The Decline and Fall of Astrology in Christian Culture:  Indecisive ‘R’ Us 

Christian leadership’s opinion of astrology between the first and twelfth centuries BCE reminds me of a Libra trying to decide what to have for lunch, the grilled chicken or the spinach salad.  Truly the argument for either holds equal sway, resulting in an oscillatory effect that could swing back in the other direction at any time.  Thus was the situation regarding Christianity’s view of astrology between its inception and the 12th century, a condition which unsurprisingly persists today.

In the early days it would appear that the “new” religion initially managed to bury astrology, particularly in Roman times when it joined forces with a government that had a long tradition of attempting to eliminate such nuisances, at least amongst the masses.  This resulted in a few dubious successes, though stamping it out via imperial or papal decree never proved to have the desired effect.  Nonetheless, much as efforts to eradicate an undesirable species often fail only to occur naturally through environmental factors, astrology gradually lost its charm and hold on the populace at large.

This decline was in part due to the fact that the Greek language was rapidly becoming extinct in the Latin West, with only a limited number of works by its great philosophers translated into Latin, a condition that lasted until the 6th century.   Naturally, this was encouraged by what had become a predominantly Christian culture, to avoid its proponents from having contact with what were believed to be heretical philosophies which, of course, included the progress the Greeks had achieved in astrology.  Furthermore, as Christian doctrine permeated the minds of the people and was integrated into their culture, the prevailing teaching was that God through Christ could be approached directly through prayer or at worst through counsel with the priesthood, making astrology irrelevant at best and demonic at worst.[1]

By the 6th century, Greek philosophies had largely faded into the distant past, further reinforced by the fact that overly enthusiastic Christian converts from paganism of high station had succeeded in driving out any remaining pagan and Neoplatonic scholars, who wisely sought refuge in the more knowledge-friendly Persian Empire.[2]  Thus began an intellectual famine of sorts, particularly with regard to man’s intimate relationship with the cosmos, which was now presumably under the complete control of the prevailing ecclesiastical leaders.  However, the stage had been set such that around the fifth century  reason again began to rear its ugly head, in spite of the many derisions issued over the previous four hundred years’ from Justin Martyr to St. Augustine as well as a plethora of others inbetween. 

Perhaps the reason this annoying issue continued to arise was the fact that it could not be settled through scripture alone, allowing religious leaders to form and impose their own opinions on their followers, or at least attempt to.  While the Old Testament contains various damning implications toward astrologers, the New Testament is notably silent.  Apparently the members at large eventually began to question the concept that they could only learn of God’s will, or any knowledge, for that matter, through prayer or their illustrious clergy.  As their leaders’ credibility waned, the concept of God speaking to them directly through signs in the sky, i.e. albeit his cosmic creations, which also came in terms they could understand, gained new appeal, much to the dismay of those who had hoped that an interest in divination, including astrology, had long been suffocated.  Nonetheless, “the city [with] no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof”[3] had not yet manifested itself, making messages born through heavenly bodies again worthy of attention. 

One can’t help but wonder what doctrinal deficiency drove church members to other means for finding answers.  Of course their leaders would undoubtedly point to a loss of faith rather than any failings on their part to provide the necessary doctrinal infrastructure which would answer all possible personal needs.  Indeed, heaven and its promise of peace often seem horribly remote when facing the trials of everyday life, particularly when your pastor or priest tells you when you lose your job, donkey, and abode, to “Have faith in God’s will,” an answer that begs numerous additional questions such as “Why am I being punished when I’m a good Christian?” Being told to read the Book of Job only goes so far as opposed to being counseled by a sympathetic astrologer that “As long as Pluto is transiting your ascendant your life will be a total wreck.”  Even in modern times such an explanation is much easier to swallow, at least in my practice, especially when accompanied with a short discourse on one’s life plan as expressed in the horoscope, which goes back to the matter of integrating Fate with the soul’s free will, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A significant albeit inadvertent contributor to the welcome return of astrological acumen, which would indeed rise again, began in the 5th century with the expansive work of Boethius who started by translating some of Aristotle’s work into Latin, a gesture which ultimately neutralized much of Augustine’s denunciations by presenting pagan thought within a Christian framework.  His most influential work, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” written while he was in prison on false charges (and probably experiencing a Pluto transit, most likely in his 12th House, though Pluto was unknown at the time), would later become the most widely used textbook in medieval Western curriculum. While Boethius, bless his heart, didn’t specifically mention astrology, many earlier objections were dismissed through his assertion that one’s physical life is pre-determined but the soul is free to make its own choices, a paradigm which now allowed the cosmos to be ruled by God, but administered by Fate.  Fate, in turn, ruled all events and provided the theoretical rationale that opened the door for astrology.[4]

