Ancient History & Civilisation

9. Was There A Ptolemaic Revolution in Ancient Egyptian Astronomy? Souls, Stars & Cosmology

Nicholas Campion

School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology, University of Wales Trinity Saint, UK.


This paper will consider developments in astronomy in Hellenistic Egypt, during the Ptolemaic period, applying a wider historiographical model, the concept of scientific revolutions. It argues that the combination of traditional cultural-astronomical beliefs, such as the notion of the soul’s journey to the stars, with Greek and Mesopotamian concepts, led to the codification of divinatory and theological models of the cosmos into two forms. These were, firstly, the horoscope, which should be seen as a technology for analysing the soul’s fate through the disposition of the stars and planets and, secondly, the literature of the Corpus Hermeticum, which may be considered as a technology for salvation from fate, enabling the soul to return to the stars. These ideas were so important for subsequent developments in astronomy that, following the notion of the ‘Copernican Revolution’, it will be suggested that we can refer to an ‘Egyptian’ or, more properly, a ‘Ptolemaic Astronomical Revolution’. I make a distinction, drawn from Mesopotamian astronomy, between mathematical astronomy and non-mathematical astronomy. The paper summarises theories concerning Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian notions of the soul and the stars in order to provide a foundation for the hypothesis. My purpose is to draw a neglected area of the history of astronomy and encourage further debate.

1. Introduction: Astronomical Revolutions

The notion of an astronomical revolution, which was initiated with the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1543 and concluded with the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687, is an accepted part of the history of western science (Hall 1967, Cohen 1994). The concept was put into colourful prose by Colin Ronan (1983, p. 334), who wrote of the sixteenth century that ‘We come now to a period in which modern science was finally launched and set out on its unprecedented voyage of conquest’. However, popular as the idea of the astronomical revolution is, its nature has been seriously questioned, in a process initiated by Thomas Kuhn (1957, 1970). Later detractors such Kusukawa and Maclean (2006, p. 471) wrote of ‘the so-called “astronomical revolution”’, calling it ‘an historiographically somewhat dodgy concept’. The revisionists’ primary objection is not to the notion of change. Rather, they question two ideas often associated with revolutions: first, they reject the concept of a complete break with the past and, second, they recognise profound elements of philosophical continuity between pre- and post-revolutionary periods. For example, in relation to the supposed revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Charles Webster (1982) does not challenge the innovatory consequences of Newton’s cosmology, but does argue that Newton’s philosophy as a whole is better understood if the ideological connections between his theories and those of sixteenth century Hermeticists and alchemists, are accepted rather than ignored, the latter being the fashion amongst what Schaffer (1996) defined as eighteenth and nineteenth century Newtonians. The recent volume by Osler (2000a) therefore retains the name and concept of the ‘revolution’, but reframes it as a complex, diverse phenomenon. Osler (2000b, p. 22) wrote ‘What we customarily refer to as science in the seventeenth century was not a single thing, and neither was the Scientific Revolution’.

It is therefore necessary to appreciate that the use of the word revolution in relation to the history of science is entirely different to its application to political upheavals. A revolution in science does not therefore require the dramatic overthrow of an existing order as in a political revolution, but rather a period of identifiable change which may last for a century or more, as in the one-and-half centuries which separated the publication Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus of 1543, and concluded with Newton’s Principia in 1687. Like political revolutions, though, a scientific revolution may consist of different, not necessarily compatible, strands of inquiry.

The conclusion of such debates has been the recognition that there was not just one ‘astronomical’, or ‘scientific’ revolution in the history of science, but many, following Cohen’s (2004, pp. 21-2) redefinition of ‘Scientific Revolution’ as a generic rather than specific category.

The hypothesis presented in this paper is that, first, developments in non-mathematical Ptolemaic astronomy were so substantial as to constitute the possible title of ‘revolution’ and, second, that an important component of this revolution, namely the incorporation of a transcendent soul into astronomy, was Egyptian in origin. In addition, the proposed revolution was, to borrow terminology from Mesopotamian astronomy, not in works on mathematical astronomy, but was in what is now recognised as non-mathematical astronomy. The distinction between the two types of text was recognised by Neugebauer (1975, p. 351-2). David Brown (2000, p. 4) defined them as Mathematical Astronomical-Astronomical Texts (MAATs) and Non-Mathematical Astronomical- Astronomical Texts (NMAATs), respetively. We can then refer to non-mathematical astronomy-astrology as NMAA.

