Petosiris, Pseudo-

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(fl. Egypt, second and first centuries b.c.)


During antiquity several texts relating to divination and astrology circulated under the names Petosiris and Nechepso. Nechepso is the name of a king whom Manetho included in the twenty-sixth Egyptian dynasty (ca. 600 B.C); and the most famous Petosiris was the high priest of Thoth (ca. 300 B.C. [?]),1 although many others bore this name signifying “Gift of Osiris”. Whether the author of the works circulating under their names had these two individuals, or some others, in mind we cannot know.

The fragments of these works, which were collected by E. Riess,2 fall into four main groups: (1) those using astral omens as developed by the Egyptians in the Achemenid and Ptolemaic periods from Mesopotamian prototypes to give general indications; (2) those derived from a revelation-text in which Nechepso the king, guided by Petosiris, sees a vision that grants him a knowledge of horoscopic truth; (3) a treatise on astrological botany for medical purposes and another on decanic medicine; and (4) treatises on numerology

(1) The fragments of texts employing astral omina are largely from authors of late antiquity: Hephaestio of Thebes (fl. ca. 415), Proclus (410–485), and John Lydus (fl. ca. 560). As preserved to us, the fragments represent radical reworkings of the original texts. It is those fragments, and especially fragment 6 (Riess), which C. Bezold and F. Boll3 saw to be related to Mesopotamian texts and that allowed Kroll4 to date the original to the second century B.C. The fragments belonging to this text5 use as omens eclipses, the heliacal rising of Sirius, and comets. Fragments 66 uses as omens the color of the eclipsed the heliacal rising of Sirius, and comets. Fragment 6 uses as omns the color of the esclipsed body; the simultaneous occurrence of winds blowing from th several directions and of shooting stars, halos, lightning, and rainl and the presence of the eclipsed body in each of the signs of the zodiac (a substitution for Egyptian months). Fragment 6 also divides the day or night into four periods, each of which has three seasonal hours. Most of these elements are found in the demotic papyrus published by R. A. Parker,7 and many of them in the relevant tablets of the Sin and Shamash sections of the Babylonian astral omen series Enũma Anu Enlil.

Fragment 88 summarizes a similar treatment of eclipse omens from Campestrius, “who follows the Petosirian traditions.” Fragment 7,9 also on eclipse omens, seems to be from another but still ancient source in which the scheme of geographical references was rather strictly limited to Egypt and its neighbors in contrast to fragment 6, where the eclipses affect the whole Eurasian continent.

Fragment 1210 gives annual predictions based on the situation at the heliacal rising of Sirius, including the positions of the planets and the color of the star and direction of the winds; it is to be compared to the demotic papyrus published by G. R. Hughes11 and also with “Eudoxius”12 and Pseudo-Zoroaster.13 In the middle of Hephaestio, I, 23, is a description of the manner in which the effective force of the planets is transmitted through the spheres to the sublunar sphere. This passage presupposes both Aristotelian physical theories and a planetary system based on epicycles, eccentrics, or both. If the passage is a genuine quotation form a text written in the second century B.C., it is of the greatest interest as providing the earliest evidence known to us of a theory of astral influence. The fragment contains other elements of interest to a historian of horoscopy—for example, a categorization of the planets as malefic or benefic and the use of aspects. But these elements may have been added by Hephaestio or some unknown predecessor, or the whole chapter may have nothing to do with the work published under the names of Nechepso and Petosiris.

