Astrological Architecture: Does Form Follow Function?

Divided into quadrants, there is less precision in the traditional chart than in the modern, but no lack of detail. Note that the astrologer mentions Ophiuchus, which, if you believe everything you read, we’re told to think only the Babylonians cared about.

There was a time when Western astrologers drew up a horoscope in the shape of a square.Why did the shape of the chart subsequently change into a circle?

Ah, that’s the interesting question, because, more than anything, the evolution of the shape of the chart, with the gradual inclusion of ever-more complicated and mathematically precise angles, cusps, and houses, has changed the fundamental nature of astrology and astrological prediction.

Ever since the Modernist period, architects have had a saying: form follows function, and so the shape of the chart should tell us its purpose. We can ask, when the shape changed, did the purpose of the chart change as well?  I think we can say fairly reliably, yes, it did. Visual representation of reality shifted when the chart shape changed, indicating a different worldview.

The earliest charts relied on the importance of the four classical elements described in The Enûma Eliš, a Babylonian text written between the 18th and 16th centuries BCE, which described the four cosmic elements: the sea, earth, sky, and wind.

The classical elements went on to dominate and shape, no pun intended, the thinking of philosophers and scientists for hundreds of years. Indeed, a random online search today indicates that this one principal, of dividing and ordering information into quadrants, has never lost its appeal as an organizational schema in the West (but not in some places in the East, where five elements are thought to organize reality). 

Early charts divided into quadrants based on the ages of man

The earliest interpretative readings based on astrological information had no ‘shape.’ They were based on a tradition of celestial omen-watching to determine the fate of the king.

They were not sorted or organized into the ‘container’ of the chart. The idea of containing, or giving shape to the information gleaned by looking up to the heavens and reading what the stars said, emerged over time.

The earliest astrological ‘interpretation’ of someone’s natal information has been dated to 13 January 410 BCE, knowledge rediscovered by a researcher using the British Museum‘s Babylonian resources. 

I say ‘rediscovered’ because the information was sitting in the museum’s archives for many years before a researcher in Babylonian celestial divination added to work done by Abraham Sachs during the 1950s. So it is only in the past 15 years or so that Francesca Rochberg published information that tells us that indeed, Babylonians used predictive natal astrology prior to the Hellenistic Greeks (cf. Babylonian Horoscopes, Francesca Rochberg, and Ancient Astrology, Tamsyn Barton).

In these Babylonian texts, interpretation is limited and there is no horoscope drawn up, based on the sign rising in the ecliptic at the time of birth, although there is some attempt made to note the time of birth based on the “seasonal hour,” which was one-twelfth of the length of daylight (cf. Babylonian Horoscopes). 

It isn’t until the later Hellenistic period that we have any published evidence indicating what was, in essence, an enormous cultural shift in perception of the idea of ‘the self’, which began to emerge alongside certain mathematical and scientific innovations, like the ability to locate a more precise ascendent for the native. 

8 houses evolved over time

Although it’s not possible to know precisely when and where each of these developments occurred, it’s clear that Babylonian mathematics, the Egyptian calendar (and their understanding of the decans), and classical idea(l)s about the self, merged in post-Alexandrian Greece, even as abilities and interests overlapped and were disseminated by Hellenized Babylonians and Egyptian mages. 

Babylon contributed sophisticated mathematics and a cultural history of omen-watching; Egypt’s efficient 12-month calendar system, in use until Copernicus, as well as their use of decanates, combined with Greece’s philosophical and poetical attempts at understanding the individual.

It is, of course, with the Hellenistic Greeks, that we place most of the acclaim for having developed the horoskopos, the natal chart that relies on the degree of the ecliptic at the moment of birth to determine one’s ascendent.

Without this mathematical point, of course, one does not have the basic information to construct even the most rudimentary astrological chart, so this contribution to astrology was a crucial step in the development from the earliest charts based on relatively crude visual observation of the movement of the celestial ‘bowl’ over the astronomer’s head. By necessity, ancient astrologers gave supremacy to the planet easily observable above them at the moment of the child’s birth, and so that planet became the chart’s ruler.

As the chart evolves, we start with the most basic information necessary to the astrologer: the four points of the invisible celestial map that create the chart’s structure, that ‘contain’ the information the astrologer will use for interpretation.

Throughout time, of course, the amount of information we’ve accrued has become almost overwhelming in its complexity and multiplicities of possible meanings. My intention with the upcoming posts will be to try to understand how astrology has evolved from the four quarters of the classical worldview, to the complexity of today’s astrological zeitgeist.  

The ‘places’ become houses over time
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