2. The Mesopotamian Astronomical Revolution

The notion of an astronomical revolution, in Cohen’s generic sense, has been applied to Mesopotamian culture by David Brown (2000, p. 9). The dating, though, is even wider than that for the European revolution, and cuneiform scholars locate the critical changes in a wide span of time between the eighth century and the fourth centuries BCE (Neugebauer, 1975, II, 613). The period commenced with the beginning of the systematic collation of astronomical omens in the Enuma Anu Enlil and the collection both of eclipse data and of the astronomical, meteorological and economic information which, Herman Hunger has argued, constituted an attempt to place astronomical omenology onto an empirical basis (see Sachs 1988). The conclusion of this Mesopotamian revolution included the development of the birth-chart (the observation of astronomical patterns based on the date of birth), and the invention of codified techniques for interpretation of these patterns which no longer required direct observation of the sky (Rochberg 1998). The Babylonian birth-charts are conventionally known by the term horoscope (Rochberg 2008, Sachs 1952).

The earliest two examples of the Babylonian horoscope genre are both dated to 410 BC, followed by a third from 298 BCE, the gap of over a century indicating the shortage of documentary sources. The interpretative component of the surviving examples is minimal but, what there is, either in the texts themselves or in the supporting works, the so-called ‘nativity omens’, does not indicate any concept of transcendent ‘soul’, only of relative good or bad fortune (Sachs 1952, pp 49-75). There is some slight indication of psychological qualities in the modern sense, in the use of such terms as ‘brave’, but the overwhelming emphasis of the surviving texts is on external matters.

3. The Ptolemaic Astronomical Revolution

A scientific revolution may therefore build on the past and have significant connections with it. Such continuity is, it will be argued, a principal characteristic of what I shall suggest, is the Egyptian, or Ptolemaic, astronomical revolution of the last two centuries BCE in Hellenistic Egypt. An essential feature of this period was the further codification of Babylonian omen-astronomy. This codification took two forms. The first was the development of a complex technical form, based on the Babylonian birth-chart, later known by the word horoscope, in order to analyse astronomical meanings in terms of individual existence. The second was the development of a theoretical system by which such destiny might be transcended. I call this second form soteriological on the grounds that its purpose was salvation.

Greenbaum and Ross (2010) argue that Hellenistic astrology remained Greek in that Greek was its language of transmission, yet consider that its application to individual destiny consisted of a reworking of Mesopotamian practices to incorporate Egyptian traditions (Greenbaum and Ross 2010, p. 177). The argument developed in this paper is that these Egyptian traditions was less technical than metaphysical, and that the Egyptian contribution to Hellenistic astronomy was focused on the inclusion of the soul. It must be acknowledged that there is some debate concerning the relation between Greek and Egyptian communities in Hellenistic Egypt. For example, Bingen (2007: 113) observed that the Greeks tended to prefer an urban, rather than a rural, environment. Bowman (1986: 122-164) has argued that, although the interaction between Greek and Egyptian in the period of Ptolemaic rule was complex and, even though it was possible to identify each culture as distinct, there is also evidence of considerable inter-action. Fowden (1986, p.17) concluded that such uncertainties introduce a complication into our understanding of the relationship between Greek and Egyptian religion: he noted that syncretism was encouraged by bi-lingual Egyptian priests translating their texts into Greek on the one hand, yet Greek communities often remained resistant to Egyptian customs on the other. Nevertheless, it is clear that there was considerable religious syncretism and, for example, both Egyptians and Greeks appeared to agree on the identification of the Egyptian god Thoth with the Greek Hermes.

4. Mathematical Astronomy in the Ptolemaic Period

The accomplishments in mathematical astronomy in the Ptolemaic period are wellknown. Notably, Eratosthenes (c.285/80-c.194 BCE), the second librarian at Alexandria measured, with remarkable accuracy, the circumference of the earth, while Hypsicles (c. 190 BCE - c. 120 BCE) is known for calculating the exact degree of the zodiac sign ascending over the eastern horizon (Evans 1998, pp. 121-5). While John Steele (2011) has argued that astronomy for its own sake did exist in the ancient near east in the later first millennium BCE, generally it was designed to serve practical functions, whether navigation, calculation of the calendar or the identification of divine intentions, as in Mesopotamian omen-astronomy. The concern of this paper is with the latter, with NMAA in Brown’s typology.

5. Non-Mathematical Astronomy in the Ptolemaic Period

The concept of the Ptolemaic revolution depends, as already stated, on two applications of non-mathematical astronomical technology in Ptolemaic Egypt, for both of which I will use the word τέχνη, or techné, in its Hellenistic form, meaning craft. The first of these is the horoscope, technically the rising degree of the zodiac, but in a looser sense, a birthchart, in which the rising degree plays a critical role in interpretation. In relation to the use of the word techné, Claudius Ptolemy, in post-Ptolemaic second century CE Alexandria, referred to what would now be called astrology, but which he described as the analysis of astronomical effects, as a stochastic techné, that is, a craft dealing with probability and conjecture (Ptolemy 1940; I.2. Barton 1994, p. 7, Greenbaum 2010, p. 180). The second astronomical techné which was documented in Ptolemaic Egypt, was the soteriological form which was designed to prepare the soul for its journey to the stars, and found its textual expression in the body of literature known as the Corpus Hermeticum (Scott 1982). The astronomical texts were produced in Hellenistic Egypt in both genres were designed to serve the existential needs of the individual should be classed, and so should be classed as NMAATs.

