One of the most universal of ancient beliefs was astrology. The Chaldeans are sometimes said to have been the first to suspect that the sun, the moon, the planets and the constellations of stars affect human life and destiny, but most scholars would agree with what Otto Neugebauer wrote decades ago, that “we know equally little about the origin of astrology or astronomy…” What is well established is that one way or another astrology became a powerful force in many ancient cultures such as in Egypt, China, Greece, India, and Rome, for example. After considerable modifications and refinements it continues to thrive to this day in many parts of the world. There are perhaps far more astrologers these days than there are astronomers.
The basic assumption in astrological thinking is that life on earth is influenced in subtle and predictable ways by matter and motion in the skies. More exactly, the relative positions of planets and constellations have tangible impacts on human lives. It is also believed that unusual phenomena in the heavens, such as the appearance of a comet or the conjunction of planets, portend in unusual events in human history.
Also, each individual’s life is affected in well defined ways which an expert astrologer can reveal. That is to say, details of what those influences can be obtained from the professional astrologer who (usually on payment of a certain sum) can calculate such things from his knowledge of the precise aspect of the heavens at the moment of the individual’s birth – some hold, at the moment of one’s conception. The astrologer will tell you, for example, that if you were born under the aegis of Taurus, you will come under the rule of Venus. This means that you will be stable, calmly confident, and will have great enthusiasm for living. You will also be faithful, obstinate, and jealous. And peace will be one of your goals in life.
Astrologers also inform us that specific colors, stones, and metals, as also specific qualities, are associated with various planets. Thus, for example, the color red and the gem ruby are believed to go with Mars, the planet which is also supposed to govern our muscular system, especially between the ages of 40 and 50. Wearing a ring or a medallion made of metal or stone of the appropriate color will win favorable influences from the planet.
Such are some of the basic beliefs of astrology. Until the rise of modern science there was little distinction between astrologers and astronomers. In our own times, however, they are poles apart in their notions about the sky and the heavens.
In the ancient world, some unfortunate astrologers were tortured, or killed more humanely, when they were recognized as having made erroneous predictions. Some sensitive ones are even known to have committed suicide in shame or in deep disappointment on seeing events quite different from their own projections. Usually, such unpleasant ends came about only when predictions involved royalty. Or else the entire profession might have disappeared long ago. Generally speaking, however, there was a happy relationship, as there still is, between astrologers and the public: the former explained away unrealized prophesies which the latter forgot anyway.
A periodically recurring theme of astrologers relates to the end of the world. In Arab times the mathematician Al Battan (ninth – tenth century C.E.) computed the time of the origin of the world in terms of celestial configurations and made the prediction that the whole world would come to an abrupt end when planetary conjunctions next occurred in the constellation of Pisces. But this date was way into the distant future, and no one was really concerned.
But when, in the year 992, Good Friday and the Day of our Lady coincided, astrologers were let loose to interpret this simultaneous occurrence in terms of global disasters. The volcano Vesuvius erupted soon thereafter, there occurred an epidemic, and then there were the Huns and the Normans rampaging all over Europe. It was not difficult to see in all of this forebodings of the ultimate catastrophe that was imminent; all the more so, since the round number year of 1000 C.E. was fast approaching. It did not occur to anybody that this calendar reckoning has significance only to Christians and has no global, much less cosmic, significance. In any case, news of events yet to happen often has greater impact on the minds of people than of things that have already occurred, perhaps because imagination is given free rein in this case. So, panic struck whole townships in Europe, crowds thronged to places of worship, communal prayers became more than a habit, and there was much genuflection on the part of a frightened population with more terror than hope. Yet, no one seems to have been surprised when the fateful year came and went without any noticeable effect on the large scale features of planetary life: the sun and the moon rose and set; seasons changed, flowers blossomed in spring and birds chirped in peaceful indifference. World and man were here to stay.
In 1179 an astrologer by the name of John of Toledo predicted on the basis of astronomical data that within the next seven years the planets would all align themselves with the constellation Libra. From this he concluded, or rather stated categorically, that the earth would experience the most devastating earthquakes which would crush sinning mankind underground. Once again the dismal news of a future event spread far and wide, and the panic-stricken reactions were no less intense than two centuries earlier. Underground shelters were dug up, days of repentance and atonement were declared, palaces closed their doors tight, and people fasted and prayed. One might argue that all this proved to be very effective, for even though the planetary conjunction did occur in 1186, no major catastrophe marred the normal course of life in Europe or beyond.
In 1524 again, according to expert astrological insights, the world was going to be submerged in a massive deluge. There is ample reason to believe that this dire prediction did not come to pass. But it did cause its share of panic, pandemonium, and consequent prayer. The fact that the awesome flooding did not occur has not prevented others from making or believing in similar disasters time and time again.
Astrology was taken far more seriously and was far more rampant and terror-ridden in ancient times. But it has not exactly disappeared as a result of the rise of modern science. The early contributors to modern science, such as Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, all took astrology quite seriously. In our own times, not only damsels in distress, but also business executives, corporations, politicians, and monarchs are known to consult professional astrologers so as to ensure greater success in their enterprises or at least avert unnecessary hurdles. No wonder that for some it has become lucrative business, with computers, calculators, and all.
Instances of modern astrological thinking in relation to public events are many. It has been claimed, for example, that the development of the atomic bomb occurred because of the discovery of the planet Pluto in 1930. The uninitiated may wonder what the relation is. One eminent astrologer gave the following explanation: The first atomic bomb utilized in its construction the transuranic element Plutonium. Clearly, the use of Plutonium would not have occurred if Pluto had not been discovered. It is impossible for ordinary science to fathom such connections.
In the mid-fifties, perhaps in the panic of the Suez War, some astrologers made the cruel announcement that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was entering a period of grave personal danger to her. Causing even greater concern to more people of that cheerful island, they blurted out that the British Empire was on the verge of an imminent collapse. Other astrologers, with no more compassion, saw in the behavior of Uranus the statement that the pre-eminence of the United States would soon disappear from the international scene. Resorting perhaps more to their betting instincts than to planetary studies, and inspired as much by newspaper headlines as by celestial symbolism, astrologers declared that in less than a century the Soviet Union would be the major power in the world. This in itself may not have seemed an altogether impossible occurrence, but to place blame or give credit for this on Uranus is somewhat unfair to a planet which has done us no harm or good to us.
Astrology continues to be a very potent element in the Hindu world. A classical work on the subject is regarded as an appendage of the sacred Vedas. Per Hindu lore, an ancient personage named Bhrigu was the one who established this science to its perfection. Furthermore, he had charted the horoscope of every human being of the past, present, and future. There are literally hundreds of books on Hindu astrology.
A book by Tri Lam informs us that “Chinese astrology plays an important part in the daily lives of all Asians, particularly the Chinese and southeast Asians.”
Astrology was very much at the core of a very sophisticated Islamic astronomy. Astronomers were consulted on matters that (from the modern perspective) have nothing to do with astronomy. To give but one example, the Caliph al-Mamun put to test the authenticity of a self-proclaimed prophet by asking his astronomers to report on the stellar configuration in the skies when the pretension was made. Most astronomers were convinced that the arrival of a new prophet would be heralded by the stars. There are also a good many volumes written on Buddhist, Renaissance, and Mayan astrology. In other words, astrology was an intrinsic part of the framework of ancient science.