What Is Astrology?
Thoughts on a complex question.
by the Planet Mechanic
The Not So Short Answer
May 15, 2015
It's probably impossible to define astrology. You will, therefore, read and hear many and often conflicting ideas about what astrology is. Most common is hearing people say that they either believe or don't believe in it. This is interesting because astrology is not a belief system. Astrology is largely misunderstood and there are many reasons for this. Newspaper horoscopes are the foremost reason that people put astrology into a box, a small one at that. They 'believe' that's what astrology is. They confuse what they believe it to be with if they think there is anything to it. Saying you don't believe in astrology is like saying you don't believe in the colour blue. How would you define blue?
Astrology has been many things throughout the passage of recent history. By recent I mean, say, the last 6,000 years. That's as far back as we can go with the actual physical records of ancient civilisation's very advanced understanding of astrology. Back then, astrology was prevalent in Egypt and Mesopotamia and appears to have been a type of astral-religion. The planets were the portends of the Gods. The dark night sky at that time enabled ancient astrologers to make correlations between astronomical events and what happened on earth. They also developed mathematical models to predict when similar events were to occur. What happened on Earth was largely an act of the Gods. Therefore, the planets were the messengers of the Gods.
Pseudo-scientific thought first emerged with Ionian and Greek philosophers around the 5th Century BCE. This influenced the first departure from mythical explanations for the phenomena of the world and universe, to scientific thought and rationale. Knowledge began to be systematized. Mathematical relationships began to explain the nature of all things. Beliefs in immortality and mysticism however remained. Plato introduced political models that started a movement away from mythic and theocratic politics. Alexander the Great invaded and conquered the Middle East, Egypt, Asia Minor and Babylon. This elevated inter-cultural exchanges, particular around religious/mythic beliefs, mystic knowledge and science. He ordered the building of the great Egyptian library in Alexandria (named after himself). He called for scholars to gather and transcribe their knowledge for the library. Alexandria became a great cosmopolitan centre for learning and birthed Hellenistic Greek astrology - a culmination of Syrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek knowledge. Knowledge flourished, including astrology. Aristotle, around the same time, wrote extensively on the natural world, sciences and early physics. Several schools of philosophy emerged including Zeno's Stoicism - that happiness comes when emotions are disciplined. Stoicism embraced fatalistic astrology and saw it as an important tool in learning one's fate and how to embrace fate. Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism followed. There was much debate over fate versus free will and whether belief versus knowledge could lead to spiritual redemption - the ultimate goal of life. Is that so much different to us today? These thoughts, discussions and debates are now over 2000 years old. The difference is, back then, they studied philosophy, and astrology's place in their world view. They made observations and debated the topic to make up their minds. Today, most people read a horoscope in the newspaper and make up their mind about astrology.
Throughout this time extensive astrological works were written and they are available in translations today. Project Hindsight and Arhat Media over the last 20 years have undertaken exhaustive efforts to translate many of the old texts. The result is that the lost Hellenistic and subsequent medieval astrology traditions, that emerged from the library in Alexandria, have been largely reconstructed by some of the best astrological minds of our time. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the Project Hindsight Conclaves in Cumberland, Maryland, USA and their "Hind Quarters" where their library and translation efforts continue. Hellenistic astrology was incorporated into the Kepler College programme of study which I graduated from in 2004.
So back to the not-so-short story - up until the height of the Roman Empire, astrology was still a topic of enquiry, a phenomenon observed and calculated. It was clear, from scientific observation and predicting future events, that what happened in the sky correlated to what happened on Earth. Its credibility was never in question. However, the Romans began to question the ethical use of astrology. Astrology was used in Roman politics to select military leaders and to pick dates and times when their rival faction leaders were vulnerable to attack. Some astrologers were murdered after delivering their conclusions to the Emperor as they were seen as a threat - holding information that today we would call 'a matter of national security'. Laws were passed to maintain control over its use. Astrology then had nothing to do with beliefs. It was science, now bound by laws. Google defines science as "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."
Still reading this far? Ok, back to our timeline. At the fall of the Roman Empire 476CE, the Church grew stronger in Western Europe intertwining Church and State throughout the Middle Ages. Roman infrastructure fell in ruins, literacy declined and subsistence agriculture emerged as did various land-owning Kings giving rise to an era of feudalism. Most of the knowledge of the prior golden years were housed by monasteries along with other remaining elements of antiquity. However, further to the East - Byzantium (Greece, Italy, Southern Spain, Asia Minor, parts of the near East, North Africa and the Balkans), retained a high level of Greek culture, based their societies on Roman government and were Christian in faith. Economy, culture and civilization thrived and there was a clear distinction between Eastern Byzantium and the dark ages of Western Europe. Byzantium became an important preserver of the philosophy, science, mathematics and literature of ancient Greece, including astrology, and gave rise to the Arabic astrology and Islam. Astrology travelled further East to India, through trade routes, and thus began Vedic astrology in India with principles remarkably similar to Hellenistic astrology from where they originated.
