Traditional Western Astrology – Its History and Its Value

Traditional Western Astrology is the predictive astrology of the Arabic, Greek and Latin language traditions as it was practiced between 750 C.E. and 1700 C.E. Its origins lay in the astrology of later Greek philosophers who had integrated the stellar omen lore of the ancient Mediterranean world into a masterful synthesis that by the late 4th century would become a sacred science held in high esteem throughout the Roman Empire. From 500 C.E., however, political and religious crises led to the decline of astrology throughout Christendom. This decline was hastened in the Latin West by the loss of the technical knowledge, especially mathematics, on which astrological calculations depend.

Even so, astrology thrived in the Muslim Arab empire, which by 750 C.E. had already fully absorbed it as part of a systematic absorption of Greek learning into the emerging Islamic world-view. When, around 1100 C.E., the Latin West awakened to its own need for the sciences, a massive translation effort opened the door to the Arabic world, including their astrology. The Arabic astrology would flourish for the next three centuries, even as its Islamic, “oriental” origins made it suspect to increasingly disdainful European intellectuals. By 1500 C.E., this would lead to a movement to purify an idealized Greek astrology, based mainly on Ptolemy, from they believed were Arabic additions.

Late 20th Century scholarship has shown that Arabic astrology was mostly faithful to its Hellenistic antecedents. The “purified astrology” of the Renaissance, in fact, reflected the biases of a growing rationalism and scientific methodology that would more and more lay an exclusive claim on the right to decide truth and meaning. After the 17th century, the gathering strength of this scientific materialism would force astrology, now demoted to the realm of superstition, into cultural and intellectual backwaters. Having lost its moorings in the great tradition, astrology would seek legitimacy and intellectual coherence from ideologies – mainly Theosophy and psychology – foreign to its essence. The result today is an astrology reduced to a trivial amusement, a sad caricature of what had once advised kings.

How do we return to the tradition? Traditional Western Astrology is learned through study. It is not Lunar (“intuitive”) but Mercurial and Hermetic, and is based on texts transmitted by a line-age of teachers, including the Hermetica, Dorotheus, Ptolemy, Firmicus, Vettius Valens, Masha’allah, Alkindi, Abu Mashar, Bonatti, Lilly, Morin and many others. These texts present us with a range of tested concepts and procedures that are rooted in an authentic sacred cosmology. Adherence to these old writings is not mere antiquarianism. Rather, with the greater Hermetic tradition, it reflects a truly intuitional knowledge that these writings have integrity and are alive with the voice of the Great Teaching.

Traditional Western Astrology both describes and predicts. It seeks first to delineate the chart – to describe what actually is (not simply what we think about what is) and what may be – and on that basis to predict accurately what will be. Without delineation, there is no prediction. But without prediction, delineation is denied its fruit. Since it strives for specificity, this predictive aim is much more ambitious than the “forecasting” of modern astrology. Paradoxically, it is also more modest, since its ultimate purpose is to lead its those of us who benefit from it to see that life in this changeable world, no matter how unhappy or how blessed, is no less subject to divine providence than heaven is. Traditional Western Astrology leads us to a threshold where we may hear Wisdom crying out in the streets, “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:6)

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