An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies
Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z
astrology The actual beginnings of astrology are lost in history. From the Old Babylonian period (1800-1700 B.C.) we have the first records of attempts to correlate such simple, basic problems as famine, death, or war with the positions of the stars and planets. These records were kept over a wide range of territory, from what is now Turkey to Iraq and Iran. The “Venus Tablets of Ammisaduqa,” recording the motions of the planet Venus, were themselves copies of earlier observations made in the time of King Ammisaduqa, tenth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon, circa 1626 B.C.
In the earliest times, omens derived from astronomical observations were applied solely to the rulers or to matters of public welfare; it was some time before other, ordinary individuals were permitted, by law, to have forecasts made for them. In Rome, astrology was so popular at one period that Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. - A.D. 14) forbade its use as too dangerous to the proper conduct of government.
Astrology was, in its beginnings, a genuine search for knowledge——an attempt to find, in the configurations of the stars and planets, some meaning for humans that might enable them to ascertain something about the future, as if that future were written, obscurely but gloriously, in the heavenly patterns that nightly present themselves to observers.
Only five planets——Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—— were known to the early observers. Since they were named after gods and were believed to represent the actual bodies of the gods, the movements of those objects against the background of mythical figures represented by the constellations seemed important. It was that relationship of god to “sign” that was the basis for the notion that the fortunes of humanity were to be found by examining the night skies.
There were two divisions to astrology at first. Horary astrology dealt with measuring motions of the stars and planets and thereby predicting their configurations. This division eventually grew into astronomy. Horary astrology was essential for performing the second type, judiciary astrology, the popular aspect that offered——and still offers——predictions and trends to the clients.
Such a notion is seductive because it seems to make life simpler. It attributes everything from interpersonal relationships to the destiny of nations to the stars. It appears to eliminate the understandable confusion offered by life, confusion created both by the advances of new technology and by highly specialized knowledge that are beyond the reach and comprehension of the average person, and it seems to remove the need for personal responsibility, handing it all over to fate but allowing a glimpse into the future that might provide some advantage.
A medieval illustration of the correspondences between astrological signs and parts of the human body.
Today, though we now understand much more about the true nature of the starry universe, many individuals still cling to the medieval notion that earthly events in their individual lives may be predicted from observations of the skies performed by experienced——and perhaps inspired——practitioners of astrology.
This belief even extends into governmental offices, as in India, where in all walks of life astrology is taken quite seriously, to the point that a prominent Indian science adviser once complained to the American ambassador to India that a primary problem for his department was that they lacked a sufficient staff of competent astrologers. Even in the U.S. White House, a president and his first lady were actually arranging their official and personal schedules in accordance with the calculations of an astrologer who was retained by them. Prince Charles of England, a devout believer in many strange matters, has had his birth sign (Scorpio) worked into the design of his crown that he wears as Prince of Wales.
Astrology has invariably failed to meet not only the practitioners' expectations, but any other simple test of the most basic effect, though the contrary is widely claimed by the believers.
“Sun Sign” astrology——the kind that is found in the newspaper columns——may say that for one-twelfth of the entire population of the world, today is “a good day to pursue new fashion ideas” or that another twelfth of humanity will find this a day to “act boldly on property investments.” These probabilities would apply whether the reader is a Maori lawyer, an Irish fisherman, or a Peruvian geologist.
Opinions on astrology have been offered by persons all through literature and the arts. The philosopher/physician Maimonides (1135-1204) in his Responsa I, said, “Astrology is not a science; it is a disease.” Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), a papal adviser, wrote:
How happy are the astrologers if they tell one truth to a hundred lies, while other people lose all credibility if they tell one lie to a hundred truths.
The Italian pundit was flying in the face of his boss, who was, along with so many of his fellow popes, dependent on resident astrologers to provide him with advice.
Dr. Erika Bourguignon, professor of anthropology at Ohio State University, refers to astrology as “a pseudoscience and a divinatory art,” and John Maddox, editor of the science journal Nature, has commented on astrology as it was dealt with in his publication:
. . . one of the things we have published on astrology a few years back was a very carefully done study in California with the collaboration of 28 astrologers from the San Francisco area and lots of subjects——118 of them altogether——and lunar charts were made by the astrologers. It turned out that the people couldn't recognize their own charts any more accurately than by chance. . . . and that seems to me to be a perfectly convincing and lasting demonstration of how well this thing works in practice. My regret is that there's so many intelligent, able people wasting their time and, might I say, taking other people's money, in this hopeless cause.
(Sir Maddox was referring to the project of Dr. Shawn Carlson of San Diego, which tested astrology and was reported in Nature.)
Though the Sun enters the sign Aquarius once every year, the new agers announced that in the 1960s the world entered the Age of Aquarius, though it is not clear, as with most notions of these folks, just what that means.
The formal though perfunctory opposition of religion to astrology originates with the possibility that if one's fate is already determined in the stars, sin cannot exist because it is thus not a voluntary action. This is explained by some astrologers by the statement, “Astrology impels but does not compel.”
A form of astrology that says that each planet governs the life of a person for a certain number of years is known as “alfridarya.” “Asterism” is a variety that deals only with the fixed stars, ignoring the Sun and planets.
Though astrologers in general only claim to be able to predict the coming of disasters, those in Cambodia (called “horas”) are believed to also be able to avert them.
See also horoscope and zodiac.
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Copyright (C) 1995-2007 James Randi.
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