The History Of Astrology

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The Art Of Astrology

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birth of Christ was not so much the result of the antagonism of the Christian Church as because of the decline of classical learning. New books from Greece concerned themselves more with astronomy than astrology (the two terms gradually acquired very different meanings), while some were simply not translated into Latin and therefore had no effect in Western Europe.

Those astrological books which were translated often lacked sections describing how to set up a horoscope. The Astronomica of Manilius (fl. 1st century), for instance, is an astonishing poem about astronomy and astrology. While it contains versified calculations showing how to draw a map of the sky for a particular moment, it does not explain how to interpret such a chart. Similarly, Boethius (c450-524) asserts


It was largely as a result of influence from Islamic sources that astrology returned to the West. This was reinforced by the gradually strengthening notion that the stars were stationed in space by God as an instrument for governing the world - that, as the theologian Bernard Sylvester put it, the stars and planets were "gods who serve God in person, who receive from God the secrets of the future, which they impose upon the lower species of the universe." The presence of free will was always asserted, however. As St Clement pointed out in the 1st century, "sometimes we resist our desires and sometimes yield to them." The stars could not force us to either course of action.

St Clement of Rome

St Clement of Rome

that "the celestial movements of the stars constrain human forces in an indissoluble chain of causes", but fails to show how this actually works.

astrology beyond western europe

At the same time, astrology was flourishing elsewhere. By 200ce textbooks in Sanskrit were circulating in India, explaining an astrology very different to that in the West. It had five elements instead of four, for instance, and great importance was given to "invisible" points of the zodiac, such as lunar nodes (points where the lunar orbit intersects the ecliptic). By the 8th century, accurate and complex horoscopes were being cast in India. In Persia too, there was a slightly different system, largely based on the importance of astronomical conjunctions.

But it was in the Islamic world that the subject became an almost all-consuming passion. Islamic philosophers found justification in the Koran for the study of astrology as an instrument of God's Will. The invention of the astrolabe (perhaps the oldest scientific instrument), which could reveal the degree of the ecliptic in the ascendant at any given moment, was enormously useful to astrologers. From the 7th century, a huge compendium of astronomical and astrological knowledge was built up, and Islamic astronomers became much more skilled and knowledgeable than their Western colleagues.

Astrologers whose names are still relatively unknown in the West increased the skill of Islamic astrologers. The first Jewish astrologer we know of, Masha'Allah (c762-816), advised the correct moment of the foundation of the city of Baghdad, and worked on world history as illuminated by conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn; al-Kindi (c801-866) was one of the first scholars to consider how astrology might work, and wrote a book, De Radiis, in which he argued that

Albumasar wrote his Great Introduction to the Science of Astrologyin the 9th century ce.

stellar rays conveyed the influence of the planets into the realm of Earth. An astrologer whose name is familiar in the West -Albumasar (really, Abu-Mashar, 787-886), worked in Baghdad and wrote the enormously influential Great Introduction to the Science of Astrology, a complex and highly structured book which was studied and revered by subsequent generations.

a period of ambivalence

Between the time of Constantine and the present day, the Christian Church has been ambivalent about astrology. Authorities that one might suppose to have condemned it, let it alone. The Inquisition, for instance, only burned one astrologer - Cecco d'Ascoli, whose death was in fact politically inspired, and the popes, who might have been expected to react most strongly against astrology, were often wholeheartedly supportive. Julius II, Leo X, and Paul III all consulted their personal astrologers - some on church matters, others on more personal affairs. Paul III (1468-1549) knighted astrologer Luca Gaurico, and made him a bishop. Gaurico would appear whenever a new building was proposed for Rome, and "cry out in a loud voice" when the propitious moment had arrived to lay a marble foundation stone. Paul was assured by another astrologer, Marius Alterius, that in his 83rd year he would

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Luca Gaurico would work out the best moment to lay a building's foundation stone.

experience a year of success with women. In fact, he died when he was 81, but no doubt the prospect had been something to look forward to. Leo X (1513-21) claimed that his astrologer, Franciscus Pruilus, could foretell events to the very hour, while Adrian VI and Clement VII allowed almanacs to be dedicated to them. Recent archbishops of Canterbury have more or less violently opposed astrology (sometimes to the extent of forbidding Church property to be used for meetings). So it is ironic that, at the sacred heart of Canterbury Cathedral, each archbishop who walks to his consecration does so by passing over a carpet that conceals a huge and beautiful zodiac inscribed on the floor.

the middle ages

Historians have claimed that the period that stretches roughly from the beginning of the 11th century to the end of the 13th was particularly dark for astrology. Indeed, it is claimed that its use more or less disappeared in the Western world. However, this is far from true — especially in the field of astrological medicine.

