1902 Encyclopedia > Astrology


ASTROLOGY, the so-called science by which various nations, in various ways, have attempted to assign to the material heavens a moral influence over the earth and its inhabitants. For long ages astronomy and astrology were identified. Isidore of Seville is the first to distinguish between the two; nor did astronomy wholly rid itself of astrology, till, with the system of Copernicus, the conviction that the earth itself is one of the heavenly bodies was finally established. Even at the present day a few may be found who, from a superstitious reverence for the past, or the spirit of contradiction, pride themselves on their adherence to the belief in stellar influences. It is no longer necessary to protest against an error which is dead and buried, but let us pause a moment and ask what we mean by an error. With Spinoza we would say that erroneous ideas consist in the fancies and opinions which the senses suggest to the mind in a confused, imperfect, and ill-ordered manner. To this sort of knowledge Spinoza gives the name of vague experience. This vague experience is further complicated by the employment of signs, which flatter the fancy, and of which we form ideas like those which the objects themselves presented at first to our imagination. If to these two elements—vague experience and the misleading use of signs—we add the instinctive impulse which led primitive man to imagine a universe created according to the analogy of his mind, we have before us the three causes which led the Indians, Greeks, Egyptians, Chaldeans, and their Alexandrian disciples, the Arabs and their followers, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to lend themselves to the illusions of astrology, and by a preposterous philosophy to deduce the laws of nature from a theory of morals.

Astrology is generally divided into natural astrology, the science which predicts the motions of heavenly bodies and eclipses of sun and moon, and judicial astrology, which studies the influence of constellations on the destiny of men and empires. But it is obvious that both of these branches presuppose an advanced stage of astronomical knowledge, and a state of society not necessarily better, but more complex than that in which the first worshippers of the heavens were placed. It follows, then, that both natural astrology and judicial astrology must have been preceded by a science less learned in heavenly motions, and at the same time (as we shall attempt to show) more moral in the best sense of the word. Astronomers have taken very little pains to trace their favourite science to its source by help of the copious astrological commentaries in which the earliest observers embodied their theories of the heavens. Philosophers, with the single exception of Schopenhauer, have shown the same indifference. Of modern writers who have treated of astrology, some, like M. Alfred Maury, have sought to place its errors in a ridiculous light; others, like Eusèbe Salverte, have exposed the quackeries which rendered it a possible profession; and lastly, a few, like Eliphas Lévi and M. P. Christian, simply attempt to build up again with words a belief which has ceased to rest either on facts or ideas. Neither class of writers is likely to advance the history of human reason. The time has come for a calm and dispassionate survey of an illusion which for a while seemed probable, and may even be said to have done good service in its day. How did the error arise? Whence its persistency? These are questions which demand an answer, if only in order to preserve modern science from illusions which, though differing in form, are in their essence similar.

M. Alfred Maury begins his treatise by examining what are the beliefs of savages on the subject of magic and astrology. So too M. F. Höfer, in his History of Astronomy, well remarks: "If we wish to seek for the origin of the science, let us place a child or a savage in presence of the earth and the heavens, and ask what thoughts these suggest to him. We shall then obtain a clue to guide us on our path." We shall do well to follow the example of MM. Maury and Höfer, provided we do not confuse the savage of a superior and the savage of an inferior race, or the ancient savage and the modern child. But how can we question the ancient savage? Only by help of his cosmogonies.

It was long before man learned to distinguish the planets from the fixed stars; even then, as the word _____ proves, he assigned to them an erratic instead of a regular motion. Further, we must bear in mind that the first star-gazers had no knowledge of optics, physics, or meteorology, to teach them that the blue of the firmament is a subjective phenomenon caused by the light traversing our atmosphere before it strikes the optic nerve; that its regular spherical form is an effect of perspective; that winds, clouds, and northern lights are terrestrial phenomena related to astronomy, but distinct from the science of the true heavens. The ancestors of the sublime and childlike bards of the Rig-Veda deified the morning glow Arustra, and the diurnal and nocturnal heavens as the twin brethren who had been nursed on the bosom of Aditi. Aditi with them is the space beyond the horizon. Aditi is the sky, heaven. Aditi is mother, father, son. The gods were Adityas, i.e., children of Aditi. Aditi, in a word, was boundless space, but space endowed with life, form, and power,—the power, namely, of delivering men from the heaviest of their chains, that is, sin. Aditi, too, is the mother of storms (Rudras). With the original Aryans storms represented the fecundating principle. Thus they pictured the storm among the clouds under the lively image of a bull among cows. Hence the celestial animals. The horse had been already placed in heaven to represent the sun (Asva). The fire of the hearth, too, which they produced by rubbing two sticks together, was as much a god as Varuna and Mitra, and worshipped as Agni, one of the Adityas. Such was the innocent childhood of the Hindus, which originated a poetical mythology so closely allied to science, so rich in moral lessons,—could such innocence last?

