A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter VI
Two pseudo-sciences: Alchemy and Astrology
In a general way modern astronomy may be considered as the outgrowth of astrology, just as modern chemistry is the result of alchemy. It is quite possible, however, that astronomy is the older of the two; but astrology must have developed very shortly after. The primitive astronomer, having acquired enough knowledge from his observations of the heavenly bodies to make correct predictions, such as the time of the coming of the new moon, would be led, naturally, to believe that certain predictions other than purely astronomical ones could be made by studying the heavens. Even if the astronomer himself did not believe this, some of his superstitious admirers would; for to the unscientific mind predictions of earthly events would surely seem no more miraculous than correct predictions as to the future movements of the sun, moon, and stars. When astronomy had reached a stage of development so that such things as eclipses could be predicted with anything like accuracy, the occult knowledge of the astronomer would be unquestioned. Turning this apparently occult knowledge to account in a mercenary way would then be the inevitable result, although it cannot be doubted that many of the astrologers, in all ages, were sincere in their beliefs.

Later, as the business of astrology became a profitable one, sincere astronomers would find it expedient to practise astrology as a means of gaining a livelihood. Such a philosopher as Kepler freely admitted that he practised astrology "to keep from starving," although he confessed no faith in such predictions. "Ye otherwise philosophers," he said, "ye censure this daughter of astronomy beyond her deserts; know ye not that she must support her mother by her charms."

Once astrology had become an established practice, any considerable knowledge of astronomy was unnecessary, for as it was at best but a system of good guessing as to future events, clever impostors could thrive equally well without troubling to study astronomy. The celebrated astrologers, however, were usually astronomers as well, and undoubtedly based many of their predictions on the position and movements of the heavenly bodies. Thus, the casting of a horoscope that is, the methods by which the astrologers ascertained the relative position of the heavenly bodies at the time of a birth - was a simple but fairly exact procedure. Its basis was the zodiac, or the path traced by the sun in his yearly course through certain constellations. At the moment of the birth of a child, the first care of the astrologer was to note the particular part of the zodiac that appeared on the horizon. The zodiac was then divided into "houses" - that is, into twelve spaces - on a chart. In these houses were inserted the places of the planets, sun, and moon, with reference to the zodiac. When this chart was completed it made a fairly correct diagram of the heavens and the position of the heavenly bodies as they would appear to a person standing at the place of birth at a certain time.

Up to this point the process was a simple one of astronomy. But the next step - the really important one - that of interpreting this chart, was the one which called forth the skill and imagination of the astrologer. In this interpretation, not in his mere observations, lay the secret of his success. Nor did his task cease with simply foretelling future events that were to happen in the life of the newly born infant. He must not only point out the dangers, but show the means whereby they could be averted, and his prophylactic measures, like his predictions, were alleged to be based on his reading of the stars.

But casting a horoscope at the time of births was, of course, only a small part of the astrologer's duty. His offices were sought by persons of all ages for predictions as to their futures, the movements of an enemy, where to find stolen goods, and a host of everyday occurrences. In such cases it is more than probable that the astrologers did very little consulting of the stars in making their predictions. They became expert physiognomists and excellent judges of human nature, and were thus able to foretell futures with the same shrewdness and by the same methods as the modern "mediums," palmists, and fortune-tellers. To strengthen belief in their powers, it became a common thing for some supposedly lost document of the astrologer to be mysteriously discovered after an important event, this document purporting to foretell this very event. It was also a common practice with astrologers to retain, or have access to, their original charts, cleverly altering them from time to time to fit conditions.

The dangers attendant upon astrology were of such a nature that the lot of the astrologer was likely to prove anything but an enviable one. As in the case of the alchemist, the greater the reputation of an astrologer the greater dangers he was likely to fall into. If he became so famous that he was employed by kings or noblemen, his too true or too false prophecies were likely to bring him into disrepute - even to endanger his life.

Throughout the dark age the astrologers flourished, but the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the golden age of these impostors. A skilful astrologer was as much an essential to the government as the highest official, and it would have been a bold monarch, indeed, who would undertake any expedition of importance unless sanctioned by the governing stars as interpreted by these officials.

It should not be understood, however, that belief in astrology died with the advent of the Copernican doctrine. It did become separated from astronomy very shortly after, to be sure, and undoubtedly among the scientists it lost much of its prestige. But it cannot be considered as entirely passed away, even to-day, and even if we leave out of consideration street-corner "astrologers" and fortune-tellers, whose signs may be seen in every large city, there still remains quite a large class of relatively intelligent people who believe in what they call "the science of astrology." Needless to say, such people are not found among the scientific thinkers; but it is significant that scarcely a year passes that some book or pamphlet is not published by some ardent believer in astrology, attempting to prove by the illogical dogmas characteristic of unscientific thinkers that astrology is a science. The arguments contained in these pamphlets are very much the same as those of the astrologers three hundred years ago, except that they lack the quaint form of wording which is one of the features that lends interest to the older documents. These pamphlets need not be taken seriously, but they are interesting as exemplifying how difficult it is, even in an age of science, to entirely stamp out firmly established superstitions. Here are some of the arguments advanced in defence of astrology, taken from a little brochure entitled "Astrology Vindicated," published in 1898: It will be found that a person born when the Sun is in twenty degrees Scorpio has the left ear as his exceptional feature and the nose (Sagittarius) bent towards the left ear. A person born when the Sun is in any of the latter degrees of Taurus, say the twenty-fifth degree, will have a small, sharp, weak chin, curved up towards Gemini, the two vertical lines on the upper lip."[4] The time was when science went out of its way to prove that such statements were untrue; but that time is past, and such writers are usually classed among those energetic but misguided persons who are unable to distinguish between logic and sophistry.

In England, from the time of Elizabeth to the reign of William and Mary, judicial astrology was at its height. After the great London fire, in 1666, a committee of the House of Commons publicly summoned the famous astrologer, Lilly, to come before Parliament and report to them on his alleged prediction of the calamity that had befallen the city. Lilly, for some reason best known to himself, denied having made such a prediction, being, as he explained, "more interested in determining affairs of much more importance to the future welfare of the country." Some of the explanations of his interpretations will suffice to show their absurdities, which, however, were by no means regarded as absurdities at that time, for Lilly was one of the greatest astrologers of his day. He said that in 1588 a prophecy had been printed in Greek characters which foretold exactly the troubles of England between the years 1641. and 1660. "And after him shall come a dreadful dead man," ran the prophecy, "and with him a royal G of the best blood in the world, and he shall have the crown and shall set England on the right way and put out all heresies. His interpretation of this was that, "Monkery being extinguished above eighty or ninety years, and the Lord General's name being Monk, is the dead man. The royal G or C (it is gamma in the Greek, intending C in the Latin, being the third letter in the alphabet) is Charles II., who, for his extraction, may be said to be of the best blood of the world."[5]

This may be taken as a fair sample of Lilly's interpretations of astrological prophesies, but many of his own writings, while somewhat more definite and direct, are still left sufficiently vague to allow his skilful interpretations to set right an apparent mistake. One of his famous documents was "The Starry Messenger," a little pamphlet purporting to explain the phenomenon of a "strange apparition of three suns" that were seen in London on November 19, 1644 - -the anniversary of the birth of Charles I., then the reigning monarch. This phenomenon caused a great stir among the English astrologers, coming, as it did, at a time of great political disturbance. Prophecies were numerous, and Lilly's brochure is only one of many that appeared at that time, most of which, however, have been lost. Lilly, in his preface, says: "If there be any of so prevaricate a judgment as to think that the apparition of these three Suns doth intimate no Novelle thing to happen in our own Climate, where they were manifestly visible, I shall lament their indisposition, and conceive their brains to be shallow, and voyde of understanding humanity, or notice of common History."

Having thus forgiven his few doubting readers, who were by no means in the majority in his day, he takes up in review the records of the various appearances of three suns as they have occurred during the Christian era, showing how such phenomena have governed certain human events in a very definite manner. Some of these are worth recording.

"Anno 66. A comet was seen, and also three Suns: In which yeer, Florus President of the Jews was by them slain. Paul writes to Timothy. The Christians are warned by a divine Oracle, and depart out of Jerusalem. Boadice a British Queen, killeth seventy thousand Romans. The Nazareni, a scurvie Sect, begun, that boasted much of Revelations and Visions. About a year after Nero was proclaimed enemy to the State of Rome."

Again, "Anno 1157, in September, there were seen three Suns together, in as clear weather as could be: And a few days after, in the same month, three Moons, and, in the Moon that stood in the middle, a white Crosse. Sueno, King of Denmark, at a great Feast, killeth Canutus: Sueno is himself slain, in pursuit of Waldemar. The Order of Eremites, according to the rule of Saint Augustine, begun this year; and in the next, the Pope submits to the Emperour: (was not this miraculous?) Lombardy was also adjudged to the Emperour."

Continuing this list of peculiar phenomena he comes down to within a few years of his own time.

"Anno 1622, three Suns appeared at Heidelberg. The woful Calamities that have ever since fallen upon the Palatinate, we are all sensible of, and of the loss of it, for any thing I see, for ever, from the right Heir. Osman the great Turk is strangled that year; and Spinola besiegeth Bergen up Zoom, etc."

Fortified by the enumeration of these past events, he then proceeds to make his deductions. "Only this I must tell thee," he writes, "that the interpretation I write is, I conceive, grounded upon probable foundations; and who lives to see a few years over his head, will easily perceive I have unfolded as much as was fit to discover, and that my judgment was not a mile and a half from truth."

There is a great significance in this "as much as was fit to discover" - a mysterious something that Lilly thinks it expedient not to divulge. But, nevertheless, one would imagine that he was about to make some definite prediction about Charles I., since these three suns appeared upon his birthday and surely must portend something concerning him. But after rambling on through many pages of dissertations upon planets and prophecies, he finally makes his own indefinite prediction.

"O all you Emperors, Kings, Princes, Rulers and Magistrates of Europe, this unaccustomed Apparition is like the Handwriting in Daniel to some of you; it premonisheth you, above all other people, to make your peace with God in time. You shall every one of you smart, and every one of you taste (none excepted) the heavie hand of God, who will strengthen your subjects with invincible courage to suppress your misgovernments and Oppressions in Church or Common-wealth; . . . Those words are general: a word for my own country of England. . . . Look to yourselves; here's some monstrous death towards you. But to whom? wilt thou say. Herein we consider the Signe, Lord thereof, and the House; The Sun signifies in that Royal Signe, great ones; the House signifies captivity, poison, Treachery: From which is derived thus much, That some very great man, what King, Prince, Duke, or the like, I really affirm I perfectly know not, shall, I say, come to some such untimely end."[6]

Here is shown a typical example of astrological prophecy, which seems to tell something or nothing, according to the point of view of the reader. According to a believer in astrology, after the execution of Charles I., five years later, this could be made to seem a direct and exact prophecy. For example, he says: "You Kings, Princes, etc., ... it premonisheth you ... to make your peace with God.... Look to yourselves; here's some monstrous death towards you. ... That some very great man, what King, Prince, . shall, I say, come to such untimely end."

But by the doubter the complete prophecy could be shown to be absolutely indefinite, and applicable as much to the king of France or Spain as to Charles I., or to any king in the future, since no definite time is stated. Furthermore, Lilly distinctly states, "What King, Prince, Duke, or the like, I really affirm I perfectly know not" - which last, at least, was a most truthful statement. The same ingenuity that made "Gen. Monk" the "dreadful dead man," could easily make such a prediction apply to the execution of Charles I. Such a definite statement that, on such and such a day a certain number of years in the future, the monarch of England would be beheaded - such an exact statement can scarcely be found in any of the works on astrology. It should be borne in mind, also, that Lilly was of the Cromwell party and opposed to the king.

After the death of Charles I., Lilly admitted that the monarch had given him a thousand pounds to cast his horoscope. "I advised him," says Lilly, "to proceed eastwards; he went west, and all the world knows the result." It is an unfortunate thing for the cause of astrology that Lilly failed to mention this until after the downfall of the monarch. In fact, the sudden death, or decline in power, of any monarch, even to-day, brings out the perennial post-mortem predictions of astrologers.

We see how Lilly, an opponent of the king, made his so-called prophecy of the disaster of the king and his army. At the same time another celebrated astrologer and rival of Lilly, George Wharton, also made some predictions about the outcome of the eventful march from Oxford. Wharton, unlike Lilly, was a follower of the king's party, but that, of course, should have had no influence in his "scientific" reading of the stars. Wharton's predictions are much less verbose than Lilly's, much more explicit, and, incidentally, much more incorrect in this particular instance. "The Moon Lady of the 12," he wrote, "and moving betwixt the 8 degree, 34 min., and 21 degree, 26 min. of Aquarius, gives us to understand that His Majesty shall receive much contentment by certain Messages brought him from foreign parts; and that he shall receive some sudden and unexpected supply of . . . by the means of some that assimilate the condition of his Enemies: And withal this comfort; that His Majesty shall be exceeding successful in Besieging Towns, Castles, or Forts, and in persuing the enemy.

"Mars his Sextile to the Sun, Lord of the Ascendant (which happeneth the 18 day of May) will encourage our Soldiers to advance with much alacrity and cheerfulness of spirit; to show themselves gallant in the most dangerous attempt.... And now to sum up all: It is most apparent to every impartial and ingenuous judgment; That although His Majesty cannot expect to be secured from every trivial disaster that may befall his army, either by the too much Presumption, Ignorance, or Negligence of some particular Persons (which is frequently incident and unavoidable in the best of Armies), yet the several positions of the Heavens duly considered and compared among themselves, as well in the prefixed Scheme as at the Quarterly Ingresses, do generally render His Majesty and his whole Army unexpectedly victorious and successful in all his designs; Believe it (London), thy Miseries approach, they are like to be many, great, and grievous, and not to be diverted, unless thou seasonably crave Pardon of God for being Nurse to this present Rebellion, and speedily submit to thy Prince's Mercy; Which shall be the daily Prayer of Geo. Wharton."[7]

In the light of after events, it is probable that Wharton's stock as an astrologer was not greatly enhanced by this document, at least among members of the Royal family. Lilly's book, on the other hand, became a favorite with the Parliamentary army.