William the Conqueror instructed his astrologer to calculate the most auspicious time for his coronation in 1066.

William the Conqueror instructed his astrologer to calculate the most auspicious time for his coronation in 1066.

The Black Death and Court Astrology

For many centuries, the study of medicine was inextricably linked with the study of astrology. Indeed as late as the 18 th century, it was still impossible to qualify as a doctor unless one had passed an examination in astrology, and the use of planetary positions in diagnosis and treatment was commonplace.

The Black Death in the mid-14th century illustrates the connection. As it ravaged Eurasia, killing some 25 million people in Europe alone, astrologers soon began to publish their views on its cause. The medical faculty of the University of Paris was commanded by King Philip VI to give its opinion of the origin of the plague. While other astrologers blamed the total lunar eclipse of 18 March 1347 (eclipses were always considered baleful), the faculty opined that a triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in Aquarius in March 1345 was responsible for the "pernicious corruption of the surrounding air, as well as other signs of mortality, famine, and other catastrophes." It was a reasoned theory that greatly enhanced the reputation of astrology.

It should be noted that now and in later times of plague, astrologers did brave service to the public by using

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In this early 16th-century drawing of a "zodiac man," astrological signs are appliec to areas of the body.

In this early 16th-century drawing of a "zodiac man," astrological signs are appliec to areas of the body.

their medical knowledge. Both amateur and professional doctors often remained with the sick, rather than attempting to flee the contagion.

medical astrology

The various theories of medical astrology had by this time been thoroughly explored. They were based not only on the familiar "zodiac man" but on the ancient theory of the "humours" - blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy - which must be kept in balance if a subject were to remain healthy.

The position of the Moon was extremely important, especially when a surgeon was about to bleed a patient - and bleeding was considered the miracle cure for almost every ailment, for it helped to restore balance with the other humours. Bleeding was not supposed to take place when the Moon occupied the zodiac sign which ruled the part of the body that was injured or was causing illness - for instance if the Moon was in Scorpio, it would be madness

to bleed the loins (Scorpio's body area). Otherwise, bleeding was easier when the Moon was full, but took an age if she was new (something recognized, incidentally, in 21st-century blood transfusion).

All this had been known for centuries, of course - as we know from the writings of those astrologers who, by the beginning of the 8th century, were beginning to appear out of the mist: for example Aldhelm (639-709), who wrote treatises on the subject, and Alcuin (c732-804), who became a friend and advisor of Emperor Charlemagne. The Church in England was particularly keen on the subject, and many churches had fine zodiacs - the Abbey of Croyland, for instance, had one with Jupiter represented in gold, Mars in iron, the Sun in lattern (a yellow metal similar to brass), and Mercury in amber.

court astrology

William the Conqueror commissioned his own astrologer to set the time for his Coronation - midday on Christmas Day 1066 - which is used by many modern astrologers as the "birth time" of England. The death of King Harold had previously been predicted by the appearance of a comet - an event shown in the Bayeux tapestry, with a worried-looking astrologer announcing its presence to the ill-fated King.

Arguably the greatest of 11th-century English scholars was Adelard (or ^thelhard), who wrote books on astronomy and alchemy, and translated a number of Arabic astrological texts, which explained how a reader might set up a chart. He believed that the planets were "superior and divine animals" which were "the causes and principle of inferior natures", and that one who studied them could understand the present and past, and predict the future.

During the time of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, astrologers were turned to as a source of explanation for the plague that was then sweeping through Asia and Europe, killing millions.

Adelard was enthusiastic about the importance of astrology in the study of medicine, and was sure that this made for better doctors than "the narrow medical man who thinks of no effects except those of inferior nature merely."

