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Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans

Franz Cumont


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Description

This is a study of star-worship collected from all available astrological and astronomical texts from antiquity. Cumont shows that astronomical knowledge was developed over time in the ancient Near East, eventually allowing prediction of phenomena such as the location of the planets, the phases of the moon, and eclipses. This knowledge was used as the basis of a religious system which was integrated into Greek and Roman Paganism. This involved worship of the planets and stars and a belief that after death (if virtuous) we ascend to the heavens. Other aspects of ancient star-worship that are still with us are our seven-day week and the transference of the winter Solstice into the celebration of the birth of Christ.

This book has 110 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1912.

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Excerpt from 'Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans'

After a long period of discredit and neglect, astrology is beginning to force itself once more on the attention of the learned world. In the course of the last few years scholars have devoted to it profound researches and elaborate publications. Greek manuscripts, which had remained a sealed book at a time when the quest for unpublished documents is all the rage, have now been laboriously examined, and the wealth of this literature has exceeded all expectation. On the other hand, the deciphering of the cuneiform tablets has given access to the wellsprings of a learned superstition, which up to modern times has exercised over Asia and Europe a wider dominion than any religion has ever achieved. I trust, therefore, that I am not guilty of undue presumption in venturing to claim your interest for this erroneous belief, so long universally accepted, which exercised an endless influence on the creeds and the ideas of the most diverse peoples, and which for that very reason necessarily demands the attention of historians.

After a duration of a thousand years, the power of astrology broke down when, with Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, the progress of astronomy overthrew the false hypothesis upon which its entire structure rested, namely, the geocentric system of the universe. The fact that the earth revolves in space intervened to upset the complicated play of planetary influences, and the silent stars, relegated to the unfathomable depths of the sky, no longer made their prophetic voices audible to mankind. Celestial mechanics and spectrum analysis finally robbed them of their mysterious prestige. Thenceforth in that learned system of divination, which professed to discover from the stars the secret of our destiny, men saw nothing but the most monstrous of all the chimeras begotten of superstition. Under the sway of reason the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries condemned this heresy in the name of scientific orthodoxy. In 1824, Letronne thought it necessary to apologise for discoursing to the Academy of Inscriptions on "absurd dreams" in which he saw "nothing but one of those failings which have done most dishonour to the human mind," --as though man's failings were not often more instructive than his triumphs.

But at the end of the nineteenth century the development of history, from various sides, recalled the attention of investigators to ancient astrology. It is an exact science which was superimposed on primitive beliefs, and when classical philology, enlarging its horizon, brought fully within its range of observation the development of the sciences in antiquity, it could not set aside a branch of knowledge, illegitimate, I allow, but indissolubly linked not only with astronomy and meteorology, but also with medicine, botany, ethnography, and physics. If we go back to the earliest stages of every kind of learning, as far as the Alexandrine and even the Babylonian period, we shall find almost everywhere the disturbing influence of these astral "mathematics." This sapling, which shot up among the rank weeds by the side of the tree of knowledge, sprang from the same stock and mingled its branches with it.

But not only is astrology indispensable to the savant who desires to trace the toilsome progress of reason in the pursuit of truth along its doublings and turnings,--which is perhaps the highest mission of history; it also benefited by the interest which was roused in all manifestations of the irrational. This pseudo-science is in reality a creed. Beneath the icy crust of a cold and rigid dogma run the troubled waters of a jumble of worships, derived from an immense antiquity; and as soon as enquiry was directed to the religions of the past, it was attracted to this doctrinal superstition, perhaps the most astonishing that has ever existed. Research ascertained how, after having reigned supreme in Babylonia, it subdued the cults of Syria and of Egypt, and under the Empire,--to mention only the West,--transformed even the ancient paganism of Greece and Rome.

It is not only, however, because it is combined with scientific theories, nor because it enters into the teaching of pagan mysteries, that astrology forces itself on the meditations of the historian of religions, but for its own sake (and here we touch the heart of the problem), because he is obliged to enquire how and why this alliance, which at first sight seems monstrous, came to be formed between mathematics and superstition. It is no explanation to consider it merely a mental disease. Even then, to speak the truth, this hallucination, the most persistent which has ever haunted the human brain, would still deserve to be studied. If psychology to-day conscientiously applies itself to disorders of the memory and of the will, it cannot fail to interest itself in the ailments of the faculty of belief, and specialists in lunacy will do useful work in dealing with this species of morbid manifestation with the view of settling its etiology and tracing its course. How could this absurd doctrine arise, develop, spread, and force itself on superior intellects for century after century? There, in all its simplicity, is the historical problem which confronts us.

In reality the growth of this body of dogma followed a course not identical with, but parallel, I think, to that of certain other theologies. Its starting-point was faith, faith in certain stellar divinities who exerted an influence on the world. Next, people sought to comprehend the nature of this influence: they believed it to be subject to certain invariable laws, because observation revealed the fact that the heavens were animated by regular movements, and they conceived themselves able to determine its effects in the future with the same certainty as the coming revolutions and conjunctions of the stars. Finally, when a series of theories had been evolved out of that twofold conviction, their original source was forgotten or disregarded. The old belief became a science; its postulates were erected into principles, which were justified by physical and moral reasons, and it was pretended that they rested on experimental data amassed by a long series of observations. By a common process, after believing, people invented reasons for believing,--"fides quaerens intellectum,"--and the intelligence working on the faith reduced it to formula, the logical sequence of which concealed the radical fallacy.

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