Cultural Astronomy

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Stonehenge in England: Neolithic stone circle used as an observatory

Cultural astronomy is the interdisciplinary study of the astronomical systems of different societies and cultures, whether modern, ancient, or traditional. In this context, astrology and even modern scientific astronomy are appropriately understood as forms of cultural astronomy, as they are both products of their societies. However, many groups developed myths and material artifacts (such as stone circles) expressing their beliefs about the heavens, without considering the relationships between planetary movement and human behavior on a personal or national level. Similarly, some societies observed the heavens in minute detail, without these observations qualifying as astronomy in the current scientific sense.

Subdivisions of cultural astronomy include archaeoastronomy (cultural astronomy in ancient cultures) and ethnoastronomy (cultural astronomy in contemporary traditional or modern ethnic groups.) Some scholars analyze historical and archaeological astronomical data, or the history of the scientific discipline of astronomy as a branch of the history of science. An emerging scholarly field today is the history of astrology, including its close ties to science as it was practiced until early modern times.

One of the pioneers of cultural astronomy was the Brown University mathematician and historian of science, Otto Neugebauer (1899-1990). He and his colleagues examined many of the surviving horoscopes from Antiquity, including the entire set of nativities given by the Hellenistic astrologer Vettius Valens (ca. 150 CE). By plotting the planetary positions given in these horoscopes, Neugebauer concluded that the great majority were accurately calculated for actual dates during the years when these astrologers practiced their profession.

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Bibliography

  • Otto Neugebauer and H.B. Van Hoesen, 1987 (reprint of 1959 ed.), Greek Horoscopes, American Philosophical Society, vol. 48
  • Nicholas Campion: The Dawn of Astrology - A Cultural History of Western Astrology Volume I: The Ancient and Classical Worlds. Continuum 2008 ISBN 978-1847252142
    • Review (Garry Phillipson, 2008)