Myths are traditional narratives, usually concerning the deeds of gods and goddesses, forming a sacred history. Within a given society, its sacred narratives may be understood as literally true. However, most scholars of myths view them as stories that are not meant to be taken literally, but as allegories or extended metaphors containing underlying moral truths of collective importance.
The term can be traced back to the Greek word "mythos" (word of mouth, legend.) Myths often describe the origin of the world, the exploits of gods and super-heroes, the rationale for the existing social order, and the reasons behind particular customs. Mythology combines the dim recollection of past events - whether legendary or imaginary - with a poetical dimension that incorporates fictitious themes.
Mythology in the History of Astrology
Although many ancient cultures practiced some form of cultural astronomy the roots of western astrology developed in ancient Sumer (in modern-day Iraq) ca. 2100-1800 BCE with myths about the divine gift of star lore and the belief that planets controlled human outcomes. The Sumerians and early Babylonians believed that the visible planets were gods, and prayed to the planets as divine beings who decreed events on earth.
Early ephemerides and star-lists were an attempt to predict what the gods might have in store for mortals, as a form of divination. In time, the Babylonians disassociated planets from the gods, but believed that the gods indicated through planetary positions and eclipses their signs or omens of upcoming events. These usually involved king and country, or what we today might call mundane astrology.
The ancient people of Mesopotamia had other associations between their deities and early forms of astrology. One was that the gods donated astronomical and astrological knowledge to mankind, via their special initiates. Another was that successful astrological divination was a gift from the gods. From the belief in planetary gods as all-powerful decision-makers comes the early association of astrology with fatalism: what the gods decreed, a mortal could scarcely change. Gods of the Babylonian pantheons controlled different phenomena, giving planet-environment and planet-object affinities or rulerships that continue with astrology today. The Babylonians named most of the major constellations as figures from their mythology, and identified twelve of them as the constellations of the zodiac.
Horoscopic astrology developed in Babylon after about 500 B.C. Extant horoscopes include seemingly ordinary people's nativities, not just the characters of national leaders or mundane events, even though divine associations of astrology continued. The gods' decrees thus played out in ordinary material realities of people's lives from the very beginnings of horoscopic astrology.
The ancient Greeks imported Babylonian astrological knowledge around 300 B.C. They took the Babylonian concepts of the planetary gods but translated them into their own deities. The Babylonian ruler-god Marduk, for example, became Zeus, the goddess Istar became Aphrodite, and the warrior god Nergal became Ares. The Romans, from whom English-speakers get our planet names, were relative late-comers to ancient Mediterranean/Near East civilization, and they adopted many of the pre-existing Greek and Hellenized eastern myths. They assimilated Marduk-Zeus to Jupiter; Istar-Aphrodite to their love-goddess Venus; and Nergal-Ares to Mars.
Even amongst ancient Greek and Roman astrological authors who made little or no mention of mythology, the core meanings of the Babylonian god-planets remained, and continue with astrologers today. Ptolemy was noteworthy for trying to get astrology on an entirely "scientific" footing as science was understood in his day (ca. 150 CE) but Manilius (ca 100 CE)imbued his Astronomica with myths and deferential words to the Roman gods. Firmicus Maternus (ca. 280-360 CE) in his Matheseos Libri VIII (I: vi) explained to his patron how the study of astrology encouraged men to worship the gods, and he stressed astrology's esoteric nature.
Even during the Christian medieval and renaissance periods, some astrologers personified the planets in terms of the old gods, mentioning "dame Venus" or depicting Mars as a soldier.
Meanings of Myth in Astrology Today
Many western astrologers today feel they need no necessary reference to the ancient mythology that gave the planets their names, rulerships, and characteristics in the horoscope. This view probably reflects both the "scientific" legacy of Ptolemy in western astrology, as well as a disinterest in or lack of knowledge of a body of literature today largely regarded as mere fables or children's stories.
