I have always enjoyed writing essays and term papers because I enjoy the research of curious aspects of the world we live in. In the past couple of decades, I have written numerous articles on topics such as sexual addiction, gender role origins, female beauty products, and issues relating to astrology. Over the years, I have had five of the articles published in numerous magazines, included the article inserted below. All copyrights for the following article were purchased by Dell Publishing, Inc., for their publication, Dell Horoscope, in May of 1996, and are the sole property of Dell Publishing, Inc.
Leila Paulson Howe
Astronomy vs. Astrology:
What Lies Behind the Age-Old Controversy?
By Leila Paulson Howe
‘During the 1970’s, I was made aware of the animosity that astronomers and scientists held for astrology when reading about a group established on the East Coast to discredit psychic phenomenon, the paranormal, and astrology founded by world-famous scientists, among them Dr. Carl Sagan and the late Dr. Isaac Asimov. Then I had occasion to read a 1992-college textbook on astronomy and was amazed to find three pages devoted to presenting arguments debunking this ancient pursuit. Since true education serves to bridge the gap between “mis-under-standings’ so to speak, I began researching the issues. I found out that the reasons for astronomer’s animosity towards astrology include the complexities inherent in the common histories they share with their nemesis, religion; the danger that superstition poses to scientific progress; the in ability of astrology to be subjected to the scientific method; and the ramifications of Einstein’s Theory of General and Special Relativity. According to Jay Pasachoff on page 8 in his book, Journey Through the Universe:
“Astrology is not at all connected with astronomy, except in a historical context, so does not really deserve a place in a text on astronomy … Since millions of Americans believe in astrology – a number that shows no signs of decreasing – the topic is too widespread to ignore.”
What we presently call astronomy went hand in glove with astrology and priestly religion in all early civilizations. Historically, astrology and astronomy were firmly enmeshed within the framework of a religious belief system in which the lights in the heavens represented the anthropomorphized gods. Long before writing was invented – when storytelling was the method used to pass information from one generation to another – humans created names for the celestial bodies; before ethical systems were developed, they worshipped the images of the Sun and Moon. The vast blue blanket of the heavens was seen as a great vault upon which shone tiny specks of fire that were all fixed relatively in space, except for five erratic wanderers which could be seen with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as the Sun and Moon.
Archaeologists have found evidence that European hunter-gatherer groups were engraving marks on bone and stone to record the phases of the Moon during the Upper Paleolithic period, which existed approximately from 40,000 – 35,000 B.C. to 12,000 – 8,000 B.C. When early humans began to cultivate crops around 8,000 B.C. with the advent of the Neolithic revolution, the need for predictions of the seasons became a matter of survival, and the study of the heavens became firmly rooted in the developing structure of civilization, as we know it.
The earliest indications of western civilization came from archaeological sites in ancient Mesopotamia (also know as Sumer) which is presently the area of southern Iraq and southwestern Iran, and date between 5,000 and 3,500 B.C. Imposing temples set on mounds dominated each city. These temples were astrological- astronomical towers seven stories high, each level representing the five visible planets, as well as the Sun and Moon. The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, written about A.D. 50, and The Book of Genesis refer to these temples as Towers of Babel. Actually, they were western civilization’s first observatories. Archaeologists have found evidence that astrologer- priests kept detailed records of the movements of the Sun, Moon, and the planets that were so precise that lunar eclipses could be roughly predicted. They mapped the yearly path of the Sun across the heavens, called the plane of the ecliptic, and they accurately counted the time between Full Moons as a little over 292 days. The ancient Chinese also recorded eclipses as far back as 4,000 B.C. and built numerous observatories.
It was in Greece around 3,500 B.C., that the names and terminology of the zodiac and constellations, which we use today, were developed. During the Golden Age of Greece, the myths of Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Aphrodite were not considered myths, but sacred histories of the lives of the anthropomorphized star deities. The ancient Greek writer, Homer, was given the same reverence by the Greeks of antiquity as Moses and Matthew are given by Jews and Christians today. In fact, the Greeks gave ‘catechism’ classes to study and memorize the stories recorded in his classic book, The Iliad, in much the same way as the Christians now study the Bible. In all, the cumulative histories of astronomy and astrology cover a period of over 40,000 years.
