Stars Down to Earth

I

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
 .

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]
.

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]
.

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot.

II

These distinctions were live during Shakespeare’s time, however. In an article titled “Shakespeare and the Astrology of His Time“, Moriz Sondheim lays out the then-current distinction between “natural astrology” (astrologia naturalis) and “judicial astrology” (astrologia judicialis). Natural astrology

was the theory and practice of prophecy relating to the influence of the heavenly bodies on weather, on physical matter, on the birth, growth and decay of all living things on earth. [245]

Judicial astrology, however,

was the theory and practice of prophecy in relation to the influence of heavenly bodies on human destiny. It was a fatalistic doctrine, which might easily come into conflict with the belief in divine goodness and omnipotence, and with the ecclesiastical doctrine of Free Will, on which rest the dogmas of original sin and redemption. [245]

These distinctions seem to be necessary in a post-Christian environment in which Astrology survived, but is evaluated differently. So Jamsheed K. Choksy’s summary of Astrology in the Classical and Postclassical periods:

Astrological practices fell into broad categories: one being particular to individuals, for predicting the course of their life based on the position of astral bodies at the time of birth; a second providing auspicious times for important activities; a third yielding responses to specific queries; a fourth employing celestial guidelines for the practice of medicine; and a fifth relating to events supposedly destined to reshape the course of regions or cultures. [Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Bowersock, Brown & Grabar, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 1999), 318]

There is no hint here of the later distinction between “natural” and “judicial” Astrology. The distinction does not seem to have been introduced. Yet much earlier, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), who  was normative for the enormous bulk of later Western Christianity (in one way or another), did introduce a similar distinction. In his work, The City of God Against the Pagans [ed. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998)], he addresses at length the opinion of those who hold “[V.i, 187] that the stars determine what we do, or what goods we may have, or what evils we shall suffer, [V.ii, 188] independently of the will of God” [City of God V.i, 187-188], reducing it (most often) to absurdity, especially on the matter the different fates of twins born under the same constellation, explaining these according to physical constitution, diet, and environment [V.ii, 189; V.v, 194] — something we today would see as a secularization. Yet he grants the stars sway, however, for it

is not wholly absurd to say that the stars have a certain influence in bringing about differences of a merely corporeal kind. For example, we see that the seasons of the year change with the approach and receding of the sun, and that certain kinds of things grow and shrink with the waxing and waning of the moon, such as sea-urchins and oysters and the wondrous tides of the ocean. The choices of the will, however, are not subject to the position of the stars. [City of God V.vi, 195]

(This freedom over the stars sounds like the kind of radical super-celestial or supra-astral freedom that Christ is figured as bringing in the more apocalyptic moments of the New Testament and other early Christian writings, as we shall later see.) Augustine went further to say that,

it is not unreasonable to believe that, when the astrologers do give very many wonderful answers, this is to be attributed to the hidden prompting of spirits far from good, whose care it is to sow and establish in the minds of men these false and noxious opinions concerning the influence of the stars on our fate. [City of God V.vii, 197]

The distinction seems to have caught. Approximately 200 years later (ca. A.D.600-620), the Archbishop Isidore of Seville would write the following about Astrology:

astrology is partly natural, and partly superstitious. 2. It is natural as long as it investigates the courses of the sun and the moon, or the specific positions of the stars according to the seasons; but it is a superstitious belief that the astrologers (mathematicus) follow when they practice augury by the stars, or when they associate the twelve signs of the zodiac with specific parts of the soul or body, or when they attempt to predict the nativities and characters of people by the motion of the stars. [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, transl. & notes by S. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, O. Berghof (New York: Cambridge, 2011), 99]