Let us pass on to astrology as we find it among the Etruscans. We shall see the moral astrology of the primitive Aryans changed into political astrology. The word templum, the diminutive of tempus, as Varro tells us (de Ling. Lat. lib. vi.), signified—1, a division of the sky; 2, a spot on earth marked out by auspices; 3, by analogy, a spot below the earth. The augur with a staff (lituus) traced a line from north to south called cardo, and another from east to west called decumanus. Thus a temple consisted in marking out a spot; the entry was from the south, the sanctuary was at the north, propitious signs came from the east, unpropitious from the west. The same precautions which, according to Columella, agriculturists took in transplanting a tree to preserve the same aspect for roots and branches, the Romans, as disciples of the Etruscans, observed in fixing the site of their camps, their towns, &c., and not only this, but their observation of the flight of birds, their curious commentaries on the various forms of thunder and lightning, may all be reckoned as parts of astrology, inasmuch as to the Etruscan bards air and thunder appeared celestial phenomena. Just as Chinese astrologists professed the power of producing or averting eclipses, the Etruscan priests asserted that they could draw down or divert lightning. In fact, such claims are a common characteristic of what we have ventured to call political astrologies: everywhere political astrologists have laid claim to the production of phenomena which calculation, empiricism, or good fortune has enabled them to predict. If perchance their prediction failed, they saved their credit by saying that by their art they had averted the impending disaster. The Etruscans called their deities consentes, sharers of the destinies of their race, and believed that they were fated to perish after a reign of 6000 years. This doctrine of the renovation of heaven, earth, and gods, is found to prevail wherever politics, the growth of conquest, have supplanted the simple and childlike faith which springs up of itself among an innocent and unconquered race. When a nation left its home,—that land and sky which both witnessed the birth of its religion, and was part and parcel of that religion,—its priests gradually lost faith in their religion, and began to mix up politics with religion; its astrologers, whose business it was to interpret the signs of the heavens, felt that their power was doomed, and predicted a universal ruin, in which the nation, its religion, its gods, and heaven itself, were involved. But hope, which springs eternal in the human breast, made them add to their prophecy, that after the exhaustion of evil and the death of perverted races, a new order of things should be born. This is the creed of Hesiod’s sublime cosmogony; this is the burden of the 4th eclogue, in which Virgil has clothed the solemn strains of Etruria with a tenderness that is all his own. India, Egypt, Arabia, have all held the same belief, though the period between each palingenesis is different with each. Later on we shall meet with the same doctrine in the subtle doctor Cardan, though strangely disguised. With the Romans, before they were initiated into the learning of Greece, astrology was only another name for sorcery. Most readers will remember the picture in Tibullus of the witch who can draw down the moon by her charms, or succour the labouring moon. They can understand the idea of Heraclitus (for Greece, too, passed through this stage of meteorological psychology), who thought that truth is mixed up with the atmosphere, and that the sage breathes it. The same idea is thus rendered by Ovid, Fasti i. 473,—

"Quae, simul sethereos animo conceperat ignes,
Ore dabat vero carmina plena dei."

This is the genuine _____. Nearly every one is familiar with the famous passage in the fourth Georgic, beginning "Esse apibus partem divinae mentis et haustus," and the noble commentary of the poet which follows.