The next argument presented by Jay Pasachoff in his book focuses on science’s concern that superstition impedes the progress of science and technology and is not an innocent force, a fact made all the more apparent after the dawn of civilization, stratified cultures, and the struggle for power among the elite. Webster’s Dictionary defines superstition as “any belief that is inconsistent with known facts or rational thought.” This definition can be misleading because it is dual-sided. Throughout history, the prevalent cultural viewpoint dictates what are ‘known facts’ and what is ‘rational thought.’ Conversely, superstitions will be seen as those beliefs and ideas that run contrary to the commonly accepted norm. In the history of things, it doesn’t really matter whether the prevalent beliefs are true or false – just that they be commonly accepted to be true by the majority. Think about that one. I would define superstition as “any belief that prevents or discourages the creation and study of alternative viewpoints based on logic as we know it.” Such viewpoints are the cornerstones of new discoveries in any field, whether it be the sciences, the arts, or the humanities. The danger lies in the connection between superstitions and cultural power.
The rise of astronomy-astrology into a position of religious and political power in Mesopotamia hinged on the dependence of early city-states on agriculture for sustenance. The methods necessary for accurate predictions of planting seasons and lunar cycles were a closely guarded knowledge that only the astrologer-priests possessed. Common peasants couldn’t just walk down to the local K-Mart and buy a new Hallmark calendar or a Timex watch because calendars and watches hadn’t been invented yet! Spiritual and economic control held by the astrologer-priests over whole societies during this period in history cannot be overemphasized! Individuals who were brazen enough to postulate ideas that contradicted the prevalent social and religious viewpoints were a tremendous threat to the power structure, and, as such, subject to torture and even death.
Astronomy was the first to attempt to break away from its enmeshment with astrology and religion. The key was in the development of a form of writing and numbering system to record calculations. The earliest writings to be unearthed in the Western world were in the form of ledgers containing inventories of items stored in temples or owned by temples found in Sumer around 3,000 B.C. (Accounting dates almost as far back as astrology!) Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics were developed at the same time.
Astronomy also depended on the creation of a marvelous mathematical tool called geometry developed in Greece around 600 B.C. It was after this date that the great minds of history began entertaining the notion that astronomy was a subject to be studied unto itself. As well as being geniuses, these men possessed profound emotional courage in the face of public censure. The first school of Greek astronomy was located along the Turkish coast in the city of Miletus in 600 B.C. where the philosopher, Thales, conceived of the Earth as being round, a heresy to the commonly accepted notion that the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe.
Some two hundred years later, Pythagoras heretically maintained that the Earth was spherical and moved through space. Plato’s views changed sides a number of times in his life (427 to 347 B.C.). In his early years, he believed that the gods drove shining chariots across the sky. As he matured, he wondered whether the Earth was round or flat, deciding on roundness as being the truth and basing his conclusions on the shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse. He still maintained that the Earth was the center of things until he discovered that earthly rotation on an axis and possible revolution in an orbit best fitted the evidence. The historian Plutarch records Plato as saying in his later years that he ‘regretted to have located the Earth at the center of things in a place not fitting for it… since the central place should be reserved for something more worthy.” It sounds to me as if this was spoken with tongue in cheek. Plato’s pupil, Socrates, openly questioned the foundations of the viewpoint of the city-state and was condemned to drink hemlock for his efforts. Around 200 B.C., Aristarchus of Samos was so finely convinced that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos that he was severely censured for impiety. Some philosophers were spared the rod of social wrath, probably because they kept their silence in public, while others paid an extremely high price for thinking differently. During this time, astrology was still enmeshed in the dominant Greek and Roman religions; but it benefited from the developments in mathematics and written language. It was in Greece sometime around the fifth century B.C. that the casting of personal horoscopes became a profitable profession.
On 45 B.C., Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar to the Western world. It is based on the solar year of 365 ¼ days and is the calendar most commonly in use today. Before that time, each ethnic group or religious sect used a different calendar, adding to the confusion and misunderstandings between them. Claudius Ptolemy, a Greco-Egyptian astronomer who lived around A.D. 40, perfected and systematized the theory that the Universe revolved around a stationary Earth with the use of geometric equations.
Since the prevalent religious viewpoints in the Western world for the previous 3,500 years reflected Earth-centered cosmology, Ptolemy’s theory was accepted readily, and his book, The Almagest, was used as the foundation of scientific and religious truth for thirteen centuries.
