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Astrology

Islamic astrological chart of the heavens at the moment of birth of Prince Iskandar, grandson of Tamurlane, in 1394.

Islamic astrological chart of the heavens at the moment of birth of Prince Iskandar, grandson of Tamurlane, in 1394.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The movement of planets, stars, the Moon and the Sun have long been linked to changes in the seasons, the tide and other natural cycles. For thousands of years, astrology has claimed that these planetary bodies also have a bearing on human fortune and the behaviour of the body - including health and illness.

In ancient Egypt astrology was one of many divination techniques used for uncovering the causes of disease. It was also widely used in ancient Greece and Rome. It even forms part of the Ayurvedic medical tradition, in India, where the Virasimhavaloka, written in 1383, provides detailed descriptions of how each part of the body is controlled by different constellations. The Chinese system of astrology uses the movements of the Moon in relation to the planets, rather than the Sun. It also incorporates the system of the five elements used in Chinese medicine: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Although it is a non-Christian tradition, astrology had enormous influence in medieval and early modern Europe, principally between 1450 and 1700. When it came to medicine, astrologers believed that the 12 signs of the zodiac ruled over parts of the body - Aries, for example, ruled the head and neck, while Scorpio ruled the reproductive organs, the gall bladder and the rectum. Familiarity with this astrological theory formed an important part of the skills of medieval doctors. Astrological charts were published to help doctors calculate horoscopes, and ‘zodiac men’ drawings showed them which signs controlled certain parts of the body.

Astrological advice continues to be widely available today, across the world, although its medical aspects have given way to more general information on peoples’ financial fortunes and love lives.

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Bibliography

P Biller and J Ziegler (eds), Religion and Medicine in the Middle Ages (York: York Medieval Press, 2001)

F Bray, ‘Chinese medicine’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds) Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (London: Routledge, 1993)

K Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Penguin, 1991)

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