Hudson County Community College Horoscope Imagery and Narrative Essay


Read the assigned text through carefully. The following questions are meant to
help focus your attention as you wade through the academic language. Use them to help you
write your response paper. (A response paper should consist of at least one double-spaced
page, and no more than about two.) Some questions may require, or suggest, that you do
some additional research. Feel free to do so, but not obligated to make a big deal out of it. We
will be discussing these questions together in class, so give them a bit of thought. 1) This article does not have an “argument” as such. How might that be characteristic of
the papyrological field of study? Remind me—what is papyrology? 2) How does the author approach the reading of the papyrus horoscopes? Is it different
from the way scholars approach other kinds of ancient texts? 3) How did ancient astrologers use narrative to create a “deluxe” astrological experience
for their clients?

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USRNC 7.4 (2013) 397-406]
doi: 10.1558/jsrnc.v7i4.397
JSRNC (print) ISSN 1749-4907
JSRNC (online) ISSN 1749-4915
Imagery and Narrative in an Ancient Horoscope:
P.Lond. 130 (Greek Horoscopes No. 81)
Roger Beck
University of Toronto Mississauga,
Department of Historical Studies, 3359 Mississauga Road N.,
Mississauga, Ontario L5L 1C6, Canada
In a Greek papyrus horoscope from the first century CE, highly elaborate
descriptions of planetary journeyings have replaced the usual matter-offact listing of celestial longitudes. An analysis of the horoscope’s language
and narrative form demonstrates how ancient astrologers understood the
stars and planets as agents that communicate by their appearances,
configurations, and motions.
Horoscopes, ancient astrology, narrative, poetic astronomy, narratology
Extant Greek horoscopes fall into two categories in the terminology of
Neugebauer and van Hoesen: ‘original documents’ and ‘literary
horoscopes’ (1987: vii, 14, 76). The former were composed, with few
exceptions, on scraps of papyrus. For the most part, a horoscope of this
sort gives simply the date and hour of birth, followed by a list of the
seven planets and the Horóscopos (Ascendant) together with the sign of
the zodiac occupied by each. In contrast, the ‘literary horoscopes’ are
preserved in ancient astrological treatises—their richest reservoir by far
being the Anthologies of Vettius Valens from the second century CE—
where they serve as examples and test cases. They tend to be somewhat
fuller in astronomical data, and they are coupled with actual life
outcomes known to the authors and compilers.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013, Unit S3, Kelham House, 3, Lancaster Street, Sheffield S3 8AF.
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture
All horoscopes tell a story—a story about the heavens—and horoscopes of the ancient ‘literary’ type tell two stories, a celestial and a
terrestrial. The celestial story is about the stars, their motions, and their
relationships; the terrestrial story is the biography of the so-called
‘native’, the subject of the horoscope. The ftinction of this double storytelling in the ancient astrological treatises was to explore entailments:
what was it precisely in the celestial story that entailed such-and-such a
feature of the terrestrial story? Whether, in this context, ‘entailed’ means
‘determined the outcome’ or ‘indicated the outcome’ does not concern
me here; what does is the story-telling itself—questions of narrative and
Among the non-literary horoscopes—the ‘original documents’—is
preserved a handful of what Alexander Jones, in his edition of the astronomical and astrological papyri from Oxyrh3mchus (Jones 1999: xi), calls
‘deluxe’ horoscopes. In their astronomical data, these horoscopes are
much more detailed and informative than the run-of-the-mill sort that
offer a bare list of the planets plus the Horóscopos and the signs occupied
at birth. This is a straightforward market-place matter: the more you
pay, the more you expect to get.
Neither deluxe horoscopes nor their run-of-the-mill relafives offer predictions. Quite probably, purchasers of both sorts of horoscopes would
bring them in, not necessarily to the original astrologers, for subsequent
paid consultations. The question asked would be along the lines of the
following: ‘Given this horoscope and today’s configurations, should I
close the deal?’ Otherwise, like all luxury goods always, deluxe horoscopes were for display, for demonstrating one’s stature both to oneself
and others. It is not the mass or specificity of the details in the deluxe
horoscopes that concerns us here so much as the way these details are
marshalled into a story and, in particular, the appeal to the visual imagination in the telling of the story. The astrologer invites his client not
merely to hear his story but to visualize it.