When Greek and Arab sources were newly translated in the Latin West during the 12th century, however, some of the most revered ancient authorities, such as Ptolemy, turned out to have written whole treatises on Astrology, and with great sophistication. This “brought about a rebirth of the astrological arts.” [James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2011), 114] Apparently, says James Hannam, “[a]s astrology became more widespread, clerical opinion grew increasingly lenient.” [Genesis of Science, 117] Eventually Thomas Aquinas himself, in his Summa Theologica [II.ii, Q.95, Article 5], followed Augustine’s concern, that “the operation of the demon thrusts itself into those divinations”, and cautioned that  “those things which happen of necessity can be foreknown by [by observing the stars]; even so astrologers forecast a future eclipse.” Corporeal stars cannot directly effect a change in the incorporeal intellect, nor the will that sits in the intellect. Still “[n]evertheless”, the operations of the stars

can be a dispositive cause of an inclination to those operations, in so far as they make an impression on the human body, and consequently on the sensitive powers which are acts of bodily organs having an inclination for human acts. Since, however, the sensitive powers obey reason […] this does not impose any necessity on the free-will, and man is able, by his reason, to act counter to the inclination of the heavenly bodies.

So that

if one were to apply the observation of the stars in order to foreknow those future things that are caused by heavenly bodies, for instance, drought or rain and so forth, it will be neither an unlawful nor a superstitious divination.

Commenting on these texts of Aquinas, Hannam concludes that “as far as the Church was concerned, the science of astrology was acceptable when it was restricted to studying the natural effects that the stars have on earth” [Genesis of Science, 118]. Even when the sky and the stars are secularized, they still holds sway over visible things on the earth.

Following in the wake of Aquinas, is thus not surprising that, for Shakespeare’s time (as Sondheim makes clear), there “were many who admitted only the astrologia naturalis and rejected the astrologia judicialis.” [246] Shakespeare has his characters saying many contradictory things, so that for finding his own thoughts, the Sonnets are helpful, such as Sonnet XV:

When I consider everything that grows / Holds in perfection but a little moment, / That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows / Whereon the stars in secret influence comment; / When I perceive that men as plants increase, / Cheer’d and check’d even by the self-same sky [248]

Thus, Shakespeare himself seems to have fallen on one side of these distinctions, seems to have “accepted the doctrine of astrologia naturalis” but not to have “adhere[d] to the belief in any influence of the stars on the destiny of individuals, of nations, or of their rulers” [258], distinctions that are not perceptible or even conceivable in the world of the Iliad, where even the gods are carnal, albeit with seemingly total carnal fluidity, to the point of being at one scene no more than something like wind. Unlike the attitudes in Homer’s world, in Shakespeare, Cassius’ and Brutus’ submission to Caesar is in their control, Cassius is saying, and is not the result of an inescapable cosmic power. The stars hold sway over growth, and perhaps even the promptings of the will, but the wise can overcome both, and choose their own destiny. The earth is a mirror of the skies, but not perfectly.

III

Again: this is not how things are in the Iliad. The mirroring there is much stronger. What occurs on earth is the manifestation of decisions or events that have occurred or are occurring in the heavens — that is, above the sky, on Mount Olympus, the axis of the world.

Map of the world of the poet Homer -- note that Mount Olympus is at the center of the earth, the axis of the world.

Map of the world of the poet Homer — note that Mount Olympus is at the center or axis of the world.

Wars, appetites, terrible events, any eventuality at all — these are not only from the gods, but are appearances of the gods. So the mutual desire between Paris (“Alexander” in the Greek) and Helen, or the rage of Achilles, or the foolish honor-mongering of Pandarus, &c. — these are all the works of the gods, and though men may be blamed for their alloformity with the promptings of these gods and goddesses, the appetites and events are beyond the initiative or control of men and women. Indeed, fighting the gods can quickly destroy a person, even when the goddess is Aphrodite, and she prompts lust [III.383 ff., Fagles,141-142]. (It is difficult for us moderns, who wish to ask whether the appetites or events are the effect of either divine agency or human, to understand the Homeric picture of divine activity: the events and appetites in question are not clearly external from either divine or human agency.) Responsibility for the Trojan War is ultimately placed with the gods, not on the human agents who are the vehicles by which the gods bring things about. Paris (“Paris who caused our long hard campaign”, the oral formula used twice between VII.350 and VII.400) is blamed, but only after blame is placed with the gods (so Priam to Helen: “I don’t blame you. I hold the gods to blame. They are the ones who brought this war upon me”, III.162 ff. [Fagles, 134]). The Iliad’s scenes on Olympus vindicate these words. The gods, the stars, and the fates, are similar in being “above” human life, and determining it. In Homer, not only are the stars portents sent from the gods, the stars can be the form of a god’s descent:

