Astrology and the Purposes of Archaeoastronomy

In the early period of Mesopotamian history, various deities were identified with celestial objects, particularly the planets, or "wanderers" as the Greeks called them, moving against the pattern of the fixed stars in ways that seemed strange and unpredictable. The assumption that these erratic movements were due to the self-determination of the bodies seems to have been made at an early date. It was likewise assumed that Sun, Moon, Venus, and others were interested in human affairs and interfered with them. As long as such movements were considered self-motivated and largely unpredictable, it was possible to assume that the planets were gods, intervening capriciously in human affairs, influenced by offerings and prayers. As careful observation began to make the movements of these "gods" more predictable, a mechanistic view of their activities became possible. From this, astrology arose as an essentially antireligious reaction against the view that the gods interfered in human activities. Astrologers did not go so far as to deny the effects of the heavenly bodies, but instead insisted that they were predictable and universal. The attitude of many of these early astrologers had more science in it than was acceptable to the religious establishments of their time. Lindsay (1971) is the fullest summary we have seen of the development of astrological conceptions and the changing role that they had in the Mediterranean society from about the 6th century b.c. to about 300 a.d. He emphasizes that the only consistent opponents of astrology were the Epicurean philosophers and that the Stoics tended to be the strongest defenders of astrology. Politically, only Julius Caesar among the Roman emperors seems to have scoffed at astrology. His successor, Augustus, was a believer in astrology; symbols associated with his birth were imprinted on coins. The major differentiation among groups of astrologers seems to have been between those who believed that astrological factors merely influenced human actions, allowing some room for free will, and those who thought that astrological determinations were inevitably followed by the appropriate result. The latter may have believed either that stars or planets directly caused the result or that the astral bodies merely supplied omens of a higher "fate." The differences in astrological beliefs were partially crosscut by two opposing views: that the stars were "divine intelligences," in Cicero's words; or that they were parts of an essentially rigid mechanism.

Politicians,15 or at least the historians who reported their deeds, frequently held the view that the stars influenced behavior. We have discussed at length the importance of such views in many cultures. Nevertheless, there were many civic and canon laws16 against astrology, which indicates that belief in it was widespread. The reasons to discourage such belief are not difficult to fathom. It was treasonable, for instance, to ask an astrologer the date of death of an emperor. Fatalistic acceptance of what was deemed an inevitable defeat in battle would have to be avoided at all costs.

Astrology has traditionally dealt with the belief that the movements of the planets influence events on Earth. The belief is still with us, and it seems to be as popular as ever. Personal astrology, examples of which are found in most newspapers under "horoscopes," operates under the assumption that the planetary configurations at the time of the birth of an individual in some way determine that individual's prospects and fate. Most newspaper horoscopes refer only to the astrological signs associated with birthdates and not to the circumstances of any particular year of birth. These can be considered primitive forms of horoscopes; the casting of more elaborate types has been carried out since the 5th century b.c. or earlier in Mesopotamia. The heliocentric advocate and pioneer of modern astronomy, Johannes Kepler, cast horoscopes for the generals of the Holy Roman Empire as part of his duties as Imperial Math

15 Among modern heads of state, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan seems to have taken advice from an astrologer. Of course, royalty has traditionally done so.

16 Canon XXXVI of the Synod held in Laodicea (in Phrygia Pacatiana) sometime between 343 and 381 a.d., for example, states in part that "They who are of the priesthood, or of the clergy, shall not be magicians, enchanters, mathematicians, or astrologers." The 12th-century Byzantine historian and commmentator on the canons, Joannes Zonaras, argued that the "science of mathematics or astronomy" were "not at all hereby forbidden to the clergy" but only the "excess and abuse of that science" (Percival 1899, p. 151).

ematician. Today, most respectable scientists take a dim view of such activity, and astrology has come to be the arch representative of pseudoscience. Given the "prophecies" of the newspaper "horoscopes," one could infer that the same specific actions will occur to all of the many millions of people born under each of the 12 signs. What makes this appealing? Perhaps astrology appeals to those who feel helpless before the complexities of modern science and society because they see astrology as an outside force that affects the most powerful individuals as much as themselves. The weak, therefore, are relieved of some degree of responsibility for their actions.

