Astrology In Everyday Life


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Despite the low profile of women in the literary horoscopes, perhaps distorted by the clientele of Valens, the treatises do sometimes pay specific attention to women, as we have seen. In Juvenal's satirical portrait, women are singled out for attack because of their excessive addiction to astrology:

Your wife, your Tanaquil, Is for ever consulting such folk. Why does her jaundice-ridden Mother take so long dying? When will she see off Her sister or her uncles ? (She made all enquiries About you some while back.) Will her present lover

Survive her? (What greater boon could she ask of the Gods?)

Yet she at least cannot tell what Saturn's gloomy

Conjunction portends, or under which constellation

Venus is most propitious; which months bring loss, which gain.

When you meet such a woman, clutching her well-thumbed

Almanacs like a string of amber worry-beads,

Keep very clear of her. She isn't shopping around

For expert advice; she's an expert herself, the sort

Who won't accompany her husband on an overseas posting-

Or even back home again—if the almanac forbids it.

When she wants to go out of town, a mile even, or less,

She computes a propitious time from her tables. If she rubs

One corner of her eye, and it itches, she must never

Put ointment on it without first consulting her horoscope; if

She is ill in bed, she will only take nourishment

At such times as Petosiris, the Egyptian, may recommend.55

In the stories preserved about the Regal period in Rome, Tanaquil was the legendary wife of Tarquinius Priscus, a king traditionally dated to the sixth century BCE; her skill in fortune-telling allowed her to foretell the future of Servius Tullius, his successor.

Though Juvenal's account is clearly to be taken with a large pinch of salt, nevertheless recognisable uses of astrology are visible in his account. His main interest is in elite women, but he shoots a broadside at the others in passing. Women of lower rank resort to the cheap fortune-tellers of various sorts, including astrologers, who ply their trade at the Circus for advice:

Here, by the dolphin-columns And the public stands, old whores in their off-shoulder Dresses and thin gold neck-chains come for advice-Should they ditch the tavern-keeper? marry the rag-and-bone man?56

Juvenal's scorn for the lower orders is all too visible here. We have another account from an elite source which presents a nouveau riche aping his betters by indulging in astrological allusion. A long setpiece in Petronius' novel, Satyricon, records the dinner-party of an enormously rich ex-slave, Trimalchio, which mercilessly exposes his pretensions to culture. One of the many dishes was obviously designed to tease the brain as much as tickle the palette, and it has continued to puzzle scholars to the present day:

Our applause was followed by a dish hardly as ample as we had expected. But its strangeness drew every eye upon it. It was a round plate with the twelve signs of the zodiac spaced around the edge, and on each the chef had put a morsel of food suited by nature to its symbol. Over the Ram, ram's head chickpeas; over the Bull, a bit of sirloin; on the Twins, pairs of kidneys and testicles; a crown on the Crab; on the Lion, an African fig; on the Virgin, the womb of a sow that had no litter; on the Balance, a pair of scales with a tart on one side and a honeycake on the other; over the Scorpion, a small salt-water fish; a hare on the Archer; a langouste over the Goat; a goose on the Water-carrier; and two mullets over the Fishes. In the centre was a fresh-cut sod of turf bearing a honeycomb.

The dish is opened up to show beneath Trimalchio's own portrayal of the cosmos. Later on in the meal, Trimalchio gives his own crude version of astrological theory:

'But I ask you, do you think I'm satisfied with that dish you saw on the stand?

Is this your experience of Ulysses? Good enough; it does to know one's literature even when dining-out. May the bones of my old patron rest in peace, who would have me a man of the world. I can be shown nothing new, as that dish has proved. These heavens up there—they are inhabited by twelve gods and turn into as many figures. Then they become a Ram. And whoever is born under that sign has many flocks, many fleeces, a hard head besides, a brazen front and a sharp horn. The greater part of pedants and cavillers is born beneath this sign.'

Praise for our witty astrologer, who goes on: 'Then the whole heavens become a miniature Bull. Under it are born those who kick against the pricks, cattlemen and those that find their own food. Under the Twins are born team-horses, randy men and such as have it both ways. Myself, I was born under the Crab. Therefore I stand on many feet and possess much in the sea and much on land, for your crab's at home both here and there. That's why I've placed nothing over it for some time, for fear of jeopardising my constellation.'

Trimalchio continues his list of the kinds of people born under different signs and concludes with a philosophical flourish:

'the Water-carrier sees taverners and fat-heads born; caterers and orators come under the Fishes. Thus the circle turns as a mill-stone, and at every moment some noxious thing is done, that either men die or men are born. As for the sod of turf in the middle and the honeycomb on it, I do nothing without a reason. Mother earth is in the middle, rounded like an egg, and like a honeycomb has all good things in herself.' 'Admirable!' we cried as one man, and raising our glasses to the ceiling we swore Hipparchus and Aratus were not to be classed with him.

