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The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction

The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction

by David Berlinski

David Berlinski explains the power of humanity's oldest predictive system in this stunning and original new book. Astrology began at the dawn of time and over the centuries became a complex system with gifted seers often achieving results of eerie accuracy. For most of recorded history, astrologers have been found at the elbows of the rich and the powerful.


David Berlinski explains the power of humanity's oldest predictive system in this stunning and original new book. Astrology began at the dawn of time and over the centuries became a complex system with gifted seers often achieving results of eerie accuracy. For most of recorded history, astrologers have been found at the elbows of the rich and the powerful. However, Newton's system of the world put an end to one aspect of the astrological tradition. As a result, a method once widely used has become widely discredited, especially by scientific critics with little knowledge of astrology itself.
With a genius for storytelling and penetrating analysis, Berlinski explains how astrology works and how astrological ideas, although disguised, have reappeared in modern scientific theories.

Editorial Reviews

Baltimore Sun Review

"If you find yourself taking astrology seriously, read this book-the latest of a rich literature of refutations."

"David Berlinski's fascinating look at the history of this ancient art will keep you glued to its pages."
Raleigh News & Observer

"The bright novelistic touches never pander, nor does the storytelling compromise the vast range of material considered in this absorbing work."
From the Publisher

"Making simple and accessible that which had previously been murky and intimidating is Berlinski's specialty."-Chicago Tribune
"Engaging . . . If the search for unquestionable logical truth interests you, this book is as good a place to start as you are likely to find."
-The Washington Post Book World
Library Journal
"A witty and dramatic narration with evident scholarship and authority and, most importantly, a sense of wonder."

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt

LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, I wanted to see into the future, and if the future was blank and inscrutable, the past would have to do. For my kind of time travel, books are more revealing than stars. That morning I trudged down the banks of the Seine to visit the Bibliothèque Nationale, the great national library of France. The thing is like a Babylonian ziggurat, four glass and steel towers rising somberly from a plinth almost a city block in area. Access is by means of a wide but very steep series of polished wooden steps. There are no banisters or rails and when the stairs are wet, purchase is difficult. Elderly scholars very often lose their footing and fall badly. If the library is a monument to poor design and clumsy architecture, it is also a link in the unbroken chain of libraries that extends from the ancient world to the twenty-first century. The collection that it contains is matchless, one of the glories of French culture.

But whatever those glories, I had a cold. It was that time of year. Everyone in Paris was sniffling. The métro had been chilly and full of hoarse honkers, all of them looking peevish and indignant. The library was at least warm and comfortable, a kind of pastel glow suffusing all the reading rooms and the long echoing corridors. There was no one waiting in the rare books and manuscripts division. The seats at the central table were unoccupied, and the computers arranged in rows like so many squat and waiting penguins were all blank, their open eyes sightless.

The librarian was a tall, elegant woman. She knew and understood the manuscript collection, but like everyone working at the Bibliothèque, she had come to regard visitors as a considerable inconvenience. I had asked permission to see the library's copy of Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson's The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. Rawlinson was one of the great soldier-scholars of the nineteenth century, a man whose fine intelligence and wide-ranging curiosity had elephant-walked over the entire Near East. I was interested in volume III of his four-volume work-A Selection from the Miscellaneous Inscriptions of Assyria. The folio edition is the very key to ancient astrology; it marks the place where every path led somewhere new. The librarian was dubious. Special permission was needed even to look at the thing.

I spread out the stamped letter of authorization that the chief librarian provided me. I placed my carte de séjour, my birth certificate, and a recent telephone bill on top of it. The librarian studied each document with great deliberation. Everything was in order. She filled out a yellow special request form and passed it to her assistant, a young man with red eyes and a wet nose. He counter-signed the librarian's form and briskly disappeared into the forbidden stacks, returning after five minutes with Rawlinson's folio underneath his arm. Very carefully, he placed the volume on the counter. I could not touch it. The librarians would open the cover and turn the pages.

I could see the point of their concern. The book was a large folio edition, perhaps three feet tall and one and one-half feet wide. The paper was thick and gray with age. The book contains the first printed edition of documents that are more than twenty-five hundred years old. The stone-cut originals are in fine shape at the British Museum. They may well last another ten thousand years. The book reproducing them is falling apart. The binding is cracked, and pages torn; there are water marks on almost every page, and a shapeless gray stain on the cover. Directly after I looked at the book, I was informed, it would be sent to the department of conservation and preservation for special treatment. It seemed a little late to me.

I asked the librarian to open the book for me. After smoothing her hair behind her ears, she pulled on a pair of pink surgeon's gloves and began slowly turning the pages. I was fascinated and so was she. Each page is divided more or less into quadrants, and the quadrants filled with hand-drawn cuneiform inscriptions, both troubling and incomprehensible. The symbols are wedge-shaped and quite ugly, resembling flags mounted on thin stalks, but they have the power to compel the eye. There is drama in their shapes. The book is introduced by a table of contents spread over four enormous folio pages. The document titles are in English. Plate III contains "Fragments of Inscriptions on Votive Offerings." Plate XLVII is more down to earth. It depicts "ten loan tablets." Life went on in the ancient world, just as it does today. Loans needed to be recorded and debts repaid. But Plate XLIX hints at a great domestic drama: It is a deed of sale. Nabu-Ricktu-Azar and his sons have sold his daughter, Bilat-Khazin, to a woman named Nikhte-Sar, for her son and his wife, and this for sixteen shekels of silver.