The use of the word ‘astrology’ to describe Ptolemy’s work in the Tetrabiblos can be seen as anachronistic; he himself did not use it. The words astronomy and astrology were not firmly distinguished until the seventeenth century. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas referred to astrologers as astronomers (1975, III.84.14) while in the early seventeenth century Shakespeare, in King Lear I.2, used the term ‘sectary astronomical’. Nevertheless, astrology is the term in common use, so we must use it. I shall also use the term omen-astronomy, though, in order to reinforce the point that a prime function of astronomy was the reading of warnings in the sky. Whatever the terms we use, it has been argued elsewhere that the final purpose of Ptolemy’s astronomy was not the measurement of celestial positions, but the analysis of the soul’s incarnation in flesh (Campion 2010, 2011) and this, it is argued further, was a concern which arises out of millennia of Egyptian theology.

Both Hellenistic astrological genres, horoscopic and soteriological, were to be central to the practice of astrology in medieval and Renaissance Europe, a cultural phenomenon which reached a crisis during the scientific revolution, to use the phase, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

6. Egyptian Astronomy

From Mesopotamia, let us turn to the question of the Egyptian contribution to astronomy. The Egyptians possessed an extraordinarily rich astral theology in which the entire universe was a single ‘cosmic state’, a term adapted from Thorkild Jacobsen’s (1946) analysis of political astronomy in Mesopotamia, in which the function of astronomy was to assist in the mutual harmonisation of celestial and terrestrial realms. However, the Egyptian contribution to astronomy tends to be underplayed, largely due to Neugebauer’s denial that the Egyptians possessed an exact mathematical astronomy (Neugebauer, 1975, Vol. 2, p.559). Neugebauer’s statement has permeated the literature on Egyptian culture. For example Lloyd (2000) has nothing to say about astronomy in the Ptolemaic period. Neither do recent general texts such as that by Bingen (2007). Taub (1997), has identified the problem and proposed that due attention be paid to Hellenistic Egyptian astronoy owm its own terms.

The sources for Egyptian cosmology in the wider sense describe a world in which there was a belief in a universal order, in which the human relationship with the cosmos was essentially participatory and spiritual (Frankfort 1978, Parker 1971, 1974, Wilson 1946). The cosmos was also moral, the evidence for which, as Wilson pointed out, is found in the belief in the judgment of the dead (Frankfort 1946, p. 105, Stilwell 2005, pp. 132- 162). The primary task of Egyptian astronomy, though, was regulation of, and harmonisation of the state with, the sacred calendar, timing religious rituals precisely according to, for example, the rising of the sun or of particular stars. Egyptian astronomy was primarily observational in practice and religious in intent: the motions of the stars were the movements of the gods and goddesses: by watching the sky the priests were both the observers of a divine drama - and, through their rituals - active participants in it. Of equal importance is the persistent, almost obsessive role, played by the rituals surrounding death and the soul’s subsequent fortunes, in Egyptian religion (Wilson 1946, pp. 31-124).

7. The Soul in Egypt

The literature on the Egyptian soul is complex, perhaps because the texts on which it is based, such as the Book of the Dead, are vague, impressionistic and concerned with general varieties of experience rather than with precise ontological classifications. In general, the soul in Egypt should be seen as a form of animating ‘life-force’. It was divided into various forms (Stilwell 2005, p 114) but we should not imagine that these are necessarily entirely distinct. Nevertheless the ren is an individual’s name, the sheut their shadow and the ib the heart. However, while ka is often translated as spirit, it is the ba which is normally considered to most closely resemble ‘soul’ (Frankfort 1978, p. 61). The distinction is a fine one and. whereas the ka, as a universal life-force, leaves the body at death, it is the ba which possesses some chance of transcendental immortality (Frankfort 1978, p. 65). The ba, is sometimes said to be responsible for human individuality (Zabkar 1968), and is described by Smith (2009, p. 3) as the ‘whole person’, but also the part of the individual which enables travel between the earth and the sky.

There is a persistent argument that initially, in the Old Kingdom, only the king, god and goddesses possessed a ba, and that, as Morenz (1992, p. 204) argued, the ‘concept of heaven’... ‘was at first accessible only the deceased king, but then, either late in the Old Kingdom, or in the New Kingdom, became “democratrized” as it were, and opened up to commoners’ (see also Spencer 142, p. 142, Stilwell 2005, p. 109). Questions of chronology aside, there is a general assumption that, by the New Kingdom, there was an assumption that there was an immortal soul which might journey to a celestial afterlife. However, this hypothesis is questioned by Mark Smith (2009), who argues that the ba, with its ability to reach a celestial heaven, was always accessible to commoners. There has been some discussion of whether the ba resembled other ancient concepts of soul. Stilwell (2005, p. 118) claims that it is not the same as the Platonic soul. Zabkar (1968) has cautioned against an identification of the ba with the Christian soul in the grounds that what the modern west (but not the ancient Egyptians) would regard as inanimate objects, could also possess ba. Such niceties, though, are less important than the observation that the ba was immortal and might go where it liked, including the stars.

