The Archaeoastronomy of Modern Civilization

  • Bryan E. Penprase


The desire to align buildings and recreate the cosmic order in the works of humans is not confined to the past. The desire is universal across the Earth and can be seen within our current societies. It is possible to analyze our present-day civilization much as we have considered earlier civilizations. We find that our civilization, like others before us, responds strongly to the power of the stars, with structures and cities aligned with the Sun and stars. The surprising survival of astrology, and other astronomical symbols within Our twenty-first century civilization aslo, makes archaeoastronomy (ancient astronomy) something we can study in the present day. In this chapter, we examine the ways in which our modern civilization practices ancient astronomy even in the twenty-first century.


Tall Building Cardinal Direction Modern Civilization Modern City Heavenly Body 
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The desire to align buildings and recreate the cosmic order in the works of humans is not confined to the past. The desire is universal across the Earth and can be seen within our current societies. It is possible to analyze our present-day civilization much as we have considered earlier civilizations. We find that our civilization, like others before us, responds strongly to the power of the stars, with structures and cities aligned with the Sun and stars. The surprising survival of astrology, and other astronomical symbols within Our twenty-first century civilization also, makes archaeoastronomy (ancient astronomy) something we can study in the present day. In this chapter, we examine the ways in which our modern civilization practices ancient astronomy even in the twenty-first century.

The Archaeoastronomy of Modern Cities

The Astronomy of Skyscrapers

The most obvious artifact of our civilization (which future archaeoastronomers would perhaps try to analyze) is the skyscraper. The cities of our modern civilization seem disconnected from the sky – and many of us have trouble observing the skies in cities both from our rushed pace of life and the overabundance of artificial lighting. Yet a closer examination shows that modern buildings (like many ancient structures) contain symbolic elements and celestial alignments that connect them to the sky or to the belief systems of our culture.

Astronomical number symbolism, international rivalry, and commerce all intersect in some of the designs of skyscrapers. Listed as the tallest completed building of the world at the time of this writing (2010) the Tapeil 101 tower contains 101 floors and rises 508 m above the ground. This building design is inspired by bamboo in its organic shape and is sectioned into eight parts, based on the belief within China that eight is a lucky number. Like an ancient ziggurat, the tower rises to the sky in sections, and is aligned with the cardinal directions ( (Fig. 8.1).
Fig. 8.1

(Left) The Taipei 101 tower, which includes eight sections based on numerological beliefs within China and also is celestially aligned with cardinal directions. (Right) Two more of the largest buildings in the world, the Jin Mao tower (left; currently number 6) and the Shanghai Financial Center (right, currently number 2), also include numerological symbolism (12 divisions, 101 floors) and astronomical alignments (a designed “moon gate” and orientation toward a lunar standstill direction) (image sources:,

The second tallest building, the Shanghai Financial Center in Mainland China, was designed with extensive astronomical symbolism. The Shanghai tower rises to 492 m in 101 floors. The original design included a circular “moon gate” – a dramatic round opening in the top floors intended to invoke an image of the Moon. However, this design raised objections within China, as it reminded many of the Japanese flag (itself an image of the rising sun), and a simpler trapezoidal opening was substituted. The large opening in the building faces to the northeast and defines an axis that is close to the lunar standstill point. A future archaeoastronomer might mistakenly conclude that this building was part of an ancient astronomical observatory!

The third and fourth tallest buildings are the two Petronas towers, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The two towers rise in 88 floors to a height of 452 m, and are stylized to be reminiscent of Islamic art. The cross section of the building itself is astronomically inspired, as it has the form of an eight-point Islamic star. The orientation of the base of the building and the line connecting the peaks of the two towers define two non-cardinal axes that could challenge a future archaeoastronomer.

The fifth tallest building in the world is the Sears Tower, which rises to 442 m in 110 floors. The shape of the Sears Tower hardly evokes astronomical symbolism and appears more box like (perhaps invoking the boxes of merchandise to be delivered from the Sears catalog!). However as the network of streets for the entire city of Chicago is firmly rooted into a cardinally aligned grid, the Sears Tower shares Chicago’s astronomical alignments and faces the equinox sunrise and sunset. The sixth highest tower, China’s Jin Mao tower, is loaded with numerical symbolism. The 88 floors are divided into 16 segments, each of which is 1/8th shorter than the segment before it, and the entire structure is supported by 8 exterior “composite super columns” and 8 exterior steel columns. The Jin Mao tower could be interpreted as a temple to the number 8, the Chinese symbol of good fortune ( 2009).

Future tall buildings either planned or under construction also contain numerical or astronomical symbolism. The “Freedom Tower” in New York is intended to rise to 1776 feet and will send a beacon of light to the sky. A planned Makkah Clock Tower Hotel in Saudi Arabia will provide an enormous clock face at the top of its 577 m high tower and will house a Royal Clock to announce daily prayers to the Muslim world and will include a “Lunar Observation Center” to help set the dates of Muslim festivals. The massive Burj Dubai tower is planned to rise to approximately 810 m, and currently is at 585 m with 156 completed floors. A planned giant building in Moscow, known simply as the “Russia Tower,” is expected to become one of the highest buildings in the world and presents a twenty-first century glass pyramid of a size that rises to 612 m, over four times higher than the pyramid of Giza. Clearly the universal human urge to build celestial structures, including pyramids, never goes out of style.

