Stars, signs and a path across the Sun

Music of the spheres: Mercury’s transit was first observed in 1631 by French astronomer Gassendi. © NASA

Is there any truth to astrology? For the last time this decade, Mercury has passed in front of the Sun. It has special significance for a growing number of star-gazing, millennial mystics.

The images are among the most stunning portraits of space captured by humanity: Mercury, the smallest and fastest-moving planet in our solar system, is a black pin-prick set against a vast, swirling wall of fire.

On Monday, Mercury passed in front of the Sun for the last time this decade, in a rare astronomical event called a transit. We will not witness a Mercury transit again until 13 November 2032.

It was not just NASA scientists whose eyes were glued to that small, black dot, but also a soaring number of millennials who believe that the movement of the planets and stars can reveal the future.

New spirituality is the new norm,” declared the trend-forecast company WGSN in 2017. Since last year, the membership of the USA’s Association for Young Astrologers has doubled.

For these burgeoning astrologers, Mercury’s transit could not come at a more significant time. On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as it aligned with the Sun, Mercury was at the exact, halfway point in its retrograde cycle.

Mercury retrograde is one of the most turbulent and feared times of the astrological calendar. Star-gazers believe it is a period when tensions rise, secrets are buried and disruption reigns.

In numerology, 11 is the “master” number, signifying a powerful spiritual awakening. Together, the forces of the transit, the retrograde and the 11/11 date combine to become “the most magical day of 2019”, according to Bustle magazine.

But 4,000 years after it emerged in ancient Babylon, why is astrology making a comeback in the supposedly rational era of modern science?

In her recent essay for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood posits that we search for meaning and guidance in times of crisis. After all, the first newspaper horoscope was commissioned by British tabloid The Sunday Express in 1930, as the world plunged into deep depression.

In 2019, political instability and the climate threat has us searching the skies for something in which to believe. But is there any truth in it?

Signs and stars

To many, astrology is utter nonsense: a hangover from centuries of illogical superstition, before the Enlightenment taught us better. Horoscopes are vague enough that anyone can see themselves in them. It doesn’t even make sense on its own terms: the Earth has moved on its axis since the zodiac was first devised, so the signs don’t even correspond to their constellations anymore.

But there’s much more to astrology than simple newspaper horoscopes. True astrology is an art, with the precise location and minute of your birth informing a complex chart of stars, planets and houses. Perhaps those demanding that it be measurably true are missing the point: astrology provides a rare opportunity for introspection in a noisy world, and puts us in communion with ancestors who used the stars as their calendars, compasses and mirrors.

You Decide

  1. Is astrology true?
  2. Why are humans drawn towards the mystical?

Activities

  1. In pairs, find out your partner’s star sign and write a horoscope, predicting their week ahead. It should be no longer than one paragraph.
  2. Devise a two-minute presentation about the historical origins of either astrology or heliocentrism.

Some People Say...

“We make guilty of our disasters the Sun, the Moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.”

Edmund in King Lear, by William Shakespeare

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On Monday, Mercury passed in front of the Sun over the course of five-and-a-half hours. The astronomical event only happens 14 times a century. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to observe that the planets orbited the Sun (a model called heliocentrism) in 1515, but he kept his findings secret until 1543 as he feared the reaction of the Church, which taught that the stars orbited the Earth.
What do we not know?
If there are 12 or 13 signs of the Zodiac. Just a month ago, NASA released an updated list of the star signs based on changes to Earth’s axis over the past 4,000 years. NASA even added a 13th star sign called Ophiuchus, pointing out that the ancient Babylonians ignored that the Sun moves through 13 — not 12 — signs, for the sake of symmetry.

Word Watch

Fastest-moving
Mercury completes its orbit of the Sun in just 88 Earth days.
Transit
Mercury’s orbit usually sails below or above the Sun, so we cannot see it from Earth.
New spirituality
“New Age” broadly encompasses alternative movements in Western culture, with an interest in spirituality and mysticism.
Burgeoning
Growing rapidly.
Retrograde
When a planet appears to move “backwards” across the sky from west to east. It is an optical illusion from our perspective on Earth.
Numerology
A mystical belief in the power of numbers that is often coupled with astrology.
Babylon
The most important city in ancient Mesopotamia from the 18th to 6th centuries BC. Mesopotamia corresponds to modern-day Iraq.
Posits
Puts forward.
Tabloid
A newspaper with pages half the size of a broadsheet, which typically prints popular, sensational stories.
Deep depression
The US stock market crashed in 1929.
Enlightenment
An intellectual movement in the 18th century, which placed heavy emphasis on empirical discovery through the scientific method.

Subjects

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