Early Astronomers and Astrology:        

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

The nova that Tycho Brahe saw that cold November night in 1572 in Cassiopeia certainly had considerable meaning for him personally as well as cosmology in general.  It’s interesting to note that Ptolemy considered the stars of Cassiopeia to be similar to Saturn and Venus; Robson stated that those influenced by the constellation commanded respect; and Rigor indicated fame through the help of superiors.[1]  Fitting these descriptions into Tycho’s life from that point on reinforce these notions as he clearly loved his work, which commands respect even into modern times, and the fact he was the court astrologer for numerous patrons including emperor Rudolph II.  The nova not only lit the path for Tycho’s life’s work but for an entirely new era where the heavens were no longer unchangeable or perfect and could be scrutinized in an objective, scientific way which removed their mystery.

Tycho was an astrologer whose concern with the accuracy of existing tables drove him to obtain more accurate measurements for planetary positions.  The fact that the tables available were inaccurate is rather ironic considering that Ptolemy’s table of Essential Dignities is detailed to the degree level for Term and Face, implying that in the second century BCE accuracy to the degree was not a problem.  In the 11th century CE the astrolabe was introduced to Europe[2] as well as the equatorium, facilitating the calculation of planetary positions.[3]  Prior to that time it had taken roughly five hours to calculate a horoscope, which actually seems optimistic based on my own experience.  However, astrologers being human, wanted to do so even more easily and thus spend more time interpreting horoscopes rather than casting them, a sentiment that persists today given the propensity modern astrologers have for computer software to do the dirty work, even those who utilize traditional methods.  The computer software option in Tycho’s time, however, would not be available for over four centuries, which constituted a rather long wait.  Thus, the use of tables had become the most common method for casting charts, beginning with the Toledan Tables developed by Islamic astrologers in the 11th century.[4]

The major problem with the tables, however, was that they were based on observation, not orbital mechanics.  Thus, the prediction of such things as retrograde motion was largely a crap shoot, and it’s easy to see how these tables could get seriously out of whack.  However, astrologers clearly didn’t want to go outside with an astrolabe or equatorium, which by this time they may not have even known how to use, much as today’s engineers would have no clue what to do with a sliderule.  Even modern astrologers seldom go outside to look at the sky.  However, thanks to the work of the astrologers and astronomers of the 16th century we can now enjoy that luxury with the assurance that our ephemeredes are accurate.

It’s certainly no wonder that astrological predictions were inaccurate if the tables were wrong.  I shudder to think how easily such a problem could occur today if “The American Ephemeris for the 21st Century” was incorrect.  In fact, I do have a few issues with it with regard to how it designates Mercury going direct following a retrograde period.  More often than not it shows Mercury’s longitude continuing to decrease after it indicates it has gone direct.  For example it indicates direct motion at 5:35.4 Capricorn on 15 January 2010 , then 5:33.6 Capricorn on the 16th; 11 May Mercury goes direct at 2:41.6 Taurus with it’s position on 12 May 2:39.6 Taurus; 12 September 2010 Mercury goes direct at 5:26.2 Virgo with it 5:22.0 Virgo on 13 September.  Provided the degrees are correct, whether the shading and direct designation are correct are a bit of a moot point, but it’s easy to see how such problems arise.  But I digress.

The 1572 nova profoundly influenced Tycho’s career path as he dedicated his life to obtaining more accurate data as well as providing astrological services to his various patrons.  He was also a Christian who had no problem reconciling astrology with his religion as indicated by his statement, “If the celestial bodies are placed by God in such a way as they stand in their signs, they must of necessity have a meaning, especially for mankind, on behalf of whom they chiefly have been created.”[5]   However, in spite of this spiritually insightful statement, Tycho was far from a saint.  Rather, he is remembered, at least in one of my college physics books, as a “foul-tempered Danish lord who tongue-lashed kings, tormented peasants, sported a silver nose (his own having been lost in a youthful duel over mathematics), kept a clairvoyant dwarf as his court jester and a tame elk…”[6]   It’s somewhat amusing how science books put him in a slightly different light.