At the beginning of the 2nd century, many scholars were still attacking astrology vigorously. By the end of the 2nd century, it had been so widely accepted that only its nature was any longer a subject of lively intellectual debate. This seems to have been due to the influence of Ptolemy's Tetra-biblos. Although the authorship of the Tetrabiblos has occasionally been challenged by modern scholars, Boll's (1894) defence has generally been accepted. Ptolemy's astrology was based on concepts of physical causation and empiricism and is probabilistic rather than deterministic. He argued that generic effects on the environment are both more far reaching and more easily determinable than are effects on individuals, using the example of the effects of the "planets" Sun and Moon emphasizing differences in different geographic areas of the effects of heat and tides. These influence human behavior both racially and individually. However, multicausational results are determined by the whole environment, including astrological events, modified by individual heredity (as we would phrase it) and the sociocultural trained behavior within the particular society. Ptolemy thought that some events, such as fatal illnesses, were so clearly indicated as to be inevitable, whereas others were merely probable and could be avoided through luck or foreknowledge, leaving room for a judicious use of free will. For specific effects, he appealed sometimes to theory, and sometimes to recorded experience in known situations. He discussed at length the conflict between an astrology based on the signs of the zodiac and one based on the equivalent constellations. His influential opinion favoring the use of the signs may have been the principal factor making this a dead issue for nearly all astrologers until the 20th century, when it again became a central point of disagreement. Finally, he deplored the fact that incompetence among astrologers caused damage to the whole field among critical thinkers. This presentation answered the majority of objections, which could have been made against astrology at that time. Now we consider present-day objections to astrology, and whether it should continue to be studied at all.

There are such abundant reasons for modern readers to be sceptical about astrology that the enlightened reader may be surprised to see them enumerated here. Yet, the continued popularity of the subject indicates an important need to do so. At the end of the 20th century, it has been said, there were ten times as many people studying astrology as there were studying astronomy. Clearly, astrology speaks to the human psyche in some persuasive way. So, are there any plausible bases for astrology?

The appearance of the sky and the objects in it have certainly influenced human behavior. Moreover, physical and physiological changes can occur simply as a result of photons of light striking the eye. The psychological effects of the appearances of astronomical, meteorological, geological, and other phenomena on human behavior are palpable, but even if there were demonstrated to be a correlation between human behavior and the seasons,17 the influences of planets have never been demonstrated satisfactorily. The reactions therefore range from using the stars for navigation to enjoying a romantic interlude under the stars. Hence, astrologers could argue, the planets do have influences of some kind on people. We must be willing to concede that the very visibility of a phenomenon means it exerts an influence on its human observer, but presumably this is not the kind of compelling influence for which personal astrologers would like to argue.

Now let us consider arguments against astrology. First, determinative and prescriptive planetary or astral astrologies are without any known physical basis. The relative gravitational forces of each planet are indeed negligible on the Earth, as the reader can readily verify by comparing the ratio of the mass of a planet to the square of its distance from Earth to the same ratio for the Sun, M0/r02 (where M0 is the mass of the Sun and r0 is its distance from Earth), remembering that the most massive planet is Jupiter with a mass of only ~O.OO1M0. The tidal forces (which are proportional to 1/r3) caused by the other planets on the Earth are so minuscule compared with the dominant tidal effects of the much nearer Moon and very much more massive Sun that, to our knowledge, the tide-raising forces of the planets have not yet been verifiably detected at the Earth's surface. Electromagnetic field effects also go as the inverse square of the distance and are similarly unimportant. The empirical effects of magnetic fields have also been investigated. In "The Jupiter Effect," Gribbin and Plagemann (1974) argued that correlations existed between the position of Jupiter and the number of Sunspots (connected to the 11-year cycle on the Sun) and the frequency of earthquakes. That there are links between the solar cycle and terrestrial weather patterns continues to be argued because of the complexity of the problem, but the connection between planetary positions and earthquakes has been thoroughly examined and found not to be significant. Consequently, the Gribbin-Plagemann thesis has been refuted, and its authors have retracted it. The only influences that are unmistakable are due to the radiation of the Sun and the tidal influences of the Sun and Moon. Thus, there is a lack of a clear mechanism to effect the planetary influences. In an ancient context, such a response was not available and the planetary influence thesis had to be countered on other, principally empirical grounds. It was on these grounds that Augustine, among others, attacked astrology.

