Studying Astrology and Distant Galaxies
Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A visitor to the country cottage owned by the famous physicist Niels Bohr was surprised to see a horseshoe nailed over the door, and asked Bohr, "Surely you don't believe in that?"
Bohr replied, "Of course not, but I understand that it brings good luck whether you believe in it or not."
While the impish Bohr was presumably joking, Benson Bobrick takes very seriously the fundamental claim of astrology that celestial bodies, like Bohr's horseshoe, have a determining influence on individual human fate.
Mr. Bobrick, who has a PhD from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature and has been described in the New York Times as "perhaps the most interesting historian writing today," provides a sweeping demonstration in The Fated Sky: Astrology in History (Simon & Schuster, $26, 356 pages), his ninth book, of the power astrology has held over the minds of men for thousands of years.
In Mr. Bobrick's words, "This is not a book for or against astrology, but a book about its impact on history and on the history of ideas." Its 300-odd pages are full of accounts of how belief in astrology affected the behavior of major historical figures, and therefore the fate of both individuals and nations, regardless of whether that belief is true or false.
Traditional astrology was used in four different ways: mundane astrology gave predictions about such general phenomena as weather, harvests and politics; natal astrology used the positions of the heavenly bodies at the time of an individual's birth to foretell his character and destiny; hortatory astrology cast a horoscope at a particular time to answer a question asked then; and finally, astrology was used for elections, determining the most propitious time to carry out a particular endeavor.
Mr. Bobrick provides a very brief account of the complicated theoretical structure upon which all of these activities were based. The structure dates back over 3,000 years at least as far as the ancient Chaldeans and Babylonians and was passed on via the Egyptians and the Greeks.
The 12 signs of the zodiac, familiar to anyone who has ever glanced at a horoscope in a newspaper, are named after different constellations, and are related to different sections of the sky. The 12 signs, in turn, are supposedly controlled by the seven planets, a term which, astrologically speaking, connotes the sun and the moon as well as what modern astronomy classifies as the five planets visible to the unaided eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.)
The planets beyond Saturn, discovered only after the invention of the telescope, play no part in classical astrology, although after their discovery some au courant astrologers began to take them into account in their horoscopes.
The author's account, however, even though it is supplemented by a lengthy glossary defining many of the technical terms involved in, is inadequate to explain to the uninitiated reader exactly how the system works. Mr. Bobrick does not discuss the different versions of astrology practiced in China and other parts of the orient.
Most of the book consists of a series of entertaining accounts of the lives of astrologers and their clients through the ages. …