To be clear – “astrology”

c.1050 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

[update – see STOP PRESS at end]

Recorded usages in English. .. matter from Oxford Reference:


(definition) – The study of movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.

Ancient observers of the heavens developed elaborate systems of explanation based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the constellations of the zodiac, for predicting events and for casting horoscopes.

The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes ultimately (via Old French and Latin) from Greek astron ‘star’.

The commonest sense born by the term today (in full: judicial astrology, relating to human affairs) occurs in English from the mid 16th century.

By 1700 astrology had lost intellectual credibility in the West, but continued to have popular appeal. Modern astrology is based on that of the Greeks, but other systems are extant, e.g. that of China.

Natural astrology originally denoted the practical uses of astronomy, applied in the measurement of time and the prediction of natural phenomena.


As you see, the mid-sixteenth century usage is what informs modern perceptions of the difference between astrology and astronomy, and today’s general reader may be excused for expecting that any use of the word ‘astrology’ in medieval works must imply reference to planets, to horoscopes and to the zodiac.

To avoid confusion and false assumptions, those practical uses that medieval people called ‘natural astrology’ we will class as a sub-set of astronomy. Other terms used by modern scholars to avoid confusion include natural astronomy, archaeoastronomy, indigenous astronomy and folk-astronomy and may include moralised astronomy and a union of religious thought with astronomical knowledge, such as identifying Christ with the Sun.

Practical observation of the stars for practical purposes – chiefly to establish times, seasons and directions – has a history descending from times so remote that astronomy can be fairly described as the oldest of human sciences – if science is defined as the accumulation of data by close observation, the systematisation of that data, its practical testing by experiment, its repeatability and its practical aims. The use of navigational astronomy across lands is asserted or inferred as existing from a very early period, and across seas using evidence related to the Australian migrations,* while the Austronesian routes and migrations (which incidentally established the eastern maritime ‘spice routes’) date from c.2000 BC. Trade in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan into Egypt began from the 3rd millennium BC, but scholars differ about when it became a direct, sea-borne trade from the Indus through the Red Sea.

*as e.g. by Alan William, “A new population curve for prehistoric Australia”, Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Proceedings, Vol 280 (#1761), (online through Pub.Med. April 2013).

By comparison, the Babylonian empire’s rise* seems quite recent, being closer in time to the Roman occupation of Judaea than we are now.

 *c.1894 BC

In Egypt, astronomy’s origins are older than the rise of Babylonia and by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s 365-day calendar was already in use, and the Nile’s annual rise predicted by the rising of stars. One must assume, but we cannot prove, that before Babylonia’s cities were built some Mesopotamian peoples had a developed natural astronomy.

From c1479–1458 BCE we have evidence of a highly-developed astronomical, calendrical, religious and possibly astrological system in Egypt, recorded on the walls and ceiling of a tomb* from that time.

*Senenmut’s tomb, in Thebes.

Having survived intact for about three thousand years, the contents of that tomb and its star-ceiling were rifled, dispersed and/or defaced once it was opened by Europeans in 1925-27. A replica of the ceiling is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few watercolour paintings record remnants of the decoration. What the replica tells us, at least, is that some of the constellations represented within the Roman-era ceiling at Dendera were from Egypt’s native tradition, while Faulkner’s study of the Pyramid Texts confirms the antiquity of Egyptian emphasis on the circumpolar stars, Orion, Sirius and certain other markers.

Had Senenmut’s tomb survived to be studied now, it might have provided more insight into the evolution of the Coptic calendar, its calculation, and its roster of saints.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

*without prejudice, I note that the Egyptian constellations identified by Belmonte and Llull include none from the Roman zodiac save Leo. Belmonte is a former editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy which began well in the 1980s but lost readership and impetus as its focus became increasingly, and by the end solely, on the Americas. But see paper by Juan Antonio Belmonte and Jose Lull as Chapter 6 in:

  • J.A. Belmonte, Ancient Astronomy: India, Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Greece, Rome, Genesis, Hebrews, Christians, the Neolithic and Paleolithic

In these posts it will be convenient to take any diagram’s structure as definition of intended purpose for the medieval west to c.1438 AD.

Astrology is indicated, among other things, by a medical text’s including diagonally-ruled tables for the phases of the moon. The ‘zodiac man’ (whose use the early Christian writers had specifically prohibited) is also astrological.

Evidence of applying mathematical calculations to determine the precise position of planets is taken as evidence of astrological purpose.

Constellations on the ecliptic, including the 12 which form the Roman zodiac, are of themselves not evidence of one or other intention. Since these constellations are constellations, not only astrological signs, and our interest is in the purpose for which such forms were made by the first maker(s) and whoever commissioned the sections now forming Beinecke MS 408, we cannot presume predictive-astrological purpose without the presence of other markers (see above). The default is thus – precession notwithstanding – ‘astronomical’.

I expect some readers will protest this decision, but the question we must address is whether the maker – if it were possible to ask him/her – would concur that by picturing the zodiac constellations or signs in e.g. a religious breviary, s/he demonstrated an intention to practice astrology or believed the intended recipient intended to practice astrology in our modern sense of the word. If the western Church had not insisted always that mankind had free will, opposition to astrology would perhaps have been less persistent and less complicated; contact with the Palaiologan court made magic and astrology fashionable among some humanists and Luther’s promoting belief in predestination saw popular interest in all forms of anticipatory lot-casting, fortune-telling and astrology explode, assisted by publication of books of the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ type in which such matter was now included.

Many Voynich writers have assumed or simply announced astrological purpose in the Voynich calendar. A few have attempted to argue a case from evidence, but none has yet proven it and two specialists in the subject have stated, independently of each other, of me and at that time of interference from any Voynichero that the calendar diagrams are not astrological charts.

Allons de l’avant ..


A notice from has just dropped into my mail box telling me that Professor Elly Dekker has uploaded to his her review of a book which I admit I let pass in 2007, given its price of 99 Euros and having at that time no interest in computus and working on very different questions. Come to think of it, back then I’d never heard of the Voynich manuscript. (sigh).

… having now read Dekker’s review, I’ll have to add Eastwood’s book to the library

  • Bruce E. Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  • Elly Dekker’s review is in Early Science and Medicine Vol.13 (2008) 509-530. And of course on Dekker’s site at

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