Pulling at the threads of astrology

  • Themes: Culture

The idea that the microcosm of human lives is connected to the macrocosm of the heavens is one of the most persistent throughout history, and is represented in countless ways in science and art.

A bas-relief of the zodiac engraved on the ceiling of the temple of Hathor, Egypt. Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo.
A bas-relief of the zodiac engraved on the ceiling of the temple of Hathor, Egypt. Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 50 BCE, the Egyptians decided to carve the heavens above them in their inimitable style. It is believed the artwork they created, now known as Zodiac of Dendera, represents the position of planets and stars on a night between 15 June and 15 August that year. It shows Venus behind the constellation of Aquarius, Jupiter close to Cancer, and Mars above Capricorn— an arrangement that takes place once every thousand years.

It now rests at the Louvre in France. But why did early humans seek to etch the heavens onto earth, and what explains the resilience of this interest in divining the motions and meanings of the stars?

Imagine yourself as a prehistoric human, hunting and foraging for food and taking your refuge in a nearby cave. How would you make sense of the changing seasons, eclipses, and infinite stars at night?

To do so, early humans, across ages and cultures came up with a myriad of explanations based on their varying geographies and societal inclinations. From Stonehenge to modern astronomical observatories, one of the enduring threads running through this series of evolutions is astrology. Its origins lie in cosmology: the study of the Universe and its origins.

The Indigenous people of Australia believe the world was sung into existence, while the Native American Hopi tribe traditionally believe the world was created by the interplay of energies between vast emptiness and the Sun spirit named Tawa. In Ancient Greece, Plato believed in a geocentric cosmos, made by a single divine creator. The Hindus mused in Nasadiya Sukta, the Hymn of Creation, that the origin of life was so unknowable that perhaps the creator didn’t know where it came from. Egyptians worshipped Ma’at, the goddess who was the cosmic order herself, as well as Nut, the goddess of sky.

Gradually, ancient peoples began ascribing sexes, personalities, and even human flaws to these cosmologies. The Sun was usually seen as a life-giving force and characterised as masculine — Surya in India and Utu in Sumer, among others. The Aztec Sun god, Huītzilōpōchtli, demanded sacrifice for his divine grace. In a long drawn-out ritual, a prisoner of war was chosen to impersonate the solar deity. This man would get to live the life of a god for a year, replete with luxuries and attention. Twenty days before the final ritual, he was allowed to take four women as his wives, supposed to represent Aztec goddesses. On the day of sacrifice, his beating heart was ripped out of his chest and offered to the god.

The moon’s persona was linked to changeability because of its shifting appearance. Ever the muse of the artist and the lover, the beauty of the moon has evoked emotion in humankind since time immemorial. The five planets visible to the human eye, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, were personified in broadly similar ways. Other astronomical phenomena such as the motion of planets, eclipses, comets, and conjunctions received the same treatment as well. But there was so much more to this narrative of the heavens.

Comets and meteors, in particular, were seen as harbingers of the deaths of prominent heads of state. Why else does Shakespeare’s 1599 political tragedy, Julius Caesar, contain the immortal words, ‘When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’? It would come as no surprise to stargazers that following Queen Elizabeth II’s death on September 8 2022, a ‘fireball’ meteor was seen in Scotland and Northern Ireland six days later.

Similarly, Islamic astrologers believed in the Great Conjunction theory. Essentially a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which roughly takes up to 20 years to occur, this foretells major generational changes. Such a great conjunction took place in December 2019, when Saturn and Jupiter were conjunct in the constellation of Sagittarius. It might be worth considering that the events that followed— from the Covid-19 to the Ukraine-Russia war— have been nothing short of epochal changes.

In China, astrology was historically reserved for heads of state in the first millennium BC, and prohibited for the general populace for fears that its widespread adoption would lead to societal instability. While the I Ching was the preferred form of practice, the world today is more familiar with the Chinese animal zodiac. The creature associated with a particular year is supposed to foretell the sort of events that may take place. The years 1840, 1960, and 2020 —years that encompassed the first Opium War, the Great Chinese Famine, and the Coronavirus pandemic — were all Metal Rat years, which were significant not just for China but around the world.

So, astrologers came to believe, ‘as above, so below.’ The clock-like movements of the heavens signal, not cause, events on earth. Gradually, countless such observations began to be recorded in astrological texts around the world. Some of the notable mentions are Ptolemy’s 2nd century C Tetrabiblos,  Masha’allah ibn Athari’s eigth-century Nativities and On Conjunctions, Religions, and People, and Abu Ma’shar’s The Great Introduction to the Science of Astrology in the ninth century. Classical Indian astrological texts include Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra by sage Parashara and Varahamihira’s Brihad Jataka and Brihad Samhita to name a few. It has been difficult to establish their antiquity because of the oral nature of knowledge transmission in India, but the Vedanga Jyotish by Lagadha has been dated to between at least 1150 and 1370 BC by scholars on the basis of astronomical occurrences mentioned in the text.