It was the sober belief of primitive Greece that the sun was a torch, and the stars candles periodically lit and extinguished. Xenophanes was the first philosopher who developed this astrological idea, and expounded the connection of the stars with the earth. Xenophanes thought that the stars were meteors, that is, terrestrial effluvia. This enables us to explain the malignant influence on plants and animals which both Greeks and Romans attributed to the stars, and expressed respectively by the words _____ and _____. The latest development of this belief is to be found in an English philosopher, who has written a book which proves that epidemics are due to the shocks of comets (Forster, Illustrations of the Astronomical Origin of Epidemic Diseases, Chelmsford, 1829). An American, in a work which shows some lucid intervals, borrows directly the thesis of Xenophanes, and demonstrates that wicked men contaminate the heavens and stars by their breath. Modern hallucinations are often the best commentary on ancient errors.

But the true source of astrology must be sought for in a remoter age than any we have yet reached. So far we have seen men grouped together as nations, possessing laws, reckoning more or less perfectly the course of time, making capital out of the defects of their calendar, like the Romans, or, it may be, complaining of those defects, and hailing the advent of a Meton like the Athenians in Aristophanes’s Clouds. But there must have been long preceding ages during which the passage of time was unmarked and unrecorded. Does not this idea of time mark the first stage of civilization? Some savages cannot reckon at all; others, like children, cannot go farther back than yesterday, or the day before yesterday; others, again, can only mark the year by the changes of the seasons, and their only landmarks for the past are great calamities which have befallen the tribe. But it would be a great mistake to conclude that Chaldeans, Persians, Egyptians, &c., set to work methodically to invent a system of notation, and to map out time into years and months. Assuredly, if men had had on other end in view than the possibility of some day or other keeping double entry, figures would be still to seek. Similarly, if men had thought that the chief result of the various researches and discoveries which a calendar presupposes, would be to enable them to make an appointment a month beforehand, the inducement would have proved insufficient. Fortunately, there were other and higher motives to urge on our ancestors of various races in the path of discovery—those of religion and of astrology. The earth, as Hesiod tells us, was once a common abode of gods and men. These are two remarkable lines of Homer (Od. xviii. 136), which Aristotle quotes, and Cicero has translated:—


Such was Homer’s astrology. But as, in course of time, each superior race in turn degenerated through the effects of conquest, either by mixing with inferior races, or by oppressing their equals (thus, for instance, the Lacedaemonians mixed with the Messenians or Helots, and thus the primitive Aryans oppressed the Dravidian tribes), as each race passed from the age of gold, the age of innocence, to the age of bronze or iron, of Krali or evil, so, to compensate in some way for the loss of morality, we find them making discoveries in science and art. Thus swords were forged of iron, notwithstanding that iron (according to the Finnish legend) had sworn never to slay men. Thus, too, they began to distinguish the several constellations through which the sun appeared to pass. Let us turn to the strange Theogony of Hesiod (1. 119 seq.), we shall find that Chaos is the parent of Night and Erebus; but the Earth,—seemingly because it had been the peaceful abode of the Immortals who dwell on the snowy peaks of Parnassus, partly, too, because the fairest of the Immortals is Love,—the Earth is the parent of the Heavens:—

"Tellus vero primum quidem genuit parem sibi
Coelum stellis ornatum ut ipsam totam obtegat,
Utque beatis sedea Divis fruta semper," &c.

That the gods inhabited the mountains or groves before they migrated to heaven is a universal belief. But in what can this heaven of the gods be said to resemble earth? A tradition, which Manilius has preserved, informs us that when Justice was banished from the earth she took up her abode, not in the heart of a king of France (there was then no France or king in the modern sense of the word), but in heaven as one of the constellations of the zodiac.