Interest may have been piqued, but opposition continued as evidenced by Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Boethius, who vainly tried to squelch what was apparently the growing interest in astrology by using Cicero’s argument, that it wasn’t evil, but foolish.  Furthermore, calculations known at the time were basic and thus inaccurate for astrological purposes, comprising mainly those needed to determine the zodiac sign occupied by the Moon and the Computus, the astronomical calculations required for determining the liturgical calendar, the only justification for studying astronomy.[5]  However, as they say in Hollywood, “No publicity is bad publicity” and it was apparent that the seed had been planted such that once again consulting the stars was becoming an issue which religious authorities and the supposed thinkers of the day needed to address.

Alexander of Tralles, author of a 12-volume medical treatise so comprehensive that it was later translated into Hebrew and Syriac, made numerous mentions of astrological influences, implying that astrology’s medical application had persisted even if judicial horoscopic astrology had been suppressed, albeit temporarily.[6]  In the 6th – 7th century Bishop Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae, which was a major source of classical learning until as late as the 13th century, was clearly against judicial astrology and separated the study of planetary motion and such to astronomia and any influences to astrologia.  He accepted natural astrology as it related to the seasons but condemned anything of a superstitious nature such as augury by the stars, associating the zodiac with the soul or body, or predictions with regard to a person’s character, though he acknowledged that comets often signified war, plagues and revolutions.  This division contained enough ambiguity that it caused as much confusion as clarity.[7]

The Venerable Bede, a learned Irish monk in the 8th century, produced writings with regard to thunder divinations which implied he had access to Greek astrological work which dated back to 550 CE and undoubtedly included material traceable to the Enuma Anu, Enlil, the Babylonian omen collection dating back to the 8th century BCE.  This not only indicates the transmission to northern England of material originating in the Byzantine Empire but an interest as well.  While he did not embrace astrology, he did investigate it personally, attempting to find the answer in the scriptures, which when lacking, he concluded that any connections were limited to Christian analogies comparing Christ to the Sun.[8]

However, in the 12th century, a millennium after Christians had begun disparaging astrology in a vain attempt to eradicate it, scholars in the Latin West in their avid search for knowledge began to question why what Isidore called “superstitious” astrology was really immoral.  Particularly if it worked, which it apparently did or it wouldn’t have caused a flap that spanned centuries, it could represent a source of profound ancient wisdom.  Then, with an expression reminiscent of Tiberius’ when he interviewed Thrasyllus, they winked at each other across the table and noted in hushed voices that there could be various personal and political advantages as well, a quest that ultimately took a variety of paths over the three ensuring centuries.

During this time thanks to the availability of more translations, the philosophies of ancient Greece, particularly those of Aristotle, melded even more closely with Christian doctrine.  This was facilitated by numerous cosmological texts, any of which were too enticing for any serious truth seeker to ignore, which ironically contained astrological methods which improved its accuracy that were developed in other cultures such as Islam during the time the Christian world was busy trying to annihilate it.  Thus, whether their intent was to increase their knowledge of God’s plan for his Creation or gain some political advantage, astrology had renewed appeal.  However, it was probably the need for more effective medical treatments that initiated the coming stampede due to the fact Arabic texts on the subject often assumed the medical practitioner had astrological skills to facilitate the diagnosis.[9]

The influx of Arabic texts was accompanied by Arabic technology as well, with the astrolabe brought to Western Europe around 1030, which facilitated the accuracy required to cast an accurate horoscope.[10]  About this time European scholars really began to see the light, not of their religion, but that while they were busy arguing against the cosmic arts the Islamic world had largely perfected them, a revelation which ignited a tremendous interest in the libraries found in Islamic Spain.  While Christianity and Islam were competitors even then, the Mozarabs, who comprised Arabic-speaking Christians, provided the needed link to access the desired information.[11]   

