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Astrology and Cosmology in the World's Religions

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It's a shocking fact that there has never been a human culture which has not related its myths, institutions and identity to the stars. This is as true of the modern West as it was of our stone-age ancestors, and is as relevant to the last, surviving, indigenous inhabitants of Amazonia, as it is of today's American astronomers. After all, no scientist spends cold nights scanning the sky in search of new stars, or long hours decoding data from deep space, if the exercise is completely meaningless. Actually, it is profoundly meaningful and the last hundred years' worth of discoveries of the immense, incomprehensible size of our universe, combined with the sheer wonder of recent color-enhanced images of distance galaxies has proved as enchanting as any ancient story of star gods and goddesses, or of saviors descending to earth from the sky.

The name we normally give to the quest for meaning in the sky is astrology, from the Greek logos -- 'word' or 'logic' of the stars -- as opposed to astronomy, the 'law' of the stars. Astrology in the modern world has a somewhat problematic relationship with the prevailing culture. Its most familiar form is the horoscope column, relying on 12 zodiac signs, divisions of the sky invented in Babylon sometime before 500 BCE, but perhaps with origins which predate the invention of writing. The system is a familiar part of mass culture but arouses peculiar ire amongst some fundamentalist Christians, who regard it as demonic, and a small but vocal coterie of skeptics, who regard it as a barbaric affront to Enlightenment values. In the modern religious wars secular atheists find themselves in an unholy alliance with born-again evangelicals against the representatives of a tradition which can be traced to before recorded history.

The word "astrology" with all its attendant baggage is, though, thoroughly Greek. The Arabic equivalent would be Ahkam al-Nudium, literally, "the decrees of the stars," and in India we talk about Jyotish, the "science of light." The Chinese might study tian wen, or sky patterns, while the Japanese base their practices on onmyodo, the "Yin-Yang way," the endless interplay of subtle forces in the cosmos. To the historian of religion, modern astrology is actually a remarkable survival from the pre-scientific, pre-Christian near east. Filtered through classical Greece, the Babylonian system became a universal language which could do anything from finding lost slaves, working out the most fortunate time to get married, making financial deals, or assisting in the soul's ascent to the afterlife. At the pinnacle of the system stood the mighty planetary deities -- Zeus, king of Olympus, for the planet Jupiter, Aphrodite, goddess of love, for Venus, and so on.

The Greek philosophers, being philosophers, couldn't help tinkering with the underlying rationale. Having capricious gods and goddesses sending messages to humanity via the stars wasn't good enough for rationally-minded Athenian intellectuals. They secularized the system, introducing notions of celestial influence, in which the planets might be hot or cold, wet or dry, with environmental conditions on earth shaped by celestial patterns. Time was installed as an organizing principle, almost a deity itself, in which astrology worked because planets and people moved together in a beautiful, synchronized ballet, experiencing periods of tension or relaxation at exactly the same moments. (The Greek Cosmos, the root of our word "cosmetic," is best translated as "beautiful order"). Intricate systems of causation were formulated in which the cause of present events might lie in the future -- backward causation as we would now know it. Such notions flourish today in India as an integral part of Hinduism, complimented by ancient Vedic teachings and, in the West they survive amongst a very small number of enthusiastic practitioners.

That the impulse to develop meaningful relationships between sky and society is universal is suggested by the evolution of completely distinct, sophisticated, systems of astrology in two other civilizations, the one in China and the other amongst the Maya and Aztecs of Mesoamerica. In both cultures astrology existed as a complex aid to management of the state, and as a simple means of fortune-telling: to be able to work out one's fortune -- one's prospects for success or failure, were as important then as they are now. There, as in the West, astrology could be chiefly seen as a form of risk-management.

Every human society relates the shapes (usually animals) it sees in the sky, along with the repetitive motions of sun, moon and stars, to every-day life. Amongst the First Nations of North America, the living, moving structure of the cosmos was -- and is -- enacted in rituals designed to harmonize with the greater life-field of which humans are a part. The Australian Aborigines promote their well-being by engaging with the Dreaming, the primeval but ever-present timeless dimension which can be expressed through such events as the rising and setting of stars, or the brilliant appearance of the New Moon in the evening sky, as much as in primeval patterns etched in the landscape. For the Polynesians, who sailed thousands of dangerous miles between small islands in tiny craft, the stars were an aid to navigation precisely because they were set in the sky by a friendly creator.

Astrology is central to religious practice on account of the opportunity it presents to contact celestial deities, or to synchronize human affairs with eternal truths. The most important features of devotional astrology are the sacred calendars which were established up long ago in order to identify the most auspicious dates -- and often times -- to perform religious rituals. The legacy is clear in Christmas, which dramatically borrowed 25th Dec., the Roman festival of the Unconquered Sun. Easter, adapting an ancient Babylonian festival, has Christ resurrected on the first Sunday -- the day sacred to the Sun -- after the first full moon following the spring equinox -- when day and night, light and dark, are equally balanced. The Hebrew rules, set out in the Old Testament could not be clearer: God will only take notice of such rituals if they are properly coordinated with the sun and moon. To do otherwise is to risk divine wrath.

The ancient zodiac signs survive in the modern West because, uniquely, in an age of aggressive consumerism, media-overload and scientific materialism, they encourage people to reflect on themselves and their inner worlds; their hopes, fears and secret motivations. In mass culture, astrology replaces the remote scientific language of relativity and light-years with stories of love and luck. In an era when we are now aware that we live on an insignificant planet on the edge of a minor galaxy, astrology restores each individual to the center of their own cosmos. According to its practitioners it provides a sense of personal meaning and purpose and, sometimes, a guide to action. Both astrology's advocates and its critics find rare agreement on this point. This has nothing to do with the truth of astrology's claims, but it does explain its survival in the 21st century.

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