Friday 20 March 2015


We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied
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 society. 

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 Stonehenge:

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 England:

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.

Simon Foreman

 Simon Foreman, apothecary, alchemist, astrologer and serial rapist was a contemporary of our dramatists Shakespeare and Webster. He made a very comfortable living out of the preparation of astrological charts for his clients, who came from every walk of life. (At any rate, those who could afford his fees.) 

John Dee

Another contemporary, Dr John Dee, mathematician, mystic, book collector, alchemist, astrologer, and amanuensis to angels, cast charts for the greatest in the land. Queen Elizabeth I chose the most auspicious date for her coronation based on his advice, and she was a woman of immense intelligence and learning. It was not merely the ignorant and gullible who believed in the influence of the stars.

Today, of course, we know better. Or do we? Why, then, do magazines and newspapers persist in publishing predictions based, it is claimed, on reading the stars? And it seems that the ancient debate about predestination versus freewill must continue for ever.

 By the way, I’m a Libra, so that must mean that I am a rational, well-balanced person, mustn’t it?

Ann Swinfen


Sue Purkiss said...

Simon Foreman sounds like a nice chap - not!

Susan Price said...

I agree, Sue - a con-man and rapist. What a charmer.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Astrology and pre-determination today are still important beyond magazine trivia. I know two astrologers, both with science degrees, one of them a GP, who cast charts for people. I have a friend who is regularly consulted about auspicious dates for weddings etc.
Historically, I loved when reading The 13thc Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal to see that William Marshal and his wife were 'married under a fortunate star.'

Christina Koning said...

Enjoyed your piece very much, Ann - even though it's cloudy in Cambridge today, so I didn't get a glimpse of the Solar Eclipse! But I've written about such an event (one that took place in 1764) in my novel, Variable Stars, which begins: 'At the bottom of the bucket is the Sun. There it lies, a drowned Star, in the water...' Happy Spring Equinox!

Ann Swinfen said...

Happy Spring Equinox to all of you! It was a beautiful cloudless morning on the east coast of Scotland (surprisingly) but the eclipse was a bit disappointing. I thought it would get much, much darker! Friend Simon was a horrid man, but we do owe him one debt. He kept extensive notebooks, which are a mine of information about his clients.

Ann Turnbull said...

It was a bright sunny morning here in the West Midlands too. It didn't get very dark, but it got rapidly colder and felt rather eerie. I recently found out that there was a solar eclipse in the year in which my novel-in-progress is set, so was able to say I was 'doing research' while hanging around in the garden with a pinhole camera instead of writing.

Ann Swinfen said...

What a bit of luck,Ann! Which year?

Ann Turnbull said...

I'm not saying yet, Ann! I like to keep my stories under wraps until I feel quite sure I've got hold of them.