One problem in taking myth seriously is the bizarre or cruel nature of some of the tales. For example, the story of the young Saturn castrating his father Uranus, to be echoed as Saturn swallows his own children yet is deposed by his son Jupiter, seem gruesome and strange on the surface. Understood non-literally, however, the barbaric actions of the supreme gods may point to successive waves of Indo-European migrants into southern Europe. As these migrants' newer pantheons replaced the older pantheons of the earlier inhabitants, the myths may point metaphorically to the destruction of the older religion's potency by the newer religion's more virile gods. Similarly, Jupiter's constant amorous exploits might have conveyed to an ancient audience's collections of national origin myths, in which the king of the gods mated with a local goddess to give divine parentage and thus status to the ethnic group that emerged from Jupiter's immediate offspring.
Some modern astrologers, notably those interested in the links between astrology and the work of C.G. Jung look to the underlying collective meanings of myths beneath the tales of the deeds of now-moribund deities.
For example, the mythology of Mercury points to a young god, who was a notorious trickster as a child. Mercury's winged heels enabled him to travel quickly, and he was the one god who could traverse the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. The planet Mercury's rulership of liars and thieves, trade, and travel stem from his myths. Mercury the planet of thought and communication, simultaneously suggests both knowledge and diplomatic skills, as well as deceit, curiosity, and imagination; all qualities ascribed to the god.
Human thought, moreover, enables the individual to travel imaginatively between different realms of existence, or to make "armchair" discoveries through media, even when the body is bound to one place. The mythological Mercury indeed describes metaphorically the operations of the human mind.
Myths deal with archetypes, or stock characters that appear in many narratives: the mother, the warrior, the lovers, the king. Astrology, similarly, conveys these characters through the moon and Cancer, Aries and Mars, the seventh house and Venus, and the sun or 10th house.
The gods of Antiquity looked, spoke, and acted like humans. Their myths were the great literature of their day - maybe also of ours. Because the gods themselves were based on human templates and archetypes, their myths consequently speak to the human condition once their underlying story lines are uncovered.
Although it might be difficult to accept today that 2000-year old myths have some sort of influence over planets, ancient Hellenistic astrologers were not so puzzled, due to the influence of Plato's philosophy. Jupiter may have ruled over the gods, but above him exists a universal divine intelligence, which ultimately controls both the heavens, the pantheon of gods, and humans. The human soul is a portion of this divine mind, and is therefore able to understand the larger whole of which planets and gods are an interconnected part. As Manilius put it, "Who could know heaven, save by heaven's gift, and discover God save one who shares himself in the divine?"
Regardless of whether secular modern astrologers accept this Neo-Platonist view of their work today, they frequently (if inadvertently) adopt the lore and oftentimes techniques of ancient astrologers who did think this way.
- On The Use of Mythology in Astrology (Chris Brennan, 2008)
- Greek Gods vs. Roman Gods (diffen.com, 2016)
- theoi.com: greek mythology (gods & myths)
- Barton, Tamsyn, 1994. Ancient Astrology, Routledge
- Nicholas Campion, 2012. Astrology and Cosmology in the World's Religions, New York University Press
- Campion, Nicholas, 2008. The Dawn of Astrology: A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Continuum
- Rochberg, Francesca, 2004. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture, Cambridge University Press
- White, Gavin, 2007, Babylonian Star-Lore: An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia, Solaria Publications
Notes and References
- Credited with transmitting the origins of astrology and numeracy to mortals. In time her role was taken over by Mercury. 2430 BCE
- "Mythology" in Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth, eds. 1996. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 1018-1020
- Barton, op cit.
- Shows attributes of the god that remain with astrology today: the traveler's cloak, winged hat, and winged feet show Mercury as messenger and communicator. The purse indicates his rulership of merchants. 1st century
- Peay,Pythia, 2004, Mercury Retrograde: Its Myth and Meaning, Tarcher/Penguin
- Manilius , Astronomica 2: 115
- Detail showing the creation of stars and planets. The Sistine Chapel is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace