Astrology was a central feature of Greek and Roman culture. A knowledge of astrology’s claims, practices, and world view is essential for a full understanding of religion, politics, and science in the Greek and Roman worlds. Astrology is the name given to a series of diverse practices based in the idea that the stars, planets, and other celestial phenomena possess significance and meaning for events on Earth. It assumes a link between Earth and sky in which all existence, spiritual, psychological, and physical, is interconnected. Most premodern cultures practice a form of astrology. A particularly complex variety of it evolved in Mesopotamia in the first and second millennia
Jay M. Pasachoff and Roberta J.M. Olson
Since the landmark lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (launched in 2009), and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kaguya spacecraft (2007–2009), among other efforts, have now mapped the Moon’s surface. Before those technological advances and since the beginning of recorded time, people and civilizations have been entranced by Earth’s only natural satellite, which is the second-brightest celestial object visible in the sky from the surface of the planet. Selected examples, among thousands, show how the history of the Moon has been regarded, illustrated, and mapped in visual culture in the Western world. Early examples include representations of a formulaic crescent Moon in Babylonian times; later this dominant stylized depiction of the Moon gave way to more naturalistic images based on observation, culminating in Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscript drawings, which study the lunar structure and cratered surface, and Galileo Galilei’s first telescopic images of the Moon recorded in wash drawings and woodcuts for his book Sidereus Nuncius. Both the artistic and scientific visual acuity that made this evolution possible belonged to the burgeoning empiricism of the 14th through the 17th centuries, which eventually yielded modern observational astronomy and impacted lunar iconography. The subsequent dramatic mapping of the Moon’s surface and the naming of its features became a preoccupation of many astronomers and some artists, who assisted scientists in illustrating their work. With the seeming physical mapping of the Earth-facing side of the Moon well underway in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the function of Earth’s satellite as a Romantic symbol gained force in the all the arts but most dramatically in the works of landscape painters in Germany (e.g., Caspar David Friedrich and Carl Gustav Carus) and in England (e.g., Samuel Palmer). At the same time, William Blake, who was obsessed with astronomical imagery, used the Moon for expressive purposes, which reached a fever pitch later in the century in the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Along with the increasing accuracy of the Moon’s portrayal through both artists’ and scientists’ representations, the dramatic history of its mapping from Earth crescendoed with the development of photography and William Cranch Bond’s first successful daguerreotype of the Moon in 1851. Further exploration of the Moon, including its far side, has gravitated to aerospace engineers in cooperation with physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, and Apollo astronauts. Nevertheless, the Moon has remained an enduring object of fascination for artists—among the many, Surrealist Joan Miró, Veja Celmins, and Andy Warhol.
Anthropologists distinguish the U.S. State of California as a primary zone of prehistoric and tribal North America—it was one of the most linguistically and cultural diverse regions on earth. The original population of Native California and traditional cultures were decimated by the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Anglos, who successively settled California and transformed it. For that reason, knowledge of the character and function of astronomy in what is now California prior to European contact in the 16th century is incomplete and fragmented. Traditional astronomical lore is preserved in a few ethnohistoric commentaries, in some archaeological remains, and in ethnographic research conducted primarily in the early 20th century, when elements of indigenous knowledge still survived.
Throughout Native California, the moon’s conspicuous brightness, movement, and systematically changing appearance prompted its affiliation with seasonal change, the passage of time, and cyclical renewal, and most California tribes monitored and counted lunations in one way or another, but not necessarily throughout the entire year. In some cases, individual lunations were affiliated with and named for seasonal circumstances.
There is little evidence, however, for even minimal interest in or recognition of the planets visible to the unaided eye, with the exception of Venus as the “Morning Star” or “Evening Star.” Venus, like the moon and other celestial objects, was personified and regarded as a fundamental and active agent of the cosmos. There is no evidence, however, for detailed monitoring of Venus and quantitative knowledge of its synodic behavior.
Duane W. Hamacher and Kirsten Banks
Studies in Australian Indigenous astronomical knowledge reveal few accounts of the visible planets in the sky. However, what information we do have tells us that Aboriginal people are close observers of planets and their motions and properties. Indigenous Australians discerned between planets and stars by their placement in the sky and their general lack of scintillation. Traditions generally describe the ecliptic and zodiac as a pathway of sky ancestors represented by the sun, moon, and planets. This included observing the occasional backwards motion of sky ancestors as they communicate with each other during their journey across the sky, representing an explanation of retrograde motion. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people note the relative brightness of the planets over time and information about the roles they play in their traditions around Australia. Knowledge systems outline the importance placed on Venus as the morning and evening star, making connections to the object as it transitions form one to the other through observations and calculation of the planet’s synodic period. Traditions note the relative positions of the planets to the moon, sun, and background stars, as well as inter planetary dust through zodiacal light, which is perceived as a celestial rope connecting Venus to the sun.