Down the goddess [Athena] swept from Olympus’ craggy peaks
and dove like a star the son of Cronus flings,
Cronus with all his turning, twisting ways —
a sign to men at sea or a massive army marching,
blazing on with a stream of sparks showering in its wake.
Like a shooting star Athena flashed across the earth,
plunging down in the midst of both camped forces.
[Iliad, IV.75-78 (lines 85-92 of Fagles’ transl., p.148)]
.

These god-sent portents signal the imminence of a terrestrial event originating in some sky-based origin. The origin may be eminently mutable in many senses, as are the “deathless gods” of Homer [Iliad, IX.496 ff.], or it may be archetypally immutable, as in the later Greek and Christian writers (the stars and Unmoved Mover of Aristotle &c, the stars and God of Philo and both the Late Antique and Mediaeval Christian writers), but whether primal causes or signs-as-portents, what manifests on earth originates “up there”. (So with the sign of the Chi-Rho that Eusebius of Caesarea reports Constantine the Great to have seen in the sky before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge in October of A.D. 312: “In hoc signo vinces“: “In this sign, you shall conquer”.)

Not only are there few today who would resonate with these statements about astral powers and their influence, there are a rapidly shrinking number who would even find them intelligible. We have stars? –and they are allegedly to blame for our fate, for the circumstances we find ourselves in? We do not see what those of the past saw. When we think of stars, we think of science fiction — Star Wars and Star Trek. Shakespeare does not explain his line in Julius Caesar, though his works are, in general, filled with expositions of various positions on astrology. The reason he does not take the time to explain them in Julius Caesar? –because he shares some more mainstream cultural features with his audience that he does not with us.

IV

The general shape of what was shared is easy to outline, though we need to, as we can no longer share C. S. Lewis’ mid-twentieth century Oxbridge optimism that the “architecture of the Ptolemaic universe is now […] generally known” [C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 96]. Ptolemy 1Lewis is referring to the model of Ptolemy (circa A.D. 90–168), who wrote his famous Almagest. Ptolemy developed the cosmology of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), who “conceive[d] the universe to be built layer upon layer over a spherical Earth” [John North, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 82]. The cosmology of Aristotle, Ptolemy and the late Mediaeval period are massively different in some important respects from that of the Iliad, but the similarities in terms of mirroring or of a celestial origin for earthly events are sufficient for us to play a bit cavalier with our sources. At any rate, in order to parse out what Shakespeare and some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have found objectionable in the idea of astral influences, it is important to lay out, in brief, what was simply assumed.

Lewis is useful for this aim. He puts it briefly:

The central (and spherical) Earth is surrounded by a series of hollow and transparent globes, one above the other, and each of course larger than the one below. These are the ‘spheres’, ‘heavens’, or (sometimes) ‘elements’. Fixed in each of the first seven spheres is one luminous body. Starting  from Earth, the order is the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; the ‘seven planets’. Beyond the sphere of Saturn is the Stellatum, to which belong all those stars that we still call ‘fixed’ because their positions relative to one another are, unlike those of the planets, invariable. Beyond the Stellatum there is a sphere called the First Movable or Primum Mobile. This, since it carries no luminous body, gives no evidence of itself to our senses; its existence was inferred to account for the motions of all the others.
[Lewis, Discarded Image, 96]
.

