Lucian of Samosata

(Extracted from Works, vol. 2, pp. 409-18, translated by W. Tooke, London, 1820.)


NOTWITHSTANDING the subject of this little tract will be the sky and the stars, yet it is not my design to discourse of the sky and the stars abstractedly, but only of the art of divination which is founded upon them, and of the influence which they have upon human life; and even of that not for the purpose of laying down a theory by means whereof anybody may become an adept in that art of divination. No; it rather is to testify my just displeasure, that our wise men, however great their numbers, while they addict themselves with all possible assiduity, and instruct their scholars in every other branch of knowledge, astrology alone is neglected by them as unworthy of their attention. And yet that science is undeniably one of the oldest, and even among us Greeks by no means a new comer; but several ancient kings, who stood in particular favour with the gods, made a serious business of it. That at present different ideas are entertained on this subject, may be accounted for partly inasmuch as we can have no esteem for what we have no notion of, and as that science requires a degree of industry and application, alarming to our habitual indolence; partly as it is a consequence of too hasty conclusions from fallacious experiments. Having met with some sorry pretender to astrology, who had read an event in the stars which did not turn out accordingly, they immediately lay the blame upon the stars, conceive a dislike to astrology, and because there are bunglers in it, refuse all worth to the science itself, and declare it to be groundless and frivolous rhodomontade. But that in my judgment, is not more reasonable, than to conclude from the inability of an artificer, that the art itself is nugatory; or to deny to music the certainty of its principles and rules, because there are miserable pipers. All that can be inferred from this is, that these people are poor performers; the art is always efficient and perfect in itself.

The first inventors of astrology1 were the Ethiopians; of which two probable causes may be assigned, one, the eminent sagacity of that people, for which and many other particulars, they were peculiarly remarkable above other nations: the other is, their fortunate situation; for they are always surrounded by a serene sky, enjoy an uninterrupted succession of fine weather, and know nothing of the vicissitude of seasons, but live in a perpetual summer. What first attracted their attention in the sky were the changes of the moon, which, instead of remaining always the same, shewed itself under different aspects, and alternately transformed itself from one into the other. The fact seemed to them surprising, and deserving of stricter investigation. They observed and examined therefore so long, till they found out that the cause of it was, that the moon has no light of its own, but is illumined by the sun. They discovered also the motion and the course of some other stars, which we call planets [erratic stars], because they alone of all move from their place; they searched into their nature, their power, their sphere of action, and their diverse influences; they invented names for them, serving, not, as most names do, merely to distinguish, but at the same time as symbols of their properties and effects.

After the thiopians had made these preliminary observations on the sky, they handed over the crude and uncultivated science to their neighbours the Egyptians, who much improved it, determined the different space of time in which each planet moves, and divided the year into months, days and hours, by making the periodical revolution of the sun the measure of the year, and that of the moon the measure of the months2. But their discoveries proceeded much further: for they divided the whole sky with all its planets and fixt-stars into twelve compartments through which the former moved; and each of these compartments was as it were assigned to a living creature for its abode, by composing of the stars it contained sundry shapes or figures of marine animals, men, birds, wild beasts and tame animals. Hence we see the origin of the divine worship paid to sacred animals, and whence it arises that all the Egyptians do not use all the twelve signs of the zodiac in divination, but some one and some another. They, for instance, who have chose the ram for their astrological operations3, worship the ram; they who draw their prognostications from the fishes in the sky, eat no fish; they who make the goat the interpreter of their fate4, refrain from killing a goat. So likewise they worship a bull out of respect to the bull Apis; the oracle which they have instituted to him, betokens that prophetic property of the bull in the sky, and therefore it is but equitable that the whole country round Memphis should be assigned him for pasture.

The Lybians, not long after the gyptians, took up this science. For the famous oracle of Ammon, whom they pourtray with a ram's head, refers to the celestial sign of that name, and to the method of inquiring into futurity by the aid of astrology.

The Babylonians also are acquainted with these matters; aye, if we believe them, they were so long before the others; but in my opinion, it was not till much later that astrology came to them5. The Greeks however have what they know of it neither from the Ethiopians nor Egyptians: but Orpheus, ager's and Calliope's son, was the first that revealed somewhat of it to them; indeed not very clearly; because he was not intent upon the promulgation of the science itself, but, in conformity to his character, on applying it to his magical juggles and mysteries. Thus, for instance, the lyre of which he was the inventor, served him as the principal instrument of his mystical worship; but this lyre, which was furnished with seven strings, was to him a symbol betokening the harmony of the planets. This occult science it was, by which he charmed and controuled everything; he cared nought about the lyre of his own fabrication, and what is commonly understood by music: (astrology was the great lyre of Orpheus), and the respect of the Greeks for his occult science, was the reason of their allotting to him and his lyre a place in the sky, where a particular constellation still bears the name of Orpheus's lyre. The statuaries and painters usually represent Orpheus as singing and playing on his lyre, with a multitude of animals standing round, among whom are distinguished a man, a bull, a lion; in short, all the animals of the zodiac6. When you see this, remember what I say, and you will presently guess at what that singing and that lyre denote, and who the bull and the lion are, that stand listening to him; if you understand me, you will discern all these things in the sky.

