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In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, alchemy and astrology shared a common language in the meanings and characters attributed to the celestial bodies, which provided a cosmic framework for understanding all terrestrial affairs. 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 the Earth. In practical terms, astrology’s function was to predict the future, manage the present, and understand the past. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, these three functions were not seen as separate, because time existed as a single entity—past, present, and future coexisted in the mind of God. Astrology assumed a link between Earth and sky in which all existence, spiritual, psychological, and physical, is interconnected. Time and space existed in a mutually dependent continuum, in which both were infused with the same qualities, represented in terms of astrological language by zodiac signs and planets. The practice of alchemy applied such assumptions to the material world, attempting to convert one metal into another, typically lead into gold. As all things were interconnected, including soul and body, the physical practice of alchemy was intimately connected with spiritual practice intended to purify the soul in preparation for its meeting with the divine. The planets had roles in both astrology and alchemy. A planet, from the Greek planētai, meaning wanderer, is a star, a point, or source of light in the sky that constantly alters its position. This is in contrast to the so-called fixed stars, which appear to keep exactly the same position relative to each other, at least over historic periods of time. Technical astrology largely developed in the Hellenistic, Greek-speaking world from the early third century BCE onward. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and classical learning in most of Western Europe from the 5th century, the complex astrology of the Classical world largely disappeared. It returned to Western Europe in two phases. The first phase, mainly in the 12th century, included the translation into Latin of major texts from Arabic, including those originally composed in Greek, and was accompanied by Aristotelian works that justified the use of astrology in naturalistic terms, thereby negating Christian disapproval. Alchemy was introduced into Western Europe at the same time. The second phase began mainly in the 15th century, during the Renaissance, as part of a wider revival of Classical thought encouraged by the translation of Platonic, neo-Platonic, and Hermetic works from Greek directly into Latin. By the end of the 17th century, the practice of both astrology and alchemy had largely disappeared. Astrology was confined to popular almanacs and alchemy was replaced by modern chemistry.

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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 bce from where it was imported into the Hellenistic world from the early 4th century bce onward. There it became attached to three philosophical schools, those pioneered by Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, all of which shared the assumption that the cosmos is a single, living, integrated whole. Hellenistic astrology also drew on Egyptian temple culture, especially the belief that the soul could ascend to the stars. By the 1st century ce, the belief in the close link between humanity and the stars had become democratized and diversified into a series of practices and schools of thought which ranged across Greek and Roman culture. It was practiced at the imperial court and in the street. It could be used to predict individual destiny, avert undesirable events, and arrange auspicious moments to launch new enterprises. It could advise on financial fortunes or the condition of one’s soul. It was conceived of as natural science and justified by physical influences or considered to be divination, concerned with communication with the gods and goddesses. In some versions, the planets were neither influences nor causes of events on Earth, but timing devices, which indicated the ebb and flow of human affairs, like the hands on a modern clock. Astrology had a radical view of time in which the future already existed, at least in potential, and the astrologer’s task was to intercede in time, altering the future to human advantage. In this sense astrology was a form of “participation mystique” in which time and space were conceived of as a single entity and individual and social benefits were to be derived from engaging with it. There was no one single version of astrology and there were disputes about what it was and what it could do, for example, whether it could make precise predictions about individual affairs or merely general statements. From the early 4th century it went into a progressive decline, facing challenges from Christianity and the fragmentation of classical culture, especially in Western Europe. It survived in Persia, exerted a powerful influence on Indian astrology, and was transmitted to the Islamic world, from where it was reimported into the Latin West in the 12th century.