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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Temporal and Spatial Scales: Scale in Ancient Astrology, Workshop

10th December 2016, 10:00 to 16:30, Revised Venue - Seminar Room, IAS, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green

Scale in Ancient Astrology

Institute for Advanced Study, Durham University, 9-10 December 2016

International workshop sponsored by the British Academy and the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham. Held under the auspices of the Durham Centre for the Study of the Ancient Mediterranean and the Near East.

Ancient astrology confronts both ancient and modern interpreters with an acute problem of scale. Given the vast spatial and temporal gulfs between celestial and terrestrial phenomena, how can the former be mapped onto the latter? How could the movement of Jupiter be linked to the price of commodities in Babylon? How could the configurations of the planets be related to the outcome of a single battle? The emergence of personal astrology towards the end of the first milllennium BC makes the problem even more acute – how did ancient scholars move from the cosmic scale of planetary motion to the tiny scale of a single human lifespan?

This interdisciplinary workshop compares the ways in which Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek astrology dealt with this problem of scale. All three cultures had in common the cosmic scale of celestial movements which can ultimately be understood and predicted by mathematical means, and their astrological conceptions and techniques are linked by various patterns of contact and influence. Yet the ways in which they each ‘scaled down’ to human affairs were different. Even where concepts and techniques were borrowed cross-culturally, the relationship between events in heaven and earth was reconfigured, sometimes subtly, sometimes in far-reaching ways.

The workshop brings together world experts in the different cultures, and takes as its starting point the simple question: how were celestial and terrestrial events connected? By approaching this question across different branches of astrological scholarship, the workshop will explore the points of intersection and divergence between Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek astrology, as well as changes within each tradition over time. Which conceptual frameworks were shared, and where were the areas of dissonance? How do these map onto patterns of cross-cultural borrowing? How were traditional frameworks reinterpreted in the light of new data? We will compare not only the conceptual leaps each culture made between celestial and terrestrial scales, but also the mathematical techniques and models they used to do so, in order to achieve a holistic perspective on how three ancient cultures dealt with one of the most timeless problems of scale.

Organiser: Dr. Kathryn Stevens (


Dr. Helen Jacobus (UCL)

Dr. Ulla Koch (University of Copenhagen)

Prof. Alexander Jones (ISAW)

Prof. Eleanor Robson (UCL)

Prof. John Steele (Brown University)

Dr. John Wee (University of Chicago)

Dr. Andreas Winkler (University of Oxford)

Programme (all sessions are in IAS Seminar Room, Cosin’s Hall, Palace Green)

Friday, 9th December

2.30pm Registration at Institute of Advanced Study

3.00pm Welcome and introduction

3.15-4.00pm E. Robson, ‘The human scale of Babylonian horoscopy: Ellil-belšunu and sons’

4.00-4.30pm Tea

4.30-5.15pm U. Koch, ‘Late Babylonian oracular astrology’

5.15-6.00pm J. Steele, ‘Astrology at the Reš temple in Uruk’

7.00pm Dinner

Saturday, 10th December

10.30-11.00am Coffee

11.00-11.45am J. Wee, ‘Sundering the beast: from the Babylonian Micro-Zodiac to Dodekatemoria in Greco-Roman Late Antiquity’

11.45am-12.30pm A. Jones, ‘Some quantitative procedures in Greek astrology and their consequences’

12.30-2.00pm Lunch

2.00-2.45pm A. Winkler, ‘Casting horoscopes in Graeco-Roman Egypt’

2.45-3.30pm H. Jacobus, ‘The Metonic Cycle in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Books of 1-2 Maccabees’

3.30-4.00pm Tea

4.00-4.30pm Closing discussion


Dr. Helen Jacobus (University College London)

The Metonic cycle in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Books of 1-2 Maccabees

I have argued in my doctoral thesis and monograph, Zodiac Calendars in the Dead Sea scrolls and Their Reception: Ancient Astronomy and Astrology in Early Judaism (Brill, 2014), that the Aramaic calendars in the Dead Sea Scrolls are zodiac calendars. This is partly based on my arithmetical reconstruction of fragments from 4Q209 which I have shown contains data for the winter solstice involving the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac on a date in a luni-solar calendar.

It will now be argued that the data in the fragment represents an ideal year in the Metonic cycle when 1 Nisan coincides with the Spring Equinox, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) coincides with the autumn equinox. I show that this phenomenon occurs only once in 19 years in the Metonic Cycle. Additionally, if we take the festival of Hannukah, on 25 Kislev (1 Macc 4:36, 52-59; 2 Macc 1:18, Jos. Ant. xii.7.7. (323) and line it up with 25 December (the Roman winter solstice) we find that the summer solstice in that year coincides with the full moon on 15 Sivan. This date is the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost, or Weeks) in the Hebrew calendars at Qumran and in the Book of Jubilees, and may also be determined with the zodiac calendar. This alignment also only occurs once every 19 years. The date of Shavuot did not occur on this date in mainstream Judaism in the first century CE (Jos. Ant. iii 10.6) due to differences in biblical interpretations.

It will be contended that ‘sectarian’ Jewish groups used separate ideal equinoctial and solstitial calendars for their astronomically-aligned festivals, and that these factored in the zodiacal positions of the sun and the moon calculated according to the Metonic Cycle.