There is literally no “place” beyond the First Movable [Lewis, Discarded Image, 96, 97]. So Lewis: “The end of space is the end of spatiality. The light beyond the material universe is intellectual light.” [97] As David Bentley Hart notes,

As for how a “place” beyond the heavens was to be conceived, there was some ambiguity. Aristotle thought of whatever reality lay beyond the stars as pure form and pure actuality, existing in neither any kind of space nor any kind of time (for space and time exist only where there is some unrealized potential for movement or change, some deficit of actuality, and for him the Prime Mover was absolutely actual and complete); but he also, in his Physics, could speak of the Unmoved Mover as somehow located outside or at the circumference of the heavens. [David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 51]

Before Aristotle, the world was already thought of as bounded. In Homer, the sky is thought of as a metallic bowl that, if one were tall enough, one might bump one’s head on:

And so they fought and the iron din went rising up
to the bronze sky through the barren breathless air.
[Iliad, XVII.424-425 (lines 491-492 of Fagles’ transl., p.456)]
[Compare Fagles’ “bronze [‘χάλκεον’] sky” with the “iron [‘σιδήρεον’] heavens” of Odyssey XV.329 (line 363 of Lombardo’s transl., p.232)]
.
as Strife (Eris), Battle’s (Ares’) sister, is reported to do when she grows fully
.
Strife, only a slight thing when she first rears her head
but her head soon hits the sky as she strides across the earth.
[Iliad, IV.440-443 (lines 513-514 of Fagles’ transl., p.160)]
.

Nor are the Presocratics much different. Parmenides has being, what is, as spherical and bounded:

Therefore it is right that what is should not be imperfect; for it is not deficient — if it were it would be deficient in everything. The same thing is there to be thought and is why there is thought. For you will not find thinking without what is […] For there neither is nor will be anything else besides what is, since Fate fettered it to be whole and changeless. […] But since there is a furthest limit, it is perfected, like the bulk of a ball well-rounded on every side, equally balanced in every direction from the centre. […] being equal to itself on every side, it lies uniformly within its limits. [G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, Second Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 252-253.]

As with the early Greek cosmology from Homer to Aristotle, so too the Mediaeval cosmology is, overwhelmingly, bounded. Within the limit of the outermost heaven, the various concentric spheres “transmit (to the Earth) what are called Influences — the subject matter of Astrology.” Astrology could be what we might wish to call “natural” astrology, “the theory that the planets had an effect on events and on psychology, and, much more, on plants and minerals” [Lewis, Discarded Image, 103], or it could be something more. These influences only direct upon the spheres below and within them, and work only indirectly upon us, through the other spheres as intermediaries — in our case, the upper spheres’ activity affects us “by first modifying the air” of the sub-lunar sphere [Lewis, Discarded Image, 110]. Astronomy and Astrology are here intimately linked, “[f]or if astronomy is the study of the movements of the heavenly bodies, then astrology is the study of the effects of those movements.” [Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1991), 337]

Of course, these planets were gods in pre-Christian times, and were still understood to hold sway over many things in Christian times. (If I am sliding over important differences between the Homeric, Classical, Medieval, and early Modern, I suggest that these differences are not so relevant for this general belief about the earth mirroring the heavens.) They were not prayed to or sacrificed to, perhaps, but St. Albert the Great (circa A.D. 1200–1280), one of Aquinas’ teachers, found it permissible for one to bury in one’s field a plate inscribed with the symbol of a planet thought to hold sway over agriculture [Lewis, Discarded Image, 104].

V

The world of 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. reflect similar beliefs at both the educated and the popular level. Already in the Hebrew Bible, the stars are likened to the angels, “the sons of God” (so Job 38:4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation […] while the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”). It seems to be taken for granted that the stars at least appear to many to hold sway as gods, for in Deuteronomy 4:19, there is worry that they will be worshiped. Things are similar in the New Testament, whether the stars are angelic, guiding the Magi in the Matthean prologue and paralleling the angels’ guidance to the shepherds, or whether the stars are the angels, such as in Revelation 12:4, when the dragon’s tail drags a third of the “stars” from the sky to the earth. In Deuteronomy 32:8, we read that

When Elyon [the High One] gave estates to nations,
     when He split up the sons of man,
He set out the boundaries of peoples,
     by the number of the sundry gods
     [literally, “according to the number of the sons of God”
     in the Qumran text, or “angels of God” in the Septuagint].
[Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 1039]
.