The famous diviner Tiresias of Botia, is reported to have been the first among the Greeks who made the discovery, that the planets, as some are of a male and others of a female nature, have not for that reason the same operations, and thence arose, it is said, the well known fable, that Tiresias was alternately man and woman.

About the time when Atreus and Thyestes were competitors for their father's empire, astrology, or the science respecting celestial objects, was prosecuted with considerable ardour among the Greeks, and stood in such high repute, that all the cities appertaining to the kingdom of Argos, collectively made a decree, that he, of the two brothers, who should upon trial evince his superiority in that science, should succeed to the regal dignity. The day of trial being come, Thyestes explained to them the ram in the sky, which afterwards gave occasion to the mythologists to say, that he had a golden fleece7. Atreus, on the other hand, pointed out to them the course of the sun, and taught them that the sun and the world move, not in the same direction, but contrary to each other, so that, what with reference to the world seems Occident, is the orient of the sun. For this discovery the Argives made him their king, and the fame of his great wisdom resounded far and wide.

In like manner I explain in my own mind, the fable of Bellerophon. That he had a winged horse, I shall never be persuaded to believe; in my opinion nothing is implied by it, but that he prosecuted this sublime science, and as it were flew up to hold converse with the stars. He certainly ascended to the sky, not on a flying horse, but on the wings of contemplation.

The same I affirm of Phryxus, the son of Athamas, of whom it is fabled that he rode through the air, mounted on a golden ram8.

The wonderful history of the flight of Daedalus also appears to me to have reference entirely to astrology, and to say neither more nor less, than that he laid much stress on that science, and also instructed his son in it. But I suppose that Icarus, through his juvenile ardour and presumption, was hurried beyond the bounds of lawful curiosity; hoping in his contemplations he should ascend to the pole of the skies, he strayed from the path of reason and truth, and fell into an ocean of bottomless opinions. Though the grecian mythologists relate the matter differently, and have named after him a famous bay in the gean sea9.

It may be also, that the old story, that Daedalus favoured, by his art, the love of Pasiphae for a bull, has no other foundation, than that the queen was informed by him of the bull in the skies, and was in general fond of astrology.

Amongst those who in those remote periods studied this science, there were some who divided it in a manner between them, so that each directed his attention to a particular star; for instance, this to Jupiter, that to the sun, &c. in order to study its peculiar orbit, motions and powers. So, for example, Endymion gave accounts concerning the moon; while Phaeton instituted observations on the course of the sun, but was surprised by death before he could bring his theory to perfection. In course of time, he was made, from ignorance of his real history, a son of the sun, and the subject of a tale, that has not even the semblance of credibility. He came, say they, to his father Helios, and asked him permission to drive the chariot of the sun. His father granted his request, and at the same time gave him directions how he should manage himself in driving. But Phaeton, after he had mounted the car, from youth and inexperience, conducted it so badly, one while almost coming in contact with the earth, and in an instant again was whirled to too great a distance from it, so that by these alternate variations of a like intolerable heat and cold, mankind had well-nigh perished. Upon this, Jupiter was so provoked, that he struck down Phaeton from his chariot. His sisters, standing round the body lamenting his fall, were changed into poplar trees, in which form till this very day they weep amber for their brother's fate10. But the fact could not certainly have been as thus related, and it would be in opposition to the respect due to the gods, to believe such things. The sun has never had a child, and even if it had had a son, he would not have died in that manner.

The Greeks relate numberless other fabulous things of the deities, to which I for my part can give no credit. For does it not savour very much of impiety and profaneness to believe that neas was the son of Aphrodite, Minos of Jupiter, Ascalaphus of the god of war, Autolycus of Mercury? All that can be supposed of it is, that each of them was dear to these several deities, and was born under a benign aspect of Venus, of Jupiter, and so forth. Whichever of these planets is the lord of the house at the moment of a man's nativity11, he imparts to him somewhat of his properties, assimilates with his complexion, aspect, temper and performances, and is thereby in some sort of his geniture. Thus, for example, Minos by the influence of Jupiter was a king, neas by Aphrodite's decree beautiful, Autolycus a thief, because Mercury, the patron of thieves, imparted to him the disposition and the inclination thereto12.