Religion and astrology had slowly been parting ways in the centuries before the time of Jesus; so, when Ptolemy devised his theories, astronomy, astrology, and religion were relatively different areas of study. Astrologers had become income-earning professionals performing services largely for the politically involved elite, and, as such, were one step removed from political power. It is around this time that the power of superstition took off its astrological mask and put on a different face. That face was the terrible face of the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages in its acquisition for power over the Western world. Around A.D. 365, the Church drafted new canons in the Theodosian Code that made it a heresy to practice the casting of personal horoscopes for the common peasants, and astrology was forced to go underground; however, selected astrologers found themselves on the private payroll of many monks, priests, and archbishops, who wanted to preserve their power by whatever means possible. Confiscated astrological manuscripts were saved from the pyre and stored in damp monastery basements for over a millennium.
The continued development of astronomy suffered a similar fate. During these Dark Ages, the Ptolemaic system was absorbed into the theology of the Church and all new developments in astronomical science were halted for over a thousand years. The idea that the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe supported the religious viewpoint that man was the ultimate, and only, creation of God. From it, the Church theologians developed the philosophy of the Great Chain of Being around which all church belief systems revolved. The schema of the power hierarchy was in the shape of a pyramid with God, the Father, at the apex. Beneath the Father was the Son and Holy Spirit, and beneath that, angels and cherubim. Beneath that level lay the level composed of Man … and this was meant to apply to Caucasian males in the literal sense. Beneath the level upon which Man stood lay the level comprised of all women and minority males, and beneath that level stood the level relating to animals; then came plants, followed by inanimate objects. It was one of the original corporate pyramid structures. An idea based on irrational belief can be a dangerous thing with ramifications that are felt centuries afterwards. As you can see, this metaphor of the western patriarchy is still reflected in all of our cultural structures over one thousand years later even though, thanks to developments in astronomy, we no longer believe the Earth to be the center of the Universe.
It wasn’t until the advent of the Renaissance in the 1400’s that both astronomy and astrology would see the light of day again. The first mechanical clock, invented by Giovanni de Dondi in 1362, aided new astronomical research and helped to refine astrological computations as well. Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who lived between 1473 and 1543, threw the final bomb into Ptolemy’s celestial machinery. He revolutionized the worlds of science, religion, and culture by proving that the Sun was at the center of our solar system, and that the Earth and the planets revolve around it. Pope Paul III was surprisingly tolerant of Copernicus’ view, although many other bishops and cardinals rallied around Martin Luther, who claimed the scientist was a fool and his theories anti-Biblical. One of Copernicus’ pupils came to his defense and was promptly burned at the stake. Other Copernican defenders saw their names and careers ruined with charges of heresy, although Copernicus himself was spared after making increasingly larger concessions to the Church’s Ptolemaic viewpoint.
When Galileo (1564-1642) became an ardent advocate of the Copernican system, the Inquisition forced him to recant and placed him under permanent house arrest. He was forbidden to raise the matter throughout the rest of his life and went on to spend his days safely studying mechanics and dynamics. By the next generation, the church’s opposition to a Sun-centered universe was waning, and astronomy literally exploded as a credible science. Isaac Newton published his discoveries of centrifugal force and gravity in his book, The Principia, around A.D. 1686 substantiating the fact that our solar system was Sun-centered. In fact, the planets Neptune and Pluto, previously unknown, were calculated to exist using Newton’s principles – and were duly discovered.
Astrology benefited from the Enlightenment as well and was again in vogue in the parlors of the elite. Protestantism and Catholicism existed side by side, but not without contention. As a result of their common past and the power struggles between them throughout history, astronomy, astrology, and religion tended to view each other with a certain amount of suspicion, mistrust, and confutation, none of them being willing to become the victim of cultural superstition and suppression caused by one of the others. They still tend to view each other in a similar way. Astronomy as a science has paid an extremely high price for its separate and credible existence, and, as a result, protects its impartial pursuit of universal truths adamantly. In light of the negative effects of cultural superstitions in their common histories, we should all be extremely grateful that astronomy does.
Another argument used by Jay Pasachoff in his book involves modern science’s dependence on the scientific method as a valid research tool. One of the major precepts of the scientific method is that results of research should be reproducible by other scientists using the same experiment. The standard model begins with a hypothesis, which leads to an experiment to test its validity. If the experimental conclusion is contrary to the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is discarded. If the conclusion supports the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is called a theory. If this theory survives test after test by other scientists using the same experimental parameters, it will be accepted as true until such time as a new experiment can prove it false; then the theory is discarded or modified. The basic assumption of the scientific method is a dispassionate, cynical one- that all hypotheses and theories can be disproved. Furthermore, it would be impossible at this period in our history to attempt to subject astrological tools and assumptions to the scientific method. Have you ever tried stuffing Saturn into a test tube? Or melting Pluto in a Petrie dish?
