Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations


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S: Pioneer Western Constellation Studies

43: Wilhelm Gundel's Sterne und Sternbilder im Glauben des Altertums und der Neuzeit

Wilhelm Gundel. From memorial volume Wilhelm Gundel, zum Gedächtnis (1947).

Cover page of a printing of Sterne und Sternbilder im Glauben des Altertums und der Neuzeit by Wilhelm Gundel (1922). Note: The cover title is Sterne und Sternenbilder im Glauben des Altertums und der Neuzeit whilst the title page is Sterne und Sternbilder im Glauben des Altertums und der Neuzeit.

Wilhelm Gundel (26/8/1880-5/5/1945) was a renowned German classical philologist who specialized in the history of ancient astronomy and astrology (and alchemy). (Wilhelm Gundel and later his son, Hans Gundel devoted their scholarly research activities almost exclusively to the history of ancient Western astrology.) Wilhelm Gundel was born in Straβburg and died in Gieβen. It is sometimes stated incorrectly that he died 6/5/1945. His career was closely associated with Gieβen (also spelled Giessen or Gissen).  He studied at the High School in Mainz and at the Universities of Heidelberg and Gieβen. He received his PhD in 1905 (some sources have 1903) from the University of Gieβen. It was published (in Latin) in 1907 as De stellarum appellatione et religione Romana. In 1914 he completed his Habilitation (teaching qualification (involving writing another thesis and giving a presentation), university level) with his thesis on Ananke and Heimarmene, a detailed examination of the historical development of Ananke (and Heimarmene). (Published in 1914, Beiträge zur Entwickelungsgeschichte der Begriffe Ananke und Heimarmene. According to Gundel's definition anankē (= necessity) is "a natural force which with compelling necessity brings atoms to swirling motion and is the cause of all coming-to-be.") He was a specialist in Greco-Roman and Egyptian astral-lore and wrote prolifically on these topics. During his career he published over 100 papers and (encyclopedia) articles. Many of his articles appeared in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. In 1920 he became an associate professor at the University of Gieβen, and at the time of his early retirement he was a Professor at the University of Gieβen. From 1906 he also taught at the High School in Gieβen (Gieβen Gymnasium) where he was a senior teacher ("Oberlehrer"). His academic career was spent studying ancient astronomy and astrology. He prepared the 3rd edition (1931) of Sternglaube und Sterndeutung by Franz Boll and Carl Bezold (an uneven but excellent short introduction to ancient Western astrology).

Giessen (spelled Gießen in German) is a small town in central Germany approximately 50km north of Frankfurt am Main. The river Lahn in Giessen divides the town in two parts (west and east). It appears he may have lived in Marburg at one time. In one of his books he wrote "Gundel, Marburg, 1926." Marburg is a small University town. It is also on the river Lahn.

Also academically connected with the University of Gieβen, at the same time as Wilhelm Gundel, was the classical philologist Hugo Hepding (1878-1959), and the classical philologist Karl Kalbfleisch (1868-1946). From 1913 Karl Kalbfleisch was "ordentlicher Professor für klassische philologie an der Universität Gieβen." He was also academically connected with the Gieβen Hochschule. (It appears both Gundel and Hepding, from 1921-1924, assisted with academic presentations when Kalbfleisch was ill.) Another classical philologist and ancient historian at the University of Gieβen was Andreas Thierfelder (1903-1986). He was "ordentlicher Professor in Gießen (1941–1943) und Mainz (1950–1971) wirkte." 

The Nazis had his teaching position revoked (but I have no knowledge of the date). (The issue may have been his non-compliance with/opposition to Nazi ideology and/or Nazi views on ancient history.) In 1934 he took, or - because of political circumstances - was made to take, early retirement. He used his early retirement to conduct research work. (During his whole academic career he was kept busy by research.) However, it appears that he was, at the recommendation of Andreas Thierfelder, appointed Honorary Professor (University of Gieβen) sometime in the early 1940s.

