The notion that the skies hold some kind of divine meaning is one that humans have held for centuries. What is it about astrology that still holds such fascination today, in an age where science reigns supreme?
As a planetarium presenter, I get asked a lot of questions. But there are two in particular that make people sit up a little straighter: first, the standard "Do aliens really exist?" and second, "Can you show me my star sign?" Both aliens and astrology open up great discussions, and both are related to an underlying question that has stuck with humans for millennia: Do we have some kind of special cosmic significance?
What is astrology?
Astrology is the idea that the movements of celestial objects can influence our daily lives; that by studying the relative positions of stars and planets, we can divine our fates. Horoscopic astrology dominates western culture, where the moment of your birth is believed to be influential in determining your life, but a number of different traditions exist around the world. Most astrological systems use the 12 signs of the zodiac with other elements mixed in: Burmese astrology incorporates lunar mansions (moon phases) and signs representing each day of the week, while Tibetan astrology relies on the signs of the year such as Rat, Tiger, Goat and Monkey, and Chinese astrology is closely tied to Chinese philosophy and the principles of yin and yang.
For millennia, astrology has influenced our worldview, languages, and aspects of social culture. If we take astrology in the broadest sense — that it is the notion that the sky holds some kind of human meaning — then the discipline has been around for 25,000 years, since the earliest human attempts to record and predict seasonal changes. From this, we came to understand astronomical cycles such as lunar phases, the sun’s movement throughout the seasons, and the changing constellations.
One of the oldest forms of astrology is agricultural, and can be traced back to the people of the Nile and the Euphrates River valleys. Farmers used to plant by the signs, sowing, cultivating and harvesting their crops based on moon phases and astrological signs.
The first organised system of astrology, featuring scholarly celestial divination, sprung up in the 2nd millennium BC in Old Babylonian texts, and dealt with mainly everyday predictions such as weather and political matters. Astrological almanacs from this period also helpfully indicated the best seasons and weather for a community to undertake seasonal tasks such as sowing crops, gathering shell-fish, hunting, and collecting and managing water.
Then in 525BC, the Persians conquered Egypt and shook things up a little. Astrology began to show Mesopotamian influence, and later Hellenistic influence when Egypt was occupied by Alexander the Great. Horoscopic astrology took shape during this era, combining a number of traditions including the Babylonian zodiac, the Egyptian zodiac divisions, and the Greek system of planetary gods.
Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia kick-started the spread of cultural and cosmological ideas across the world. Islamic scholars enthusiastically took up astrology in the 7th century BC, and their work over the next centuries vastly furthered human knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. In the 2nd century AD, Claudius Ptolemy laid the first stones of Western astrology when he penned Tetrabiblos, which became an astrological bible for over a thousand years, because it effectively attempted to rationalise the discipline, defining limits and dismiss practices without a sound basis. His approach didn’t just rely on the position of celestial objects to determine a person’s personality and fate, but also took into account other factors such as race, birthplace, and upbringing. Astrology could be useful, he concluded, but should not be entirely relied on.
For a while, Europe lagged behind the rest of the world in astrology, but by the 13th century, European doctors had incorporated astrology into their everyday medical practice. At one point in the 16th century, doctors were legally required to calculate lunar positions before undertaking complex medical procedures.
Where does astronomy fit in?
Astrology had a firm place in politics and cultural events; court astrologers were the norm. Figures that are associated with the history of astronomy actually practiced as court astrologers, advising kings and royal families. Galileo worked for the House of Medici, Johannes Kepler provided astronomical calculations for General Wallenstein, and Tycho Brahe wrote an annual almanac predicting the influence of the heavens on the politics and economics of the upcoming year for the royal court of Denmark.
At this time, astronomy and astrology were intertwined to the point of being indistinguishable. The study of the heavens in any sense was not just to gain understanding of how they worked, but also to gain understanding of how they influenced human lives. Attempts to improve the accuracy of astrology actually led to advancements in astronomy; observations, measurements, and calculations made by Brahe and Kepler led to what Kepler described as celestial physics, as the mathematics of physics was applied to the heavens and order was found in the movements of the planets. The meticulous work of these early astronomers led to the scientific astronomy we know today. It also supported a reshuffling of the order of the universe, providing strong evidence for Copernicus’s Sun-centred solar system and the removal of Earth as the centre of all things.
Our changing view of the universe led astronomy to rise to a science, while the more mystical astrology fell from academic grace. For a while, astrology faded into the background except for appearances in cheap almanacs. But with the revival of spiritualism in the 19th century, astrology made its comeback through the influence of mass media. Today, you can’t pick up a newspaper or a magazine without finding a horoscopes section that tries to predetermine the week’s events or tell us how we should behave that day for the best possible outcome.
A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of options for personal horoscopes and astrological readings, as well as astrologers who call themselves life coaches or soul coaches. Harrods Department Store in London employs a Spiritual Astrologer who offers astrology consultations. In Hindu culture, many infants are still named based on their astrological charts, and astrology influences decisions about marriage, opening businesses, moving houses, and organising holidays. In India, astrology is even counted among the sciences, thanks to recent legal rulings — some universities even offer advanced degrees in Hindu astrology.
