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Ancient Mysteries - archaeoastronomy and cultural astronomy



Astrology and its origins in the Beliefs of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.



with particular relevance to ancient stone circles and astrology as a credible discipline.


This extended essay for Birkbeck University of London is the first of two that develop the theme of early belief systems.

by Dr B.E. Osborne (1985 extended and updated 2007 & 8)

In tracing the chain relationships between cause and effect, it is apparent that ultimately every occurrence on planet earth has its provenance, either directly or indirectly, in the all enveloping influence of the cosmos. By contrast however, there is also a power that can systematically and progressively manipulate the influence of the cosmos to its own ends; this is known as the living world.


Stonehenge has been variously interpreted by scholars as a place of the dead, a temple of pagan sacrifice and more recently an Oracle (Darvill 2006 p36-43). Do the ancient arts or sciences of astrology and astronomy provide insights into the raison d’etre of Stonehenge? Whether one is endeavouring to interpret the astronomical significance of Neolithic Stonehenge or the relationship between the full moon and the curative effectiveness of holy wells, one is left with the conclusion that early man's relationship with his environment was fundamentally different to that of our own post-industrial society. To understand Mesolithic man's lifestyle and beliefs and how they subsequently developed through the Neolithic and into the modern, we need to look closely at key factors in his environment that governed his daily life; in particular the relationship between events in the celestial heavens and events on earth, arguably the ultimate source of all events on earth.

Again using Stonehenge as an example, about 8 BC Diodorus Siculus wrote in Greek about the works of an earlier writer Hecataeus of Abdera who, about 330 BC., referred to a sacred enclosure dedicated to Apollo in the land of the Hyperboreans as well as a magnificent circular temple adorned with rich offerings. Here the god returns every 19 years marking the celestial anniversary (Darvill 2006 p.32,35). This is almost certainly the earliest known written reference to Stonehenge, or if not Stonehenge then a similar centre elsewhere in what is now Western Europe. A now well established fact with Stonehenge and many other standing stone monuments are the significant astronomical alignments encapsulated in the positioning of the stones. This celestial evidence is Neolithic and in the absence of a Mesolithic built environment, we can only summise that it had its roots in the Mesolithic; a point that is returned to later.

These celestial alignments are solar, lunar and arguably planetary and starting with Hawkins in 1966, extensive work has been undertaken in scientifically investigating the complexities of such temples to the heavens (Hawkins 1966, Thom 1978. et al). What becomes apparent is the important role that the sun, moon and probably the major planets played in early man's life. The sun was the controller of all seasons, the controller of light and darkness, warmth and cold. The sun's importance was inevitably elevated to that of a supernatural power and knowledge of its activities became the expertise of high priests. The sun's cohort, the moon, with its effect on tides, fertility and nocturnal light also became the subject of god-like reverence. Early man would have discovered that planetary movements can be correlated with macro changes in weather systems as well as influencing the nature of life itself. As man sought to understand the cosmic influences, the body of accumulated knowledge would have gradually confirmed the relevance of the planets and other significant observable features of the celestial sphere, albeit not translated into modern scientific terms.

Today with our reliance on food from the supermarket and electricity for heat and light, we have lost sight of the vital role of the sun and moon and the principal planets. A precursor to interpreting their significance in ancient cultures is to understand the dynamics of these heavenly bodies. Not only do they rise and set in the sky with ever changing frequency daily due to the earth’s rotation, so they also constantly change their positions on the celestial backcloth as each body pursues its trajectory across the band of sky known as the zodiac. These two interactive effects create an ever changing pattern of events. Scholars such as Gerald Hawkins and Thom have postulated on the complexity and development of celestial alignments recorded in ancient architecture. Whilst the degree of complexity may be debated, the underlying basic alignments are undisputed. We need to know about such celestial occurrences that so affected the daily routine of Mesolithic and Neolithic man. Then we can understand what actions were taken to interact with and respond to these ever changing rhythms.

Celestial Rhythms

The Sun

The earth travels around the sun on an elliptical orbit and this circuit takes one year to complete – 365¼ days. Because the earth is rotating on an axis at an angle of 66½° to the plane of the solar orbit, the amount of sun received by different parts of the earth changes as the year progresses.

