The Fated Sky: Astrology in History

The Fated Sky: Astrology in History

by Benson Bobrick


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From ancient times to the present day, astrology has captured the imagination — is it possible that human fate is influenced by the stars? Astrologers throughout the ages have advised the powerful, from popes to presidents to royalty, and their influence can be seen as a hidden history behind the great events of the past. In The Fated Sky, historian Benson Bobrick writes the first serious history of astrology and takes a fascinating look at its origins and impact on human events.

Astrology is the origin of science itself, as astronomy, mathematics, and other disciplines arose in part to make possible the calculations necessary in casting horoscopes. In earlier times, it was a science that won the respect and allegiance of the greatest thinkers and rulers of the ancient world, and eventually claimed adherents among the great astronomers of the scientific revolution — Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton among them. Statesmen such as Churchill and de Gaulle consulted astrologers, and St. Thomas Aquinas thought astrology not incompatible with Christian doctrine. It is even said the Incas submitted to the Spanish conquistadors without a fight because their arrival coincided with an astrological prophecy. And astrology permeates our cultural consciousness, from references in the Bible and Shakespeare to expressions such as "ill-starred" or "lucky stars."

Rich in historical anecdote and astrological lore, The Fated Sky shows us that while the true power of astrology may be open to debate, the belief in its power has been — and continues to be — an enduring and intriguing influence on history and the history of ideas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743268950
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 11/14/2006
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Benson Bobrick earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is the author of several critically acclaimed works, including Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired and Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. In 2002 he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife, Hilary, live in Vermont.

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Chapter One

America would never have been discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 had it not been for the thought of Arab astrologers in Baghdad in the 9th century A.D. When Columbus set sail on the great western voyage that carried him to America's shores, he had biblical prophecy to inspire him, Arab astrology to guide him, and various practical aids that three continental astrologers, who were also mathematicians, had supplied: the planetary tables of Regiomontanus; a map drawn up by Paolo Toscanelli; and an ephemeris prepared by Samuel Zacuto, who later made the splendid astrolabe of iron used by Vasco da Gama in his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. These were all of use to Columbus in his celestial calculations and his navigation of the open sea. He also used an astrolabe and quadrant to determine the altitude of stars, set his hourglass by the transits of the Sun, depended on the North Star to fix magnetic north, and judged the time of night by the constellation of the Great Bear. He overawed the natives of one island by his ability to predict a lunar eclipse, and drew with some success on astrological lore to predict the weather -- taking his ships to shelter, for example, in the port of Santo Domingo because an aspect between Jupiter and Mercury seemed to portend a tropical storm. Yet Columbus could not proceed solely by the sky. Knowledge of celestial navigation in Europe was wanting, and so, for the most part, he relied on a magnetic compass to measure his course or direction, and on his own method of "dead" or deduced reckoning to estimate his position on the main.

But it was the stars that led him on. Columbus understood that the world was a globe and believed that by sailing directly west he would eventually reach the shores of Asia (or the "Indies"). He could not know, of course, that America intervened. But it was not the fabled wealth of the Indies that held him most in thrall. For the voyage itself was spurred on by an astrological idea. That idea was the "great conjunction" theory of history, as first set forth in the writings of the Persians, elaborated by the Arabs, and adopted by the Latin West. Columbus had encountered it in the work of the French cardinal, theologian, and astrologer Pierre d'Ailly.

According to this theory, important historical events such as the rise and fall of empires, the birth of religions, and cultural transformations were marked by the "great planetary conjunctions" of Jupiter and Saturn as they revolved through their cycles in the sky. Such great conjunctions occurred once every 960 years -- a principal source of our idea of the millennium -- as the planets completed a circuit of the zodiac, combining and recombining in the signs. In the course of that round, the two conjoined -- that is, occupied the same degree of celestial longitude -- forty-eight times. For d'Ailly, human history was explained by the unfolding impact of these conjunctions, according to their scale. Shifts between triplicities or elements (earth, air, fire, and water, by which the signs of the zodiac were grouped) were associated with dynastic change; the greater or near-millennial conjunctions were linked to epochal change as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes and overwhelming floods. In d'Ailly's view, such great conjunctions had heralded or coincided with the Great Flood, the fall of Troy, the death of Moses, the foundation of Rome, and the advent of Christ. "All astronomers are agreed in this," he declared, "that there never was one of those conjunctions without some great and notable change in this world."

