Astrology - our ancient and irrational attempt to control the chaos of life

From ancient civilisations to now, people still search for connections amongst the infinite chaos of the universe. Our Planetarium expert and resident cynic, Patrick Keirnan explains why we're not, and never were, in control.

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As we look back at the ideas and beliefs of former civilisations we often marvel at the ideas they had and wonder ‘how on Earth could they have thought that?’ People used to think the Earth was flat, we now know it’s spherical, at one time we thought Earth was at the centre of the universe, now we know it is not. 

The Greeks and Romans would look for signs and wonders in the entrails of freshly slaughtered animals and we wonder how could they have thought that that made sense? We reassure ourselves that we are so much smarter, so much more sophisticated. 

Are we really that much better? We may not pour over the innards of animals to work out what the future holds, but you will know someone who gets their cards ‘read’, or visits some ‘psychic’ with a crystal ball, or turn to the star signs section in the paper thinking the fluky choice of cards or the random position of stars in the sky will tell them when a tall dark handsome stranger will walk into their lives or when to place a bet on the lottery. But why should they?  

If you say ‘oh I’m an Aries that means I’m this, that or the other...’ then have a look at the constellation you claim endows you with whichever characteristics and ask – does it even look like the thing it’s supposed to be? Do this with any of the signs of the zodiac. Why would you think that they can influence you? The stars lie unimaginable distances away, and those distances are different for each star. Those stars are just like the Sun, turning Hydrogen into Helium, they have no power other than heat and light.  

Let’s see if you know which ‘star-sign’ these are (there are thirteen constellations in the zodiac – although astrologers have yet to come to terms with this fact - so only a couple have been chosen, but feel free to find the others for yourself). The names of these patterns are at the end of the article – no cheating! 



Ask yourself, why do only those star patterns have ‘power’? Why not any of the other 75 constellations and their stars? Is this rational or likely? Do these beliefs make sense? 

The Ancients certainly had a good imagination, from Auriga (who represents Hephaestus the blacksmith of the gods) to Andromeda chained to a rock, they saw in the sky their heroes and villains. It was a handy way to tell stories long before television. Not all their stories are there, if you walk around World Museum's Return of the Gods exhibition you will see Satyrs, images of Prometheus and many others - none of whom are found in the sky. 

What should we make of this? Let’s turn to Marcus Aurelius for some answers. He was the last of the ‘five good emperors’ (so called because they lived good lives and were interested in the good of their subjects). Aurelius was a follower of Stoic philosophy which emphasises fate, reason and self-restraint and holds that living a virtuous and logical, or rational, life is the best life.  Marcus Aurelius is remembered for his ‘Meditations’ which he wrote while on campaign in Germany and form his private journal of thoughts on how to live such a life.  

Marcus Arelius bust

What can a warrior and an Emperor tell us about superstition and the efficacy of divining answers from unlikely places? It is natural to try and find order in the random train of events around us, but that order is elusive, as Marcus reminds us:

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

So how we react to events is up to us, even if we have no control over them or what they will be. It is certainly not easy, but it is a lot more honest than believing people can tell your future from tea leaves! 

The stoic believes that we must face everything, good and bad, equally. Don’t allow good things to make you complacent nor bad things to feel downcast. Don’t allow others to upset you, you are offended by something? Don’t be: “Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” The idea is to not give power to things or people: you can’t control them, but you can control how you react. 

What has that to do with superstition, astrology and fortune-telling? It is about a state of mind. The universe is vast, and chaotic. We can understand its laws but we cannot control it and crucially it does not control us. The universe hasn’t been set up to give us answers to personal questions but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it in awe and enjoy its beauty and the chaos of existence. Indeed as Marcus suggests, we can use it to raise ourselves above the cruelties of life and people:

“Observe the movements of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.” 

As you walk around the Return of the Gods exhibition take a moment to look at Marcus Aurelius (you’ll find him in the Roman Pavillion) and thank him - for his sense, and his suggestions on how to live a balanced and well thought life where we can face the future, and its unpredictable events, calmly and without recourse to charlatans! 

“Let not future things disturb you, for you will come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with you the same reason which you now use for present things.”  

Those star signs were...Capricorn the goat and Virgo the virgin! Pretty obvious really!?