The Origin of Astrology
(Investigator 105, 2005 November)
Astrology is an ancient art that has been and still is practiced in many parts of the world. Its origin lies in the ancient Middle East, and from here appears to have spread to Greece, India and China. The Maya and Aztecs of South America also had a form of astrology, however their art appears to be of independent origin as there is no evidence of contact between these civilisations and those of the Old World.
In this article I have confined my examination of astrology to its occidental branch.
According to astrologers, various celestial bodies influence the destinies of Earth's inhabitants. Moreover, they also claim that it is possible to predict the future by analysing the positions of the planets as they move across the zodiac:
"Astrology explores the effect of the sun, moon, and eight of the planets of the solar system upon the earth and its inhabitants. It is a convention in astrology to refer to the sun and the moon as planets, and to view the universe as if the earth were at its centre...
Each of these planets is reputed to influence our lives. How this happens is said to be determined by the signs of the zodiac – twelve constellations of stars beyond our solar system that became associated with ancient legends and myth. It was against the background of these zodiac constellations that the planetary positions were charted to determine the nature of events on earth." (S. Bosanko [Ed]: How To Predict Your Future page 162.)
I will now examine the origin and history of astrology, its theoretical basis, and if there is any substance to its alleged predictive powers.
The origin of astrology can be traced back to 2000 BC when Babylonian priests began to consult the heavens in an attempt to determine the fate of kings and empires. The underlying assumption behind their reasoning was that each planet was the abode of a god who influenced earthly affairs:
"Apart from the sun and the moon, which were looked upon as planets, the Babylonians also knew Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and Venus, which they called bibbu "wild goats" in contradistinction to the fixed stars which were thought to be "tarne." These five bibbu, small though they looked, were said to have a tremendous influence on human fate. All were seats of different gods, and each had a characteristic effect on the Earth." (R. Lewinsohn: Prophets and Prediction, page 59.)
The Babylonians believed that the Universe was controlled by a hierarchy of supernatural beings and that mankind was the servant of these gods who ruled the terrestrial world Marduk (Jupiter) was the creator and victor over the forces of chaos, and king of the gods; Sin (the Moon) influenced growth through its changing phases; Samas (the Sun) was the carrier of life and light; Nebo (Mercury) was the god of wisdom who recorded the deeds of men; Adar (Saturn) was the patron of hunting; Nergal (Mars) was the god of the dead, pestilence and war, and Ishtar (Venus) was the goddess of motherhood.
The Babylonians came to believe that the will of their gods could be divined by the position of the planets as they moved across the zodiac which is also of Babylonian origin:
"Besides the planets, the signs of the zodiac also are offsprings of Chaldean [Babylonian] astrology, and six of its original figures still exist to this day. They are the Bull, the Twins, the Lion, the Balance, the Scorpion and the Fishes. Although little is known of their symbolism, it may be surmised that these figures originally were closely connected with earthly affairs." (K. Seligmann: The History of Magic and the Occult, page 6.)
Astrology became popular in ancient Greece when Berosus, a Babylonian astrologer, founded a school devoted to the art on the island of Cos in 250 BC. The Greeks proceeded to develop the mundane astrology of the Babylonians into the genethliacal version that deals with the destiny of ordinary people, rather than confining itself to the fate of kings and empires.
In addition, astrology also acquired the Greek concept of the universe as expounded in Claudius Ptolemaeus' (c. 100-170 AD) Almagest the spherical Earth was thought to be the centre of the cosmos, was surrounded by a complex system of concentric crystalline spheres to which the celestial bodies were attached and by which they were moved. The order of the celestial bodies, from the earth outwards, was as follows: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and beyond the sphere of Saturn was the sphere of the fixed stars.
From Greece, astrology entered Roman civilisation and spread throughout the Empire, and although it was condemned on theological grounds by the Church in the early part of its history, the art eventually became respectable and was incorporated into the world picture of western civilisation the great chain of being in which all things were part of an interconnected realm where:
"...the stars which, through obeying God's changeless order, are responsible for the vagaries of fortune in the realms below the moon. The planets were in fact the commuting agents of eternity to mutability: they had the function of the million pieces of coloured glass which in Shelley's dome stain the white radiance of eternity, when the glass itself does not change but causes change in something else." (E.W.M. Tillyard: The Elizabethan World Picture, page 60.)Despite its widespread acceptance, even among learned men, there were a small number of people sceptical of astrology.
One such person was the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463 - 94) who:
"...prepared a scathing attack on astrology. He cited examples from his own experience, where astrologers predicted a good life, while one disaster after another had struck his family. He even went so far as to check the weather against astrological predictions and found that out of one hundred thirty days, the predictions were correct for no more than six. This created quite a sensation, since nobody had cared or bothered to carry out any tests before." (G.E. Tauber: Man's View of the Universe, page 70.)The high regard in which astrology was held came to an end when advances were made in the science of astronomy. This was brought about by the work of men such as Copernicus and Galileo who correctly deduced that the planets revolved about the Sun. Thus, one of the central assumptions upon which astrology was founded the Earth centred universe was shown to be false.