D'Ailly's work had convinced Columbus that the end of the world was near, and that it would be accompanied by the conversion of all heathenkind to Christ. For that reason, he called himself Christophorus (or "Christo-ferens," as he came to sign his name), "the Christ-bearer," and conceived himself the agent of God's work as the world approached its final days. All this he explained in a letter to his royal patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. He wrote of the Indies: "These vast realms are peopled with immortal souls, for whose redemption Christ, the Son of God, has made an atoning sacrifice. It is the mission which God has assigned to me to search them out, and to carry to them the Gospel of Salvation." He took as his text Isaiah 11:10-12 -- "The Lord shall...recover the remnant of his people...and gather together the dispersed...from the four corners of the earth" -- and his historic first voyage itself seemed emblematic of that charge.

On the morning of August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail with three small ships -- the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María -- from Palos, Spain, and steered for the Canary Islands, where he reprovisioned before striking due west. After a difficult voyage of two months with a near-mutinous crew, on October 12 he at length sighted land. At two o'clock in the morning, a gun was fired to give the signal. All three vessels then took in their sails and laid to, "waiting impatiently for the dawn." Upon making landfall, "the voice of prayer and the melody of praise rose from his ships," and his own first action was to prostrate himself upon the ground. To Columbus, his journey's end was heaven-sent. For their part, the natives on the small Bahamian island were not wholly mistaken, perhaps, when they cried out at dawn to their brethren, "Come see the people from the sky."

Columbus would later say that he owed all he had achieved to the grace of God and "God-given" arts of astrology, geometry, navigation, and arithmetic.

His own heavily annotated copy of d'Ailly's work, Treatise on the Image of the World, may still be seen in the Columbine Library at Seville.


According to an ancient tradition, common to both Gnostic and Syriac Christians as well as to the Persians and Jews, Adam received the doctrines and mysteries of astrology directly from the Creator, and by knowledgeably scanning the constellations in the skies foretold that the world would one day be destroyed by water, then by fire. As a memorial to those who came after him, he (or his descendants, Seth and Enoch) had this knowledge engraved upon two pillars, one of brick, the other of stone. According to Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian and near contemporary of Christ, the second pillar could still be seen in Syria in a.d. 63.

Astrology is the oldest of the occult sciences. It is also the origin of science itself. From astrology are derived astronomy, calculation of time, mathematics, medicine, botany, mineralogy, and (by way of alchemy) modern chemistry, among other disciplines. Logarithms were originally devised to simplify the calculations necessary in casting horoscopes; the ray theory of vision -- the foundation of modern optics -- developed from astrological theories of the effect of stellar rays on the soul. For five thousand years, from ancient Sumeria and Babylonia to the present day, the stars have been viewed as shaping, by divine power, the course and destiny of human affairs. Indeed, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the earliest symbol of deity known to us -- the cuneiform sign for "god" -- was a star (*).

Astrological terms permeate our language: conjunction, opposition, forecast, aspect, lunatic, venereal, disaster, influence -- as in influenza, since all epidemics were once ascribed to celestial effects; we speak of "mercurial," "saturnine," or "jovial" temperaments; and people thank their "lucky stars," or consider a person "ill-starred" if his luck is bad. The Hebrew word mazzal means "sign" or constellation; so "Mazzal tov" (the colloquial "Congratulations!") really means, "May you have good stars!" The term fall is astrological, for the fall or autumn equinox marks the descendant of the zodiac year; and revolution is taken from an astrological calculation called a "solar return." The star-shaped halo that once encompassed the Roman emperor's posthumous image -- according to the belief that he ascended to heaven as a star -- was later transformed into the halo of the Christian saint. The pharmaceutical symbol Rx -- commonly said to be an abbreviation for the Latin verb recipere (from which we get recipe or compound) -- is derived from the ancient symbol for the Roman god Jupiter, based on the "Eye" of Horus, an Egyptian god with magical healing powers.