Vedanga Jyotish, one of the six limbs of the Vedas, is not an astrological text in the sense that it does not contain any predictions. It does, however, mention lunar asterisms or Nakshatras as they are known in Sanskrit. A total of twenty-seven Nakshatras are still observed in Hindu calendars, festivals, and astrological readings.

The Nakshatras, not unlike planets, were understood in terms of both auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. Certain stars were conducive to activities such as getting married, laying the foundation of a new home, or the coronation of a ruler, while others were more suited to negative actions, such as when a theft might take place, or an assassination. Despite the best calculations and intentions, however, things could still go awry. As a story from the Ramayana, one of the two major Indian epics and which follows the life of Prince Rama, goes, when King Dasarath had a nightmare about a threat to his life, he was anxious to see his eldest son Rama crowned as his heir at the earliest opportunity. He asked his priest, the sage Vashishtha, to fix up a time. Just before the coronation was scheduled to take place, however, one of the king’s wives and Rama’s stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, reminded her husband of a vow that he had once given to her in exchange for saving his life. She asked that her biological son with the king, Bharata, take the throne, while Rama, his wife Sita, and his younger brother Lakshmana were to be exiled for fourteen years. The king had no choice but to grant her wishes. He died of grief soon after.

In the Hindu canon, astrology was deeply connected to one’s past life, whereas in Western traditions, fate was the central idea. In the former, what we understand as fate is a result of actions of many lifetimes and in the latter, there is no explanation for either suffering or happiness. So, where Hinduism proclaims ‘sarve karmavaśā vayam’ — ‘everything takes place as per karma’, Western Stoics coined the adage, ‘Amor Fati’ — love of one’s fate.

Astrology, arising out of ancient cosmologies and mythologies, was not just a means to ensure one’s survival by studying the stars and seasons, but also a way of enduring life’s uncertainties. Cultures around the world observed an ineluctability to chance, fate, and karma from which neither mortals nor Gods were immune. The idea that the microcosm of our lives is connected to the macrocosm of the sun, moon, planets, and the stars is one of the most persistent ones throughout human history and has manifested itself in a myriad ways.

In art, literature, and music, it led to works such as the aforementioned Zodiac of Dendera, the fifteenth-century Sandro Botticelli painting Venus and Mars, around 200 references to astrology in Shakespeare’s works, Gustav Holst’s The Planets of 1918 and Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Navagraha Krittis, which were likely composed in the early nineteenth century, to mention a few notable examples. But as well as artists, some scientists and mathematicians maintained a close relationship with astrology.

Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the legendary mathematician, were both prodigious in their chosen disciplines as well as adept astrologers. Kepler is believed to have written three books on the topic: Third Man Intervening in 1610, as well as On The Fundamentals of Astrology and Report on the Fiery Triplicity. He also charted many birth horoscopes throughout his life, of which around 800 still exist. Before his demise, he put his affairs in order before dropping dead on a journey to Poland. Similarly, Ramanujan, who lived a couple of centuries after Kepler, allegedly knew he would die young, according to his knowledge of palmistry. He ascribed his mathematical revelations not to his scholarly process but to Namagiri Devi, the goddess worshipped by his family.

While astrology and birth charts have a long history, the invention of sun-sign horoscopes is surprisingly new. They began in Britain with astrologer and salesman Alan Leo in the early twentieth century, and started to gain popularity with R.H Naylor’s predictions about the new-born Princess Margaret in August 1930 for the Sunday Express newspaper, which led to a regular column, soon copied by other publications. Psychology quickly became a part of astrology with the now-ubiquitous sun-sign descriptions popularised by Linda Goodman in her 1968 book, Sun Signs. At the time of her death in 1995, the book had sold over 30 million copies in fifteen languages and is the only astrology title to have ever occupied a place on the  New York Times bestseller list.

Today, astrologers around the world have adapted to the online medium with scores of websites, apps, YouTube channels, and podcasts used to spread their knowledge and business. Throughout this long historical journey, astrology has meant many things to many people, but at its heart lies an essential human conundrum— the presence of chance in our lives, and how much of who we are and what we become is due to luck. Given what’s a stake, astrology is here to stay.


Garima Garg