Chorography Mundane Astrology


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Chorography was rather a sub-discipline of astrology than a discipline in its own right, though it could be seen to offer an over-arching framework of explanation which would dominate geography, ethnography and even medicine as well as other parts of astrology. It corresponds to what is today called mundane astrology, being the study of the influence of the stars on cities or regions of the world. Ptolemy, who was the author of a treatise on geography, gives geographical astrology a prime role, devoting the whole of the second book to it:

Since, then, prognostication by astronomical means is divided into two great and principal parts, and since the first and more universal is that which relates to whole races, countries and cities, which is called general (catholics),and the second and more specific is that which relates to individual men, which is called genethlialogical, we believe it fitting to treat first of the general division, because such matters are naturally swayed by greater and more powerful causes than the particular events. And since the particular always falls under the general, it would by all means be necessary for those who purpose an enquiry about a single individual long before to have comprehended the more general considerations.1

Ptolemy includes in this book on 'catholic' astrology, apart from the astrology of cities and regions, events which affect whole areas, whether they are disasters like war, famine, plague, earthquakes and floods, or normal meteorological variations and their effects on agriculture. Astro-meteorology is yet another sub-discipline, which could be seen as just a province of astronomy, which had investigated from the beginning the link between the stars and the seasons, and in particular the agricultural year. It is also one of the parts of astrology which became part of high literary culture from Aratus' poem onwards. There was however debate, as we have already seen in the writings of Geminus, (Chapter 2) about whether the stars were causes of meteorological events, or simply signs of the progress of the seasons, and thus of corresponding meteorological events.

Mundane astrology was in fact older than genethlialogy, as we saw in Chapter 1. In the earliest forms of astrology, predictions were made for different countries, and for kings as representatives of those countries. The early Greco-Roman divisions of areas of the world into zones with astral patrons were simple equivalents of older ideas about divine patrons. (Horoscopes of cities were however a later development, modelled on genethlialogy.) Manilius offers the oldest chorographic scheme to survive, which is a straightforward assignation of zodiac signs to zones. Here he refers to the worship of signs by regions, and his justifications rely on myth or other analogical associations. Thus the legend of the Golden Fleece explains the area over which Aries presides. The golden ram carried Helle and Phrixus away to Colchis. The children's sacrifice had been demanded by the Delphic oracle, at the behest of their jealous stepmother Ino. Helle fell into the water and was drowned, and the Hellespont was named after her:

The Ram, whose stars are allotted place in the middle of the springtime halfway between the Crab and chilly Capricorn, claims for his influence the sea which he overcame himself, when after the girl had slipped off he bore her brother to the shore, and wept over the reduction of his burden and the relief to his back. He is also reverently worshipped by neighbouring Propontis, by the Syrian people, by loose-robed Persia, a nation hampered by its raiment, by the Nile, whose waters swell to reach the Crab, and by Egypt's land, then bidden to be flooded. The Bull holds the mountains of Scythia, powerful Asia, and the effeminate Arabs, whose realm is rich in woods. The Euxine sea, the shores of which curve in the shape of a Scythian bow, worships you, Phoebus [Apollo] in the person of the Twins.2

Gemini in Manilius has the Sun as its patron deity,3 and Apollo is the Sun-god, as well as being the archer. There is clearly no established version, since Dorotheus not long afterwards comes up with a different list, and Paul of Alexandria from the Late Empire preserves a third system. They can be compared in the following table below (see Plate 12 for a map).

There were further subdivisions of the signs in later authors. Bardesanes, the Gnostic, mentions a division according to decans,4 allowing a more detailed chorography. In Hephaestion of Thebes there is a division involving time as well as space. There are fortyeight different homes for eclipses, with the twelve hours of the day grouped into four lots of 3-hour units.5 Each sign is matched with a different region for each 3-hour unit, perhaps following the Egyptian tradition of making the map of the sky, seen also as a giant clock, correspond to a map of the world.

Those ancient geographers and astronomers with no interest in mundane astrology estimated parallels of latitude corresponding to the length of the summer solstitial day, spaced at half-hourly intervals. Alternatively, the celestial divisions were mapped on to the Earth, so







Cancer Leo


Libra Scorpio

Sagittarius Capricorn



Hellespont, Propontis, Syria, Persia, Egypt Scythia, Asia, Arabia Black Sea

India, Ethiopia Phrygia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, Armenia, Macedonia Rhodes, Caria, Doris, Ionia, Arcadia Italy

Carthage, Libya, Cyrenaica, Sardinia, Mediterranean Isles Crete, Sicily Spain, Gaul, Germany Phoenicia, Cilicia, Lower Egypt Chaldaea, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Red Sea

Babylon, Arabia

Media, Arabia, Egypt

Cappadocia, Perrhabia (?), Phoenicia Thrace, Ethiopia Greece, Phrygia, Pontus

Rhodes, Cyclades, Peloponnese Cyrene, Italy Carthage, Libya, Sicily

Gaul, Crete Cimmeria




Armenia Asia

Greece, Ionia

Libya, Cyrenaica Italy

Cilicia,Crete Syria


Red Sea, India that there were five or six zones, divided by the poles, the tropics and sometimes the equator, as in the case of the geographer Strabo. Astrologers divided the Earth into climata, according to the rising times. The work ascribed to Ptolemy, On the Appearances of the Fixed Stars and a Collection of Prognostics, has five climata, with the extremes at Syene to Berenice on the one hand, and Aquileia to Vienne on the other. Ptolemy's Almagest has seven, from southern Egypt to north of the Black Sea. There are a variety of ways of distributing the zones or climata between the planets.6

