Astrology in History

By Benson Bobrick

Simon & Schuster. 369 pp. $26

The museum of dead sciences has many rooms. One is lined with the marked-up skulls that phrenologists used to analyze human character. Another displays the Ouija boards and doctored photographs with which spiritualists demonstrated that they could contact the dead. Still another offers cabinets stuffed with the stoppered, Latin-labeled medicine bottles prescribed by the homeopaths who not so long ago dominated major medical schools. But the biggest room of all is devoted to astrology: the art that scanned, and still scans, the skies to predict events on Earth. Its walls hung with Jacob's staffs and astrolabes, its shelves laden with horoscopes, talismans and almanacs, this gallery offers visitors materials from 25 centuries and a dozen cultures.

Benson Bobrick shows that for centuries, astrology was a central feature of Western -- and Eastern -- civilization. Like other classical arts, astrology had its origins in part outside the West, in Mesopotamia, where expert diviners pursued astronomy so that they could improve their ability to predict the future. It took its final shape in the amazing cultural melting pots of the ancient Mediterranean, such as Alexandria. Ancient astrologers drew up horoscopes -- plans of the heavens at the moment when an individual was born, a city was created or a king ascended to his throne. From a baby's birthday, for example, they could tell what sort of character, marriage, financial security and children he would grow up to enjoy. Or by looking at how the stars would be positioned at a given moment in the future, they would offer information about an enterprise's chances for success or a particular individual's prospects. In a world where harvests failed, ships sank and cities burned, information about the future mattered. Ancient astrologers sold advice to everyone from kings to slaves.

These practices survived for centuries -- constantly questioned, sometimes ridiculed, but never totally rejected. Astrology exercised a powerful influence -- the word "influence" itself, as Bobrick notes, is an astrological term -- on Jews and Christians, Zoroastrians and Muslims. Brilliant thinkers like the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy, the Central Asian ethnographer al-Biruni and the Florentine Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino believed whole-heartedly in astrology. Only in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the New Philosophy removed the Earth from the center of the cosmos, did astrology suffer its ignominious demotion from the university to the supermarket.

Those who don't know astrology have often dismissed it on the grounds that experience refutes its determinism. But professional astrologers, as Bobrick explains, were not determinists, any more than they were -- in their own terms -- superstitious. They set out the varied probabilities, as the stars shaped them, so that their clients could make intelligent choices. They also analyzed the characters of their clients, frankly and in detail. And, of course, they predicted the future -- and often went wrong in doing so, as the celebrated Girolamo Cardano did when he publicly announced that the young King Edward VI of England would have a long life, only to see his client die in adolescence.

This synthetic, anecdote-rich book explains the basics of astrology in a non-technical way. It also uses the art as a thread on which to string a potted history of ancient and medieval civilizations and brief studies of individual astrologers. It is a cosmopolitan and amusing first look at a big subject. Toward the end of the book, Bobrick implies, in a lighthearted tone but with what seems a serious purpose, that enough astrological predictions have panned out to suggest that the art may have a foundation after all. He's not alone in thinking this. Surveys show that 30 to 40 percent of contemporary Americans give astrology some credence.

But Bobrick's evidence doesn't prove that these Americans are right, as he seems to think they are. Towards the end of his book, he asks: "Time as we know it is measured out by the revolutions of the Sun and Moon, so why wouldn't the length and pattern of our lives also be calibrated by the great celestial clock?" The answer is simple: No one has proved that the great clock measures our years, even though Bobrick produces astrological predictions of the 1929 stock market crash and the attacks of Sept. 11. As Machiavelli's clever friend Francesco Guicciardini pointed out almost 500 years ago, the correct predictions can't be evaluated unless we also take all the false ones into account -- and both the astrologers and their dupes conveniently forget those. That's why astrology, in the end, did not remain among the sciences with its sister discipline, astronomy. I doubt that astrology will ever return from the imaginary museum of lost sciences to the labs of the modern university. But that, of course, is a prediction -- and as a historian, the only thing I know about the future is that I can't predict it. *

Anthony Grafton teaches European history and history of science at Princeton University. His books include "Cardano's Cosmos" and "Bring Out Your Dead."

Painting by Tito Lessi