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     Mesopotamia and the Babylonians
     The Greek initiative
     India and elsewhere

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Astral themes

The sky is the most mysterious part of our everyday experience. Familiarity may make the amazing events going on at ground level seem almost ordinary. Plants and animals grow and die, rain falls, rivers flow. We feel we understand that.

But the sky is beyond comprehension. Two great objects travel through it, one hot and constant, the other cold and changeable. In the daytime it is moody; there may be blazing sun, or racing clouds, or darkness followed by thunder and lightning. And yet on a clear night the sky is the very opposite - predictable, if you look hard enough, with recognizable groups of stars moving in a slow but reliable manner.

Man's interest in the sky is at the heart of three separate stories - astronomy, astrology and the calendar.

Astronomy is the scientific study of sun, moon and stars. Astrology is a pseudo-science interpreting the supposed effect of the heavenly bodies on human existence. In early history the two are closely linked. The sky is the home of many of the gods, who influence life on earth. And the patterns in the sky must surely reflect that influence.

Mesopotamia and the Babylonians: from 3000 BC

Astronomical observation begins with the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, where prominent constellations (the patterns formed by stars in the galaxy) are recognized and named soon after 3000 BC. Similarly the sky-watchers of Mesopotamia identify the five wandering stars, which with the sun and moon form the seven original 'planets' (Greek for 'wanderers').

Within Mesopotamia the Babylonians, flourishing from the 18th century BC, are the first great astronomers. The minutes and seconds of modern astronomical measurement derive from their number system. And it is the Babylonians who introduce the useful concept of the zodiac.

The Babylonians realize that the zodiac - the sequence of constellations along which the sun and the planets appear to move in their passage through the heavens - can serve as a yardstick of celestial time if divided into recognizable and equal segments. They select twelve constellations to represent these segments, many of them identified by the names of animals. The Greeks later provide the term for the zodiac when they describe it as the 'animal circle' (zodiakos kyklos).

The zodiac links constellations with times of the year; and the constellations have their own links with the gods. So scientific observation of star positions merges with speculation about divine influence. The zodiac, as a concept, is of use to both astronomers and astrologers.

The Greeks: from the 6th century BC

The Greeks make significant advances in the fields of both astronomy and astrology. In astronomy their analytical approach to the heavens leads to early insights of great brilliance, even though they eventually blind European astronomers for more than a millennium with the elaborately observed but entirely false Ptolemaic system.

Meanwhile astrology benefits from the range and vitality of the Greek gods. Linked with the planets and constellations, these very human divinities make astrology dramatic and exciting. And Greek interest in the individual extends the astrologers' range. Evolved originally to help in affairs of state, the art finds its lasting role in casting the fortunes of ordinary men and women.

India and elsewhere: from the 1st millennium BC

India has had its own system of astrology from perhaps as early as 1000 BC. With Greek influence, during the Hellenistic period, the western version of the zodiac is introduced.

The same pattern recurs elsewhere at other periods of history. The spread of Arabic scholarship, bringing forgotten Greek texts to medieval Europe, results in much work for the astrologers - until the age of science and the age of reason somewhat reduce the appeal of the ancient art.

In most parts of the world astrology is thriving again in the 20th century. In countries such as India it has never lost its appeal. No important step in life can be safely undertaken unless the signs are propitious. No marriage will go ahead without horoscopes being drawn up.

In western countries the ancient art is perhaps viewed rather more as light-hearted self-indulgence. But most popular newspapers still find that it pays to keep a resident astrologer.