Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

I’ve Never Known My Sign

The Daily Show did a very funny piece this week on the adoption of a new astrological sign. You can watch it here if you’re in Canada, here if you’re in the States.

I thought about it for a while, especially the part about the new sign coming from the ‘ancients’. At first I thought this would be a good chance to start talking about the ‘legitimacy of the past’ fallacy. By this I mean the use the past peoples to legitimize an idea in a modern sense. Humans do this all the time- ancient grains, traditional foods, basically anything that can be claimed as esoteric ancient knowledge… we constantly use the past to legitimize the present. It doesn’t matter if you’re arguing that we should adopt more traditional ecological practises or arguing that you have more rights than immigrants because your family was here first: both of these arguments are invalid if the only supporting evidence is that it happened in the past. In order to use information from past cultures you need something more concrete and tangible to validate your argument. It’s like arguing that a modern adoption of ancient farming practises (i.e. crop rotation, natural pesticides, etc.) can be beneficial to current ecological problems. This is a perfectly valid hypothesis and we should test it. If it’s true, then we should adopt these practises. If it’s not, we don’t. But if  we just adopt behaviours because some ‘ancients’ did, we’re being pretty dumb.

Admittedly this is an over simplification of the process, but I’m not ready to go into that yet- so we’ll leave it for another day.

Alright, I’ve been tangential enough… I’m going to move on; I’ll likely come back to that point again and again because it comes up in almost everything modern about the past, but right now I want to write about the history of the zodiac. Mainly because I don’t know anything about it.

I’m not going to write about the new thirteenth sign. You can read about that here, or here , or basically anywhere

I’m also not going to use this as a chance to debunk astrology, which is probably what the astronomer (not astrologer) Parke Kunkle was trying to do when he started the latest round of this debate. That’s right: latest. Here is a paper talking about this particular topic from 1977, and here is another one from 1999 about how there are actually 21 different astronomical constellations in the zodiac.

I’m also not going to attempt to debunk Astrology. Personally I don’t think it’s worth anything more than the space it gets in the paper (and probably not even that), but I’m not going to try and debunk it. If you’re interested, Phil Plait does a good job of removing said bunk from the discussion on his Blog Bad Astronomy. He also tackles the subject of more than twelve constellations here. Or you could read a scholarly article about how Astrological readings are as likely to be accurate as pure chance. I’m not going to bother reiterating those points, you can read them and make up your own mind… if you want to.

Instead I’m going to talk about the history of the modern astrological chart.

We have already established that this whole 13th sign thing is old news and astronomers have known about this for some time, but they tend to not buy into the astrology thing anyways, so they probably didn’t really bother trying to make it a big deal. It’s also not big news outside astronomy circles, as astrologers have also known about this for a while now and dismiss it as not being a big deal, which I agree- it’s not.

Interestingly the astrologer quoted in the article above seems to justify the use of twelve symbols by some other numbers: 12 months, and four triplicates. Fours is another big number right? Four Seasons, Four elements. Sounds like numerology. Remember that. That comes back.

I could start by looking at how the twelve month division of the year is based on lunar cycles, not a solar one, and is not the only (or even best) way to divide up the year. In fact it’s rooted in its own historic context, and is a product of some circuitous developments.  That’s why we need 28 (or 29) days in February, and 30 or 31 in all the other months. But I won’t bother going down that road.

Also, let’s ignore the obvious inaccurate  idea of 12 as a natural divisor of time: the Mayans had a pretty damn accurate calendar and they used 18 and 20 as divisors. Hell, let’s even forget for a minute that even the idea of four seasons is not a universal. Let us instead just talk about how the modern, western horoscope came to have a primary place in today’s Lifestyle section.

I should mention that I’m going to focus on Western astrology because it’s the one that shows up in our papers. I know there are other types, but let’s try and keep this some-what brief.

Basically, the first real appearance of Western Astrology comes from those lovable scamps called the Babylonians. Early records of celestial omens come from a series of tablets called Enuma anu enlil, which roughly means: In the Days of Anu and Enlil. It probably dates from at least the 7th century BC, but can’t really be classified as true astronomy, since it comes from a period long before anyone had any idea about a spherical and geocentric universe.

