Nicholas Campion. Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions. New York University Press, 2012

What is up in the sky has significance in almost every religion, and this book looks at Australia, Oceania, North America, South and Central America, Sub-Sahara Africa, Egypt, China, India, Babylon, Judaism, Classical Greece (this includes the Roman Empire) with Christianity, Islam, and ‘Theosophical, New Age, and Pagan Cosmologies’.

With some of the earlier places there is not much information, and there is also the problem that anthropologists may be told what the locals think they want to hear. “For example, when the Hawaiian cosmogony tells of the first man’s breaking of the law for which his punishment is expulsion from a garden, is its similarity to the Biblical story of the eviction from the Garden of Eden evidence of the Christianization of an indigenous story? Or is it genuine and the result of either a common Paleolithic ancestry or of humanity’s tendency to create myths that have a common pattern?” Some years ago I heard a talk by a woman who explained, among other things, how Hawaii is a remnant of the lost continent of Lemuria, whose inhabitants originally came from the Pleiades. This, she told me when I asked, she had been taught to her by native Kahuna priests, who no doubt derived it from the Theosophical Society.

In some places, notably China, astrology “was a state activity, prohibited to the ordinary people for security reasons; to know the future carried serious political implications that the government could not ignore.” Nevertheless, it did not remain secret forever, and the Chinese astrological calendar became known, not only to the Chinese people, but was “exported to the Chinatowns that have been created in order to market Chinese wares and cuisine in the great cities of the Western world” . As I write these words, the media have been informing me that today is the first day of the Year of the Horse.

But astrology as we know it was largely a creation of Babylonia, an ancient kingdom that roughly corresponded to present-day Iraq. Done, like the Chinese, by an elite group of scribes on behalf of the king: “It was originally chaotic in the sense that it depended on direct observation of the sky, with no prediction of planetary positions and very little codification.” If an eclipse occurred on the wrong day it was a bad omen. It only seems to have gradually occurred to people that the movements of the heavenly bodies were predictable, so that one could determine the occurrence of an unfavourable eclipse well in advance. The need to do this ultimately led to the rise of astronomy, though it was not until the age of Kepler that the movements of the planets could be accurately foretold.

It is usually stated that the zodiac was created in Babylonia, the first known reference being in a table dated 475 BC , and that it later spread from there to India Greece, and the Roman empire. Yet Campion quotes the Rig Veda, which dates from a thousand years before this Babylonian reference, as saying that the “twelve-spoked wheel of Order rolls around the sky and never ages.” The relationship of the Chinese calendar, which has a sequence of twelve years rather than twelve months, though likewise largely based upon animals, is also unclear.

The Jews have a lunar calendar of twelve months, which was ultimately borrowed from Babylon. Later, they also borrowed astrology, to the extent that a recent author was able to fill a book, Written in the Stars, solely with accounts of illustrations of the zodiac in synagogues. But they were reluctant to admit its origin, since they like to think that all of their practices were at first taught to them by God. One legend, accordingly, was that astrology was the creation of Abraham. The abundance of myths of this kind are one reason it is so difficult to get at the real history of the subject. The Old Testament contains a number of decrees forbidding the worship of the sun, moon, and host of heaven. These were evidently not easy to enforce, as the prophets frequently complained about them being flouted.

The third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes famously begins: “For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . “ (famous partly because it was set to music as “Turn, turn, turn” by Pete Seeger, who died recently). There are twenty-eight ‘times’, and the mediaeval Kabbalists connected these with the twenty-eight (approximately) days in the lunar month, and the twenty-eight camps of the divine presence. Accordingly Kabbalist astrology was “concerned less with the use of horoscopes to analyze world affairs than the with ritual intended to take the initiate on a path to the divine source”.

The chapters on Greek, Christian and Islamic astrology are mainly concerned with the philosophical views behind the subject. Plato held that souls came from the stars and would return there. The Alexandrian Greek Ptolemy wrote that “the Egyptian astrologers would never have forecast the future unless they thought that it could be changed”. This contrasts with the common view of those who reject astrology on the grounds that it does not allow for free will. The Babylonians had identified the largest planet with Marduk, the king of their Gods; the Greeks took him to be Zeus, their own king of the Gods. The Romans named him Jupiter, as he is still called.

In the Book of Revelation, there are repeated references to the numbers seven and twelve: seven churches in Asia, seven spirits before the throne of God, and a woman with a crown of twelve stars complemented by a tree with twelve kinds of fruit: no doubt these being referred to the seven planets and the twelve signs. Yet the early Church Father Tatian viewed the subject as demonic: “Men became the subject of the demon’s apostasy, for they showed man a chart of the constellations, and like dice players they introduced the factor of fate . . .”

There is nothing specifically about astrology in the Koran, only statements such as “God is He Who Created seven Firmaments . . .” which might however be interpreted as referring to it. At this point the matter becomes highly complex, for example, with theories about the ages of the world being governed by the planets, and the making of love talismans by invoking the influence of the planet Venus. Much of this material was translated into Latin in the thirteenth century and led to a revival of astrology in Europe, though its origins are not always fully realised.

Finally, he looks at the present day, of which it suffices that there is much talk of the Age of Aquarius: “Unfortunately nobody can agree when this event takes place. Some think it has already happened; others put it hundreds of years in the future.” - Gareth J. Medway.

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