Very doubtful indeed is the attribution to that work of fragments 914 1015 and 11.16 The ominous bodies are the comets, of which there was originally one type associated with each of the planets. Such comets of the planets are found also in early Sanskrit astral omen texts (for example, in the Gargasamhitã), but we have as yet no cuneiform tablets that would give us a common source. In any case, there is little reason to assign these specific fragments to Nechepso and Petosiris

Perhaps also forming a part of the astral omen texts are two other sets of fragments dealing with problems that interested the earliest men who attempted to convert general omens into ones significant for individuals and who used Babylonian techniques. These two problems are the date of a native’s conception17 and the computation of the length of his life based on the rising times between the ascendent and the nonagesimal.18

(2) The horoscopic text includes all of the passages from Valen’ Anthologies (I give the references to the edition by W. Kroll [Berlin, 1908]) and some from Firmicus Maternus. In it Nechepso saw a vision,19 which included a perception of the motions of the planets that is redolent of pre-Ptolemaic astronomy. He described what he had learned from this revelation in at least thirteen books of very obscure iambic senarii. As we know the ideas there expressed only through the dim intellect of Vettius Valens, we are not surprised to find the “mysteries” largely either self contradictory or too fragmentary to be comprehended fully. Some passages in Valens20 indicate that he knew of a separate work of Petosiris (entitled Definitions) in addition to that of Nechepso, to whom he usually refers as “the king,” although in another place21 he speaks of “the king and Petosiris” together. several passages22 contain quotations from “the king’s “ thirteenth book.

Among the principal astrological doctrines discussed by Nechepso and Petosiris in the poetic work (or works) available to Valens are the computation of the length of life of the native;23 the calculation of the Lot of Fortune, which is also used in computing the length of life;24 the determination of good and bad times during the native’s life, based on various methods of continuous horoscopy (the planetary periods, the lord of the year, and the revolution of the years of nativities); 25 dangerous or climacteric times;26 and various aspects of the native’s life: travel,27 injury,28 children,29 and death.30 It is probable that Firmicus Maternus drew upon this same collection for his references to Petosiris’ and Nechepso’s geniture of the universe,31 his statement that Petosiris only lightly touched upon the doctrine of the decans,32 and his denial that Petosiris and Nechepso dealt with the Sphaera barbarica. Add also the discussion of initiatives in Julian,33

(3) Nechepso is known as an authority on materia medica (plants and stones) under astral influence.34

(4) The numerological treatises are of two sorts, both explained in a letter of Petosiris to King Nechepso, which is extant in numerous recensions. The simpler form utilizes only the numerical equivalent of the Greek letters in the querist’s name; the second form utilizes the day of the lunar month and the “Circle of Petosiris.”35 Another numerological text, which is based on the zodiacal signs, occurs in a letter addressed to Nechepso.36

The significance of Pseudo-Petosiris’ works (esp. 1 and 2) is their illumination of—although in a very fragmentary form—two important processes of Ptolemaic science: the development of the astral omens that the Egyptians of the Achemenid period had derived from Mesopotamia, and the invention of a new science of astrology based on Greek astronomy and physics in conjunction with Hellenistic mysticism and Egypto-Babylonian divination from astral omens. The effect of their teachings on their successors was profound, although the primitiveness of their methods meant that only their heirs of a mystic (Valens) or antiquarian (Hephaestio and Lydus) bent cite them in detail. That influence is acknowledged not only in the fragments mentioned above, but also at various places in the important Epitome Parisina37


1. G. Lefebvre, Le tombeau de Petosiris, 3 vols. (Cairo, 1923–1924).

2. E. Riess, “Nechepsonis et Petosiridis fragmenta magica,” in Philologus, Supplementband 6 (1892), 327–394, to which many more fragments could be added.

3. C. Bezold and F. Boll, Reflexe astrologischer Keilinschriften bei griechischen Schriftstellern (Heidelberg, 1911).

4. W. Kroll, “Aus der Geschichte der Astrologie,” in Neue JahrbÜcher fÜr das Klassische Altertum, Geschichte und Deutsche Literatur, 7 (1901), 559–577, esp. 573–577.

5. Frs. 6–12 in Riess, some of which are very dubious.

6. Hephaestio, I, 21, who attributes the material to the ancient Egyptians; another version, using Roman months rather than zodiacal signs, was published by F. Boll, in Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, VII (Brussels, 1908), 129–151.