By circa the mid 1930's the Nazi regime began initiating a range of often brutal police actions against the German occult movement. Occult teachings were declared illegal. The Nazi regime censored occult publications and took a range of actions against occult activities (and deemed occultists). Police actions against occult activities were first particularly vigorously implemented in 1937 and then again with a second vigorous and brutal crackdown starting June 1941, in the aftermath of Rudolf Hess's flight to Britain. A few months after the start of the second crackdown, SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) (Head of the Security Police, and Chief of The Security Service of the Reichsführer-SS (Sicherheitsdienst; (abbreviated SD)) from 1931(1932?) until 1942), relaxed the initial order sufficiently to allow certain deemed occult texts like Wilhelm Gundel's historical study Sternglaube, Sternreligion, und Sternorakel (Belief in Stars, Religion of Stars and the Oracle of Stars) to be removed from the 'black list.'

Towards the end of World War II he was detained and mistreated by the Gestapo. One source states this led to his early death. However, according to Wolfgang Hübner (Universität Trier), after a serious illness Wilhelm Gundel died on 5.5.1945 and was buried in the Old Cemetery (Alter Friedhof), Giessen. The Old Cemetery was created in 1530 and is now also a park.

A small (xxii + 47) memorial volume (Wilhelm Gundel, zum Gedächtnis (1947) was printed. It contains 3 of Wilhelm Gundel's articles from Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, an evaluation of his scientific work by Albert Rehm, a biography by his son Hans Gundel, and a list of his publications (and also a portrait photograph). It is now rare as only 400 copies were printed. Relevant key publications include Sterne und Sternbilder im Glauben des Altertums und der Neuzeit (1922), Dekane und Dekansternbilder (1936), and Neue Astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos (1936). Neue Astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos was reprinted in 1978 with corrections and additions by his son Hans Gundel. Hermes Trismegistos is the Hellenistic rendering of the Egyptian god "Thoth, the thrice great." Thoth was the Egyptian god of learning. Incidentally, the famous Egyptian astrologers Nechepso and Petosiris are undoubtedly instances of pseudepigraphy. Petosiris, the owner of the famous tomb in Hermopolis is not to be identified with Petosiris the astrologer.

Wilhelm Gundel's academic work focused on ancient astronomy and astrology. Both Wilhelm and his son Hans Gundel devoted their entire scholarly life and research activities to ancient astronomy and astrology. (See: "Nachruf auf Hans Gundel." by Andreas Mehl in Gnomon, Band 73, Pages 279-281.) Wilhelm Gundel devoted his scholarly career/research activities almost exclusively to the early history of descriptive astronomy (star/constellation lore and astral beliefs) and astrology. To some extent he was assisted by his son Hans Gundel. His son Hans Gundel. (1912-1999) was a renowned German papyrologist. He was Professur für Alte Geschichte, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gieβen. (The library of this university was completely destroyed by bombing during World War II.) Relevant key publications include Zodiakos (1992).

In his Sterne und Sternbilder im Glauben des Altertums und der Neuzeit (1922) Wilhelm Gundel comprehensively surveys ancient star beliefs and astrological beliefs. His popular work, Sternglaube, Sternreligion und Sternorakel: Aus der Geschichte der Astrologie (1933, 2nd edition 1959) is an excellent survey of early astrology.

In his book Neue Astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos [New Astrological Texts of Hermes Trismegistus] (1936) Wilhelm Gundel published the text of a Latin Renaissance manuscript containing the Latin translation of Liber Hermetis Trismegisti [Book of Hermes Trismegistos], an early astrological document, and accompanied it with his brilliant/penetrating commentary and analysis of its content and importance. The Liber Hermetis Trismegisti is an astrological compilation translated from the Greek of the Alexandrian period. Some parts of it can be traced back to the 3rg- or even 4th-century BCE. (Gundel found the Book of Hermes Trismegistos in the late Latin manuscript Codex Harleianus held by the British Museum. (= MS Harley 3731)) The astrological manuscript was probably written circa 1431 CE and is a conglomeration of older astrology-related treatises. "No one knew about any other volumes of the work, though the fact that it had a wide circulation in the Middle ages is proved by the fact that there remains a version of an important chapter written in Picard dialect. This was to be found in a Parisian volume originally written for Marie of Luxembourg (who died in 1324). (Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life by Eugenio Garin (1983, Page vii).)"