The tilt of the revolving earth in relation to the orbit around the sun gives us the seasonal variations in the course of a year. This manifests itself in longer hours of daylight and a higher arc of the sun in the sky in the summer. Early man would have realised that by plotting the setting point of the sun on the horizon it gave him a marker of where he was in the solar year. The most northerly sunset gave him the summer solstice and the most southerly the winter. The solar year can thus be divided into four parts – the summer solstice and the winter solstice (mid-summer and mid-winter) and a further two such points or equinox - autumn and spring.

The earth revolves on its own axis and takes 23 hours 56 minutes to complete one revolution. This is the sidereal day. The 24 hour day as we know it is based on the revolution of the earth in relation to the sun. The earth is orbiting the sun as well as revolving itself and so from solar midday to the next solar midday is 4 minutes longer than the sidereal day because the relative position of the sun has moved slightly.

The horizon thus provided a solar calendar in an era before digital watches and quartz accuracy. This calendar could be used not only for monitoring seasons but also dates of significant anniversaries and festivals. There are even suggestions that burial structures built on the horizon line memorialised these alignments for all time, recording dates by alignments in the same way as we record dates on monumental inscriptions? Were the stone rows of Carnac records of the passing seasons in the same way as we cross off the dates on a wall calendar? The jury is still out on such issues, albeit it is apparent that the sun had an indisputable influence on early man’s lifestyle that warranted calendarising and recording.

The Moon

The moon orbits the earth influencing tides and occasionally lightens the solar night. Prehistoric man would have developed an understanding of the moon's cycles to predict and use the moon to advantage. The harvest moon is an example of an application of this thinking.

The moon orbits the earth every 27 1/3 days. (27 days 7 hours 43 minutes 11 seconds) known as the lunar sidereal 'month'. The moon's orbit of the earth is on an axis 5.14° from that of the earth's orbit of the sun. The result is a rising and falling of the day to day moon arc in the sky. The horizon and the position of the setting moon indicate the moon's progress through its 'month', a factor that contributes to the time the moon spends in the sky each lunar day.

The lunar day is governed by the revolution of the earth. The sidereal day is 23 hours 56 minutes. Because of the moon's own orbiting motion the moon's daily cycle extends to 24 hours 50 minutes on average. This varies because the moon's orbit is an ellipse with varying distances from earth.

The solar day of 24 hours and the lunar day of 24 hours 50 minutes are therefore continually changing their relationships. This accounts for tide changes and why the moon sometimes appears in the day as well as the night. Daily moonrise and moonset information can be obtained in today's daily newspapers but prehistoric man would not have had the benefit of modern print, hence his calendars of standing stones and the horizon.

There is much speculation regarding the 56 Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge; were these the early attempt at creating a lunar calculator and calendar? Alternatively were they holes for shrub planting to screen the architectural almanac of Stonehenge as suggested by this author? (Burl 2006 p14 and personal communication 29.11.88) In monitoring the lunar 'month' by noting moonset positions, early man would have discovered another peculiarity of the moon. The moon's plane of orbit around the earth oscillates, completing a full revolution every 18.61 years. This has the effect of changing the height of the moon's arc in the sky and the horizon position of moonset. When the arc is at its highest this is known as the major standstill, and when at its lowest, this is the minor standstill, 9.3 years later. This terminology originates from the fact that within the lunar cycles the moonset position at the extremes is tending to stand still after moving through the cycle. Evidence suggests that man was well aware of this cycle at an early stage in the Stonehenge development. This gives a lunar cycle of 18.61 years; which when multiplied by three to approximate to complete solar year cycles results in 56 years. Speculating, perhaps the plantings in the Aubrey Holes were a practical means of relating the two calendars, lunar and solar, albeit requiring adjustment over an extended period of time as the miniscule error accumulates. One can imagine ancient man planting a consecutive new shrub each year as the 56 year cycle of life progressed and the mature shrubs died away.

There is a further aspect of the moon to consider in determining its relevance to ancient man. The moon is a reflector, and it reflects the sun's light. The amount varies because of the angle that we view the moon and its angular relationship with the sun. This gives us the moon phases when we see part or all of the illuminated sphere.

The moon revolves around the earth every 27 1/3 days. The earth in turn revolves around the sun every 365 l/4 days. After the lunar month of 27 1/3 days the sun will have moved on and it is 29 1/2 days (29 days 12 hours 44 minutes 2 seconds) before a cycle of lunar phases is completed. This is known as a lunation and depending on the point in the cycle; this determines the amount of light reflected by the moon, ranging from a new moon through to a full moon. Incidentally the moon rises and sets 28 1/2 times during one lunation.