Some commentators have traced an evolution in the Egyptian astral afterlife arguing, for example, that an early belief that the soul dwelt amongst the circumpolar stars was replaced in the Pyramid age by the notion that it joined the sun (Faulkner 1985, pp. 11- 14). However, for the current argument, the important consideration is confirmation of the soul’s ability to travel to the stars.

The Pyramid Texts, which first occur in the fifth dynasty pyramids, indicate that the king mounted to heaven on the rays of the sun. For example, Pyramid Text Utterance 508 reads ‘I have trodden those thy rays as a ramp under my feet whereon I mount up to that my mother, the living Uraeus on the brow of Re’ and Utterance 523 tells us that ‘May the sky make the sunlight strong for you, may you rise up to the sky as the Eye of Re’ (Faulkner 1993).

The ascent to heaven was associated with the cosmology of Heliopolis, and are a counterpart to Osiris’ dominion over the dead (Morenz 1992, pp. 205, 207, 211). There is, though, some debate as to the whereabouts of heaven, or the realm of the dead, due to the variable meanings of the duat, which generally belongs to the upper regions, but can mean ‘twilight zone’ or ‘nocturnal sky’ (Morenz 1992, p. 207). There is little specific about the destination of the soul except for generalised instructions as in the tomb of one of daughters of the pharaoh Akhenaten, that the ba will ‘view the sun and move freely among the ‘lords of eternity’ (Baines 1991, p. 190). That said, the ba of the god Amon was in heaven, while his body in the realm of the dead and his image in the temple, and heaven was raised high for the ba of Osiris (Morenz 1992 pp. 151, 208). The pyramid texts talk of the double-doors of heaven opening, and Nut instructs the king to ‘open up your place in the sky among the stars of the sky, for you are the Lone star’ (Morenz, 1991, p. 205). The ba of the God and the ba of the king both belonged in the sky. But there was also a descent: the ba of the god may descend from heaven and enter its image (Morenz 1992, p. 115).

However, such debates on the antiquity of the idea of the ba as a property of any individual, or the location of heaven, are less important to the current argument than the Egyptians’ acceptance, well before the rise of classical Greek culture, that a general property of being human was possession of a soul which could travel between earth and stars.

8. The Soul in Mesopotamia

In contrast the Mesopotamians, who had such a decisive influence on the astronomy of Hellenistic Egypt, appear to have been unconcerned with any concept of an immortal soul (Frankfort et al, 1978). In their cosmology humanity was made out of matter, flesh and bone, completely different in nature to the intangible, immaterial beings, the gods and goddesses (Speiser, 1969, p. 68). True, the evidence of the story of Inanna’s descent to the underworld in search of her dead lover, Dumuzi, suggests the possibility of survival after death (Kramer and Wolkstein, 1983), and there is some evidence of the possibility of an ascent to the sky in the Gilgamesh epic (Jacobsen, 1976, p. 202). There is also some scholarly speculation that the Mesopotamians might have had a concept of a soul, but the discussion is vague and unconvincing (Oppenheim 1977: 200-1). In addition, in complete contrast to Egypt, notions of immortality feature little in both myth and ritual (with the exception of the annual re-enactment of Dumuzi’s resurrection) and the prevailing Mesopotamian attitude to death was essentially pragmatic: one lives, then one dies. The current evidence indicates that no concern with an invisible, transcendent soul was transferred to Egypt with Babylonian astrology.

9. The Soul in Classical Greece

The third component of Ptolemaic NMAA, along with the Egyptian and Babylonian, was Greek. While the notion of a transcendent soul which can survive the body and travel to the stars, was central to Greek philosophy from the fifth century BCE onwards, evidence from the eighth century BCE indicates that the earlier Greek version of survival after death was somewhat different. The Homeric personality was made up of different entities, the body soul, or souls, active when a person is awake, and the free soul, active after a loss of consciousness or death; the psyche was generally the breath of life that escaped at death and went to Hades (Stilwell, 2005, pp. 53, 67). The account of Odysseus’s visit to Hades in Homer’s Odyssey (1997, II.556-8) suggests that the standard model in the eighth century BCE held that the psyche survived in a miserable troglodytic condition in the ground; the Homeric soul had nothing to look forward to except an eternity bound to the earth.