The zodiac was the heaven which exactly corresponded to the earth (the first astronomers, we need not remark, knew nothing of declinations); it was the zodiac which protected the earth, taught the earth its duties, pointed out not only days and seasons, but the proper work for each day and season. The zodiac was the first book that lay open for all to read, written in runes, as the Scandinavians thought,—in mim and clif as the Arabs interpreted it,— and in the hieroglyphics of animals and symbols, according to Assyrians and Egyptians. But, alas! this grand conception, which seemed so true to the first astronomers, was obscured by the continual displacement of the zodiac. Thus, in judicial astrology the sign under which a child is born is always the ram, as in our almanacs it is the first sign of the year. Thus, too, the sign of Jupiter _ in a slightly altered shape, still heads our prescriptions. Nor is this the only remaining trace of zodiacal belief. For not only was agricultural and political life regulated at first directly by the zodiac, and then through the calendar, but the zodiac applied no less to civil life. Hence the Roman idea and kalends, hence the Greek decade, hence the week of the Jews and other nations. This is not the place to discuss the difficult question of the relation of the zodiac to the week; for our purpose it is enough to observe, that it was by the days of the week, each placed under the protection of some stellar deity, that the priests regulated the whole civil life of a nation, its law courts, its markets, and marriages. The primitive week began with the day of Saturn, the ancient Bel of the Assyrians, so called in distinction from the younger Bel, i.e., Jupiter, and it ended with the day of Venus, the Assyrian Mylitta. This day, which was afterwards held accursed by the Christian Fathers, was probably consecrated to marriages. Saturn’s day, or the day of Soetere, was identified with the Sabbath, and Sunday with the Lord’s day; the day of Venus with that of Friga, the goddess of love (Friday); Jove’s with that of the Norse Thor (Thursday); Mercury’s with that of Woden, the god who grants wishes (Wednesday); and Mars’s with that of Tiw, the god of war (Tuesday). The Latin division of days into dies fasti and nefasti has perpetuated the same distinction of lucky and unlucky days which inspired Hesiod’s Works and Days. Many a tradesman at Rome must have made the same complaint as La Fontaine’s cobbler, "On nous ruine en fétes." With the Arabs Tuesday and Wednesday were the days for blood-letting, Mars being the lord of iron and blood, and Mercury of the humours. Even at the present day, travellers tell us, when an auspicious day has been proclaimed by the astrologers, the streets of Baghdad may be seen running with blood from the barbers’ shops. We see how soon the invention of the week became the engine of politicians and astrologers.

Our investigations have now brought us to judicial astrology, which is nothing else than the corruption of the purer astrology, the various phases of which we have attempted to trace. In a book published at Geneva in 1643, the year of Condé’s great victory, and of the succession of Louis XIV., entitled Janua Aurea reserata quatuor linguarum, 12mo, by J. A. Comenius, we find the following definition:—"Astronomus fiderum meatus seu motus considerat: Astrologus eorumdem efficaciam, influxum, et effectum." Kepler was more cautious in his opinion; he spoke of astronomy as the wise mother, and astrology as the foolish daughter, but he added that the existence of the daughter was necessary to the life of the mother. Tycho Brahe and Gassendi both began with astrology, and it was only after pursuing the false science, and finding it wanting, that Gassendi devoted himself to astronomy. In their numerous allusions to the subtle mercury, which the one makes when treating of a means of measuring time by the efflux of the metal, and the other in a treatise on the transit of the planet, we see traces of the school in which they served their first apprenticeship. Huyghens, moreover, in his great posthumous work, Cosmotheoros, seu de terris coelestibus, shows himself a more exact observer of astrological symbols than Kircher himself in his Iter exstaticum. In that remarkable discussion on the plurality of worlds, which was at once translated into French, and afterwards reproduced in a popular form by Fontenelle, Huyghens contends that between the inhabitants of different planets there need not be any greater difference than exists between men of different types on the earth. "There are on the earth," continues this rational interpreter of the astrologers and chiromancers, "men of cold temperament who would thrive in Saturn, which is the furthest planet from the sun, and there are other spirits warm and ardent enough to live in Venus." Astrology among the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, and at Alexandria, had established a complete parallelism between men of different types and the planets, on the basis of their relative distance from the sun. These different types of character had been fixed by the Greeks in their conception of the planetary gods, Apollo, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. To these the cabalists added the moon, as the planet corresponding to the phlegmatic temperament of the northern races. Apollo represented the nervous physique which Carus has rightly pronounced the most intellectual. But whence did the notion of this parallelism originate? The solution of this problem will elucidate the practical side of astrology.

