Monday, 24 December 2012

The Batty Beliefs of the Absurd Astrologers

                 It doesn’t matter how batty the idea really is. Before long, someone, somewhere, will say, “You know, that guy has a point.” And then someone else will join in and before you know it, the batty idea stops being batty and becomes ‘The Truth™’ and believers in ‘The Truth™’ get all offended and shouty when you point out that ‘The Truth™’ is, now that you mention it, a batty idea that simply got out of hand. 

Take astrology. Once upon a time, somebody, somewhere, said, “You know, that guy has a point with what he says about the stars and stuff,” and somebody else said, “I think you might be right,” and before you knew it, the crazies were running the asylum and telling folk that they knew what was going to happen before it happened, because they had read it in the stars. They didn’t know much about the actual stars themselves but they knew quite a bit about human nature and they used that knowledge to get themselves cushy jobs, sitting down, inside and with no heavy lifting, and started giving advice to the muscley big blokes with the stabby swords who were in charge, and they, being hard of thinking, took whatever the astrologers told them as read and got all stabby when anyone pointed out that it might all be a bit of a batty idea after all. 

In the past, all over the place, quite a lot of muscley big blokes thought there was something in this ‘rocks in the sky™’ business and the astrologers got increasingly cushier jobs and their batty ideas got increasingly battier. There came a time when you couldn’t throw a stick into the street without hitting an astrologer, and this was especially true when the Romans were the big muscley blokes with the stabby swords running Judea. The astrologers said that the ‘rocks in the sky™’ had told them that umpteen of the prophecies in the Holy Books were about to come true and there was going to be a New King born pretty soon, and an especially shiny new ‘rock in the sky™’ proved all this. This shiny new rock (aka The Star of Bethlehem) in mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, where we are also introduced the Magi, an unnamed, unnumbered band of astrologers from the East, who followed the Star to Judea where it led them to the birthplace of the New King. 

Matthew is pretty vague about the Star and Luke, the other gospel writer who covers the Nativity story, doesn’t mention it at all. Nevertheless, the Star has become an important symbol of Christmas and over the years there have been numerous attempts to explain exactly what it was. Some have said that it was a comet that moved across the sky, but comets were usually felt to be inauspicious portents so it is unlikely that one would herald the welcome birth of a New King. One explanation is that it was a nova, an old star burning itself out, and Chinese astronomers recorded just such a nova that happened in 5 BCE. 

The first person to speculate on the real nature of the Star was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who calculated that it could have been a conjunction of the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred in 6 BCE. Triple conjunctions occur when three planets approach each other closely in the night sky, and are relatively rare, so it is a possibility. There were other conjunctions that would have been observable from Judea at around about the same time – in 7 BCE, Jupiter and Saturn drew close on three occasions (May 22nd, October 5th and December 1st), and on August 12th 3 BCE, Jupiter and Venus came into close conjunction. In 2 BCE, on June 17th, Jupiter and Venus actually overlapped, an event called an occultation, and that would certainly have interested the Magi. 

Occultations are when two planets pass across each other and are astonishingly rare occurrences – the last occultation seen from Earth happened on January 3rd 1818, and the next will not take place until November 22nd 2065, (both involving Venus and Jupiter). Without modern optical telescopes, the occultation would have looked like a single, bright star when seen from the Earth. Both of the gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) agree that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod but historians are at odds on the year of Herod’s death. Most agree he died in 4 BCE, which rules out the occultation mentioned earlier as the phenomenon of the Star of Bethlehem, but some others have dated his death to 1 BCE, which allows for the occultation to be considered as a possibility, at least. 

Of course, we are talking about a big rock and a ball of gas that look like they overlap in the sky, in spite of them being millions of miles apart, and assigning some significance to this, which is a batty idea. Some religious folks seek to explain the Christmas Star away as a purely symbolic thing, with some going so far as to fall back on that old chestnut of ‘Goddidit’ and you can’t counter blind faith of that sort with any kind of logic. 

Maybe we’ll never be certain what the Christmas Star was, but it is a great image that has become central to our Christmas celebrations, finding its way onto uncountable cards, umpteen decorations and the tops of innumerable Christmas trees. And if it symbolises anything that promotes peace, love and goodwill to all men, then maybe that’s not such a batty idea.

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