VRS Alumnus Dr. Mathieu Ossendrijver Receives Grant for Research on the Cross-cultural Transmission of the Zodiacal Astral Science in Ancient Cultures.

By Hannah McDonald

Previous ISAW Visiting Research Scholar, Mathieu Ossendrijver, is a historian of science and Assyriologist and a researcher in the DFG Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe 2615 "Rethinking Oriental Despotism"; (Fachbereich Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften). Dr. Ossendrijver's project about the cross-cultural transmission of astronomy and astrology in antiquity has received an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council (ERC) amounting to 2.5 million Euros over five years, as announced by the ERC on 31 March 2020. ERC Advanced Grants enable established scholars to carry out pioneering research. The title of Dr. Ossendrijver's project is "ZODIAC - Ancient Astral Science in Transformation.“ At its center is the cross cultural transmission of the zodiac and related innovative astronomical and astrological practices, theories and imagery between Babylonia, Egypt and the Greco-Roman world from the 5th century BCE until the 3rd century AD.

The introduction of the zodiac triggered an ultimately global and enduring transformation of astral science and other realms of scholarship which took shape in Babylonia, Egypt and the Greco-Roman world between the 5th century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The zodiac became the central concept for interpreting, predicting, computing and representing celestial phenomena. The associated “mathematical turn” has shaped scholarly and cultural practices ever since and horoscopic astrology is omnipresent around the globe. While originating in Babylonia, zodiacal astral science was transformed through interactions with Egyptian, Greco-Roman and other ancient cultures. Due to its entanglement with social practices, religious doctrines, philosophical theories and iconographic traditions, this is an innovation that shaped science and culture globally but lacks a satisfactory explanation.

The aim of the project of Mathieu Ossendrijver is to reconstruct and explain the spread of the zodiac and the associated practices and theories. How did these innovations emerge and transform through cross-cultural transmission? How could they take root in Egypt, the Greco-Roman world and other ancient cultures? What explains their enormous succes? In the project ZODIAC an interdisciplinary team of researchers will try to answer these questions with the hypothesis that zodiacal astral science offered universally appealing, adaptable solutions to social, religious and political needs that emerged in multi-cultural empires.