Let us once more revert to the first infancy of science. From the general tendency of primitive man to bring all knowledge under a single head, we may safely conclude that the first study of the heavens embraced and dominated over every other attempt at science. The cosmogonists pretended to explain the earth by the heavens, but as they were bound to proceed from the known to the unknown, they did, in fact, explain the heaven by the earth and, in particular, by men. Hence, in many mythologies, the universe is an egg, and in that of Finland a duck’s egg, the spots on the shell representing the constellations. Later on we find the eternal revolution and renovation of the universe symbolised by a serpent biting its tail. Lastly, the universe as a perfect and harmonious order, a _____, is conceived as the highest organism to be found on earth, a huge animal. This cosmical animal in turn, owing to the interlacing of religious ideas, images, and symbols, was supposed to influence the different parts of the body. This gives us the clue to the first steps of medical science, which, like the other sciences, began by being astrological. In short, the first encyclopaedia was astrology. There is a well-known story of the case of two brothers who fell ill at the same instant. Posidonius the astrologer, on being consulted, pronounced that they were born under the same constellation. Hippocrates the physician concluded from the coincidence that they must be twins; yet even Hippocrates could not rid himself of the terrestrial theory of the heavens. (See chap. 11, de auris, de aquis, de locis.) The Egyptians peopled the constellations of the zodiac with genii; the ram (Arnum) was lord of the head; the bull (Apis), of the neck and shoulders; the twins (Hercules and Apollo), of the arms and hands; and lastly, to the fishes were assigned the feet. The Persians, again, ascribed to the empyrean generally the influence over the citadel of the body—the head. Dionysius the Areopagite, indulging his religious proclivities, established hierarchies of genii in the constellations. The Assyrians were led by their form of government to place thirty-six conciliar-gods in the twelve signs of the zodiac, and to the interpreter-gods, whose province it was to inspect and survey the various divisions of the heavens, they allotted the wandering planets. Whenever a new discovery was made in medicine or science, the province of the god-stars was immediately enlarged; thus the Egyptians, observing the symmetry of the human body, and connecting this with the dualism of human faculties, at once made the sun (Ra) the lord of the forehead, the moon mistress of the brain, and Mercury of the tongue; but to Saturn they assigned only the left eye; to Jupiter was given the right; Mars had the right nostril, Venus the left. Meanwhile, in another quarter of the globe a religion was growing up,—a religion of mild anthropomorphism, wholly removed from Oriental transcendentalism. It is in Greece, whose deities had been gradually moulded and drilled so as to serve as types of men and manners, that we must look for the key of astrology. Jupiter, the embodiment of authority, and Cronos, or Saturn, the impersonation of malignant opposition to authority, are the two most prominent figures of ancient mythology. Venus was placed below Mars; that is, the sensual passion was subjected to martial ardour. The astrologers of the Renaissance deviated from the Egyptians in assigning the right nostril to Venus, and the left to Mars: the reason was, that, with Cardan and Vanini, Venus represented rather the German Friga than the Eastern Mylitta,—chaste love rather than luxury. Those of our readers who wish to learn further the opinion of Cardan and Vanini, we would refer to the Amphitheatrum asternae Providentiae and De admirandis natures reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis libri quatuor, in which the mocking astrologer breaks a lance with the too subtle philosopher. The quarrel between two learned doctors of the art naturally resulted in the death of the patient. Astrology, already at its last gasp, could not bear such rude treatment. Vanini, the Lucian among astrologers, the hero, who exclaimed, as he was being led to the stake, "Courage—let them see how a philosopher can die," has in his works crushed Aristotle by the help of Averroes, and Averroes and Cardan by the help of good sense. And yet the good-humoured satirist, who suffered for his free speech by having his tongue cut out, and being then burnt at the stake, was, notwithstanding, the disciple of Averroes, and the admirer of Cardan. So true is it that reason in its early stages of civilisation is the good genius of the privileged few, who, unlike many moderns, have more sense than they give themselves credit for,—a privilege which they dearly purchased by persecution, or, worse still, by neglect.

