Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/November 1909/Astronomical Superstitions




THE great majority of our superstitions had their birth in attempts to interpret natural phenomena from erroneous ideas which consist of fancies suggested by the imagination. In other words, most superstitions are attempted short cuts to explain phenomena while omitting natural causation. The average man loves superstition, loves the fictitious, both loves and fears the supernatural and is fascinated by the incomprehensible. From the infancy of the human race men have attempted to explain things according to their external appearances, and whatever was strange or vast, especially if it had visible motion, impressed the beholder with the fear of invisible powers. During September, 1908, a score of people called the writer by telephone to ask about a brilliant star that had appeared in the eastern morning sky. They had been informed that it was the star of Bethlehem, which appears only once every 300 years. They generally seemed disappointed when told that it was not the star of Bethlehem, but the planet Venus, which instead of becoming visible only once in 300 years, regularly appears twice in a period of 584 days. On attempting to impart further information it soon became evident that their interest was in the mystery of the star of Bethlehem and not in any facts relating to Venus.

Fashionable society will enthusiastically discuss telepathy, astrology, christian science, psychic force, palmistry, spiritualism, etc., but if one should introduce a subject relating to astronomy or physics, he would be regarded as a pedantic bore. Du Maurier illustrated the indifference of society to science by a drawing in Punch entitled "Science and Music at an Evening Party." The scene was in a large London drawing room. In the foreground was a professor earnestly talking to a gentleman, while at the back of the room all the rest of the company were eagerly crowding around a piano. Chesterfield wrote to his son:

Pocket all your knowledge with your watch and never pull it out in company unless desired; the producing of one unasked, implies that you are weary of the company, and production of the other will make the company weary of you.

While it is true that there is but a small circle of people interested in what is called physical science, yet that science now rules the world and is nearly as despotic as nature herself. Human progress is almost entirely scientific and even our industrial progress is based on applied science.

Even before man essayed to group the stars into constellations he naturally raised the question of the origin, and the manner of the production of the world itself. He then believed it to be flat and immovable, and its seagirt disk supported the sapphire vault above. Gods, men, monsters and heroes familiarly associated and acted their parts, before man had learned to judge by evidence and to place a limit on probability. The sun, the moon and the earth were living beings filled with demons, and sorcery governed belief. Under these conditions there arose no astronomical or geographical difficulties, for where superstition rules evidence becomes useless.

The astronomical ideas of primitive people have been similar the world over. The cosmogony of the Mahometans, as presented in the Koran, is so puerile as to be unworthy of serious consideration. It teaches that the earth is flat and floats in the sea. It is kept in balance by the mountains, and the sky is supported above by a huge dome so perfect that it is impossible to discover a crack in it. Above are the seven heavens, ranged one over the other, the uppermost being the abode of God, which does not rest on the earth, but is supported by winged animals. Meteors are red-hot stones thrown by angels at bad spirits, when they approach too near the seventh heaven. Of the many creation myths, the Jewish story is the one most familiar to us. According to this narrative the universe was miraculously created in six days. The earth is the fixed center enclosed in a great hemisphere called the firmament, which divides the seas above it from those below. More space is devoted to describing the creation of the firmament—now known to be an optical illusion—than to the creation of man himself. The sun, moon and stars were made "to give light upon the earth," and the whole universe was purely anthropocentric, that is, man was the preordained center and aim of all creation. This anthropocentric dogma is closely connected with all three of the great Mediterranean religions, Mosaic, Mohammedan and Christian, hence it has for centuries dominated the beliefs of the greater part of the civilized world.

Many of the most charming legends of Greek and Roman mythology were drawn from astronomical subjects. There is no more beautiful illustration of Roman superstition than that shown in Guido's familiar fresco of "Aurora." Why this picture is called Aurora and not Apollo is difficult to explain. The noble sun god is the most important figure of the picture, and he dominates all the rest. He is surrounded by the light tripping Hours, each a very queen of loveliness. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, leads the throng. From the crown of her beautiful head to the soles of her rosy feet, she is grace incarnate. As she flies she scatters flowers and dew from her hands upon the verdant fields below.

The Roman child was taught that the sun was the actual wheel of Apollo's chariot. In the morning this god arose from the eastern sea driving his four wonderful horses across the heavens; in the evening he descended into the western sea; at night he slept in a golden boat which was borne along the northern edge of the earth to the rising place in the east. The moon was the abode of the lovely goddess Luna, sister of Apollo, who guided its course in the heavens.

