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.


With the end of April comes the quickening of Spring, a time celebrated by the ancients with bonfires and cleansing rituals (and the occasional loss of sexual innocence). Look at a calendar and you will find that April 30th, once known as Beltane, is just across the year from Halloween. Both are cross-quarter days, in that they divide the interval between solstice and equinox, and both were considered to be times when the spirits would walk about unfettered.

We here at the Star Chamber are always looking for ways to adapt ancient rituals for new purposes. Paracelsus, inspecting the growing pile of direct mail ads and catalogs in his mailbox, is considering a cleansing fire ritual of his own. Put all that junk mail into a great big pile under the evening sky, set it afire, fix yourself a nice dry martini, and cast away, if only for a brief period, the demons of Marketing and Direct Sales. Happy Beltane!
Continue reading “Cachet”


E-mailbox clogging net stories are circulating in greater and greater numbers, but where do they come from? Is there some cyber-spot where they mate, like squids in the Sargasso Sea? Is there a burying ground where they go to die? Yadda-Yadda-Yadda is a speculative piece that came about because a) Paracelsus received yet another net story in the mail and b) he should have been working on something else.
Continue reading “Yadda-Yadda-Yadda”


By any measure, it was a sleek and fabulously expensive computer. Over his video link, the journalist inspected it carefully: a compact black tower covered with tiny blinking diodes.

“Aren’t those a little melodramatic?” asked the journalist, indicating the colorful lights. He checked to make sure the recorder was working properly. The link sounded good, but the video signal was surprisingly noisy.

“I admit, it is an indulgence,” replied Alex Dimedici. “There was a time when I pretended those lights were useful, but really it’s just stagecraft. I love blinking lights.”

“And this is where Bobo lives?” continued the journalist, indicating the black box as though he expected to see the little man pop out of the machine.

“Yes, well certainly he spends a great deal of time in there.”

The journalist looked at Alex and paused.

“I would say that Bobo lives here,” continued Alex, lightly tapping his forehead and giving a shallow smile. He hesitated and pursed his lips slightly. “Sometimes I think we are changing places.” He looked vaguely out of sorts for a moment.

Another pause. The journalist was hoping that Alex would follow this up without prompting. Sometimes the best way to get answers is to not ask questions at all.

“When I first created Bobo, I was doing anything I could to get recognition. None of the studios wanted him. I was working twenty hour days for months on end, my marriage fell apart. And still no response from the big networks. So I struggled for years making these independent shows for kids, you know, and when they finally caught on, well it went from nothing to piles of money overnight. Amazing really. But still too many hours of work.”

“So you traded one kind of trouble for another?” A shrug, a nod. “But you could have sold to the studios then, and never worked another day in your life. Were you bitter, too proud to sell out?”

“Well, this was my life. This is my life.”

“Is it true that the whole show is a one man effort? You’ve never had any assistance with the music, the artwork, the animation, the writing?”

“At first. But now I have plenty of help.”

Aside from the electronic clutter of cables, keyboards, and high-resolution screens in the studio, what the journalist could see of Alex’s house looked quite comfortable. This setting was at odds with his reputation as a brilliant recluse, an eccentric innovator who never spoke to anyone, never gave interviews.

“We’ve assumed for a long time that you farm work out all over the net. Is that how it works?”

“No. My assistants live in here.” He patted the side of the machine. “For instance, Bud now writes most of the music.” This was an allusion to another one of the characters on the show. A joke, maybe? “And I don’t ever worry about my mail.”

“You have an agent of some kind read it? But not all of it, certainly.”

“All of it, including our mail that set up this interview.” This came as a surprise to the journalist, the kind of visible, obvious surprise that gratifies the teller. “Yes, when the show became really popular, the mail came pouring in. Gigabytes of it every day, disk-clogging piles of it. I made a business decision that this mail should be answered: too many fad shows these days disappear quickly. The idea was for Bobo to answer his own mail – simple enough, you see? I already had the personality codes from the show. Let him read and respond, and I don’t have to bother with the rendering.”

The journalist was smiling warmly to himself, contemplating his editor’s amazed reaction, when he suddenly noticed that the tiny red light on his video recorder was off. Something was wrong. He fumbled with it. No luck. Fighting off panic, he unplugged some wires, rubbed the metal contacts, reconnected the jacks, and finally picked up a pen and a notebook and began scribbling. The flow had continued unabated.

“…of course you have to remember that these were children for the most part, so I had a good audience for tuning my codes. All the time I was training ‘Bobo’ to respond like me. And after a while it occurred to me to do the same thing with my own mail. In other words, my years of experience with Bobo’s Land showed me I could train the machine to respond like me. Well, I can tell you that by now the ‘me’ code has gotten very good, so I have to intervene very little. Bobo answers his own mail, and I have come to believe I answer my own mail, too. So I can spend all my time working in the Land.”

“Is that what you meant about switching places? You’re in the machine?”

“Perhaps that is too strong a statement. But I prefer Bobo’s Land, his town, his friends. And if someone else can be me in my absence, so much the better. Bobo and I are one, but I have left behind a kind of vestigial self to deal with the world.” Silence.

“So you can relax more now?”

“Yes, I would say. The show runs itself now. You might say I have retired into my own creation, and if I weren’t telling you right now, no one would ever know the difference.”

“Then… why are you telling me right now?”

There was a slight pause. “Because I think someone should know what’s happened.”

Something odd quickened the journalist’s pulse. He leaned in toward the monitor and stared hard. Alex suddenly looked uncomfortable; he shifted his weight and swallowed. “What’s happened?” asked the journalist, finally.

“I think there’s been an accident,” said Alex slowly, and he stepped aside to reveal his own decaying body on the floor.


Welcome to the Star Chamber.

Every Monday, original material will appear at this site, courtesy of the members of the Star Chamber. Some of it will be commentary, some of it fiction, some of it artwork. It will tumble out in no particular order or grand scheme. We are staking out a small patch of the swampy real estate between print and broadcast in the belief that its value will appreciate. The Star Chamber is not a zine. It is not a weekly program. It is, if anything, a place. A place we promise to maintain and keep free of cobwebs. An extra attic room shared by many people. Cut a hole in the ceiling and come on up. The weather is fine.

We start things off with a little story.