Astrology And Medicine

The theories of the physiognomists came partly within the province of physicians. Galen, the second-century CE doctor, whose version of ancient medical theory was to become the model from the Middle Ages onwards, offered a humoural model to explain the phenomena discussed by physiognomists and astrologers. In his treatise On the Temperaments, he discusses the different blends of the humours (the bodily fluids) in different parts of the body. He says that the physiognomists are taught to look at different parts for different signs: they know that if someone has a hairy chest he is spirited, or that if he has hairy legs he is lustful. However, they fail to explore the causes, saying only that these relationships exist because the lion (with its furry chest) is spirited or the goat (with its hairy legs) is lustful. The real reason, Galen explains, is that there is more heat in these areas, and the hair on them shows this.13 In his work On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato, he cites the observation that men and animals that are broad-chested are all by nature more given to anger, while those with wide hips, who are colder, are more cowardly, and refers to the role of climate in affecting the body.14 The question of angry, rash types with hairy chests resurfaces in a work attributed to Galen (though it may well not be his)—The Medical Art—where heat is again used to explain the phenomenon.15 In the treatise on astrological medicine, the Prognostics from the [Time of the Patient's] taking to Bed, the connections are made explicit:

Astrology is the foreseeing part of their [i.e. the physicians'] art, and if not all, but at least most of them have accepted this part of astrology as part of medicine.Hippocrates said that [any physician's] mind strays into darkness, who has not used physiognomy. But the physiognomical part of astrology is its major part.16

This work is one of many of late date which must have drawn on earlier specialist treatises on astrological medicine, or iatromathematics, as it was known. But most astrological treatises have at least one section devoted to the subject. Ptolemy, who uses medicine as a model to justify astrology, depicting them both as conjectural technai, also proudly claims that the Egyptians, who have most advanced the art of astrology, have entirely united medicine and astrological prediction.17 We saw in Chapter 1 that the origins of the networks of correspondences between astrological entities, stones and plants may have been in Egyptian medicine, famed already in the age of Homer, and that they were probably elaborated in Hermetic writings.

Though the Prognostic from [the Time of the Patient's] taking to Bed is a late work, we find a chapter on the same subject in Dorotheus' fifth book on horary astrology, which is attributed to one Quitrinus, probably a Greek called Cedrenus, mentioned elsewhere as an astrological author:18

Whoever desires to know the condition of the patient [at] the beginning of when he is ill, how long he will endure [it], let him look at the Ascendant and the Moon and the lord of the Ascendant and the lord of the Moon's house and the Moon's conjoining with a star...and the Moon's dodecatemory. If the lord of the Moon and the lord of the Ascendant are from among the benefics, or the benefics aspect the Ascendant and the Moon and the Moon's dodecatemory, or the Moon conjoins with the benefics, then if the patient became ill at that hour and it is the beginning of his illness, it indicates recovery from his illness.

Later, consideration is given to the sign in which the Moon or the Ascendant was at the beginning. If it is a tropical sign, recovery will come, but sometimes also a relapse. The Moon is clearly the chief actor here. It is according to the influences on the Moon that the patient's condition changes:

The patient is released as long as the Moon remains in a place and term away from death, as, when it reaches the benefics or when they aspect it, his pain is lightened and he is helped from agony.

The days on which a crisis of the patient is best are according to the aspects of the Moon: after seven days from the New Moon, after nine days, after fourteen days, after eighteen, after twenty-one and after twenty-eight, with the next New Moon. If there are good influences on these days, then the patient will take a turn for the better, but if bad, then the pain will be worse. The really critical days are when the Moon has moved 10 degrees or forty days from the day when the illness began.

Here the astrologers have come up with their own version of the doctrine of 'critical days' which had been important to medicine since at least the time of Hippocrates. Prognosis was one of the most important parts of ancient medicine, and much medical writing was devoted to the question of the days on which the disease would take a turn for the worse or for the better. For longer diseases there were also critical months and even years. Interestingly, Galen, who ridicules another writer for using 'the sacred herbs of the daemons and decans' in a different context,19 recommends consideration of Moon-phases throughout the third book of his work On Critical Days, and also refers to Moon-phases in relation to the zodiac. He mentions the importance of the Moon's position at 'the beginning of anything', and speaks of benefic and malefic planets and their effects in relation to the influential planets at birth. He says that he is following 'Egyptian astrologers', and claims that he has found their observations on the Moon to be true.20