Under Albumazar (776-885), astrology, returning to Persian and Graeco-Egyptian ideas, appears as the legislator of action and religion. The Caliph Al-Mamun embraced the theory of his favourite astrologer, which fixed the duration of the Mahometan religion at 544, and that of Christianity at 1460 years. Is not this fact in itself sufficient to explode the generally received notion of Mussulman intolerance? Cardan developed this thesis. In one plan he makes Christianity born under Jupiter and Mercury (authority and cunning); and, according to this horoscope, it was destined to be short-lived. For once Vanini is found quoting Cardan with ill-concealed satisfaction. But afterwards, to curry favour with the Papacy, he recants, and says that Christianity was born under the most favourable conjunction of the planets Jupiter and the sun (authority and justice). Thereupon Vanini attacks Cardan under the assumed mask of a Dutch atheist. This example will suffice to show us how astrological symbols were employed by the sceptics, and what interpretation we must put upon their astrological phraseology.

We may now describe the ordinary proceedings of an astrologer. The zodiac was first arranged in much the same fashion as the cards in the game of Tarots. The four ages of man had each three houses in the zodiac. Each of this triple series was composed of a cardinal, a succeeding, and a declining or cadent house. Disastrous signs predominated over auspicious. For kings and nobles these signs were modified, but they took care to preserve a copy of the horoscope to be modified as circumstances required. Pascal remarks,—"They say that eclipses portend misfortunes, because misfortunes are common, so that, as some ill chance often happens, they are often right, whereas if they said that they portended good fortune, they would be generally wrong. They only assign good fortune to rare conjunctions of the stars, and this is how their predictions rarely fail." Those ages during which astrologers were dominant by the terror they inspired, and sometimes by the martyrdom they endured when their predictions were either too true or too false, were in truth the saddest in the world’s history. Faith, to borrow their own language, was banished to Virgo, and rarely shed her influence on men. Cardan, for instance, hated Luther, and so changed his birthday in order to give him an unfavourable horoscope. In Cardan’s times, as in those of Augustus, it was a common practice for men to conceal the day and hour of their birth, till, like Augustus, they found a complaisant astrologer. But, as a general rule, astrologers did not give themselves the trouble of reading the stars, they contented themselves with telling fortunes by faces. They practised chiromancy, and relied on afterwards drawing a horoscope to suit. As physiognomists their talent was undoubted, and we may again call Vanini as a witness that there is no need to mount to the housetop to cast a nativity. "Yes," he says, "I can read his face; by his hair and his forehead it is easy to guess that the sun at his birth was in the sign of Libra and near Venus. Nay, his complexion shows that Venus touches Libra. By the rules of astrology he could not lie." No doubt, by the rules of chiromancy, a calm forehead, clustering locks, a clear and sanguine complexion, are signs of sincerity. If we combine Apollo and Venus, i.e., manliness and tenderness, the product is sincerity. If we wish to see this type of character to perfection, we have only to look at a good portrait of Spinoza.

