Astrology Under Threat


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As the attitude to heresy hardened, so moves were made against astrology in Church law. The first record of a Council forbidding clergy to be astrologers or magicians is from the Council of Laodicea, in 365. It is possible that it was interpolated later.55 In the Constitutions of the Apostles, a fourth-century set of regulations attributed to the apostles, astrologers, along with debauchers, magicians and philosophers, are to be refused baptism or damned. It is also most severely forbidden for Christians to pray to the Sun, Moon and stars, or to swear by them.56

The really severe reaction came in response to the heretic Priscillianists, followers of the bishop of Avila who was blamed by his younger contemporary Sulpicius Severus for introducing Gnosticism into Spain.57 He was denounced as a Manichaean and accused of magic and immorality by another bishop, for which he was executed in 385. Priscillian's own involvement in astrology is uncertain; but his followers were specifically attacked for the belief that human souls and bodies are subordinate to the stars, as we can see from the anathema pronounced against them, recorded for the Council of Toledo in 400, though the evidence is from the mid-fifth century. The anathema pronounced against anyone thinking astrology is worthy of belief, though not specifically associated with the Priscillianists, is clearly connected with them.

We hear of the odd case where individuals were condemned on the charge of their interest in astrology. Epiphanius, writing in the fourth century, claims that one Aquila, who refused to give up astrology after being converted in Jerusalem in 120 CE, was excommunicated. In 449, Bishop Sophronius of Constantina was put on trial for astrology and other divination by the so-called Robber Council in Ephesus. Here the connection with heresy was obvious: he was believed to be a Nestorian, and the Council had been convened to suppress this heresy.58

Leo 'the Great', who was Pope from 440 to 461, discovered a Manichaean infiltration into his own congregation.59 He seems to have modelled his administration on the style of the emperor. Also goaded by the Priscillianists, he fulminated in a decree: 'Our fathers, in whose time this evil heresy broke out, rightly hunted it with great energy throughout the world, so that this impious madness should be driven out of the whole body of the Church.'60

In 572, at the Second Council of Braga, the anathema was pronounced against those using astrology before building houses, planting trees, or marrying.61 The famous Quinisext, the council which took place in the presence of Justinian at Constantinople in 553, vigorously attacked astrology.62 Procopius, in his posthumously published pamphlet attacking his patron Justinian, includes among his crimes his attacks on astrologers:

They were bitterly hostile to the astrologers. Accordingly, the official appointed to deal with burglaries made a point of illtreating them simply because they were astrologers, flogging the backs of many of them and setting them on camels to be shown to jeering crowds all over the city, even though they were old men and respectable in every way. Yet he had nothing against them except that they wished to be authorities on the stars in such a place as this.63

(The 'official appointed to deal with burglaries' was the praetor plebis, a wide-ranging office created by Justinian.) Justinian was certainly hostile to pagan 'learning'. He closed the schools of philosophy in 529. Henceforward, there was to be a new curriculum, though of course pagan models remained influential. Cassiodorus (490-583), the figure most important in making the monasteries the new seats of learning in the West, was equally hostile to astrology.64

Scholars have tended to agree that the Church triumphed over astrology in this period. Certainly, it was more successful than the emperors were in their legislation to restrain it. Astrology seems to have gone to ground for at least two centuries in the East (at least, one Stephanus 'the Philosopher', from Persia, claims to reintroduce astrology to Constantinople at the end of the eighth century),65 while in the West, astrological works simply drop out of the library lists, only reappearing in any number in the twelfth century.66 In the West, the Church's stranglehold on learning probably proved more effective. However, in the East, it appears that astrologers only lowered their profile. Incidents from a number of saints' Lives and some of the material in collections of questions and answers about the Christian faith suggest that astrology continued to flourish at the local level.67 The local astrologer competed with the local holy man and the local doctor. During a period of earthquakes in 551-7, the people of Antioch arranged a public debate between an astrologer and Symeon, the saint who lived on a pillar.68 Naturally, in the Life, the saint triumphs, but in the real world it was harder for the Church to vanquish astrology.

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The Art Of Astrology

The Art Of Astrology

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