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'As Above, So Below': Shakespearean Astrology Part I

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

Before the birth of Alexa, humanity was cold and afraid in the dark cave of "time management" and "predictive forecasting" with only the flickering light of their own questionable judgement to warm them. A world full of slothful and ignorant time-wasters and life-gamblers...or were they? Actually, no, they weren't. Because in the early modern period, we had friends in high places who knew all the latest insider information: the planets and stars. This made the local stargazer the most eligible bachelor in the village. ...Well, no again, not really - but it was a more stable career choice than you'd think.

Since the ancient world, civilizations organized the great and the mundane under the auspices of the heavenly bodies. And with that emerged people able to observe, interpret, and divine: astrologists. Only by charting their movements could the chaos of life be arranged into predictable order; never you mind about accuracy, though, the heavens are conveniently unfathomable.

In the Elizabethan era (1558-1601), that beautifully awkward puberty from medieval mysticism to the burgeoning empiricism of the early modern period, the disciplines of alchemy, astrology, and magic were intertwined into an unique type of practical science designed to satisfy the ever-growing demand for explained phenomena in this time of exploration and discovery. Combining talismans, spells, rituals, and all manner of charms, practitioners aimed to influence commercialized control over all events of daily life. The average Elizabethan found the practical use of astrology absolutely everywhere:

  • Natal astrology for responsible family planning. Maybe now's not the time to have a baby, my love, they forecast heavy plague, bad harvest, and ungrateful children.

  • Medical astrology was a prerequisite taught in every major university in England by 1450. Passing "MA101" meant you could determine underlying weaknesses, diagnose illness, and prescribe cures.

  • Horary astrology still survives today in the form of fortune-telling, but with an added bonus of curse-detection. Ask a question, get an answer. Will I get a promotion this year? Your moon is in Pisces and your mother-in-law laid a bewitchment on you. So, no. You really won't.

  • Electional astrology can be seen as your executive secretary meets spirit summoner. For choosing auspicious times for taking action or sitting fences, marking your calendar for important ceremonies, and communing with helpful spirits. Wait, you're saying the only good day to get married is August 9th or my marriage is doomed? But that was yesterday! Consult the spirits, I want a second opinion.

  • Mundane astrology, strangely, was named for predicting large-scale national events. And the weather. There's going to be rain today, my liege, and war. Well, that's alright, pretty mundane, then.

Elizabethans could also buy, for the cheap price of a couple pennies, almanacs with the latest forecasts. These almanacs provided catch-all information about general dates, high tides, and even the weather for the whole year. Millions were produced and sold during Elizabethan times because when you're looking for work or running a business, prowling for love or fleeing a marriage, conspiring to murder your king or put one on the throne, everyone wanted to rub off some luck from the stars. Couldn't hurt. ...well, that's not true.

More on how Shakespeare used astrology in Part II!

Lantz, Patricia. Understanding Astrology in the Elizabethan Era.

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