The astrological writings pseudonymously attributed to Hermes Trismegistus are thought to have been composed in Alexandria by a Greek, who was strongly influenced by Jewish traditions. The earliest date assigned is circa near the end of the 1st-century CE. The writings focus upon the late Egyptian idea that stellar gods (decani) control the 360 degree zodiacal circle, influencing all terrestrial events on a daily basis.

Gundel established that parts of the text were a translation of Greek astrological literature of the 3rd-century BCE.  He also established the text contains a number of Hipparchan and even older ecliptical longitudes of stars. The text is loosely structured through chapter titles. Especially interesting is the 3rd chapter. Chapter 3, entitled "De stellis lucidis et qualitatibus signorum," concerns 68 bright stars, distributed over the entire sky, with coordinates which are usually ecliptical longitudes. (Because it is an astrological text Gundel proposed that 72 stars were contained in the original text (source document) as a doubling of the 36 decans of the zodiac discussed in the first chapter of the text.) This listing of 68 bright stars distributed over the entire sky date to the time of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus (2nd-century BCE). The origin of the star list is connected with the star catalogue established by Hipparchus (and some stars listed might even pre-date it). Gundel, believed that the Book of Hermes Trismegistos was a translation of a Greek original, the archetype of which dated to the Ptolemaic period. However, David Pingree, the outstanding historian of early astronomy and astrology, disputed this. Whilst Pingree (on the basis of astronomical calculations) agreed with Gundel that the essential part of Chapter 3 dates from 130 to 60 BCE, he showed that Chapter 25 is based upon astronomical observations dating to circa 480 BCE. Pingree also showed that Chapter 27 and Chapter 32 overlap with Firmicus Maternus (Roman astrologer, 4th-century CE) and that both must be translating from the same Greek source. (See: David Pingree, Yavanajātaka of Sphujidhvaja, 1978, Volume 2.)

Gundel's Dekane und Dekansternbilder (1936) was detailed investigation of the decan tradition in early astrology, and his belief for its Egyptian origins. "Gundel's analysis showed the importance of the Liber Hermetis for the reconstruction of ancient astrology, from the doctrine of the thirty-six divine decans, which divide the 360 degrees of the sphere, to the numbering of the seventy-two fixed stars which seemed to be connected with Hipparchus's catalogue. (Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life by Eugenio Garin (1983, Page viii).)" Wilhelm Gundel was an authority on the decans and decan images. Gundel was criticised for over-emphasising the Egyptian influence on the development of Hellenistic astrological beliefs. He denied any substantial Babylonian influence on Hellenistic astrology and held that Egyptian mythology was the main influence. This position arose from his recognition of how little is actually known about Babylonian astrology. Interestingly, in his book, L'Egypte des astrologues (1937) Franz Cumont attempted the experiment of translating the astrological theme of the Liber Hermetis, and the documents linked to it (Latin and Greek astrological texts, from Vettius Valens to Firmicus Maternus), into rigorous anthropological terms and construct a picture of the social and moral conditions of Hellenistic Egypt.

Gundel also published two bibliographical works of importance, Astronomie, Astralreligion, Astralmythologie, und Astrologie. Darstellung und Literaturbericht, 1907-1933, in Bursian's Jahresberichte for 1934, and, in collaboration with his son, Hans Gundel, Astrologoumena: die astrologische Literatur in der Antike und ihre Geschichte (1966). The latter work is basically an annotated list (discussion) of the key astrological works known from classical antiquity.

Wilhelm Gundel had the scholarly habit of heavily annotating all of his personal copies (handexemplar = personal copy or work copy) of his publications. These annotations amounted to corrections, revisions, and additional information. These were likely utilised by Hans Gundel when preparing reprint editions.

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