In conclusion, we shall give a few salient facts concerning the astrologers and their predictions, remarkable either for their fulfilment, or for the ruin and confusion they brought upon their authors. We may begin with one taken from Bacon’s Essay of Prophecies:—"When I was in France, I heard from one Dr Pena, that the queen mother, who was given to curious arts, caused the king her husband’s nativitie to be calculated, under a false name; and the astrologer gave a judgment, that he should be killed in a duell; at which the quene laughed, thinking her husband to be above challenges and duels; but he was slaine, upon a course at tilt, the splinters of the staffe of Mongomery going in at his bever." A favourite topic of the astrologers of all countries has been the immediate end of the world. As early as 1186 the earth had escaped one threatened cataclysm of the astrologers. This did not prevent Stoffler from predicting a universal deluge for the year 1524—a year, as it turned out, distinguished for drought. His aspect of the heavens told him that in that year three planets would meet in the aqueous sign of Pisces. The prediction was believed far and wide, and president Aurial, at Toulouse, built himself a Noah’s ark— a curious realisation, in fact, of Chaucer’s merry invention in the Miller’s Tale. In China any false prediction of the astrologers was punished with death. But, as Juvenal remarks in his Sixth Satire, the astrologers’ chief power depends on their persecution. M. Höfer cannot persuade himself that the Chinese possessed any extensive astronomical knowledge which they afterwards forgot. Still, the position of the astrologists, that is, the astronomers, in China sufficiently explains this relapse in astronomy. They preferred to trust to chance, and live in honour with credulous emperors, at the risk of being hanged by those they failed to please. Inordinate rewards and inordinate punishments made them indifferent to all pure love of science, and life with Orientals has always been reckoned a small stake in the game. Not only was Tycho Brahe from his fifteenth year devoted to astrology, but adjoining his observatory at Uranienburg, the astronomer royal of Denmark had a laboratory built in order to study alchemy, and it was only a few years before his death that he finally abandoned astrology. We may here notice one very remarkable prediction of the master of Kepler. That he had carefully studied the comet of 1577 as an astronomer, we may gather from his adducing the very small parallax of this comet as disproving the assertion of the Aristotelians that a solid sphere enveloped the heavens. But besides this, we find him in his character of astrologer drawing a singular prediction from the appearance of this comet. It announced, he tells us, that in the north, in Finland, there should be born a prince who should lay waste Germany and vanish in 1632. Gustavus Adolphus, it is well known, was born in Finland, overran Germany, and died in 1632. The fulfilment of the details of this prophecy was, of course, nothing but a lucky hit, but we may convince ourselves that Tycho Brahe had some basis of reason for his prediction. He was no dupe of vulgar astrology, but gifted rather with a happy inspiration like that of Paracelsus, who saw in himself the forerunner and prototype of the scientific ascendency of Germany. Born in Denmark of a noble Swedish family, a politician, as were all his contemporaries of distinction, Tycho, though no conjuror, could foresee the advent of some great northern hero. Moreover, he was doubtless well acquainted with a very ancient tradition, that heroes generally came from the northern frontiers of their native land, where they are hardened and tempered by the threefold struggle they wage with soil, climate, and barbarian neighbours.

Kepler explained the double movement of the earth by the rotation of the sun. At one time the sun presented its friendly side, which attracted one planet, sometimes its adverse side, which repelled it. He also peopled the planets with souls and genii. He was led to his three great laws by musical analogies, just as later on an organist of Hanover, William Herschel, passed from music to astronomy. Kepler, who in his youth made almanacs, and once prophesied a hard winter, which came to pass, could not help putting an astrological interpretation on the disappearance of the brilliant star of 1572, which Tycho had observed. Theodore Beza thought that this star, which in December 1573 equalled Jupiter in brilliancy, predicted the second coming of Christ. Astronomers were only then beginning to study variable and periodic stars, and disturbances in that part of the heavens, which had till then, on the authority of Aristotle, been regarded as incorruptible, combined with the troubles of the times, must have given a new stimulus to belief in the signs in heaven. Montaigne (Essais, lib. i. chap. 10) relates a singular episode in the history of astrology. Charles V. and Francis I., who both bid for the friendship of the infamous Aretin, surnamed the divine, both likewise engaged astrologers to fight their battles. In Italy those who prophesied the ruin of France were sure to be listened to. These prophecies affected the public funds much as telegrams do nowadays. "At Rome," Montaigne tells us, "a large sum of money was lost on the Change by this prognostication of our ruin." The marquis of Saluces, notwithstanding his gratitude to Francis I. for the many favours he had received, including his marquisate, of which the brother was despoiled for his benefit, was led in 1536 to betray his country, being scared by the glorious prophecies of the ultimate success of Charles V. which were then rife. The influence of the Medici made astrologers popular in France. Richelieu, on whose council was Gaffarel, the last of the cabalists, did not despise astrology as an engine of government. At the birth of Louis XIV. a certain Morin de Villefranche was placed behind a curtain to cast the nativity of the future autocrat. A generation back the astrologer would not have been hidden behind a curtain, but have taken precedence of the doctor. La Bruyère dares not pronounce against such beliefs, "for there are perplexing facts affirmed by grave men who were eye-witnesses." In England William Lilly and Robert Fludd were both dressed in a little brief authority. The latter gives us elaborate rules for the detection of a thief, and tells us that he has had personal experience of their efficacy. "If the lord of the sixth house is found in the second house, or in company with the lord of the second house, the thief is one of the family. If Mercury is in the sign of the Scorpion he will be bald, &c." Francis Bacon abuses the astrologers of his day no less than the alchemists, but he does so because he has visions of a reformed astrology and a reformed alchemy. Sir Thomas Browne, too, while he denies the capacity of the astrologers of his day, does not venture to dispute the reality of the science. The idea of the souls of men passing at death to the stars, the blessedness of their particular sphere being assigned them according to their deserts (the metempsychosis of J. Reynaud), may be regarded as a survival of religious astrology, which, even as late as Descartes’s day, assigned to the angels the role of moving the planets and the stars. Joseph de Maistre, the last and ablest champion of old-fashioned orthodoxy, believed in comets as messengers of divine justice, and in animated planets, and declared that divination by astrology is not an absolutely chimerical science. Lastly, we may mention a few distinguished men who ran counter to their age in denying stellar influences. Aristarchus of Samos, Martianus Capella (the precursor of Copernicus), Cicero, Favorinus, Sextus Empiricus, Juvenal, and in a later age La Fontaine, a contemporary of the neutral La Bruyère, were all pronounced opponents of astrology.