Thus mythology explained astronomical phenomena; the sun, moon, planets, clouds, dawn, and night with its black mantle bespangled with stars, became animated things. The sun, when setting in the brilliant evening clouds, then became Hercules in the fiery pile. PSM V75 D475 Ancient theory of the universe.png

While mythology obstructed scientific progress by finding sacred explanations for every natural event, there were a few gifted, inquisitive minds among the Greeks that sought for knowledge behind the painted curtain of superstition. Thales of the sixth century b.c., was the father of Greek astronomy. He taught that the earth is spherical and that the moon receives her light from the sun. Anaxagoras ascribed eclipses of the moon to natural causes and taught the existence of a creative intelligence. He fell a victim to the superstitions of his age. Sentence of death was passed on him and his family, which required all the eloquence of his friend Pericles to commute to banishment.

Pythagoras of the fourth century B.C. was a most assiduous enquirer. He is said to have been the first to propose the system of a globular earth and of planets, revolving around the sun. When the Church condemned the theory of Copernicus the indictment was that it was heathenism and Pythagorean.

Modern astronomy may be said to have arisen in the third century b.c., under the patronage of the first king of the Greek dynasty, at Alexandria, Egypt. Euclid, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy were among the illustrious astronomers of the Alexandrian era. It was in the second century A.D. that Ptolemy published his great work on astronomy called the "Almagest" which during the following fourteen centuries was universally regarded as a kind of astronomical bible.

One of the curious astronomical superstitions that originated with the Chaldeans, and which persisted almost to our own times, was that of the crystalline spheres. The idea of a spherical universe was a very natural one. It was difficult to see how thousands of bodies could revolve around the earth for generations, without change in their relative positions, unless there was something to retain them in their places. It was believed that the planets and stars were set in a series of concentric orbs or spheres, each so perfectly transparent that bodies in the outer ones were visible through all the intervening ones. The drawing shows the order of the spheres and the system of the universe according to Ptolemy. The earth is in the center enclosed by the sphere of the moon, beyond are the concentric spheres of Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Outside of all are the crystalline heavens and the abode of the blessed.

The revolution of the spheres was supposed to produce the most exquisite music which filled all celestial space, but such was its refined quality that it was inaudible to mortal ears. One of the most sublime passages of Shakespeare describes this music:

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
There is not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims:
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But while this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we can not hear it.

The following parallel lines are from Milton's "Arcades":

In deep of night when drowsiness
Hath lock'd up mortal sense, then listen I
To the celestial Sirens harmony,
That sits upon the nine infolded spheres.
Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie,
To lull the daughter of Necessity
And keep unsteady Nature to her law,
And the low world in measured motion draw
After the heavenly tune which none can hear
Of human mould, with gross unpurged ear.

Astronomy has always been the favorite science of the poets. The frame-work of Dante's "Paradise" is constructed on the Ptolemaic system. His ten heavens are arranged in the exact order of those shown in the drawing. The crystal orbs are rotated by angels. He says:

The virtue and motion of the sacred orbs,
As mallet by the workman's hand must needs
By blessed movers be inspired.

It may be said that during the Christian era, up to the thirteenth century in which Dante lived, there had been no progress in scientific knowledge. He still held to the four elements of the Greeks:

Thou sayest, the air, the fire I see,
The earth and water, and all things of them
Compounded, to corruption turn and soon

Although Shakespeare was not born until twenty years after the death of Copernicus, all allusions made by him to the heavens are either astrological or Ptolemaic.

The tendency of a superstition to persist even after closely allied phenomena have been explained on a purely natural basis, is illustrated in the belief that planetary motion was due to "blessed movers." Although Copernicus discovered that the planets revolve around the sun instead of the earth, he still believed that their motion was controlled by guiding spirits. Galileo conclusively confirmed the correctness of the heliocentric theory, but faith in the supernatural motion of the planets was undisturbed. Not until the genius of Newton had discovered and formulated the law of universal gravitation and provided a mathematical foundation for Kepler's laws, were these conducting spirits dismissed. It required the discoveries of three men of genius and two centuries of time to overthrow the foolish superstition of mediocre man.