And so to the celestial story of Greek Horoscopes No. 81 (Neugebauer
and van Hoesen 1987:21-28). As its number indicates, the birth occurred
in the year 81 of the Common Era, in fact on 31 March at about 9:00 pm.
The astrologer gives the month and the day in three calendar formats:
Alexandrian, Roman, and Egyptian. The year is specified as ‘the third of
the God Titus’. That the emperor Titus is called a ‘god’ means that he
was already dead and deified when the horoscope was cast. In fact, Titus
died in this same third regnal year, a mere six months after the subject’s
birth. It is worth noting that, narratologically, the dating belongs more to
the terrestrial and human story than to the celestial. Ultimately, of course,
‘the motion of the seven gods’, as the astrologer terms it, determines
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Beck Imagery and Narrative in an Ancient Horoscope
earthly time. But the precise day of the month, the month’s name, and
who was then on the throne are human, not divine, contingencies.
Horoscope No. 81 opens with a prologue that belongs neither to a
celestial nor to a terrestrial narrative, but instead to a meta-history, the
story of astrology:
The Egyptian men of old who had faithfully studied the heaverüy bodies
and had learned the motions of the seven gods, compiled and arranged
everything in perpetual tables and generously left to us their knowledge of
these things. From these I have accurately calculated and arranged for each
one (of the seven gods) according to degree and minute [of longitude],
aspect and phase, and, simply, not to waste time in enumerating each item,
whatever concerns its investigation. For thus the way of astrological
prediction is made straight, unambiguous, that is, consistent. Farewell,
dearest Hermon (Neugebauer and van Hoesen 1987: 23, Cols. I and II).
This appeal to a high tradition and the self-location of a narrator within
that tradition is a commonplace of ancient story-telling. It was a mediating device, linking narrator to audience—in this instance, an astrologer
to his client—and both to the matter of the story. The name of the client,
who is the primary audience of the impending narrative, is Hermon. The
name of the intrusive storyteller, Titus Pitenius, the reader does not
discover until the end, when it is determined that he is the astrologer
himself, as shown in the clause in which he signs off: ‘I, Titus Pitenius,
made the calculations’ (Neugebauer and van Hoesen 1987:24, Col.VIII).
The threefold dating follows this prologue. Next one might expect the
place of birth to be specified since, in order to calculate horoscopes,
location is the necessary complement to date and time. Location belongs
to the terrestrial story—^but not entirely, for without location there can be
no linking of the events in the heavens to a particular human story. In
genethlialogy (divination of the destinies of the newly bom), location
determines the all-important Horóscopos or Ascendant, the point where
the ecliptic and the local horizon intersect at the moment of birth. In fact,
the astrologer does specify the location but he does so right at the end of
the document. The place is Hermopolis, some 400 kilometres up the Nile
valley from the sea where, the astrologer/narrator says, ‘the horizon has
the ratio seven to five’ (Neugebauer and van Hoesen 1987:26, Col. IX)—
such was a normal Greek way of expressing geographic latitude, in
terms of zones (klimata) in which the ratio of the longest to the shortest
day within the same zone was the same. By explicitly locating Hermopolis in the zone (klima) of Lower Egypt, the narrator demonstrates that he
knew what he was talking about when he positioned the Ascendant in
the eighteenth degree of Scorpio.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture
ÏC Aqtmias
Figure 1. Diagram of Horoscope No. 81.
After the prologue and the temporal definitions, the astrologer/narrator
tells what each of the ‘seven gods’ was then doing (see fig. 1). That
narraüve makes up the bulk of the horoscope. Each of the gods is vividly
described, and in the way it is written—the sense of the flow of the narrative—adjectives and verbs matter. The narrator speaks of the planets
as agents doing things over and above occupying specific locations, as can
be seen from this example of the Moon:
And the divine and light-bringing Moon, waxing in crescent, had advanced
in Taurus thirteen degrees, and a thousandth part of a degree; in the sign
of Venus; in her own exaltation; in the terms of Mercury; in a female and
solid sign; Uke gold; mounting the Back of Taurus; in the second decan
called Aroth; her dodekatemorion again was shining on about the same
place in Scorpio (Neugebauer and van Hoesen 1987: 23, Col. IV).’