Each nation gets its own god, apparently. This is not an idiosyncratic interpretation of this text: it is supported by nuanced historical-textual study, and is accepted by mainstream scholarship. The basic idea appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. “Daniel’s conception of history”, John Collins writes,

[…] is rooted in a common mythological assumption that whatever happens on earth is a reflection of a celestial archetype. A battle between two earthly powers is a reflection of a battle between their respective gods. This conception is vividly illustrated in Isa 36:18-20 (2 Kgs 18:32-35) in the words attributed to the commander of the Assyrian army: “Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” Behind every nation stands a god who does battle on behalf of his people. The “princes” of Daniel 10 are clearly an adaptation of this idea. [John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 110]

Although significantly different in some important ways, this is not too far from opinions lying on the more intense end of the spectrum of estimations of astrological influences available in Shakespeare’s day. These Greek and Biblical texts share something with the seemingly widespread beliefs of Shakespeare’s world that neither do with ours, standing as we do on this side of the Enlightenment’s interpretation of the Scientific Revolution. While it does not concern the planets per se, the late-second century A.D. Pagan critic Celsus echoed the Biblical writer when he wrote, for example, that

[46] […] each nation follows its traditional customs, whatever kind may happen to be established. This situation seems to have come about not only because it came into the head of different people to think differently and because it is necessary to preserve the established social conventions, but also because it is probable that from the beginning the different parts of the earth were allotted to different [divine] overseers, and are governed in this way by having been divided between certain [47] authorities. In fact, the practices done by each nation are right when they are done in the way that pleases the overseers; and it is impious to abandon the customs that have existed in each locality from the beginning.
[Cited by Origen in his Against Celsus, V.25 (from Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 2000), 46-47]
.

In a very early stage of the Biblical tradition, this view of the world as cut up and apportioned to the gods, the “sons of El Elyon/God Most High”, was rejected. So Psalm 82:

God takes His stand in the divine assembly, / in the midst of the gods He renders judgment. / “How long will you judge dishonestly, / and show favor to the wicked?  / Do justice to the poor and the orphan. Vindicate the lowly and the wretched. Free the poor and the needy, /  from the hand of the wicked save them. / They do not know and do not grasp, / in darkness they walk about. / All the earth’s foundations totter. / As for Me, I had thought: you were gods, / and the sons of the Most High were you all. / Yet indeed like humans you shall die, and like one of the princes, fall.” / Arise, O God, judge the earth,  / for You hold in estate all the nations.” [Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 291-293]

God holds all the nations (Greek: ethnoi, or peoples/tribes/ethnic groups, not modern nation-states). He does not have charge over only one. Against the sentiment that Celsus would later write and the commander of the Assyrian army could display, this Psalm could be taken to mark the transition “from mythology to a monotheistic frame of reference”, as Alter notes [291, fn.1]. (There are, however, still plenty of mythological elements to a scene that occurs in a divine assembly.)

Neither Celsus nor this Psalm are explicitly astrological, but the gods are associated with the stars in both Babylonian and Biblical religion (and, to some degree, in the Homeric world, as we have seen), and the gods hold sway from the sky. This sense that there are powers who oversee us may be muted by the belief that “men at some time are masters of their fates”, but this is only a muting, for (as we saw in Aquinas) Lewis notes that in the Mediaeval model

Celestial bodies affect terrestrial bodies, including those of men. And by affecting our bodies they can, but need not, affect our reason and our will. They can, because our [104] higher faculties certainly receive something (accipiunt) from our lower. They need not, because any alteration of our imaginative power produced in this way generates, not a necessity, but only a propensity, to act thus or thus. The propensity can be resisted; hence the wise man will over-rule the stars. [Lewis, Discarded Image, 103-104]

Sadly, most men, Lewis notes, “are not wise”. This all gives a clear sense to the writings of St. Paul in the first century A.D., when he writes about not being dominated by slavery to “the elements”. (It also gives a clear sense to the idea that “flesh and blood” will not inherit the dominion of God, for it seems that the sphere of “flesh and blood” cannot be astral, celestial.) Note the presence of influence from the stars here is, like in the Aristotelian model, natural. It is not “magical”, nor does it concern omens, as in the Homeric model (and perhaps, to a degree, the Biblical one). Yet in each case, what occurs on earth is, in some sense, a mirror of what occurs in the skies, in the heavens.