Nonetheless, further credit to Tycho lies in the fact that he employed Johannes Kepler, a devout Christian whose original aspiration was for the ministry but had to settle for being a math teacher for financial reasons; clearly things would have been significantly different had Kepler lived in modern times and been the prodigy of a televangelist.  These two needed each other and knew it, though their 18 month relationship was not always amicable.  Indeed, Tycho withheld much of his observational data which Kepler obtained somewhat stealthily following Tycho’s unexpected death from an acute bladder infection incurred from over-imbibing.[7]  Nonetheless, their combined efforts ultimately put them both on the scientific map, which was Tycho’s motive for hiring him in the first place; Brahe was good at observations but needed someone who could organize the data and tie it together with mathematical theory which Kepler delivered in spades.

By now the concept of perfection held earlier with regard to the solar system was definitely yielding to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.  This was reinforced even further when Kepler figured out that planetary orbits are ellipses as opposed to circles.  Combining his theory with Tycho’s observation data resulted in the Tabulae Rudolphinae which Kepler published in 1627, finally providing accurate tables for astrologers to use for their predictions.[8]  While Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion brought him fame that would carry his name into scientific circles and institutions for centuries, it’s ironic that they tend to forget to mention the fact that he was also an astrologer, as if that would jeopardize their credibility.  Personally, I was quite surprised to find out that Kepler added the quintile and decile as aspects and also devised secondary progressions.[9]  Kepler loved astrology but despised those who were incompetent or used it for selfish or foolish purposes and thus advocated the rejection of medieval and Hellenistic methods.[10]  He accurately predicted the 1618 Thirty Years War, another feat for which he gains little credit.  However, in many ways his work along with that of others ultimately served to do astrology more harm than good.

Another astrologer/astronomer who contributed to the budding scientific revolution and apparent demise of astrology was Galileo.  Back in 1609 when Kepler published his first two laws of planetary motion, the first one being that the planets move in ellipses with the Sun at one focus, and the second that they sweep out equal area in equal time, Galileo was busy observing the heavens with his newly constructed telescope which revealed mountains and craters on the Moon and the fact that Jupiter had moons.  These revelations dethroned two previously assumed facts, i.e., that the Moon was perfect and that the Earth was the only heavenly body around which others revolved.  He also discovered the Sun’s rotation, sunspots and the rotation and phases of Venus.[11]  (Looking at all those sunspots ultimately blinded him,[12] unfortunately, but nonetheless these accomplishments significantly enhanced his C.V.)  These observations, though tremendously important, did not prove that Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was correct.  However, they did manage to get Galileo into considerable trouble with the Catholic Church, who by now was beginning to look rather foolish as observations began to undermine precepts of the Universe that had been held for thousands of years.  He subsequently was subjected to the Inquisition and spent his life under house arrest.  His Astrologica Nonulla manuscript retained in Florence contains what we know of his methods of practical astrology.[13]

It’s rather ironic that Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo were all astrologers who were merely seeking more accurate data for their predictions, yet their work provided the groundwork which would do more to undermine astrology than imperial edicts or papal bulls had accomplished over centuries.  Before anything could be accepted and believed, however, empirical proof was required.  The coup de gras came with the work of Isaac Newton who was born in 1642, the year Galileo died.  Newton had no regard for judicial astrology, but was fascinated by the calculations.  His theory of gravitation, which built upon Kepler’s theories of planetary motion, necessitated that he invent calculus to handle the math and ultimately provided the final blow to the Universe’s dependence on divine intervention.  While for centuries the planets had been imbued with personalities with their movement facilitated by divine beings, the combined work of these men not only debunked everything that previous philosophers and religious leaders had declared but demystified the solar system as well, reducing it to a series of mathematical equations and forces which served to eliminate its soul.  Newton wasn’t a fan of judicial astrology but did believe that comets were messengers from God and that the world’s history unfolded in line with the constellations, implying that the thought mundane astrology was acceptable.[14]