Much of the vividness rides on the language of astrology itself. That, of
course, is the point. If one is going to go into detail, one must, at least in
the ancient world, speak, for example, of places of ‘exaltation’ and
‘humiliation’, and of gendered signs.
Author has replaced ‘its’ with ‘her’.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Beck Imagery and Narrative in an Ancient Horoscope
What one nofices first is the verbs, and through the verbs, the actions of
the celestial bodies. The Moon is not merely at a certain posifion in
longitude. Literally it—or rather, she—’had run’ thirteen-plus degrees of
Taurus. Likewise the Sun, ‘moving from the spring equinox, had attained
in Aries fourteen degrees and six minutes’. Saturn ‘had completed [literally, “filled”] six degrees in Pisces less a sixtieth’. Jupiter, ‘running up its
exaltafion [Cancer] had attained six degrees and ten thirds’. Mars ‘had
ascended sixteen degrees and a twentieth of Aquarius’. Venus ‘had
completed [again “filled”] sixteen degrees and four minutes’. Seventh of
the planets. Mercury, ‘had rmi across ten full degrees of Aries’.
However, the seven planets are not the only actors in the celestial
field. Strangely (from a modern perspective), both the Horóscopos (the
Ascendant) and the Midheaven are described in the same terms as the
planets, and so must be envisaged as behaving in the same way. The
Horóscopos ‘had cut Oj^eighteen degrees of Scorpio’, while the Midheaven
‘had struck the back of the Lion’. Hearing or reading this, what is one
supposed to see with the mind’s eye? As the heavens turn, a reified point
moving to and fro on the local horizon to the east cuts the ecliptic at the
eighteenth degree of Scorpio, while another reified point moving up and
down the local meridian strikes Leo on the back. That is certainly what
the astrologer says is going on.
In turning from verbs to adjecfives, one can observe how the narrator
describes his cast of celestial agents, parficularly those whom he has
characterised in his prologue as ‘the seven gods’. In each of the seven
passages which consfitute the bulk of the narrative, a subject phrase (‘the
divine and light-bringing Moon’) precedes a verb phrase (‘had advanced
in Taurus thirteen degrees and a thousandth part of a degree’), sometimes with a participial phrase in between (‘waxing in crescent’). Here
for each planet in order are (a) the subject phrase, and (b) the parficipial
(a) The Sun, the mightiest and ruler of all, (b) moving from the spring
The divine and light-bringing Moon, (b) waxing in crescent…
Phainon, the star of Kronos (i.e. Saturn)…
Phaithon, the star of Zeus (i.e. Jupiter), (b) running across his exaltation
(i.e. Cancer)…
Pyroeis, the star of Ares (i.e. Mars)…
Phosphoros, the star of Aphrodite (i.e. Venus)…
Stilbon, the star of Hermes (i.e. Mercury)…
Those familiar with Hellenisfic astrology will notice the use of the
altemafive nomenclature for the five naked-eye planets (in the modem
sense of that term). Since the more common divine names (in their Greek
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture
forms) are also given, the primary purpose here in the narrative is
descriptive rather than indicative: Phainon/Saturn is ‘the Shining one’;
Phaithon/Jupiter is ‘the Brilliant one’; Mars/Pyroeis is ‘the Fiery one’;
Venus/Phosphoros is ‘the Light-Bringer’; Stilbon/Mercury is ‘the
Glittering one’. Four of these refer to appearance, to what one sees. The
fifth refers to function: Venus, as the Morning Star, heralds the dawn.
But that too is an appearance: when one sees Venus in the east, one sees—
or will soon see—the light of dawn spreading upwards and outwards
from the horizon in that direction.