Astrology, to us moderns, is not something we take seriously, whether corporate or individual. There are no social customs that hinge upon the constellation of the season (e.g., we do not studiously cultivate the favors of great individuals during certain phases of the Zodiac, as at least the upper-middle elite Romans did in the 4th century A.D.). It is an indulgence we allow in newspaper columns, not as a guide for directing public policy, social life, or individual endeavors. We do not think the stars hold sway over human life, and we do not attribute intelligence to them as the ancients did; we do not think that the stars are encrusted in a crystalline hemisphere (“just like an engraved vessel” [Etymologies III.xxxi.1, 100]) above the flat earth, an that they are the prototype of things that are to occur here, where they are mirrored. Whenever Astrology is mentioned by any modern beyond newspaper horoscopes, it is treated as though it were merely

one example of the acceptance and use of incorrect beliefs. Astrology asserts that objects in space control or influence our lives.

The very modern author goes on:

I can conceive of two physical mechanisms by which stars, planets, and other astronomical bodies might affect us at birth and thereafter: by their gravitational force and by their radiation (meaning their radio waves, heat, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays).

For

the gravitational force from a person standing next to the delivery bed or the gravitational force from the building in which the delivery occurs has more effect on a newborn child than the gravitational force from any of the planets.

Also,

The level of the lights in your delivery room had a much, much greater effect on you than the radiation from the Moon and all the planets combined.
[Neil F. Comins, Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe (New York: Columbia, 2001), 66-67]
 .

Our confusion about what it might mean for the stars to hold sway over our fate is matched by the possibility of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to express skepticism about this system. So Edmund in King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, –often the surfeit of our own behaviour,– we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

[King Lear I.ii.121ff., in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1994), 890]

We do not need to resort to these moral criticisms: we live in a very different cosmology, one in which the assumptions underlying Astrology have been washed away.

VI

The New Testament writers (ignoring questions of dating and authorship) accept a tiered view of the world very much like the concentric spheres of Aristotle, Ptolemy and the late Mediaevals (brushing aside, for the moment, important distinctions such as absolute “up” and “down”, and the question of a flat earth), with the upper layer or layers (the sky or skies/the heaven[s]) determining the lower ones (e.g., the earth), and see us under the press of these powers. So Rudolf Bultmann, in stark terms:

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three-storied structure, with the earth in the centre, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels. […] Even the earth is […] the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his daemons on the other. [Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 1.]

Bultmann notes that “there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world a such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age.” [Bultmann, Kerygma, 3] However, the New Testament writers and the early Christians do refer to it, seeing the advent of Christ as inaugurating a liberation from the power of the stars and the gods, for Christ comes from the highest heaven/sky, and circumvents “the course of this world,” which “follow[s] the prince of the power of the air” [Ephesians 2]. The air is the sphere below the moon in the later Medieval writers, as we saw above from Lewis; it is not clear as to whether “the air” also marks the space below the moon in St. Paul or whether such an idea is on display in the ca.-2nd-century Ascension of Isaiah, [19.9-10]:

[9] And we ascended to the firmament, I and he, and there I saw Sammael and his hosts, and a great struggle was taking place against him, and the angels [..] of Satan were envious of one another. [10] And as it is above, so is it also on the earth, for the likeness of that which is in the firmament is also on the earth. [New Testament Apocrypha: Volume Two, Revised Edition, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher  (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 612]

