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  Astrology (Greek, ‘study of the heavenly bodies’) is one of the oldest and most widely practised of all human activities. It is widely dismissed as a ‘pseudoscience’ (that is, one which pretends to reliance on objective investigation and rational proof), and it has overtones of magic and charlatanry which do its reputation no good at all. But it persists in societies of all kinds throughout the world, and determines the lives of people who would otherwise have no truck with superstition or pseudoscience of any kind.

There are two kinds of astrology. ‘Natural’ astrology is the charting of heavenly bodies, and the making of numerical tables based on their position and movement in the heavens. It was a forerunner of astronomy, and is the source of such still-current time divisions as years, months, weeks, days, hours and so on. (The bypassing of the decimal system of counting in early mathematics is one result of this: the most convenient time divisions were not decimal, and so the mathematics based on them used units on a different base.) This astrology was connected with religious and social practice, and its skills were the (often jealously guarded) prerogative of priestly or other élites. Their charts and tables, based on observation and calculation, allowed them to predict such essential matters as (in very early societies) the fact that the Sun would return after night or spring after winter, and (in more developed societies such as Egypt or the Mayan kingdom) the imminence of floods, droughts and other such cataclysms. In the 8th century, to take just one example, the Venerable Bede devoted much of his time to working out and writing down calculations about the precise date of Easter and other ‘moveable feasts’ in the Christian year; his work still affects our perception of the calendar, worldwide.

Although, in many ancient societies, ‘natural’ astrology was the nearest thing to what we might nowadays think of as a ‘proper’ science, and its practitioners were among the most learned and intellectually sophisticated members of the community, two things fatally hampered its development. First was the lack of instruments to make precise observation of the heavens, and of mathematical systems or devices which would allow any but (in our terms) the crudest calculations. Second was the interdependence of astrology with religion. Because the astrologers dealt with heavenly bodies (which were thought to be under the control of the gods), and because they made predictions, they were thought to have supernatural contacts and abilities denied to less-learned people. Even in societies as sophisticated as ancient China and ancient Babylon, magic and esoteric jargon were essential tools of the astrologers, allying them with sibyls, soothsayers and other prophets rather than with surveyors, for instance, or merchants, the other main groups skilled in the use of numbers.

The second practice, ‘judicial’ astrology, was dependent on the first, but vitally different from it. Instead of merely observing, logging and calculating the positions of heavenly bodies, its practitioners tried deliberately to link their human clients to such movements. By asking questions about such things as the precise time of a person\'s birth, calculations could be made about the configuration of the heavens at that moment; these could then be compared with the state of the heavenly bodies at any later point in time (the moment of consultation, say, or some date and time in the future), and predictions made about what might happen and how the subject should behave. A direct causal link was claimed between the heavenly bodies and each individual\'s character and life-pattern: our exact moment of birth was considered as unique as a fingerprint, and allowed our entire lives to be tracked. The more people we met, the more complex such calculations became. In ancient China, for example, the emperor had a household of wives and concubines, and an entire college of astrologers to work out the most advantageous moment to have sex with each of them to guarantee the birth of a healthy, ‘lucky’ heir. The Carthaginian general Hannibal would not fight on a given day unless his astrologers declared it propitious—and put his eventual defeat as much down to choosing the wrong day as to Roman strategic superiority. (Lest we sneer, Napoleon and Montgomery were similarly superstitious, and in modern times at least one US president, Ronald Reagan, was said not to make a move unless his wife\'s astrologer approved it. Prudent or credulous, these men controlled the destinies of millions.)

In secular society, astrology of this kind has either retreated to an ivory tower, its practitioners becoming gurus to the rich and powerful, or has degenerated to the kind of mass predictions published in popular newspapers, in which tens of millions of people who share the same birth sign are blandly advised to keep calm under stress, or are reassured that the 15th will be a lucky day. But in several of the world\'s great belief-systems, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and Daoism, astrology is highly respected and an integral part of people\'s lives, both at such rites of passage as weddings and funerals, and in more mundane matters such as house-moving or the making of business deals. At this level, astrology is more than mere entertainment, and the same question is relevant as with any other belief-system which we may not share. Does its validity depend on objective verification, or do the facts that millions of people, throughout history, have relied on it, that it has enabled their lives, give it credentials which rise above mere credence? KMcL

See also belief; divination; palmistry; witchcraft.



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