The National Encyclopædia


If this word were used in a sense analogous with that of geology or theology, it would mean simply the science of the stars; while astronomy night mean the science of their order and arrangement. But the term, at least when coupled with the epithet judicial, has long signified the discovery of future events by means of the position of the heavenly bodies.

It has long been unusual to produce any arguments against this pretended science; but it may be useful to show a few of its details. Works, seriously professing to inculcate and defend the principles of astrology, are not only sold, but bought with avidity. Several of our most popular almanacks do actually give astrological predictions at the present time. This may be a mere matter of amusement with the more enlightened; but we are afraid there are some who play with edge-tools in reading these fooleries.

Our old English writers, particularly the dramatists, cannot be well understood without some information upon the leading terms and principles of this art; which, therefore, may be as lawfully studied as the history of Jupiter and the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

That there is nothing repugnant to human nature in the basis of astrology is sufficiently proved by the number of great minds which have been led by it, when properly prepared by education.

The science which, under the name of astrology or some term of equivalent meaning, found universal belief among all the nations of antiquity except the Greeks, and also prevailed through the whole world of the middle ages, is based upon the supposition that the heavenly bodies are the instruments by which the Creator regulates the course of events in this world, giving them different powers according to their different positions. This is the description of the more learned astrologers; for we need hardly say, that the ignorant have made the stars themselves the agents, just as the image of the Deity has generally come in time to be regarded by the vulgar as the Deity himself. Looking at the more credible description, it might be philosophical for a newly created being, in possession of rational powers, to suspend his opinion on such a point till he had observed facts enough to confirm or deny the connexion asserted to exist between the places of the planets and his own fortunes. That there is nothing repugnant to human nature in the basis of astrology is sufficiently proved by the number of great minds which have been led by it, when properly prepared by education. The real arguments against astrology are, first, that it is self-contradictory; secondly, that its predictions are not borne out by facts. To see the first of these, we must describe the leading principles of the art.

In the following globes, the circle projected horizontally represents the horizon, the double circle the meridian, and the other four circles are drawn at equal distances from the meridian and horizon, through the north and south points of the latter, thus dividing the whole heavens, visible and invisible, into twelve equal parts. Let these circles remain immovable, while the diurnal revolution of the globe takes place under them. The twelve divisions are called the twelve houses of heaven, and are numbered in the order in which they would rise, if the circles accompanied the diurnal revolution. Every heavenly body passes through the twelve houses in twenty-four hours, but is not always in the same house with the same stars, except at the equator. For it is evident that, in order to have two bodies always in the same house, the revolution must take place round the north and south poles of the heavens, which poles are in the horizon only to a spectator on the equator itself. The principal point attended to in each house is the part of the zodiac which occupies it; and the place of any planet in the house is the distance of the body from the cusp, or boundary circle, measured on the zodiac. The following fanciful method of representing the twelve houses was in universal use, and the readers of almanacks must be familiar with it.

The twelve triangles represent the twelve houses of heaven, as marked by the Roman numerals. The time is April 16, 1784, at half past six in the morning. On the boundary of each house is written the part of the ecliptic which is to be found on it. For instance, on the cusp of the twelfth house that is just rising is the point of the ecliptic which is in 4 degrees 14' of Gemini. The boundary between the ninth and tenth houses is in 1 degree of Aquarius. The whole sign of Scorpio is in the sixth house, the boundaries of which are therefore in Libra and Sagittarius. The planets are placed in their proper positions in the houses; thus Mercury appears to be in the twelfth house, at 22 degrees 46' from the boundary of the eleventh and twelfth.

The houses have different powers. The strongest of all is the first, which contains the part of the heaven about to rise; this is called the ascendant; and the point of the ecliptic which is just rising is called the horoscope. The next house in power is the tenth, which is coming on the meridian, &c. The first is the house of life; the second, of riches, the third, of brethren; the fourth, of parents; the fifth, of children; the sixth, of health; the seventh, of marriage; the eighth, of death; the ninth, of religion; the tenth, of dignities; the eleventh, of friends; the twelfth, of enemies. Each house has one of the heavenly bodies as its lord, who is stronger in his own house than in any other, as is but fit; and of two planets, equally strong in other respects, he who is in the strongest house is the stronger. Now conceive all plants, animals, minerals, countries, &c., parcelled out under the different planets, which exercise their influence in abundance of different ways, according to the houses they may happen to be in for the time, and their positions relatively to each other -- the result will be as good an idea of the mysteries of astrology as it is worth anybody's while to obtain.

We shall now give some examples of the application of the science; and this we do, principally because, in the mystical announcements which issue from our press, the darkness of the hints which are given throw a poetical gloom over the subject. This no doubt is interesting, and is not sporting too much with the credulity of the age, or with the chance of detection; but it is a foul libel on the powers of astrology. Thus, in 1815, instead of announcing some such prediction as the following -- 'Mars in the house of death portends, we are afraid, some new disasters, by war or other cause; a personage will strive against the new order of things, but, if we mistake not, the conjunction of Luna and Saturn in the twelfth house bodes him no good' -- instead, we say, of such an unsatisfactory prophecy, a real believer in astrology -- such as it was before it fell from its high estate -- might have traced Napoleon from Elba to Waterloo; have calculated the very moment of the advance of the Prussians, and described the sword-knot of the captain of the Bellerophon. Thus we have a story of a Jew, in the time of the caliph Al Mansur, who was able to detect, by means of the heavenly bodies, that certain words just written upon a paper, which he was not allowed to see, were the names of a plant and an animal. But lest any one should imagine that perhaps the more recent astrologers gave up the attainment of information so minute, and confined their investigations to such general indications as those of our almanacks, which, as they mean nothing, may as reasonably be drawn from the stars as elsewhere, we take the following instances from a work published in 1817, which we will not name, and which we would willingly suppose to have been written in irony, if it were not that its size (two volumes quarto, with tables) and style are both evidences either of real belief or intentional attempt to deceive.

A man who was born June 24, 1758, at eight minutes after ten in the morning, committed a murder, and was by many supposed to be insane. Pending his trial, an astrologer was requested to point out by the stars whether this defence would be established or not. The nativity was cast, that is, the position of the heavens at the aforesaid time was laid down, and the nativity having been rectified (a process amounting to giving the prophet a power of making almost any change he pleases), the result was as follows:--

'Mercury being lord of the ascendant, irradiated by a melefic quartile aspect of the planet Mars, and afflicted by an opposition with Jupiter, declares that the native shall be involved in an abyss of troubles and afflictions, even to the hazard of his life.' -- 'The quartile of Mercury and Mars, particularly when Mercury is constituted principal significator, hath implication of high crimes and misdemeanors.' -- 'Upon a further inspection of the figure, we find a baneful quartile aspect of Mars and Jupiter, with a mischievous opposition of Saturn and Mars. To the first of these we are to attribute the dissolute manners of the native.' 'Here is unquestionably a favourable trine of the Sun and Saturn; but no great good can result from it, because the Sun is lord of the twelfth house, posited in the tenth, and out of all his essential dignities: at the same time that Saturn is lord of the sixth, located therein, and both the significators are under the dominion of the evil genii, vitiating the mind and affections of the native.' -- 'At the time the unhappy native was prompted to commit this barbarous act, the Moon came to an opposition of Mars by direct direction, while she occupied the cusp of the seventh house, which represents the unfortunate woman.' -- 'The Sun I find to be giver of life, posited in the tenth house, the house of justice; Mercury, lord of the ascendant, being in Gemini, an airy sign, and the Moon likewise in an airy sign, show the manner of the native's death, that he should die suspended in the air; while the opposition of four planets in the radix, and the mundane quartile of the Sun and Mars from the tenth, the house of justice, show the quality of it -- namely, that it should be in due course of law, by the hands of the common hangman, and not by suicide.' -- 'I brought up the direction of death with great nicety and precision, and found he would be plunged into eternity when the sun came to the anaretical point of the mid-heaven, and met the noxious beams of the Moon and Mars in opposition, which thus constituted is ever productive of a violent death.'

The art is, at present, under the ban of the law, in order that designing persons may have at least one access stopped to the pockets of the credulous.

That the ancient system of astrology contained the most contradictory assertions may be made evident in very few words. The position of the heavens at the time of birth settled every man's character of body and mind, the various fortunes he would meet with, and his relative positions with regard to friends and enemies. Thus, every one who was born at or very near the same time as Alexander the Great, in the same country, would have a right to expect a somewhat similar career; and twin brothers could never fail to have the same horoscope, and therefore the same success in life; and though the subject of a particular horoscope should travel over the whole world, and thereby come under the influence of positions of the heavens which never could have occurred at his birthplace, yet these would be always ready to tell him (when properly looked at) whether the present moment was favourable or unfavourable to any pursuit he had in view. To take a case that might have occurred: suppose two men had engaged to throw dice against each other for their whole fortunes, and that each went the night before to consult different astrologers in the same town. To them it would not be necessary to tell their names, or exhibit their horoscopes; the present position of the heavens would be sufficient for pointing out a favourable hour, and if both astrologers worked by the same rules, as they ought to do, they would both arrive at the same result: that is, the same would be recommended to both inquirers, though one of them must certainly lose.

The astrologers never made any allowance for the precession of the equinoxes. Thus, though the constellation Aries is now in the sign Taurus, and the influences of its stars ought to have moved with them, we find that the astronomical Aries, or the first thirty degrees of the ecliptic, is used for the constellation. Under the circumstances, this is of little consequence; but such a practice would be fatal to astronomy.