7. R. A. Parker, A Vienna Demotic Papyrus on Eclipse and lunar-omina (Providence, 1959).

8. Lydus, De ostentis, 9.

9. Hephaestio, 1, 22.

10. Hephaestio, I, 23, who attributes it to the ancient, wise Egyptians; ef; Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, V, pt. 1 (Brussels, 1904), 204

11. G. R. Hughes, “A Demotic Astrological Text,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 10 (1951), 256–264.

12.Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, VII, 181–187.

13.Geoponica, I, 8 and I, 10 = fr. 0,40; and fr. 0,41 in J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les mages hellánisás, II (Paris, 1938), 178–183.

14. John Lydus, De ostentis, 11–15, from Campestrius.

15. Hephaestio, I, 24.

16. Servius, In Aeneidem, X, 272, who follows Avienus, but also mentions Campestris (sic!) and Petosiris.

17. Fr. 14; cf. Achinapolus in Vitruvius, De architectura, IX, 6,2; Pseudo-Zoroaster, fr. 0,14 Bidez-Cumont, II, 161–162; and A. Sachs, in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 6 (1952), 58–60.

18. Frs. 16 and 17 and also fr. 5 (Valens, III, 16) and Valens, III, 3, and VIII, 6; cf. Berosus, frs. 32 and 33 in P. Schnabel, Berossos und die babylonisch-hellenistische Literatur (Leipzig—Berlin, 1923), 264. Also see Hephaestio, II, 18, 72 (this quotation does not include the important fragment of the Salmeschoeniaca, II, 18, 74–75), and Pliny’s report of their computation of the distances of the planetary spheres (fr. 2). This last may belong to 2.

19. Fr. 1; Valens, VI, preface.

20. Valens, II, 3; VIII, 5; IX, 1.

21.Ibid., VII, 5; cf. III, 10.

22.Ibid., II, 3; III, 14; IX, preface; IX, 1.

23.Ibid., III, 10 = fr. 18, which gives a computation based on a point computed similarly to a Lot and entirely different from the method employed in the passages we have assigned to 1.

24. This is given in Nechepso’s thirteenth book and in Petosiris, Definitions; Valens, II, 3; III, 14 = fr. 19; IX, 1.

25. Valens, V, 6 = fr. 20 and VII, 5 = fr. 21; cf. III, 14; VI, 1.

26.Ibid., III, 11 = fr. 23.

27.ibid., II, 28.

28.Ibid., II, 36; cf. fr. 27 from Firmicus.

29.ibid., II, 39.

30.Ibid., II, 41 = fr. 24.

31. Fr. 25, where they are correctly stated to be drawing on an Hermetic source; cf. lest. 6.

32. Fr. 13, but cf. fr. 28.

33.Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, I (Brussels, 1898), 138. (I doubt the authenticity of the brief statement about quartile and trine aspect published in Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, VI [Brussels, 1903], 62.)

34. Frs. 28–32 and 35–36; the latter two, drawn from the work of Thessalus, should now be consulted in the edition of H.-V. Friedrich (Meisenheim am Glan, 1968); cf, also Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, I, 126.

35. Frs. 37–42; see also Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, I, 128; IV (Brussels, 1903), 120–121; XI, pt. 2 (Brussels, 1934), 152–154, 163–164; Pseudo-Bede in Patrologia Latina, XC, cols. 963–966; and cf. Psellus in a letter published in Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, VIII, pt. 1 (Brussels, 1929), 131.

36.Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, VII, 161–162.

37.Ibid., VIII, pt. 3 (Brussels, 1912), 91–119.


Aside from Riess’s collection of fragments, the main study of Pseudo-Petosiris is C. Darmstadt, De Nechepsonis-Petosiridis Isagoge quaestiones selectae (Leipzig, 1916); unfortunately, he attributes to Nechepso-Petosiris far more than the evidence of the fragments warrants. Rather unsatisfactory arlicles are W. Kroll in Pauly-Wissoa’s Real-Encyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 16 (1935), cols. 2160–2167; 19 (1938), col. 1165; and W. Gundel and H. G. Gundel, Astrologumena (Wiesbaden, 1966), 27–36.

David Pingree