One particular individual who contributed greatly to the influx of Arabic knowledge was future Pope Sylvester II, a.k.a. Gerbert d’Auvergne, an avid scholar who requested a copy of an astrology text from Lupitus of Barcelona which the Spaniard had translated, after which Gerbert amassed a substantial collection.  He apparently took this knowledge to heart since he is credited with being a magician; introducing Hindu-Arabic numerals, including zero, to Latin Europe beyond Spain; and designing astrological instruments so that he could make his own measurements rather than be dependent on tables.  There is also the possibility that he was the anonymous author of the Liber Planetis et Mundi Climatibus, a work that largely defined European cosmology and stated that the soul, which had the potential to find salvation and return to God, possessed a personality which was influenced by the planets, a premise which ultimately decimated Isidore’s division between natural and superstitious astrology.[12]   

The controversy was far from over, however, as this thesis was not agreed upon by all Christian theologians as illustrated by the legend that Gerard, Archbishop of York, died unexpectedly with a copy of Maternus’s Mathesis under his pillow, for which he was found guilty of “addiction to magical and forbidden arts” with his bier stoned by small boys on its way to the cathedral and his superiors scandalized enough that they initially refused to bury him.[13]In spite of persistent disapproval, however, clearly debate with regard to the subject of astrology had once more found its place in high theological circles.  Astrology’s reawakening was promoted substantially by the work of Peter Abelard who managed to punch some holes in Augustine’s position by capitalizing on his predecessor’s acceptance of natural celestial influences and speculating further on the influence of the planets.  He ultimately divided these influences into contingentia, events in which divine providence, chance or free-will were involved, and naturalia, which were natural events such as weather, and declared that the latter were more subject to astrological prediction than the former, for which only God knew the outcome.[14]  Apparently they hadn’t considered that maybe God had written his plan in the sky. 

It’s easy to forget that while debates on astrology raged in religious circles, the people at large were interested in the subject as well, undoubtedly drawing their own conclusions, much to the consternation of their horrified clergy.  This is evidenced by the existence of the Spheres and Lunaria, early precursors to “Horoscope” magazine, which addressed astrological topics while avoiding any religious arguments and implying that with this level of interest professional astrologers were available during this time.  Adelard of Bath, who may have provided astrological services to the future King Henry I, recognized the need for simple data sans philosophizing and translated Arabic astronomical tables, facilitating astrological calculations, and also constructing an astrolabe plate suitable for southern England’s latitude.  Other individuals followed with additional translations of the Centiloquium, the Tetrabiblos, Maius Introductorum and the Almagest, though it’s apparent that various errors occurred in the translations which took a few hundred years to straighten out.

Another culture that advanced its knowledge and application of astrology while the Christians were arguing about it was that of the Jews, who incorporated it into the Kabbalah, the secrets of which were supposedly revealed by Moses to Joshua and eventually transmitted to Germany in the 10th century by Babylonian scholar, Aaron bin Samuel.  A modern commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah[15] documents the influences of the planets as well as the hours on the eve of the Fourth Day of creation when the Sun, Moon and planets were created.  The relationship between the planets, the Sephirot (the Kabbalah’s “10 Step Program”), colors and days of the week are included as well with the assertion that one can meditate on the colors when seeking to transmit the associated planetary influence as well as in meditations involving the Sephirot.[16]  The twelve months are related to the signs of the zodiac and houses, the meanings assigned to the latter bearing a striking resemblance to those used by modern astrologers.[17] Clearly the belief that Abraham was the greatest mystic and astrologer of all time[18] was a major factor in sustaining their interest in astrology for millennia.  During this time they developed it to a highly refined discipline, no doubt including the work of Abraham Ibn Izra who authored “The Beginning of Wisdom,” a basic astrological text, in 1148.  Judaism had its opponents as well, however, such as Moses Maimonides who objected to limiting God’s power in any way and railed against astrologers whom he blamed for societies ills in general without providing any evidence.  As the contemporary cultures of the day exchanged knowledge, the work of these Jewish philosophers likewise found its way to Western Europe and contributed to the ongoing investigation with regard to astrology’s merits.

