The Fated Sky by Benson Bobrick, PhD.
There are many misconceptions about astrology. This book attempts a survey of its effects on Western Civilization. It’s a big job! This is a history book and astrology has been around a very long time. Most of us think astrology can be summed up by those little paragraphs written about your sun sign that commonly occur in magazines and papers. Some who have delved deeper know astrology is a science- one that predated and in part, gave birth to modern science. How is it that this thread is all but missing from history books? It is said that history is written by the victors and from that perspective (I suppose), astrology did not win. Bobrick’s book is not a book about whether astrology is a valid science. Rather, this is a book about how ideas and people’s understanding of them played a role in history.
Bobrick opens the book with a very compelling case about how Columbus would never have set sail on a voyage of discovery except for having been inspired by an astrological idea that had come from the Persians through the Arabs and finally to the West by way of a French Cardinal and astrologer, Pierre d’Ailly. Known as the great conjunction theory, where Jupiter and Saturn unite, it was thought to herald great changes. The once- in- 960- year astrological event so excited Columbus, he decided it heralded the end of the world and everyone on the planet would need to be converted. He adopted the name Christophorus, “the Christbearer” and sought the financial aid of Spain. Columbus’ copy of the astrologer’s work who so influenced him, including his personal notes, can be seen in Seville. Ideas are no small matter!
Man has always been intrigued by the skies. The origins of astrology go back to Mesopotamia, the Chaldean East, including areas of Babylonia and Assyria. From there, it spread to Egypt and Greece. Astrology was known in Greece at least as early as 1184 BC. Plato was tutored by a Chaldean astrologer. Astrology eventually incorporated Pythagorean concepts. But it wasn’t until Hellenistic Egypt that astrology came into its own and combined with Greek mathematical astronomy. By 150 BC, the earliest handbook on astrology was written. These ideas spread throughout Greece and on to India.
During the Roman Empire, all classes of people were influenced by the practice of astrology. Astrologers were consulted at the highest levels and several Emperors were skilled astrologers (including Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). The fundamental work on astrology (Tetrabiblos) in the classical world was done by Claudius Ptolemy who drew on ancient sources.
As the Roman Empire declined and the West fell into darkness, astrology flourished in the East and the lands held by the Byzantines. By the 9th century, Islamic, Jewish, Greek. Persian, and Hindu scholars gathered in the intellectual capital of Baghdad. This was Islam’s Golden Age when cooperation, innovation, and learning flourished! The Arabs translated Greek texts and got to work on pioneering science. Arab scholars pursued astronomy, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, introduced a system of numerals, created a decimal system, refined the lunar calendar, and built observatories. What came into existence then was what is today called “Arabic astrology”- a fusion of Greek thought and Arabic science. From this tradition, the formidable astrologer al-Biruni’s text, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology (1029), had a strong mathematical basis and he firmly believed no one could call himself an astrologer without a thorough understanding of all the sciences. Such was the nature of the profession.
All of this is a fascinating way of viewing history through the perspective of the emergence of science. From this lens, astrology is the science that underpinned what we think of as modern science. This was the need to watch the skies, to take measurements, to create the mathematics and instruments for observations, and then to make it relevant. Of course, astrology is also the oldest of the occult (meaning “hidden”) arts. And so much more than those little paragraphs in magazines that pass as horoscopes.
In part 2, we’ll look at how the Church and European Courts have viewed the practice of astrology. (Have you ever seen an astrological clock or a stained-glass window with the full zodiac?)