Newton stated “This most beautiful system of the Sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being”[15] yet his mathematical view of the Universe effectively removed God from the equation and replaced the divine element with numbers, something that Newton, another devout Christian, never intended, any more than Darwin had intended that his work on evolution would further fuel atheistic arguments for centuries to come.  Newtonian physics would rule the world for centuries, until Albert Einstein took them one step further due to the fact Newtonian mechanics only covered motion occurring below the speed of light.  It’s ironic, however, that while no one had any trouble believing Newton’s theory of gravity, probably because he totally wowed them with his math skills, which wouldn’t be hard considering he’d invented it, to this day, no one has been able to find the actual mechanism for how gravity operates.  Clearly without question the math works, as evidenced by the many successful NASA missions that have taken us to the Moon and explored the solar system.  But we still don’t know exactly how gravity actually works with Einstein’s General Relativity theory a more complex alternative. 

Astrology cannot be reduced to formulae, however, which explain its effect on the affairs of Earth, a fact that pushed it into the realms of superstition and religious precepts which could not be proven, but by their nature required “faith.”  Somehow action at a distance is credible for gravity, but not astrology.  Today few educated people have trouble accepting Einstein’s theories of relativity which have had pitiful scientific proof due to the fact we don’t yet have the technology required to do so.  While what they have found has never shown it was incorrect, there nonetheless isn’t a preponderance of empirical evidence any more or less than there is for astrology.  Then again, much as it was in the 17th century, the incompetent astrologers give the rest of us a bad name.

Resuming the subject of the 17th century, as the previous cosmic paradigm fell with a clatter that shook the world, a new skepticism overtook the upper class and educated elite.  After all, what they’d believed for centuries had just been proven to be wrong, their trust shattered, even beyond Platonic skepticism.  The shock waves of these discoveries shook the foundation Catholic authority with regard to the physical Universe and further fed the flames of doubt that precipitated the Protestant Reformation.  However, the prevailing opinion put forth by academia, political figures and religious leaders is typically viewed with a high degree of skepticism by an elite group of free thinkers who make their own decisions.  While Newtonian physics served to shove astrology into the world of superstition, the fact that astrology did seem to have a rather long history of being effective was something that no objective person could deny.  Anyone who could look beyond popular opinion through the lens of history could see that this was just another pebble in the sands of time.  Truth seekers do just that, seek truth, and do so in places other than the prevailing textbooks and educators at the time.  Indeed, if they didn’t step outside the box, no new discoveries would ever be made.  Thus, while astrology took a beating for not being able to stand up to the requirements of scientific proof, there were a select few who suspected otherwise. 

As Campion states, “…Eventually, by the end of the seventeenth century, astrology has lost its rationale in the medieval theory of natural influence.”[16]  However, much to everyone’s consternation, it continued to work.  Newton published his famous Principia in 1687, starting a scientific revolution which joined the religious and political revolutions that fed the colonization of the North American continent as courageous, free-thinking individuals fled Europe’s various upheavals for a new life.  While many sought America’s shores for religious freedom, it also ultimately became a location friendly to technological advances as well.  Meanwhile, back in the 17th century, however, astrology became what we would consider politically incorrect, among other things.  The “educated” elite dismissed astrology as the planets lost their soul, leaving it to the ranks of the illiterate and low class.  Thus, no one who valued their reputation would go there with an insulated barge pole.  There were various individuals, however, who suspected there was something to it.  The Universe may have been reduced to a few simple equations, but there were still unanswered questions. 

Tester may claim that between 1650 – 1700 astrology died out, but Campion claims that the myth of the 17th and 18th centuries is that the rise of reason ended superstition; religion in the form of the Protestant Reformation was alive and well as were angels and demons.  However, religious and non-religious alike once again condemned astrology.  Some things never change.  The arguments didn’t change much, either.  And again, astrology survived, albeit in a somewhat “underground” fashion, providing it’s impossible to destroy an eternal principle.

