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Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy

By OpenStax Astronomy and Lumen Learning

Many ancient cultures regarded the planets and stars as representatives or symbols of the gods or other supernatural forces that controlled their lives. For them, the study of the heavens was not an abstract subject; it was connected directly to the life-and-death necessity of understanding the actions of the gods and currying favor with them. Before the time of our scientific perspectives, everything that happened in nature—from the weather, to diseases and accidents, to celestial surprises such as eclipses or new comets—was thought to be an expression of the whims or displeasure of the gods. Any signs that helped people understand what these gods had in mind were considered extremely important.

The movements of the seven objects that had the power to “wander” through the realm of the sky—the Sun, the Moon, and five planets visible to the unaided eye—clearly must have special significance in such a system of thinking.

Most ancient cultures associated these seven objects with various supernatural rulers in their pantheon and kept track of them for religious reasons. Even in the comparatively sophisticated Greece of antiquity, the planets had the names of gods and were credited with having the same powers and influences as the gods whose names they bore. From such ideas was born the ancient system called astrology, still practiced by people today, in which the positions of these bodies among the stars of the zodiac are thought to hold the key to understanding what we can expect from life.

The Beginnings of Astrology

Astrology began in Babylonia about two and half millennia ago. The Babylonians, believing the planets and their motions influenced the fortunes of kings and nations, used their knowledge of astronomy to guide their rulers. When the Babylonian culture was absorbed by the Greeks, astrology gradually came to influence the entire Western world and eventually spread to Asia as well.

By the 2nd century BCE the Greeks democratized astrology by developing the idea that the planets influence every individual. In particular, they believed that the configuration of the Sun, Moon, and planets at the moment of birth affected a person’s personality and fortune—a doctrine called natal astrology. Natal astrology reached its peak with Ptolemy 400 years later. As famous for his astrology as for his astronomy, Ptolemy compiled the Tetrabiblos, a treatise on astrology that remains the “bible” of the subject. It is essentially this ancient religion, older than Christianity or Islam, that is still practiced by today’s astrologers.

The Horoscope

The key to natal astrology is the horoscope, a chart showing the positions of the planets in the sky at the moment of an individual’s birth. The word “horoscope” comes from the Greek words hora (meaning “time”) and skopos (meaning a “watcher” or “marker”), so “horoscope” can literally be translated as “marker of the hour.” When a horoscope is charted, the planets (including the Sun and Moon, classed as wanderers by the ancients) must first be located in the zodiac. At the time astrology was set up, the zodiac was divided into 12 sectors called signs (Figure 1), each 30° long. Each sign was named after a constellation in the sky through which the Sun, Moon, and planets were seen to pass—the sign of Virgo after the constellation of Virgo, for example.

When someone today casually asks you your “sign,” they are asking for your “sun sign”—which zodiac sign the Sun was in at the moment you were born. However, more than 2000 years have passed since the signs received their names from the constellations. Because of precession, the constellations of the zodiac slide westward along the ecliptic, going once around the sky in about 26,000 years. Thus, today the real stars have slipped around by about 1/12 of the zodiac—about the width of one sign.

In most forms of astrology, however, the signs have remained assigned to the dates of the year they had when astrology was first set up. This means that the astrological signs and the real constellations are out of step; the sign of Aries, for example, now occupies the constellation of Pisces. When you look up your sun sign in a newspaper astrology column, the name of the sign associated with your birthday is no longer the name of the constellation in which the Sun was actually located when you were born. To know that constellation, you must look for the sign before the one that includes your birthday.

A complete horoscope shows the location of not only the Sun, but also the Moon and each planet in the sky by indicating its position in the appropriate sign of the zodiac. However, as the celestial sphere turns (owing to the rotation of Earth), the entire zodiac moves across the sky to the west, completing a circuit of the heavens each day. Thus, the position in the sky (or “house” in astrology) must also be calculated. There are more or less standardized rules for the interpretation of the horoscope, most of which (at least in Western schools of astrology) are derived from the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy. Each sign, each house, and each planet—the last acting as a center of force—is supposed to be associated with particular matters in a person’s life.

The detailed interpretation of a horoscope is a very complicated business, and there are many schools of astrological thought on how it should be done. Although some of the rules may be standardized, how each rule is to be weighed and applied is a matter of judgment—and “art.” It also means that it is very difficult to tie down astrology to specific predictions or to get the same predictions from different astrologers.


This content appears in Lumen Learning's article Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy and is licenced under the Creative Commons Licence requiring attribution.

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