One final aspect of the moon is that it revolves once every lunar revolution of 27 1/3 days. The result is that we only ever see one side of the moon.

The predominant cycles of the sun and moon can be summarised as follows:-

Day (solar) - 24 hours - determines day/night cycle

Solar Sidereal Day - 23 hours 56 mins. - "static" points in celestial sphere return to predetermined position

Solar Year – 365 1/4 days - determines days of longest and shortest sunshine

Lunar Day - 24 hours 50 mins. - determines when moon rises/sets.

Lunar Sidereal Month – 27 1/3 days - determines the moon arc in the sky, ie longest and shortest moonshine lunar days.

Lunar Revolution – 27 1/3 days – the time the moon takes to revolve once means that we only ever see one side of the moon.

Standstill cycle - 18.61 years - determines height of arc of moon during lunar months.

Lunation or Synodic Month - 29.53 days - determines luminosity/phases of moon

Eclipses – ancient man found it impossible to compute eclipses of the sun. However those of the moon proved predictable using the relationship of key lunar and earth cycles and producing a fortuitous rule of thumb, the Saros of the Chaldeans based on 223 lunations.

Planets

The principal planets also have their own distinct cycles; they traverse the zodiac in a somewhat similar manner to the sun and moon. These would have been apparent to early observers as the planets moved their positions across the celestial backcloth. Jupiter for example takes 12 years to return to its original position on the celestial backcloth but also rises and sets daily as the earth rotates. Although enormous distances from earth, the planets appear to be capable of noticeably influencing life on earth. For example, it is now generally accepted that the planets effect long term climatic changes.

Astrology invented

Observing the motions of the principal heavenly bodies would arguably have been the starting point in the development of a body of knowledge that we would today describe as astrology. The motions of the bodies would then have been related to events on earth, the changing of the seasons, duration of daylight etc. This would have led to the ability to predict natural events as well as position man created events in a calendar. There is evidence that this knowledge developed to a much higher degree than has until recently been suspected, effecting not only the apparent physical conditions of the environment but also those of the individual as well. The result was a merging of sound knowledge with prediction and imaginative explanations for the celestial scheme that produced a belief system that percolated all aspects of life. The degree to which this occurs may have appeared surprising until one looks at recent scientific research. For example, detailed scholarly research has verified that relationships exist between the moment of human birth and the positions of the principal planets and moon. In particular the 30 years of research carried out by Gauquelin et al produced important findings. (Gauquelin 1983) This work does not support modern-day astrological horoscope forecasting based on the zodiac with the 12 sun signs, it does however provide the basis for informed speculation on how aspects of the science and art of astrology originated.

Nativity Omens

Nativity omens date back to the earliest recorded horoscopes and were likely in use long before. Aristotle postulated that everything terrestrial had a potential to develop, unless hindered in some way. The acorn to the oak argument applied to everything, bio or non bio. Humankind had a similar tendency. When born the potential to fulfill is inherent, based on a template set by the cosmos but subject to mankind’s own nature and environmental conditioning or nurture, as the process progresses. Gauquelin, a psychologist, carried out detailed studies of celestial bodies positions at the moment of birth for people very successful in particular vocations. He then developed personality traits that would conform to success in the vocations. He found that there was a relationship between the positions of key bodies at the moment of birth and the personality traits/vocations. This applied to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Venus also manifested the effect but was somewhat more elusive. These are the nearest celestial bodies to the earth. Other celestial bodies did not detectably manifest this effect.

The “Gauquelin effect” was most pronounced at particular times during the passage of celestial body around the revolving earth. In particular, just after the celestial body had risen above the horizon and as it approached and for a while after its zenith or superior culmination (when it is highest in the sky). He also noted shadow effects similar just after it had set and when it was at the zenith or inferior culmination on the diametrically opposite side of the globe. This effect applied particularly for people who were highly successful in their careers, i.e. having strong personalities, but was not apparent for the vast bulk of the populace, probably because their distinctiveness had been blurred by life events. From this it was possible to predict the personality traits of a baby from the list of twenty traits that described individuals born under the “influence” of each of the five celestial bodies nearest to earth. He was not able to prove the relationship however for people such as convicted murderers, which demonstrated that such behaviour is not related to a birth personality trait. Also the effect did not prevail with the sun sign astrological horoscope forecast, so popular today.