The art is, at present, under the ban of the law, in order that designing persons may have at least one access stopped to the pockets of the credulous. By the statute of the first of James I. c. 12, sorcery of all species was prohibited, though it does not appear certain that this term included astrology; but by the vagrant act, 5 Geo. IV. c. 8, sec. 4, all 'persons pretending to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise to deceive and impose upon any of his Majesty's subjects,' are rogues and vagabonds -- that is, punishable by any magistrate, with three months' imprisonment and hard labour.

The history of judicial astrology, at least up to the middle of the fifteenth century, is very nearly that of astronomy, since the latter branch of the science, except among the Greeks, was mostly cultivated for the sake of the former. Hence to it, as to alchemy we owe many really useful discoveries. There is no question that the necessity which the astrologer lay under, of being ready, at any moment, to lay down the positions of the heavenly bodies, produced great numbers of useful tables and observations; and the Greek works which have been preserved by the Arabs were valued principally for the use to which their mathematics could be turned in astrology. The origin of the science is beyond the reach of history, nor is it much worth while to collect all that is known on this point. It certainly came into Europe from the east, where it is mentioned in the earliest records of every nation. The Chinese are said to have placed it on the same footing with agriculture and medicine; the Chaldæans cultivated it sedulously, and the invention is attributed to them by Suidas. The Hindoos have long regulated the most important actions of their lives by the stars; but Mr. Colebrooke has shown that several of their fundamental terms are not Sanscrit, from which he apparently leaves us to conclude that he thinks the science neither ancient nor indigenous in India. Among the Egyptians, it was of great antiquity; but it is not mentioned in the books of Moses, unless included in magic or sorcery, which is most probable. The books of Isaiah and Jeremiah allude directly to it in several places, as also that of Daniel. During the captivity, the Jews appear to have learnt the art, and from that time probably, but certainly in the earlier centuries of the Christian æra, became much addicted to it.

In Greece, at least during the classical ages, judicial astrology found no reception; nor do we trace any marks of it even in the earlier astronomical writers of that country. The system was little in harmony with the allegorical mythology which prevailed there; and the oracles afforded perhaps sufficient nourishment to the appetite for the marvellous. But among the Romans astrology was cultivated with avidity from the time of the the conquest of Egypt, in spite of several edicts of the senate. In the second century, the whole world was astrological; and even Ptolomæus was infected. There is a work entitled 'Tetrabiblos' attributed to him, which is entirely devoted to astrology; and though its genuineness has been doubted by some, merely because it is astrological, there appears no sufficient reason to reject it.

We have lost a charming opportunity of discovering what goes on in other planets.

All the followers of Mohammed are and have been astrologers. The predestinarian doctrines of their system render the transition easy and natural; for, as we have seen, the science of astrology is based upon the notion of the necessity of human actions. The establishment of the Moors in Spain, and the crusades, caused the introduction or the increased cultivation of the art among the descendants of the barbarians who destroyed the Roman empire; probably the former, for we have no distinct traces either of astronomy or astrology among the northern nations. But the predestrinarian principle assumed a modified form, more consistent with the belief of the Roman Catholic church. It was said that the stars only incline, but cannot compel; which position, while it left the will free, was a convenient explanation of any failure in the predictions. The Greek and Roman Christians of the earlier centuries had in many instances received the whole of astrology; in others, the modified belief above mentioned. Origen, though he recognises the stars as rational beings, yet, in his 'Philocalia,' contends that the stars neither incline nor compel, but only prophesy or point out what men will do without exerting any influence. He then gives a long and curious argument against their compelling power, without explaining how it does not hold equally against their predicting faculty. St. Augustin argues against astrology altogether. The church, in its public capacity, condemned the art in the first councils of Braga and Toledo, and in the Decretals. The doctrine of astrology was among the errors imputed to the Priscillianists. But many Roman Catholics in later times adopted the same opinions, and among them churchmen of the highest rank, such as the Cardinal d'Ailly (died in 1425), who calculated the horoscope of Jesus Christ. The astrology of comets, which is hardly yet out of date, has even been recognised by a Pope: in the fifteenth century Calixtus III. directed prayers and anathemas against a comet which had either assisted in or predicted the success of the Turks against the Christians.

The establishment of the Copernican system was the death of astrology; and that upon an argument not one bit stronger against it then preceding systems for it. When it was found that the earth was only one among other planets, it soon came to be reckoned absurd by many that our little globe should be of such consequence as to be the peculiar care of the whole system. But why should the principle of non-interference have been preferred to that of the balance of power? We have lost a charming opportunity of discovering what goes on in other planets.