Since astrology cannot undergo the rigors of experimental testing by using the scientific method, it can only be termed a pseudo science at the present time. Jay Pasachoff asks the following pertinent question on page 9 in his book: “…if large numbers of citizens do not understand the scientific method and the difference between science and pseudoscience, how can they intelligently vote on or respond to scientific questions that have societal implications?” Further scientific arguments were found in the twentieth-century discoveries of Albert Einstein in relation to the speed of light as a constant and the bending of light through the curved space of stars.
As Jay Pasachoff points out: “We know that the constellations are illusions; they don’t even exist as physical objects. They are merely projections of the positions of stars that may be at very different distances from us.” For example, the constellation Orion appears somewhat flat to us as if all the stars in its design were about the same distance from the Earth. Since light has a fixed speed according to Einstein, distances to stars can be measured. The distances from Earth to three of the stars in this constellation vary tremendously! The star Rigel is 800 light years away. The star Betelgeuse is 500 light years away, and the star Bellatrix is a mere 360 light years away. When one is speaking of light years, these differences are enormous! It is as if a person were wearing a pair of glasses containing a left lens that was a telescope and the right lens that was a microscope. The star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation appears through the left lens. An amoeba in a dust speck appears through the right lens. Now, the star is 1,400 light years away from Earth, and the dust speck is actually on the lens itself; but they both appear to be roughly the same size and at the same distance from the viewer. As twentieth century science knows, this is not the case! In fact, the amoeba could even appear to be bigger than the star, creating quite a conundrum.
The stars may not be in the same place in the sky as we see them either. According to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, “starlight would appear to be bent if it could be observed to pass very near the Sun,” or any other star, for that matter. Due to this bending of light through the curvature of space-time on its way to the Earth, and using the constellation Orion as an example, Rigel may actually be a couple of degrees to the left of where we see it, Betelgeuse a couple of degrees to the right, and Bellatrix a couple of degrees beneath where it appears to be.
What this means is that the actual patterns of the constellations could be very different from the way we perceive them to be. The Little Dipper could actually be spoon-shaped, and the Big Dipper could be in the form of a shovel. The constellation Libra could have been out of balance since the dawn of civilization, which presents a second creative conundrum. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity presents the most profound puzzle of all! Jay Pasachoff explains on page 3 of his book:
“Astronomers can observe what happened in the Universe long ago because light travels at a finite speed (186,000 miles per second). Light from the Moon takes about a second to reach us. We see the Moon as it was a second ago. Light from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach us. Light from the nearest of the other stars takes over four years to reach us. The Universe is so vast that even for nearby galaxies, light has taken millions of years to reach us. For the farthest galaxies and quasars, the light has been traveling to us for billions of years. When we observe these farthest objects, we are seeing them as they were billions of years ago. Are they still there?”
Since light takes so long to reach the Earth, some of the stars that we see in the sky may no longer be there. They may have exploded in gigantic supernovas millions of years ago, and the light that we see may be only their ghostly legacies. Is the belt of Orion minus a buckle? Is the crab in Cancer missing a claw? Does the Big Dipper no longer hold water because it has a hole in the bottom? Is the Aquarian Water Bearer minus his bucket? Has the name of the constellation Gemini been changed to Geminus because Pollux deserted Castor?
The answers to these whimsical soap-opera questions certainly won’t be found by tuning in tomorrow, but will exist millions of years in the future. Because we humans like predictability and stability in the world around us, the ramifications of Einstein’s theories are nothing short of amazing and often emotionally unsettling. For they demonstrate the profound relativity of human perception. In other words, what you see is not what you get.
The controversy between astronomy and astrology spans over forty thousand years of common history, and, in a way, they are like siblings who haven’t gotten along very well since the Golden Age of Greece. Astronomy continues to make significant contributions to our culture with new ways of thinking and seeing the world around us. Astrology also serves a popular cultural need. In the future, these two fields of endeavor may merge once again under the blanket of science … or they may never get along. Only the future can tell. What is important is that they each be allowed to evolve in their own way unfettered by superstitions. And the wise religion will leave them both alone.
Bergamini, David and the Editors of Life: The Universe; Time Inc., New York, N.Y.; 1962.
Ember, Carol R. & Melvin; Anthropology: Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; 1973.
Pasachoff, Jay M.; Journey Through the Universe: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992.
Article Published in Dell Horoscope, Vol. 62, No. 5 by Dell Publishing, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10036, May, 1996.