Lost in the stars

World Astrology

by Peter Marshall

(Macmillan)

In 1976, 186 scientists, including 19 Nobel Prize-winners, signed a manifesto entitled Objections to Astrology. Claiming that there was “no scientific foundation for its tenets”, they asserted that astrology was mere superstition and its practitioners “charlatans”.


Twenty years later, the zoologist Richard Dawkins repeated the accusation. For Dawkins astrology is an “aesthetic affront” whose “pre-Copernican dabblings demean and cheapen astronomy”. Dawkins shares the historian Franz Cumont’s belief that astrology is “the most persistent hallucination that ever haunted the human brain”. Peter Marshall’s impressive history is a well-argued and absorbing account of astrology’s grip on the imagination, and an eloquent defence of its importance in our lives.

Marshall is aware of the shortcomings of astrology, something he shares with most serious practitioners. “As widely practised today,” he writes, “astrology is based on an astronomically false view of the universe and follows arbitrary rules established 2 000 years ago.” Given the phenomenon of the “precession of the equinoxes” (which accounts for the apparent backward motion of the zodiac against the backdrop of the fixed stars), the constellations are not in the same position as they were when the zodiac was established about 2 500 years ago. This means that the first point of Aries is now really in Pisces: the sun signs in our daily horoscopes do not reflect the heavens above.

Another glitch is the problem of twins: they may have the same chart yet widely different lives. Likewise, did all the victims of Nazism share similar horoscopes? This thought leads to perhaps the central objection to astrology: its apparent denial of free will.

Marshall devotes a chapter to these concerns, yet believes that as a “valuable technique of understanding human character and experience”, astrology “has hardly ever been in better health”. Since 1930, when the London-based Daily Express newspaper published an astrological profile of Princess Margaret, millions of newspaper readers have each day succumbed to the “persistent hallucination”.

They are in distinguished company. Plato, St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Goethe and WB Yeats were all devotees, along with politicians as disparate as Charles de Gaulle and Ronald Reagan. Marshall’s fascinating narrative extends beyond Europe to include China, India and the Arabic world. Ninety-five percent of marriages in India are guided by astrological help. And when astrology and its sister science astronomy went into decline in the Dark Ages, both disciplines were kept alive by the sages of the Middle East.

Equally interesting is Marshall’s account of the changing ideas about the use of astrology. Originally devoted to predicting the rise and fall of empires, with the Greeks “mundane” astrology gradually shifted into our more familiar natal astrology, focused on the fate of the individual. By the time of Galen, court physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, astrology was considered an essential part of medical knowledge; awareness of the influence of the stars was necessary for an accurate diagnosis. That human life was a part of the whole and therefore affected by cosmic conditions was, until fairly recently, a given.

Although most devotees seek some idea of themselves from their daily horoscopes, Marshall echoes the attitude of Renaissance astrologers like Marsilio Ficino, who sought to escape baleful celestial emanations through knowledge of them. Rejecting stellar determinism, Marshall advises that the “stars incline but do not compel”.

Yet his account is full of instances when the predictive power of astrology was evident, as in the case of William Lilly, who was brought before the English Parliament for his accurate predictions of both the plague and the great fire of London. One wonders if an equally accurate prediction foresaw the 20th-century renaissance of astrology at the hands of the aptly named Alan Leo, whose popular books revitalised mass interest in the subject in the early 20th century and are believed to have inspired its best-known musical expression, Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite. — Â

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