Magic and Astrology: Towards a History of the „Time-lords“ (chronokratores)

25. October 2021, by Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer

The origins of the „time-lords“ in Greek astrology (chronokratores), rulers of sequential and cyclical periods in a human life whose calculation relates to that of the lifespan, remain to be explained. Our earliest references to them as a cohesive system are in the work of the astrologer Vettius Valens of Antioch, who wrote in the mid-second century CE. With little in the way of introduction, Valens speaks of 129-month periods assigned by turns to the five planets and two luminaries, each of which also takes a subdivision of a fixed length (Sun: 19 months; Moon: 25 months; Mercury: 20 months; Venus: 8 months; Mars: 15 months; Jupiter: 12 months; Saturn: 30 months), during which it has special influence over incidents in the life of the individual. Claudius Ptolemy, in keeping with his more systematic approach, at least situates the chronokratores in relation to the more familiar natal astrology, that is, as a check on the appropriateness of predictions to various stages in a human life, while also developing a more sophisticated system of subdivisions. Hephaestion of Thebes claims ancient Egyptian origins for the system in broad terms, without further specifics.

Fragments of ivory diptych with zodiac signs, Sun and Moon, which could have been used to visualize planetary positions (Roman Period, found at Grand [Vosges], France). Source: Musées Grand Est.

In the mass of original horoscopes in the Greek papyri from Roman Egypt, we have robust evidence for the fact of the practice of astrology but so far disappointingly little detail on how it was practiced. A new attestation of the system of the chronokratores allows us to glimpse one way in which the raw data of the traditional horoscopes, which essentially present the planetary positions at birth, could have been used. That is, these positions would have informed the arrangement of the sequence of chronokratores, which in turn could predict more specific aspects and moments of a person’s life than the general characteristics assigned by the constellations of celestial bodies at birth.

In a forthcoming article in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, within the framework of the Zodiac project hosted in the Institut für Wissensgeschichte des Altertums, I publish an extensive Greek horoscope on papyrus from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus in the Roman period. But it is a „horoscope“ only in the broad sense: it is surely the work of an experienced astrologer, but it does not in fact tell us anything directly about the moment of a client’s birth, but rather gives detailed predictions for this person’s life, at least as far as early adulthood (where the papyrus breaks off), based on the cycle of the chronokratores. This post focuses on another refraction of the celestial chronokratores „on the ground.“ In a papyrus codex of some 36 folia (PGM IV), probably part of an archive of magical and alchemical manuscripts owned in the region of Egyptian Thebes in Late Antiquity, mixed in among rituals for divine revelation, exorcism, and adjuration of supernatural entities for various purposes, we find an excerpt from what must have been a longer sequence of predictions from the course of the chronokratores in the lifetime of an anonymous person. It would be tempting to place that person in turn somewhere in the textual tradition of this codex: the owner, for whom it was copied (if not in fact the copyist), or the owner of an older manuscript that served as source for part of this compilation and copying? The excerpt begins at the age of 53 years, 9 months, which is precisely the start of the sixth 129-month period of a lifespan. The period as a whole is assigned to Mercury, with subdivisions for the standard lengths of months to Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, in that order. For the subdivisions assigned to the Sun, Mars, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, short forecasts are added: in the first, the individual is encouraged to „undertake that which you seek“ (sc. to do; or understand perhaps, „what you are asking about“), and in the rest simply advised whether the time is „good“ or „bad.“

Bibliothèque nationale de France cod. suppl. gr. 574 (PGM IV), f. 10v. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

In this context we can also observe the integration of astrological doctrines, but of the catarchic or judicial as opposed to natal branch, with magic in Egypt of the Graeco-Roman and late ancient periods. This is a ritual handbook in the form of a papyrus book-roll (PGM VII: for images see here) roughly contemporary with the Theban codex. Among contents broadly similar to the latter, we find a lunar calendar for the timing of the sorts of ritual procedures generally found in the codex, structured on the principle of the zodiac: that is, for example, when the Moon is in Sagittarius, it is a good time to make invocations to the Sun and Moon, when it is in Aquarius and Aries, to perform various kinds of love-magic, or when it is in Gemini and Cancer, to undertake rituals to win favor and produce amulets, respectively. This same manuscript also coopts the Greek names of the zodiac signs, along with associated occult names and pictorial signs (charakteres), as talismanic elements to be inscribed in a ritual for obtaining a significant dream in oneiromancy (dream-divination). The appearance of astrology within the magical papyri raises the question, which calls for further study, of the relations between „magicians,“ that is, practitioners of the individualistic, instrumental religion of the rituals attested in handbooks like the two discussed here, and astrologers. Could these two sets of personnel have overlapped in part, or could they have exchanged technological expertise in the form of technical literature?            

The ultimate origins of the chronokratores, as those of not a few other astrological concepts with wide later currency, remain to be elucidated. We hope to shed further light on such questions in the course of the Zodiac project, testing among other things the claim by Hephaestion of Egyptian origins and comparing this system in detail with the idiosyncratic lifetime-periodization of the „Old Coptic Horoscope“ of 95 CE. The implication of the chronokratores and of the zodiac in the complexities of knowledge transfer, and of the wider landscape of religion and culture, in Graeco-Roman and late ancient Egypt already suggests interesting results for the history of knowledge.

Text by Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer, Freie Universität Berlin, ERC-Projekt „ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation“.

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