It also sounds like Tolkien wrote it. Which is Nerd-tastic. I once made up the wrong answers on a quiz in an Arch 100 class from Tolkien and Stargate names. Kind of on a bet, kind of as an experiment in nerdy-ness. My class won. Highest scoring test of the year. Moving on….

Early astrology was kind of limited: Babylonians didn’t have the ability to predict future celestial events. They even had a hard time telling you what things were going to be like a couple of months from now- they just didn’t have the math skills. Like me. Also early astrology wasn’t about self help. It was about predicting the outcome of current events based on celestial portents or omens. Like who was going to win a battle, or if my son was going to grow up to kill me and marry my wife.

What? He is? Better go leave him on a mountain somewhere. I'm sure everything will work out. It's not like anyone is going to poke out their own eyes or anything.

So, the Big Bad Babylonians are the first recorded people to look to the night skies to help sort through the chaos of day-to-day life. But History marches on and eventually the Greeks become the predominant culture in the neighbourhood. Now these guys know some stuff about some stuff. I’m sure you’re aware of Pythagoras and all that. So predictions became more precise (note: precise does not mean correct!) and  natal charts and personal readings become increasingly popular. In the 1st century AD, Dorotheus of Sidon writes the Carmen Astrologicum, which is all about the current state of astrology- and how the Greeks got it from the Babylonians. Or at least how he thought the Greeks got it from the Babylonians. Ancient historians were shady on references.

Later on, meaning the mid 4th century A.D., we even get some manuscripts written for the Roman who wants to be a good astrologer. By the way, if you read that link you’ll see that the authors claim these manuscripts was written in 330 B.C.E, not the 4th century A.D. like I just said. (FYI: BC=BCE and AD=CE, its a weird kind of thing that some historians use).

I’ll clear it up for you. The authors are wrong. The author of the quoted manuscript name is Firmicus, and he lived during the reign of Constantine, which is after the BC/AD (BCE/CE) transition. I’m going to assume it was a typo and not some deliberate attempt to portray their sources as even older because really, what’s a few centuries amongst friends? Instead I’m just going to assume they meant CE, not BCE and move on.

Firmicus also gives us the earliest recorded example of the Thema Mundi, which sets the planets in rising houses, and as far as I can tell is the earliest example of its use: and therefore the earliest example of the 12 houses in their current order.

So by 2000 years ago astrology is well in place, houses in order, 12 signs, natal charts, heck it’s even being used by Emperors. But then again, those guys were not always the bastion of sense and good judgment… right Caligula?

Now that’s a leader you can trust.

However, after the Roman Empire “collapses” (more on that kettle of fish later) astrology takes a back seat to other means of predicting the future. Until the Italians bring back Greek philosophies with the whole Renaissance thing. Admittedly  astrology was hanging around before then, but Renaissance Philosophers bring it back big time. They even claim to have perfected it. Interestingly, the major man in this movement is more concerned with the astrological affect of heavenly bodies on the health of the body and the mind then he is with predicting future events. His name is Marsilius Ficinus and he may be the first person to try and get at the personality side of celestial movements. But he’s still not writing your daily horoscope.

Never the less, thanks to Ficino, astrology chugs along until the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century. When it hits a wall.

The new age of scientific revolution (aka the Enlightenment) kind of puts the brakes on Astrology, especially since the Earth was once and for all determined not to be the centre of the universe.  With this new interest in the natural sciences  the gap between astrology and astronomy grows particularly wide, as those fascinated with the movements of the planets are no longer attempting to predict the future, but instead become more concerned with the natural reasons for those movements. Kind of like how chemistry and alchemy share similar roots, but are not the same thing at all.

I basically skipped over all the stuff that was going on during this time with Islamic, Arab, and Persian Astrology. Which is a shame, because it’s interesting- so you should go read about it. I will point out that Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya argues against the influence of planetary bodies in much the same way that Phil Plait did. But he did it 700 years ago. Islamic Science kicked serious butt in the Medieval Period.