After having given a very brief outline of the origin and history of astrology, it should be obvious that the foundations of the art are based on superstition the idea that the planets are the abode of gods who influence earthly affairs.
Contemporary astrologers have abandoned the idea of planetary gods, and replaced them with a theory of positive and negative vibrations that, according to them, affect human destiny.
However, they still believe that the moment of birth is of prime importance in determining the fate and personality of individuals:
"During any period of 24 hours there are 360 possible ascendants, each with its related midheaven. A different (succeeding) degree of the ecliptic (and therefore the zodiac) "rises" above the horizon every four minutes. So if Smith was born five minutes after Jones (even if they were both born in the same place), Smith will have a different degree of the zodiac for his ascendant. And if Jones' ascendant was, say, 300 Scorpio, Smith will also have a different ascendant sign 10 Sagittarius." (L. MacNeice: Astrology, page 247.)
The assumption that the moment of birth is a crucial factor in determining personality appears to be questionable at best, for if there are such things as celestial influences, then the foetus would be continually subjected to them throughout the term of its development. Therefore, the moment of conception should be the primary factor that astrologers base their predictions upon.
Moreover, if astrologers are correct in assuming that the moment of birth determines personality, then it should follow that twins, whether identical (where two embryos arise from the division of a single fertilised egg) or fraternal (where two different eggs are fertilised), should have different personalities because the second twin can be born within a few minutes or up to 15 minutes of the first:
"The second baby should be born within 15 minutes after the first baby. (Doctors in hospitals frequently deliver the second baby within a few minutes.)" (M.F. Myles: Textbook For Midwives, 8th edition, page 324.)
Unfortunately for astrologers, it is our genes, rather than the time of birth that determines personality:
"Out of some 20 studies [of twins], there is not one in which the correlations for identical twins have not been larger, and usually much larger, than those for fraternal twins. This applies not only to the major personality variables, such as extroversion, introversion and neuroticism stability, but to a large number of other measurable traits as well… When proper personality tests are used, whether questionnaires or objective experimental testing procedures, the results, always support the proposition that heredity plays a most important part in producing differences in personality." (H. & M. Eysenck: Mindwatching, page 108.)As we can see, identical twins even if born 15 minutes apart, and according to astrologers under different celestial influences, will still have personalities that are remarkably similar. This is in direct contrast to fraternal twins who, even if born within a few minutes of each other, will have personalities that are dissimilar.
Is there any evidence that celestial bodies emit vibrations that might effect human destiny? It is all very well for astrologers to claim that they do, however where is the proof? We have explored the Moon, sent space probes to other planets in the solar system, and have discovered that these worlds are composed of the same kind of matter as found on Earth. In order for the planets to emit some kind of paranormal radiation, they would need to be composed of paranormal matter because matter and energy are interdependent. To date no paranormal matter has been discovered, and therefore there is no evidence that these vibrations exist outside the imagination of astrologers.
The zodiac too, poses a number of problems, for the constellations are nothing more than arbitrary patterns formed by human imagination.
Moreover, there are currently 88 recognised constellations and if they possess some mystical quality, why is it that astrologers take into account only 12 of them?
Another problem is that the signs of the zodiac have, in the last two thousand years, been displaced thirty degrees westward due to the precession of the Earth's axis, a cyclic phenomena that occurs over a period of approximately 26,000 years. Therefore, a person born on 21 March 130 AD would have entered the world under the constellation of Aries. However, a person born on the same date today would enter the world under the constellation of Pisces. Astrologers have not taken this phenomenon into account if you consult a contemporary book on astrology you will find that the date for the star sign Aries is still being given as March 21 - April 19, and Pisces as February 19 - March 20. One can only conclude that astrology is woefully out of date.
Astrologers have tried to overcome this problem by claiming that each constellation was 'born' in its respective house, and therefore their current positions are irrelevant. However, if a constellation can be born, presumably in some mystical manner, so that its influences are fixed, then it seems reasonable to assume that this event would have occurred 4.6 billion years ago when the Earth and other planets in our solar system began to form out of a swirling cloud of dust and gas.
Unfortunately for astrologers their solution is not viable. This is because no constellation is immutable – the unequal rates of movement among the stars that comprise them causes all constellations to change shape over time, and 4.6 billion years ago the constellations of the zodiac, as we know them, did not exist. If a constellation exerts paranormal influences due to the arrangement of its stars, then it seems reasonable to assume that these influences change as the constellations alter shape. Moreover, the position of the Earth and the other planets in the zodiac changes because our solar system is moving in relation to the constellations as the Sun orbits the centre of our galaxy (in the Sun's case once every 250 million years.)
Needless to say, astrologers have not taken into account all these changes in the position of the celestial bodies their art is based on the ancient and discredited idea of a largely static cosmos.