From the end of the fourth to the beginning of the fifteenth century superstition had given to society a form that prevented the man of genius from being heard. Buckle says that from the sixth to the tenth century there were not in all Europe more than three men who dared to think for themselves, and through fear of punishment even they were obliged to veil their meaning in mystical language. The remaining part of society was sunk in degrading ignorance. Progress became possible only when science essayed to explain observed phenomena by depending on natural causation.

For ages the superstitions of astrology ruled the world by the terror that they inspired. The figure of a man, with entrails exposed, in the front of the family almanac is a survival of Egyptian astrology. Around the figure are the twelve signs of the zodiac with lines extending to the parts of the body supposed to be influenced by the celestial signs. Aries the head, Leo the heart, Capricornus the knees, Pisces the feet, etc. Faith in the influence of the signs of the zodiac remained unshaken in spite of knowledge that the inconstant stars were shifting from one sign to another by the precession of the equinoxes. When the pyramids were built, what is now known as the pole star was so far from the celestial pole that the Egyptians saw it rise and set in the Mediterranean. The Southern Cross was then visible not only in northern Egypt but throughout Europe as far north as London.

Coincidences have ever been mistaken for causes. Owing to the unparalled brilliancy of the Dog Star, astrologists assigned to it powerful influences, and because it rose just before the sun, at the season when the Nile overflowed, it was supposed to be the mystic cause of the inundation. They gave it the name of Sirius, from the river Nile, which was called Siris in their hieroglyphics. They also called it the Dog Star because, like a faithful watch-dog, it warned them of the approaching overflow, and they waited for its appearance with deep solicitude, for on the overflow of the river depended agricultural prosperity or blighting drought. They computed the length of the year from the heliacal rising of the Dog Star and this is still known as the Canicular year. The Romans were equally solicitous and were accustomed to sacrifice a dog to Sirius, to render his influence beneficent to agriculture. Virgil says:

Parched was the grass, and blighted was the corn:
Nor 'scaped the beasts; for Sirius from on high,
With pestilential heat infects the sky.

The time of the year when the Dog Star rose with the sun and appeared to combine its influence with the solar heat they gave the name "dog days" (dies canicularis) which began August 4 and ended September 14. Owing to the displacement of the constellations by precession, the time of the heliacal rising of the Dog Star is continually accelerated, hence modern dog days have no connection with this star, and furthermore, recent study of rabies proves that more dogs go mad in winter or early spring than in summer time.

A favorite prediction of astrologers was of cataclysms that would destroy all mankind. Such a catastrophe was foretold to occur in 1186, and a universal deluge was predicted for the year 1542. In the latter year there was to be a conjunction of three planets in the watery sign of the "Fishes." The prophecy was generally believed and the terror was wide-spread. A Noah's ark was built at Toulouse, but the year was distinguished for its drought.

Ridicule is sometimes more efficacious than argument in overthrowing false theories. A skit by Dean Swift discredited astrology, in England, more than all the evidence of science. Swift published a satirical pamphlet under the title of "Predictions for the Year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.," in which he predicted the death of a well-known astrologer and almanac maker by the name of Partridge. He claimed to have consulted the stars and calculated the exact hour of the astrologer's demise. This was followed by a letter to a man of rank, giving complete particulars of Partridge's death on the day and almost at the very hour foretold. The angry astrologer denounced the pamphleteer, employed a literary friend to write up proofs of his existence and published his almanac for the year 1709. Swift answered all of the arguments, claiming that the denial of death was spurious, and that the deceased was a gentleman who would never have used the abusive language employed; as for the almanac, everybody knew that almanacs were frequently published under the names of people who had long been dead.

An adequate account of the superstitions of astrology would make a volume, and it would be easy to compile a list of one hundred lunar superstitions that still govern the actions of the uninformed. For example, the new moon if first seen over the right shoulder will bring good luck. If seen over the left shoulder, bad luck. Meat killed when the moon is waning shrinks in the pot. Whatever grows above ground must be planted when the moon is waxing. Whatever grows underground must be planted when the moon is waning. One of the commonest lunar superstitions is that the changes of the moon, at the quarter, affect the weather, and many of our almanacs still publish so-called "Herschel's weather tables," for foretelling changes of the weather, not only throughout all the lunations of the year, but for all future time. We are assured by the almanac makers that the tables are the result of careful consideration of the attractions of the sun and the moon "and so near the truth as to seldom or never fail." Belief in the moon's influence over terrestrial conditions is a mild lunacy by no means wholly confined to the ignorant. A tabulated meteorological record, kept at Greenwich running back for forty years, shows that there are no constant relations between the moon's columns and those recording the readings of the instruments. In other words, lunar meteorological influences are almost inappreciable. Idle fancies are still cherished that the mind and body are affected by the light of the moon, that the rays sometimes produce blindness by shining on the sleeper's eyes, and that death occurs at the time of the changes of tide.