Some authorities were less enthusiastic. William of Conches, for instance - who had travelled extensively before becoming associated with the court of Geoffrey Plantagenet, where he tutored the future King Henry II of England - was one of the earliest scholars to differentiate between astrology and astronomy. Astrologers, he said, treated celestial phenomena as they appeared to be, whether accurately or not, while astronomers dealt with things as they were, whether they seemed to be or not.

This section of the Bayeux tapestry depicts Halley's Comet, which was seen as a bad omen for King Harold.

This illustration from an Arabic manuscript of the 13th century shows a woman giving birth, while, in the top right corner, an astrologer uses an instrument to chart the positions of the stars.

astrology and the church

William of Conches' voice was a lonely one, however. During the 12 th century, a vast number of Latin astrological texts flooded into northern Europe. The scholar Gerard of Cromona (1114-87) alone translated over 70 books, among them Ptolemy's Almagest and previously unknown works by Aristotle.

The Church did not curtail the spread of astrological knowledge: after all, many leading churchmen were convinced that the stars and planets had been placed in the sky by God for a reason, and were as eager as anyone else to theorize about that reason. The greatest scholars, such as Roger Bacon (1214-92), Albertus Magnus (c1200-80), and St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), all took part in the debate, and found it impossible not to agree with the conclusion of

This section of the Bayeux tapestry depicts Halley's Comet, which was seen as a bad omen for King Harold.

Robert Grosseteste (c1175-1253): "nature below effects nothing unless celestial power moves it and directs it from potency into act." In the end, all they could do was compromise: Berthold of Regensburg (c1200), for instance, had no doubt that "as God gave powers to stones and to herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that they have power over all things except over one thing ... Over that thing, no man has any power, nor any might, neither have stars nor herbs not words nor stones nor angel nor devil nor any man, but God alone; it is man's free will."

astrology and society

In less unhappy times than those of the Great Plague, the common people probably heard little of astrology, though they were occasionally affected by astrological predictions. In 1186, for example, the English were thrown into panic by the coming conjunction of planets in Libra, and services were held in many churches to persuade God to overrule the planets and mitigate disaster. Presumably He heard the pleas, for no disaster occurred.

The royalty and nobility of Europe were another matter: they universally consulted astrologers. In the 12th century we have news of the first notable court astrologer since Roman times - Michael Scot, who when he died in the 1230s was astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Scot was much revered as "an augur, a soothsayer, a second Apollo," and did serious work on, for example, the Moon's effects on menstruation. He also studied how different positions (according to planetary rules) during copulation could produce different effects at conception. After the wedding of Frederick and Isabella, sister of King Henry III of England, the couple refused to consummate the marriage until "the fitting hour" had been calculated by Scot.


Before the invention of reliable timepieces, estimating the correct time was a major problem for astrologers, who needed to time births and events accurately. Midday was relatively easy to gauge, simply by observing the position of the Sun, but, beyond that, time was a pretty vague concept; it could only be measured by observing events in the sky, and to calculate these was a complex and difficult skill to attain. The earliest public clock in England dates from 1336, and is at Salisbury Cathedral; domestic clocks began to appear only some decades later.

The public clock at Salisbury Cathedral

But a greater court astrologer was to come - Guido Bonatti. This is the astrologer Dante describes as one of the sufferers in the fourth division of the eighth circle of the Inferno - that is among the spirits who during their life spent too much time trying to predict the future and are now condemned to pace about with their heads turned backwards. Bonatti, a professor at the University of Bologna, had a fine career advising the princes of Europe: among other things he would stand on the ramparts of a castle and at the auspicious moment strike a bell to announce the time to ride out to battle. He was scarcely modest in his claims:

"All things are known to the astrologer: all that has taken place in the past, all that will happen in the future -everything is revealed to him, since he knows the effects of the heavenly motions which have been, those which are, and those which will be, and since he knows at what time they will act, and what effects they ought to produce."

Few astrologers in later centuries would be prepared to claim so much.

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  • Gracie
    Why does canterbury cathedral have zodiac signs on ceiling?
    2 years ago

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