magical utterances for daily use and for special purposes. People found them very useful in the daily lives. One such tool was amulets that were very important for a number of purposes amulets worn by the living people gave protection from ghosts and spirits, while when put on the dead souls, they saved them from bad influences. Amulets are those intuitive pieces of instruments made by using any materials and some of them carved with magical formulae. Amulets also came in a number of shapes and sizes like scarab and heart. Amulets also came in different forms just to protect different parts of the body.

Egyptian history is also a big book of magic and occult, as it the science of magic appears in details even during the era of Great Moses and his brother Aaron. Exodus provides a graphical detail of the intense duel between these two brothers just remember the famous incident of stick turning into a snake. Moses’ influence also included such things as pest infestation, plagues, and darkness during the day and torrential rains in the entire Egyptian territories. Incidentally, the appearance of plague through out the country is a manifestation of God’s fury and punishment.

King Solomon was a magician indeed, as mentioned in the book, The Wisdom of Solomon. This book provides details on how God gave him special powers including the capability to perform magic and occult. King Solomon had a great power to control even the most powerful demons. King Solomon is also a known expert in exorcising ghosts from human bodies.


Impact

The extant record indicates that astrological interpretations of celestial patterns date to ancient Mesopotamia. Astrology evolved from simple celestial observation, onto which was laid a theological base of interpretation. The movements of celestial objects were used as portents of the future—a methodology to predict the rise of kings, the fate of empires, and other issues critical to the continuation of power by the ruling priestly class.

Aside from a desire to elevate mankind's terrestrial existence to an astral plane, the development of astrology in Babylonian society provides evidence that in the development of Babylonian cosmology, the universe was thought to be a vital (living) entity. This societal worldview and quest for the heavens is also strongly reflected in the construction of Mesopotamian ziggurats (tiered towers with temples).

The experience of Babylonia was repeated in the rise of astrology in India, China, and among the Mayan civilizations in Central America.

However errant by the standards of modern science, the development of a zodiacal-based cosmology in ancient Babylonia signaled an attempt by early man to rely on something fixed and objective as a determinant force in human affairs. Prior to the development of ancient astrology, the tide of events was left more to the whimsy of widely varying bias toward dreams and visions as portents of future events.

The accurate prediction of the movements of the Sun, Moon, and celestial sphere took on an enormous practical importance to stable and successful agricultural development. In a very real sense, the rise of ancient astrology in Babylonia was an outgrowth of continual refinements to ancient calendars that were themselves predictors of the ebb and flow of the seasons. Accordingly, it may be fairly argued that this desire for prediction underpinning astrology also spurred the rise of real astronomical science as a more mundane cyclical predictor of celestial and seasonal occurrences. There was, for example, a chain understanding of terrestrial seasons and events derived from the regularity of variation in the location of the rising and setting Sun.

Over time, the regularity of observation first emphasized by Babylonian astrologers made the accurate prediction of the flooding of the Nile River a practical benefit of later Egyptian astronomy. Regardless of the initial religious importance of the movements of bright star Sirius, eventually the location of its rise on the horizon of the Nile plain became an accurate predictor of annual Nile flooding.

Although a proper understanding of the celestial mechanics associated with solar and lunar eclipses would await the Copernican revolution more than a millennia distant, the regularity of such occurrences was noted in the religious practices associated with these phenomena. Indeed, the need to develop increasingly accurate calendars was often driven by priestly desire to make timely predictions of celestial events that could be interpreted, with due variance to local need and custom, as messages from the gods.

The emphasis on the supernatural qualities of astrology continued to develop and influence the affairs of society. At the same time, astrology became fused with astronomical precision. Thus, only with the accurate measurement of the celestial sphere could there be accurate prediction.

Following the death of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.), who spread the Greek philosophical tradition and intellectual culture across much of the known world, astrology began to take on an emphasis in Greek society that soon overshadowed pure astronomical observation. Influenced by Eastern traditions, a more mundane form of everyday astrology became commonplace in Greek society, and later in Roman civilization. No longer regulated to the prediction of grand affairs of state or religion, astrology became used by Stoics as a practical medicinal art. Good evidence of this everyday application of astrology is found in surviving Greek poems and plays that show that the position of the planets was used as a guide to ordinary affairs.

Although there is often an emphasis on the influence of the supernatural upon ancient society, this masks real achievements that resulted from an increased emphasis upon astronomical observations. Notable among such observations and calculations are Aristotle's (384-322 b.c.) observations of eclipses that argued for a spherical Earth, Aristarchus of Samos's (310-230 b.c.) heliocentric model that proposed that Earth rotated around the Sun, and Eratosthenes of Cyrene's (276-194 b.c.) accurate measure of the circumference of Earth. Stimulated by astrological mythology, in 370 b.c. Euxodus of Cnidus (c. 400-c. 350 b.c.) developed a geocentric-based (Earth-centered) mechanical system that set out to explain the observed motions of the stars and planets. Moreover, these advances in astronomy laid a foundational base for the scientific development of astronomy. Hipparchus's (fl. 146-127 b.c.) classifications of magnitude of brightness, for example, are still a part of the modern astronomical lexicon.