Galen takes care in this work to refute the application of numbersymbolism to judgement on the course of a disease.21 Here he could be referring to two different methods found in the corpus of astrological medicine. The first is the theory of climacterics. These were hours, days, months and years regarded as particularly dangerous, usually multiples of seven or nine, in the most popular version. The emperor Augustus knew this theory, when he wrote to his grandson:

Greetings, my dear Gaius, my dearest little donkey.especially on days like today my eyes are eager for my Gaius, and wherever you have been today, I hope you have celebrated my sixty-fourth birthday in health and happiness, For you see, I have passed the climacteric common to all old men, the sixtythird year.22

This idea was common enough not even to have specifically astrological associations. Astrologers soon produced a more sophisticated theory of climacterics, in which transits of important planets in the natal chart determined climacterics.23 Thus they were individualised. Pliny the Younger, in a satirical portrait of an enemy from the early second century CE, presents him as a legacy-hunter making good use of the theory of climacterics. He speaks false words of comfort to the dying old lady: 'You will have a climacteric period, but you'll come out of it. So that you are more convinced, I will go and consult a haruspex I have often put to the test.'

So he offers a sacrifice, assures her that the entrails are in accord with the indications of the stars, and gets his legacy.24 We also hear of the use of climacterics in the case of an orator called Lampridius of fifth-century CE Gaul. According to his friend, the Bishop Sidonius Apollinaris, African astrologers told him the climacteric year, day and month. Their prediction of a bloody death was fulfilled when he was killed by his slaves.25

Obviously, there was a similarity to the doctors' critical days, and astrologers grafted the first on to the second eventually. However, climacterics threatened dangers of all types, not only relating to illness, as we saw in the case of Lampridius, and there were no climacterics which portended good, unlike critical days. Vettius Valens has series of climacterics relating to the body, the soul, fortune, enterprises and so on.26

The second kind of number-symbolism was found in systems based on the mystical properties of names converted into numbers. (Greek numbers were expressed by letters of the alphabet.) By this means divination of life or death could be made. For instance, in a letter purporting to be written by Pythagoras to Telauges, a calculation is made according to the idea that the sick person is engaged in a struggle against the first day of his illness. The day is given a number which is a sum of the letters in the word describing which number it is; the patient's name is dealt with in the same way. After various calculations, one of the remaining figures would win, according to whether both were odd or even, or one of each.27 This is the purely arithmetical basis for systems developed by astrologers, in which the day in the lunar month was involved in the calculations, and where it was worked out on a diagram. The 'Sphere of Democritus' displayed a rectangular table of the days of the month arranged in three colours, mixed up in a particular order:

Democritus' 'sphere': prognostic of life and death. Find out under which day of the Moon the sick man took to his bed. Add his name from birth to the day of the month and divide by thirty. Look up on the 'sphere' the quotient: if the number falls in the upper part, he will live. If in the lower part, he will die.28

There is another version ascribed to Petosiris, in which twenty-nine, presumably as a more accurate estimate of the mean lunar month, is used as divisor rather than thirty.29 In fact, it could be used for predicting the result of other contests, the issue of a battle, the result of a lawsuit, or of a gladiatorial contest. These systems, though they are attributed to founders of astrology, are probably quite late in origin.

Apart from climacterics there are good and bad days on which to undertake medical activity. Here we are simply in the province of normal horary astrology. Thus Dorotheus offers a chapter on when to take a medicine for diarrhoea:

If you want to commence drinking the medicine for diarrhoea or something that eases the stomach, or an enema...then the commencement of it is best.when the Moon is in Libra or Scorpio as these places compress and are called the 'region of lowness', and it is the best.when the benefics aspect the Moon.30

There are also chapters on the times to avoid and the best times to bleed, or to treat by cupping, or to cut with a knife or scalpel, and to treat an eye infection.31 Pliny the Elder, writing in the latter half of the first century CE, tells us about Crinas, a doctor from Marseilles, who observed the hours and gave food according to ephemerides giving the positions of the planets. This combination of astrology and medicine was obviously very popular for he left an immense fortune, having already spent a similar fortune on fortifying his own city and that of others.32 We also find a doctor proclaiming his astrological ability on his tombstone.33

