When Astrology and Astronomy were One

One of the areas I did not delve deeply into for the Dark Apostle books was that of astrology. Certainly much of the educated medicine of the 14th century (and for a long time before and after) began with knowing the astrological sign of the patient, and taking into account the dominant astrological characteristics of the season before determining the method of treatment.  My protagonist, Elisha, focused more on the physical evidence than on any celestial influence.

An astronomer's chair at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England

An astronomer’s chair at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England

Nowadays, most people treat astrology as an amusing diversion (as the warning on my newspaper’s astrology column points out), although nearly everyone you ask will likely readily know their astrological sign and may even have some belief that this affects their personality in the same way that a red-haired friend of mine claims her hair color as an excuse for her temper. It happens to be the month of my birth, and so more people than usual are commenting on my presumed nature based on that single fact.

On a scientific level, I may be more ready to believe in some genetic basis for a link between hair color and temperament (which would still account for only part of how that temperament is expressed in any given individual) than in a link between the accidental timing of my birth and a pattern that some ancient observer noticed in the sky. Many of my friends will also, if having a bad day, off-handedly remark that Mercury has gone retrograde, an astronomical phenomenon that occurs about three times a year, given the relative disparity between the length of the year for Mercury, and our own. So these otherwise intelligent and responsible people, even today, maintain some sense that their lives are influenced by distant patterns in the heavens.

This belief in astrology is long-standing and wide-spread, with peoples around the world all mythologizing some link between the stars and the people beneath them. However, the patterns they thought worthy of note vary widely, even in what type of pattern might be considered important. The constellations that seem obvious to Westerners are broken up into parts of other asterisms in other cultures, and the ancient Peruvians relied not on the stars to envision their patterns, but on the black areas between them.

When you are out at night, perhaps in the wilderness far from artificial lights, its easy to see why mankind so often finds connection to the stars. They sweep grandly overhead, inspiring poetry, art and awe. If you watch for many months, you identify patterns to the movements, the same stars returning over and over, with other bright “wandering stars” moving against that backdrop. In a nomadic culture, the return to a summer or winter camp might well be linked to the reappearance of a pattern in the stars, a pattern that culture names and tells stories about, solidifying the connection between the skies and ourselves.

So the first detailed observations of the sky have little to do with science and much more to do with a sense of influence and power the stars wield over our little lives. Signs in the sky like shooting stars or comets were viewed as portents sent by gods above whose intention must be interpreted through observation. It’s only been in the last couple of centuries that the idea of celestial observation uncoupled from the sense that the stars themselves influenced our destiny as individuals.

In China, innovators developed elaborate clocks and astronomical devices and methods in order to track detailed information about the birth of imperial children to interpret the astrological significance of the moment.

Nowadays, we send out ever more elaborate devices to study the stars and planets in our solar system and beyond. We remain in awe of the stars not because they might govern us, but because they are, in themselves, awesome: beautiful collisions of gasses and elements. We study them because they still fulfill a need within ourselves—a need to understand and interpret, to reach beyond and seek a greater meaning. In studying the stars, we might come to understand more of our own star and planet, how we began and where we are going. We are no longer subject to the stars, but partners with them on our journey through the universe.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in Elisha Barber, historical medicine, history, medieval, research, The Dark Apostle and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to When Astrology and Astronomy were One

  1. Pingback: What’s Your Sign? Ophiuchus! | E. C. Ambrose

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