No less groundless is the vulgar belief, that Jupiter bound Saturn and threw him down to Tartarus. The truth of the matter, and what has furnished occasion to this fable is, that the course which Saturn describes is the orbit the most remote from us; that his motion is very slow and is not easily observable by mankind. Hence they say he stands bound in chains. What they call Tartarus, is nothing else but the profundity of the ther.

In Homer and Hesiod particularly many things are found that have reference to the astrology of the remote periods. As, for example, what Homer says respecting the golden chain of Jupiter, and the darts of the sun, which I take to be the days; so also the cities, the choirs and the vineyard on the shield of Achilles13. For what he feigns of the adultery of Venus and Mars, is manifestly derived from no other source than astrology; and it is nothing but the conjunction of those two planets. Their operations however he characterizes in other passages; for instance, when in the fifth book of the Iliad he makes Jupiter say to Venus:

The nuptial joys are thy peculiar care

and respecting war,

Pallas and Mars controul the feats of war.

In pursuance of these notions our progenitors made use of divination on all occasions, and considered it as a matter of great importance. They built no city, carried up no walls, waged no war; nay, they even contracted no marriage, without being previously certified by a soothsayer of the auspicious influence of the stars. For their oracles were blended with astrology. The virgin who acted the prophetess at Delphi, was the symbol of the virgin in the skies; and a dragon utters his voice from under the tripod14, because likewise among the constellations a dragon is to be seen. The oracle of Apollo at Didymi methinks shews by its very name that it had reference to the celestial twins.

Divination was an affair so highly sacred in their estimation, that Ulysses, falling into great distress on his voyage, which has become so famous through Homer, and wanting sadly to know what would become of him, even went down into Hades, not

To view the dead and Pluto's joyless realm, (Odyss. xi. 94.)

but purely from the desire to speak with Tiresias. And when he had arrived at the place which Circe had pointed out to him, and had dug the pit and slain the sheep, many of the departed, amongst whom was his mother, came about him, desirous to drink of the blood, he would not allow anyone, not even his own mother, (distressing as it must have been to him to see her shade languishing with thirst) to taste of it, till Tiresias had drunk, and he had obliged the soul of that prophet to foretell him his future destiny.

Lycurgus regulated the whole political constitution of the Spartans by the skies, and gave them a law, by which they were never allowed to go to war before the full moon15. For he thought that the influences of the moon in waxing and waning were very different, and that all things were governed by that planet.

The Arcadians are the only people who made no account of these things, and with them astrology was held in no repute: they rather in their folly and ignorance went so far, as to pretend that they were older than the moon.

Our forefathers then it is evident were greatly addicted to soothsaying. But in our days the esteem for that science has very much declined. Some contend that it is impossible for mankind to come at anything with certainty by astrological divination; for it is built on a false foundation; neither Mars nor Jupiter, they tell us, move on our account; these planets are totally unconcerned about human affairs, that they signify nothing at all to us, but perform their circuit on their own account and in pursuance of their nature, by a necessary law. Others indeed leave the veracity of astrology unattacked, but deny its utility; because the (prediction of what will happen can alter nothing in an event, which must infallibly ensue in conformity to the decree of fate.

What I for my part have to say upon it is this: the stars in the sky proceed their own regular course, it is true; but collaterally their motion has an influence on all our concernments. Do you ask how? Is it not frequently seen, that the rapid motion of a horse, or a bird, or a man, shakes even a stone? Does not the wind drive chaff and other light substances this way or that, without being disturbed in its course thereby?

And can we believe that the rotation of the stars shall produce no farther effects? From even the smallest fire somewhat flies off to us, though the fire does not burn for our sakes, and is little concerned whether we are warm or cold: and from the stars shall no influence come to us? Besides, I readily grant, that it is not in the power of astrology to change bad into good, or to prevent the events from ensuing, which are a natural effect of that influence of celestial things upon terrestrial. But it has however always this utility, that the good which is predicted may be enjoyed by anticipation, and the evil be borne with greater ease, as it does not come upon us by surprise, but we have had time to deprive it of its bitterness, and by viewing it through the medium of expectation ensure ourselves to look it in the face.

This is my opinion respecting astrology16.


Of Astrology. Is Saul also among the prophets? we might here well exclaim. The fact has appeared to some of the learned so incredible, that they rather chuse to deny this short treatise to be the work of our author. It cannot be disputed, that it contributes not in the least to the enhancement of his reputation, and falls so vastly short of his better performances, that if it must be laid to his account, it is still a doubt whether too early youth or too advanced age should bear the blame of its not being more worthy of him. To say the truth, I cannot conceive what end he could have in view in scribbling such trumpery. For as to the delicate persifflage which Dr. Francklin sees running through the whole, I must confess, that it is too fine for me. For my part, throughout the composition I am unable to discover the slightest vestige of either taste or humour, wit or irony.