But none of these efforts to choose the right moment involved specifically astrological medicine. However, we do find astrological diagnosis as well as prognosis and timing of treatment. Taking Dorotheus' excerpts from Cedrenus, for instance:

If the lord of the illness is Mars, then he got his illness from heat. From Saturn it indicates [that] the disease will remain a long time in its owner, and there has reached him from it consumption and coldness and swelling.34

Firmicus also documents the astrological causes of physical infirmities, particularly as regards the eyesight, in one chapter.35 Diagnosis in a more general sense was provided by the various doctrines of melothesia, which assigned parts of the body to astrological entities. This idea was well enough known to be mentioned by Pliny. There was planetary melothesia in some authors,36 but perhaps the simplest was the form linking zodiac signs to parts, as in Manilius:

The Ram, as chieftain of them all is allotted the head, and the Bull receives as of his estate the handsome neck; evenly bestowed, the arms to shoulders joined are accounted to the Twins; the breast is put down to the Crab, the realm of the sides and the shoulder-blades are the Lion's, the belly comes down to the Maid as her rightful lot; the Balance governs the loins, and Scorpion takes pleasure in the groin; the thighs hie to the Centaur, Capricorn is tyrant to both knees, while the pouring Waterman has the lordship of the shanks, and over the feet the Fishes claim jurisdiction.37

Firmicus remarks that Nechepso devoted much attention to finding the Place, probably meaning Lot, of afflictions and illnesses.38 But he was not content with finding the astrological indications regarding illness; he also offered treatment.

Nechepso.by means of the decans predicted all illnesses and afflictions; he knew which decan produced which illness and which decans were stronger than others. From their different nature and power he discovered the cure for all illnesses, because one nature is often overcome by another, and one god by another.39

We hear from a Hermetic text, probably of the first century CE, attributed to Thessalus in the Latin version and to Harpocration in the Greek, that Nechepso wrote about the treatment of the whole body, and of each illness, by sign, by means of stones and plants.40 In this text we find a section on the plants linked to the zodiac signs, discussions of seven plants associated with the planets, and of the decanic plants and those associated with the fifteen fixed stars.41 In Firmicus' account, at any rate, the model appears to be of astral influences causing illness and needing to be opposed by contrary powers. Thus stones, or plants, in sympathy with opposite astral influences, are presumably brought to bear. But in ancient medicine, the principle that opposites cure opposites is matched by another principle which suggests that like cures like. Thus in the case of astrological medicine, if it is Mars which is responsible for the disease, it is remedies based on materials sympathetic to Mars which are needed. In a Hermetic treatise, it is imagined that the star causes disease because it has suffered negative influences itself.42 Thus it would make sense to see the star as needing strengthening by sympathetic energy. In the Sacred Book of Hermes Addressed to Asclepius, the medical recipes clearly envisage strengthening the decan responsible for causing disease in a particular part of the body: it promises that the reader can gain the benevolence of each decan by engraving it on a stone with its name:

Leo, first decan: its name is Pepisoth and it has the form of a woman holding in her right hand a thunderbolt, in her left a small bottle. It has wings from the middle of its body to his feet and a crown on its head. It rules the hands. Engrave it on the stone called heliotrope, and set the plant libanotis underneath. Fix it inside any piece of jewellery and wear it. Abstain from boar's flesh.43

One set of decan-figures is visible in Figure 23.

And there is a further role for astrology in determining the moment and the place to obtain the plant or stone used. A Hermetic text tells of the necessity of getting these right, giving the examples of hemlock, a plant sympathetic with Mars. That of Italy is poisonous, because Italy is under the patronage of Scorpio, the house of Mars, whereas in Crete, where the influence of Mars is attenuated by Sagittarius, it is food. (Socrates might not have agreed!) As for timing, it makes sense to gather a plant when its planetary patron is in its exaltation, on the day of the week and at the hour belonging to it.44 Even Galen, who was so rude about another herbalist's use of Hermetic treatises, in one of his texts on herbs, mentions without objection his teacher's medicine against rabies, concocted 'after the rise of the Dogstar when the sun had moved into Leo and the Moon had reached its eighteenth day'.45 There are a number of Hermetic texts concerning 'astro-botany' which are late but reflect older material.46

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