Second, the arguments that certain human behaviors or dispositions toward behavior are correlated with

17 It is not beyond the realm of possibility that someone experiencing rainy, cold, or other conditions for the first few months of life would be inclined to look at life differently than would someone else experiencing contrasting conditions. However, as far as we know, there are no data to substantiate this idea.

positionings of particular planets are entirely unverified, Ptolemy's defence notwithstanding. The complexity of human behavior makes it extremely difficult to correlate human activity in any simple way with astronomical phenomena.18 Indeed, most scientists argue that there is no basis for any such correlation with planetary phenomena. Studies have been cited (Bok and Jerome 1975) that claim that there is no statistical difference in the "average" destiny of persons born at certain times of the year (although rival claims are sometimes advanced). A great deal of literature contrasts the greatly different lives and fortunes of people born at the same hour of the same day. An early example is that of St. Augustine [354-430] in the Confessions, in which the fates of two persons—one rich and one poor—born on the same day are compared. The results in this case are exactly what one would predict: a mean and miserable life for the slave, and a prosperous and happy life for the wealthy person. Because such circumstances occur frequently given our planet's huge population, the conclusion that horoscopic astrology is determinative, is, in fact, being refuted continually, even if Ptolemy would not have regarded this as refutation, and, inevitably, exceptions arise.

Third, a major point of criticism has been the attitude of astrologers toward their subject matter. For example, astronomy, as a modern science, is characterized by constantly changing views as new data challenge old ideas and cause their alteration. Most astrologers have preferred to deal with a fixed set of rules, and their efforts, as such, have been directed not toward revealing the true nature and structures of the cosmos, but in trying to divine signs for human beings in the motions of the planets.

Finally, horoscope and individual predictions can be dangerous if they are accepted as guides for personal actions because a belief in their efficacy can limit one's actions when flexibility may be required. They can even be catastrophic, when, for example, they are accepted and acted on by heads of governments.

Nevertheless, although it is useless as a guide to modern living, astrology as a historical topic is far from worthless, because, as we have demonstrated, astrological concerns provided motivation for much officially sanctioned study of the sky in antiquity and even more recently.

Historically, astrology may have arisen from logical considerations. One of the seven classical planets of antiquity has a very strong effect on humanity and on all life on earth, viz., the Sun. More prosaically, the Sun provided time and calendar information through its movement across the sky and its rise and set points along the horizon. The Moon's light has been useful, particularly at high-latitude locations, in winter, and its behavior in the sky with respect to the tides is important for sailing coastal waters. The many myths associated with the Sun and Moon around the world underscore both their symbolic and physical significance. The planets, especially Venus, had important calendrical influences, and the stars provided time, calendar, and navigational aid. But even in its historical context, many leading figures recognized astrology as unreliable in regard to predictions and encouraging escape from responsibility and legitimate action that the circumstances of life continuously demand.

Of course, we are mistaken if we believe that those who carried out observational and calculational astronomy of the past because of nonmodern motivation were less observant, intelligent, or sane than are their modern counterparts. They included, after all, such prominent astronomers as Claudius Ptolemy and Johannes Kepler, and indeed many astronomers in between. They were merely steeped in the presuppositions of their times, just as we are in ours. Their work continues to have value, despite the nature of their astrological beliefs or activities, because of the careful attention they brought to their astronomical work.

Much of the ancient world believed that the stars revealed the destinies of the great. We do not have to share that belief to recognize the impact that it has had not only on the monuments people have left behind, but also on their lives and, ultimately, on ours.

More broadly, whether astronomically related ideas were spread largely by diffusion across cultures, or arose by parallel but independent processes, the many similarities we have explored imply a deep resonance between cosmic themes and human thought, and the expression of this resonance from culture to culture may be the most profound purpose to archaeoastronomy.

18 It is interesting to point out, however, that if a people of a certain country, in Southeast Asia, say, were to be at war with a western power, and if their activities were in any way guided by astrological predictions, the western military authorities would ignore the astrology of its adversaries to its peril.


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