1 The author, whoever he was, confounds, both here and in the sequel frequently, astrology, or interpretation of the stars, with astronomy, of which, by the way, he seems to have understood little enough, although it was much cultivated in the era of the Antonines.

2 These discoveries they ascribe to their Thoot or Hermes.

3 The words of the text, [Greek], are, I own, to me sheer nonsense. I have therefore, as in some other places of this flimsy little piece, which labour under the same infirmity, endeavoured to give them the most tolerable meaning that presented itself; for by the literal translation of Gesner, quotquot respiciebant arietem, I can absolutely make nothing out of them. Whether M. Massieu with his ceux qui observtrent le belier, adorent le belier, has better hit it off, I shall leave undetermined.

4 In the text, "they that knew the he-goat." This entire section, relative to the astrology of the gyptians, with reference to the sense and connexion of the thoughts as well as the expression, seems to have been composed between sleeping and waking.

5 The author still owes us his reasons.

6 This doubtless is what the author means by his [Greek] (namely [Greek]) [Greek], to which Du Soul too modestly subjoins mihi non liquet.

7 The reader is referred to the note upon the supplement to the tract on Dancing in this volume.

8 See the eleventh dialogue of the Marine Deities in the former volume.

9 The bay, which is inclosed on one side by the Ionian coast, and on the other by the eastern row of the Cyclades, was anciently styled the Icarean sea, probably from Icaria, one of the said islands.

10 If Lucian was the author of this tract, he must hive been remarkably fond of this tale of Phaeton and his sisters. For it will be in the reader's recollection, that he has already read it twice, viz. in the Confab, of the Deities, and in the little discourse of Amber, with all its circumstances.

11 This expression refers to the astrological division of the sky and the zodiac into twelve houses, to each of which a constellation of the zodiac belongs, and of which always a planet is the ruler either of one, e.g. the moon of cancer, or of two at once, as Venus of Taurus and Libra.

12 Autolycus was a noted sheep-stealer of the heroic age, and no less artful than dextrous in that profession. He employed his abilities with peculiarly good success, on the herds of king Sisyphus, and the king with all that cunning which rendered his name proverbial, for a long time could not come at the depredator, because Autolycus had a method of colouring the black sheep white, and the white black, and by means of this artifice sold the king his own sheep again, which he had stole from him. Sisyphus at length grew suspicious, marked his sheep on the bottom of the feet, and by that stratagem discovered the sheep-stealer. Autolycus had a fair daughter named Anticlea, who was forced to do penance for her father, but so shortly after was wedded to Laertes, and became the mother of Ulysses, that it remained doubtful whether Laertes or Sisyphus had the nearest right to the boy. As the sheep-stealer Autolycus was in this manner the grandfather of (he hero of the Odyssey, it was no more than reasonable, that they should strive to enoble him as much as possible. The fable accordingly makes him the son of Mercury and the nymph Chione, and his talent of thievery was a miraculous gift, in which he even surpassed his divine father, in stealing whatever he chose, and that he might never be found out, in giving the stolen articles any shape he pleased, and making them black if they had been white, or white if they before were black. Hygin. Fab. 20l.

13 What this has to do with astrology it is difficult to guess.

14 In virtue of an old tradition the oracle at Delphi sprang out of the earth, and this latter appointed the dragon Python, her son, its guard, (Pausan. in Phoc. v. 6.) and according to Hyginus, Fab. 140. the organ of it. But after Apollo, by slaying the dragon Python, had got possession of the Delphic oracle, the dragon could no longer have any share in the oracle. The author 6hould therefore, in order to express himself correctly, have said: "and the dragon, which formerly (while no Pythia yet existed) gave sound from the cleft in the earth over which the tripod was placed, &c.''

15 It must then have depended on a single instant. For as soon as the moon is at the full it is again in the wane. The author should therefore have said, it was not lawful for them to go to battle in the declension of the moon. However, the expression, that Lycurgus regulated the Spartan constitution entirely by the stars, is certainly a ridiculous hyperbole, wherein the author pays that famous lawgiver a very bad compliment.

16 M. Massieu likewise in a note annexed to the conclusion of his translation, thinks this no less shallow and ill-reasoned than spiritless and tasteless rhapsody might probably have been composed by Lucian, merely for the purpose of diverting himself with delicacy at the expense of some superstitious writer; and is of opinion, that even the affectation of the ionic dialect in which this little tract is, contrary to Lucian's custom, wrote, seems to indicate that the essay is nothing but one continued irony throughout.If that be the case, then it must be allowed that the author has done his utmost to conceal his irony behind such an aukwardly assuraed gravity, that we should rather suspect anything but fine raillery to be under this clumsy mask.