“When the Moon is in the Seventh House…”

… | and Jupiter aligns with Mars. | Then peace will guide the planets | and love will steer the stars.”

What does this opening lyric of “Aquarius” from the musical Hair even mean? Who has seven houses and why is the Moon there? Inspired by this song and a common misconception, today’s post will focus on Astronomy vs. Astrology.

The split between astrology and astronomy can be traced back to a nuance of linguistics. The Greeks were the first to really study the night sky and name the constellations and stars. [Side note: In an interesting turn of events though, most of the Greek astronomical data was lost during the Dark Ages, but was preserved by the Islamic cultures of the Middle East and then rediscovered during the Renaissance; it’s for this reason that so many stars in the sky have names beginning with “Al” the Islamic word for “the” (Altair, Aldebaran, Alcor, etc.).] Oddly enough, the Ancient Greek language has two words for “time”, chronos (the quantitative meaning) and horos (the qualitative meaning). The qualitative horos would be used in “It’s a bad time for a jacket in the summer” where chronos would be used for “It’s time for the javelin!”. You probably recognize chronos as the are root of many modern time-related words like “chronological” and “chronometer”, but you may not realize that the modern word “horoscope” is also time-related in its meaning. With the Greek word horos as its root, “horoscope” basically means the scope of time, or the layout of time, specifically corresponding with the layout of the heavens.

Astrology is based on superstitious (and at times religious) beliefs that the alignment of the stars and planets can influence a person’s life. The twelve constellations of the zodiac (Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn) were selected as special because they lie along the “ecliptic plane” or the line in the sky through which the planets and the Sun travel. Your zodiac sign (mine is Aquarius) is determined by which constellation the Sun happened to be in during the time of your birth; since the Sun doesn’t move through the sky all that fast, each sign is up for about a month. This is all scientific fact; now enter the superstition. Each constellation is broken down into smaller subsections called “houses” and based on the alignment of the stars, planets, and the Sun in your sign (the one under which you were born) and the others, your future can be predicted along with your personality traits and compatibility with others. Strict belief in astrology has pretty much died off with the rapid growth of scientific knowledge and strength of the Roman Catholic church, but you can still find astrological predictions– or “horoscopes”– online or in many magazines. How many people actually believe them though, who knows?

Astronomy, on the other hand, is a modern science which employs the scientific method to seek out new truths about outer space. It’s the study of physics as it applies to the universe, stars, galaxies, nebulae, and other celestial bodies. It even has sub-disciplines such as astrobiology, astrophysics, space physics, and astrogeology. Now, as much as the astronomy-astrology debate may irk modern astronomers, we can’t deny that astrology was one of the main reasons why modern astronomy even exists. Many famous astronomers during the Renaissance were able to fund their scientific astronomical research by selling themselves out as astrologers to nobles. Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei are two huge titans of astronomy who often sold their time to rich noblemen so that they could read their patron’s (surprisingly favorable) horoscope.

So, the next time you pick up a popular magazine and scan through your horoscope, try to take at least a second to understand what they mean. And next time you go out on a clear evening see if you can pick out some of the zodiac constellations to trace out the ecliptic plane. And whatever you do, don’t tell any actual degree-holding astronomer that you want them to read your horoscope. It’s a touchy subject nowadays.

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