Astronomy studies the heavenly bodies in order to formulate the natural laws that govern them and to understand how the physical structure of the universe evolved; astrology describes the influence of those bodies upon human character and life. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reputedly remarked, "Astrology is astronomy brought down to earth and applied to the affairs of men." It is an applied science, insofar as it is based on astronomy; an exact science, insofar as its judgments are based on mathematical calculations; and an empirical science, insofar as its deductions are based on data gathered over the course of time.

Its method is a horoscope, which is a map or diagram of the heavens cast for a particular moment of time, and read according to well-established rules. Those rules, if properly applied, are free from the elements of chance or divination; moreover, they are substantially based on a written tradition that derives its authority not just from dogma and belief, but from thousands of years of observation. The idea at the heart of astrology is that the pattern of a person's life -- or character, or nature -- corresponds to the planetary pattern at the moment of his birth. Such an idea is as old as the world is old -- that all things bear the imprint of the moment they are born.

Whether this is true or not may be subject to debate. But the belief that it is has proved to have enduring power.

Astrology in modern times has undergone a remarkable resurgence, and is now (as Carl Jung predicted it would) knocking again at the doors of academe. Astrologers are attempting to verify traditional doctrine by scientific methods and in general to meet the demand of Johannes Kepler (one of its true believers) that they "separate the gems from the slag." In a number of countries, including England, France, Russia, Germany, and the United States, astrology is once again being taught at the university level, for the first time since the Renaissance. In England, courses in the subject are now offered at Brasenose College, Oxford; Bath Spa University College; the University of Southampton; and the University of Kent. It can also be studied at Cardiff University in Wales, the Bibliotheca Astrologica in France, the University of Zaragoza in Spain, Dogus University in Turkey, Benares Hindu University in northern India, and at Kepler College in the United States, among other schools. Scholarly journals such as Culture and Cosmos (A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy), the Dublin Astrologer (The Journal of the Dublin Astrological Centre), and Apollon (The Journal of Psychological Astrology), have begun to establish themselves, while the prestigious Warburg Institute in London recently created a "Sophia Fellowship" for astrological research.

For the past thirty years or so, polls have shown that from 30 to 40 percent of Americans (or about 100 million people) "believe in astrology and think their lives are governed by the stars." An estimated ten million people have paid an astrologer to cast their horoscope, while almost everybody seems to know their own "sign." Astrology columns are carried by most of the nation's daily newspapers and hundreds of magazines, and can be found on numerous Internet sites. Yahoo alone lists about 1,700 of the latter, while counts 3,155 books on the subject in print. Most large bookstores today devote an entire section to the field. According to one recent estimate, there are some 15,000 full-time and 225,000 part-time astrologers today in the United States.

There can be no doubt that the subject maintains an unshakeable hold on the human mind.