The notion of a transcendent soul is thought to have appeared in Greek culture via Pythagorean and Orphic teachings, perhaps in the sixth century BCE (Guthrie 1952, Guthrie 1987, p. 32-3, 142, Stilwell 2005, pp. 41, 92). The substantial literary evidence, however, dates only the early fourth century: Plato (1931, 81B) claimed that ‘certain priests’ believed in transmigration of souls. Such details aside, the point is that the concept does not appear in the major works of classical literature, those of Hesiod and Homer in the eighth century BCE, so was introduced sometime between then and the fourth century, from when the first literary records survive.

The concept of a transcendental soul was, then, to be fundamental to Greek cosmology from the fifth century BCE onwards, and in western cosmology until the seventeenth century. This was largely as a result of the influence of Plato, together with Aristotle, both of whom emphasised the soul’s immortality and relationship with the stars. Plato divided the soul’s functions into three, one of which dealt with the body, one the emotions and the other, the rational soul, with access to divine wisdom, and taught that each soul is connected with a star and that, as outlined in the so-called Myth of Er, that it descends from the sphere of the stars at birth, returning via the planetary spheres after death (Plato, 1931, 41E-42A, 1937,X, 1914a, 246-8, 1914b 108-109A). Like the ba, Plato’s rational soul was immortal, transcendent and could travel between earth and stars.

In general, unlike Plato, Aristotle argued that the soul died with the body, but he allowed for one part, later known as the Active Intellect, to be immortal (1936, III.V.430a). Aristotle himself did not specifically relate the soul to the stars but did describe a cosmos in which the whole terrestrial realm was animated and moved by the stars in their role as ‘secondary’ causes (1937, 339a 19-24). In each case, mainly in the Platonic, but to a lesser extent in the Aristotelian, soul is an integral part of the nature and function of the cosmos, and is therefore of vital importance for an understanding of the history of astronomy.

The Greek soul possessed certain similarities to the Egyptian, along with differences. Both cultures possessed the concept of the weighing of the soul and a leader of souls (Stilwell 2005, 167). Stilwell’s (2005, 175) argument that the notion of the Orphic- Platonic soul as imprisoned in a corrupt body (Plato 1914a, 82E-83A) would have been abhorent to the Egyptians, with their reverence for the body, is initially persuasive, but not if the Platonists regarded the body more as the protector of the soul than its gaolor. Was the Greek Belief in an Immortal Soul Borrowed from Egypt?

The question, in view of the lack of evidence for its existence in the eighth century, is whether the Greek belief in a transcendent soul was indigenous or imported. The strongest testimony for an imported origin is Herodotus’ view, regarded as controversial by many scholars, that the belief in an immortal soul was imported into Greece from Egypt. The Egyptians, Herodotus (1972, 11.123) wrote, ‘were...the first people to put forward the doctrine of the immortality of the soul’. A series of modern scholars have lined up to claim that Herodotus must be wrong, in spite of his claims, perhaps that he never even visited Egypt in order to obtain such first-hand testimony (Armeyor 1978. See also Stilwell, 2005, p. 166). Zabkar (1963) used Herodotus’ apparent lack of familiarity with certain complexities of Egyptian beliefs on the afterlife to shed doubt on his account. Some scholars, such as Guthrie (1952, pp. 170-1), who discussed the possible role of Herodotus as a bridge between Egyptian and Orphic beliefs, remain neutral. Jane Harrison (1947, p. 148) took a middle way, arguing that the Greeks ‘need not have borrowed [the immortality of the soul] from Egypt, and yet it is probable that the influence of Egypt...helped out the doctrine’. Others have dismissed the doubters, including Thomas McEvilley (2002, pp. 126-9), who is both sceptical of such arguments and regards them as an attempt to preserve Greek purity from oriental pollution.

Contrary to Zabkar, Herodotus did not need to understand the details of Egyptian classifications of the soul, and neither did any Greeks, in order for them to have been inspired by Egyptian notions of immortality; much could have been lost in the process of borrowing. As far as the eastern Mediterranean is concerned, then, a strong argument can be made that the idea of an immortal, transcendent soul, originated in Egypt. A similar controversy surround the Eleusinian mysteries, with some scholars claiming they are ‘Egyptian by execution and intention’ as Stilwell (2005, 165) put it, others denying it. Such arguments can be understood through Pingree’s (1991) concept of Hellenophilia, love of all things Greek, which holds that no worthwhile feature of Greek culture could have been the result of foreign influence. Thus, in Pingree’s modl, critics of Herodotus’ claim do so on a priori grounds, and offer neither evidence for their scepticism, nor alternative explanation for the development of the Greek idea of a transcendent soul.

