So, you still read horoscopes? Fine, unless you believe them

On Books

October 26, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

If I can develop my "own lovely illusion" and communicate it well, "powerful people will perk up their ears." So says my horoscope as I work on editing this week's column.

That's the way it is every day with horoscopes -- predictions of riches, romance, ruin and guidance on how to deal with it all.

Do you read them? I often do. So do many of my most learned friends. They can be entertaining, or simply absurd in a world suffering from shortages of silliness.

But if you find yourself or someone you care for taking astrology seriously, you would be prudent to read The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction, by David Berlinski (Harcourt, 320 pages, $27) -- the latest of a rich literature of refutations.

Astrology goes way, way back -- at latest to the Babylonian court some seven millenniums ago. But so do cannibalism and slavery, whose long histories do not make them a Good Thing. That is, more or less, the core of this book.

Berlinski, with a Ph.D. from Princeton, wrote a best seller, A Tour of the Calculus. Along with his son, Mischa, who worked as researcher on this new book, he did a great deal of work in major historic libraries and museums, particularly the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. He keeps the story rollicking with a series of delightful anecdotes, often of no more than a page or two, in which historic figures and circumstances are brought very much alive.

He cites, for example, the elaborate treatise left by the astrologer Vettius Valens, born in A.D. 120. In a chapter, "On Violent Deaths," Valens gives the astrological indicators of subjects who will die by beheading, hanging, suicide in a bath, banishment leading to suicide, an attack by wild beasts, drowning in bilge water -- and "this person had in the fated places injury and tender feet and most of all he was a lunatic."

The temptation to attribute to heavenly bodies influence or control over human affairs and human proclivities and talents was enormous, complex and saturating. Beliefs ranging from the earliest Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations onward mingled the stars with the gods and then with the will of a single God.

"The astrologer's clients," Berlinski writes with characteristic eloquence, "were as varied as the men and women of the Greek and Roman world, and the astrologer himself was the ancient amalgam of a number of familiar modern figures: the private eye, shambling down mean streets; the physician, tracing a causal connection through a daisy chain of symptoms; the psychiatrist, passing from childhood traumas to adult neuroses; the molecular biologist, seeing in the beaded string of the human genome glistening astral objects."

In ancient history and well through the Middle Ages and beyond, astrology was inseparable from astronomy, mathematics and other sciences. The belief in a universe that was arrayed around an immobile earth -- the center of all things -- produced astonishingly difficult challenges to those who sought to comprehend the sky.

For eons, careful, responsible scientists kept intricate records of the positions, motion and schedules of stars. The zodiac signs were taken from constellations, patterns of visible stars -- though the actual graphic similarities are often obscure. (It was assumed until the time of Copernicus & Co. in the mid-1500s that everything was circling a static earth.)

Astrologers' charts evolved into immense complexity. They posited interrelationships of the motions of the heavenly bodies, or of the presumed "spheres" of bodies moving around the earth. Astrologers compared their data with the proclivities of people who were born at given times, developing interrelationships with the motion of the heavenly bodies. They made connections with historical events of all sorts.

Berlinski concludes that "Astrology as a discipline represents a sophisticated attempt to reconcile the turbid facts of human life, which is forever local and time-bound, and the global panorama of the heavens, which is forever in motion and austere. The astrologer must establish some sense of the grand pattern of the universe by tools that can directly reveal only its parts. The technique developed to this end is the chart, and together with the coordinate system of the zodiac, it represents the second -- and last -- purely astrological concept developed by ancient astrologers, or anyone else, for that matter."

This volume is far more than a dismissive history of astrology. It is a sweeping and fascinating tracing of the evolution of science over known human history. The inseparability of mathematics as it developed, especially in the high era of Islamic supremacy, when Europe was in the Dark Ages, is important to that story. Much of the body of Greek, Roman and Egyptian documents that are crucial to the record of history were preserved largely in Baghdad and other Muslim centers of learning.

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