Astrology

To a modern astronomer, astrology is anathema. The idea that there can be any direct connection between the configuration or appearance of distant heavenly bodies in the sky and current or future events in the terrestrial world flies in the face of laws of physics that have been established beyond question over many centuries. This is not to deny that in a few cases an astrological relationship might actually have a physical basis: some claim, for example, that a correlation can exist between the growth of plants and the phase of the moon, because the level of moisture in the soil is related to the lunar phase through a tidal effect.

From the perspective of the archaeologist or anthropologist, whose ultimate interest is in human behavior rather than the laws of the universe, whether such an argument is scientifically verifiable or not is not the point. What interests these scientists is the fact that people throughout the ages have drawn direct connections between the appearance of the sky and events on earth, and that this forms an integral part of their understanding of how the world works. Even in the modern Western world, popular astrology represents a widespread perception of how celestial events influence terrestrial ones and challenges the "institutional" view represented by scientific astronomy. Modern astronomers may dismiss astrology as nonsense, but the direct associations it presupposes between celestial and terrestrial events may well be far closer to the ways people throughout history have managed to make sense of the world than the explanations provided by modern science.

Outside the Western scientific tradition there is no meaningful distinction between astronomy and astrology; indeed, archaeoastronomy might equally well be named archaeoastrology. Modern indigenous worldviews (cosmologies) commonly feature the idea that good fortune on earth depends upon keeping human action in harmony with what is happening in the skies, and there is every reason to assume that this has been true since early prehistory.

The term astrology can be applied to three rather different but not entirely separable ways in which people have perceived connections between the configuration of the heavens and events on earth: the belief that particular celestial configurations can portend future events; the belief that they can determine or influence the characteristics and lives of people, most commonly at their moment of birth; and the belief that they are directly connected to (that is, influence and/or reflect) current terrestrial events. Each type of perceived connection could provoke a variety of actions in response to certain observed celestial events.

The belief that what is seen in the sky may foreshadow the future—typ-ically stemming, as for the ancient Greeks, from a belief that it can indicate the intentions of the gods—underlies celestial divination: the use of observations of sky phenomena to predict future earthly events. Such a belief is very widespread in human history. Unique, unexpected, and imposing events such as solar and lunar eclipses were widely seen as portents of disaster. But more regular celestial events also indicated auspicious or inauspicious times for planting crops, having children, going to war, and so on. In city-state or empire, astronomers and astrologers were employed to identify good and bad omens for the benefit of their nations and their rulers. This happened in ancient Babylonia, China, Greece, and Rome, as well as in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Observation was followed by prognosis (interpretation) and then by action (prescription). A good example of celestial divination is found in the early Chinese artifacts known as oracle bones. Oracle bone inscriptions (a subset of which relate to astronomical observations) followed a prescribed format: a preface describing the action taken by the diviner was followed by the resulting prognostication and then by a verification describing what actually came to pass.

Predictability did not necessarily detract from the divinatory power of a celestial event. The motions of the five visible planets are regular and predictable, though quite complex. Planetary astrology, which can assign div-inatory significance to the cycles of appearance of particular planets as well as to their positions with respect to the background stars and constellations and even to one another, extends back to Babylonian times. The Maya went to extraordinary lengths to reduce the workings of the cosmos to a series of interacting regular cycles. The Dresden Codex—a surviving almanac containing tabulations of the cycles of appearance of the moon, Venus and possibly Mars, and even of lunar eclipses—seems to have been an attempt to make the various motions of the heavenly bodies predictable. In doing so, the Maya reached a remarkable level of mathematical sophistication, yet their ultimate motive seems to have remained divinatory. For the ancient Chinese, on the other hand, predicting celestial events through systematic observations and recording fell within the domain of calendrics. This discipline acted almost independently of, and in some senses in competition with, astrology. Here, once lunar eclipses began to become predictable around the year 0, they lost their divinatory significance.

The idea that people's lives can be permanently influenced by the ce-lestial—and particularly the planetary—configurations at the moment of their birth is one of the defining characteristics of modern astrology, and also one that modern scientists find particularly indigestible. (It should be said that planetary birth charts go far beyond, and are considerably more complex than, the popular perception of horoscopes based solely upon the sun's position within the zodiac at birth ["birth sign"].) Planetary birth charts have their origins in ancient Babylonia and reached an apex in Greece and Rome. When astrologers began to generate horoscopes, this fundamentally altered their role. Instead of observing the skies and waiting for calamitous astronomical events, they were now required to work out planetary configurations at specified moments in the past, something that demanded considerable technical skill. Given the particularity of the idea of the planetary birth chart as against the myriad ways one might envision the influence of the celestial bodies on human lives, it is surprising that the practice has proved so persistent.

Insofar as it maintains that a person's destiny is determined or influenced by the configuration of the heavens at the time of their birth, horoscopic astrology is actually a form of divination. It also introduces awkward issues about free will: if one's fate is already sealed, there seems little point in trying to alter it. However, variants are evident in modern folklore that largely overcome this problem. Thus in the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia, well into the twentieth century, it was commonly believed among rural communities that the phase of the moon at birth influenced various aspects of a person's character—their propensity to strength or timidity, cleverness, long life, a joyful or gloomy disposition, and so on. But such characteristics could be modified throughout life by choosing, for example, the correct phase of the moon for weaning, baptism, marriage, or building a house.

The most fundamental connection between objects and events in the sky and those on earth that we might term astrological relates to the here and now. Belief in the direct interconnectedness of things is evident among modern indigenous communities and surely extended far back into prehistory. Modern examples include the Barasana of the Colombian Amazon, who understand that the celestial caterpillar causes the proliferation of earthly caterpillars; the Mursi of Ethiopia, for whom the flooding of the river they call waar can be determined, without going down to the banks, by the behavior of the star of the same name; and those native Hawaiians who still carry on the ancient practice of planting taro and other crops according to the day of the month in the traditional calendar (i.e., the phase of the moon). The extent to which such mental connections might be considered astrological is arguable, but if our interest is in the practices themselves, and what was going on in the minds of the people who practiced them, then the question is largely irrelevant—as irrelevant as the question of which practices might have a rational basis in modern scientific terms. What one might choose to term science and what one might choose to term astrology are both rather subjective in the context of an alternative rationality, and the distinction between them is certainly meaningless.

See also:

Archaeoastronomy; Cosmology; Lunar Eclipses; Science or Symbolism?; Solar Eclipses.

Babylonian Astronomy and Astrology; Barasana "Caterpillar Jaguar" Constellation; Chinese Astronomy; Dresden Codex; Hawaiian Calendar; Mesoamerican Calendar Round; Mursi Calendar; Roman Astronomy and Astrology; Star of Bethlehem.

Inferior Planets, Motions of; Superior Planets, Motions of.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Conversing with the Planets, 128-177. New York: Times Books, 1992.

Campion, Nicholas. The Great Year: Astrology, Millenarianism and History in the Western Tradition. London: Arkana/Penguin, 1994.

Kasak, Enn. "Ancient Astrology as a Common Root for Science and PseudoScience." Folklore 15 (2000), available electronically at http://www.folk-lore.ee/folklore/vol15/ancient.htm.

Ruggles, Clive, Frank Prendergast, and Tom Ray, eds. Astronomy, Cosmology and Landscape, 158-166. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, 2001.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 1-31. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 443-452, 509-553. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

Swerdlow, Noel M., ed. Ancient Astronomy and Celestial Divination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

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