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Heliodora, First Known Hellenistic Woman Astrologer


When discussing ancient astrology, the question often arises as to the names of women astrologers. Until a few days ago, sadly I could not say as there was no documentation of any women who practiced astrology in the Hellenistic era. This is no longer the case. An image of a woman named Heliodora sculpted upon a funerary stele was recently published in an academic journal.* It contains an inscription in Greek:

 “Heliodora, astrologer, chaste, without reproach, virgin, brother-loving, about 52 years old. Be of good courage.” 

This is the first known instance of a woman in the Greco-Roman world being designated an astrologer. And it marks an inception for discovering and reclaiming other women as part of a female astrological lineage.

The stele is dated to 2nd-3rd century, and comes from Terenouthis, a village at a critical junction in the Egyptian Delta on the roads from both Alexandria and Memphis leading to the western desert. Heliodora, (from the Greek words helios and doron, meaning gift from the Sun), is depicted reclining upon a couch and is represented in both Egyptian and Greek motifs. Her hair style is Egyptian, a head- wrap with braids or curls behind her ears that fall over her shoulders and her clothing is a chiton and himation, typical Greek dress. She holds a cup extended towards a statue of a jackal, sacred to Anubis the Egyptian god of the underworld. 

The authors point out that during this time period it was unusual for a person’s occupation to be mentioned on their funerary stele, as well as for a woman to be unmarried. I can’t help but speculate that if she is chaste, without reproach, and virgin (maiden) at that age may suggest that she was a priestess or else had dedicated her life to her astrological practice. Knowledge of astrology was often passed down through families of astrologers by apprenticeship to a parent. Heliodora must have exceptional in her stature to warrant being immortalized as an astrologer, an unmarried woman without reproach. 

Heliodora lived during the same time as Vettius Valens. I wonder if Valens, in his treks across the Egyptian desert looking for learned teachers from whom to discover new timelord methods, came across Heliodora and her family. This possibility begs a historical fiction novel about an earnest itinerant astrologer seeking the key to secret teachings from a woman whose family is steeped in the Egyptian-Greco hermetic astrological wisdom – someone he loves but cannot have.

*Bagnall, Roger S., “The Funerary Stele of Heliodora, Astrologer.” MVSE, vols. 53 & 54, pp 29-68. (article sent to me from Chris Brennan).

Podcast Interview with Demetra on Heliodora and Early Women Astrologers