The relative dearth of descriptions of planets in Aboriginal traditions may be due to the gross incompleteness of recorded astronomical traditions and of ethnographic bias and misidentification in the anthropological record. Ethnographic fieldwork with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is revealing new, previously unrecorded knowledge about the planets and their related phenomena.
Inuit are an indigenous people traditionally inhabiting the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and parts of Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula. Across this vast region, Inuit society, while not entirely homogeneous either culturally or linguistically, nevertheless shares a fundamental cosmology, in part based on a common understanding of the sky and its contents. Traditionally, Inuit used prominent celestial objects—the sun, moon, and major circumpolar asterisms—as markers for estimating the passage of time, as wayfinding and directional aids, and, importantly, as the basis of several of the foundational myths and legends underpinning their society’s social order and mores.
Random inquiries on Inuit astronomy made by European visitors after initial contact through the mid-18th and early 20th centuries were characteristically haphazard and usually peripheral to some other line of ethnological enquiry, such as folklore or mythology. In addition, the early accounts of Inuit star lore were often prone to misrepresentation due to several factors, including European cultural bias, translation inadequacies, a deficiency of general astronomical knowledge on the part of most commentators, and, most significantly, a failure—sometimes due to lack of opportunity—to conduct systematic observations of the sky in the presence of Inuit knowledge holders. Early accounts therefore tended to diminish the cultural significance of Inuit astronomy, almost to the point of insignificance. Unfortunately, by the time systematic fieldwork began on the topic, in the mid-1980s, unalloyed information on Inuit astronomical knowledge was already elusive, more and more compromised by European acculturation and substitution and, notably, by light pollution—a consequence of the increasing urbanization of Inuit communities beginning in the late 1950s. For the residents of most Arctic settlements, street lights reflecting off the snow have virtually eliminated the evocative phenomenon of the “polar night.”
For several reasons, the role of planets in Inuit astronomy is difficult to determine, due, in part, to the characteristics of the planets themselves. Naked-eye differentiation between the major visible planets is by no means straightforward, and for observers living north of the Arctic Circle, the continuous or semicontinuous periods of daylight/twilight obtaining throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall effectively prevent year-round viewing of the night sky, making much planetary movement unobservable, far less an appreciation of the planets’ predictable synodic and sidereal periods. Mitigating against the significant use of planets in Inuit culture is also the principle that their applied astronomy, along with its cosmology and mythologies depend principally on—apart from the sun and the moon—the predictability of the “fixed stars.”
Inuit of course did see the major planets and took note of them when they moved through their familiar asterisms or appeared, irregularly, as markers of solstice, or harbingers of daylight after winter’s dark. Generally, however, planets seem to have been little regarded until after the introduction of Christianity, when, in parts of the Canadian eastern Arctic, Venus, in particular, became associated with Christmas. While there are anecdotal accounts that some of the planets, again especially Venus, may have had a place in Greenlandic mythology, this assertion is far from certain. Furthermore, reports from Alaska and Greenland suggesting that the appearance of Venus was a regular marker of the new year, or a predictor of sun’s return, need qualification, given the apparent irregularity of Venus’s appearances above the horizon.
A survey of relevant literature, including oral history, pertaining either directly or peripherally to Inuit astronomical traditions, reveals few bona fide mention of planets. References to planets in Inuit mythology and astronomy are usually speculative, typically lacking supportive or corroborative information. It can therefore be reasonably inferred that, with the qualified exception of Venus, planets played little part in Inuit astronomy and cosmology despite their being, on occasion, the brightest objects in the Northern celestial sphere. This being the case, there is a certain irony in NASA’s recently bestowing Inuit mythological names on a group of Saturn’s moons—Saturn being a planet the Inuit themselves, as far as can be determined, did not note or recognize.
Joachim Friedrich Quack
The five visible planets are certainly attested to in Egyptian sources from about 2000
In the Late Period, probably under Mesopotamian influence, the sequence of the planets as well as their religious associations could change; at least one source links Saturn with the Sun god, Mars with Miysis, Mercury with Thot, Venus with Horus, son of Isis, and Jupiter with Amun, arranging the planets with those considered negative in astrology first, separated from the positive ones by the vacillating Mercury. Late monuments depicting the zodiac place the planets in positions which are considered important in astrology, especially the houses or the place of maximum power (hypsoma; i.e., “exaltation”).
Probably under Babylonian influence, in the Greco-Roman Period mathematical models for calculating the positions and phases of the planets arose. These were used for calculating horoscopes, of which a number in demotic Egyptian are attested. There are also astrological treatises (most still unpublished) in the Egyptian language which indicate the relevance of planets for forecasts, especially for the fate of individuals born under a certain constellation, but also for events important for the king and the country in general; they could be relevant also for enterprises begun at a certain date.
There is some reception of supposedly or actually specific Egyptian planet sequences, names and religious associations in Greek sources.
