In western Canadian native culture, they tell a story about the South Wind and a skate. The South Wind’s volatility caused many problems for the people, making it impossible for them to fish and gather shellfish on the shore. They decide to fight the winds to make them behave. Some people and fish embark on an expedition to tame the wind, and have success. The South Wind agrees only to blow from time to time at certain periods, so that people can get on with their lives.
In his Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture Claude Levi-Strauss sees more here than a nice story. He focused on the presence of the skate, which like a flounder, presents itself as a “normal” fish but is actually quite thin. When lying on the bottom, the skate presents an easy target, but a simple twist of its body will suddenly make it a much more difficult target. The skate, then, presents a kind of binary, a yes/no option to the world. He writes,
If the South Wind blows every day of the year, then life is impossible for mankind. But if it blows only one day out of two–‘yes’ one day and ‘no’ the other–then a compromise becomes possible between the needs of mankind and the conditions of the natural world. Levi-Strauss comments,
Thus, from a logical point of view, there is an affinity between an animal like the skate and the kind of problem the myth is trying to solve. The story is not true from a strictly scientific point of view be we can only understand this property of the myth at a time when computers have come to exist and provided us with an understanding of binary operations which had already been put to use in a very different way with concrete objects or beings by mythical thought. So there is no divorce between mythology and science.
As moderns we love to parse and divide, and so many theories exist about the functions of myths (I am guessing that ancient/traditional society have no such theories). Bronislaw Malinowski championed the “Functionalist” school–myths describe how we make life work regarding our basic human needs and drives. Claude Levy-Bruhl took an entirely different approach, arguing that the key difference between “primitive” and modern people came down to “emotional” and “mystic” representations from the former vs. scientific for the latter.
Strauss had a different approach, one I think closer to the truth. Traditional or “primitive” man had the ability to think in a disinterested, scientific way, but went about it differently than moderns. Strauss argued that we need to see more science in the past, and more myth in the present. True, the “scientific mind,” as described by Descartes, seeks “to divide the difficulty into as many parts as necessary in order to solve it.” But in the end, we must find coherence in order to manifest the order of the cosmos. As Strauss argued, if humanity the world over seeks order and meaning, it must be because order and meaning exist in the world.
The link between scientific and mythological thinking shows up sometimes in suprising places.
In his The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance Wayne Shumaker gives an interesting perspective on the Renaissance–one not in keeping with our natural expectations. He agrees with historian Paul Kocher–both note that the best attacks on Astrology during the Renaissance–Elizabethan era came almost entirely from ecclesiastics, including Pope Sixtus V, Pope Urban VIII, William Fulke, John Calvin, William Perkins, John Chamber, and George Carleton. Kocher continues,
And who, on the other side, spoke up for astrology? To the bewilderment of the modern analyst, chiefly the foremost scientific men of the age . . . an almost solid front of physicians, astronomers, and other natural philosophers, renowned for their achievements.Kocher, Science and Religion in the Elizabethan Era, p. 267
Our typical assumptions about the Renaissance need reviewed, and Shumaker writes with great clarity and precision to facilitate this.
The argument for astrology in the Renaissance came from medieval roots, to be sure. To understand the medieval approach we have to reorient our assumptions about the nature of space, the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and the concept of identity.
- Moderns see emptiness, a void, with objects moving that only occasionally and remotely have an interactive relationship based on mass.
- Ancient and medieval people saw a universe crammed with life, be it the gods, angels, intelligences, etc. All these beings have a continuous relationship with one another.
Physical and the Spiritual
- Moderns tend to separate the two. We have symbols, but what is really real is matter, what we see, observe, measure, etc. Spiritual realities exist, perhaps, but the two worlds do not mix
- Ancients and medievals saw the two as constantly intermingling and influencing one another. This has ultimate expression in the mass, where heaven and earth meet in the transformation of the eucharistic elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the ripple effects flow from that.
Moderns acknowledge that physical things like weather impact our moods and can alter events. Ancients and medievals extended that sphere of influence into the heavens. Many in the Renaissance took in one step further. Shumaker writes that,
the Renaissance defense of astrology rested very heavily on the alleged power of “rays” to exert influence by means of light and heat. The rays of the sun operate upon us sensibly, and those of the moon, which was known to influence the tides, could be concentrated sufficiently by a concave mirror to produce warmth. Is it credible that rays from other cosmic bodies can affect us?
- Moderns focus a great deal on the idea of the “true self,”* which must be liberated from the constraints of every influence to act freely and shine brightly. We eschew accepting that outside entities or forces should have any role in forming our concept of the self.
- Ancient-medieval people readily understood that family, place, the gods/God all formed core aspects of our identity that no one really questioned or fought back against.