Prof. Alexander Jones (ISAW)

Some quantitative procedures in Greek astrology and their consequences

The practice of Greek horoscopic astrology involves two stages: first, the establishment of the “horoscope” or “chart,” that is, the configuration of the heavenly bodies and certain astrologically significant points in relation to the zodiac and the local horizon, and second, the deduction from this configuration of prognostications. Broadly speaking, the first stage is chiefly astronomical and quantitative, while the second stage involves both qualitative and quantitative methods. The majority of ancient horoscopes were comparatively imprecise, typically specifying only the zodiacal signs occupied by the Sun, Moon, planets, and cardines, and any interpretation would thus have been limited to this information. In a significant number of horoscopes, however, precise data are provided that would change with passing time on the order of minutes. This situation gives rise to tensions between astrological practice and the potential inaccuracies of the data it presumed, in particular the given time of the horoscopic moment and the positional data for the heavenly bodies derived from almanacs or tables. The present paper explores some instances of the ways that Greek astrological authors addressed these tensions.

Dr. Ulla Koch (University of Copenhagen)

Late Babylonian oracular astrology

In its application, Mesopotamian celestial divination changed in primary purpose from being concerned primarily with the public domain and matters of state to include events relevant to the life of the individual. A number of Late Babylonian texts deal with astrological techniques for correlating specific areas of life, including the fate and character of a new-born with planetary and other phenomena. Some texts briefly instruct the diviner how to look at the sky for information about areas of life such as, for instance, war or the market. At the same time as the mapping between celestial events and human experience shifted, the clear distinction between omen and oracle became blurred, since the astrologer in effect observed the sky seeking knowledge pertaining to a particular question, rather than scanning it for any kind of divine message. Some texts even use the formula found in extispicy “you can make a pronouncement” (qÄ«ba tašakkan). A late Babylonian text from Uruk provides the following instructions for the astrologer: “If you want to make a pronouncement (qÄ«ba tašakkan)for the domain of the market for corn break you look for the course of the planets and appearance and disappearance, turning points and conjunction” (SpTU 1 94:1).

The talk will investigate this aspect of Late Babylonian astrology which illustrates a fundamental shift in celestial divination, whereby the way it correlated celestial and terrestrial events began to approach the versatility of oracular forms of divination. The development culminated with horary astrology that became an independent branch of astrology designed to determine the suitability of a particular moment for a particular undertaking.

Prof. Eleanor Robson (UCL)

The human scale of Babylonian horoscopy: Ellil-belšunu and sons

Babylonian horoscopes and astrological texts themselves reveal almost no evidence of their makers and users. But archival evidence, whether retrieved archaeologically or reassembled on museological grounds, can help us understand the professional, familial and social contexts of astrologers and their clients. In this paper I shall consider the Absummu family of late Achaemenid Nippur, whose archive—reconstructed by Joannès in a much overlooked paper published in 1992—contains the earliest known nativity horoscope, Rochberg’s BH1. Who were the Absummus and how did horoscopy fit into their busy lives? How do they compare to better-known practitioners of astrology such as Iqishaya and Anu-belšunu from Late Babylonian Uruk?

Prof. John Steele (Brown University)

Astrology at the Reš temple in Uruk

This paper will examine the astrological interests of scholars associated with the Reš temple in Uruk during the Hellenistic period to examine the following questions: (1) are the astrological texts from the Reš temple similar or different to those found more generally in Babylonia at this period; (2) what is the relationship between the astrological texts and the astronomical texts found at this site; and (3) is there any evidence for the development of astrological practices within the community of scholars associated with the Reš temple. The paper will draw on evidence both from previously published texts and from unpublished texts in Istanbul that are in the process of being edited by Christine Proust and myself.

Dr. John Wee (University of Chicago)

Sundering the Beast: From the Babylonian Micro-Zodiac to Dodekatemoria in Greco-Roman Late Antiquity

During the later half of the first millennium BCE, Babylonian astrologers utilized two separate micro-zodiac schemes that partitioned a single zodiacal sign in different ways. On the one hand, the ‘micro-zodiac of 13’ synchronized the movements of sun and moon, by linking changes in the sun’s micro-zodiacal signs to changes in the moon’s thirteen zodiacal signs of an ideal month. On the other hand, the ‘micro-zodiac of 12’ depicted its twelve micro-zodiac divisions as a microcosm of the twelve zodiacal signs in a more straightforward manner, employed calculations involving the simpler divisor 12 (rather than 13), and extended twelve-part time divisions to spatial dimensions of the sky. Building on previous work by W. Hübner (2005) on the “Dodekatemorion” in Greek and Latin sources, I explore the contexts in which different astrologers in Greco-Roman Late Antiquity adopted one micro-zodiac scheme over the other, as well as how the Greek label dodekatemorion (lit. “twelfth part”) came to be a general designation for the product of such practices.

Dr. Andreas Winkler (University of Oxford)

Casting Horoscopes in Graeco-Roman Egypt

Though temples and tombs in Graeco-Roman Egypt could be equipped with so-called zodiacal ceilings, the best evidence for examining astrological practices and concepts comes from papyrological materials, mainly papyri and ostraca written in both Demotic and Greek. These texts inform us about the technical features of the astral arts, as well as the social status of the customers and practitioners. From the available material it has become clear that there existed more than one tradition of how to cast a horoscope. Different points in the heavens were observed, and there were various modes of arranging the written information, which may signify variation in what celestial bodies or constellations were regarded as important. The presentation will give a brief overview of the materials available and discuss some of the major astrological traditions in Graeco-Roman Egypt from Thebes in the south to Tebtunis in the north.

All interested participants are welcome to attend (space permitting). If interested in participating, or for further information, please contact Dr Kathryn Stevens

Contact for more information about this event.