Which way please them.
John Webster (1580?-1625?), The Duchess of Malfi, IV.iv.52
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Julius Caesar, I.ii.134
It seems appropriate on this astronomically important day, which sees the spring equinox and an eclipse of the sun, to take a brief look at the relationship between celestial bodies and humankind.
The two quotations above from near
contemporary Renaissance dramatists reflect two diametrically opposed views: is
our fate determined at our birth by certain conjunctions of the stars, or is
our fate in our own hands? It is the age-old dispute between predestination and
freewill, which has torn mankind apart in violent religious disputes. If it is
less bitter nowadays, it is perhaps because we live in a largely secular
When for thousands of years humans lived in
a world free of light pollution, it is little wonder that they looked up at a
night sky peopled by a changeable moon and wheeling stars and believed that
their own lives must be inextricably linked to these distant and unknowable
bodies. Early peoples developed extensive astronomical knowledge, as demonstrated
by their monuments like
and Maes Howe:
Tales of the gods living amongst the celestial bodies must have existed long before writing and are firmly embedded in the traditions of all early nations. The Greeks saw and named images in the patterns of the stars which we still recognise today in the symbols of the Zodiac.
The wise men, coming from the east, were led to the birthplace of Jesus by a wandering star, which may have been a comet.
Comets, even more than fixed stars, evoked
wonder by their seeming visitations from some incomprehensible Elsewhere and by
their mysterious transit of the heavens. Surely they must foretell some joyous
event or – more likely – disaster. The Norman invasion of
Even more terrifying is an eclipse of the sun, when (depending on your religion) the sun is gobbled up and spat out by some monster, or the hand of God blots out the sun as a warning to mankind of His power and mankind’s helplessness. According to Virgil, there was an eclipse of the sun on the day Julius Caesar was murdered:
If our fate is somehow tied up with the movement and positions of the stars, especially at the moment of our birth, then surely a man skilled in reading the heavens can help us make sense of our lives, warn us of times and places to avoid, inform us of appropriate dates for important ceremonies, even foretell our death. The art of drawing up astrological charts was known to the Romans and persisted right through the Renaissance and beyond, until the development of science in the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment cast scorn on such beliefs.