The difficulty with the “Gauquelin effect” after 1950 is that many births were not natural, often stimulated to produce the baby at convenient times or to assist the birth in some way for medical reasons. This results in the relationship with the celestial bodies being lost. To overcome this problem further research was carried out on the parents of children with surprising results. It was found that there was a significant correlation between the astrological forecast for the parent and the naturally born child. For example a parent or parents with strong Mars influence would likely produce a child that was born at the moment to also have a strong Mars influence. This then prompted the question: what mechanism enables this hereditary influence? When an individual is born the key celestial body influences are imprinted within the genetic template of that person. This affects their personality thereafter. It also acts as a genetic trigger for the next generation to commence the process of childbirth, thereby ensuring that the genetic template that has led to successful survival of the parent is replicated in the child. The forces that provides the necessary impetus to this process are likely electro-magnetic. It was observed that the “Gauquelin effect” was stronger when geomagnetic disturbances caused by sun’s activity increase, verifying the force behind the process.

The moment that a child bursts forth into the world from the womb is one of profound importance to that child. The unborn child is sensitive to the subtle geomagnetic forces of near space and as Hippocrates asserted 2500 years ago “When the time is ripe, the child moves, breaks the membrane holding it in and leaves the mother’s womb.”

The Journal of Social Psychology, volume 105 1977/8 (pages 229-241) details other researchers who claim to have verified relationships between the cosmos and human attributes including Cooper and Smithers. Trawling through some 35,000 birth dates they established significant relationships between the birth sign and certain professions. For example Lawyers peaked in Gemini; Doctors in Scorpio; Authors in Virgo; etc. This was after adjusting the results for known anomalies such as the fluctuations of births month by month. In the same journal Mayo and Eysenck established another form of astrological relationship. They ascertained a relationship between odd numbered birth signs and a tendency to extrovert behaviour. This work was subsequently extended to marriage where happiness was more likely if the couples were both born in even or odd number birth signs. As scholarly research continues in this field are we rediscovering an ancient wisdom rather than breaking new ground?

Earliest Recorded History

In a world where the cosmos reigned supreme we can anticipate that astrological outcomes such a pronounced Gauquelin affect were detectable by ancient man. This would have cemented the relationship of humankind with the cosmos and would have given rise to a plethora of ideas about other influences that appeared to exist. Wise men or prophets, versed in such matters, would have developed a vast store of folklore, knowledge, speculation and ritual. This would then be used to anticipate and predict. It is conceivable that even the birth of Christ was a legendary nativity celebration as three wise men followed the course of a particular star seeking a new born child with the celestial personality potential to become a future leader. However this cosmic belief system dates back far further to the Mesolithic. In an ancient society where life events were controlled by the cosmos it is little wonder that significant temples to this all encompassing power were erected. How you behaved, what you ate, when you woke or slept, fertility, when food was available, migration of game, what the weather was like, crop success or failure, were all regulated by celestial bodies. The knowledge of the changing seasons, weather patterns, tides and other terrestrial events would all have been vital for the perpetuation of life in an adolescent society. In fact everything from birth to death appeared to be subject to direct cosmic intervention.

As techniques for recording celestial activity improved so did the art of interpretation and consultation. The wise men or shamans became the possessors of the ultimate oracular knowledge. The result was a plethora of folklore, superstition and mythology interposed with observations of earth bound effects of celestial activity, both real and imaginary. Underlying this was the need for a workable calendar to record such knowledge, leading to the prediction of future celestial events and their effects on earth. Such a calendar took millennia to develop and even today’s 21st century calendar is not perfect. The custodians of this knowledge would have been an elite group of wise men, prophets or shamans with considerable power in the community as a result of their oracular foretelling and interpretation of omens. This would have encompassed health, wealth and happiness. Commonality of endeavor world wide would have resulted from each culture seeking to explain essentially the same celestial phenomenon and its impact on earth.

Ancient Temples

In an ancient society where life events were controlled by the cosmos it is little wonder that significant temples to this all encompassing power were erected. Such were the circumstances facing the builders of Stonehenge, now thought to be one of the earliest oracular centres dating from the 4th millennia BC. (Darvill 2006) The Babylonians however had one advantage that the ancient Britons did not, they had writing and were thus better able to record their science and arts of astrology from possibly as far back as 3500 BC. (confirm date?) With Stonehenge the knowledge was encapsulated in the architecture art and authors such as Brennan (1983) postulate that ancient rock art in Ireland records astronomical data. What is also apparent is that as culture and civilisation advanced so did the complexities of astrologic thinking.