In England Swift may fairly claim the credit of having given the death-blow to astrology by his famous squib, entitled Prediction for the Year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. He begins by professing profound belief in the art, and next points out the vagueness and the absurdities of the philomaths. He then, in the happiest vein of parody, proceeds to show them a more excellent way:—"My first prediction is but a trifle, yet I mention it to show how ignorant these sottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns: it refers to Partridge the almanac-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rules, and find he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next about eleven at night of a raging fever. Therefore I advise him to consider of it and settle his affairs in time." Then followed a letter to a person of quality giving a full and particular account of the death of Partridge on the very day and nearly at the hour mentioned. In vain the wretched astrologer protested that he was alive, got a literary friend to write a pamphlet to prove it, and published his almanac for 1709. Swift, in his reply, abused him for his want of manners in giving a gentleman the lie, answered his arguments seriatim, and declared that the evidence of the publication of another almanac was wholly irrelevant, "for Gadbury, Poor Robin, Dove, and Way do yearly publish their almanacs, though several of them have been dead since before the Revolution."

Seeing that astrology once permeated all sciences, all religion, and all politics, it is not strange if traces of it crop up when we should least expect them. To astrological politics we owe the theory of heaven-sent rulers, instruments in the hands of Providence, and saviours of society. Napoleon as well as Wallenatein believed in his star. Even now that the science is dead it lives on in our language. Many passages in our older poets are unintelligible without some knowledge of astrology. Chaucer wrote a treatise on the astrolabe, Milton constantly refers to planetary influences; in Shakspeare’s King Lear, Gloucester and Edmund represent respectively the old and the new faith. We still contemplate and consider; we still speak of men as jovial, saturnine, or mercurial; we still talk of the ascendency of genius, or a disastrous defeat.

ETYMOLOGIES.—Belief in the influence of the heavens, the air, and the flight of birds upon human affairs has left traces in all languages. The Greek _____, and the Latin siderari, sideratio, templum, have been already referred to. In French, heur, malheur, heureux, malheureux, are all derived from the Latin augurium; the expression né sous une mauvaise étoile, born under an evil star, corresponds (with the change of étoile into astre) to the word malôtru, in Provençal malastrue; and son étoile pâlit, his star grows pale, belongs to the same class of illusions. The Latin ex augurio appears in the Italian sciagura, sciagurato, softened into sciaura, sciaurato, wretchedness, wretched. The influence of a particular planet has also left traces in various languages; but these must rather be explained by chiromancy than by astrology. The French and English jovial and the English saturnine correspond rather to the gods who served as types in chiromancy than to the planets which bear the same names. But this is not the case with the expressions bien or mal luné, well or ill-mooned, avoir un quartier de lune dans la tête, to have the quarter of the moon in one’s head, nor with the German mondsüchtig »nd the English moonstruck; the fundamental idea of such expressions lies in the extraordinary opinions formerly held about the moon. The belief in good or evil influence by the mere medium of a look has also left its mark on language; as in the Italian il buon, il cattiv’ occhio, the good, or evil, eye ; la jettatura, bewitching by a look, &c.(J. A.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries