One night Sam and some friends were having a sleep-over at Thomas’s house. Sam had told them that Mars and Saturn were very close together and both at their brightest, and they were all very excited about this. Just before it was time to go to bed Sam asked Thomas’s Mum if they could go into the garden to look at the sky - he explained to her that Mars and Saturn were in Gemini and they had had to wait for it to rise. She got very cross with him: astrology was dangerous nonsense and she was not having Sam telling her Thomas about it. Naturally Sam was very upset and it took me a time to sort things out.
Words ending in -ology usually come from a Greek word meaning the study of, for example
Today’s scientists refer to the Earth as being in the “Goldilocks Zone” - the Earth’s distance from the Sun is just right for liquid water to exist on its surface, and it rotates on its axis, and goes round the Sun, and the Moon goes round the Earth, at just the right rate, and its axis is tilted at just the right angle, to give us days and years and tides and seasons and dark nights and moonlit nights and lots of other things which make it just right for us humans and all the animals and plants and other living things we share it with.
All life upon Earth depends upon the rhythms of the Sun and Moon in ways which we are still learning about today and which are as important today as they have ever been.
All of these things mean that seen from the surface of the Earth the Sun and Moon appear to move across the sky against the background of the stars in a totally predictable and unchanging way.
Six thousand years ago people did not know about the rotation of the Earth round the Sun or the Earth about its axis or the tilt of its axis, but they did study the way in which the Sun and Moon moved across the sky and through the stars, and knew that these movements were important. The positions of the Sun and Moon among the stars told them when to plant their crops, or go fishing, or undertake long journeys, or plan military campaigns: no commander of an army would start to make a seaborne invasion of an enemy coast without being certain that the Sun and Moon were in the most auspicious positions. And of course all of these things are just as true and important today as they have ever been: when in Spring 1944 (CE of course!) General Eisenhower was planning the D-Day landings on the coast of Nazi-occupied France which began the ending of the Second World War he needed a day when the positions of the Sun and Moon were just right to ensure that the tide was very low, there was sixteen hours of daylight and low tide was at sunrise.
At the moment Sam is particularly interested in the ways in which the movements of the Sun and Moon affect our lives because all the children at his school have been told that next year the school hours will be changing: today’s scientists have found a special circadian clock (from the Latin for around the day) in our bodies (and in many other animals and even plants and fungi) which controls our sleep and learning patterns and lots of other things. It does not keep perfect time, any more than an old-fashioned wind-up clock keeps perfect time, but, in the same way that the clock in your iPad checks itself every time you connect to the internet your circadian clock checks itself every time you spend a few minutes in the Sun (it actually measures the changes in the colour of the light from the sky). It even adjusts itself for your age: scientists have discovered that teenage children really do learn better if they start school later than younger children, hence the change in the times at Sam’s school.
Six thousand years ago our ancestors could see Mercury and Venus and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn moving across the sky against the background of the stars in the same way as the Sun and Moon, and it was not a big step for them to come to believe that these movements were also important. Today we might say that they were mistaken but the Night Sky in all its glory was something which everyone in the world saw every night of the year and was so much a part of their lives that I do not think that we can say that they were stupid. So what we now call astrology, foretelling the future from the position of these moving stars (what we now call planets), was born.Much of the “evidence”on which astrology was originally based was probably what we call anecdotal, that is, based upon something that happened to you or someone you know rather than the result of proper research. Here is a modern version.
Sam has lots of uncles and aunts, and fourteen cousins, and they all live close enough to go to each other’s birthday parties. His youngest cousin Jake’s birthday is on November 5th (people not living in England might not understand the significance of this date for English people). Last year Jake was five and his birthday was on a Saturday. Jake’s Dad and Mum live in what used to be the village Manor House and they often hold village functions in their garden, so many of the villagers came to the party, including Mahika and her family - Mahika is in the same class as Jake and is three days older than him so he had been to her birthday party earlier in the week. Jake was telling Sam “When it’s your fifth birthday you have a special party with a bonfire and fireworks unless you are a Hindu.”
He was not being naughty and making up a fib, he was just drawing a conclusion from insufficient evidence. Even Sam and his friends are old enough to know that in the 21st century many stories circulating on social media on the internet are based upon just as little evidence.
The Greek astronomers, who were by far the greatest astronomers of the ancient world, despised astrologers and rejected astrology as a means of foretelling the future, but the Romans and Babylonians took it (and in fact many other ways of foretelling the future) very seriously indeed and wrote lots of books about it, and today’s astrologers are still making use of what was in these books, using the positions that the Sun and Moon and planets were in at the time that they were originally written: they claim that they are the inheritors and guardians of Ancient Wisdom.
I have a great deal of respect for a simple uneducated shepherd living six thousand years ago who had actually watched Mars and Saturn move into Gemini and wondered what it foretold, but none whatever for a senior accountant, a university graduate, living today who has never looked at the Night Sky in his life, and could not tell Mars from Betelgeuse or Saturn from Sirius or Gemini from Orion even if he did, but still believes that it matters.
© Barry Gray May 2021