Anyways, the whole Enlightenment thing basically punches astrology in the gut, where it writhes around on the floor until the 19th century when Dr Walter Gorn Old and William Fredrick Allan popularized it again.  I should note that the Dr. in front of Walter’s name is one of medicine, not science. Again pointing out that that doctors are not necessarily scientists.

I should mention that if you read astrology books and don’t recognize either of those names you probably know them by their more recognizable names. The good doctor published all his works under the name Sepharial, while his buddy Bill changed his last name to his birth sign and wrote his works under the name as Allen Leo.

Both of them were members of the Theosophical Society, which I don’t have time to write about now- but is weird and very, very interesting. And is probably the reason that modern astrology has so much religious and spiritual overtones to it. Briefly put: the Theosophical Society formed the basis for much of the belief systems now covered under the umbrella of ‘New Age’. They did this by combining all manner of spiritual belief, including Sanskrit teachings, Eastern Philosophy, and Numerology (see I told you it would be back!) into one easy to understand rhetoric.

They also believed that modern humans developed on the continent of Atlantis, but honestly, who doesn’t!  Indiana Jones found Atlantis in 1992, so we know that place is real.

This one had Nazis and Submarines!

On a side note, the founder of the Theosophical Society was accused of being a charlatan, a false medium, evil, a spy for the Russians, a “smoker of cannabis”, a spy for the English, a racist, and a falsifier of letters. Which would make her a pretty busy woman. I especially like how she spied for both the Russians and the English.

She also had a thing for epic beards

So basically,the Theosophical Society formed the basis for much of the  ‘New Age’ beliefs, which they made popular by taking complex beliefs systems and simplifying them. They then used their large network of members, especially those in the print media (also known as the only media), to spread these versions around the Western World. Which is basically what old Mr. Leo did with Astrology.

He condensed the meanings of signs, houses, and planets into such simplistic terms that they began to seem very similar. He also popularized the idea of personal and physcological astronomy, rather than the traditional prediction of events. Because of this he is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Astrology”.

This point is sometimes glossed over when talking about how the tradition of astrology dates back to Babylonian times. Sure the Babylonians looked to the stars to predict the outcome of possible decisions, but interpret the cause of catastrophic events, but they didn’t use it to tell us whether or not we were a good match for each other. Or if today was a good day to start a new economic venture. Just like modern astrologists don’t really look to the sky to explain modern catastrophic events. No one tried to say that Pluto being in Gemini in the 9th house opposite Saturn was the cause of September 11th attacks.

Okay, so maybe some people did.

But essentially the Spiritual, Karmatic, and New-Agey kind of astrology has its history deeply rooted in the origins of the Theosophical Society. Which didn’t exist until 1875.

The history of the symbols, the terms, and the use of stars as divination goes way beyond that of course; but the modern version- with its emphasis on self-help and emotional wellbeing- is mostly derived from the teachings of two guys who didn’t even publish with their real names.

And this all goes back to how we use the past to mystify the present, to add value to our ideas, or to legitimize are own beliefs. I also have a theory on why we like Ancient Greek philosophies but not Ancient Roman, but I’ll save that one for another day.

It’s pretty simple really. If you like reading your horoscope and doing birth charts, and you get something from it, then you do, and there isn’t much  likelihood that a scientific study, numerous astronomers, and sceptics are going to change your mind.

However, if you want to be truly informed you should read the science, and the sceptics. You should  also read the astrologers, and come to an informed conclusion. If, after your read all of that, you don’t need science or data to legitimize your beliefs, then thats great- keep believing.

However, if for some strange reason you do need the idea that astrology is some form of ancient teaching, passed down through the ages by sage wise men and women, to legitimize your belief- then you are out of luck my friend.

Leo and Sepharial made most of it up. Doesn’t mean that its not right though.

I personally believe that all the astronomy, scientific studies, and experiments into human behaviour mean it’s not right.

But then again… what do I know.


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