The personal application of astrology came late in the course of civilization. In the beginning the stars were watched solely for the welfare of the community--for the floods, the winter cold and the summer heat. It is true that the life of the king was forecast early, because in primitive societies the good of the leader personified the good of the people, but neither the Babylonians, nor any of their neighbors, the Chaldeans, nor the Assyrians, nor the Persians, ever thought to watch the stars for individual good. The old autocratic governments did not think an individual life of sufficient importance. And in one detail all the stories of soothsayers agreed. The gift of prophecy was not bestowed upon anyone for his own pecuniary benefit. He who tried to make money out of his future lost the power of divination.
Whether that was true or not, it contained a certain allegorical truth. While men were content to read the good of the community in the stars, astrology had all the elements of a genuine science at its birth. But once they commenced to read their own future the power for reasonable inference left them.
At first there was no way to distinguish the two branches of the art. The names "astronomy" and "astrology" were used interchangeably for the science of heavens. The Babylonian priests, content with the power which forecasting gave them, began to note and catalogue hundreds of minute particulars in the heavens, each with its own associations. But gradually as the Greeks skimmed off the most valuable portions, and formulated them into general rules, predictions of the movements among the stars became known as "natural astronomy" whereas "judicial astronomy" studied the effects of the movements upon human destiny.
Prediction in "natural astronomy" achieved a brilliant success, so brilliant that astronomical forecasts are now taken for granted, and the astronomers feel greatly abused if the predicted occurrence does not take place precisely at the time foretold--to the nearest fraction of a second, and in the exact place. The prophecies of no other science can compare with those of astronomy, yet all science has come within range of predictability, so long as its applications are kept general.
It is the business of meteorologists, for all practical purposes, to give weather forecasts. In their own way they are the prophets of our success and failure, particularly when such enterprises as rides, walks and picnics are concerned. Popular opinion consults and damns them daily; but a strict interpretation of their results shows that their batting average is not so low--well up into the eighties, and sometimes into the nineties. The average varies markedly due to the position of the stations. With its present equipment, Denver is exceptionally difficult because of the mountains to the west, but recent experiments from a station observing sunspots in the Andes, go to show that mountains need not be an insurpassable barrier toward this or any other development.
Even with living creatures remarkable forecasts can be made. Migratory birds return with the seasons to their old haunts, and one flight of white-throated swifts has been observed, year after year, at the mission of San Juan de Capistrano in California, arriving on St. Joseph's day, March 19, with astounding punctuality. The birds' augury must be excellent, as it should be.
But this record does not say that any one bird will return year after year, nor that any detailed set of predictions will be uniformly correct. There are too many minute circumstances which may enter into the calculations, too many unprecedented occurrences. Of course a prophet is without honor in his own country.
His own country knows a thousand instances where the particular prediction went wrong--though in general it may hold perfectly good, and other countries be willing to acknowledge it.
Where the human element enters in the difficulties increase a thousand fold. By statistics we may gauge that a certain number of people in a certain given society will commit suicide every year, but until after the act they must remain nameless. Sporting journalists try to forecast the results of games, with a precision that could only be counted indifferent, if not even poor, when compared with the efforts of astronomers. Financial and economic writers also try their luck with forthcoming changes, but they are scrupulously careful to hedge their writings with the same sort of vague phrases, alternatives and conditions that were employed at the oracle of Delphi.
When the astrologers began to interpret for the populace they fell upon evil times. Thales and Pythagoras must have heard of this curious lore among their neighbors, but they fought shy of anything so dubious. With remarkable dexterity they skimmed off all the valuable astronomical observations, and left the rest where it belonged, among the Babylonian priests, who used its mysteries to augment their own power. The Greeks might tell fortunes by flights of birds, by the numerous inspired oracles or by anything else they liked, but the philosophers flatly refused to allow such maltreatment of the accurate and scientific stars. None of the great philosophers even mentioned astrology; the common people did not know it existed, and systems for telling fortunes by the stars stayed out of Greece until the middle of the fourth century B. C., when the followers of Alexander the Great mistook them for something valuable and brought them back with the other spoils of war, By that time the safety of the Greek world was shaking, and people were ready to grasp at any new way to save themselves. Therefore late Greece made much of astrology. Even such able scientists as Ptolemy accepted it. But earlier Greece knew it not at all.