11 May 2017

Ah, astrology. The Earth spins, the planets shift and darkened skies tell me that today, a friendship could develop into something more.

Regardless of whether you’ve ever cared about horoscopes, you’re almost certainly aware of your star sign and quite possibly know the personality traits it has lumped you with. You can’t help it if you’re cynical. You were born in June.

That being said, in our current era of scientific and technological progress, even the most gullible of Pisces has a right to scepticism. Physics does not leave much in the way of legitimacy for cosmic divination and there have also been plenty of studies disproving any correlation between planetary movements and the state of your finances. And so it remains, a vestigial organ pumping away at the peripheries of magazines and newspapers, offering wisdom akin to the insides of a fortune cookie.

This is not the shape of astrology in its prime. It is the remnant of a much larger beast, buried beneath centuries of hard-packed science. And yet, try as you might, the legacy of astrology will not so easily be uprooted.

So then, what is astrology? What is this pseudoscience that shouldn’t hold any kind of weight in the modern world?

To begin with, different strands of astrology were founded independently in various cultures across the world, including within Chinese, Egyptian and Mayan societies. While astrology has morphed into different shapes depending on time and location, it has always shared the same, basic purpose – to establish a relationship between human and celestial activity. This is distinct from astronomy, a branch of science that involves studying the universe beyond our atmosphere without relating it to our human lives. Modern Western astrology owes its origins to an ancient Babylonian precursor from at least 3000 years ago, which reached the ancient Greco-Roman world and eventually spread throughout Western Europe.

The earliest forms of astrology are thought to have evolved from the practice of charting astronomical patterns. This allowed ancient civilisations to produce calendars from recurrent, visible cycles in the sky – for example, seasonal cycles and lunar phases. From these cycles, weather patterns could be predicted, which was of particular importance for agricultural purposes. Such mapping then evolved from predicting weather patterns, to divining information from the sky about activity that directly related to humans.

Cognitive psychology, as independent scholar Kirsten Munk outlines, can explain why we so readily worship or blame extra-terrestrial matter for terrestrial events. Humans have a tendency to attribute human characteristics to objects and events – a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism. It is due to this perception mechanism that you might view a figure, like a moving dot in a videogame, as a goal-oriented agent in its own right. This is considered to be an evolutionary adaptation. It was beneficial for our ancestors to assume that an inexplicable movement indicated a potential predator, rather than a harmless object. Upon viewing recurring astronomical movements, it is not difficult to imagine how the planets and stars were ascribed their own supernatural agency by an ancient human audience.

This is all well and good, but does not answer our question. Why should astrology persist when we can determine the upcoming seasonal cycles from our phones? When we know that stars are reducible to gas formations and that the planets are barren and dead?

Herein lies the very reason astrology as an idea remains so resistant, despite attempts of scientific demolition. Astrology, in all of its forms – religious or superstitious, mathematical or creative – works off the premise of a living universe. In many ways, the objective, mechanical lens through which we are now taught to observe the world does not.

Patrick Curry, an academic in Religious Studies, Cosmology and Astrology, aptly summarises the current discourse of our knowledge – thirsty era, “the scientific operation was a success, although the patient died”. We know more about the cosmos than the early astrologers could have dreamed, but in terms of the connections we feel to this universe, the stars have never been more distant.

And so, perhaps there is a point to the beautiful madness of modern day astrology. Through star signs and horoscopes, we are reminded that beyond the cares of everyday life, we belong to a complex, interconnected system of shifting planets and galaxies. We are reminded of our home in this universe – a universe that is cold, and dark, but also alive and breathing in patterns that are fundamental to our lives on Earth. We are reminded, if we allow ourselves, of the potential of the night sky.

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