Alignments of Modern Cities

Celestial alignment of cities is not confined to the ancient Inca or the Chaco Canyon civilization. Many of the largest cities of the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo, are confined closely to geographic contours of a coastal bay, island, or available dry land. More often than not, these practical considerations and established contours of a city dominate its alignment with the cardinal directions. In such cases, cities from space appear almost as large organisms, with tentacles of expressways, and veins of roadways that crisscross in a tangled mix. City blocks appear much as cells within a tissue in a microscope (Fig. 8.2).
Fig. 8.2

A mosaic of condensed satellite views of the largest cities of the world. Each image is taken from a simulated height of 3 km, using the NASA World Wind satellite imaging program to give a sense of the “texture” and orientation of modern cities on a consistent coordinate grid and scale. Most city sections appear to have grown organically from the ground, following paths of ancient lanes, banks of rivers, or coastlines (original figure by the author using NASA’s WorldWinds software)

In some few cases, however, order crystallizes in the city. Major boulevards can set the axis of a city into order, as is the case for Paris or Buenos Aires, or an ancient city core can set the alignment, as is the case for Beijing (aligned to the ancient “Celestial Forbidden City.” In other cases, alignments of modern cities come about as the result of a disaster, such as in the case of Chicago (rebuilt after the fire of 1872) or San Francisco (rebuilt after the earthquake of 1902) (Fig. 8.3).
Fig. 8.3

A montage of satellite views of the largest cities of the world that show alignment. These modern cities in some cases show striking alignments, for a variety of reasons, ranging from rebuilding after a disaster (Chicago, San Francisco) and intentional astronomical alignment such as Beijing (original figure by the author, using NASA’s World Wind software)

While in most cases the celestial alignments of modern cities are not planned, these alignments nevertheless manage to tie our modern cities to the sky, enabling equinox sunrise and sunset to traverse our major east – west boulevards and to give a glimpse of the North Star between the rows of tall buildings along the astronomically aligned avenues. Most “gridded” cities align their streets with cardinal directions, but New York City shows an interesting skew of approximately 28.9°, which is close to the winter solstice sunrise azimuth (31.7°).

Figure 8.4 shows this alignment from above, with the directions of solstice sunrise and sunsets, along with lunar standstill points. During the winter solstice, the alignments of the streets in Manhattan enable the sunrise to rise perfectly between the tall buildings, due to a 28.9° offset from an east/west axis. This alignment, sometimes called “Manhattanhenge” is coincidental, but nevertheless provides a fascinating archaeoastronomy case study in a modern city!
Fig. 8.4

The slightly askew Manhattan street grid incidentally creates an archaeoastronomical alignment sometimes known as “Manhattanhenge.” During the winter solstice sunrise and summer solstice sunset, the sunrise can be viewed along any of Manhattan’s many streets, which are inclined 28.9° off from the cardinal directions. The left panel shows a satellite view of Manhattan with the solstice azimuth shown, while the right panel shows a street level view of a summer sunset in Manhattan (image source: NASA World Wind software;

Another interesting (coincidental) alignment can be found within the city of Paris, where the line connecting the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel tower is also close to the winter solstice sunrise azimuth. Interestingly, one of the best-aligned cities of modern times is that of Las Vegas, shown in Fig. 8.3. Las Vegas clearly would present an interesting challenge to any future archaeoastronomer. In addition to a very precise North-South alignment of its central avenue (“the Strip”) a hypothetical future archaeoastronomer would have to explain the purposes of the large monuments of Las Vegas, their curious placement along the major ceremonial avenue, the presence of a pyramid, towers, and artificial waterways of unknown purpose, and the interesting triangular geometry of many of the casinos – their exact function apparently somehow connected to an “ancient” numerological ritual known as “gambling!”

Celestial Structures of Today’s Civilization

While many of the alignments of large-scale modern cities are a combination of history, accident, and intention, some structures of modern civilization were built for the express purpose of commemorating or observing the sky. Even today, modern people are recreating the equivalent of Stonehenge, Chaco Canyon, and Teotihuacan in their own original ways. We offer a sampling of some of the modern celestial structures, some which will last for original of years and others that are more reflective of the ephemera of present-day culture.

James Turrell – Skyspace and the Rodin Crater Project

James Turrell is a modern artist, living his dream of creating structures that invoke the power of the open sky. Turrell’s focus is light, and the perception of color and time that comes from observing the intersection of light and sky. Through numerous installations with large openings to the night sky, Turrell creates an impression of the vastness of the blue sky and invites a visitor to absorb its immensity. One recent installation known as Skyspace was recently installed in 2007 at his alma mater, Pomona College (Turrell graduated from Pomona College in 1965 with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in Math). The Skyspace consists of a large ceiling bathed in colors generated from a large bank of computer-controlled LEDs that frame an opening in which the sky can be viewed. At sunset the LEDs cycle through a slow progression of colors that shine above on the roof and complement the changing colors of the night sky. A small rectangular reflecting pool in the center of the installation complements the show above (Fig. 8.5).
Fig. 8.5

The Skyspace, an installation by James Turrell at Pomona College, which features a ceiling bathed in colored lights that frames the night sky (copyright James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr, 2005, reprinted with permission)

Perhaps the most impressive project that Turrell is undertaking is the remodeling of an extinct volcano, known as the Roden Crater (Fig. 8.6). Many ancient civilizations (with thousands of workers) would not have embarked on as ambitious a program, but James Turrell on his own is building a space within the crater which provides multiple viewing areas for visitors in which the night sky is framed by tunnels and windows carved into the crater’s hard volcanic rock. The viewing is known by Turrell as “celestial vaulting” and is inspired by visits to ancient astronomically significant sites in which beams of light illuminate central chambers during solstice periods (such as Newgrange or the Chumash Burrow flat site). Turrell’s crater also provides a dramatic viewing site for observing the sky (such as an ancient ziggurat or Mayan step pyramid)
Fig. 8.6

A selection of images of the Roden Crater project, by James Turrell. At left top, one of the chambers of the crater, known as the East Portal, illuminated by a beam of light from a long shaft cut into the rock. Upper right is a view of the “Crater’s Eye” which creates a dramatic view of the night sky and an amazing range of lighting within the structure. At lower left is one of the galleries in the structure, and lower right is a series of views of the crater from the side (copyright James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr, 2005, reprinted with permission)

