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Franz Cumont-About Astrology & Magic

Dupuis’s ‘Memoire du Zodiaque’, Paris_1806


Our new sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Franz Cumont’s ‘The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism’, in the chapter about astrology and magic. What he describes here goes beyond astrology itself and reveals a lot about the inner dynamics of the antiquity’s mindset regarding the world, the gods and our interactions with them.


…/…‘The sacred character of astrology revealed itself in some passages that escaped the orthodox censure and in the tone some of its followers assumed, but we must go further and show that astrology was religious in its principles as well as in its conclusions, the debt it owed to mathematics and observation notwithstanding.

The fundamental dogma of astrology, as conceived by the Greeks, was that of universal solidarity. The world is a vast organism, all the parts of which are connected through an unceasing exchange of molecules of effluvia. The stars, inexhaustible generators of energy, constantly act upon the earth and man–upon man, the epitome of all nature, a “microcosm” whose every element corresponds to some part of the starry sky. This was, in a few words, the theory formulated by the Stoic disciples of the Chaldeans; but if we divest it of all the philosophic garments with which it has been adorned, what do we find? The idea of sympathy, a belief as old as human society! The savage peoples also established mysterious relations between all bodies and all the beings that inhabit the earth and the heavens, and which to them were animated with a life of their own endowed with latent power, but we shall speak of this later on, when taking up the subject of magic. Even before the propagation of the Oriental religions, popular superstition in Italy and Greece attributed a number of odd actions to the sun, the moon, and the constellations as well.

The Chaldaei, however, claimed a predominant power for the stars. In fact, they were regarded as gods par excellence by the religion of the ancient Chaldeans in its beginnings. The sidereal religion of Babylon concentrated deity, one might say, in the luminous moving bodies at the expense of other natural objects, such as stones, plants, animals, which the primitive Semitic faith considered equally divine. The stars always retained this character, even at Rome. They were not, as to us, infinitely distant bodies moving in space according to the inflexible laws of mechanics, and whose chemical composition may be determined. To the Latins as to the Orientals, they were propitious or baleful deities, whose ever-changing relations determined the events of this world.

The sky, whose unfathomable depth had not yet been perceived, was peopled with heroes and monsters of contrary passions, and the struggle above had an immediate echo upon earth. By what principle have such a quality and so great an influence been attributed to the stars? Is it for reasons derived from their apparent motion and known through observation or experience? Sometimes. Saturn made people apathetic and irresolute, because it moved most slowly of all the planets. But in most instances purely mythological reasons inspired the precepts of astrology. The seven planets were associated with certain deities, Mars, Venus, or Mercury, whose character and history are known to all. It is sufficient simply to pronounce their names to call to mind certain personalities that may be expected to act according to their natures, in every instance. It was natural for Venus to favor lovers, and for Mercury to assure the success of business transactions and dishonest deals. The same applies to the constellations, with which a number of legends are connected: “catasterism” or translation into the stars, became the natural conclusion of a great many tales. The heroes of mythology, or even those of human society, continued to live in the sky in the form of brilliant stars. There Perseus again met Andromeda, and the Centaur Chiron, who is none other than Sagittarius, was on terms of good fellowship with the Dioscuri.

These constellations, then, assumed to a certain extent the good and the bad qualities of the mythical or historical beings that had been transferred upon them. For instance, the serpent, which shines near the northern pole, was the author of medical cures, because it was the animal sacred to Æsculapius. The religious foundation of the rules of astrology, however, cannot always be recognized. Sometimes it is entirely forgotten, and in such cases the rules assume the appearance of axioms, or of laws based upon long observation of celestial phenomena. Here we have a simple aspect of science. The process of assimilation with the gods and ‘catasterism’ were known in the Orient long before they were practiced in Greece.

The traditional outlines that we reproduce on our celestial maps are the fossil remains of a luxuriant mythological vegetation, and besides our classic sphere the ancients knew another, the “barbarian” sphere, peopled with a world of fantastic persons and animals. These sidereal monsters, to whom powerful qualities were ascribed, were likewise the remnants of a multitude of forgotten beliefs. Zoolatry was abandoned in the temples, but people continued to regard as divine the lion, the bull, the bear, and the fishes, which the Oriental imagination had seen in the starry vault. Old totems of the Semitic tribes or of the Egyptian divisions lived again, transformed into constellations. Heterogeneous elements, taken from all the religions of the Orient, were combined in the uranography of the ancients, and in the power ascribed to the phantoms that it evoked, vibrates in the indistinct echo of ancient devotions that are often completely unknown to us.

Astrology, then, was religious in its origin and in its principles. It was religious also in its close relation to the Oriental religions, especially those of the Syrian Baals and of Mithra; finally, it was religious in the effects that it produced. I do not mean the effects expected from a constellation in any particular instance: as for example the power to evoke the gods that were subject to their domination. But I have in mind the general influence those doctrines exercised upon Roman paganism.

