Astrological Concepts in Ancient Greek Folklore – The “Keares”!

The ancient Greeks were energetic, optimistic and fun loving people. They were very pious and spiritual as well! Their attitude towards destiny was an advanced and rather modern one. Not only they deeply believed in destiny but they had developed some elaborate theories, myths and overall a particularly rich literature about it! When we come down to astrology, they did not conceive one, but they amazingly conceived certain so-called “proto-astrological” views.

Actually, the ancient Greeks were using a very descriptive and fascinating term for destiny. They used to call it: «HEMARMENE». Well, that’s a term we cannot easily render in English. You see, the word «hemarmene» is the present perfect participle of the verb «Meiromai», which means: «from a dividable whole I am taking a particular portion that has been exclusively allotted to me». «Hemarmene» then is «that particular set of experiences that has been predetermined to occur to each one of us, for some deeper purpose».

This deeper purpose was defined by the Greeks as «NECESSITY» (“Ananke” in Greek). The law of ananke – necessity was above every other law. “Even the gods don’t fight against ananke” they used to say. But if the law of «Necessity» was omnipotent, man was powerful too (and this fact alone differs «Hemarmene» from «Kismet» or from any other kind of “destiny”). To the Greeks, each man was a unique, autonomous, highly valued «unit», a unit that almost rivaled the Gods!

Man however was but a part of a greater whole, a part of a process in evolution. Necessity is an almighty power that imposes specific, individual destinies to each man, so that the totality of these destinies pays tribute to the evolution of the «Whole». We indeed encounter here some original and advanced ideas, which are largely shared by our modern astrological worldview too. Thanks to these ideas the road was somehow open to astrology, in the ancient Greek world. Maybe we begin to understand now the fact of the rapid diffusion of astrology in Greece, soon after the military expedition of Alexander the Great in Mesopotamia.

The way was already paved centuries ago, as the Greeks profoundly believed in a predetermined by a superior force destiny – from the very beginning of their history. They would not take any important step unless they were first assured that the “geist” was propitious to them (and by “geist” I mean the moment, the place, the people, the overall conditions etc.). Thus, they were continuously studying the omens to find whether destiny was in their favor or not. And they were so obsessed with it that they often journeyed hundreds of kilometers, in order to reach the two famous oracles of “Delphi” and “Dodona” and learn about their future. Predicting the future somehow became a holy art to them.

So, even if astrology was not indigenous, the soil in Greece was fertile for its diffusion. Actually, the widespread concept of «Hemarmene» immensely facilitated the introduction and diffusion in Greece of a doctrine that apparently was worshiping the stars – and thus was initially regarded by the rational Greeks as barbaric. But astrology soon became rife in this ancient land, bringing forth radical changes in Greek culture. Already in the 3rd century BC the Stoics were regarding «Hemarmene» as an astrological rather than as a religious – theological concept.

All in all, the Hellenistic Greeks had developed a very propitious to astrology philosophical frame and an “astrology-friendly” general outlook on life. And this they achieved having no actual astrological background at all, led only by their advanced awareness and penetrative logic!

Before proceeding, I have to admit here that this is a new field and much research has to be done in the future. I personally drew my conclusions mainly out of the work of the famous English archeologist and author Jane Harrison. Harrison studied attentively some secondary figures in ancient Greek folklore called «KEARES» («KEAR» in its singular form). Some «Keares» are represented on ancient Greek pots and urns and most of them look like fast-paced feathered women, like ugly fairies or some sort of giant bees bearing a human face. Very similar to the Keares seem to be the so-called “Harpies”.

A pair of  Harpies

The ancient Greeks had a very strong tendency to «anthropomorphize» everything! They were actually attributing human characteristics to their gods, to invisible entities, even to abstract concepts!  No surprise then that they had “anthropomorphized” even the viruses and the “bad vibes”!

For instance, when someone was falling seriously ill in ancient Greece people would say: “s/he has been possessed by the “Keares””. And with the word “Keares” they did not mean some kind of demons. They rather meant microorganisms or viruses! Surprisingly enough, the Greeks had invented a virus concept two thousand five hundred years ago!

Furthermore, the Greeks had «anthropomorphized» even the vibrations of each elusive moment! According to the ancient Greeks, when we experience some dark, “heavy” and bad moments it is because the “Keares” have intruded the place we are in, festering the atmosphere! And as long as they are present, every ongoing moment becomes unpropitious and adverse and things get really precarious!

The Keares are not necessarily bad. Good Keares exist as well. We might say that the Keares somehow represent the good or the bad astrological influences of the moment. There is ample testimony of this in certain preserved ancient pots and urns with Keares depicted on them. These depictions elucidate pretty well the nature of the Keares.

Hercules slaying a Kear

The figure you see above is easily recognizable, I think. He is the famous hero and semi-god Hercules! As you can see, he is about to slay a strange creature, which actually turns to be a Kear! This Kear has a grotesque, ugly face and can be taken either as a virus or a “bad vibration”, a bad moment. In both cases, Hercules eliminates the virus – or the negative vibration.

There is often an interchange between the “Keares” and the “Harpies”. The following representation (taken from a vase)  is depicting a scene from the famous banquet that the blind prophet Fineas held in honor of the Argonauts. According to the story, everything was flowing smoothly at this banquet when suddenly some “Harpies” invaded the hall and festered the atmosphere. You can notice Fineas on the very right, lying stunned on his couch, while two good daemons (or “Boreads”) are chasing away the Harpies, brandishing their swords.

The famous Fineas banquet (with the “Harpies” on the left chasen away by the Boreads)

Luckily for us, the ancient Greeks were one of the most civilized and cultured ancient people. They bequeathed to us a plethora of works of art and literature, so we have today a clear picture of their culture and folklore. And sometimes, as we browse their enormous inheritance, we stumble upon true “gems”. You may see below, for example, an amazing scene hinting to astrology. It is a scene painted on an ancient Greek vase and it depicts one of the most dramatic scenes of  the famous Homeric epic of Iliad. Achilles and Hector are dueling to death, while god Mercury stands amidst them balancing on a scale the influences of the fleeting moment, in order to decide whose soul he should escort to the underworld!

God Mercury weighing the fate of each warrior

If we observe well this picture then we will notice that on the plates of the scales (held by god Hermes/Mercury) there aren’t the usual weights but two Keares instead! These Keares represent the current Hemarmene of each hero, the way he is fatally related to the “spirit” of the ever shifting moment (that now becomes victorious and now becomes deadly to him). Thus these two Keares on the scales might very well represent the natal charts of the two heroes and their current “transits”!

Apart from the Keares, another astrology related figure in ancient Greece might be the wine god Dionysus. Historians and archeologists agree that Dionysus and Orpheus (with the latter probably being another  personification of Dionysus) are the most enigmatic gods in the Greek Pantheon. We know for sure that Dionysus was the god of nature’s «Augmentative Force», the god that was assisting beings and plants to grow, prosper and thrive. Thus, Dionysus personifies life’s vital forces. The remarkable thing is that the Greeks used to represent Dionysus in four distinctive forms: one as a bull, one as a lion, one as a snake or an eagle and one as a drunken, joyful man!

Tim Shaw’s modern sculpture of a Dionysian frenzy (Dionysus depicted as a Bull)

Now, obviously, these four representations have something to do with the four zodiacal signs of the fixed cross (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. The Eagle stands for Scorpio since it is his alternative occult symbol while the slightly drunken – and thus somehow transcendental – and euphoric man stands for Aquarius).

What is the deeper meaning behind all this? Today we know that the determination of the year’s duration was of paramount importance to ancient people (think only of Stonehenge). In remote antiquity, equinoxes and solstices were taking place in the constellations of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. Thus, these four constellations were considered by the archaic people as the four «portals» that are opening the respective seasons.

The concept of the «four portals» is central to the teachings of the prominent 20th-century astrologer – philosopher Dane Rudhyar, as well! Rudhyar posits that the four fixed signs represent the release of the four fundamental universal powers:

«the power released toward the formation of an individual being (Taurus), the power released by the individual being (Leo), the power released toward the formation of the universal being (Scorpio) and the power released by the universal being (Aquarius)».

My own hypothesis is that Dionysus personifies these four distinctive universal powers, so depending on the occasion he is represented by one of the aforementioned “zodiacal” images. Oddly enough the same theme of the four fixed signs is repeated in the gospels and in Byzantine icons, with the four apostles taking, in this case, the part of Dionysus.

The four “beasts” of the gospel

With what we have said so far, it becomes obvious that the Greeks had developed a philosophy and a religion that comprised many astrological (in essence) concepts. Although astrology was not rife in Greece until the third century BC we have indications that certain Greeks were thinking astrologically already back in the so-called archaic period!

Take Homer, for example. In many of his verses (written around the 8th century BC) he emphasizes the fact that the destiny of each man is predetermined. But what really surprises is us is a particular verse, where he literary makes a rather astrological statement!
Homer actually writes:  

«Then among them, wise Polydamas was first to speak, the son of Panthous; for he alone looked at once before and after. Comrade was he of Hector, and in the one night were they born: howbeit in speech was one far the best, the other with the spear»!

(the translation: courtesy of  the “Perseus Tuft” project)

Although I do not exclude the possibility of this “same night  birth” of Hector and Polydamas having some simpler, “hemerological” connotation (people born on the same calendric day sharing same fates), it seems an astrological statement to me. You see, Homer was born in Ionia, Asia Minor, in an area that had straight ties with both the Middle East and Mesopotamia (where astrology was rife).

This Homer’s “astrological” statement is not the only one we encounter in the archaic Greek literature. The Orphic Hymns (written even before Homer’s epics – but comprising certain subsequent additions) include several astrological hints. In the «Hymn to the Stars» for example, there is a verse that goes:

«Oh stars, you that determine the fate of everything!»

Don’t you think that this is an astrological statement? A statement made more than 2500 years ago…

The important fact is that the Greeks – although they never developed a proper «astrological body of knowledge» – they had conceived astrological concepts long before astrology’s official diffusion in Greece.

Thomas Gazis
Copyright: Thomas D. Gazis

(This article is an excerpt from the lecture that Thomas Gazis gave at the international Astrology conference of Arousa – Spain in June 1998).

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