Here I draw attenfion to the way the astrologer added an eighth and a
ninth actor to his cast of celestial characters: the Horóscopos or Ascendant
and the Midheaven. The Ascendant is introduced as ‘the rudder of them
all, the Horóscopos’. It might seem strange to describe the Ascendant as a
‘rudder’ or ‘steering oar’. But in point of fact, ‘the steering oar’ as an
epithet for the Ascendant, though not common, does occur in other
astrological texts, including a deluxe horoscope from Oxyrhynchus
0ones 1999: 420-21). In the Oxyrhynchus horoscope the astrologer calls
the Ascendant ‘the steersman’. From a narrator’s perspecfive, promoting
the Ascendant from instrument to agent was a smart choice. Parity with
the planetary gods is thereby conferred.
Though vividly described in its action {‘striking the back of the Lion’),
the Midheaven is less vividly introduced than the Ascendant. It is called
simply ‘the meridian at right angles to it’, ‘it’ being the Ascendant. ‘The
meridian’ serves, totum pro parte, as shorthand for ‘the point on the
meridian at which the ecliptic intersects it’.
The final location to be specified is that of the Lot of Fortune ‘in the
sign and triangle of Jupiter’, meaning Sagittarius. Interestingly, Titus
Pitenius uses the blandest of verb phrases: ‘will be into’. Here, towards
the end, he seems to be tiring of his narrator’s mode. The professional
astrologer reasserts himself with the comment that only ‘ignorance’
would put the Lot of Fortune in Libra.^
Returning to the ‘seven gods’, each passage after the verb phrase
expressing the longitude attained contains a string of phrases conveying
2. Special Issue Editor’s note: The Lot of Fortune was the angle of separation
between the Sun and Moon applied to the Ascendant. However, the reason that Titus
Pitenius would suggest ignorance lies in the two ways the Lot of Fortune is calculated:
for daytime (diurnal) births, when the sun is above the horizon, the astrologer
measures the angle of separation between the Sun and the Moon and applies that
angle clockwise from Ascendant; for nighttime (nocturnal) births, when the sun is
below the horizon, the astrologer measures the angle from the Moon to the Sun and
applies that angle anticlockwise to the Ascendant. Thus only an ‘ignorant’ astrologer
would apply a diurnal formula for the Lot of Fortune to a nocturnal chart.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Beck Imagery and Narrative in an Ancient Horoscope
further data. For the Moon this was as follows: in the sign of Venus; in
its own exaltation; in the terms of Mercury; in a female and solid sign;
like gold; mounting the back of Taurus; in the second decan called Aroth;
its dodekatemorion was shining on about the same place in Scorpio. What
concerns us is not the astronomical and astrological information in itself
but the way in which that data is presented: First, notice the verbs. The
Moon mounts the back of Taurus; her dodekatemorion (a type of proxy or
surrogate) shines on a particular spot. Both verbs imply—indeed they
emphasize—agency. Secondly, notice appearance. The Moon is like gold.
Likewise, Venus is said to be ‘like crystal’. Both of these words ignore
that on the occasion in quesfion neither imputed quality was observable.
Both planets have already set. What you get is what you do not see,
though you are led to imagine it, despite explicit data to the contrary.
Third, and in many ways the most interesting point, is the astrologer/
narrator’s introduction of constellations and even stars, over and above
signs and degrees, to describe where in the sky each planet has reached.
Again, notice the actions implied by the verbs. The Moon is ‘mounting
the back of Taurus’. The reader is to envisage a goddess climbing onto a
bull’s back, much like the icon of the ‘Bull-sacrificing Victory’ or indeed
of the tauroctonous Mithras. It is worth setting out all seven of these
shining upon theflankof Aries
mounting the Back of Taurus
descending from the Svviallow-Fish
two fingers from the more northerly bright star on the back (sc. of
(by?) the Star in the Cloak called Ganymede, homonymous with
the whole constellation, far to the east
at the Southern Fish…distant two lunar diameters from the
bright star in the connecting cords
Mercury: (nothing said)
The ‘seven gods’ encounter new and exotic beings in their travels, not
just those familiar markers of longitude, the twelve signs, each with its
thirty degrees. Saturn descends from a Swallow-Eish, a Babylonian name
for the Northern Eish of Pisces. Jupiter is two fingers’ width away from a
particular star in Cancer. Mars is near a star in the Cloak. The Cloak is
actually the cloak of Aquarius, but the astrologer transforms this item of
apparel into a disfinct sub-constellation—as well as the individual star—
which he calls Ganymede. He thus equates Aquarius—as others did
too—with the wine steward of the Olympians. Finally, Venus is in the
Southern Fish of the constellation of Pisces, two lunar diameters from a
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture
bright star in the cord that links the two Eishes together. In summary,
making their appearance in these snippets of the celestial story are the
following novel features: one immortalized human, Ganymede; one
hybrid animal, the Swallow-Eish; and two artefacts, a cloak and a piece
of string.