Platonic skepticism and Christian opposition stifled astrology until between the 12th and 13th century when new doctrines, largely derived from Aristotle and Neoplatonism, brought attention back to the material world which had formerly been largely ignored because of Plato’s thesis that true knowledge was abstract.  This new approach resulted in a confusing cosmos filled with psychic and physical influences which could conceivably be clarified by astrology.  Thus, astrology began to creep in as a possible solution as opposed to being a problem.  Byzantine emperor Alexius I (1081 – 1118) was the first Christian monarch to be an enthusiastic user of astrology.[19]  However, Guido Bonatti caused quite a stir when he speculated that one’s ultimate salvation could be determined from their natal chart, bringing back the debate of determinism versus free will, an ongoing circular argument pitting God’s foreknowledge of the future against man’s ability to choose.  Bonatti, being unaware of the concept of being politically correct, also stated that astrologers knew more about the stars than theologians did about God, which further endeared him to their ranks.[20]  Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, Chancellor of Oxford and Council Father at the First General Council of Lyons in 1245 nonetheless went so far as to say that astrology was the “supreme science.”[21]  If modern astrologers were to canonize individuals, Alexius I and Grosseteste would certainly deserve such an honor.

Dominican monks, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, Catholicism’s most avid astrological proponents and two more candidates for staunch appreciation, provided much of the final momentum needed to finally allow astrology in the doctrinal door.  Magnus’ Speculum Astronomiae was strictly theoretical but provided the needed rationale that a horoscope influenced a person’s nature but they retained free will to counter it,[22] tying in nice with Ptolemy’s statement in the Tetrabiblos, that the entire point of predicting the future was to change it.  Thomas Aquinas, who was eventually canonized in 1323, wrote Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologiae, two works which ultimately brought astrology to the very foundation of Catholic philosophy which lasted until the 17th century. 

The physical evidence of this period can be found in European cathedrals such as the Prague Astronomical Clock (shown on the cover of volume two of Campion’s book) and the Astronomical Clock in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg, France, shown on the homepage of this website.  The original clock was built between 1352 – 1354, replaced by a new version in the 1500s which wore out and stopped in 1788, and finally updated to its current state in 1842.[23]  I can’t help but wonder if it was originally called the “astrological” clock, later changed to “astronomical” as the church’s opinion changed yet again; its name in French is “L’Horloge Astronomique.”  One mechanism tracks the phases of the Moon while its astrolabe tracks the zodiacal location of the planets in an incredible combination of religious art and engineering which even the current Catholic condemnation of astrology can’t deny; no doubt someday the tides will shift yet again.

I feel at this point that I have come full-circle, since it was when I saw the Strasbourg Astronomical Clock in person back in 2005 that I originally questioned how the Catholic church had gone from displaying such a magnificent monument to astrology in one of their most glorious houses of worship in one century to denigrating it the next, bringing me back to the title of this essay, “Indecisive ‘R’ Us.”  Truth may be eternal but the only constant is change.

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[1] Campion, Nicholas A History of Western Astrology Vol. II pp 2-3

[2] Campion, p. 1

[3] The Holy Bible, New Testament, Revelation of St. John the Divine 21:23

[4] Campion, pp. 7 - 9

[5] Campion, p. 12

[6] Campion, p. 11

[7] Campion, p. 13 – 14

[8] Campion, p. 16 - 17

[9] Campion, p. 30

[10] Campion, p. 31

[11] Campion, p. 31-32

[12] Campion, p. 32-33

[13] Campion, p. 33

[14] Campion, p. 34

[15] Kaplan, Aryeh Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice.

[16] Kaplan, p. 184.

[17] Kaplan, p. 198

[18] Kaplan, p. xiv

[19] Campion, p. 44

[20] Campion, p. 51

[21] Campion, p. 46

[22] Campion, p. 48-49

[23] Lehni, Roger, “Strasbourg Cathedral’s Astronomical Clock” translated by R. Beaumont-Craggs, Saint-Oeun, 2002.

[18] Whitfield, p. 94.

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