10. Hellenistic Non-Mathematical Astronomy

The extensive influence of Babylonian mathematical astronomy on Greek is not open to doubt, and has been well argued by Otto Neugebauer (1963, 1975) and, more recently by Alexander Jones (1977, 1993, 1996) and Pingree (1998). Babylonian astrology began to penetrate Greek culture in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and the earliest explicit, and very brief discussion of it, was Plato’s in the Timaeus, composed around 360 BCE (1931, 40 C-D). The earliest surviving possible documentary evidence of Greek use of astrology actually dates from half a century later; a cuneiform birth chart cast for an infant named Aristokrates, who was born on the morning of 3 June 235 BC (Sachs 1952, Rochberg 1998). The formal teaching of Babylonian omen-astronomy to Greeks was initiated sometime around, or shortly after, 300 BCE, when Berossus, a priest of Bel, or Marduk (the Babylonian Jupiter), established a school on the Aegean island of Kos, the site both of Hippocrates’ medical school and the Asclepion, a healing sanctuary sacred to Asclepios, son of Apollo (Vitruvius, 1954, IX.6.2). Politically, Kos had been organised as part of the ‘Islander’s league’, a federation of Aegean islands, by Antigonos Monophthalmos in 315/314 BCE, but came under the control of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt by ‘the late 290’s or early 280’s’ (Shipley 2000, p. 205). Berossus’ school, therefore, was both based in a historic centre of learning and directly tied to the emerging intellectual hub in Egypt.

The evidence suggests that Babylon remained a centre of activity and innovation until the first century (Rochberg 2004). Yet the focus of astronomical innovation shifted to Alexandria in the second century BCE. The familiar reason was the creation of the great library of Alexandria, a project initiated by Ptolemy I (323-283), and fully operational under his son, Ptolemy II (283-246). The coincidence of timing between the library’s foundation and Berossus’ arrival on Kos may itself be significant. The library’s first superintendent was Zenodotus, himself a student of the scholar and poet Philetas of Kos (c. 340-285 BCE), tutor to the young prince, the future Ptolemy II. It made sense for there to be close connections between Kos and Alexandria, and hence a possible direct channel of omen-astronomy material to Alexandria. There is certain evidence for this assumption, or for other direct channels from Babylon to Alexandria. For example, Hypsicles’ work was derived from Babylonian systems which had themselves been wellestablished by the previous century, even though he did not acknowledge Babylonian astronomers in his text, the Anaphorikos (Evans, 1998, p. 205).

Berossus’ mission to the Greek world met with a receptive audience. According to later accounts Theophrastus (c.370-c. 285 BCE) the head of Aristotle’s school, apparently admired his skill in predicting the weather and both public and private affairs (Neugebauer, 1975, p. 609). The literary result of Berossus’ teaching was the beginning of the composition of astrological manuals in Greek, all of which are now lost. The astrological work apparently written by Hipparchus (c.190-c.126 BCE) has disappeared without trace, although it was used up to the fourth century CE, at least (Neugebauer, 1969, p. 168). The five books on divination written by the Stoic Posidonius (c.135-50 BCE), who is credited with taking astrology to Rome, have also been lost. The critical developments, then, in the development of western astrology occurred in Hellenistic Egypt between Berossus’ move to Kos and the composition of the extant first and second century CE texts by Manilius, Valens, Dorotheus and Ptolemy, and it is these which linked the Babylonian original to the full-fledged classical version. It is accepted that the astrology which is known from the classical world, from the 1st c CE onwards, took place in Hellenistic Egypt. The most significant texts of these texts, though, like those of Hipparchus and Posidonius, are lost and known only in fragments.

The first was a lost work attributed to the seventh century BCE pharaoh Nechepso (Ray 1974) and the fourth century priest Petosiris, but now assumed to have been composed sometime around 150 BCE (Bohleke, 1996, p. 19). Another work, consisting of a series of 72 images, is only known by its name, the Salmeschoiniaka, a word which may be translated roughly as ‘Pictures’, or ‘Images’, or ‘Images of the Seal Bearers’ (Eisler and Chatley, 1941, p. 149). Greenbaum and Ross (2010, p. 176) are prepared to date Nechepso-Petosiris to the seventh century BCE (see also Campion 2009, pp. 104-7), but the technical development of the horoscope/birth-chart would still fall in the third or fourth centuries BCE at the earliest, as the origination of the form in Babylon in the fifth century BCE is not questioned (Rochberg 2008, Sachs 1952).

