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History of Astrology


There are two major problems to be faced when writing about the history of astrology. One is that of length. Astrology has been of great importance in many countries of the world since long before the invention of writing, and until at least the end of the 16th century; recently there has been a considerable revival of interest. The amount of documentation is therefore almost incalculable, and to examine the subject in depth would mean a work of such size that probably no publisher could contemplate it without a massive subsidy, and only a writer prepared to give his life to the subject could attempt it.

The second problem is that of partiality. Very few people seem able to discuss astrology without emotion. This is partly a matter of temperament, but also often a matter of misinformation and almost always of bias of one sort or another. It can be, for instance, the result of a simple contemplation of the harm that may be done by an uncritical belief in the infallibility of astrological advice - quite as much harm as can be done by the uncritical acceptance of the infallibility of theological advice. Sometimes too a simple-minded devotion to astrology has resulted in the acceptance of legends entirely without basis, invariably supporting the claims of astrology. Some 'histories' have repeated such legends. In a recent one by an American writer, for example, it is asserted that Lord Byron was 'quite a good astrologer, who set up his own son's chart and quite accurately predicted the main events of the latter's life.' This would be a more convincing statement if Byron had ever had a son, or if there was the faintest evidence anywhere in his life or letters that he was even slightly interested in astrology.

The present authors should declare an interest. Julia Parker is a consultant astrologer, past President of the Faculty of Astrological Studies, founded in London in 1948, with pupils in most countries of the world, and co-author of The Compleat Astrologer, a comprehensive textbook of astrology. Derek Parker, the other co-author, remains a sceptic for whom the practice of astrology is largely a mystery, but who has become convinced that there is sufficient evidence now available to support many astrological propositions, and that it would be foolish to dismiss the subject out of hand.

In this book we have attempted to maintain a reasonable balance. This is not meant to be a work that will convince anyone that astrology works, or that it does not. It is meant as a necessarily brief account of the spread of astrology through the civilized world, and of the major figures involved in its history.

Amid the shelves of bad books on the subject, there are a few important and reliable source books to which any writer about astrology must be indebted. Lynn Thorndike's massive History of magic and experimental science (1941) is most certainly one. Jack Lindsay's Origins of astrology (1971), F. H. Cramer's Astrology in Roman law and politics (1954), and Keith Thomas's Religion and the decline of magic (1971) are other examples; and A. L. Rowse's Simon Forman (1974) is the earliest example of the work of a serious historian who has thought it worth while to go through the untouched papers of a prominent Elizabethan astrologer. Dr John Dee's papers await similarly thorough treatment from some adventurous Elizabethan scholar. Finally, no reader can be thoroughly versed in the latest state of astrology who has not read Geoffrey Dean's and Arthur Mather's Recent advances in natal astrology (1977); while the work of the husband and wife team, Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, in several volumes, provides much statistical evidence, and thought-provoking argument. The work of Dane Rudhyar in America and of John Addey of the British Astrological Association is more specialized still, and the journals of the British Association and the American Federation of Astrologers are serious publications worth examination.

We are grateful, as always, to various librarians for their assistance; and to many astrologers who have been quick with suggestions of material to be consulted. And we are grateful to the Folio Society Limited for permission to quote lines from William Ginnis's translation of Sebastian Brant's The ship of fools, and to Penguin Books Limited for permission to quote from Nevill Coghill's 'translation' of Chaucer's The Canterbury tales ( 1958, 1960, 1975, 1977).