Death Varieties Of Violence


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Another area particularly subject to this kind of technical examination was that of violent death.35 There was a named category for people who died violently: biaiothanatoi. Again there is a context of classification according to nature and against nature. Ptolemy explains unnatural deaths as follows:

They die, however, by violent and conspicuous means whenever both the planets dominate the destructive Places, either in conjunction, or in quartile, or in opposition, or also if one of the two, or both, seize upon the Sun, or the Moon, or both the luminaries. The affliction of the death in this case arises from their junction, its magnitude from the testimony of the luminaries, and its quality, again, from the way in which the other planets regard them, and from the signs in which the evil planets are found.36

Violent death was against nature: it occurred before term. Part of the fascination with it was perhaps because it appeared to challenge notions of a fixed fate. Critics of astrology cited cases of mass deaths, such as by war or shipwreck, as evidence against astrologers' ability to predict: surely all those who died in the same way did not share the same horoscope. Possibly, astrologers' careful explanations were designed to counter any such crude version of astrology. But another cause of the focus on violent death was doubtless its sensational interest. Here was perhaps the ancient equivalent of tabloid journalism, in its concentration on the bizarre and dramatic.

In the part of the underworld reserved for those who die before their time, Virgil in the Aeneid has only a few categories: those who had died as infants, those condemned to die on a false accusation, suicides, those who died from love and soldiers who had been killed in battle.37 The astrologers' various lists were far more extensive, again giving the impression of a methodical, thorough examination, in which predictions are related to predisposing conditions in a manner which conforms to logical arrangement. In Vettius Valens, the examination moves round the zodiac, from Aries to Pisces, and within each sign there is a set of variants conforming to a precise classification of violent deaths. The major factor is one or more planetary aspect, and after that, the situation of the relevant planets or other astrological entities, the sign and Place in which it is found, which, interacting with the characters of the planets, determine the type of death. The first division is between those who dispense violent death and those who are victims of it. Death-bringers have the Sun in Aries: these are divided into those who are murderers in general, those who are bandits, those who kill themselves and murderers of women (where Venus is normally involved). Mars, the impetuous, bellicose planet, is nearly always involved in violent deaths; if it is not directly implicated, then its house (Aries) or exaltation (Scorpio). Those who kill themselves are divided by astrologers into those who are asphyxiated in water, by fire, by hanging, and those who throw themselves from a height, who die by the sword, by poison, by snakebite, or by self-starvation, and those who do it because of women. Suicides are provoked by the attack of one planet (normally Mars) on another, or by its attack on itself (represented by its house or exaltation), and the means of suicide is indicated by the types of signs.

Victims are most exhaustively classified. Some kinds of violent death border on the province of medical astrology: at least as many varieties of death by disease are also examined. The sign of the Sun is a crucial determinant, given the appropriate signs that death will be violent. Deaths by poison, by snake-bite, by mutilations or amputations, by fatal breaks in bones are considered. These last are divided by cause: a fall from a horse, or a chariot, or a height in general may have led to the break, or wild beasts may have torn the victim apart. Again, the signs determine the location, in seas, rivers or the baths, in public or in private, and so on. Thus if death by wild beasts (determined by animal signs) is in public, it will be in the amphitheatre. Deaths as a result of the judicial system are considered, those resulting from the decision of the sovereign or from judges at a lower level, whether after long imprisonment or not, and the means of punishment are set out: by amputation, by fire, or impaling. Deaths in war, as a result of attacks by bandits or pirates, and as a result of feminine plots, all find their astrological explanation. In the latter case, for instance:

If [Saturn] is in aspect to Mercury, and particularly in the neighbourhood of the serpents in the sphere [paranatellonta such as Ophiouchos, Draco and Hydra], or in the terrestrial signs, he makes men die from the bites of poisonous creatures, and if Venus is present with them, by poisoning and feminine plots.38

Here we see the formulaic logic which exemplifies the transformations of real life by the techne. Death by snake-bite is an important category because of the prominence of serpent-like constellations, and death because of women is a category resulting from the role of Venus, as pre-eminently feminine planet. Poison was connected with the bites or stings of poisonous animals, and poisoning was seen as the typical weapon of a scheming woman.

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