When the Olympian gods were incorporated among the stars, when Saturn and Jupiter became planets and the celestial virgin a sign of the zodiac, they assumed a character very different from the one they had originally possessed. It has been shown how, in Syria, the idea of an infinite repetition of cycles of years according to which the celestial revolutions took place, led to the conception of divine eternity, how the theory of a fatal domination of the stars over the earth brought about that of the omnipotence of the “lord of the heavens,” and how the introduction of a universal religion was the necessary result of the belief that the stars exerted an influence upon the peoples of every climate. The logic of all these consequences of the principles of astrology was plain to the Latin as well as to the Semitic races, and caused a rapid transformation of the ancient idolatry. As in Syria, the sun, which the astrologers called the leader of the planetary choir, “who is established as king and leader of the whole world,”necessarily became the highest power of the Roman pantheon.

Astrology also modified theology, by introducing into this pantheon a great number of new gods, some of whom were singularly abstract. Thereafter man worshiped the constellations of the firmament, particularly the twelve signs of the zodiac, every one of which had its mythologic legend; the sky (Caelus) itself, because it was considered the first cause, and was sometimes confused with the supreme being; the four elements, the antithesis and perpetual transmutations of which produced all tangible phenomena, and which were often symbolized by a group of animals ready to devour each other; finally, time and its subdivisions.

The calendars were religious before they were secular; their purpose was not, primarily, to record fleeting time, but to observe the recurrence of propitious or inauspicious dates separated by periodic intervals. It is a matter of experience that the return of certain moments is associated with the appearance of certain phenomena; they have, therefore, a special efficacy, and are endowed with a sacred character. By determining periods with mathematical exactness, astrology continued to see in them “a divine power,” to use Zeno’s term. Time, that regulates the course of the stars and the transubstantiation of the elements, was conceived of as the master of the gods and the primordial principle, and was likened to destiny. Each part of its infinite duration brought with it some propitious or evil movement of the sky that was anxiously observed, and transformed the ever-modified universe. The centuries, the years and the seasons, placed into relation with the four winds and the four cardinal points, the twelve months connected with the zodiac, the day and the night, the twelve hours, all were personified and deified, as the authors of every change in the universe. The allegorical figures contrived for these abstractions by astrological paganism did not even perish with it. The symbolism it had disseminated outlived it, and until the Middle Ages these pictures of fallen gods were reproduced indefinitely in sculpture, mosaics, and in Christian miniatures.

Thus astrology entered into all religious ideas, and the doctrines of the destiny of the world and of man harmonized with its teachings. According to Berosus, who is the interpreter of ancient Chaldean theories, the existence of the universe consisted of a series of “big years,” each having its summer and its winter. Their summer took place when all the planets were in conjunction at the same point of Cancer, and brought with it a general conflagration. On the other hand, their winter came when all the planets were joined in Capricorn, and its result was a universal flood. Each of these cosmic cycles, the duration of which was fixed at 432,000 years according to the most probable estimate, was an exact reproduction of those that had preceded it. In fact, when the stars resumed exactly the same position, they were forced to act in identically the same manner as before. This Babylonian theory, an anticipation of that of the “eternal return of things,” which Nietzsche boasts of having discovered, enjoyed lasting popularity during antiquity, and in various forms came down to the Renaissance. The belief that the world would be destroyed by fire, a theory also spread abroad by the Stoics, found a new support in these cosmic speculations.

Astrology, however, revealed the future not only of the universe, but also of man. According to a Chaldeo-Persian doctrine, accepted by the pagan mystics and previously pointed out by us, a bitter necessity compelled the souls that dwell in great numbers on the celestial heights, to descend upon this earth and to animate certain bodies that are to hold them in captivity. In descending to the earth, they travel through the spheres of the planets and receive some quality from each of these wandering stars, according to its positions. Contrariwise, when death releases them from their carnal prison, they return to their first habitation, providing they have led a pious life, and if as they pass through the doors of the superposed heavens they divest themselves of the passions and inclinations acquired during their first journey, to ascend finally, as pure essence to the radiant abode of the gods. There they live forever among the eternal stars, freed from the tyranny of destiny and even from the limitations of time.

This alliance of the theorems of astronomy with their old beliefs supplied the Chaldeans with answers to all the questions that men asked concerning the relation of heaven and earth, the nature of God, the existence of the world, and their own destiny. Astrology was really the first scientific theology. Hellenistic logic arranged the Oriental doctrines properly, combined them with the Stoic philosophy and built them up into a system of indisputable grandeur, an ideal reconstruction of the universe, the powerful assurance of which inspired Manilius to sublime language when he was not exhausted by his efforts to master an ill-adapted theme. The vague and irrational notion of “sympathy” is transformed into a deep sense of the relationship between the human soul, an igneous substance, and the divine stars, and this feeling is strengthened by thought.

The contemplation of the sky has become a communion. During the splendor of night, the mind of man became intoxicated with the light streaming from above; born on the wings of enthusiasm, he ascended into the sacred choir of the stars and took part in their harmonious movements. “He participates in their immortality, and, before his appointed hour, converses with the gods.” In spite of the subtle precision the Greeks always maintained in their speculations, the feeling that permeated astrology down to the end of paganism never belied its Oriental and religious origin.’ …/…

Franz Valéry Marie Cumont – Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Franz Cumont-About Astrology & Magic

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