Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.17

Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum, The Daimon in Hellenistic Astrology: Origins and Influence. Ancient magic and divination, 11.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xxvi, 573.  ISBN 9789004306202.  $241.00.  


Reviewed by Nicholas Campion, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (n.campion@uwtsd.ac.uk)

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Dorian Greenbaum’s study of Hellenistic astrology is the latest in a field that is remarkably neglected, considering the central role that astrology occupied in all levels of Hellenistic culture, from street to temple and court. Her work forms part of what is an even smaller body of work, dealing with astrology’s internal history (its own cosmology, techniques and theory of personality) rather than externals (such as social and political uses). For Greenbaum Hellenistic culture is characterised by the use of the Greek language in the classical world which she extends up to the sixth and early seventh centuries, when the production of astrological texts effectively ceased, with the exception of a horoscope cast for Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in 905.

Greenbaum’s focus is the daimon, that ill-defined entity which occupied the Hellenistic cosmos, played a role in individual lives, and comprised a central part in the astrological diagnosis of destinies. The daimon, Greenbaum writes, is multivalent, and may appear in different contexts as demon, spirit, genius, personality, destiny and power or, even, she adds, as fate. There is also, we might add, some overlap with soul.

The book is clearly structured in three parts, with ten chapters, and an introduction and conclusion. Although in many instances this subject does not lend itself easily to separate chapters, Greenbaum has successfully identified separate themes. Chapter 1 introduces views outlined by Plutarch and the astrologer Vettius Valens, in which the daimon exists in tertiary providence, affording a degree of choice within astrological fate. Chapter 2 provides some cultural background and deals with the daimon’s benign astrological role in the fifth and eleventh places (modern houses) in the horoscope. By analysing these places, mainly through related planetary positions, it would have been possible to identify the potential areas of good fortune. Chapter 3 considers Egyptian and Babylonian antecedents, particularly a fascinating account of the god Shai, who played a role in the fate given at birth. Chapter 4 examines the bad daimon, the ancestor (or cousin, perhaps) of the demons of the Jews and Christians, who was revealed through the sixth and twelfth places of the horoscope. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 (Part 2) examine the daimon in Gnosticism and Mithraism, the Magical Papyri and Hermetica, and Neo-Platonism and Porphyry. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 (Part 3) deal with Lots, mathematical points in the horoscope calculated by adding the positions of any two points and subtracting a third (p. 365). One of these is the Lot of Daimon, the meaning of which was elucidated by Valens: he claimed that together with the Lot of Fortune, it could indicate the length of life. A concise and helpful conclusion is followed by over eighty pages of appendices.

The bulk of the book consists of close textual analysis. It is difficult to think of an extant source which Greenbaum has not used—her citation index occupies seventeen pages. Indeed, it is likely that she has used every source available. The obvious risk in such an approach is a tendency to overwhelm the reader with information. Greenbaum avoids this trap with her fluent writing and commentary. In the background, constantly, is the notion of the soul’s ascent and descent through the planetary spheres in Plato’s myth of Er. The daimon connects individual to cosmos, and so to divinity; this is an important feature of astrology as an early system of psychological analysis. Greenbaum cites Olympiodorus (c.495-570) on individuals born with Mercury and Saturn in the sixth and ninth places: they are, Olympiodorus wrote, ‘malicious and envious and…are intimately connected with vices or infirmities’. Thus astrology could outline possible futures, answer questions about the timing of events, assist in the management of time, and also, through a system of personality analysis, enable self-awareness. In this sense, it was pivotal to the requirements of the Platonic teaching that fate can be negotiated through self-understanding.

Greenbaum is perhaps the first historian of Hellenistic astrology who is also skilled in the calculation and interpretation of horoscopes. She suggests (p. 3) that this gives her an advantage for two reasons: first she is able to spot nuances in astrological interpretation and technique and, second, she is alert to astrology’s philosophy, challenging the critical claim that astrology is fatalistic in the hard deterministic sense of predicting futures from which there is no escape. She returns to her historiographical argument in her conclusion; her closing sentences criticize, with justification, the marginalisation of the history of astrology, whether for religious, philosophical, or scientific reasons. Her book, she states, is an attempt to rectify this situation, and her scholarship will be impossible for future writers to ignore, whether they study astrology in particular or classical culture in general.

Greenbaum’s intimate knowledge of the subject sets her apart from two of the main traditions in astrological historiography, Franz Cumont’s religious framework and overt hostility to astrology, and Otto Neugebauer’s analysis of astrology as an adjunct to the history of mathematics that is of no interest in itself. Greenbaum is closer to the methodological neutrality of Roger Beck, for whom astrology is to be understood on its own terms, and her understanding of its technical processes and philosophical perspectives is clearly considerable.

The book is well laid out, as one would expect from Brill, and I found no typos or factual inaccuracies, further evidence, I suggest, that the book has achieved a new level of excellence in the subject area.

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