Plates LI-LXIV are of particular interest to astrologers. These plates, Rawlinson wrote soberly, contain "the great Chaldean work on astrology." Altogether, there are seventy tablets in these sections, collectively known now as the Enuma Anu Enlil. It is here that astrology's dark desert flowers first opened to the night air.

I could read nothing of the originals. I had simply wanted to breathe in the air of centuries. Now I had seen enough. Very carefully, the librarian closed the great, moldy book, and then asked me to counter-sign the original forms and initial the places where I had counter-signed them. I think she was sorry to see me go. We had shared a moment of mystery.

Some weeks later, I began to study the English translation of the Enuma. I was interested in the astrological omens, warnings, and predictions. One in particular caught my eye:

If the Star of Dignity, the Vizier of Tispak, approaches the Scorpion, for three years there will be severe cold, cough and phlegm will befall the land.

Everything was clear. There was severe cold, cough, and phlegm throughout Paris. It had been the Star of Dignity and the Vizier of Tispak all along.


IT IS SEVEN CENTURIES before the birth of Christ. The Assyrians are masters of the Fertile Crescent. They control the heaped granaries and the sun-baked, river-washed fields. Waters flow at their command. Alien deities rule the sky. The king, the great Ashurbanipal, moves heavily to his accustomed place at the center of the world. He is the descendent of kings as well as a king himself, the royal line-his line-stepping backward through the long years until it touches the magnificence of Sargon II. Ashurbanipal wears a rolled grape-black beard; his eyes are black and often troubled. Chiefly a warrior, he has for years been occupied with savage campaigns of conquest or subordination, often against his brothers, who resent his eminence and fear his power. But he is also a man of sophistication and some learning: a competent mathematician, skillful with all sorts of formulae; an astrologer, the student of famous astrologers in his youth; a linguist, proud of his ability to speak not only Assyrian, but Akkadian, as well. Alone among the great kings in his line, he can read Sumerian, the ancient language of scholarship. Ashurbanipal carries the weight of centuries on his royal back. The Near East was literate. The evidence was everywhere. Every civilization had its scribes. They had scribbled away on wet clay for centuries. The world was bursting with things that had been said and then written. The further back it went, the further the Assyrian tradition divided itself into an ever-finer network of memories. But in spite of all he knows, Ashurbanipal remains a man of great melancholia, the mysteries of existence and the pointlessness of man's fate an ever-present torment. Like Shakespeare's Richard II, he is in the habit of sitting upon the ground and telling sad stories about the fate of kings. "To the King, our Lord, from your servant Balasi," an astrologer had written. "Good health to the King, our Lord!" And then the revealing question: "Is one day not enough for the King to mope and eat nothing?"

At some time in the seventh century B.C., Ashurbanipal conceives the idea of collocating the texts, inscriptions, legal codes, funeral orations, poetry, and celestial ominia of the ancient world. He is determined to create a royal library. The project obsesses him. It is his boast. Scribes, scribblers, and court scholars, accompanied, no doubt, by a retinue of imperial thugs, depart the palace to scour and then loot the Mesopotamian world's private libraries. It is plain that Ashurbanipal has a vision in which the light from various separate centers of literacy is fused so that it becomes, like the king himself, a single, glowing sun. Great wagonloads of clay tablets make their way from the corners of the empire to Nineveh. Dust rises along the roads and ox-trails; broad-backed farmers turning from their wooden plows to stare in stupefaction at the endless plodding wagon trains, their platforms piled high with stone tablets. The oxen snort through their velvet noses.

Years and then decades go by. The library is at last complete, the cool marble of its corridors containing tablets in all the languages of the ancient world, a vibrant record stretching back more than a thousand years to make contact with all the old lost civilizations. The central hall contains a spectacular frieze of a lion hunt. Scholars gather there to read, and since none of them are able to read without reading aloud, the library is filled with a low drone, a kind of gabble. There is another sound: a muddy, wet plop. Scholars using the library needed to keep notes. Each man kept a supply of moist clay in a box. Seized by a thought, he would reach into his box for a wad of clay, plop it onto a flat surface, and then flatten the bolus, committing his thoughts to clay by means of a stylus and then leaving the tablet to dry. Beyond the gabble and plop, there is a sober sense of security throughout, Ashurbanipal's censorious warnings prominently displayed on almost every tablet:

May all these gods curse anyone who breaks, defaces, or removes this tablet with a curse, which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed be carried off from the land, and may they put his flesh in a dog's mouth.

Sometime in the fourth or fifth decade of the seventh century, Ashurbanipal simply withers into inexistence, his affliction unknown. "To the King, my Lord, from your servant Urad-Nanna," an astrologer writes. The usual formula follows: "May the gods Nunurta and Gula give happiness and physical well-being to the King, my Lord." And then the astrologer addresses the heart of the matter. "The King, my Lord, keeps on saying to me: 'Why don't you diagnose the nature of this illness of mine and bring about its cure?'" Beyond this, nothing. Court historians and chroniclers are unforthcoming.

But the terrible urgency of Ashurbanipal's desires have frog-marched the centuries to topple, burning and blood red, into our laps.

Copyright © 2003 by David Berlinski

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

David Berlinski, author of the bestselling A Tour of the Calculus received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is a regular contributor to Commentary and Forbes ASAP. He lives in Paris.

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