Does astrology actually work?
People clearly still have great faith in astrology, but there’s a small problem: no one can give a sound explanation of how it might work. The only physical ways planets and stars could affect life on Earth are through their light and their gravity… So is it possible that balls of burning gas millions of light years away could be influencing your love life?
“Apart from the position of the Sun, which impacts the length of the day, there’s no obvious connection between the positions of celestial objects and human behaviour,” says Michael Brown, Associate Professor at Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy. “Even claims about the Moon influencing human behaviour are speculative at best, and downright suspect at worst. There’s no obvious way for distant planets to influence human behaviour.”
But what if the effects of celestial objects could be strengthened, perhaps through an alignment? Astrologers attach great significance to planetary alignments; they have been used to predict and explain human behaviour, climate, and even earthquakes.
“Gravity is the most obvious force connecting the planets to us,” says Brown, “but the tidal forces induced by planetary alignments are so small that their impact has to be negligible compared to other factors shaping our world.”
As Carl Sagan famously commented, at the time of his birth, “the gravitational influence of the obstetrician was much greater than the gravitational influence of Mars.”
A large body of research has been undertaken over the years to evaluate the claims of astrology, but unsurprisingly, no evidence has been found. What keeps people interested in astrology must therefore not be based in rationality — it must be something deeply and psychologically human.
What’s so appealing about astrology?
Astrology’s history is testament to an innate human desire to be connected to the cosmos, to play a significant role in the grand show put on by the universe. Despite the development of fire and microwaves and social media, we’re still just apes on a big hunk of rock, swirling through space, and some people have trouble with that. Until just a few hundred years ago, we clung to the belief that the universe literally revolved around us — but since Copernicus booted Earth from centre stage, we’ve been cast back further and further into the wings. Earth is not the centre of the solar system, our solar system is not in a special place in our galaxy, and our galaxy is not even particularly special.
“Astronomy has taught us we’re not the centre of the universe and makes us look vanishingly insignificant next to the vastness of space,” says Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University. “What astrology seems to offer is an assurance that the cosmos is still ultimately oriented towards us.”
Astrology panders to the desire to be significant, carefully casting humans as being directly influenced by the grander motions of the cosmos — intricately and irrevocably tied to a world of greater significance.
“I think as humans we’re always very powerfully drawn to the idea that our chaotic and sometimes absurdly tragic world has some ultimate hidden logic behind it,” says Stokes. “There’s something flattering about the idea that the reason you’re afraid of commitment or had a crappy day in the office is actually the grand play of interstellar forces, not just the random chance that shaped your personality and that of those around you.”
For some, this reassurance of cosmic significance is simply a casual comfort; for others, astrology is used as a guide to shape their decisions and behaviours. On a small scale, it may be harmless — those who follow their horoscopes regularly often say it’s all just in good fun — but taken to the extreme, astrology has the potential to be damaging.
“Trying to guess someone’s star sign at a party, or adding 'Oh that’s so Taurus of me!' when you’ve said something probably doesn’t hurt too much,” says Stokes. “Making decisions against other good sources of advice or information on the basis of a horoscope, however, is potentially disastrous.”
Take dating sites, for example, where it’s common to match partners based on their signs, or perhaps books written on how to use astrology to choose your career path, or making a risky financial decision on the basis of astrological advice. By telling us how we are supposed to feel and behave, astrology also has the potential to harm our sense of self, conflicting with our existing predispositions.
Professional astrologers are undoubtedly excellent judges of character and behaviour, and are able to tap into human psychology in order to appear as though they have all the answers. During the Reagan presidency, the White House had an astrologer, Joan Quigley, who claimed that she was consulted in secret about “the timing [of] all press conferences, most speeches, the State of the Union addresses, [and] the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One.” The Reagans denied this, but Nancy Reagan is known to have consulted Quigley about the assassination attempt of her husband in 1981, and there are records of frequent telephone conversations between the two.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that people in power succumb to pseudoscience when it’s so common among the public. A 2014 study by the National Science Foundation found that over 40% of Americans believe that astrology is a science, while in Britain the number was 25%.
“Astrology doesn’t have a basis in evidence, so belief in astrology may be connected to other, more dangerous beliefs that have no basis in evidence,” Brown cautions. “For example, the false belief that vaccines cause autism has had a real impact on vaccination rates and outbreaks of preventable diseases.”
However harmful it can be, it doesn’t look like astrology will disappear anytime soon. By tapping into a deeply human desire, it has become a pervasive and sometimes noxious field that pollutes the public’s understanding and recognition of astronomy. This is admittedly somewhat puzzling, as astronomy seems to afford us far greater and more beautiful cosmic powers such as peering back in time, discovering other worlds, and studying our own origins. Astronomy constantly brings us back to the same question of cosmological connection, to the eternal questions posed under the dark dome of planetariums around the world: Are we alone? What do we mean to the universe?
The answers to these lingering questions won’t be found within horoscope columns or natal charts — they will be found with science.
Edited by Sara Nyhuis