I tell a lot of old stories about the stars in this space. My friends have occasionally accused me (jokingly, I hope) of being the world’s last Jupiter worshiper.
Admittedly, many of those tales arise from the defunct religions of ancient Greece and Rome. Our forebears populated those old tales with capricious gods and powerful, but emotionally unstable, heroes.
For the record, I don’t believe that Jupiter will strike me with a thunderbolt if I say I don’t believe in him. However, by opening this newspaper up to a particular page, many readers unconsciously affirm their faith in Mars, the god of war, and Venus, the goddess of love.
Of course, I’m talking about the daily horoscope. Astrology is one of those ancient superstitions that refuses to die.
Still, modern stargazers should have a healthy respect for the practice of predicting the future by the positions of the planets. After all, astrology has its roots in astronomy. Or perhaps astronomy has its roots in astrology.
For thousands of years, astronomy was just the study of the motions of the stars and planets across the sky and their relative positions.
Celestial objects are very far away. All we can tell about them without a telescope is where they are. Long ago, we couldn’t even tell that very well.
For most of human history, humans drew the obvious, common-sense conclusion that the sun and planets traveled around the Earth.
Although the stars rose and set, they stayed fixed with respect to each other. The ancients concluded that they were attached to a giant crystalline sphere that spun around the Earth.
However, the planets, which included the sun and moon, differed. Each one moved against the starry background in its unique way, as if it could control its motions in ways the stars could not.
In other words, the planets had power and lived above us in the heavenly sphere. They must therefore be the gods.
Because Venus shines with a brilliantly beautiful white light, it was associated with the goddess of love and beauty. Mars, the god of war, shines red like a drop of blood in the sky.
Jupiter shines brightly and moves with slow, regal deliberateness — as befits the king of the gods.
The motions of the sun, moon, and planets were not wholly capricious. They travel a regular path around the celestial sphere, passing through the twelve zodiacal constellations.
The sun, the most brilliant and predictable of the ancient gods, passes through the same constellations at the same time every year.
The positions of the gods in given constellations at the time of a person’s birth were supposed to influence that person’s character.
I was born, for example, on a day when the sun was in the constellation Taurus, the bull. Since bulls are slow to anger but are explosively emotional when they finally lose their cool, somehow, those characteristics were supposedly passed on to me.
Since the gods continue to move, their positions along the zodiac change daily. The combinations of gods and constellations vary in complex ways and create, it was supposed, similarly complex predictors of the tendencies that affect our lives from day to day.
Of course, all of this is nonsense. The sun is a giant hydrogen bomb and not a god. It produces the heat and light that keeps us alive. Its gravity keeps Earth in orbit around it.
Its presence (or lack thereof) demonstratively influences our emotional well-being. Sunlight is notably absent during the winter months. Consequently, some of us suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the “winter blues” that takes hold during the “dark days” of winter.
However, our moods, SAD or otherwise, have nothing to do with the presence of the sun in this-or-that constellation.
Try as they might, astrologists cannot find the mysterious force that causally connects a planet’s position against the starry background with the unique characteristics of anyone’s personality.
If astrologists could identify and measure that force, then astrology would rise above the level of superstition.
Given the practice’s historical antecedents, we must therefore conclude that the capricious gods are still up there in the heavens controlling our destinies if we are to believe in astrology.
Let’s look at the logic through which astrological beliefs took hold. The constellation Scorpius, the scorpion, is a prime example.
Scorpius is one of the astrological “signs of the zodiac.” Or, as an astronomer might put it, the scorpion is one of the zodiacal constellations.
For about one month every year, the sun seems to pass through each zodiacal constellation. As it passes through Virgo, the goddess of the harvest, the season of abundance begins.
As it travels through Scorpius, the cold, dark winter — the time of the greatest privation — begins.
From our latitude, Scorpius never rises very high above the southern horizon. Like the creature from which it gets its name, the constellation seems to scuttle along the ground.
Scorpius is undoubtedly worth a look, partly because, unlike most constellations, it resembles a connect-the-dot version of its namesake.
The constellation’s brightest star forms the beast’s flickering heart. Antares shines a brilliant orange-red. Because it never rises very high, it often twinkles, sometimes violently.
Up and to the right of Antares are three stars representing the scorpions head and claws. Down and to the left, it’s hard to miss the curve of stars that form the animal’s tail, which terminates in the poisonous, upturned stinger.
Scorpions are bad news because their stings are frequently deadly. To add insult to injury, they are most active during the dark of night, when the danger to humans is greatest.
Consequently, humans have associated the scorpion’s patron constellation with the worst kinds of evil. Moreover, scorpions live in cracks, crevices, and other secluded places and are thus associated with secrecy and stealth.
You can see that circumstance reflected in the sky. The tail of Scorpius lies in a dark rift in the background glow of the Milky Way — as if the scorpion has just exited one of its dark hiding places.
Another of the scorpion’s ominous oddities is its association with Orion, the hunter. As Orion sets, the scorpion rises.
They never appear in the sky together. The ancients, who noticed these things, invented stories to explain the seeming aversion the two constellations have for each other.
Orion was a mighty hunter, but he had an ego the size of Cleveland. He once boasted that he had the power to kill every animal on Earth.
In the form of the Earth goddess Gaia, Earth wasn’t pleased to hear Orion’s boast. She sent one of the tiniest of her creatures to do battle with Orion.
The scorpion emerged from a dark crevice in the ground, snuck up behind Orion, and stung him on the heel. Thus, the mightiest hunter the world had ever known was slain by one of the tiniest of Earth’s creatures.
Despite his foolish bravado (or, more likely, because of it), the gods admired Orion enough to want to put him and the Scorpion in the sky. Orion reluctantly agreed to receive this honor, but he stipulated that he and the scorpion must never appear in the sky simultaneously.
Thus, as spring turns to summer, Orion finally sets, not to be seen until cold weather returns. As he sinks below the horizon, the scorpion rises and dominates the warmer months.
It would be easy to interpret this old myth as an environmental parable. Does it argue that human interference with the natural world creates dire consequences?
However, the ancients admired Orion’s brash power over nature. They detested and feared the scorpion’s evil stealth and poisonous power. Orion is, after all, a creature of the light, just as Scorpius is a denizen of darkness.
When the sun rises with the Hunter, the long days of the summer are upon us. When Scorpius rises with the sun, long, cold nights filled with hunger and privation rule the land.
Fellow stargazers, go outside, look at Scorpius, and think about what the scorpion is telling you. The night is warm and full of stars, but the natural world around you is potentially dark and dangerous.
We must do what we can to tame those great dangers. But we must not overreach ourselves, lest we cause Earth to rise in anger at our presumptuousness.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.