Hellenistic Astrology by Chris Brennan: forward to the past!

Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and FortuneHellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune by Chris Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searching and scholarly reconstruction of astrology as it was originally formulated and practiced in the ancient world, based on study of the surviving texts from the period.

This book, for me, was an eye opener. What it primarily opened my eyes to is how much astrology has advanced since the 1980s, which is when my own astrological education, such as it is, occurred. The author describes how the renaissance of interest in Hellenistic astrology arose slowly due to the gradual confluence of two different streams of scholarship: starting in the late 19th century, ancient astrological texts began to be translated by archaeologists who had come across documents in troves such as that at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. But these historical researchers had no special knowledge of astrology, and did not consult with astrologers, and it was not until later in the 20th century that practicing astrologers became aware of the translated material. A real reconnection with the ancient techniques began only in the 1980s. Many assumptions and beliefs about how the ancients practiced astrology have been overturned by the evidence of their actual writings, and now modern astrologers, such as Chris Brennan, have been experimenting with those techniques for years, and have found them, in many cases, to be surprisingly powerful.

This is a scholarly work. The bibliography runs to about 600 titles and the many footnotes are often concerned with minutiae about the translation of certain terms or academic controversies over subtle points. The first 6 chapters—about 165 pages—give a history of ancient astrology; the remaining 400-odd pages then detail the specific techniques used, examining them in great detail. Even though I am probably close to an ideal reader of this book—a practicing astrologer who also has a serious research interest in ancient astronomy and the astrology practiced in the Hellenistic period—I sometimes found the detail too much for me. I thought that chapter 11, for example, “The Issue of House Division,” would never end! The author carefully sifts and compares the sources, taking pains to be cautious and objective. This reader would have been ready to accept his authority and just read the upshot.

The author’s writing style also tends to slow one down. I get the impression that he’s not a natural-born writer, and is concerned about making his meaning clear. It leads to a lot of repetition and redundancy in the text. If this were cut out, the book would be at least 20% shorter, and proportionately more vigorous. But from a scholarship standpoint, caution and thoroughness were Mr. Brennan’s watchwords, and I don’t think he can be faulted here.

As for the actual content of the book: wow! Here I am, a practicing astrologer, and I’d never heard of concepts such as sect, that is, the quality of whether a birth chart is diurnal or nocturnal—whether the native was born during the day or night. To the ancients, this was a key difference, and many interpretive techniques hinged on which sect a given chart reflected. Different planets gained or lost power depending on the time of birth; there was a real sense of cosmic shift-change when day changed to night and vice versa. Born at about 11:30 p.m., I have a nocturnal chart; this means that my “sect light”—a kind of team lead—is the Moon. The most powerful “benefic,” or good-producing planet, is Venus, because it is the benefic “of the sect.” The most most powerful “malefic,” or bad-producing planet, is Saturn, the malefic which is “out of the sect”—it belongs to the diurnal sect, the Sun’s team.

Another revelation was that, for all the modern controversy about alternative systems of house division in a horoscope, the ancient system of choice was one I’d never heard of: what Brennan calls “whole-sign houses.” (Technically, the ancients did not generally use the word “houses”; their equivalent was “places,” Greek topoi.) The houses were simply equated with the signs. Thus, whatever sign the Ascendant was in at the moment of birth was also the 1st house, regardless of where in that sign the Ascendant actually fell, early or late. The following sign coincided with the 2nd house, and so on around the wheel. In my own chart, for instance, the Ascendant is at 17 degrees of Libra. In a modern, quadrant-based chart, this means that the first 16 degrees of Libra fall in my 12th house. But in a Hellenistic chart, my 1st house is now the whole sign of Libra, the part below the horizon as well as the part above. My 2nd house coincides with Scorpio, my 3rd house with Sagittarius, and so on. Naturally, this sometimes shifts planets into different houses. I’ll need to give that some careful study and thought.

Along the way, the author gives many examples, using mostly horoscopes of famous people, all cast in the Hellenistic style, using just the classical (naked-eye) planets with their respective classical rulerships. The examples are illuminating and thought provoking, and they help greatly to make the concepts clear.

The final part of the book is devoted to Hellenistic timing techniques: “annual profections” and “zodiacal releasing.” These also were new to me, and they appear to be potentially powerful. Indeed, Brennan thinks that zodiacal releasing, in particular, is so powerful that it may raise new ethical issues for astrologers! Maybe so, but we need to be cautious about the predictive powers of techniques when they are used on events that are already past; the possibility of confirmation bias is great here. It appears that Brennan has had good predictive success with the technique in his own astrological practice, but he perhaps can’t share too much about that for reasons of client privacy. I certainly intend to experiment with these techniques and see where they take me.

Brennan is modest about what he has been able to accomplish with Hellenistic Astrology, seeing his book as merely a first attempt to organize the flood of new information about astrology’s origins, but I think the book is a major achievement. The depth of research and the scholarly care with which it has been written make it a work of lasting academic value; and the fact that it was written by an astrologer for astrologers makes it invaluable as a how-to text for practitioners. If you’re an astrologer, this book needs to be in your library.

As for how to blend the Hellenistic techniques with more modern ones, that is a problem that it is up to the astrologers of today and tomorrow to work out. It appears that Brennan himself has gone fully Hellenistic, and uses these recovered ancient techniques exclusively in his own practice. And it may indeed be that the ancient methods cannot really be harmonized with later ones. Some of us may find ourselves needing to draw two separate wheels for each nativity, at least for a time.

But it’s a kind of luxury to have such a problem, for it means that astrologers now have much more information to work with. For whatever reason, lost knowledge of the deep past has come to light at this time, and Chris Brennan is a key figure in making that knowledge available to those whom it can benefit. Now it’s up to all of us to make of it what we can.

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