Trimalchio also has a doorpost on which the Moon and the planets are depicted, presumably meant to allude to the role of the heavens in producing his glorious destiny.57

But if we have only sneering depictions of the uses of astrology among those of less than illustrious background, we can find some clues to what it offered the ordinary person in the treatises. Dorotheus offers a revealing discussion on horary astrology. There are chapters on buying land, forming a business partership, payment of debts, departure on a journey, exorcism and imprisonment. The typical questions of the average client emerge: which person will win that lawsuit? Will I get back the thing I lost? Which way did that runaway slave go? When should I have the operation? When is the best time to ask that favour? Some chapters, such as those on buying a ship, apply only to the richer client, but in most cases all stations in life are taken into account.

The long sections on marriage and slaves offer the most fascinating insights. The section on buying a slave envisages different types according to the sign in which the Moon was found at the purchase. He could be a good, patient and obedient worker, or lazy and unreliable. He might be a slanderer who conceals his disloyalty to the master, or well-educated and trained, but ill-tempered, and with a tendency to frivolous self-indulgence which causes stomach problems. The section on marriage, where the husband's point of view seems to be taken, runs through the various possibilities according to the time chosen. One side only might benefit, she might turn out to be a secret whore, they might waste each other's property, marriage might not be the answer while courtship offered more potential, she might conceive on the first night, the relationship could be like that of slave and owner, they might disagree about everything. 'Because agreement and love are necessary in a marriage, it is necessary to look at the indications for that', advises the astrologer. In addition there is a whole chapter on 'the courtship of a woman, and what occurs between a wife and her husband when she quarrels and scolds and departs from her house publicly':

If you want to know, if she returns to him, whether he will profit from her or will see joy and happiness, then look at the hour.. .If you find [Venus retrograde and other conditions], then it indicates that this woman will return to the house of her husband and will not cease being obedient to her husband from the day she returns, and she will not contradict him, but the husband will be blessed with profit and good and joy from her .If you find Venus direct in her motion, then it indicates that the woman who departs from her house will subjugate her husband so that for this reason estrangement. will come between the two of them, and it indicates that the man will repent after the separation, and it will be thus in the case of the woman who is courted.If you find Venus departing from the Sun's rays and it is western.she will not cease repenting till she returns.

We find examples of horary astrology among preserved horoscopes from the literature of the fifth century. They include one concerning distressing letters contrary to expectation, another on a ship which has not arrived in Smyrna from Alexandria, and a third 'concerning a small lion, whether he will be tamed'.58 Enquiries about thieves seem to have been very common;59 a typical passage concerns the lost linen of a slave-girl:

[the fact] that the luminaries were in aspect to the Ascendant, [as was] also its ruler, indicated that the thief was in the household and not from outside; and that the Moon at Full Moon was in contact with Saturn at evening setting indicated that the thief was an old man. Since then Saturn was in the house of Mercury [it indicated] that the thief was an educated person and a rascal and frustrated in intercourse. Again the terms of the Moon showed that the stolen article belonged to a woman, and the ruler of the terms of the Moon and of the Ascendant, being in depression, showed that the loser was a humble person or slave and that the lost article was old and wretched because it was in evening phase.60

Astrologers must often have been used to aid gambling. A Byzantine text, which certainly preserved much older ideas, reveals how astrologers used their art to predict the outcome of chariot-races, perhaps the most popular sport of the Empire. There is a variety of methods offered, creative variations on themes. One simple rule for predicting the winning team runs like this:

You must know that the Moon aids the Greens, the Sun the Reds, Saturn and Venus the Blues. So, when the Sun meets Venus, if at that moment the Blues are launching out on the course, then they will win. When it meets Mars, it is the Greens who win, for Mars is their ally; and when Jupiter is found on a cardine, then infallibly the Blues will win, above all if the Moon is deprived of light.61

This text tells of a specialist in questions of the hippodrome and his amazing predictions. It is not clear whether he sold his knowledge; he is only mentioned as speaking with the teams. At least in this case he would have a one-in-three chance of getting it right. And since the answer depended on the exact time of the race, there was room for manoeuvre in retrospect. In fact, horary astrology in general was one of the least risky provinces of the astrologer, since it was less easy to be proved wrong. Very often, it was simply a question of selecting the best time for an enterprise. Even if the enterprise failed, it could always be argued that the time selected had been the best choice.

However, some enquiries did demand direct answers. There is an anecdote from the fifth century CE from a hostile Christian source which reveals how astrologers could hedge their bets in dealing with a straightforward question. The astrologer Leontius, who was consulted by all those who sought high office as prefects or functionaries, was once asked by a client about the sex of the child to which his wife would give birth:

He replied, in giving him to believe that he calculated and conjectured from his silly notions, that she would have a boy. Then, going out of the house, he took the woman door-keeper on one side and said to her: 'The master of the house asked what his wife would have, and I said, a boy, not wanting to upset him in advance, since he wanted a boy. But to you I'm telling the truth (keep it quiet for the moment): the child to be born will certainly be a girl.' Thereupon he left. Later, his wife gave birth to a girl. His master was irritated that he had been deceived and made Leontius come to him to convict him of lying. But the latter saved himself by the testimony of the doorkeeper.

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The Art Of Astrology

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