However, it was the system in Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos which triumphed. It was the most complicated, but it offered explanations of the physical appearance and customs of different peoples. In doing so it moved into the province of the ethnographers, those who described the peoples of the world in accounts they claimed were derived from first-hand experience. Racial stereotypes from such 'travel-writers' had passed into the common stock of knowledge. There was a history from the Hippocratic writers onwards of a medical interest in climatological influence on the constitution, but it was the physiognomists above all who discussed the influence of the climate on customs and behaviour. These were the experts on judging the character from the physique.

Ptolemy's initial division corresponds to that of the most famous physiognomical treatise, written by Polemo of Laodicea in the first half of the second century CE. Unfortunately, only the Arabic translation of this has survived, so that some of the material has probably been altered in order to conform with the new geographical context. Nevertheless, comparison is possible. In Ptolemy's version,7 those who live under the Southern parallels, from the equator to the Tropic of Capricorn, since they are burned by having the Sun overhead, have black skins and thick, woolly hair. They are shrunken in stature, hot by nature and have savage habits, because they are permanently oppressed by the heat. The animals and plants of this area are similarly the result of baking heat. The people are known generally as Ethiopians. In Polemo's treatise, under the heading 'On the southern type', he describes them as black, with black, curly hair, narrow ankles, leaden-coloured eyes, and thin flesh. Accordingly they are generous, quick-witted, with good memories, and they are pleasure-seeking, but they are continual liars, greedy and inclined to steal.8

In the Tetrabiblos those living under more northern parallels, with the Bears over their heads, as they are far from the zodiac and the Sun's heat, are subject to cold and moisture, whose nourishment is not dried up by heat. So they are fair-complexioned, straight-haired, tall and well-nourished, and rather cold by nature. Their habits are savage too, because the places where they live are continually cold. The plants there grow tall, and the animals are wild. The people are known generally as Scythians. Polemo tells us in his chapter 'On the northern type' that the people are tall, fair-complexioned, with red hair and grey-blue eyes. They are rough, with thick thighs, plump bodies, soft flesh and large stomachs. As to their characters, they are irascible, quick in argument, and impetuous. They are incapable of dissembling and not very quick on the uptake.

The point of this antithesis in both authors is of course to point up the golden mean. The temperate zone is where the best people come from, like themselves. In Ptolemy those in the zone between the summer tropics and the Bears enjoy equable air-temperature, which does not vary violently between hot and cold. This makes them of medium colouring and of moderate stature. Furthermore it gives them an even temper, a tendency to group together (in cities), and makes them civilised in their habits. Polemo simply restates the logic: as the characteristics of North and South are opposite, the physiognomist should judge the characters of the people accordingly, and use the same principle regarding those in the middle. He proceeds to discuss East and West before coming to the pure Greek, a category sufficiently restricted to exclude the Argive or Corinthian. As he returns to the topic of bodily signs in general, he notes that a black skin indicates timidity and long trouble and sorrow, citing Abyssinians, Zingae (?) and Egyptians. In passing he notes that there is a region between Thrace and Constantinople where the natives' eyes roll and flicker. As for the pure Greek, he is:

of moderate stature and upright, of attractive face, with a mixed red and white complexion, quite fleshy, with medium-sized hands and elbows. He is active, a quick learner, with a head neither big nor small, with thickness and fortitude in the neck, soft hair, even when curly, not woolly (?), a square face, thin lips, a straight moderately-sized nose, moist, very mobile and bright brown (?) eyes.9

Ptolemy too subdivides the peoples of the central region: those further south are shrewd, inventive and more versed in religious and astrological matters, because their zenith is closer to the planets, while those further east are more masculine, vigorous and open, because of the Sun's influence. The region is diurnal, masculine and right-handed. The west is associated with the Moon, and so the people are softer, more secretive and more feminine.10 Of course there are further distinctions according to the particular situation, and there are individual exceptions. Polemo too admits that you can find sober Asiatics and quiet Scythians.11

But Ptolemy's system is far more complex. He starts anew after this first three-fold division, and divides the world into quarters, each ruled by a triplicity of zodiac signs.12 The north-west quarter includes Celtic Gaul, bounded in the west by the Straits of Gibraltar, the south-east includes the southern part of Greater Asia, including India and Mesopotamia. The north-east is called Scythia, and reaches south-west Russia (Sauromatica) and China (Serica). The south-west is called Libya and covers North Africa. From here onwards, the discussion is mainly of ethnic characters. In some cases common stereotypes are operative: the Persians are portrayed as being luxurious and effeminate, the inhabitants of Judaea as atheists and the Britons as fierce, headstrong and bestial, while the Greeks are noble, independent leaders, democratic freedom-lovers, highly cultured, articulate and learned. Ptolemy is creative in finding astrological justifications: the Amazons are explained by the influence of the Moon's oriental and masculine aspect.

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