Despite the fact that there is no rational foundation to astrology, many people are impressed by astrological predictions, and then claim that this alleged accuracy can only be accounted for by postulating the existence of paranormal forces. Is this assumption justifiable? Consider the following personality reading:
"You have a very independent streak and like to do things in a way that is just right for you.1 It may be that you have evolved a unique lifestyle that you guard jealously.2 You will express your originality in a variety of ways.3 Perhaps you like to look a little different, or maybe your job is an unusual one.4 Your ... creativity could be spiced with originality and that will make inner fulfilment even more likely for you.5
It's important that you develop flexibility6... Always aim to complete projects, or you will feel dissatisfied and restless7... You may tend to distance yourself from prospective partners, feeling that you are not yet ready for total commitment.8 However...once a partner has paved the way for you, you are capable of very faithful love and a rewarding sex life.9" (J. & D. Parker: Sun and Moon Signs, page 252.)
Can you identify the zodiac sign that this reading corresponds to? My guess is that you can't, and I suspect that neither could an astrologer unless he or she looks at the answer at the end of this article. Give a copy of this reading to a person you know believes in astrology, tell them that the reading is for their star sign, and ask them to rate its accuracy on a scale from 1 to 10. I suspect that most people will give it a rating higher than five. Why?
The answer is simple the reading is full of generalities (as are most astrological predictions) that could apply to almost anyone. Each sentence in the above quote has been numbered in superscript, and I shall now analyse the reading in order to highlight its generic nature.
1. Most people like to think that they are independent, and tend to do things in a manner that they find best for them. Very few people would disagree with this statement.
2. Given the number of people leading alternative or new age lifestyles, their propensity to believe in the occult, and therefore read books on subjects such as astrology or consult astrologers, this statement stands a reasonable chance of being true. However, many other people may have some aspect of their lifestyle that they consider unique in some way, and therefore agree with this statement. Moreover, as most people value their way of life they will attempt to protect their lifestyle.
3. This statement is true of everyone as no two humans are exactly alike.
4. Another statement that could apply to most people – nearly everyone wishes to appear different, and express this tendency by the way they dress and adorn themselves. Note that the statement regarding employment is qualified as are other statements in the reading. Qualifications always appear when there is a chance that the astrologer's prediction will be wrong.
5. Most people would like to think that they are creative and original to some degree, and will find such activity fulfilling. Moreover, most people would not disagree with this statement because it is flattering to their self image.
6. This statement applies to everyone, and can be considered a general truism.
7. Once again, a general truism – not many people like to leave things half done.
8. Many people may feel hesitant about total commitment, especially in the early stages of a relationship. This is another statement that could apply to anyone, irrespective of their star sign.
9. This is another statement that is flattering to a person's self image, and therefore will be accepted by most people as being true for them.
Because most astrological personality readings are of a generic character, it is easy for people to make the mistake of what psychologists call the "fallacy of personal validation" where a person convinces themselves that a statement is applicable to them, even though it may only be partly so. This mistake can occur if the person believes, even to a slight degree, that astrology may contain a grain of truth.
Another technique used by astrologers (and most other fortune tellers) to add credence to their art, is the obtaining of information from their clients by subtle questioning and deduction. For example, a pale band of skin where a wedding ring should be may indicate divorce or the death of a spouse. Information obtained by careful observation and questioning can then be fed back to the client, and create a false impression that the astrologer and his art are capable of producing accurate predictions.
Other methods astrologers can employ in an attempt to increase their accuracy are as follows the use of statistics, polls and surveys in order to obtain information about the population, and thereby obtain a profile of the average person or a specific group. For example, research carried out at the Monash Population and Urban Research Centre at Monash University, has revealed that many unemployed or low-income earning men are unable to attract or keep partners the stress caused by their situation interferes with the formation of relationships. In addition, many women appear to be unwilling to commit themselves to men in this situation.
An astrologer who is conversant with these findings may be able to deduce, after having established his client's financial situation by observation or subtle questioning, potential or actual relationship problems.
The predictive powers of astrology are illusionary.
Astrologers rely on generic personality readings, statistics, subtle questioning and psychological manipulation to convince their clients that they are capable of providing them with a glimpse of future events. Moreover, their clients often fall victim to the fallacy of personal validation, and thereby convince themselves that the prediction is more accurate than it really is.
The theory upon which the art is founded the idea that celestial influences at birth determine personality and destiny is not supported by any empirical evidence.
The reason why belief in astrology persists, despite this fact, is because human nature has remained basically the same since the days of ancient Babylon – people desire certainty in their lives, they wish to know what the future holds in order to take advantage of opportunities and avoid disasters, and astrology holds out this hope to people who are willing to believe. Answer: Aquarius.
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Lewinsohn, R. Prophets and Prediction, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., London, 1961.
MacNeice, L. Astrology, Aldus Books Ltd., London, 1964.
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Myles, M. F. Textbook For Midwives (8th edition), Churchill Livingston, New York, 1975.
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