Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wandering Among the Stars

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...." Shakespeare

This is abstract art; real planets don't have white outlines.
Several years ago, my husband became very ill and was bedridden. During that time, I had to find something that would help me retain my sanity while caring for him, battling with insurance companies, raising two children and working full-time. That ended up being two years of online study with the Faculty of Astrological Studies in London. I worked as a science writer by day, and distracted myself with mysticism at night. That’s right, in this Age of Reason, I learned classical astrology.

People often ask me if I believe in astrology. Well, I believe that we should all be the masters of our own destiny rather than relying on something outside of ourselves to make our decisions for us. That said, astrology can be a fascinating way to learn more about ourselves. In fact, there is an entire field of psychology that works with astrological symbols and meaning. The idea of an astrological natal chart is this: life is like a role-playing game. You come into this world with certain attributes, weaknesses and challenges. It is up to you how you deal with what life brings. The way you approach life determines what you will learn and how you will develop as a person. Most astrologers believe in reincarnation and so every life offers different personal qualities, challenges and potential lessons to be learned.

Astrological markings, in the form of Sumerian cuneiform symbols, have been found dating as far back as 3000 BCE.* In those days, there was not a lot to do other than farm and raise livestock for food, fight with neighbors and look at the stars (perhaps the earliest form of reality television). Since survival depended on the benevolence of nature toward crops, people began closely observing the sky and how it corresponded to good and bad natural events. This was the forerunner of astrology, but it was not yet an organized discipline.

The first astrology text that survives was written by the Chaldeans, later referred to as the Babylonians, around 1645 BCE. It described omens that affected national and political affairs. Astrology gave some basis for predicting weather, disease, hostile invasions from neighbors and anything else about life. The high priests who calculated the machinations of the stars became very powerful. They may have been the early versions of celebrities on a par with Britney Spears and George Clooney. Except if they made a really big goof, they could be put to death.

From Babylon, astrology spread throughout the ancient world. Some people think that astrology independently developed in Egypt around the same time, but no one knows for sure. The Greeks thought that Babylonian astrology was for charlatans and Egyptian astrology was the real deal.

Initially, astrology was exclusively used for public welfare and to help a ruler make decisions. It was the Greeks who developed astrology into the horoscope we know today and began to bring it down to a personal level. Once again, the Greeks were responsible for naming something. Horoskopos stands for ascendant. An ascendant—the horoscope sign rising on the horizon at the moment of your birth—is a key element in Western astrology. Thus, the word horoscope was born.

The Romans, known for taking Greek concepts and re-tooling them, took astrology and refined it to the point where the average person could use it to forecast various stages of life including marriage, riches or poverty, and type of death. While the oldest known birth horoscope dates back to the pre-Roman era, from the year 410 BCE in Mesopotamia, the Romans were the ones who disseminated the “everyman” version. It quickly spread throughout their vast empire.

This is a completely bogus drawing of Saturn.
It should be noted that in societies where people were allowed to express their opinions without certain death, there were always astrology skeptics. An Athenian philosopher, Carneades, back in 156 BCE, argued vehemently against astrology. His reasoning:

1. Heavenly bodies are too far from Earth to exert an influence.
2. Children born at the same moment lead totally different lives (his example: when Homer was born, so were other people, who became neither poets nor famous).
3. Many people simultaneously die in catastrophes and wars despite their varying horoscopes.
4. The fine fluid that wafts down from the heavenly bodies and which is breathed in at the time of a person’s birth and determines his character can be changed by different weather conditions at various birthplaces. Okay, I was with him until this last one, but let’s keep in mind that this very skilled thinker lived more than 2000 years ago, long before Carl Sagan and the Hubble telescope.

It is also worth nothing that Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) did not believe in astrology or fortune telling. Thus, when a soothsayer tried to warn him about the Ides of March, he dismissed it as superstition. We all know what happened to him.

Astrology was a pivotal tool in the decisions of rulers from ancient times through to the modern day. Every king and queen in Europe had a court mathematician who was essentially an astrologer. It takes a lot of math to calculate the correct positions of the sun, moon and planets through the 12 zones of the sky known as the zodiac signs.

Throughout history, astrology and astronomy were one “science” until observational astronomers came into being. Observational astronomy began with the invention of the telescope by Galileo Galilei, who was a practicing astrologer. Two other famous observational astronomers—also astrologers—whose work helped drive a wedge between astrology and astronomy were Tycho Brahe (my personal hero) and a man who built his career on the data that Tycho Brahe spent a lifetime meticulously collecting—Johannes Kepler.

Astrology began to gain popularity in the U.S. from 1900 through 1949. In 1914, a popular astrologer in New York City named Evangeline Adams contributed to this growing interest. (Trivia: She was the grand-daughter of President John Quincy Adams.) Since fortune-telling was illegal—due to many con artists who found it a handy way to make easy money—Evangeline was arrested for reading astrological charts. The court case was later dismissed when Adams correctly read the horoscope of the judge's son with only a birth date. Her acquittal established an American precedent that if astrologers practiced in a professional manner that they were not guilty of any wrong-doing.

This is how astrology looked in 1925.
You may laugh, but many famous people have believed in and/or relied upon astrology. They include Hippocrates, Richelieu, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Sir Isaac Newton, Albrecht Dürer, Pope Leo X and the popes who preceded him, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Benedictine Father Gerhard Voss, JP Morgan, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, Hitler and Ronald Reagan (who was also introduced to his wife by an astrologer).

For those of you seeking to make your fortune in life, JP Morgan, the first American billionaire was quoted as saying, “Millionaires don’t use astrology, billionaires do." Einstein’s endorsement: “Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge. It taught me many things and I am greatly indebted to it."

So what can we take from all this? Well, astrology has been around a long, long time. How valid is it? How valid is any belief? Who knows? I can say this. It taught me a great deal about myself and made me much less judgmental of others. People are what they are for a reason. Maybe it’s their circumstances, maybe it’s genetics, or who knows, maybe, just maybe, it’s in their stars.

*NOTE: Astrologers are aware that the positions of the zodiac signs from 3000 years ago have changed. This shift is referred to as the precession of the sky and is caused by the wobble of the Earth on its axis. There is a subset of astrologers who practice using the Fagan/Bradley geocentric (sidereal) system, which accounts for the current, shifted position of the zodiac. This, not always, but sometimes can shift your astrological sign by one month.

1 comment:

  1. Well I think that great American General J. Ripper said it best when he summed up the general discourse on this subject as being associated with, "precious body fluids." Says it all, no?