When Copernicus published his work on the "Revolutions of the Heavenly bodies," in 1543, he was already on his deathbed. A few men of learning read it, the doctors of the church rejected it, and it received but little attention until the time of Bruno, Galileo and Kepler, half a century later. During the previous thirteen hundred years the astronomical system of Ptolemy had been regarded with superstitious reverence. It was natural that a geocentric and anthropocentric universe should be drawn, because these errors were conducive to man's interests, pleasing to his extreme egotism, and resulted in the apotheosis of himself. The anthropocentric dogma culminated in the belief that man was the preordained center and aim of all creation, while the new heliocentric mechanism of the planetary system relegated both the earth and man to subordinate positions.

In 1610 Galileo ascended the tall campanile of St. Mark's, in Venice, and with his newly devised telescope showed the assembled noblemen and senators that Venus was a crescent, Jupiter the center of a miniature Copernican system, the moon had tall mountains casting dark shadows across her surface, that the star cluster of the Pleiades contained not seven stars but thirty-six and that the milky way was powdered with stars. In reward for his discoveries the Venetian Senate doubled his salary of professor at Padua, and secured that position to him for life. He was made philosopher extraordinary to the grand duke of Tuscany, and the next year visited Rome, where he exhibited the wonders of the heavens to the eminent personages of the Pope's court.

But war on Galileo soon flamed forth. The spiritual authorities saw that established dogmas were endangered. He was accused of heresy and atheism. The story of his summons before the inquisition, his trial, conviction and suffering, has been told too often to be repeated here. The triumph of superstition over his astronomical discoveries was for the time complete. This great genius lived to see his works expelled from all the universities of Europe, their publication prohibited, and he knew that he was doomed to face all posterity as one who had committed perjury to escape torture.

Sixteen years previous to Galileo's first summons to Rome, poor Giordano Bruno was burned in that city. In his wanderings to escape persecution Bruno had visited England and while there published his exposition of the Copernican system. Prudence frequently obliged him to change his place of residence and it is not strange that he finally drifted to Venice. Here greater religious liberty was permitted than in other Italian cities, and here the stake had never been erected. It was at the Palazzo Mocenigo, on the Grand Canal, that emissaries of the inquisition finally ran him to earth. The first indictment of the inquisition charged him with teaching that there were innumerable worlds. He was burned to death in the Piazzo Campo di Fiore in the year 1600. Galileo's greatest contemporary was Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion which paved the way to the greater discoveries of Newton. Kepler was abused, imprisoned and warned that he must bring his theories into harmony with the scriptures. Astronomy was then so poorly patronized that to increase his meager income he was obliged to pay homage to the astrological superstitions of Rudolph II. and Wallenstein.

One of Kepler's most terrible experiences arose from the prevailing superstition of sorcery. His aunt and his mother were charged with being witches and sentenced to be burned alive. Through Kepler's indefatigable efforts, and the influence of powerful friends, his mother was saved, but the suffering which she endured during more than a year's imprisonment resulted in her death a few months later. Kepler's aunt was burned at the stake.

