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Reading the Will of the Gods in the Sky

(An edited excerpt from Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty)

The practice of a recognizable form of Western astrology has been dated to the second millennium B.C.E, when early cultures like those in Babylonia and Assyria developed calendrical systems, largely for agrarian purposes of predicting seasonal shifts and as a source of omen-based guidance for political leaders, while at the same time subscribing to a worldview in which celestial movements were observed as a form of communication with the gods.

Geoffrey Cornelius calls this approach to astrology “divination” (the parenthetical expression is mine):

Divination was understood to reside in the sacred. Although in developed systems (such as divinatory systems of astrology) the omens might bear at many points on details of the mundane world, the effect of divination was to bring the matters enquired about, the vital concerns of man, within the guidance of the sacred. Seen in this light, a prediction through divination was none other than the revelation of what the gods willed to come to pass. (1)

Cornelius is speaking here primarily about the astrological practice of katarche, which considers the moment in which an astrological inquiry is made to be the timing for an appropriate astrological chart from which guidance can be derived, rather than the natal chart or one of its permutations, which became more common practice later. Katarche survives in modern convention as horary astrology, and also in a different way, as electional astrology, which seeks the optimal moment for the beginning of something significant.

These more modern adaptations continue to occupy their respective niches within the broader umbrella of our contemporary craft. Yet, as Cornelius points out, the fundamental attitude behind katarche – which was an intent to align human action with the will of the divine – was predominant throughout what I am calling the Mystical Era (the second millennium B.C.E. – the seventh century B.C.E.), and an important sensibility in astrological practice of the age. Eventually transported to the West through Greek culture, this was an attitude that first arose within Mesopotamia, as part of a diverse omen-based tradition, and developed within that tradition as a divinatory approach to astrology.

While some would seek their omens through dream incubation, the reading of entrails, or the flight of birds, divinatory astrologers would observe the ever-changing visible patterns in the sky and attempt to glean from those patterns, the sacred intent behind them. Then at another level of participation, through ceremony and ritual, astrologer/priests would attempt to work with deities and daemons to steer divine will toward an outcome favorable to humans. Within the sacred space in which ceremony was conducted, working with an omen was very much a co-creative endeavor between humans and the divine.

Divination, Intent and Receptivity

Although divinatory astrology has become associated with the prediction of the future, for which it was in fact frequently used during the Mystical Era, this was not its original or deepest intent. At its heart, divinatory astrology stemmed from a desire to understand and align with the will of the gods – the innate sacred dimension permeating all of life and the entire manifest creation – which also informed the relationship between humans and the cosmic order on the deepest possible level that could be known.

In order to rise to this level of intent, one had to work toward a certain purity of consciousness – ultimately derived from optimum physical health; emotional clarity in the resolution of psychological issues with the potential to cloud perception; the mental balance of the meditative mind; and heartfelt devotion to the deities one hoped to align with and supplicate. Divinatory astrology was, in other words, not just a way of knowing, but a deep spiritual practice of preparation to receive divine guidance, and it is reasonable to assume that the best divinatory astrologers were deeply committed to this practice. Divinatory astrologers were, in fact, priests, and although the priesthood was to some extent subservient to political rulers, and at times corrupted by that relationship, there was a sacred dimension to the practice that, when it became primary, brought out the best in its practitioners.

In order to work with an omen, the diviner had to enter into an “identity of substance” with the divine intelligence being accessed, which in turn, was not separate from the message being divined, nor from any predicted outcome conveyed in the message. According to Cornelius:

The omen and the spirit-agency intending it become identified, or ‘consubstantial’. Further, the omen is seen as fully implicated in the event that it portends; indeed, it is also the event it portends. (2)

The divinatory priesthood was the natural expression of a cultural mindset that allowed omens to reveal themselves and be understood as a matter of course, provided that a clear intention and adequate preparation rendered a practitioner ready to receive them. In the Mystical Era, divination was a deliberate matter of intention, presentiment and balanced receptivity. Evoking an omen was something that required adequate training and preparation, even if the cultural acceptance of omens made them readily accessible. It was, in fact, not just something that happened, but a calling that one actively pursued.

Omens could come unbidden as a spontaneous act of revelation, but increasingly they were sought out as deliberate requests for divine guidance. Those seeking divine guidance would begin by putting themselves in the proper state of mind, evoking the appropriate deity, and then paying attention to what was happening around them – and more specifically in the case of divinatory astrologers, what was happening in the sky – and to worldly events to which the patterns seemed intuitively or by imaginal association to be correlated.

Such awareness of correlation was not, initially at least, a matter of hard and fast rule, although as these correlations were written down and codified into astrological reports, they assumed the mantle of authority, along with the astrologer/priests who made them. The basis for such authority was rooted in a willingness to open oneself to divine instruction within a ritual space (and in a ceremonial state of mind) conjured specifically for that purpose:

On what grounds does the diviner refer omen to event? He does so within the templum, the sacred space created in ritual. The sacred space is that wherein a god may be present. Within the ritual is brought forward man’s concern, the worldly matters past, present, or future, in which will be discerned the working of the sacred. The god’s response occurs within the sacred space of ritual, spontaneous blessing or touching that which has been ritually presented. (3)

Divination and Mysticism

The divinatory worldview and the practice of astrology that was predominate in Mesopotamian culture arose out of a way of knowing that can be broadly understood as mystical. Mystical traditions have long been associated with the formalized religions with which they generally co-existed awkwardly, as an attempt to seek direct knowledge of the divine, rather than rest content to merely know of the divine through canonized experience of religious forebearers like Moses, Jesus, or Gautama Buddha. But as Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann points out:

The experience of God as a sacred adventure represents only one specific, experimental, form of mysticism; it is by no means the most common and perhaps not even the most significant. But all mystical forms have in common the intensity of experience, the revolutionary, dynamic impetus of a psychological event which takes the ego out of the structure of its consciousness; and in all of them the numinous appears as the antithesis of consciousness. (4)

In this broader sense, mysticism is the intentional quest for that which lies beyond what the conscious mind can know, often a quest for a direct encounter with the sacred – the hidden dimension of things, the living intelligence that operates beneath appearances – but in any case, a quest that “calls for an act of attention and devotion on the part of the ego, an aptitude for being ‘moved,’ a willingness to see what wants to appear.” It is through their aptitude for being moved and the willingness to “see” that astrologers in the Mystical Era were guided to read the will of the divine in the movement of the cosmos. To some extent, this orientation still guides all skilled astrologers today, who are moved beyond a strictly rational interpretation of the symbolism to “see what wants to appear” in a birth chart under consideration.

This attitude – of intentional opening to whatever revelation might lie at the heart of direct experience was also at the root of religious experience, which back in the days before written scripture, was oriented around various practices – shamanic, yogic, contemplative, ritual, magical and mystical – designed to create such an opening. Within a mystical approach to knowledge, it was the clarity of intent behind a given practice, as well as the diligence with which one pursued it, that generated a sacred space in which divination became possible.

The Origins of Astrology in the Mystical Era

The evolution of the written languages that eventually coalesced as scripture began, not coincidentally, around the same time as the first written record of astrological knowledge appeared on the tablets of the Enuma Anu Enlil that served the Babylonian rulers of that era. As Hellenistic astrologer Chris Brennan notes, “for many Mesopotamian cultures, (astrology) became one of the languages through which the gods communicated their intentions to humankind,” that is to say, essentially a language of divination, destined to change rather dramatically when astrological knowledge was written down, and began to be codified in what essentially became astrological scripture.

Later, when the early Hellenistic astrologers began reinventing astrology for a new era, they often paid homage to the traditions inherited from Mesopotamia and Egypt, even as they radically altered those traditions as to be virtually unrecognizable. At the same time, many of the earliest astrological texts were also attributed to a legendary, mythical or religious figure from the past. As Brennan notes:

This was a common practice in the ancient world, especially for texts dealing with what we might classify today as “occult” matters, such as astrology, alchemy, or magic, although it also happened with philosophical, religious, and medical texts as well. The genre of falsely ascribed texts is generally referred to as “pseudepigrapha.” (5)

Early astrological texts were associated with figures such as Nechepso and Petosiris, who, if they actually existed, left no written record themselves, even though they were often quoted by subsequent astrologers. Taking another step back into the mystical fog of the oral tradition, some early astrological texts were attributed to mythological or divine figures such as Orpheus, Asclepius or Hermes Trismegistus.

Although there may be other possible reasons for this attribution, Brennan also alludes to “the apparent existence of mystery traditions, within the astrological community, and the possibility that many of the ancient doctrines were kept secret, with some of the astrological schools being kept private or underground.” If so, then it is not unlikely to assume that like the organized religions, astrology also harkens back to an oral tradition, designed to facilitate direct experiential knowledge, rather than a simple transmission of knowledge previously obtained. This practice, like the early religions with which it co-evolved, was likely divinatory and mystical in nature.

The oral tradition, in general, also likely had a secular component, which was used in the case of the scriptures that later evolved to preserve a certain historical account of events, but also other mundane bits of knowledge of a practical nature, used to secure food, shelter, health and other necessities of life. In relation to astrology, this dimension of oral tradition would encompass various techniques, some of which were passed on to or rediscovered by early Hellenistic authors. These, however, were likely secondary to the cultivation of the necessary mystical sensibilities through which an understanding of divine intent was discerned by whatever techniques were employed. It was this mystical sensibility, which revolved around clear intent and receptivity to guidance from the deities embodied in celestial form, that informed the astrology of the Mystical Era, and that in a more secular form still speaks through the best astrologers today.


(1) Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination, Wessex Astrologer Limited, 2002, p. 130.

(2) Geoffrey Cornelius, Divination, Participation and the Cognitive Continuum. Field of Omens | Astrodivination. Accessed May 12, 2023.

(3) Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology, p. 132.

(4) Erich Neumann. “Mystical Man.” In The Mystic Vision: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Bolligen Series XXX 6. Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 381.

(5) Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune. Denver: Amor Fati Publications, 2017, p. 28.

Joe Landwehr, an astrologer of over 50 years experience, seeks an eclectic integration of astrology, spiritual psychology and ancient wisdom teachings. He is the author of five books and numerous articles for The Mountain Astrologer and other publications. He is Director of The Astropoetic School of Soul-Discovery, which offers individualized correspondence courses, webinar classes and workshops. He has taught and lectured at ISAR conferences, the Midwest Astrology Conference, and online at International Academy of Astrology. Information about his work and books for sale can be found at

1 Comment

  1. re: ” It is through their aptitude for being moved and the willingness to “see” that astrologers in the Mystical Era were guided to read the will of the divine in the movement of the cosmos. To some extent, this orientation still guides all skilled astrologers today, who are moved beyond a strictly rational interpretation of the symbolism to “see what wants to appear” in a birth chart under consideration.” Yes. Just… yes.

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