Within the Roden crater is a chamber in which an 874-foot long tunnel feeds light into the room and provides a beam of light that changes color and shape with the course of the day and during different seasons. A second room provides a huge viewing area aligned with the southern lunar standstill (Fig. 8.7).
Fig. 8.7

(Top) Roden Crater from the air, showing the top of the volcano where the artist James Turrell has created his “Crater’s Eye” for viewing the sky from within the crater. The caldera works to provide unusual lighting for the viewer and presents an impressive array of light and shadow within the structure. (Bottom) View from within the crater showing the “Crater’s Eye Exterior Plaza” which admits light into the network of passageways and galleries within the crater (copyright James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr, 2005, reprinted with permission)

The entire room within the Roden Crater acts as a giant camera obscura, in which the beam of moonlight creates an 8 foot diameter image on a gigantic marble monolith 13 feet wide and 15.5 feet tall. This marble slab is thought to be the largest quarried slab in North America, which harkens also to Stonehenge in its scale! The structure is intended to last for ages and to continue to create its dazzling array of light and shadow for thousands of years, just as in the ancient megalithic structures described earlier.


Another modern archaeoastronomy construction that harkens to Stonehenge is the structure known as “Carhenge” which features an automotive tribute to Stonehenge, created to commemorate the June 1987 summer solstice by Jim Reindeers (Fig. 8.8). Carhenge features 38 vehicles arranged in a 96 foot diameter circle, to create several intact triptychs and a heel stone (a 1962 Cadillac). The neighbors of the site, in Alliance Nebraska, are not known to use the site for solstice ceremonies, but a visitor center has been constructed for passing (automotive) Druids interested in a quick ritual or photograph! Another North American automotive monument vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge is known as Cadillac Ranch, in Amarillo, Texas. This monument features a linear arrangement of 1960s era Cadillacs buried nose down in the Texas soil and was created in 1974 by Stanley Marsh IV (Kirby 2009).
Fig. 8.8

Carhenge, one of several North American monuments combining modern artifacts and ancient archaeoastronomy (image source:

Modern Stonehenges

Across North America and beyond, modern humans have recreated Stonehenge with varying degrees of accuracy. Samuel Hill, a pacifist and renowned engineer of bridges and roads in the Pacific Northwest, built a large replica of Stonehenge in 1918 at Maryhill, Washington (Fig. 8.9). Hill’s Stonehenge was built to protest the fallen soldiers in World War I from nearby Klikitat County and was intended to make a statement about the larger human sacrifice of World War I. The project took 12 years to complete and was finished just before Mr. Hill’s death in 1930 (Kirby 2009).
Fig. 8.9

The North American Stonehenge at Maryhill, Washington, built in 1918 as a tribute to soldiers lost in World War I (image source:

Additional North American Stonehenges include a half-scale replica at the University of Missouri, Rolla, which was made from solid granite, a Stonehenge II in Kerrville Texas, a 60% sized replica of Stonehenge made by a retired oilman Al Shepperd in his pasture from plaster-covered steel, and a “Foamhenge” made by artist Mark Cline of Natural Bridge Virginia from realistic looking Styrofoam blocks. The collection of monuments in North America may lack some of the mass, durability, and tradition of their counterpart in England, but they do include some of the same inspiration and spirit and reflect our modern need to make monuments of lasting meaning.

Modern Sundials

One of the most common celestial structures throughout the ages is the sundial. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have created sundials and modern people have added their own contributions to the art form. Modern sundials often feature original materials, computer-aided design, and abstract and geometric styling. Sometimes modern sundials are building sized or only vaguely appear as sundials. Below is a sampling of a few of the more inspired and modern sundials (Fig. 8.10).
Fig. 8.10

A few modern sundials: (clockwise, from top left) Reclining sundial, in Recifes, Brazil; sundial designed in 1965 by Henry Moore, now in front of the Adler planetarium, Chicago; sundial from London with a nautical theme, water column sundial commissioned to Pomona College artist Sheila Pinkel for Santa Ana College

(image sources:,; photograph of London sundial by the author, and Pinkel sundial courtesy of Sheila Pinkel)

The Survival of Ancient Beliefs in Modern Times

Astrology is the wooly ancient forebearer of astronomy, much as alchemy is the ancestor of modern chemistry. Yet unlike alchemy, astrology still persists and is practiced by enthusiasts around the world. Daily astrology columns are read in newspapers, celebrity astrologers are well paid and in demand, and astrology has even played a role in the decisions of recent presidents. It is possible to have an astronomical horoscope (based on technology from 700 BC) automatically downloaded to one’s cell phone or “twittered” to one’s handheld computer (technology from AD 2010) What can account for the persistence of astrology and how has astrology developed over the centuries?

What most of us consider to be astrology in the United States or Europe is actually derived from the ancient astrological practices of Egypt and Babylon and modified by Greek and medieval scientists. Below is a brief description of how astrology manifests itself in our modern civilization, in the different cultures of the world.

A Brief History of Western Astrology

Babylonian Astrology

The first records of astrology coincide with earliest known writings of the Mesopotamian cultures. Some of the earlier writings include astronomical texts known as the Venus tablets of Ammizaduga, which date from 1500 BC, and which list dates and times over a 21-year period for Venus to rise and set, and corresponding omens and weather patterns on the Earth. Other early astrological texts include the “Three Star” tablets that date back to 1000 BC to record lists of three stars that heliacally rise in each of 12 months. Some of the most detailed early writings in astrology come from 650 BC, from the Assyrian king Ashubanipal. These texts describe how astrologer-priests, or ummanu, would document many of the conditions of the natural world, and the corresponding omens associated with them, as well as advice to the king based on their reading of the skies.

