I had a short-term roommate in grad school who tried, via oblique and sundry ways, to determine around which time in the year I was born. I thought this odd (why be so round about asking?) until I overheard her chatting on her cell phone about how she just could not stand Scorpios.
Step back again to undergrad. This time, an ill-considered “wine party” that I should never have attended. At one point the host passed around a book of modernist poetry for us to read aloud, which should have been about the time I should have elected to leave. Anyhow, one of the guests (attending university, studying literature or philosophy or something of that sort) started explaining, with real conviction, how the cosmic rays from the stars can influence us, asking others about their place in the zodiac.
And then there’s my grandmother on my father’s side, who is otherwise a devout secularist and believer in science and nonetheless also believes in ghosts, folk magic and astrology.
There is some basic human connection on the story and language level towards the night sky as an indicator and influencer of life on Earth. Babylonian and Egyptian astrologers were meticulous in their observations, though the form of ancient astrology was far removed from today’s New Age mysticism. There are tablets and papyri exhaustively linking heavenly events to earthly phenomena on a wide rather than personal scale–and they are records of unusual and oftentimes impossible astral events and their meanings. The heavens provided prognosis for famine, catastrophe, and the like, but not whether you’d meet a tall stranger this week.
The modern form of astrology in the western world owes more to late antiquity and the medieval period, especially the latter and the idea of “the machine of the world” derived from Greek and Roman natural philosophers. The universe was a tightly-knit system of unities, the smallest events tied in some way to the largest-scale events in nature. Those unities were reinforced by Christian thought, leading to the subsequent debate over astrology and its sticky relationship with the idea of free will: if God dwelt in the heavens with his angels then might not His actions be expressed in the most perfect stars and planets (perfect, because they were closer to God)? In a Ptolemaic, Earth-centred cosmos of nested spheres this almost goes without saying, a trickle-down effect descending through the bands of elements that even stirs the humours inside us.
It was Arab astrologers who solidified this conceptual system and provided a framework to exploit the powers of the heavens: astral magic, bound to the idea of rays transferred from the highest spheres that eventually came to us and could affect behaviour, affect the future.
For the longest time, it was difficult to deny a universe of unities, though there was plenty of argument over how far the influence of the heavenly spheres could actually extend. Predicting the weather, well that seemed benign enough. And there were those pesky heavenly abnormalities that accompanied the greatest tremors in history, like that comet heralding the Norman conquest of 1066. God was known to put “signs” in the sky: the star of Bethlehem, for one. As an aside, those latter “signs” were treated in a very Babylonian way, given significance after an event but rarely before. However, in day-to-day life there was a deep awareness on the part of some of what exactly the constellations were up to. In Chaucer, we find the Miller’s Tale, in which a scholar exploits a cuckold’s belief in astrology to get on with his young wife; or the Franklin’s tale, where astral magic appears to actually work. Petty personal conflicts reflected in the sky, or reflections of the sky. In a universe conceived as a tightly-knit system, there was only so far you could take the argument that astrology didn’t work; rather, arguments were just as heated over whether you should employ the art if it did.
We no longer conceive of the universe as one of crystalline spheres scratching out music like a record player. At least, most of us don’t. Yet these more intimate models of the universe (whether derived from the cosmology of Ancient Greece or Babylon or China) provide more comfort than the seemingly cruel and uncaring one described by modern science. Some sense that the future is knowable and that other people are predictable, through the guidance of natural forces stretching from the macrocosm to the microcosm. Lovecraft encapsulated the fear inspired by modern cosmology: the stars align, but they don’t align for us because we are insignificant among the countless stars and galaxies surrounding the Earth. This is how I like to think belief in astrology persists so strongly in western popular culture. It is immensely attractive to feel you have a handle on the universe the same way the scholar in the Franklin’s Tale did. That human lives have fingers spreading out to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. That my life is connected to the stars.