The Spanish chronicles do not mention planets other than Venus, although they compare certain Aztec gods with classical gods such as Jupiter and Mars. Creation myths recorded by the Spanish chroniclers frequently name Venus gods, most notably Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl and Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. The focus on Venus seen in these texts is also mirrored in colonial period Aztec codices, which feature several Venus gods as rulers of calendar periods associated with the 260-day calendar. The famous Aztec Calendar Stone represents Venus symbols prominently in an image showing the predicted demise of the Sun in an eternal solar eclipse, to be accompanied by earthquakes. Venus is apparently seen as the cause of a total solar eclipse in the Codex Borgia, a pre-conquest codex from Tlaxcala, a community neighboring the Aztecs in central Mexico. Although no pre-conquest Aztec codices survive, the painted screenfold books attributed to neighboring communities in central Mexico provide evidence of the kinds of almanacs that were probably also found in Preconquest Aztec screenfold books. The Codex Borgia has two Venus almanacs associated with heliacal rise events and another focusing on dates that coordinate with events involving Venus and possibly other planets. A unique narrative in the Codex Borgia traces Venus over the course of a year, representing different aspects of the synodical cycle. The transformation of Venus in the narrative is evidenced by subtle changes in the Venus god, Quetzalcoatl, who represents the planet Venus throughout the synodical cycle. Another god, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (“lord of dawn”), appears in the narrative associated with Venus as the morning star and also is represented in a death aspect during superior conjunction. This is in keeping with Aztec legends that tell how the Sun killed Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli with his solar rays. The Borgia narrative also helps identify Xolotl as the planet Mercury and provides hints about other planets that may be linked with different aspects of Tezcatlipoca, an Aztec god who ruled the night sky.
Von Del Chamberlain
We can be certain that all cultures wondered about the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars, and that they found ways of incorporating what they observed into comprehension of themselves existing within their perceptible surroundings, both on earth and in the sky. Thanks to the gleanings of anthropologists in the late 1800s and early 1900s, we have a treasure trove revealing that the Native American Skidi Band of the Pawnee Nation possessed a unique creation tradition rich in astronomical symbolism. This includes the belief that the two bright planets encompassing within their orbits the orbit of planet Earth were considered by the Skidi to be the cosmic parents of the very first human child, a girl; the Sun and Moon were considered parents of the first male child.
This story of human origin includes the legendary journey of the male Great Red Warrior from the east to court the Beautiful Bright White female star of the west, followed by the birth of their daughter transported to earth. This is a striking allegory of the apparent migrations of Mars and Venus, continually changing in brightness, undergoing retrograde motions and sometimes seeming to unite in close conjunctions. Watching these interrelations, repeated over and over with intriguing variations, likely led to and continually reinforced this tradition. Likewise, the apparent monthly relationships of Sun and Moon, with occasional eclipses, visually reinforced the account of the initial male human birth. Thus, the Skidi Pawnee tradition of human origins is an interesting, indeed beautiful, example of human interpretation of natural phenomena.
During the last three millennia before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples living in the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and the northern part of Central America evolved into complex societies with a number of common characteristics that define the cultural area known as Mesoamerica and are expressed in technology, forms of subsistence, government, architecture, religion, and intellectual achievements, including sophisticated astronomical concepts. For the Aztecs, the Maya, and many other Mesoamerican societies, Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies. Not only were they aware that the brightest “star” appearing in certain periods in the pre-dawn sky was identical to the one that at other times was visible in the evening after sunset; they also acquired quite accurate knowledge about the regularities of the planet’s apparent motion. While Venus was assiduously observed and studied, it also inspired various beliefs, in which its morning and evening manifestations had different attributes. Relevant information is provided by archaeological data, prehispanic manuscripts, early Spanish reports, and ethnographically recorded myths that survive among modern communities as remnants of pre-Conquest tradition.
The best-known is the malevolent aspect of the morning star, whose first appearances after inferior conjunction were believed to inflict harm on nature and humanity in a number of ways. However, the results of recent studies suggest that the prevalent significance of the morning star was of relatively late and foreign origin. The most important aspect of the symbolism of Venus was its conceptual association with rain and maize, in which the evening star had a prominent role. It has also been shown that these beliefs must have been motivated by some observational facts, particularly by the seasonality of evening star extremes, which approximately delimit the rainy season and the agricultural cycle in Mesoamerica. As revealed by different kinds of evidence, including architectural alignments to these phenomena, Venus was one of the celestial agents responsible for the timely arrival of rains, which conditioned a successful agricultural season. The planet also had an important place in the concepts concerning warfare and sacrifice, but this symbolism seems to have been derived from other ideas that characterize Mesoamerican religion. Human sacrifices were believed necessary for securing rain, agricultural fertility, and a proper functioning of the universe in general. Since the captives obtained in battles were the most common sacrificial victims, the military campaigns were religiously sanctioned, and the Venus-rain-maize associations became involved in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. These ideas became a significant component of political ideology, fostered by rulers who exploited them to satisfy their personal ambitions and secular goals. In sum, the whole conceptual complex surrounding the planet Venus in Mesoamerica can be understood in the light of both observational facts and the specific socio-political context.