In the early days of astrology, the stars were just one part of the process of learning from the face of nature the hidden will of the gods. The motions of birds, animal entrails, and weather patterns were also used with planets and stars to read the future. As in many cultures (such as the Chinese and Mayan) Babylonians believed that the rule of the emperor was thought to rest upon the good will of the gods, who would indicate their displeasure in signs in the night sky. Each of the major gods were assigned places in the sky in the form of planets – Marduk, the ruler of the sky, was associated with Jupiter; Nergal, god of the underworld, was associated with Mars; Nabu, god of writing, was associated with Mercury; Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility, was associated with the planet Venus.

The early practice of astrology was largely for royal divination and was combined with other observations of nature to provide long lists of omens to help guide the ruler (Fig. 8.11). Astrologers would specialize in both the reading of omens and prescribing spells and rituals for dispelling ill portents. Especially bad was the occurrence of an eclipse, which required the king to install a temporary “dummy king” to rule on the day, while the actual king would hide to prevent his deposition. One of the early Mesopotamian forecasts from the seventh century BC reinforces the idea of an eclipse being dangerous for kings:

“When on the first of the month of Nisan the rising sun appears red like a torch, white clouds rise from it, and the wind blows from the east, then there will be a solar eclipse on the 28th or 29th day of the month, the king will die that very month, and his son will ascend to the throne.”

(Cramer 1954, p. 5)

Fig. 8.11

Rulers of Mesopotamia used astrology and astronomical symbolism to consolidate their power. The Stela of Shamshi-Adad V from Nimrud (northern Iraq) originates from about 820 BC and shows the king near the symbols of the main gods of Assyria, all of which had astronomical symbolism. Near his hand is the symbol of the gods Ishtar, Adad, Sin, Shamash, and Ashur (from bottom to top) (photograph taken at British Museum by the author)

One of the first complete texts of astrology (or astronomy) known is the set of tablets dating from the seventh century BC known as the Mul Apin. These tablets include a catalog of over 70 stars, with dates of heliacal risings, and the first use of the “zodiac” which is the region of stars in the “path of the Moon.” A group of 18 star groupings are included in the Mul Apin, which form the basis of an early zodiac, each grouping matching a band approximately 20° across. A later table from 410 BC includes a text that refers only to reduced set of the 12 familiar “zodiacal constellation” most familiar to Greek, Roman, and later European astrology (Whitfield 2001, p. 21).

In the final years of the Babylonian culture, from 400 BC to 235 BC, astrology had evolved from a tool of the royal court to a more personal art of fortune-telling. The first extant horoscope dates from 410 BC, based on using modern computers to recreate the unique combination of planetary positions. By the Seleucid period, of 235 BC, astrology became “democratized” and was widely applied outside the royal court. One example of a personal astrological forecast includes a report of the positions of the Sun, the Moon, Jupiter, and other planets on the zodiac, and the corresponding meaning of the configuration as seen in 235 BC:

“Year 77 (of the Seleucid era), the fourth day, in the last part of the night, Aristokrates was born. That day: Moon in Leo, Sun 12o 30o of Gemini, Jupiter in 18 Sagittarius. The place of Jupiter means his life will be regular, he will become rich, he will grow old, his days will be numerous.”

(Whitfield 2001, p. 24)

Greek and Roman Astrology

By the time of the conquest of Mesopotamia by Persian and later Greek forces, the role of astrology had diminished in Mesopotamia, but took root in Greece and Rome, where it found many prominent advocates, including some of the leading philosophers of antiquity. The connections between the East and Greece allowed the astronomical discoveries and records of the Babylonians to be adopted along with many aspects of the mystical religious traditions of Zoroastrianism and the practices of astrology.

Plato himself, in his work Timaeus, argued that the creator or demiurge had formed the human soul from the same material from which he made the stars. Plato describes the task the demiurge performed as he created the human divine souls that establish a one-to-one correspondence between souls on-earth and stars, and establishes the destinies of individuals:

“He (the demiurge) spake, and once more into the cup in which he had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all.”

(Archer-Hind 1888, p. 28)

In Plato’s philosophy, the entire world was a single living spirit or “world soul” and this mystical outlook, which favored pre-destiny and an intimate connection with the stars, was very compatible with the Eastern practices of astrology.

Aristotle also indicated that astronomical events could directly affect matters on the Earth, giving further support to the theory of astrology among the Greeks. His idea of “coming-into-being” and “destruction” which is described in the work “On Generation and Corruption” attributes these two major effects to the Sun’s motion along the ecliptic, giving an authoritative basis for astrology for centuries to come.

By 400 BC, as a result of the adoption of Mesopotamian astrological techniques, the Greek planets had been renamed from their earlier naturalistic names that describe their appearance (Phainon, Phaeton, Pyroeis, Phosphoros, and Stilbon for Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, respectively) to names of gods that paralleled those of the Babylonian astrologers (Star of Cronos, Zeus, Ares, Aphrodite, and Hermes for Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, respectively).

By the first century BC, astrology had taken root across the Mediterranean world, all the way from Greece to Antioch and from Alexandria to Rome. The Astronomicon, a compilation of the techniques of astrology written Marcus Manilius and Vettius Velens in the first century AD, includes a complete description of the terminology and techniques of Greek astrology.