Astrology (as distinct from astronomy) must at first glance seem very distant from the modern mindset. And yet, modern science and astrology had a partnership for a time. They went their separate ways as a couple might divorce, not because they had a natural enmity. We can begin to understand this connection if we look at one of the horoscopes prepared for King Henry VIII of England, which relied on very precise observations. Its original rendering looked like this:
Which in modern observational terms would translate to something like this:
One translation of the horoscope reads,
This horoscope, in which there could be no greater good or any greater evil–because Venus is in the 9th house with Aldebaran and the Tail an in sextile with Mercury–shows a change in the laws which will not be revoked but will remain settled. Also the moon, in the 7th house and in quartile with the sun, while Saturn is in trine aspect with Venus, places as has been described, and Mars is in trine with the lord of the 7th house, Jupiter, announces divorce and much trouble with wives, to the point that one will be capitally punished. Saturn is in opposition with Mercury, since Mercury . . .
Some excerpts from the horoscope of Cicero, the famous Roman, composed in 1547:
The ornament of eloquence and mouth of the Romans has in his horoscope (i.e., the first house) the heart of a Lion, and with it, the sun, the Tail (the descending node of the moon), Mercury, Venus, and Mars: by these his fluency and high authority were determined. Almost the same things are reported of Petrarch . . .
And again, a horoscope of Emperor Charles V:
Charles V, born February 25, at 4:34 am . . . A peculiarity is the noting of stellar magnitudes within named constellations. In Book I of the Supplementum Almanach, Cardan discussed the names and powers of some 46 stars. Here he finds significance in their magnitudes . . . . Jupiter is with the third star in the water of Aquarius, a star of the fourth magnitude, and the nature of Saturn, with very little of that of Jupiter. . . . The sun is with a star in the back of Perseus, of the 2nd magnitude, and of the nature of Mars and Mercury . . .
We see in these examples language of precise measurements of time and space, with very little overt religious language or mysticism. The key to proper astrology involved knowing the precise date and time of birth, and coordinating that with known star charts and planetary movements. Observation, notation, comparison to other known data–all of this fits snugly within a scientific frame. As Shumaker notes, “We can set aside our doubts and accept [Renaissance] astrology as meeting all the requirements of a true science.”
Renaissance astrologists shared certain characteristics with their medieval forebears. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia ingeniously attempts to demonstrate that each of the Narnia books has as its subtext the influence of a particular planet in the medieval cosmos. Lewis, as a Medieval-Renaissance scholar, certainly knew much about how medievals thought, thought part of Ward’s argument involves accepting that Lewis employed a certain strategy.
But whether Lewis attempted this with full intentionality or not I think beside the point. The Narnian stories show forth the medieval attitude to the cosmos, and the contrast shows how Renaissance astrology represented a decisive shift. Ward’s insights show us the Moon’s presence in The Silver Chair, or Saturn’s presence in The Last Battle, but one can read the story, understand and enjoy it without awareness of this fact. For the medievals, the planets had a role to play in events, based on some of the principles explained above, but the influence was subtle, “atmospheric,” with human agency, choice, and responsibility holding center stage.
Astrology met the characteristics of a “true science,” but that adds nothing to the truth claims of astrology. In fact, we can say that such claims are false not only because of the various attacks against it rooted in proper theological thinking, but because astrology as a science involves the same kind of precision completely removed from human experience that we see in conspiracy theories. In the documentary Room 237, director Rodney Ascher explores the variety of conspiracy theories associated with Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining, a horror movie based on a book by Stephen King. The movie seems like a departure from the grand projects Kubrick usually attempted (such as 2001, and Barry Lyndon made before, and Full Metal Jacket made after), that a variety of people assume that Kubrick must have put a deeper, more mysterious meaning into The Shining.
A variety of people come forward in the film to propose that The Shining is actually about
- American imperialism, especially related to the subjugation of Native Americans
- How Kubrick helped NASA fake the moon landings
- The Nazi Holocaust and the need to let go of grief
As Chuck Klosterman pointed out in a review, the movie exercises a spell of sorts–one can get drawn into the world of the various theorists interviewed. The main problem with all of these theories, however, is that they rely on a method of watching the movie completely inaccessible to anyone when the film was released, including Kubrick himself. The “proof” offered by the various theorists relies on stopping and enlarging certain precise frames of the movie, or running the film backwards and forwards simultaneously, or digital reproductions. Indeed, such theories likely never would have materialized had DVD’s never been invented. Sure, we can analyze movies and look for subtexts, but we will not find their meaning by breaking it down into its smallest component parts.
The scientific Renaissance astrologists relied on the same technique as the conspiracy theorists. If one looks very precisely at a few certain facts, i.e., the fact that ‘X’ was “born at 4:34 AM and not 5:12 AM, then we note that the position of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ star had a position relative to ‘A’ planet” and so on, and. so on. They forget that none of these methods of measurement or observation were accessible for the vast majority of human history, or relevant to anyone who gives birth to and raises a child.
Science relies on deconstruction, certainly a useful and important skill. I am no more “anti-science” than any of the ancient critics of astrology. But we come to Meaning through Love, which involves “symboling” things together. Myth can nest Science within it, in the best sense of the meaning of “myth.” When science goes too far it resembles “myth” in the worst sense of the meaning of the word. Descartes had it wrong–dividing the difficulty into many parts will often pull us farther away from the solutions we seek.
*Note the theologically liberal search for the “historical” Jesus that can somehow be sifted from the gospel texts.