The Bible is rich with astrological allusion. It opens with the pronouncement that the "lights in the firmament of the heavens" were established in part "for signs," and in Psalm 19, for example, we read: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard." According to rabbinical tradition each of the twelve tribes of Israel represented a zodiac sign, and the astrological symbols for the four fixed signs -- a lion, a man, a bull, and an eagle -- were carried as totems in the Egyptian desert by the Hebrew host. These same symbols made up the composite creature we call the Egyptian Sphinx, and in accordance with Ezekiel's vision came to stand for the four great Christian evangelists -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Of the twelve precious stones that adorned the breastplate of Aaron as high priest, Josephus wrote, "whether we understand by them the months, or the like number of the signs of that circle which the Greeks call the Zodiac, we shall not be mistaken." The seven-branched candlestick, he tells us, also symbolized the seven planets, and the twelve loaves of shewbread in the temple the twelve signs. It is said that each of the twelve disciples of Christ likewise stood for (or embodied) a sign -- an idea that was carried over into medieval romance, where the twelve knights of King Arthur's Round Table (a symbol of the zodiac) also stood for the twelve astrological types. The idea that those types together constitute a complete circle of humanity is also carried over into our jury system, which is supposed to ensure that a man is properly tried by a representative assessment (or complete cross-section) of his peers. That means, in theory, that they will combine their experience to perfect the judgment of a case. The Hindus also say twelve is the number of completeness, which is why the Bible tells us that at the age of twelve, Jesus was able to confute the doctors in the temple, because his knowledge was already complete.

Throughout antiquity, the constellations and planets were honored by shrines and temples of learning. There were twelve great Mystery religions, "each one paying homage to or deriving its authority from a zodiac sign." The rites of Aries, or the Celestial Ram, so Manly Hall tells us, "were celebrated in the temple of Jupiter Ammon in the Libyan desert; the rites of Taurus in the Egyptian Mysteries of Serapis, or the tomb of the Heavenly Bull; the rites of Gemini in Samothrace, where Castor and Pollux -- the Dioscuri -- were worshipped; the rites of Cancer in Ephesus, where Diana (goddess of the Moon) was revered; the rites of Leo in the Bacchic and Dionysiac orgies of the Greeks," and so on.

The ecclesiastical calendars of all known religions are also linked astrologically with the major phases of the Sun and Moon. Passover, for example, begins on the first full Moon after the vernal equinox; Easter Sunday, which marks the end of Lent, is usually the first Sunday after that;* the Christian Sabbath is the day of the Sun; and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, starts at sunset on the day of the new moon closest to the autumn equinox. The first day of Ramadan is set by the new Moon in Libra, which begins the most holy period for Moslems of fasting and prayer. In Vietnam, the New Year begins at the time of the first full Moon after the Sun enters Aquarius and is termed Tet. Hanukkah is set by the new Moon in Capricorn, and Purim by the full Moon in Pisces. Christmas was "coopted by the Church from pagan celebrations at the winter solstice, which was also the festival of the Persian Sun god Mithras. The rebirth of the Sun god was thus replaced in Christianity by the birth of God the Son."

The names of the days of the Western week, of course, are those of the star-gods, as derived from Roman and Norse mythology. Sunday is the Sun's day; Monday the Moon's; Tuesday the day of Tiw, the pagan god of war, akin to Mars; Wednesday belongs to Woden, akin to Mercury (in French, Mercredi); Thursday to Thor, or Jupiter; and Friday to the goddess Freya, or Venus (in French, Vendredi). Saturday is Saturn's day and rounds out the cycle.

Our seven-day week itself derives from a convergence around the 2nd century B.C. of the Sabbath cycle of the Jews, in which the seventh day was held to be holy, and an astrological week based upon the planets (which included the Sun and Moon) according to which each day was ruled by one of the seven planetary gods. Each hour of each day was also so ruled, hence the cycle of planetary hours. Following Egyptian practice, there were twenty-four hours in a day, but before clock time they were not all of equal length: the twelve daytime hours were equally divided from sunrise to sunset, the twelve nighttime hours from sunset to dawn. In sequence, the hours belonged to Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon, in an endless circle, with each one in turn serving as regent or ruler for that day. This was the Ptolemaic order of the planets, according to their perceived speed and distance from the earth.