The basic tool of Greek and Roman astrology is an individual’s horoscope. The horoscope was a chart of the positions of planets at birth, which was compared with the locations of zodiacal constellations, their relations to four cardinal points. The horoscope also included a ring of locations in the sky known as the “mundane houses,” which were believed to correspond to aspects of an individual’s life (which included enemies, friends, honors, travel, death, marriage). The chart was drawn relative to a horizontal line, which represented the horizon, with an eastern point known as the “ascendant” and a western point known as a “descendant.” The addition of a transit point (“mid-heaven”) and a nadir point (“Immum Coeli”) divided the local horizon and sky into four quadrants, in which planets could be charted (Fig. 8.12). For the date of birth the ring of zodiacal constellations would appear at a fixed angle relative to the chart, with certain constellations at each of the four points, and various planets in each of the constellations and houses, depending on the timings of their orbits.
Fig. 8.12

Diagram from a European work on astrology, “Annotationi sopra la lettione della Spera del Sacro Bosco,” by Mauro of Florence (1571), which shows the main elements of the astrological chart developed by the Greek and Roman astrologers. The ascendant is shown (horizontal line) relative to houses (outer ring) and the planets are marked on concentric circles (image courtesy of the Claremont Colleges Special collections, Wagner collection)

A complete list of houses, starting at the ascendant, includes the categories “Enemies,” “Friends,” “Honors,” “Travel,” “Death,” and “Marriage.” Then below the horizon from west to east included the houses of “Health”, “Children,” “Parents,” “Siblings,” “Wealth,” and “Life” (Whitfield 2001, p. 44). There is no apparent logic or explanation of the assignment of these houses, but they probably were adapted from some of the many ancient Babylonian and Greek astrological omens. The most important part of the diagram is the eastern point, which was known as the horoskopos or “hour observer.”

The relative positions of planets, stars, the Sun and the Moon determined more esoteric quantities such as the “exaltation,” “decan,” and “lots” of a horoscope. The exaltation referred to the coincidence of a house and a constellation within the chart, while the decans were a set of stars rising heliacally at each date of the year (just as in ancient Egypt), and lots were mathematical constructions of positions on the chart thought to have great symbolic meaning. Examples of lots include the “Lot of Fortune,” which was a point at an angle above the ascendant equal to the angle between the Moon and Sun, and the “prorogator,” a location on the chart thought to predict the length of the subject’s life. The final piece of information in a horoscope was the connection between the planets (which could form shapes such as triangles or the trine, squares, sextiles, or oppositions) and the locations of these planets relative to the horizon and dividing lines in the “mundane houses (Fig. 8.13).”
Fig. 8.13

Diagram from a European work on astrology, “Annotationi sopra la lettione della Spera del Sacro Bosco,” by Mauro of Florence (1571), which shows divisions of a horoscope into key elements of a person’s life, with various planets ruling each of these divisions (image courtesy of the Claremont Colleges Special collections, Wagner collection)

Additional intricacies of astrology described by Manilus include the paranatellonta and dodecatemoria. The paranatellonata were additional celestial objects thought to have additional powers, such as the Hyades, which if it appears near the ascendant is thought to indicate a particular omen, such as “those born at this time do not enjoy peace and quiet, but they seek crowds of people and the bustle of affairs” (Whitfield 2001, p. 50). The dodecatemoria were twelve small segments of about 2.5° where the chart was especially significant (the name comes from “dividing into 12 parts”). Interestingly, astrology in the time of Manilus did not depend on the Sun’s position when a person was born, as is common in twentieth century popular astrology, but instead on the constellation of the ascendant. While ancient astrology offered complex machinery for calculating a person’s fortune, it was much less specific about the exact mechanism that explained the operation of astrology. The basic underlying principle came down to lists of omens (much as in the case of Babylonian times) and aesthetic judgments about the placement of objects within a chart. Triangular shapes within a chart were judged to be harmonious, while shapes between other objects, such as squares and hexagons, were considered less auspicious. Each planet was thought to radiate a “sphere of virtue” of about 10° that produced effects when it coincided with other objects or key parts of the sky (Whitfield 2001, p. 55)

With the work of Ptolemy (AD 130–170), astrology was placed on something of a scientific footing, at least by the understanding of his time. His two key works, Tetrabiblios and Almagest, explored links between astrology and the known elements of the universe. Ptolemy perfected the system of prediction of planetary positions, using the most accurate available planetary data, and a complete arsenal of epicycles, deferents, and eccentrics to describe precisely the locations of planets as needed for astrological charts. The astronomical contents of the Almagest provided a contribution of lasting value for both astrologers and astronomers, and survived for over 1000 years as the leading text in astronomy.

Ptolemy’s cosmology, much like those of the early pre-Socratics, mixed earth, air, fire, and water in different proportions on the Earth to produce changes. However, Ptolemy extended his system of elements to the heavenly bodies and correlates each planet with one or two of the properties of the elements on the Earth. Heat from the Sun, moisture from the Moon, coolness from Saturn, heat and moistness from Jupiter, and dryness and heat from Mars were all thought to change properties on the Earth depending on the positions of the planets. Additional connections were made between astronomical objects and parts of the body, providing a connection between astrology and medicine.

While it may be hard to imagine today, astrologers in Ptolemy’s time imagined Saturn commanding the spleen, the right ear, and the bones, while Jupiter ruled over the lungs and arteries (Fig. 8.14). Astrological forecasting at the time of birth was thought to predict the health of a subject, partly based on the medical effects of planets on organs in the baby. Astrological charts at the time of sickness could be used to prescribe particular herbal remedies to counter the effects of “malevolent” planets. Additional connections between heavenly bodies and human development are put forth in the Tetrabiblios, resulting in the concept of the “seven ages of man” – each part of life being ruled by a different celestial object. The ages of a person are ruled in turn by the moon (0–4 years), then Mercury (5–14 years), then Venus (14–22), then the Sun (22–41), then Mars (41–65), then Jupiter and Saturn for the final years of life (Whitfield 2001, p. 65).
Fig. 8.14

Medieval manuscript showing the explicit connection between astrological signs and body parts. Within medieval astrology was a planet-based medicine system, whereby each astrological sign “held sway” over different organs (from the “Encyclopedic manuscript containing allegorical and medical drawings”, south Germany: ca 1410; image part of Library of Congress “Heavens” exhibit at

It is also important to remember that astrology was not only the province of Babylonian, Greek, or Roman culture. Nearly all of the ancient cultures of the world had some form of astronomy, and a strong motivation for many of these cultures was to tell the future from the stars and planets. In the Aztec and Mayan cultures, astrology was integrated with the timekeeping and calendrical rituals, as large numbers of omens were associated with each of the named days in the 260-day cycle, with additional associations with astronomical events such as comets, eclipses, and meteor showers. The Inca used stars to help perform weather forecasts, based on the visibility of Pleiades stars or dark cloud constellations.