Scientific equations do not provide the answers most people seek with regard to the meaning of life.  As a scientist myself, I was duly saturated with anti-astrology propaganda and set out to debunk it, in the process convincing myself that it worked with more evidence than I’d seen for Einstein’s relativity.  Statistical proof and probability may only show correlations, not a causal relationship, but in the real world that provides a lot of sway.  Furthermore, astrology properly applied supplies explanations for life events which religion also fails to provide.  Something that powerful cannot be successfully suppressed, but will continue to arise like a phoenix, laughing at the ongoing folly of men.

As far as the 18th century is concerned, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Vox Stellarium, which combined astrology with Biblical prophecy, sold 107,000 copies in 1768 and 560,000 copies in 1839.[17]  Almanacs, which had astrology at their core, grew in popularity.  Thus, there was a select few who knew that astrology had an appeal that no ranting preacher or scientist could extinguish until they could provide the same answers.  While only six books on judicial astrology were published between 1700 and 1790,[18] clearly the knowledge was being passed on privately and thus retained. It’s likely that the lack of public knowledge or publications on the subject contributed to its mysterious nature, placing it in the ranks of secret or profound knowledge, such as that possessed by secret societies such as the Freemasons.  Speaking of which, it’s probably no coincidence that Ebenezer Sibly, a practicing astrologer in the 18th century, was one of their ranks.[19]

The medical profession also continued to use astrology and garnered enough respect that they could obtain medical licenses.  Thus, in the more intimate circles, astrologers continued to operate and pass on their methods.  Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician who lived between 1734 – 1815 and invented hypnosis, was another Freemason who spoke of “planetary influences” and considered an astrological reformer.  Like alternative physicians today, Mesmer also fought the “vested interests of a closed medical establishment”[20] and refused the throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as therapies that worked, regardless of whether or not they were accepted by mainstream medicine.  Eventually between 1784 – 1788 Sibly published “A New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Source of Astrology”[21] which definitely implies to me that the Freemasons were definitely not swayed by fickle public opinion with regard to astrology or anything else.

Staying within the confines of the science of the day, Humphey Davy claimed in 1799 that light was the medium to convey celestial influences;[22] after all, the electro-magnetic spectrum is largely invisible other than the small range of wavelengths that comprise visible light.  In 1801 William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, also noted the correlation between sunspot activity and wheat prices, though this easily fits in with weather and crop influences or the domain of almanacs, which to this day remain popular.[23]

Thus, while it appears that astrology was incognito or perhaps even covert for a time, it nonetheless remained intact, sustained by those who couldn’t be fooled by the vicissitudes of popular opinion.  Therefore, in response to the subject of this week’s essay, the evidence provided by Campion certainly indicates the he doesn’t agree with Tester that it died during this time.  Or as they say in mathematical circles, “QED.”[24]

 Back to History Menu

[1] Brady, Bernadette, “Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars” York Beach, Maine 1998 p.95.

[2] Campion, Nicholas, “A History of Western Astrology Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds  London 2009, p. 31.

[3] Campion, p. 41.

[4] Campion, p. 41

[5] Campion, p. 135.

[6] Olenick, Richard, Apostol, Tom M., and Goodstein, David L. “The Mechanical Universe: Introduction to Mechanics and Heat”, Cambridge 1985, p. 478.

[7] Olenick, p. 480.

[8] Campion, p. 138.

[9] Campion, p. 139.

[10] Campion, p. 148.

[11] Campion, p. 144

[12] Olenick, p. 112.

[13] Campion, p. 147.

[14] Campion, p. 177.

[15] Campion, p. 175.

[16] Campion, p. 143.

[17] Campion, p. 183

[18] Campion, p. 184

[19] Campion, p. 184

[20] Campion, p. 187

[21] Campion, p. 189

[22] Campion, p. 190

[23] Campion, p. 190

[24] Quod erat demonstrandum, translated “which was to be demonstrated.”

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