11. Soteriological Astronomy in Ptolemaic Egypt

While the technical manuals of Ptolemaic omen astronomy are lost, the Corpus Hermeticum, the literary origins of which, like Nechepso-Petosiris and the Salmeschoiniaka, in the second century BCE, survived intact: Fowden (1986, p. 3) argues that the earliest Hermetic texts were ‘in circulation in the first century BC, and perhaps earlier’. It’s in these texts that we find for the first time a detailed codification of the overt and persistent concern with the soul and its return to the stars which lay at the heart of much Greek cosmology, especially those schools influenced by Plato. The divine powers which bind the Hermetic cosmos together may be spoken of in terms of light and derived from the sun, together with the less celestial bodies, the planets and stars (Fowden, 1986, p. 77). Thus, in Hermetic philosophy, everything is in God, he is in everything and the sun is the primary vehicle for the transmission of his divine intent to the earth. In the words of the first century Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder (1929, II.iv.13), the Sun is ‘the soul, or more precisely the mind, of the whole world…glorious and pre-eminent, all-seeing and even all-hearing’. Hermeticism’s abiding concern with the sun’s role as the spiritual centre of the cosmos, and with the soul’s ascent to the stars represented, in turn, a structural description of the cosmos and a profound view of its function; to facilitate the soul’s return to its celestial home. The universe was structured in three main divisions. There was one supreme God, the Father of all’, the supreme creator who, ‘in making all things, makes himself’. From God the entire universe emanated first the ‘intelligible’ world of ideas and then the ‘sensible’ world - the material, visible world accessible to our senses. God’s benevolent powers flow through these worlds to the sun, the Demiurge (‘craftsman’), the creator of our world, ‘a mighty deity…who is posted in the midst of the universe and watches over all things done on earth by men’ without whom there would be no physical life (Scott, 1982, p. 273, Fowden 1986, p. 77). The Demiurge then operated through the Kosmos, the eight spheres on which the stars and planets rotated, the planet-gods and the daemons they ruled. Men were, in turn subject to the daemons, ‘who mould all things on earth’ (Scott, 1982, p. 273).

This left humanity in an ambivalent position, both distant from God and separated from him by the daemons and planet-gods, yet, in that everything that God makes is itself God, all creation is an inseparable part of him. This problem of simultaneous intimacy and alienation was resolved by the simple formula that it is the physical body, together with those parts of the soul which are subject to physical desires, that are dominated by daemons and gods. Meanwhile, the rational soul, if the individual makes the right choices, is in direct contact with God. Elaborating Plato’s Myth of Er, the Corpus Hermeticum (Scott, 1982, p. 271) relates how,

The planets replace one another from moment to moment; they do not go on working without change, but succeed one another in rotation. These daemons then make their way through the body, and enter the two irrational parts of the soul; and each daemon perverts the soul in a different way, according to his special mode of action. But the rational part of the soul remains free from the dominion of the daemons, and fit to receive God in itself. If then the rational part of a man’s soul is illumined by a ray of light from God, for that [in] man the working of the daemons is brought to nought; for no daemon and no god has power against a single ray of the light of God.

This passage, whose message is mirrored elsewhere throughout the rest of the Hermetic texts, is of absolutely critical importance in the development of western cosmology. Plato’s benevolent daemons are converted into the malicious demons of Christianity. The planets occupy a double role. On the one hand, through their responsibility for the daemons, they are co-opted into the essentially oppressive system and release, via the rational soul, is only possible through the light of God. On the other, in that they surround the sun, through which God’s light is transmitted, they partake in his glory.

Hermeticism offered an essentially Platonic path to salvation, recognising the inner divine and the possibility of a return to the Light via the planetary spheres; the Pharaonic ascent to the stars was now structured via the nested planetary spheres of Platonic cosmology (Scott, 1982, p. 129). The emphasis was on active engagement with the cosmos. The set of instructions by which salvation might be achieved were quite explicit; the devotee was told: look ‘at what you yourself have in you; for in you too, the word is son, and the mind is father of the word…Now fix your thought upon the Light…and learn to know it (Scott, 1982, p. 117). Such statements are reminiscent of the Pharaoh’s ascent to the sun. Further, ‘He who has recognised himself’, that is, acknowledged the divinity within, then ‘enters into the Good’ (Scott, 1982, p. 125). The key to cosmological salvation lay in self-understanding. However, it seems that not everyone was capable of achieving self-knowledge which is why, the twin technologies of horoscopic interpretation and Hermetic salvation theology; the former identified one’s current destiny, the latter enabled one to act to transcend or escape it.

For those virtuous individuals who are blessed with Nous (divine reason) the way back to God is through the planetary spheres (Scott, 1982, p 129). The soul’s shedding of seven human qualities at each planetary sphere may be the origin of the seven cardinal sins (Blomfield, 1941). At any rate, at each one, the vices associated with that planet are shed, in a pastiche of Inanna’s shedding of her jewellery and clothing on her descent to the underworld. As the soul passes the moon it sheds growth and decay, Mercury trickery, Venus deceit, the sun the qualities of being a ruler, Mars daring and recklessness, Jupiter greed and Saturn falsehood. At the eighth sphere, that of the stars, the soul beings to praise God, and is encouraged by the sound of voices from the higher levels. Finally the soul ascends to God and, in the logical climax of Platonic theology, it is reunited with God. In fact, it becomes God.