Later, Greek astronomer Ptolemy's (fl. second century a.d.) Algamest became the most influential work of the scientific astrology produced in the ancient and classical world. Although his models of an Earth-centered universe composed of concentric crystalline spheres were incorrect, they dominated the Western intellectual tradition for more than a millennium.

During the decline of the Roman Empire, the tenuous place of scientific astronomy was completely overwhelmed by either a renewed emphasis on astrology, or upon an avoidance of both astronomy and astrology as contrary to the tenets of a growing Christian civilization.

The lure of astrological explanations in ancient Babylonian civilization evolved into a desire among the philosopher-scientists of Greece and Rome to define the essential elements of life—and of the forces that influence these elements. In addition, early astrology provided a coherent worldview that reconciled astronomical science with myth and religion, thus providing social stability. The development of a stable civilization and society was enhanced by astrological interpretations that provided a sense of divine control and immutable fate to human affairs.


Astrology purports that astronomical bodies have influence on people’s lives beyond basic weather patterns, depending on their birth date. This claim is scientifically false. Numerous scientific studies have disproven that astronomical bodies affect people’s lives according to their birth date.

Astrology originated in Babylon far back in antiquity, with the Babylonians developing their own form of horoscopes around 2,400 years ago. Then around 2,100 years ago, astrology spread to the eastern Mediterranean, becoming popular in Egypt, which at the time was under the control of a dynasty of Greek kings.


Thank you!

The stars are just one of the many things in the natural world that human beings have turned to for answers over the years.

“We don&rsquot really know who first came up with the idea for looking at things in nature and divining influences on humans,” says astronomer Sten Odenwald, the director of Citizen Science at the NASA Space Science Education Consortium. “There&rsquos some indication that cave art shows this idea that animals and things can be imbued with some kind of spirit form that then has an influence on you, and if you appease that spirit form, then you will have a successful hunt. That was taken over by the idea of divination, where you can actually look at things in nature and study them carefully, such as tea-leaf reading.”

Some form of astrology shows up in various belief systems in ancient cultures.

In Ancient China, noblemen looked at eclipses or sunspots as portents of good or bad times for their emperor, though it’s thought that those signs had less application to the lives of other individuals. (Odenwald points out that in societies where people in the lower classes had less control over their lives, divination could seem pointless.) The Sumarians and Babylonians, by around the middle of the second millennium BC, appeared to have had many divination practices &mdash they looked at spots on the liver and the entrails of animals, for example &mdash and their idea that watching planets and stars was a way to keep track of where gods were in the sky can be traced to The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. This tablet, which is dated to the first millennium BC and tracks the motion of Venus, is one of the earliest pieces of what’s been called Babylonian planetary omens. The ancient Egyptians contributed the idea that patterns of stars made up constellations, through which the sun appears to “move” at a specific times during the year.

It’s thought that all of these ideas came together when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt around 330 BC.

“There must have been a lot of exchange that got the Greeks on-board with the idea of divination using planets,” says Odenwald, and because they were deep into mathematics and logic, they worked out a lot of the rules for how this could work.”

Here’s how NASA has described how that logic led to the creation of the familiar zodiac signs known today:

Imagine a straight line drawn from Earth through the Sun and out into space way beyond our solar system where the stars are. Then, picture Earth following its orbit around the Sun. This imaginary line would rotate, pointing to different stars throughout one complete trip around the Sun &mdash or, one year. All the stars that lie close to the imaginary flat disk swept out by this imaginary line are said to be in the zodiac. The constellations in the zodiac are simply the constellations that this imaginary straight line points to in its year-long journey.


The Ancient Egyptian Astronomers and the Stars

Ramesses II, Valley of the Kings (Creative Commons)

There is little doubt that the great Egyptian buildings were based upon the stars the Great Pyramid is aligned with the cardinal points, and many temples are aligned along the axis of the rising midwinter sun, signifying to Egyptians that they should begin to prepare for planting in the spring. The Great Pyramid of Giza is filled with astronomical significance, based largely upon religious beliefs but with its roots in astrological phenomena. Within the Great Pyramids are southern facing airshafts that point to the star Sirius, with its significance in marking the start of the Egyptian year, and to Orion, associated with death and rebirth, another recurring theme in Egyptian mythology. In addition, the north-facing air shafts point to the circumpolar stars, called ‘The Immortals’ by Egyptians, because they never set.

There are other theories concerning the pyramids, namely that they were located to reflect the constellation Orion, with the three pyramids at Giza representing the belt of Orion. As with the Neolithic astronomy, this is largely conjectural and all that we can safely say is that the Egyptians built their monuments to reflect the cardinal directions and important times of year.

This trend continued in the Valley of the Kings, where Rameses II built his huge Temple of Abu Simbel to ensure that sunlight only penetrated the inner sanctum on the 20th of October and the 20th of February, with one of these days believed to be the anniversary of his coronation.