The planets also gave us the seven liberal arts, and, by number and type, the seven deadly sins: sloth (Saturn), pride (Jupiter), anger (Mars), gluttony (the Sun), lust (Venus), avarice (Mercury), and envy (the Moon). Like the signs, the planets inspired worship and adulation, and each of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, according to one scholar, arose in homage to one of the planets then known. The Colossus of Rhodes was an altar to the Sun; the temple of Diana at Ephesus to the Moon; the Great Pyramid at Giza to Mercury; the hanging gardens of Semiramis to Venus; the mausoleum of Halicarnassus to Mars; the temple of Olympian Zeus to Jupiter; and the Pharos of Alexandria to Saturn.

Many of the myths of the ancients, moreover, can be unlocked only by an astral key. One key is the vernal equinox, the Sun's annual "crossing" (or "passover") from the southern to the northern hemisphere -- which enters a new constellation every 2,160 years. Some 4,700 years ago, for example, when it entered Taurus, the Egyptian god Osiris assumed the form of the Celestial Bull, while in the Egyptian desert the children of Israel made offerings to a golden calf. When the equinox later entered Aries, "the solar deity was commonly represented by a golden-haired youth cradling a lamb in his arms and holding a shepherd's crook." When the equinox entered Pisces, the Savior of the World "appeared as the Fisher of Men."

In the symbolism of this great story, the Ram (Aries, from the Greek eras, meaning lamb) and the lamb are one. After their Exodus from Egypt, the Jews sacrificed a lamb at the Passover festival; this paschal sacrifice later became the Easter Lamb of sacrifice and crucifixion in the Christian faith. The idea of Passover itself is linked to the Sun's equinoctial passing or crossing over, which also underlies the symbol of the Cross. We may go deeper. After Christ was crucified, dead, and buried, he ascended into heaven after three days. Just so, the Sun remains for three days in transit at the equinoctial point before it begins its ascent into the northern hemisphere.

This is not to say that the story of the Passover, or the life of Christ, is a mere allegory of a celestial event. God forbid! Astrologically speaking, in the divine scheme of things, it is rather the other way around.


Adoration of the heavens as the face of the divine was perhaps the beginning of true worship, and the mythology of the Egyptians and Greeks often involved parables or stories of the stars. The Trojan War, Homer tells us in the Iliad, was provoked by "Jove and Latona's son," that is, Jupiter (Zeus in Homer), and Apollo, the Sun. Arrayed on the side of the Trojans are Apollo, Venus, and Mars; on that of the Greeks, Neptune, the Moon, Vulcan, Athena, and Jupiter. Mercury is not mentioned by Homer, but Iris, the rainbow goddess, is his female form. As a messenger, she acts with strict neutrality, but "every scene on earth is a reflex, outcome, or willed event of some previous celestial scene." "What do you think Homer and Vergil had in mind," wrote one Renaissance astrologer, Girolamo Cardano, "when they continually made the gods quarrel or fight, the Homeric ones for the Greeks or Trojans, the Vergilian for Turnus or Aeneas? Clearly that some of the stars favored one party, others the other. That is the explanation of those numerous meetings and counsels of the gods...Therefore when they said that Venus favored Aeneas because he was very handsome, or that Juno, that is, fortune, and the Moon favored Turnus, or that Apollo, or the Sun, favored Hector because he was strong and just, they had in mind, concealed under the veil of fable, the genius or star that ruled each one at birth." The Twelve Labors of Hercules are also a figurative description of the Sun's passage through the twelve signs and are akin to the stories the Babylonians told about their own solar hero, Gilgamesh, "whose life unfolded in twelve epic songs."

If the pagan myths are astrological allegories of a sort, so too may be some of the biblical tales -- for example, that of Samson, whose name in Hebrew means "belonging to the Sun." His long hair, like the lion's mane, was his pride and symbolized his strength; it is his encounter with a lion as a young man that first proves his might. Delilah is his opposite in every sense. If he is Leo-like, the root of her name in Hebrew is the word for Aquarius -- the opposite sign. This is a story in which astrological opposites meet, mate, and clash.