Most horoscopes in their planetary stories send their seven heroes
forward and sometimes backward along a single path, or more precisely
along what, for narrative purposes, is treated as a single path. Put astronomically, ancient horoscopes give longitudes, very seldom latitudes.
The astrologers knew, of course, that the planets, with the exception of
the Sun, wandered off to the north and south of the ecliptic. The point is
that astrologically these divergences in latitude were of little or no consequence for the terrestrial stories of himian beings. They are therefore
normally omitted from the celestial stories of horoscopes. On the principal that if you have paid good money you are entitled to a good story,
however, Titus Pitenius enriches the celestial story by personalizing the
adventures of the seven, each along his or her own path. He does this
not as an astronomer would do by specifying latitude as well as longitude, but by introducing stars and parts of constellations near which or
through which the planets pass. The function of these details, then, is to
enrich the celestial story; they are not just proxies for latitude. In fact,
they are not proxies for latitude at all, and were not intended as such.
That they have been mistaken for such is understandable, since the
astrologer/narrator uses language which, in a different context, would
indeed refer to latitude.
Consider the following two phrases: the Moon ‘mounting the back of
Taurus’; Saturn ‘descending from the Swallow-Eish’. Visually this suggests that the Moon is going up and Saturn going down. If one thinks of
‘north’ as ‘up’ and ‘south’ as ‘down’, and if that fundamental cognitive
metaphor, current then as now, holds for the heavens as for fhe earth,
then it is understandable that one would here envisage the Moon
moving northward and Saturn southward. So we can say that, in
context, the ‘mounting’ and ‘descending’ phrases would have evoked
motion northward and southward respectively, as they still do now.
Evoked—yes, but the verbs indicated, signified, intended, and meant are
not deployed. How can I be so sure that Titus Pitenius, in saying that the
Moon was ‘mounting the back of Taurus’, did not mean that she was
then moving to the north of the ecliptic or ascending in latitude? Quite
simply, because she was not doing so. The Moon was then almost five
degrees to the south of the ecliptic and still descending in latitude. Since
the astrologer is reasonably correct with his longitudes, why suppose
him to be otherwise about latitude, especially when the supposition is
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Beck Imagery and Narrative in an Ancient Horoscope
unnecessary? This becomes clear when one realises that Titus Pitenius is
telling Hermon a story about significant planetary adventures. He is
asking Hermon to imagine the Moon climbing onto the back of the Bull of
It is worth a closer look at the actual verb translated as ‘motmting’ in
the participial phrase ‘mounting the back of the Bull’. The verb used is
anabibazein, which is primarily a causative verb meaning ‘to make go up’
or, more succinctly, ‘to send up’. It usually requires a direct object. What,
then, is it that the Moon makes or causes to go up on to the Bull’s back?
The reader is never told. So one must default to a different image.
Instead of imagining the Moon putting someone or something up onto
the Bull’s back, one imagines the Moon herself ascending there. Linguistically, in the absence of a direct object, one is compelled to construe the
participle anabibazousa as intransifive, as the funcfional equivalent of the
intransitive, non-causative anabainousa.
