Much more important than the retrograde motion of a planet was its longitude

Even the favorite citation in favor of Bacon, astronomical though it appears at first sight, can hardly overcome this criticism. The passage occurs in Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene iii, where Sir Andrew Ague-check says to the clown:

"In sooth, thou wast in very gracious fooling last night when thou spokest of Pigrogromitus, of the Vapians, passing the Equinoctial of Queubus."

Gracious fooling it may have been, and in sooth Francis Bacon may have understood it, since he claimed all knowledge to be his province; but certainly the sentence makes no sense as it stands, and with the exception of "Equinoctial" no capitalized word in it appears in any available dictionary.

About forty years ago some ingenious person wrote a letter to a London paper (the Athenaeum, I believe) claiming an anagram for "Pigrogromitus of the Vapians" which deciphered read, "I am of the Pig," (certainly a plausible description of Bacon, though it might equally well refer to the brother of Shem and Japeth) and then with a sudden shift to Latin in the next phrase, "Sus parit Nov. Org."--"Pig prepares Novum Organum", Bacon's greatest work.

Even this ingenuity with its unknown astronomical reference can hardly be set up against the poor astronomy found in Shakespeare, and anagrams must be ruled out until some better explanation is found, when of course they again become of importance.

Much more important than the retrograde motion of a planet was its longitude, the distance measured along the ecliptic following the order of signs. Latitude--the distance north and south of the ecliptic--was almost completely ignored. A great deal of genuine scientific observation and calculation was expended in determining the positions of the planets and their aspects. Apian who went through his prodigious labors almost entirely for the sake of astrology, defines aspects thus:

"An aspect is the certain distance apart of the wandering stars of the zodiac; according to which we consider effects at one time healthy, at another unhealthy. The aspect of good prophesies safety and the aspect of evil threatens destruction of things.

"The aspects are four in number, sextile, trine, quadrant and diametric."

Two planets are in sextile when they are 60- apart, in quadrature at 90°, in trine at 120° and in diametric (or opposition) at 180°. At conjunction they have the same longitude, but not necessarily the same latitude.

"Conjunction is the coming together of two or more stars in the same sign, degree and minute, and this must be accepted according to the longitude of the zodiac. For if they come together in latitude at the same time, so that the diameter of one could be put directly above or below that of the other, then the conjunction of this kind would be observed emphatically as of more importance than the others, for beyond doubt it is of much greater efficiency.

"Both kinds of conjunctions are properly called conjunctions in birthdays studied for nativities, judgments and directions, whichever are being considered.

"Some, and principally those who analyse the state of the weather, phenomena of the globes, consider conjunctions by far the least important."

Aspects were needed for casting horoscopes, therefore each planet was allowed considerable range; that is, the distances between two planets did not have to be precise, but must be within certain apparently arbitrary measurements which differed for the various planets. Venus and Mercury were allowed a range of seven degrees, the other planets eight degrees or nine degrees, the Moon twelve degrees and the Sun fifteen degrees.

The various aspects ranged also in their effects. More harmony of effects was found in trine and sextile than in quadrature and opposition. Particular attention was paid to the conjunctions of the three outer planets. Said Apian:

" Ptolemy testifies that the planets are the agents of the births and deaths of men and too of the Earth, that the planets which go, now to, now fro, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, at times far from and at times near to, the ecliptic, give the most diverse effects to affairs beneath them and form the causes of birth and destruction.

"He teaches that the phenomena and paths of the three outer planets are most to be observed, as they have the greatest effects on affairs, such as the diversion and changes of reigns, religions, wars, powers, etc.

"So, using a very profound judgment, he warns astrologers to observe this feature and that not casually, in his fiftieth chapter saying:

"'Do not omit one hundred nineteen conjunctions, for in them is placed a knowledge of those which are in the world and of births and deaths.'"

The great conjunctions were graded as "median" when the conjunction was between Saturn and Mars, "lesser" between Mars and Jupiter, "greater" for Jupiter and Saturn, and "greatest" when all three outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, came together at the same time. A "greatest" conjunction occurred in 7 B. C. and may be the star of which the wise men spoke when they came before Herod, "Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Unfortunately the wise men (belonging as they did to the old caste of Persian Magi) had been taught by generations of soothsayers to utter every statement ambiguously, and they did not state clearly whether the star was shining in the east, or whether they saw it while they were still in the east before they came west to Jerusalem. "Lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." No planet, conjunction of planets, or even any self-respecting star could stand still, patiently waiting while the Magi journeyed. But the Magi may have meant that the star traveled faster than they, and arrived at Bethlehem before them so that they saw it (as an old legend tells) reflected in the waters of a well when they entered the town. In that case the "greatest" conjunction may furnish an explanation. In the early morning of June 7, 7 B. C., Saturn and Jupiter were in conjunction with Mars not very far away. If this event was the signal which started the Magi on their journey, and if they took one hundred days to travel the distance of about a thousand miles from Persia to Jerusalem, they would then have arrived in time to see the second conjunction. On September 18 the planets were together throughout the night. For a short while the Magi could have seen them due south of Jerusalem, pointing the way to Bethlehem of Judaea. The third conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter occurred on December 15, when the planets were evening stars, low in the west.

Of course the star may have been a nova or even a comet. The Chinese chronicles record the appearance of both in 4 B. C., and no less a comet than Halley's had appeared only a few years before. But any such celestial body would have had to behave in a very strange manner indeed if it were to fulfill all the conditions. There were plenty of active astronomers living in Alexandria and they made no mention of untoward occurrences about that time.

Altogether the attempted explanations of the star of Bethlehem have so little to go on, and that little was written so long afterward by men not interested in astronomy, that the whole theory sounds rather like the parable which Francis Bacon wrote:

"In the year of our Lord 1432 there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For thirteen days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition, such as was never heard of in this region was made manifest. At the beginning of the fourteenth day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants whose wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unhand in a manner coarse and unheard-of and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings."

Nevertheless it is a curious coincidence that the "greatest" conjunction of planets occurred just before the mention of the most famous star in history.

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