Astronomy, Astrology, Potato, Po-tah-to?


From ‘The New Astrology’ (1786)

Since the Neolithic age, humans have attempted to track lunar cycles and understand their relationship with natural phenomena like the changing tides. From these rudimentary attempts, the fields of astrology and astronomy were eventually born. The two disciplines evolved together, but our changing understanding of the universe has relegated astrology to the world of superstition and folklore. The world of rare books offers an interesting glimpse into these parallel studies.

An Ancient Science

Astrology evolved from our desire to better understand changing seasons, weather patterns, and other natural phenomena. It proved useful in agriculture, and astrological predictions were soon applied to other aspects of life. Eventually kings and emperors even had astrologers as The first evidence of astrology as a discipline comes to us from the Babylonians. The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, compiled in Babylon around 1200 BCE is one of the oldest known astrological references. For almost 2,000 years, astronomy and astrology were synonymous. Astrology was introduced to the ancient Greeks around 400 BCE. Respected thinkers like Plato and Aristotle incorporated astrology in their works, giving it credibility. The Romans eagerly adopted astrology, and the practice endured through the ages.

It’s from the Romans that we get our modern-day names for the signs of the Zodiac, which means “circle of animals” in Greek. Early astrologers knew that it took twelve lunar cycles (now known as months) for the sun to return to its original position in the sky. They then identified twelve constellations that were linked to the progression of the seasons and assigned these the names of animals or figures. For example, during the rainy season, the corresponding constellation was Aquarius, which means “water bearer.”

Horoscope charts relate the position of the sun, moon, planets and stars to a particular time, place. Astrologers don’t use horological time, but rather “sidereal time,” which is based on the sun’s position at the spring equinox. They consult an astrological ephemeris, a table listing the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations at any given time. The information they gather helps them make predictions about finances, relationships, and other life events, along with inferences about personality traits.

The Advent of Heliocentrism

In many ways, astrology drove discoveries in astronomy, and the two were regarded as the same discipline for centuries. Then in the medieval period, when we knew more about the stars and solar system, astronomy was seen as a means for gaining a greater understanding of astrology. Some concepts from astrology also influenced the study of alchemy, meteorology, and even medicine. But a basic premise of astrology conflicted with emerging knowledge; scientists were beginning to realize that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

As scholars came to realize that the sun was the center of the universe (a theory known as heliocentrism), astrology naturally came under fire. Though the study persisted, it has since been relegated to the realm of superstition and novelty; to this day, people still read their daily horoscopes, though more for fun than anything else. Meanwhile, astronomy has proven itself as an academic discipline. For instance, scholars have applied principles of calculus to the function of the cosmos, lending validity to the science.

Rare Books about Astrology and Astronomy

A Briefe and Most Easie Introduction to the Astrological Judgement of the Starres (1598)
Noted French physician Claudius Dariot practiced in the tradition of Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician, botanist, and astrologer who founded the discipline of toxicology. Paracelsus and his followers divined their patients’ treatments from astrological readings. Dariot applied astrology in a new way, for horary astrology (using astrological readings to answer specific questions). His Introduction was a seminal work in the field of astrology and remains a principal authority in its field. This edition of the book contains two texts. The first is a revised and expanded translation of Dariot’s work by Fabian Wither, including a brief treatise on electoral astrology. The second is the first edition of an original text on medical applications, written by G.C., an unidentified Englishman who was also responsible for the revisions and expansions of Dariot’s original text.

The New Astrology; or, The Art of Predicting or Foretelling Future Events, by the Aspects, Positions, and Influences of the Heavenly Bodies…In Two Parts (1786)
The real Sir Christopher Heydon was a Member of Parliament, solider, and astrology writer. He died in 1623, and the author of The New Astrologerevidently used his name as a pseudonym. The author’s use of a false name indicates that the field of astrology wasn’t necessarily considered “respectable.” The work includes 17 tables and diagrams. OCLC shows three institutional holdings, none in the US; ESTC shows two copies in the US; and ABPC shows no copies at auction in the last thirty years.

A Collection of Examples of the Applications of the Calculus of Finite Differences and Examples of the Solutions of Functional Equations (1820)
John Herschel, William Frederick, and Charles Babbage were distinguished mathematicians who contributed to a mathematical revival in England. Hershel, a member of the Royal Society since 1813, had a brilliant career in astronomy, while Babbage (also elected to the Royal Society in 1816) would go on to pursue analytical and difference engines–the precursors to the modern computer. The close relationship between mathematics and astronomy, so eloquently explored by these scholars and others, would distance it from the formerly synonymous field of astrology.

The Unseen World: Communications with it, Real or Imaginary, Including Apparitions, Warnings, Haunted Places, Prophecies, Aerial Visions, Astrology, &c &c (1847)
Educated at Trinity College, John Mason Neale was an Anglican priest, scholar, and hymn writer. The author of famous holiday carols like “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “Good King Wenceslas” seems an unlikely author for a book on astrology. Indeed, Neale’s views were quite high church, but he also wrote a devotional and mystical commentary on the Psalms. The Unseen World (1847) illustrates the ways that mysticism (of which astrology can be considered a part) often commingled with religion–as it still does to this day.


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