This is not, however, the end of the story. There is an answer to the
obvious quesfion: ‘Why has the astrologer/narrator chosen a verb which
he must deploy in an unusual way?’ The answer lies in astrology’s
technical vocabulary. The participle of anabibazein in the masculine form
anabibazôn (rather than the feminine anabibazousa) is the technical term
for the ascending node of the lunar orbit, the noun syndesmos (‘node’)
being understood. The ascending node is the point on the ecliptic where
the Moon crosses from south to north. The complementary point where
she crosses back again from north to south is the descending node, the
Greek technical term for which is katabibazôn (the Greek for ‘down’ being
kata, as the Greek for ‘up’ is ana). The causafive verbs are used because
the Greek astronomers and astrologers thought of the nodes as agents, at
least potenfially. Thus the ascending node was conceptualized via
language as the being who sends the Moon up north across the ecliptic,
and the descending node is the being who sends her back again, across
from north to south. Because the nodes exhibit motion in longitude
(regressing westwards around the ecliptic in a period of eighteen and
two-thirds years), in later Greek astrology they were treated as planets
for horoscopal purposes (Bouché-Leclercq 1963 [1899]: 122-23).
The best evidence for the attribution of agency to the nodes comes,
however, not from an astrological source but from the Chrisfian apologist
Tertullian. In his Against Marcion (1.18), which was written little more
than a century after this analyzed horoscope, Tertullian says sarcastically
of the failure of Marcion’s beneficent God to arrive in the world expeditiously: ‘Perhaps Anabibazon stood in his way (obstabat), or some
malefics (sc. stellae, “stars”), Saturn in quadrature or Mars in trine’.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture
To sum up, in order to enhance his description of the Moon on the
back of the Bull, the astrologer/narrator has chosen a verb that does not
quite do the lexical job required—for it does not say what it generally
means—but which is nevertheless highly appropriate to the lunar
subject. Appropriate, yes; but not accurate. As has been seen, there is a
serious suggestiofalsi, for the Moon at the fime was not ‘ascending’ in the
technical sense evoked; she was far ‘below’ the eclipfic and sfiU
‘descending’. The narrator applies the same manoeuvre to Saturn. Saturn
is said to be ‘descending from the Swallow-Eish’, and the word used is
again the causafive katabibazôn, which should mean, but does not in this
context, that Saturn is sending someone or something down from the
In an ancient horoscope of the ‘deluxe’ type, the astrologer can become
the author-narrator of a celestial story. To transform celestial data
usually presented as a bald set of planetary and other longitudes into a
compelling story, the astrologer Titus Pitenius, as I have demonstrated,
adopts the following narrative stratagems: (a) he represents the planets
as travellers on a journey, emphasizing their agency, especially in his
choice of verbs; (b) he depicts a richer and more exotic landscape for
their travels, primarily by taking celesfial lafitude into account and so
introducing constellations other than the routine twelve which constitute
the signs of the zodiac; and (c) he intensifies the visual imagery, stressing
brilliance and colour and, in parficular, preferring the rarer descripfive
names (e.g., Pyroeis, the ‘Fiery One’) over the standard divine names
(e.g.. Mars) for the seven planets.
As an author, Titus Pitenius belongs with the historians and before
them with the tellers of received tales, not with the writers of pure
fiction. The celestial events of 81 CE that he relates are a given. He could
no more have invented them than Thucydides could have invented the
Peloponnesian War or Homer the Trojan War; likewise the celesfial
players. The arfistry lies wholly in the narrafion, based on the contemporary astronomy and astrology that inform and constrain it—a narrafion
that presented an ensouled sky that was alive, engaged, and wholly
informative to that audience.
Bouché-Leclercq, A. 1963 [1899]. L’astrologie Grecque (Brussels: Culture et Civilisation).
Jones, Alexander (ed.). 1999. Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy. 42334300a), vols. 1 and 2 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society).
Neugebauer, O., and H.B. van Hoesen. 1987. Greek Horoscopes (Memoirs of the
American Philosophical Society, 48; Philadelphia: American Philosophical
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• Do you know the word “esoteric”? Have you ever heard the phrase “esoteric knowledge”?
In-Class Journal (10) (Alchemy)
In-Class Journal (11)
• What methods (other than a map!) could people in antiquity have used to help them get to
and around unfamiliar places?

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