THE Babylonians were really to blame. The Greeks would never have thought of such a thing by themselves, and certainly the Romans, with their common sense and practical minds, must be held guiltless. In the mountains and the valleys surrounding the Euphrates, the idea had its birth, and grew--without help from outside sources--until it flourished like a green bay tree, and overshadowed the Earth with its foliage.
Still the idea was not bad in the beginning; and good things as well as evil were to come of it. The desire to know the future has actuated man in all his days, and the curiosity which leads to prophecy--while it may be fatal to the individual life of an individual cat--has been extremely beneficial to mankind in general.
Who could tell in the earliest days which events were caused by the stars and which were not? No one could doubt that knowledge of the Sun's movements among the constellations gave power to foretell the rise of the river which fertilized the valley, and anticipated the cold of winter. Men thought that only a very little more knowledge was needed before all the good and evil of the community could be read in the heavens, and this desire led them to further consideration of the stars.
While the sequence of cause and effect was still dim, and events which had happened two or three times by accident bore no marked difference from events which happened regularly by natural laws, two kinds of prophecies could be made. The astrologers could keep a written or oral record of occurrences, "for a hundred years now the Tigris has risen when the Sun entered the constellation of the Bull--so whenever the Sun enters the constellation of the Bull, the Tigris will rise." It was not very good logic, as they were to find out to their cost when the Sun moved into other constellations at the spring equinox, and all the star temples were thrown out of bearing. But as a preliminary hypothesis it did well enough, and so forecasting by the stars marked the beginnings of science.
The universal laws, which constituted prediction, were only a series of closer and closer approximations to the truth; without them, science could neither progress, nor be intelligible, even to the scientists. It is like the pattern of featherstitching; there is no straight central line of progress, but by means of the veering threads to one side or the other a central line grows.
There was merit therefore, when the astrologers said that the Sun in Taurus was an omen of well-being, because the river would fertilize the crops. With a little adjustment, the statement remains true. Whenever the Sun crosses the vernal equinox the Tigris will rise from Babylonian times until doomsday. But what if men said (as they so easily might have said in Greece), "There has been a battle during every eclipse of the Sun; very well then-every time there is an eclipse of the Sun there will be a battle?" No biological effect caused by the approach of the Sun and the Moon will make the blood rise to men's heads so that they get up and fight one another.
"Why, you might just as well say," said the Hatter, "that 'I see what I eat' is the same as 'I eat what I see.'"
"You might just as well say," added the dormouse, "that 'I breathe when I sleep' is the same thing as 'I sleep when I breathe.'"
"It is the same thing with you," said the Hatter.
And so it was. But that you see was due to the nature of the dormouse.
The second method of forecasting was worse yet, because it was due to association of ideas, sometimes based on a mere play of words. For example, everyone knew that a child born prematurely was likely to be weak; therefore if the new Moon came earlier than expected, it was not regarded as a mere weakness in astronomical calculations, which would have been the correct interpretation, but as a prognostication of evil. In the same way the constellation Taurus was named because of the bull's known qualities of leadership, and had nothing to do with the other peculiarities of that famous animal. Yet all sorts of superstitions have arisen, among them the notion that cows should be dehorned only when the Moon is in Taurus.
Not long ago a professor of astronomy received a visitation from a calendar maker who wanted to know the exact positions of the Moon. The professor was able to give them without too much difficulty, and then, quite naturally, inquired the purpose. "Well," said the calendar maker, "a farmer came in to see me, complaining that one of his cows had bled to death when dehorned. He was perfectly sure that my calendar must have been wrong, because if the Moon had been in Taurus, everything would have been all right. I rather think he intends to sue me for loss of the cow."