The writings of all ages up to the eighteenth century show that comets were believed to be dire messengers of woe. Stars and meteors were generally thought to foretell happy events, especially the birth of heroes and great rulers. Eclipses expressed the distress of nature over terrestrial calamities, while comets portended greater woes than all the other celestial signs combined. Those who did not recognize them as warnings from God were stigmatized as atheists and Epicureans. John Knox believed them to be tokens of the wrath of heaven, others saw in them warnings to the king to extirpate the Papists. Luther declared them to be the work of the devil and called them harlot stars. Milton says that the comet "from its horrid hair shakes pestilence and war." Whole nations from the king down to the lowest peasant were frequently plunged into the direst alarm by the appearance of these messengers of misery. The comet that appeared the year after the assassination of Cæsar was supposed to be his metamorphosed soul armed with fire and vengeance. It is said that the comet of 1556 had a powerful influence in causing the Emperor Charles V. to abdicate and retire to the monastery of San Yuste. Queen Elizabeth, in 1580, issued an order of prayers to avert God's wrath, and referred to comets, eclipses and heavy falls of snow as evidences of His great displeasure. The periodic comet known as Halley's probably caused more consternation than any other within historic times. One of its early appearances was the year of the Norman Conquest and it was supposed to presage the defeat of the Saxons and the death of Harold. At the South Kensington Museum is a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry on which may be seen the comet of 1066. Its return in 1456 spread a wider terror than was ever known before. The belief was general that the judgment day was at hand. People gave up all hope and prepared for their doom. Again in 1607 it alarmed the world by its appearance and the churches filled with terror-stricken multitudes. Kepler, who was then imperial astronomer at Prague, quietly traced its course and discovered that it was outside of the moon's orbit. Tycho had made the same observation respecting a bright comet that appeared thirty years earlier. The announcement of Kepler's discovery caused a great outcry because it attacked the very foundations of the cometary superstitions. It also assailed the dogma of the crystalline spheres, because the motion of a superlunar comet would send it crashing through the spheres. It was hard for superstitious man to give up the "signs of the heavens" that had so long misguided him. As late as the latter part of the seventeenth century a book was published by Father De Angelis, of the Clementine College, Rome, in defense of the old cometary faith. He claimed that comets originate in our atmosphere below the moon. Everything heavenly is eternal. We see the beginning and ending of comets, hence they are not heavenly bodies. They are emanations of dry, fatty matter from the air and may be ignited by sparks from heaven or by lightning. Every one knows that they cause war, pestilence and famine. He had observed a comet at Naples which was so close that its tail almost touched Vesuvius, and it would have destroyed Naples but for the blood of the martyr Januarius.

People were so wedded to ancient errors that it required one hundred years of telescopic work to bring the Copernican system out of the realms of hypothesis. For generations the universities taught both the geocentric and the heliocentric systems, leaving the student to decide which was right. During more than a thousand years previous to Galileo's discoveries, superstition and unreason had prevented all human progress. They were the source of untold mischief and suffering and are still man's greatest enemy, while science and reason are his greatest friends. Modern superstitions are often the best comment on ancient astronomical errors.

Newton's astrophysical discoveries placed the solar system on a mechanical basis and dispensed with the planetary guiding angels. Empirical science has since shown that every phenomenon has its mechanical cause, while Darwin's "Descent of Man" has shattered the dogma of anthropocentricism. In the operation of cosmic forces it may now be said that events occur by mechanical necessity regardless of man's interests. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, by the telescopic study of the vast and the microscopic study of the small, a splendid record of accumulated truths was attained. The discoveries of the laws of the indestructibility of force and matter, the unity of nature, the mechanical theory of heat; inorganic and organic evolution and the universality of law, have explained many mysterious phenomena, and forced them out of the darkness of the supernatural to the light of the natural. It has been said that mystery has now been driven from the universe. Belief in the miraculous and the transcendental rests on the assumption that outside and beyond the natural world active forces exist that have no material basis, and of which we can learn nothing by experience, or by any natural means. Such dualistic beliefs are purely idealistic and are evolved from the activity of the brain called emotion. Emotion has nothing to do with the attainment of truth and all doctrines, or opinions, are to be suspected, that are favored by our passions.

Philosophy is the science of which all others are but branches, hence philosophy lies in the province of physical science and not in that of letters. Haeckel says: "All true natural science is philosophy and all true philosophy is natural science." The astronomical errors of the past have arisen from attempts to explain the cosmos out of the inner consciousness, rejecting all scientific methods and substituting faith. While faith may supplement observation in the search for truth, we must not confuse supernatural faith with the natural faith of science. Mark Twain has defined the former as "believing something that you know is not true." The natural faith of science and of practical life is drawn from experience. Kant, Hume, Huxley and Haeckel agree that all knowledge of the reality of phenomena is limited to that revealed to us by experience. Belief must rest on evidence. That belief which is not founded on evidence is both illogical and immoral.