Among the present-day civilizations of modern times, additional forms of astrology outside of the Babylonian astrology are also recognized. Two of the most advanced and widely practiced systems are from India and China. Like the astrology of Europe, the Indian and Chinese systems developed from early scientific examinations of the sky and were the precursors of more modern astronomical investigations. And like the astrology of Europe, Indian and Chinese astrology is still practiced and used to set important dates such as weddings or to time the best date for large business dealings. As such the Indian astrology and the Chinese astrology are also part of the archaeoastronomy of modern civilization.

Indian Astrology

India can claim a much more ancient astronomical and astrological tradition than Mesopotamia, which is rooted in the Vedic teachings that are dated to 1500 BC and perhaps earlier. The Vedic text known as Atharyaveda includes many different omens and purification rituals that are based on astronomy. Additional astronomical and cosmological ideas are put forth in the Rig Veda. The early Vedic tradition, like Mesopotamian and Greek and Roman tradition, included observations of clouds, haloes around the Sun and Moon, comets and meteors in the list of omens (Whitfield 2001, p. 32).

Many of the principles of Indian astrology were compiled in an ancient text known as the Yavanajataka, which was written by Sphujidhavaja in AD 270. This work includes some translation of Greek astrology literature into Sanskrit, but also mentions many of the uniquely Indian contributions to astrology. Two major differences between Indian and Mesopotamian astrology are the importance placed on stellar associations with the Moon, known as naksatras, and the locations of the two lunar “nodes,” which point toward particular stellar regions. The naksatras, discussed earlier, are a group of 27 constellations that serve as landmarks of the sky, based on the 27.3-day lunar sidereal month, against which the positions of the Moon or planets or lunar nodes are charted.

The “nodes” of the Moon are locations where the orbit of the Moon crosses the ecliptic plane. Since the Moon’s orbit is inclined by approximately 5° above the ecliptic plane, the intersection of the Moon’s orbit and the ecliptic defines a line, which points in a discernable direction (Fig. 8.15). This “line of nodes” was known to Babylonian and Greek astronomers and was the basis of prediction of eclipses, which are known to occur only when the full or new moon phase coincides with the line of nodes. Since the “line of nodes” precesses 18.84° each year, the timing of possible eclipses of “eclipse seasons” is known to shift each day. A complete cycle of the line of nodes across the sky defines the “Draconic Year” which is about 18.14 years.
Fig. 8.15

The line of nodes, as defined by the intersection of the slightly inclined (5°) lunar orbital plane and the ecliptic plane. When the Sun is in the direction of the line of nodes, which happens twice a year, an “eclipse season” results. In Hindu astrology the directions pointed to by the line of nodes are given names “Rahu” and “Ketu” and are important locations in their system (figure by the author)

The Indian or Vedic astrology makes use of the two node points, which are known as Rahu and Ketu for the ascendant and descendant nodes, respectively (Ojha 1996). Like the medieval “lot,” the node points are variable locations on the zodiac defined mathematically and not identified with locations of planets or stars.

Planets, known collectively in Hindu astrology as grahas (for “grasp”), are charted relative to the node points and naksatras to comprise an astrological chart. Some effort is made to provide accurate astronomical information to help build an accurate chart, with attention to the ascendant, which in Sanskrit is known as the Lagnam, which is used to define a set of “houses” relative to this point, much as in Babylonian astrology.

Many additional time units developed by Indian astronomers are employed to provide additional complexity and detail in developing a chart. The date of birth is set within a 60-year Jupiter cycle, a 12 lunar month calendar, the phase of the Moon (known as the “Tithi”), and the time of birth expressed in the units of “Ghatis” and “Palas” (corresponding to units of time of 24 min and 24 s, respectively; Ojha 1996, p. 27). The position of the Moon and Sun defines an additional location known as the “Yoga” which is the result of adding the longitudes of both bodies. All of this information is placed on a chart, traditionally a grid much in appearance like a “tic-tac-toe” grid, with planet positions and times indicated (Fig. 8.16).
Fig. 8.16

Southern (left) and northern (right) Indian astrological charts. The diagrams are made to show the locations of planets within the different zodiac signs in fixed locations for the southern notation (left), while the northern notation is a schematic of the sky at the moment of birth, with various planets marked according to their positions on the horizon (image source:

Once a chart is constructed, the Indian astrologer can then read into the various combinations of the above parameters particular omens based on long lists compiled over centuries. Like the Mesopotamian lists of omens, the particular origin of these lists is not known, and there is not much information on the particular mechanism by which the stars, node points, and other details affect human life on the Earth. Nevertheless, most Indian couples contemplating marriage will consult an astrologer to be sure their birth dates, and wedding dates provide auspicious omens. Likewise, a baby born in India will often have a chart drawn that will offer many predictions about the child’s future.

