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A History of Astrology

History Astrology encompasses those systems of divination and explication founded on the principle that the positions and aspects of celestial bodies, such as the planets, have a direct influence on earthly affairs. In various forms it has had considerable influence on many civilizations, and its effect is still strong even in these present days of rationalism.

There is evidence of early astrology in Mesopotamia, perhaps as far back as 3000 BC, but western astrology did not reach its flowering until the influence of the ancient Greeks during the Hellenistic period (323-30 BC, the interval between the death of Alexander the Great and the Roman conquest of Egypt). From there it was taken into Islamic culture, which would later influence Western astrology itself during the Middle Ages when Islamic science had a powerful influence on Europe.

In the development of astrology, the Greeks appropriated the Egyptian calendar as a framework for their astronomical observations. This calendar was the basis for the one we still use today, and divided the year into twelve months, each having 30 days, with an extra five days at the end of the year. The Egyptians also employed a series of 36 star configurations, which were later called decans, to mark out the passing of the year, each decan rising ten days after the previous one. References to the decans are first seen around 2100 BC inside coffin lids, and they may have been the origin of the division of the day into 24 hours (12 decans rose each summer night, splitting the time of darkness into twelve periods). Each decan was considered to hold a certain influence over the time period for which it ruled, and this system was incorporated into the zodiac of classical astrology, in which twelve signs mark out the year, with each of these having three distinct phases during their time of influence.

Even the rise of the Christian church, which gave edicts against astrology, could not prevent astrology and its underlying philosophies of the nature of the universe being used and developed by the populace and influential thinkers. In the late Middle Ages, the universities at Florence, Paris and Bologna, among others, all had chairs of astrology. The heliocentric view of creation that came from the discoveries of polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) led to the decline of astrology as a scientific discipline, but the belief in and development of the art has continued to this day.

The theory of classical astrology considered the positions and aspects of the seven known astrological planets, including the Sun and Moon, which are not planets in the astronomical sense. Seven is an appropriately mystical number, and the seven bodies studied were those that appeared to move through the zodiac when viewed from earth: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Once they were discovered, the three remaining planets were incorporated into astrological theory: Uranus was found in 1781, Neptune in 1846 and Pluto in 1930. Theories and attributions regarding other heavenly bodies, such as the asteroid Chiron (discovered in 1977), were also added to astrological lore, though their usefulness is debatable.

Most scientists reject astrology as groundless superstition, but it may be that, somehow, the affairs of humankind are reflected in the affairs of the wider universe. Astrology attempts to make sense of confusing human concerns through the mechanical motions of the heavens.