It is likely that St. Paul, the Pauline writers and the Ascension of Isaiah do not identify the multiple heavens with the planets (see chapters two and three of Adela Yarbro Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Boston: Brill, 2000) ), although, as Collins makes clear, the tiered heavens are often related to the seven planets, and angels can replace the planetary gods in this literature, so that in 2 Enoch there are seven angels who rule over heaven and earth, and in Revelation 3 there is mentioned the one who has “the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Writing about 1 and 2 Enoch, and Revelation, Collins notes that “In those cases where there is any indication of the background for these seven [archangels], it seems to be the Hellenistic idea of the seven planets.” Cosmology and Eschatology, 114). Regardless of the details of the cosmology, the model of Christian life is clear in St. Paul: Christians, by receiving the Celestial/Heavenly Spirit from the highest regions, or even beyond all the regions altogether, are freed from slavery to the “elements of the world” [Galatians] and to “height and depth” [Romans 8]. “Height” here refers to the “apogee of the planets, the highest point in the heavens reached by the heavenly body”; “depth” here refers to the “space below the horizon from which the stars arise” [Dunn, 106-107], similar to the gates for the Sun at the base of the horizon in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. The heavenly/celestial woman clothed with the sun and moon and with a crown of twelve stars in Revelation has, as her earthly counterpart, the Church. Likewise Christ, the Lord of the Church, has seven stars in his right hand in Revelation 1, which may either be the stars of the constellation of the “Little Bear which appears at the pole of heaven and which seems to control the motion of the universe” or “the seven planets as a symbol of world dominion” (Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology, 106). (Again: the various authors’ belief in either the roundness or flatness of the earth is here irrelevant for the cosmology of mirroring.)

There is something as socially iconoclastic as there is astral in this (and there is something astral in the destination: St. Paul will even write about the “tent prepared for us in the skies/heavens” [2 Corinthians 5], because “our citizenship is in the heavens, from which we also await a savior, Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body so as to become of the same form as his glorious body” [Philippians 3:20-21]; in a similar way, one later New Testament author –St. Luke– will write about the ascension of Jesus (the tacked-on later ending to St. Mark and the minor elements in the other Gospels are not nearly as concrete as Luke). Later writers assert about the future “Day of the Lord” that “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat” [2 Peter 3], which would sound like a misanthropic fantasy if the above tiered and Ptolemaic models are not kept in mind, and the idea that enslaving and tyrannical intermediaries between the High God and humanity will finally be removed for all (and not just anticipated and inaugurated in the Church), so that “a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells” can be established. Righteousness: rectitude, set-straight-ness, justice, fidelity.

Christianity is thus a political and cosmic freedom, almost anarchy in a certain sense, though freedom has a certain shape for Paul: love, care, virtue. Not laws or moralism, but spirit, and the cultivation of spirit by the cultivation of its heavenly form, the constancy of its astral freedom, inaugurated in Christ and brought to the Church by the Spirit. Spirit brings freedom, and, unlike those under the boot of “the powers of the air” and of any other cosmic intermediary, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” [Galatians 5:1]. “For freedom”: freedom, not merely freedom-as-a-condition, but “to bring us into the realm of freedom” [J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 447]. Freedom is unfettered by any slavery or dominion, save the dominion of freedom, with spirit, the Spirit that is from beyond the influence of the elements and the spheres, the freedom flowing from this Spirit being known by certain “fruits”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” [Galatians 5:22-23].

There are clear prefigurations of this kind of thinking in the Hebrew Bible, in the image of the righteous “shining like stars” in Daniel 12. Moving around chronologically, there are similar themes among the Platonists and Gnostics. The imitation of this sort of divine liberating activity lies behind Christian charity to the poor, and is why the mid-fifth century inscription above the tomb of the bishop St. Hilary of Arles contains both “he left the husk of his flesh to fly up to the stars” and “he bought up heaven with earthly gifts”, because of the role of assimilation to divine and supra-astral freedom and beneficence that this bishop’s charity was taken to betoken [Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 84].

Nor is this simply an odd cultural feature in the background of St. Paul: as already noted, it features prominently in the later New Testament teaching concerning the ascension of Christ. (I am myself an Orthodox Christian, so I mean no offense or impiety by this.) It also figures prominently in the ideas, common to pre-Christian Judaism and the earliest forms of Christianity, that Christian worship is a participation in the worship of angels, and so, an ascent to heaven, and a descent from heaven to earth. This affects how the hymns used in the liturgy are thought of: they originate in the worship held by the angels, the stars (so in the book of Revelation).