We may eventually know what everything is, but we will never know what everything means. Ludwig Wittgenstein once touchingly glanced at this idea in one of his mournful moods when he wrote, "We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched." Religion occupies the sacred heart of all those questions to which the problems of life give rise, and astrology is the most venerable branch of that inner knowledge from which religion springs.

This is not a book for or against astrology, but a book about its impact on history and on the history of ideas. That impact has been large, and without a competent knowledge of the subject it is almost impossible to accurately trace or construe much of history itself or the ideas that have governed its course. For it runs, and has run, like an underground river through human affairs. Indeed, until the middle of the 17th century at least, astrology "entered into the councils of princes, guided the policy of nations, and ruled the daily actions of individuals," great and small. Astrological predictions often affected the course of events, while those in power based their actions on astrological advice. It is said that the Incas submitted to the Spanish almost without a fight because the arrival of the conquistadors happened to coincide with an astrological prophecy that their civilization was coming to an end. Depending on how one cares to interpret this, the prophecy fulfilled itself or, by acquiescence, was fulfilled. Either way, astrology had power.

The very idea of a "period" of history (to which the Incas belonged) is astrological, and based on the conjunction theory Columbus embraced. That theory brought the otherwise indistinguishable flow of time into an ordered sequence, and made history intelligible by identifying its hectic course with celestial events. It also helped to explain why history often seemed to repeat itself, as imaged in the repetitions in the sky. Modern science, like modern history, tends to disregard it, but this is a senseless bias or neglect. The history of science itself is so beholden to astrology that it owes it a debt of respectful attention if not abundant gratitude. "Do you believe then that the sciences would ever have arisen and become great," Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, "if there had not beforehand been magicians, alchemists, astrologers, and wizards, who thirsted and hungered after abscondite and forbidden powers?" Astrology, of course, possesses its own kind of knowledge, which has nothing to do with what modern science reveres. But in some sense, it is also true that magic and science originally advanced side by side. The desire to understand the secret workings of nature created an intellectual environment favorable to experiment and induction; alchemy gave birth to chemistry; Neoplatonic and hermetic ways of thinking led to the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus, Kepler's laws of planetary motion, and Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. The mystical conviction that number contained the key to all mysteries fostered the development of mathematics -- and subsequently revived it in the wake of the Dark Ages when knowledge of the subject had waned.

The irreverent scorn in which astrology is sometimes held is ultimately based on a superstition, one "all the more dangerous," as Theodore Roosevelt once remarked (in an essay entitled, "The Search for Truth in a Reverent Spirit"), "because those suffering from it are profoundly convinced that they are freeing themselves from superstition itself. No medieval superstition...could be more intolerant...than that...which not merely calls itself scientific but arrogates to itself the sole right to use the term." Surely a degree of humility is not unbecoming in any attempt to assess the value of a doctrine -- or "teaching" -- that has survived for thousands of years.


Like the bones of Columbus himself, those of astrology have been stirred so often as almost to acquire a life of their own. Exhumed and reinterred at least half a dozen times over the course of three centuries, from Vallodolid to Santo Domingo, from Havana to Genoa to Seville, the explorer's remains have seemed to multiply like the relics of a saint, and today can be found in at least three sites in both the Old World and the New. If astrology is dead and buried, as some would have it, its grave is as unquiet as that of Columbus, and as indeterminate as his tomb.

Sir Elias Ashmole (for whom the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is named) once remarked: "There are in Astrologie (I confess) shallow Brooks, through which young Tyroes may wade; but withal there are deep Fords, over which the Giants themselves must swim." There is far more to the subject than tends to meet the modern eye. Its story, at the very least, is enlarged with remarkable lives, including some of the most illustrious (and infamous) in human history, and draws its line through the whole chronology and range of human culture, from the back alleys of imperial Rome, where fortune-tellers plied their trade, to the inner circles of secular and religious power.

Copyright© 2005 by Bensn Bobrick

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