After the downfall and death of Napoleon there were unearthed many alleged authentic astrological documents foretelling his ruin. And on the death of George IV., in 1830, there appeared a document (unknown, as usual, until that time) purporting to foretell the death of the monarch to the day, and this without the astrologer knowing that his horoscope was being cast for a monarch. A full account of this prophecy is told, with full belief, by Roback, a nineteenth-century astrologer. He says:

"In the year 1828, a stranger of noble mien, advanced in life, but possessing the most bland manners, arrived at the abode of a celebrated astrologer in London," asking that the learned man foretell his future. "The astrologer complied with the request of the mysterious visitor, drew forth his tables, consulted his ephemeris, and cast the horoscope or celestial map for the hour and the moment of the inquiry, according to the established rules of his art.

"The elements of his calculation were adverse, and a feeling of gloom cast a shade of serious thought, if not dejection, over his countenance.

" 'You are of high rank,' said the astrologer, as he calculated and looked on the stranger, 'and of illustrious title.' The stranger made a graceful inclination of the head in token of acknowledgment of the complimentary remarks, and the astrologer proceeded with his mission.

"The celestial signs were ominous of calamity to the stranger, who, probably observing a sudden change in the countenance of the astrologer, eagerly inquired what evil or good fortune had been assigned him by the celestial orbs.

'To the first part of your inquiry,' said the astrologer, 'I can readily reply. You have been a favorite of fortune; her smiles on you have been abundant, her frowns but few; you have had, perhaps now possess, wealth and power; the impossibility of their accomplishment is the only limit to the fulfilment of your desires.' "

" 'You have spoken truly of the past,' said the stranger. 'I have full faith in your revelations of the future: what say you of my pilgrimage in this life - is it short or long?'

" 'I regret,' replied the astrologer, in answer to this inquiry, 'to be the herald of ill, though TRUE, fortune; your sojourn on earth will be short.'

" 'How short?' eagerly inquired the excited and anxious stranger.

" 'Give me a momentary truce,' said the astrologer; 'I will consult the horoscope, and may possibly find some mitigating circumstances.'

"Having cast his eyes over the celestial map, and paused for some moments, he surveyed the countenance of the stranger with great sympathy, and said, 'I am sorry that I can find no planetary influences that oppose your destiny - your death will take place in two years.'

"The event justified the astrologic prediction: George IV. died on May 18, 1830, exactly two years from the day on which he had visited the astrologer."[8]

This makes a very pretty story, but it hardly seems like occult insight that an astrologer should have been able to predict an early death of a man nearly seventy years old, or to have guessed that his well-groomed visitor "had, perhaps now possesses, wealth and power." Here again, however, the point of view of each individual plays the governing part in determining the importance of such a document. To the scientist it proves nothing; to the believer in astrology, everything. The significant thing is that it appeared shortly AFTER the death of the monarch.

 On the Continent astrologers were even more in favor than in England. Charlemagne, and some of his immediate successors, to be sure, attempted to exterminate them, but such rulers as Louis XI. and Catherine de' Medici patronized and encouraged them, and it was many years after the time of Copernicus before their influence was entirely stamped out even in official life. There can be no question that what gave the color of truth to many of the predictions was the fact that so many of the prophecies of sudden deaths and great conflagrations were known to have come true - in many instances were made to come true by the astrologer himself. And so it happened that when the prediction of a great conflagration at a certain time culminated in such a conflagration, many times a second but less-important burning took place, in which the ambitious astrologer, or his followers, took a central part about a stake, being convicted of incendiarism, which they had committed in order that their prophecies might be fulfilled.

But, on the other hand, these predictions were sometimes turned to account by interested friends to warn certain persons of approaching dangers.

For example, a certain astrologer foretold the death of Prince Alexander de' Medici. He not only foretold the death, but described so minutely the circumstances that would attend it, and gave such a correct description of the assassin who should murder the prince, that he was at once suspected of having a hand in the assassination. It developed later, however, that such was probably not the case; but that some friend of Prince Alexander, knowing of the plot to take his life, had induced the astrologer to foretell the event in order that the prince might have timely warning and so elude the conspirators.

The cause of the decline of astrology was the growing prevalence of the new spirit of experimental science. Doubtless the most direct blow was dealt by the Copernican theory. So soon as this was established, the recognition of the earth's subordinate place in the universe must have made it difficult for astronomers to be longer deceived by such coincidences as had sufficed to convince the observers of a more credulous generation. Tycho Brahe was, perhaps, the last astronomer of prominence who was a conscientious practiser of the art of the astrologer.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.