VII

In Byzantium, the legends surrounding the saints also reflects this cosmology. In the Prologue of Ochrid, an Orthodox Christian compendium including the lives of the saints commemorated for each day and homilies for the corresponding daily scripture readings, this is on display. The reading for November 20th includes the life of one Saint Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople. The official entry for St. Proclus in the Prologue has him witness several events. One of which goes thus. After a great earthquake in Constantinople and the countryside, “many of the largest and most beautiful buildings were destroyed”, so there was a procession to God with supplication:

As they were praying to God, a child was miraculously lifted high in the air, until he was out of sight. Then he returned and was lowered gently to the ground. Asked where he had been, the child replied that he had been lifted up to heaven among the angels and that he had heard the angels sing: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!” Upon hearing this, all the people in the procession began to sing it and the earthquake ceased immediately. From that time on, this beautiful hymn was adopted by the Church. The child soon reposed, and was interred in the Church of St. Irene.
[Prologue of Ochrid, Vol.1, Nikolai Velimirović, transl. T. Timothy Tepsić, ed. Janko Trbović (Alhambra, CA: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), 565]
.
The Dormition, the Byzantine equivalent of the Western Feast of the Assumption of Mary, has similar hymns during the lamentations:
.
On up-borne clouds, O Virgin,
again we go before you
unto the gates of Heaven.
.
The Eastern icons of the Ascension of Christ also have similar imagery drawn from this pre-Copernican model of the cosmos. The Western Church also has this embedded within its iconography, particularly the iconography from the Gothic period onwards,
.
[…] in which Jesus was depicted as nothing more than a pair of dangling feet disappearing into the clouds […]
[Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 166]ascension of christ 2
.
Western hymnody, even well after Copernicus and Galileo, occasionally (perhaps rarely) retained this image in the lines of well-known hymns such as
 .
now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia!
where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!
.

The assumption seems to be, in line with what we have seen before, that if primal influence flows from the outermost sphere, and the sub-lunar “powers of the air” [Ephesians 2] act as a thick imprisoning rind around earth, then not only does that rind need to be broken by a higher power, but the good invader who descends to flush out the lines of influence needs to rise up again to the seat of primal influence — he must ascend. (We earlier saw the influence of demons on the world acting to imprison humanity through the medium of the world –even the stars– in Augustine and Aquinas.) By implication, we may feel the liberty to draw the implication that, for this hymn-writer, insofar as we participate in the song of the angels, we receive some transfiguring and liberating influence from that song. As in the heaven, also upon the earth; or, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what we find in the second century A.D. Ascension of Isaiah, where the protagonist is being brought through the seven heavens by his angelic guide:

[7.25] the glory of my countenance was being transformed as I ascended from heaven to heaven [New Testament Apocrypha: Volume Two, 613]

As a result of our contemporary bafflement in the face of this tissue of beliefs, it is important to sketch some of its features over time. It will be important for at least three reasons: showing how the Biblical texts live within an alien world and what is, frankly, an outdated cosmology, clarifying some important elements of the process of Christianization, and showing how radical some of the transitions to modern cosmologies were and are.

This relationship of heavenly (literally, “sky-ly”) archetype to earthly reality can be spelled out in different ways in different places and by different people, but they all share some general features of mirroring that are distinct from the modern understanding. Eventually, I shall start with Sumer and Babylon, and then touch upon some features of the Hebrew Bible and then deal more intensely with the New Testament.

13 thoughts on “Stars Down to Earth

  1. ‘ “depth” refers to the “space below the horizon from which the stars arise” ‘
    You might pair “apogee” with “perigee,” its opposite, or else pair “zenith” with “nadir.”
    I would like to share your apparent optimism that astrology has been relegated to the status of a recreational distraction by 21st century mankind. I know that the be the case among those whose vision readily pierces through superstition. However, I believe also that a substantial fraction of the population uses astrology as a guiding life principle. More’s the pity.

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  2. I like the “zenith-nadir” pair, but the trouble here is that they do not necessarily come from the nadir, but from below the horizon. The nadir would be below ‘Aidou’, Hades (note the “id” root, and the alpha privative, denoting not-seen), namely, Tartarus (_Iliad_, Bk.VIII), which is “as far below the House of Death as the Sky is above the Earth”. (This is another example of mirroring: Hades and Heaven are equal distances from Earth, then Tartarus is another equal distance from Hades.)

    The stars do not come from Tartarus, or Hades.

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