Encapsulated in architecture, it took great effort and resources to construct huge stone structures built with the celestial alignments underlying the importance of continuity of the belief system world wide. Stonehenge and the plethora of stone circles in the British Isles, the Maya pyramids and observatories, and Sumerian ziggurats, are examples of monuments built with astronomical alignments. Ancient Egyptian monuments, including the third millennium BC Great Pyramid of Cheops, have been shown to have sophisticated celestial alignments and positioning. The Egyptian Pharaoh was the human immortalisation of the cosmos. The Egyptian beliefs, systemised in writing and buildings, were much closer to what we identify today as religion, with Gods and other manifestations of elaboration. (Souden 1997 p72-74)

Personification of the ancient belief system, with legendary figures with superhuman characteristics, made it all much more user friendly for the Greeks. By Roman times you had a plethora of Gods to choose from. We see the emergence of more easily understood metaphors or allegories used to influence the way individuals thought and acted, not true to life stories but adaptations of real life to make a point. This was part of the process of replacing the oracular role of communication with the cosmos with one of a relationship with a parental or authoritative god figure.

Astrology and religion were beginning to diverge in the last millennium BC. A customised zodiac was recorded about 1000 BC., albeit not the one that is in common use today but its application likely dates back far earlier. Mithraism, a religion that marked the transition between astrologic beliefs and worship flourished with the Romans and carried the beliefs about the influence of celestial bodies throughout the Roman Empire. Other nations throughout the world built belief systems based on similar principals.

Stonehenge

For the Neolithic builders of Stonehenge, theirs was at first a simpler belief system. The cosmos controlled their lives and they developed ways of identifying the rhythms of celestial bodies as a means of predicting circumstances that could dramatically affect their lives. Stonehenge represents a systemisation of knowledge encapsulated for future use, making it easier to develop beyond the intuitive approach of early Mesolithic man. As their knowledge of solar cycles and planetary movements was enhanced so did their ritual as they endeavored to understand and manage their predicament in a meaningful way. Over time their world became one of earth, air, fire and water. Hot, cold, wet and dry were the two pairs of qualities associated with the basic terrestrial elements in Aristotle’s theory of matter. Earth is cold and dry, water cold and wet, air hot and wet and fire hot and dry. Earth and water are heavy and have a natural tendency towards the centre of the terrestrial earth, air and fire the opposite. The universe was made up of the fifth element aether. It was incorruptible and unchanging. The natural motion of the aether was circular. The suns influence was transmitted by the aether and all celestial bodies had some effect on earth as a result. Humankind was thereby managed by the great cosmic system, which appeared ordered and regular and to which humankind was acquiescent but nevertheless had a degree of free will.

Communication with the cosmos was through a portal under the jurisdiction of an Oracle or Shaman. An Oracle can be envisaged as a place or a person who predicts possible future circumstances through informed intuition. The oracular predictions are based on observation of natural phenomenon and human behaviour over extended periods of time. The development of a calendar was a key tool for prediction. Such a calendar would not necessarily be solely a solar program, but one that anticipated more extensive celestial events over extended time. For ancient man the stones recorded their accumulated knowledge of the celestial system in architecture. To a community without writing, the information could be permanently archived for future generations. It also provided a calendar of the year, enabling planning to take place in accordance with a combination of real event and mystic predictions. The dialogue through an Oracle encompassed every aspect of life from healing the sick with natural waters with mystical properties to the inauguration of feast and celebration days to mark the cosmic cycles.

The Oracle was not a maker of magic or a performer of tricks. Whilst the consultations may well have been spoken in moments of heightened enlightenment, ritualised and dramatised, possibly with the aid of hallucinates, the knowledge was at its core. Using a combination of observation, recorded knowledge and experience, the Oracle or wise man. or woman for that matter, predicted possible future scenarios. It was knowledge based merged with mythology, albeit the underlying processes, particularly the events in the cosmos, were not understood in modern scientific terms. Theirs was a logical belief system that was qualitative (based on astrology) rather than quantitative (based on astronomy). To the vast populace such a practice would have commanded great reverence.

A simple example is the prediction of 9. This comes from writing down a telephone number or similar. Using the same digits rewrite them reshuffling the order to give a second number. Subtract the smaller of the two from the larger. Add up each of the single digits in the answer. If more than a one digit answer, add them up again to eventually give a one digit answer. This will be nine as foretold. The prediction is always correct although the mechanism is not necessarily understood. Not magic or a trick, just a fact noted through observation. Over the several thousand years that Stonehenge developed so did the knowledge and the belief system, steadily growing more complex. This resulted in a mix of verifiable, yet uncertain science and mythology that required an act of faith to accept, as the observation based belief system turned in to a religion.

The idea of the spirits of the unborn and the dead emerged, a paranormal phenomenon that could empower the link between the cosmos and mankind on earth. Mankind had the right of free will over his life span to adapt and modify the oracular predictions and omens determined by the celestial events. The stone circles were the communication link or mid point between the two existences and the oracle provided the communication. The stones were the metaphorical vagina, symbolising the portal that man emerged from for his life on earth. A component of this idea was recently postulated by Perks (Perks 2003 p96). The circle was where fertility rites took place to promote conception, as the spiritual essence of the human was transferred through the portal. Such displays of fecundity would have logically been celebrated at the Summer solstice, ensuring a series of new born about the time of the spring equinox and the coming of the warmer weather. Mankind was then in a position to manipulate the earth’s resources but only during terrestrial life. Nothing could be taken beyond the portal, although artifacts were left to assist the inevitable return journey. At death the body was left to decay at the portal so that the human spirit or soul might return to the cosmos and the earthly remains then interred in the locality. Reincarnation as a star is a common theme in early religions. Life was a temporary period of testing self assertiveness, tempered by the cosmos, before returning through the portal to a cosmic infinity after death. Birth and death were where the individual’s personal power began and ceased and beyond the portal the eternity of the cosmos prevailed. This theme was also reflected in the solar alignments of the stone circle. The winter solstice was the death of the old year and the rebirth of a new year, an event that would have been central to the survival of humankind. It is postulated that these considerations formed the progressively developing belief system of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.

The idea of large scale religious gatherings at the two solstices has been extended more recently with the work of Professor Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University. Near Stone Henge, Durrington Walls was where the community met in large numbers for a massive gathering twice a year. Animal bones indicate food being transported vast distances to feed the tempoary population. The gathering would then move in procession to Stonehenge for the death (winter soolstice) or birth (summer solstice) ceremonies. [Guardian 21 Dec. 2009] Such events would, on a smaller scale, have been practised at stone circles elsewhere. By incorporating astrology as the basis of the ceremony, the belief system would have been prepetuated over hundreds of years.

There was nothing intrinsically irrational about ancient astrology. As far as evolution of knowledge, like alchemy, it could be argued that they led to a dead end, however modern science is starting to understand the forces and mechanisms that empowered the ancient belief systems and open up new windows of opportunity for future study.

Many scholars believe that such an early belief system was universal and encompassed all mankind worldwide, a merging of spiritual and practical logical belief in the intra and extra terrestrial order along the lines of Aristotle, with magic and ritual in its mystic sense. It was from these early origins and associated belief system that the religions emerged that we recognise today.

Astrology Reinvented

Circa 200 BC. within the short span of a hundred years or so, the lingering legacy of the universal cosmic belief system encapsulated in the religions of ancient Babylonia and Egypt was overlain with an entirely new body of astrological doctrine that emerged. This fervent period of intense astrological concentration resulted in a veritable cornucopia of new astrological concepts and practices. These included such basic matters as aspects, the concept of ruler ship, the meanings of the houses, transits to the natal chart, and synastry, all of which have remained defining for Western “fortune telling” horoscope astrology to this day, as well as an abundance of other concepts and techniques that did not make it into the twenty-first century. Hellenistic astrology effectively constitutes the real birth of modern day Western astrology and a fading of the earlier belief system that had been developed and refined over thousands of years.

In Sickness and in Health

Little wonder that this astrologically based belief system spilled over into a variety of disciplines, including medicine and healing. In Neolithic times there is evidence of autopsies as well as sophisticated and successful surgery such as skull trepanning. Hippocrates, the physician and father of medicine, taught astrology to students. This was so they might ascertain the critical days of an illness. On Cos, Antriatrus and Achinapolus taught medical astronomy. It was a Chaldean traveler to Greece who first drew up the Lapidaries, associating precious stones with certain planets and signs. Such stones are today considered to have healing influence. Ptolemy, in his astrological textbook The Tetrabiblos, noted that an individual’s temperament would be determined at time of birth and death affected and affected by celestial bodies. (Ashmand 2002 p72,134) He then goes on to argue that temperament and the motions of the heavens were just two of a number of factors to be taken into account by the physician in dealing with sickness. Illness could be foreseen, by studying the birth chart. The Romans started to rationalise the association of astrology with healing. The beliefs were never fatalistic; mankind had free will to affect events. The position of Sirius, the Dog Star, was important to determine when medicine should be prepared and administered, as was the moon in the latter. This culminated in Antigonus publishing a medical horoscope that prevailed for 200 years. This astrological legacy influenced physicians for thousands of years.

Moving forward in time to the medieval period, astrology remained firmly embedded in medical opinion and practice. This existed across most cultures and superimposed itself on the religions. In England, William the Conqueror had his own astrologer. Even as late as the 18th century, to qualify as a doctor meant studying astrology in many universities. The moon is still believed by some doctors to influence the degree of bleeding a patient may experience, a point taken into account with blood donors. Speculation on the forces behind such phenomenon includes electro-magnetic fields, emanating from heavenly bodies as well as terrestrial sources. Lunatics is a traditional term applied to those under the adverse influence of the full moon and sun spots similarly have been noted to affect patients.

In modern times astrological diagnosis and healing has been relegated to that of questionable alternative medicine. However much of alternative medicine has only enjoyed a renaissance since the mid 20th century. It was in 1951 that the Witchcraft Acts were finally repealed in England. Behind this legislation was a belief that the public should be protected from some of the more extreme and less culturally acceptable practices. The Acts had protected the church particularly from challenge by proponents of heresy. It had also arguably acted as a brake on scholarly exploration of fringe subjects. Since 1951 there has been an explosion of interest in alternative belief systems including astrology. Inevitably it has opened the door to a range of dubious beliefs and practices, something that astrology has always been accused of. In hindsight it can be seen that over the centuries astrology was guilty of losing its fundamental truths and instead becoming a playground for charlatans, amateurs and the misinformed as well as those who await eventual scientific verification. But to the ancients it was integral with their overall beliefs related to the cosmos. Today enlightened explorers are delving into the echoes of the past with astounding results.

Echoes of the Past

Relicts of these ancient beliefs abound in Western European countryside with stone circles, burial mounds and other ancient earthworks and monuments. Other echoes of this ancient past prevail to this day in the practice of 21st century horoscope Astrology, predicting what might be by the alignments of sun, moon and planets. We can also see echoes in modern religions, especially the concept of heaven being in the cosmos, with heavenly messengers linking heaven to earth via appointed wise or holy men. Dog days are still reputed to be relevant when you drink natural waters for optimum effect and the full moon still conjures up ideas of magic. We have even seen theories that mankind evolved from “visitors” or messengers from the cosmos such as postulated by Flindt and Binder in the 20th century, perhaps an echo of the ancient beliefs.

Almost every ancient people had some system of examining the heavens for divinatory purposes. Why did the ancient beliefs loose popularity and credibility and as a result were relegated to the status of a pseudo science? The answer is straightforward. Civilisation found other ways around the problems of survival. As technology and practical understanding of the environment improved, particularly during the period of the industrial revolution, so the machinations of the celestial bodies became less critical. The balance between mankind being dependant on heavenly bodies and being self sufficient had shifted. Also humanity supposedly better understood the structure of the universe and the distances involved, destroying the credibility of possible influences on earth. Progressively a complex structure of religion replaced the old belief system based on the cosmos. There was a shift in the nature of belief itself. At its outset astrology had been participatory, in which the recipient of the oracular knowledge had free will to manipulate events and outcomes. Over the centuries for the devout, consulting the astrological Oracle was replaced with worshipping a divine being personified. The spiritual and psychological wellbeing became the principal purpose, epitomised in religion, while science and technology tackled material wellbeing. Consulting gave way to adoration, spiritual parenting and miracles, with the threat of retribution in the afterlife rather than practical guidance on how to survive the winter.

For stone circles the first millennium BC was critical, astrology and technologies were entering a new age and the religious and spiritual thinking adjusted accordingly. Stone circles became obsolete as beliefs and practices moved on. Today the celestial cycles play a part in programming our lives but most of us go about our daily routine with only a cursory thought as to circumstances caused by celestial events: is it cold and do I need a coat? Will it be dark when I return from the supermarket? Science and technology have removed or ameliorated the risks. Such modern worries pale into insignificance when daily survival depends on understanding and acting on the cosmic rhythms as was the case of the builders of Stonehenge.

The interpretation of the past is no longer the sole domain of the archaeologist. Multi discipline expertise provides insights that are otherwise beyond the intuition of the specialist. The next area of investigation must include the electro-magnetic forces that play a significant part in the influence of celestial bodies. They also are relevant to earth forces that dowsers and others claim show aberrations in the locality of ancient monuments.

The development of science depends on the formulation and testing of hypothesis and the systemisation of the accumulated knowledge. We can only speculate on the innumerable hypotheses and intuitions that prehistoric man formulated to explain the heavens. No wonder the heavens were personalised to ease understanding and became the dominion of the gods, a belief firmly embedded in our culture even today. With the moon’s influence over water no wonder the magic healing qualities of holy wells were associated with the phases of the moon. Even the personal Zodiac based horoscope has an uncanny accuracy that leaves the recipient with the thought that this ancient wisdom still has a value and credibility. Research has proved that the modern day horoscope based on the Zodiac is psychologically appealing to the individual, albeit not verifiable through scholarly research. It is also the playground of charlatans and well meaning amateurs. With such a prevalent failing in human judgment it is of little wonder that Astrology has developed in an unscientific manner and often dismissed in scholarly circles. This is in spite of verifiable facts such as the “Gauquelin effect” and the well recognised effects of celestial bodies on climate and other daily events being scientifically verified and taken for granted.

Many have argued that Astrology is without foundation. Historically astrology deals with the human condition while its competitor astronomy deals with mathematical science. The later is precise and verifiable; the former has been seen as esoteric and speculative. Today we know better - or do we? Much that is taken for granted with firm scientific verification was once part of vague and somewhat esoteric intuitions and acts of faith. The quest for total knowledge is an unrealisable goal, yet only when we have achieved that goal can we really be sure that we know better.

Having looked at the development of astrology by early man, was there a specific set of ancient circumstances that led to this world wide belief system? Was there something that elevated man’s awareness and the status of celestial activity to a heightened level? In the second essay an event is considered that was to have a shattering effect on life on earth and from which we are still recovering today. This was when the legendary Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode rough shod through our solar system with dire consequences.

Reference sources and further reading:

Ashmand J M Tetrabiblos or Quadripartite being the four books of the influence of stars, 1822 translation 2002.
Barton T. Ancient Astrology 1994
Brennan M. The Stars and the Stones 1983
Burl A. The Stone Circles of the British Isles 1974.
Burl A. Stonehenge 2006.
Callatay V de. Atlas of the Moon 1964
Darvill T. Stonehenge – a biography of a landscape 2006
Gauquelin M. The Truth about Astrology 1983
Hawkins G S Stonehenge Decoded 1966 4th impression 1973
King F. Cult and Occult 1985
Mayo, J., White, O. and Eysenck, H. (1978), 'An empirical study of the relation between astrological factors and personality', Journal of Social Psychology, 105, 229-236.
Mitchell J. A Little History of Astro-Archaeology -1989 ed.
Nowall R.S. Stonehenge - Wiltshire H.M.S.O. 1959.
Newham, C.A. Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge 1972.
Parker J and D. History of Astrology 1983
Perks M Bailey D Stonehenge: a view from medicine 2003. Jnl. Roy. Soc. Medicine v.96.
Smithers, A. & Cooper, H. (1977). 'Personality and season of birth'. Journal of Social Psychology, 105, 237-241.
Souden D. Stonehenge 1997
Thom A. and A.S. Megalithic Remains in Britain and Brittany 1978.
Wilson C W. Starseekers 1980
Wood J.E. Sun, Moon and Standing Stones 1980.

Illustrations

Animation of Sun/Earth
2 of Brodgar stone circle Orkney Isles (this author),
M Gauquelin,
Stonehenge 1825 and the present day similar views (picture: Goldsmith J Wonders of the United Kingdom 1825 p.10.),
Armenia's Stonehenge,
Long Meg stone circle Cumbria with outlier giving an alignment to mid winter sun set (picture: Bord J & C Prehistoric Britain 1997).


Dr Bruce Osborne 2008

Note: this paper is copyright the Spas Research Fellowship however you may take brief extracts of up to 100 words and/or make reference to it. In either instance the source should be acknowledged as follows: Osborne B E (2007/8) Astrology and its origins in the Beliefs of the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Spas Research Fellowship web page at www.thespas.co.uk "Ancient Mysteries".
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To go to Part Two of this combined paper click the oracle right.