12. The Horoscopic Texts

The rules underlying the horoscopic texts themselves are highly technical and, as recorded in the extant classical texts of the first and second centuries, are apparently concerned with externals such as one’s parents (Ptolemy 1940, II.4). However, the apparent overwhelming concern with the mundane details of daily life should not be taken at face value. Rather the notion of such externals as the outer manifestation of the soul’s current incarnation is a given. For example, Vettius Valens (120 - c.175), who may have been from Syria but studied in Egypt, opened his the entire work with the explicitly Hermetic statement that ‘The all-seeing Sun, then, being truly fire-like (is) the light of the mind, the organ of perception of the soul’(1993, I.1). The apparently trivial and highly detailed interpretations of the significance of astronomical motion in individual life can therefore only be understood within a context in which the Hermetic concept of an ensouled, spiritually heliocentric cosmos, is taken for granted.

One of the most influential of the early classical astrological authors, Claudius Ptolemy, attempted to locate the soul’s relationship with the stars in two of his works, the Harmonics and the Tetrabiblos, providing the philosophical motive and context for his, to historians of astronomy, better known work in the Almagest. If we turn to the Tetrabiblos we find the following statement (Ptolemy, 1940, III.13), intended to allow the astronomer to identify the condition of the soul, using Plato’s classification into rational and emotional, in each individual by working the planetary positions from their time, date and place of birth: ‘Of the qualities of the soul, those which concern the reason and the mind are apprehended by means of the condition of Mercury...and the qualities of the sensory and irrational part are discovered from the one of the luminaries which is the more corporeal, that is, the moon’. Ptolemy’s concern was partly with the horoscopic techné, but he was also partly inspired by notions of the ascent to the stars, ‘Mortal as I am’, he wrote, ‘I know that I am born for a day, but when I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth; I ascend to Zeus himself to feast me on ambrosia, the food of the gods’ (Cumont, 1960, p. 81).

13. Conclusion

There has been, in recent years, a tendency to re-evaluate the Egyptian contribution to astrology. Conman (2009) has argued for an Old Kingdom origin of the Babylonian bit nisirti, significant zodiacal locations for the planets. Bohleke (1996, p. 11) is cautious but nevertheless insistent in developing the debate, arguing that ‘if not the originator of horoscopic astrology, Egypt developed the craft into an art, having a significant effect on the Roman world’. He notes (1996, p. 15. See also Fowden 1986, p. 17) that Ptolemaic Egypt witnessed ‘a concerted attempt to translate Egyptian texts into Greek’, incorporating indigenous wisdom into the Hellenistic worldview. Greenbaum and Ross (2010, p. 151) argue for a combination of Egyptian and Babylonian input into the astrology of Hellenistic Egypt, but nevertheless emphasise the Egyptian contribution more than has often been the case.

The argument for the indigenous Egyptian contribution to astronomy is based partly on the syncretism which occurred during the Hellenistic period, in which Greek and Babylonian contributions were combined with Greek. However, if a substantial contribution from Greece was a refined notion of the relationship between and immortal soul and the stars, and if this concept was borrowed from Egypt sometime between the eight and fourth centuries BCE, the Egyptian contribution is seen to be far more significant.

Herodotus’ claim that the Greeks borrowed notions of the immortality of the soul from Egypt are unconfirmed but persuasive, even if they were combined with theories that the Greeks themselves were developing. Theories of the soul’s ascent to the stars were refined by Plato and Aristotle and re-exported to Egypt in the Ptolemaic period. We may therefore argue that there were two routes for Egyptian concepts of the soul to enter Ptolemaic astronomy, both directly and via classical Greece.

The Babylonians had prepared the schematic foundation for the horoscopic techné, but their concern was purely with material fortune in this life; the concern with the soul was a Ptolemaic contribution. The horoscopic texts themselves are highly technical but, as both Valens and Ptolemy make clear, the apparent overwhelming concern with the mundane details of daily life should not be taken at face value. Rather, the notion of such externals as the outer manifestation of the soul’s current incarnation is a given.

Hermetic teachings then provided a model by which the motions of the planets might be seen to disturb the soul, and liberation might be achieved. These practices then provided the foundation for the form of practical astrology which spread through the Roman Empire, and westwards to India, flourished in the golden age of Islamic learning and was one of the major motives for the study of astronomy in Medieval and Renaissance Europe until the seventeenth century (Campion 2009a): the importance of astrology in the Roman Empire (Cramer 1996) and medieval Europe (Thorndike 1923 - 58), and its impact on developments in mathematical astronomy, is well-attested. The development of a ‘psychological astronomy’ (Campion 2009b) , or astrology - an astronomy whose concern was the soul, or psyche - in Ptolemaic Egypt was therefore so important for subsequent developments in non-mathematical astronomy that, following the notion of the ‘Copernican Revolution’, I suggest that we can refer to an ‘Egyptian’, or ‘Ptolemaic Astronomical Revolution’ of the first and second centuries BCE. This suggestion, I emphasise, is made in order to encourage debate on the significance of a neglected period in the history of astronomy.


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