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Perspectives on Science 8.1 (2000) 70-83



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Review Essay

Starry Messengers:
Recent Work in the History of Western Astrology1

Anthony Grafton


In early February 1995 the Economist reported, with characteristic bravura and disdain, on a Brazilian debenture deal. A Sao Paolo bank needed to decide on the timing of a large issue for the Euromarket. The officers determined the answer not by scrutinizing capital markets or predicting exchange rates, but by consulting an astrologer. He showed them that since Jupiter was in his exaltation, the time was right. The vice president in charge followed this advice--admittedly without notifying his superiors--and the deal succeeded.

These methods, the Economist admitted, hardly violated normal practices in Brazil. Astrology-based financial consulting firms like Planum, which advised the bank in this case, and Astro-Call have long flourished there. At that point, however, the reporter abruptly ceased trying to put the use of astrological techniques into context. Instead, the anonymous author took them as evidence for the irrationality of the inhabitants of Brazil, "home to all manner of mysticism, from the Kabbala to Macumba." The slaves, gypsies and Middle Europeans who settled the country, it seems, brought these burdens of irrationalism with them. No wonder, then, that even Brazilian bankers prefer the superstitious consultation of the stars to the rational contemplation of invisible hands. Astrology, at least in the Economist, is an intellectual mark of Cain: a sign of intellectual mayhem. It flourishes in societies that have not yet joined modern Western Europe on the high, austere plains of reason. Astrologers [End Page 70] and their clients are primitive--even when they carry out their consultations in postmodern skyscrapers.

For once, the Economist's sarcasm was not deserved by its object. As more than one scholarly investigation has shown, astrology flourishes wildly nowadays--not only in South America, but also in the land of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and their astrological consultant Joan Quigley, who timed press conferences and advised on Supreme Court appointments for a span of seven years. Americans of "high net worth" consult specialized financial astrologers of their own. The New York politicians and socialites who make up the fin-de-siècle equivalent of Café Society visit stargazing image consultants in chic Park Avenue offices. Theodor Adorno argued long ago in his detailed examination of the astrology column of the Los Angeles Times, The Stars Brought Down to Earth, that a determinist cosmology, which portrayed humans as the prey of larger, impersonal forces, nicely fitted the psychic needs of middle-class American males in the early 1950s. Their "authoritarian" personalities made them eager customers for advice columns that displaced responsibility for their successes and failures onto mysterious unnamed "friends" and "enemies." 2 Astrology was firmly imbedded in the sprawling mosaic of American obsessions long before the New Age dawned. It provided the framework which made hippy culture's interest in birth signs and celestial megaevents intelligible to many who never tuned in or turned on. No wonder, then, that Linda Goodman's Sun Signs sold a record-breaking 2.5 million copies, and remains a perennial in American bookshops even today.

In fact, however--as Adorno grudgingly acknowledged in the German preface to his work, which he assumed no American would read--the modern vogue for astrology began in Europe, not in America. Newspaper astrology columns by the Gypsy Petulengro and his competitors spread through the London tabloids of the 1920s and 30s, long before they reached New York. Recent survey research, moreover, suggests that as many Europeans as Americans--somewhere between 20% and 40% of the population--believe that astrology has some truth to it. 3 Astrology, in short, belongs not only to the past but to the present. Efforts to treat it as a purely marginal phenomenon reflect not the superior rationality of scholars and scientists but their own marginal position, which prevents them from observing the culture they themselves belong to--as well as a [End Page 71] substantial helping of that "condescension of posterity" against which E.P. Thompson so memorably...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9274
Print ISSN
1063-6145
Pages
pp. 70-83
Launched on MUSE
2000-03-01
Open Access
No
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