In the west, the first accusations of astrology being heretical occur around 1150CE by Michael Glykas, a monk. This caused much debate amongst Church Fathers who were at this time, holders of the threads of astrology remaining in the West. These debates between East and West were a serious source of conflict that still exists today. These differences in Christian belief, among many others, culminated when the West launched the holy wars, The Crusades, on Constantinople and Jerusalem. Christianity was thereafter forever scarred with religious intolerance and fanaticism. By 1200CE, Church leaders in the West were given the status of being lower than God, but higher than man. A papal monarchy was enforced, bent on heretical expulsion, with the added benefit of new laws making clergy exempt from taxes. Politics and religion were married. Astrology was expelled, but it remained alive and well in the East. What survived in the West was various astrological medical treatises. Up until about 300 years ago, if you were studying to be a Doctor in Europe, you would have studied medical astrology.
Astrology saw a resurgence of interest during the Renaissance alongside 'Humanism' which revitalised the study of Greek and Roman literature as sources of inspiration to finding the good life, self-cultivation and to write and speak well. Astrological ideas appear in works of poetry and art and of course frequently by Shakespeare Humanism moved away from the Roman-Catholic view that people were inherently sinful, but rather that they were capable of great excellence and therefore it was a person's duty to pursue this. Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German monk and theologian, began attacks on the Church authority, particularly around selling indulgences and eventually rebelled and started the Protestant religion. This marked the beginning of much religious discontent and reformation. However heretical efforts continued with the Church censoring heretical books and ideas, including astrology. Just as strongly, numerous religious scholars, physicians, mathematicians and aristocrats continued to lobby that astrology is suited to Christian studies, and compatible with Christian beliefs. These debates are alive and well today.
The 15th to 18th Centuries had much scientific and mathematical advancement. There was Galileo's telescope (and the arrest for his beliefs), and advancement in medical astrology including Culpepper's Herbal which is still in print today, and Isaac Newton's celestial mechanics (the inspiration for this website's name). The English Revolution and European Expansion gave rise to capitalism and world economics. Europe turned away from a frayed religious outlook on life from the middle ages and became concerned with the personal attainment of wealth through enterprise and production. Religion was divorced from politics with great resistance and people adopted a more scientific world view. Material gain became the focus of life. By the last 17-19th Century slavery became a means of increasing production and wealth. These changes were a prelude to the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th Century. During this time astrology and mysticism in general, along with faith and religious views, lost favour in the hearts and minds of European culture. It was a time of spiritual abandonment due to hundreds of years of disillusionment and corruption in spiritual leaders. What did people think of astrology then? Probably that it was something of the past and not something to be concerned with. The material world was now the ultimate goal of life, not spiritual redemption.
Madam Blavatsky (1831-1891) was one of the key people during this time to travel to the East as a Russian aristocrat. She explored the rich world of mysticism alive in Egypt and India and studied various esoteric and occult arts through mystery schools there such as "The Brotherhood of Luxor". She later returned to Europe and began the "Theosophical Society" for those interested in exploring spiritualism in the wake of religion, including astrology. The Theosophical Society is alive and well today. This marked the beginning of what people today call the "New Age" movement. Astrology is often perceived as a new age discipline - as a form of divination. Divination is defined by Google as "the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means." Now that's quite different from where things were at 2000 years ago. I wonder what the Greek philosophers would have to say about that? It's also quite different from the definition of science. Which one, science or divination, do you think more accurately describes astrology, given our historical view? Astrology is much older than the new age movement. Astrology is ancient - probably as old as the creation of the planet Earth. However, the term "supernatural" and "divination" are today possibly replaced, as an idea for a mechanism, by the scientific term, "quantum field".
Throughout the passage of time, it is various forms of thought that have shaped the way that people think today about astrology. These schools of thought were Egyptian religious myths, Greek philosophical thought, Christian beliefs, Roman societal laws, materialism and capitalism and new age practices to name just a few. Astrology is not a school of thought. It is a phenomenon that exists within our world like fire, earth, air, water, ether and the colour blue. Astrology has not changed over time. It is a constant. It is human thought about astrology that has changed and will no doubt continue to change. One day soon we will discover how it works to satisfy our current emphasis on scientific thought and we can debate that too. Next time you're out in the countryside, away from the lights of civilisation, stay up late, take a walk under the night sky and try not to think too much. That should do it.
The Short Answer
May 15, 2015
Astrology is the metaphysical study of the movement of the planets and how these correlate to events on Earth, including individuals. The date, time and place of your birth is used to calculate a map of the sky - your natal astrology chart. The chart reveals the promise of a person's life, their challenges, skills and talents, relationships and how they will succeed. Nothing is set in stone and the forces of fate and free will are always tested along the way.
The mechanism for how astrology works is yet unexplained. However, we do know that more babies are born at the full moon and there is more crime at the full moon. As the full moon pulls the tides stronger, there appears to be a correlation to a pull in the human psyche. Likewise a lack of sun can make people depressed and solar flares can cause erratic behaviour and electronic communication problems. Statistical studies have been published on the significance of astrology and correlations found. It's a complex and vast subject that has been studied for over 6,000 years. The art and science of interpretation is within the hands of the astrologer.