It seems likethat there should exist a very simple and straightforward answer to that question. But I am not so sure there is.
The history of astrology
In a very, very brief abstract of the history of astrology, we could say that there are four great periods in western astrology.
1- Babilonic origins.
Everything in the period babilonic is very speculative. Yes, we have some tables, but this is very far away from saying that we really can understand what the priest did just based on them. What we know is that they didn´t have the signs, and worked mainly with the night sky, with a astrology mainly based on omens.
Everything in this period, including the astrology of the egyptians, etc, is basically a question mark and a lot of guesses.
2 – The horoscopic revolution.
The greeks created the first great revolution in astrology, with the creation of horoscopic astrology. A lot of things that we are so used now were the creation of the greeks, attributed to a few mystic holy men like Hermes Trimegistus:
- The division of the ecliptic in 12 equal parts (the signs), with no relation to the constellations (which are irregular)
- The general symbolism of the 7 planets
- The division of topoi (themes) to each one of the signs, counting them from the ascendent (the whole houses)
- Several of the “arabic lots” are really helenistic, the main ones being the part of Fortune, Spirit, Exaltation, Basis, Nemesis, Eros, Victory, Necessity and Courage.
It is important to note that Ptolemy was not an example of this astrology. In fact, his astrology is very unique, and is very likely that he didn´t read a lot of other works, and that none of the other authors have read ptolemy. You can see interesting comments on this theme in this interview with James Holden.
3 – The Arabic revolution
When the greek civilization start to fade, the ones who preserve it were the Muslims. Although many of these books were not from the arabic culture or religion, they preserved the books with great care. Au contraire of the westerns, who even today like to burn books that we disagree with, e.g., Harry Potter.
In this period, we had the combination of the Greek, Indian and Persian astrology. Concepts merged, techniques flourished. Names like Abu Mashar, Mashalah, Ali-Khayat, Sahl Ibn Bishr, etc, wrote important works that were transfered to Europe in the Medieval Period. Some parts of the works of later european astrologers, from Bonatti to Ramesey, are almost verbatim extracts of this arabic work.
4 – Renaissance
The renaissance astrologers created another revolution, but for different reasons. After so many centuries of conflicts with the Islam, prejudice against arabic astrology was very high. Besides that, renaissance astrologers were also very affected by the new culture of science and capitalistic revolution.
Then when renaissance astrologers rediscovered Ptolemy, many concluded that the “original” astrology was that from the Tetrabiblos, and that everything that was not in the tetrabiblos was an invention from the arabs. So, many things, from the arabic parts, to horary astrology, start to being rejected.
And later, with the scientific revolutions, astrologers like Kepler and John Dee started to invent their own interpretation of astrology, creating their own rules as they wrote.
From 18th to 19th century, astrology almost disappeared as a knowledge. It were removed from colleges and was no longer a field of study to the educated elites, just a superstition. Even the “astrologers” didn´t have any real knowledge of their field.
Besides other authors like Raphael and Sepharial, it is Alan Leo that established many of the concepts that we now recognize as modern astrology. But, even in a book from Alan Leo, the reader can recognize a level of technical depth that is very rare in today´s books of astrology.
Some of the characteristics of modern astrology that arose in this time:
- The focus changed from prediction to “psychological assessment” (even because there were several laws against fortune telling)
- Some concepts were simplified for massive consumption (like the “astrological alphabet”)
- People didn´t have any of the older texts. For the great majority of astrologers in the 20th century, authors from the 19th century were already considered like “ancients”.
- You can invent what you want. You don´t have to read anything before you, because astrology is a “language”.
So, what is traditional astrology ?
Traditional astrology is a very loose term to identify astrology before the 19-20th centuries. But, in general, I think it is better to identify the time period of the concept/technique you are using. A technique like temperament may have had several modifications through the centuries.
Was there a golden age?
By this little abstract you can see that Astrology changed through time because of several factors. Translation problems, cultural differences, mix of techniques. But was this an evolution or a decaying of traditional astrology, similar to what happened in the 20th century?
I defend that many of the things were a evolution. For example the arabs took several things from the greeks, and modified some. Some astrologers defend that they “misunderstand” the greeks. I don´t think so.
- Unlike the 20th century astrologers, the arabs studied the ancient with great care, and were very respectful before changing anything. You can read in Abu Mashar several considerations that came from Valens.
- Many claim that the arabs didn´t have the complete texts, but we really don´t have any clue what kind of oral knowledge was available to them. Valens explains the use of profections but he doesn´t claim to be their inventor, but to have learned them from an astrologer from egypt/persia. Even today jyiotish astrology is more based on oral tradition from teacher to student.
- They created new techniques and concepts that were not available in earlier times. Most of mundane astrology were created in this time, using some common foundations from the greeks.
So, in the 8th century we have a very different situation in the astrological revolution than we have today. Astrologers were working within the tradition, they were not inventing their way to search for some ego trip or to sell a book. Astrologers had a deep knowledge of their tradition before trying to create anything. There is an “astrologer” who wrote an article defending that William Lilly based his profections on the tarot cards! This just say about the incredible level of lazyness, lack of technical knowledge, intellectual honesty and even lack of character, of several members of the astrology community.
My point is that it is possible to work within the tradition to create new knowledge that is, by essence, traditional astrology, even if constructed by contemporary hands. The history of astrology show that this was the way of great part of our tradition! But how to do that, and not to create horrible chimeras, like in the example of the “tarot” profections, it is to be discussed in a later time.