The Back of the Board

One thing certainly did change once the game became more religious, however. Its audience grew in diversity. Commoners were soon playing the game as well as nobles and kings women were playing as well as men. Senet games are suddenly turning up as graffito, scrawled on masonry blocks and pavements. One, according to Dr Kendall, is even found drawn in ink on a schoolboy's writing table.

I'm fascinated by this because it gives a sense of the game in situ, of the world going on around the board itself. "There are pictures of people playing this game in their everyday lives," beams Dr Kendall. "Then of course pictures appear in tombs. And the afterlife was meant to be like the daily life, so it was a type of amusement. There's a grotto up above Derel-Bahari where the workmen who were building the temple must have gone for their lunch hour. You can see on the walls there are pornographic pictures of the Pharaoh, which I guess was Hatshepsut. But on the floor, there are Senet boards scratched in the ground."

What Dr Kendall is getting at here - and what Senet is ideally placed to explore - is the surprising absence of boundaries in the Egyptian world between the sacred and the secular. As Dr Piccione is at pains to point out, "the secular Senet game was played for recreational purposes, while the religious version was performed to communicate with the dead, to effect the passage of the ba, and to achieve spiritual renewal. [But] it may well be that all of these reasons could be the purpose for playing the game at any one time. The Egyptians did not distinguish between religious ritual and recreational activity. It is Western intellectual thought which separates these notions, and demarcates the sacred from the profane."

"I think I look at it like this," says Dr Kendall at last. "That there was a game called Senet, that was fun enough. It wasn't any less fun than any of these other games that are all just dice-throwing games, but then the people injected the funerary business into it to make it more exciting. To make it more interesting to them. And I think that was an added element that may not have changed the rules but that enriched it all."

If there's a human insight lurking inside Senet, then, it might be tangled up with this. And it's Dr Kendall who finds a way of expressing it that I can understand. "When you see that people put these things in their tombs," he says, "when you see a range of things coming out of tombs and these are the personal effects of people who lived and that this is what they wanted with them in the next life, you see that this was a major form of entertainment. Even in the Old Kingdom tombs, you see the tomb owner who's shown at great big scale, playing Senet with people at a small scale."

He pauses. "I think that's what got me about Senet in the beginning, you know. How long this thing lasted. It's so typical of Egyptian culture that people's habits, formed in the fourth millennium BC, were changed so little by time. Lately I've been interested in measurement. I discovered that the Egyptian royal cubit, which is 52.3 centimetres, was used throughout the entire period, without any change, from the middle of the fourth millennium at least until Roman times. And that sculptors and architects used this measurement and its divisions to create everything. Everything was measured according to this way, all the way through, from beginning to end."

But didn't Heraclitus state that the only constant is change? Was Egyptian culture a grand attempt to do something impossible, to fix the world in place and stop it from moving? Is Senet's longevity hinting at a mummification of culture, in much the same way that the embalming priests would mummify the remains of the anointed dead, like Nesperennub?

"The Egyptians had a concept called Maat," answers Dr Kendall, "which is loosely translated as order or justice, or righteousness. It simply means: this is the way things should be done. You had to do things the way they should be done in order to win favour of the gods. And the kings are always shown giving the little Maat figures - she was a goddess - giving Maat to the gods, and then the gods are giving life to the king. So the whole thing was: we know how things should be done. We know how things should look. We know what's the proper religion. We know the proper artforms. These are the things that should be perpetuated. So this order was a crucial part of the religion.

Maat: truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice.

"I suppose it's the way that certain religions insist that you can't eat pork or you can't do this, you have to do things this way. The Egyptians took this concept to the way that everything should look. So if you have a religion, of course over time things are changing, but everything is changing within the concept of Maat. That's why everything kind of looks the same when you go to the British Museum and go through the Egyptian galleries. Everything is the same from beginning to end - up to a point."

But nothing lasts forever, and things can start to change on a fundamental level long before anybody really notices. Even Pharoahs.

Made in Poland but not by CD Projekt Red.

And so. There are two ancient games: Senet and the Royal Game of Ur. Two races games at heart, played on similar boards and with similar rules. But one game is slow, and one is fast. One is local and embellished, over the centuries, by religious thinking, and one is an interloper, abstract and uncomplicated, arriving from the Middle East with the Hyksos kings and then spreading at an astonishing rate.

For a while, these two games coexisted, and by the 17th dynasty, they had grown rather close. We know this because the game boxes have survived to tell us: Egyptian game boxes in which the draughtsmen and throwing sticks were kept safe within a little chamber, while the board served as a lid.

But this proximity is perhaps deceptive.

"And so the Egyptians make their Senet boxes with one board on each side," explains Dr Finkel, as he eventually shows me out of his office, through the door, down the stairs, past Ramses II (or whoever it is), and into the great bright hall at the heart of the British Museum. "Senet and the Royal Game of Ur together."

He squints in the afternoon light. "The most interesting thing is that you can tell from the hieroglyphic inscription on the game boxes that the right way up is the Royal Game of Ur, and the Egyptian thing that everybody's been playing for hundreds of years is on the bottom. Because nobody wants to play it anymore. Not even in Egypt.

"At least that's how I see it."

Illustrations provided by Kirsty Saunders.

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Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.