Astrology: Magic or Science?
Can astrology be disproved? Literally thousands of volumes have been written on the subject over the ages, attacks and defenses, apologies and interpretations. Proponents have claimed astrology as a “science” and an “art,” a true interpretation of the inner workings of the universe. Opponents have mostly attacked astrology on physical grounds, citing the old classical arguments: the question of twins, the time of birth versus time of conception, the immense distances to the planets and stars, and so on.
But very few writers have come to the nub of the matter: astrology is false because it is a system of magic, based on the magical “principle of correspondences.” In fact, astrology–or at least its prehistoric predecessor–probably arose concurrently with the magical world view of early civilized man, astrology and magic adding to each other and being developed and used by the priests to lend “cohesiveness” to the evolving city-states. By the time cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing had been developed, astrology in some form or other was already a part of man’s culture.
Thus, several thousand years have gone into the development of astrology, into its theory and practice. Astrology proper began in Babylonia as a system of omen-reading to foretell the fate of kings and realms. More or less simultaneously, the Egyptians developed their system of Places, based on “planetary aspects.” Then the Greeks took over both the Babylonian and Egyptian systems, combining them into a complex mathematical cosmology. Under the Greeks, astrology became available to the common man; astrologers today use virtually the same system as the Greeks, or endless variations thereof.
As a result of astrology’s long history, confused development, and obscured theoretical bases, it is common for writers and astrologers to state that the ancient “art” cannot be disproved, that modern man lacks the necessary “cosmic insights” to grasp its truths. Even the great humanist Petrarch attacked astrology only by making fun of astrologers, leaving the cosmological arguments relatively untouched. Very few writers indeed have associated astrology with its magical bases; a reasonable search reveals that only Isidore of Seville, in the seventh century, and recently Richard Cavendish, in The Black Arts, have properly identified astrology as magic.
This confused state of affairs is precisely the astrologers’ aim: as long as they can obscure the fact that astrology is nothing more nor less than magic and totally unrelated to physical science, they can continue to find customers willing to part with hard-earned funds. For, after all, astrology is a practical “art”; it has provided many an astrologer with a lifelong living.
Prehistoric man–and specifically the Upper Paleolithic cultures –painted images of animals on the walls of caves; he also carved and formed similar hand-held images, often in conjunction with carved notations, a series of nicks and lines. In “Lunar Notations on Upper Paleolithic Remains” and later in The Roots of Civilization, Marshack introduced the revolutionary idea that such Upper Paleolithic notations do not represent “hunting tallies” but rather lunar observations, a seasonal timekeeping that aided prehistoric man in keeping track of the seasonal activities of his prey.
Certainly, such seasonal timekeeping would have been of great selective value, permitting man to use his rapidly evolving cognitive powers to anticipate and prepare for the coming hunts. While Marshack tends to place religious and ritual significance on such seasonal notations, one might suggest that the rituals were more in the form of learning and preparation experiences than religious in nature, particularly at first. Play-learning is very common in mammals, especially among the primates; hence, one suspects that ritual play-learning came first and that it was only with the rise of civilization that religion and the magical world view came into being.
Marshack’s sequences of lunar notation then further suggest that the traditionally accepted view that astronomy arose from astrology is wrong. It would seem that prehistoric man was making careful observations of the night sky long before astrology entered the picture; plus, he was putting those astronomical observations to a practical use: keeping track of the seasonal comings and goings of the plants and animals that were important to him. In that sense, prehistoric man was far more scientific than the modern astrologer.
Marshack’s thesis concerning prehistoric man’s use of lunar notation has been generally accepted by anthropologists. The Paleolithic use of linear notation in conjunction with artistic representation goes far toward paving the way for the civilized development of cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing.
Similarly, the use of such linear notations to keep track of the phases of the moon goes far toward explaining why astrology, in one form or other, arose nearly simultaneously all over the globe ( China, India, Egypt, Babylonia, Central America). Prehistoric man had been used to watching the comings and goings of the heavenly bodies, and when the magical world picture arose with the advent of civilization, astrology was a natural consequence.
The association of lunar notations with the seasonal advent of certain plants and animals also helps explain why abstractly shaped constellations have animals’ names: there was a long history of associating celestial objects with animal life. A similar idea is expressed by Rupert Gleadow in The Origin of the Zodiac.
One may well ask, Why would magic develop along with civilization? As in the case of lunar notation and seasonal timekeeping, one can only suggest that magic arose because it was of selective advantage. Perhaps magic gave the burgeoning citystates cohesiveness; one could easily make a case for magic being the power yielded by the priests to keep the citizens in line, convincing them that only by working for the good of the state could they keep the “powers of nature” in check.
This interpretation would further suggest to a hard-core skeptic that civilization does not have a rational basis, but rather an irrational basis of selective value–irrational at least in terms of the twentieth century. For magic is based on the “principle of analogies,” or the “law of correspondences,” as it is generally called in astrology. As we shall see, this “principle of correspondences” is merely a product of the human mind and has no physical basis in fact.