Chinese Astrology

Chinese astrology mixes elements from traditional Chinese folklore and philosophy with some of the calendrical elements of Chinese astronomy. Within the Chinese tradition is an emphasis on “five-ness” that divided the world into five elements and associated these elements with five colors, animals, and the “five luminaries” or planets. A list of these associations is shown in Table 8.1 and forms the basis of an astrological system.
Table 8.1

Chinese planet associations with elements and colors

























The Chinese astrological forecast, much like the Indian and Mesopotamian forecast, depended on the moment of birth to define the future of an individual. Chinese astrology tried to assess an individual’s birth date and time on the basis of associations with yin/yang and one of the five elements. The birth year located an individual within a 60-year cycle that combined the 12-year Jupiter-based Sheti cycle (with the familiar zodiac animals) with associations with each of the five elements. Subdivision of the year by lunar month and even hour of birth gave a higher resolution to the forecast and were the basis of the determination of the individual’s “inner animal” and “secret animal. The detailed combination of yin/yang, element, and associated “animals” was put together by the astrologer and used to predict properties of the individual and their future life (Eberhard 1986; Lau and Lau 2007) (Figs. 8.17 and 8.18).
Fig. 8.17

Chinese astronomy played a key role in shaping the various forms of philosophy and in turn provided inputs for a form of astrology that incorporated elements of natural philosophy and mysticism. This figure shows a compendium of Chinese knowledge, including astronomy (red star map at top), and the “eight phenomena” which describe motions of the Moon and planets, as well as basic interactions of elements on the Earth, and a summary of Taoist and Confucian thought (Library of Congress, Map Division, from Shaoxing, 1722, “San Cai iy guan tu” by Lu Wefan)

Fig. 8.18

Tibetan Buddhism included many aspects of early Chinese thought in its divination, including the 12 traditional animals of Chinese astrology (shown in the central wheel), Taoist hexagrams (shown in the petals of the central circle), directional animals, and color symbolism (from Srid pa ho (Divination Chart), Tibet, late twentieth century; image from Library of Congress, “World Treasures” exhibit)

European Astrology from Medieval to Modern Times

After Ptolemy, astrology adapted to the rise of Christianity and also was transformed by Islamic astronomy. The basic machinery of Ptolemy was supplemented with the works of Islamic astronomers such as al-Kindi (801–866), who commissioned translations into Arabic of the Greek works of Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy, and Abu Mashar (787–886), who provided additional computations of periodicities of conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn that he believed provided a cyclical theory for explaining history.

The Islamic astronomers also perfected the use of the astrolabe, which was able to provide accurate measurements of time during evening hours, to predict the positions of constellations at any latitude, and to provide measurements of planetary positions. The astrolabe worked much as a modern planisphere and provided a beautifully carved top layer or rete that rotated against a background grid of coordinates known as a climate plate. The top layer included points to indicate positions of bright stars, which could then be located on the climate plate to show their positions at various times during the night. Conversely, a sighting of a stellar position could be dialed into the astrolabe and used to measure the hour of night from the climate plate. A convenient sighting device, known as the alidade, was attached to the two disks and could be pointed at bright stars, and a ruled outer edge would provide readings of their positions (Fig. 8.19).
Fig. 8.19

A display of Persian and Arabic astrolabes from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, from the Cambridge Museum of Science and Technology. Such devices were used by Islamic navigators to sight stars and to find the time and directions anywhere on the Earth from the stars (photo by the author)

Islamic astronomers were experts in the sighting of stars to enable accurate determination of one’s position on the Earth, for both navigation and prayer to Mecca. The aim of Islamic astrology and astronomy was less concerned with forecasting the future of a ruler or individual and more concerned with interpreting larger trends in world history. However, by the thirteenth century, Islamic astrology was in decline and in conflict with prevailing religious beliefs.

Conflicts between astrology and Christian theology also threatened the demise of astrology in the European Medieval period, but philosophers such as Origen and Boethius helped revive astrology in the twelfth century. One key event was the conjunction of planets in 1186 which was the subject of study from “all the world’s prognosticators, Spanish and Sicilian, Greek and Latin,” according to the medieval English writer Roger of Hovedon. Astrology seemed at odds with Christian doctrines, but clever arguments by medieval authors were constructed to justify astrology as complementary to Christianity. One interesting argument, put forward by the philosopher Bernard, is that the stars had to have a function, since God created them, and this function was to foretell the future. In the words of Bernard:

“I would have you behold the sky, inscribed with a multiform variety of images, which like a book with open pages containing the future in cryptic letters, I have revealed to the eyes of the more learned.”

(Whitfield 2001, p. 98)

Another key event for medieval astrology was the arrival of the plague, which offered many opportunities for ex post facto astrological interpretations. In 1348 the medical faculty of the University of Paris explained how a triple conjunction of the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn 3 years earlier induced the plague (on March 28, 1345), based on the results of Jupiter’s “warm, humid vapors,” which were “set fire” by Mars (Fig. 8.20). In the words of Paris Medical Faculty, the conjunction caused “pernicious corruption of the surrounding air, as well as other signs of mortality, famine and other catastrophes” (Whitfield 2001, p. 113). While these medieval astrologers could not predict the arrival of the plague, they could certainly explain events after the fact!
Fig. 8.20

The conjunction of March 28, 1345, which in the view of some medieval astrologers brought the plague to Europe when Jupiter’s vapors were “set fire” by Mars (original figure by the author using the Voyager IV computer program)

Astrology also gives us the root of our word “influenza” or the “flu” based on the ancient belief that disease can be induced from the influence of celestial bodies. Both astrological medicine and alchemy received widespread interest and support in this period, as medieval scientists struggled to explain the turmoil of their time as the results of planetary effects. Each of the planets had an association not only with the early Greek elements but also with metals and with humors of the body.

The widespread belief in astrology influenced many of the major culture figures in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Chaucer was thought to include astrologically based allegories in some of his Canterbury tales, while Shakespeare made numerous astrological references in his works:

“It is the stars,

The stars above us that govern our conditions,

Else one self mate and mate could not beget

Such different issues.”

Shakespeare, King Lear,

Act IV, Scene III

Even leading minds such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler were both practicing astrologers during part of their careers. However, Kepler moved away from astrology as he began to discover what he believed were the more important effects of musical harmony and the cosmic geometry of celestial bodies (Whitfield 2001, p. 181).

Just as Ptolemy predicted a decline within the “ages of man,” the age of astrology was destined for a period of decline. By 1674, the leading astronomers of the time, such as Flamsteed, were actively attacking astrology as obsolete. An unpublished preface to “Hecker’s Tables” condemned the “vanity of astrology” as well as its inaccuracy, inconsistency, and lack of predictive power. Isaac Newton, while fascinated with alchemy, was indifferent to astrology and saw no use for the practice, perhaps since his new physics had much greater predictive power than any horoscope. Astrology’s influence in Europe faded steadily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centrles and appeared headed for extinction.

Instead of being a practice for royalty, aristocrats, or leading scientists, astrology by the 1780s was most widely found in popular magazines for poorly educated masses. Magazines such as “Astrologer’s Magazine” (began in 1783) and “The Conjurer’s Magazine” kept astrology in print during the period, as did selected publications such as Sibley’s (1790) work “Complete Illustration of the Science of Astrology.” However, the intellectual respectability of astrology never recovered its luster, and astrology from the eighteenth century onward had to survive outside of the mainstream of scientific and intellectual discourse.

Why Do People Believe Astrology in the Twenty-First Century?

The decline of astrology seemed assured with the rise of science. And yet somehow astrology seems to have survived to this day and by some measures is enjoying something of a revival. What are the predictive powers of astrology? And why do people still believe in this arcane science, after so many thousands of years? Clearly science has moved well beyond theories of elements composed of moisture, earth, fire, and air – we now have a periodic table of the elements and know precisely how atoms are constructed. Medicine too no longer attaches astrological omens to each body part, assuming malfunctions of a spleen are from Saturn’s influence – we now have diagnostic equipment, surgery, and pharmaceuticals that completely replaced the medieval medicine based on astrology. As so many aspects of our technology have advanced, why has the belief in astrology survived and not been replaced by the clearly superior predictive and practical power of medicine, physics, and astronomy?

To answer this question, perhaps we should begin with a description of some attempts to determine whether astrology “works.” During the early part of the twentieth century, several attempts to analyze astrology on a scientific basis were made. An English journal of astrology was founded in 1895 known as “Monthly Astrology” which contained several prognostications on the coming century and articles on the philosophy of astrology. The journal confidently predicted that no European war would begin up until June 1914, when the editor was suddenly convicted for “fortune-telling.” By August 1914, World War I had begun and the editor, just released from his imprisonment, was able to revise his predictions to show that war indeed was what the stars were showing.

One German journal of astrology, known as Kosmobiologie, was founded in 1928 and attempted to provide scientific studies to validate astrology. A Swiss astrologer, Karl Ernest Krafft, attempted to show the validity of astrology by claiming that statistical trends existed in the horoscopes of thousands of people who were in the same professions and their birth signs. Despite the fact that Nazis persecuted astronomers early in their regime, the Nazis later employed several astrologers (including Krafft). Krafft himself was not successful in convincing the Nazis and eventually was imprisoned and died in a concentration camp. Further statistical work by the French statistician Michel Gauquelin re-analyzed Kraffts work and found that the methodology was invalid and no convincing correlation existed between sun signs and professions (although some correlations were seen between professions and the “ascendant” signs) (Whitfield 2001, p. 201). Despite the mixed result of scientific analyses of astrology (and the unfortunate results for some of its practitioners in the early twentieth century), many people are still convinced of the validity of astrology.

University and college students studying astronomy often are unclear about the difference between astrology and astronomy and come with varying degrees of belief in astrology. For this reason, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) has provided its members with an “Astrology Defense Kit” useful for new instructors of astronomy. In this kit are several arguments and questions to ask believers in astrology, along with some class activities. Below we summarize some of the arguments put forth by ASP executive director Andrew Fraknoi in the form of “embarrassing questions” about astrology:

“Why do horoscopes use the moment of birth and not conception? If astrologers can foretell the future, why aren’t they richer? If the stars exert such powerful forces, how can the thin layer of the womb shield a child from them? How can horoscopes be accurate without knowledge of the outer planets Neptune and Uranus? Why do planets have a larger force on a baby than objects closer? (i.e. the gravitational pull of a doctor delivering a baby is six times larger than that of Mars). How is it that astrological force does not depend on distance, and if this is so, why is there no influence from stars and galaxies?”

(Fraknoi and Schatz 2000)

Another line of argument against astrology might focus on the diversity of outcomes of the large number of people who are born on the same day – certainly if astrology is valid, any twins born should share the same fate, which is clearly not the case for countless twins. Likewise, the astrological “sun signs” of modern twentieth century astrology are based on dates which are obsolete due to celestial precession. If you were born within the dates of most astrology columns, your sign is actually off by one position due to the precession of the equinoxes. For example, the dates of September 2–20 for “Virgo” actually are the dates for which the Sun is in the constellation Libra in the 21st century. Some students are upset to learn that all of the astrology columns they were reading for most of their lives were for the wrong sign!

The other strike against astrology, which prevents it from becoming a science, is that it has no mechanisms for determining validity and rejecting material when it is shown to be untrue. For this reason, multiple schools of astrology exist both within North America and Europe and in Asia. How can all of these types of astrology be valid, when they often provide contradictory predictions? Some of these other astrologies, such as the Indian (Vedic) astrology and Chinese astrology, had important early roles in developing the science of astronomy and yet also survive to give independent and often different systems for predicting the future. Can these all be right? Or should astrology, like alchemy, and ancient medicine based on herbs, leeches, and humors, but put aside in favor of modern science? In the words of the late Carl Sagan:

“Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?”

(Sagan 1996)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physics & AstronomyPomona CollegeClaremontUSA

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