I get a lot of questions from readers, and most of the time, the answers are fairly short. When I feel the question or the reply would be valuable to others as well, I make a post with a collection of them and post them in one go. Today is one of those posts.

"Did the ancient Hellenists believe in astrology?"

I think you're talking about divination by the modern zodiac. Well, the modern zodiac is a mix between Babylonian astronomy, Hellenic thinking, Egyptian horoscopes, and good old Roman ingenuity. The division of the ecliptic into the zodiacal signs originates in Babylonian ("Chaldean") astronomy during the first half of the 1st millennium BC; the ancient Babylonians made the division into twelve equal 30º arcs, assigned each month to a sign, and set the starting point of the zodiac at the position fixed stars in the sky. They were the ones who set Aries as the starting point of the zodiac.

Astrologer and astronomer Ptolemy, whose work I based my Constellation Series off, had a huge impact on the zodiac. Under the Hellenes, and Ptolemy in particular, the planets, Houses, and signs of the zodiac were rationalized and their function set down in a way that has changed little to the present day. Ptolemy forever cemented the stories behind the signs, and he also un-fixed them from the sky: instead of the Babylonian ecliptic system, he adopted what we now call the 'tropical' system.

The classical zodiac was introduced around the seventh to the sixth century BCE. At the time, the precession of the equinoxes had not been discovered. Classical Hellenistic astrology consequently developed without consideration of the effects of precession. The discovery of the precession of the equinoxes, is attributed to Hipparchus, a Hellenic astronomer active around 130 BC. Ptolemy, writing some 250 years after Hipparchus, was thus aware of the effects of precession. He opted for a definition of the zodiac based on the point of the vernal equinox, i.e., the tropical system. This shift means that the start of the zodiac is now always at the same time, even if the constellation associated with the zodiac sign is not yet showing. Currently, this means that the tropical sign of Aries lies somewhere within the constellation Pisces. Fun, right?

The zodiac can be used as the foundation of many things, including divination--something done by the ancient Hellenes. I doubt the ancient Hellenes drew horoscopes or the intricate maps we do to describe a person based on their date and time of birth, but the ancient Hellenes realized that this ever-turning wheel in the sky had an impact on them--or could perhaps explain a bit about them. Elements were already assigned to the signs at that time, of this we can be relatively sure. Ptolemy used them, at least. He also laid the groundwork for character traits associated with the signs today.


"I have a question regarding prayer. I am in my GCSE's, some of the most important exams I will ever take and i have been praying to Athena and burning a candle an incense for her regularly for wisdom and guidance in my exams. However, I am used to being able to pray anywhere, more specifically in my exam desk right before I start. Is it possible for me to simply close my eyes and pray to Athena for help right before and exam like I did in my more Christian days or is this not really an accepted form of prayer."

Generally speaking, you can't have a prayer without a sacrifice, and I'll explain why before trying to help you find a way around it. Probably the best definition of 'prayer' I have ever happened upon was by William D. Fuley, who says: "prayers (and hymns) are attempts by men and women to communicate with gods by means of the voice". It is simple, elegant, and accurate. Especially in the ancient Hellenic religion, it was important to raise one's voice when hymns were sung, and especially so when prayers were made.

I am going to generalize here and say that a hymn was sung to the Theoi, with the aim to please the God in question. They have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning contains two things: a note that the hymn is about to begin, and an announcement of whom the speaker/singer is addressing. The middle part tends to focus on why the God or Goddess in question is not only the best in solving the problem that will be posed to Them later on in prayer, but why they are the best, period. The end is a prayer onto itself. The surviving hymns often conclude with a call to the deity in question to listen to the request that follows, and to grant it, should They be so inclined. 

Hymns were sung to please, to bring forth. It was a way to celebrate the Deity in question, but also to make Him or Her more inclined to grant the following request. Hymns were accompanied with music and dancing; they were true celebrations in that regard. They were performed to establish existing kharis and built upon it.

A prayer was carefully formulated to convey a message as persuasively as possible to the God, and was thus often spoken. The idea was not to please, but to request. They made use of the established and just now strengthened kharis to petition the Gods for aid. Where the hymn is an offering to go along with material sacrifice, the prayer is not an offering at all.

Hellenic prayer and hymn-singing is not a private thing; unlike the Christian type of praying we are used to today--a praying that is intimate, calm, and very much private--the Hellenic form of praying did and does everything it can to draw attention to itself as a public display. It is a form of heightened expression which claims the attention of a God. Hymns are a means to get a divine spotlight upon you, because without it, your prayer will fall upon deaf ears. This is why hymns and prayers always go together in the typical structure of (ancient) Hellenic ritual: one is useless without the other.

Ancient Hellenic prayers were made standing up, with arms raised. If you were the one pouring libations, the arms needn't be raised as high, but the libation-bowl was poised. For the Ouranic deities, the palms faced upward, to the sky. For the Khthonic deities, the palms faced downward, to the earth. To both, the voice is raised, so as to draw as much attention as possible.

As you can see, a traditional prayer is not an option for your situation. So, here is my best solution: You said you already perform small sacrifices too Athena (in this case) to aid you during your exams. Good! That satisfies all of the above parts. Now what you want is to try to get Athena to lay Her hand upon you while you do your tests, not when you do the sacrifice. What I would suggest is adding, during your prayer after your sacrifice, the time and place of your exam. Ask Her to come to you then, and tell Her how She can find you. Take, for example, a necklace with a symbol of Her (an owl, perhaps) and tell Her you'll rub it while whispering Her name in prayer. Promise Her you will sacrifice to Her as soon as you can after the exam. Make sure you perform that sacrifice! A promise made is a promise to be kept! This way, you make a promise to Athena, and She will know when and where to find you when you need Her most.

I hope this helps you, and I wish you all the best on your tests!