The Persistence of Astrology

Divination, that intuitive art that uncovers and foretells, comes in a multitude of forms, from reading tea leaves and Tarot cards to inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals (popular in ancient Rome, though perhaps not with the RSPCA). Of the many widely-practiced modern forms of divination, only one has such a powerful hold on the popular imagination that the front page of almost any newspaper directs us instantly to its prognostications: astrology. Many people who drive by Madame Zoso’s Palm-Reading Salon with a smirk wouldn’t miss a day without Jeane Dixon’s syndicated horoscopes.

What accounts for the persistent appeal of astrology, particularly in this scientific age? I believe it’s because, of all forms of divination, astrology seems to have the most reasonable claim on what it predicts. After all, the sun and the moon are more likely to know the damn deal than a bunch of soggy tea leaves. The astrological premise is really quite straightforward: events in the sky influence matters on earth. In other words, if you understand the planets and the stars, you’ll go a long way toward understanding what happens here on the ground. This is sometimes called the Doctrine of Universal Sympathy: As above, so below.

Stop for a moment and consider what a reasonable premise this is. The positions of the stars DO influence matters on earth. They are the very clocks of our most basic natural cycles: day, month, year. The powers of the ancient astrologers must have seemed magical indeed: predicting the flooding of the Nile in Egypt and the awe-inspiring eclipses of the sun and moon. No wonder that astrologers were consulted about auspicious times for battle. Even Eisenhower consulted the stars before his monumental decision about D-Day: only three days of the lunar month matched the required conditions of earth, moon and sun, since they needed moonlight for the channel crossing and flow tide just before dawn. This example sounds perfectly reasonable today, but years ago it would have been squarely in the realm of astrology.

One of the most pivotal moments in the history of science is Isaac Newton’s realization that the gravitational forces that the earth exerts on a falling apple are qualitatively the same gravitational forces that act on the orbiting moon. This is precisly the Doctrine of Universal Sympathy written into the book of Science. The forces that act here act also in the void of space. As above, so below. At some point, astronomy became the name for the truly measurable, testable pieces of astrology, while by default, the term astrology came to be indentified with intuitive prediction of things that can’t be easily tested.

If you were to consult the almanacs of the astrologers, you would find that I am a Saggitarius, which is to say that I was born when the sun was shining from that part of the sky where Saggitarius lives. But in fact, the sun was in Scorpio when I was born. Why? Because the solar system has changed since the first Greek astrologers put their charts in place, but the astrological charts haven’t. Astrologers used to work very hard to make their predictions of the paths of the planets and stars accurate, and inasmuch as they succeeded they were giving rise to a new science called astronomy. But once the split occurred between astronomy and astrology, the genuine ability to predict the locations of planets in the sky lost its importance to astrologers. Astrology came unglued from the heavens and has now reached the point where it has very little to do with where the planets actually were on such-and-such a date.

This is too bad, because the symbols and the history of astrology are so fascinating and beautiful. Astrology may be said to be the parent of all science, in that it begot astronomy, the first science. As astronomy was maturing, it was astrology that paid the rent. Astronomers received their courtly appointments for casting horoscopes, not for reckoning orbits. The illustrious Johannes Kepler published astrological prophesying almanacs, not because he believed in them but because he knew they would sell.

I am sympathetic to the aims of any system of divination. Everyone yearns to know what happens next, but as a system of divination, astrology is really no better and no worse than a dozen other techniques. But look at what astrology spun off along the way! Would that we could say the same thing about Tarot cards. Smug science must not forget its debt to astrology. As with alchemy and chemistry, a mystical tradition prefigured a rational, measured science.

The newspaper horoscopes may have come unhinged from the heavens that inspired them, but I continue to be mesmerized by the phenomenal forces and magical aspects of the sky. This is precisely why I find it so reassuring to return and sit at the historical divide between astrology and astronomy, where magic and rationality go hand in hand. It’s surprisingly close, and it’s a fine place to sit and stare in wonder at the stars.

A comet-viewing party

One cool spring evening recently, the Star Chamber editorial staff assembled at its favorite watering hole for cocktails. Some of these cocktails were fine, spirited martinis, and some of them were gallant if ignoble admixtures of vodka and dry vermouth. No matter. The point is that the gathering was followed by a comet-viewing party, as Comet Hyakutake was forming a particularly admirable display at that time. In elder days, comets were considered great and dangerous omens (they were also called hairy stars in honor of their plumage). The strange perceived relationship between matters celestial and terrestrial set Paracelsus a-puzzling.

Also new this week is a brief story about the web-wide bot revolution, called Sims.