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David E. Pingree


By Peter Cummings

Astrology is not what it used to be, and experts in the field are hard to find. There is one at Brown University, another in Beirut, and a third, David E. Pingree '54, is a Junior Fellow resident in Lowell House.

While still in high school Pingree began reading Sanskrit literature "just as one might pick up Thoreau or Emerson," and continued his study of the language after his admission to the College. He used Sanskrit as a tool to extend his knowledge of "the cultural connections between the West and India." Pingree, despite his own attachment to this strange field, recognizes that it is unusual, and is amused when people other than his colleagues show an interest in it.

Apparently astrological and astronomical information spread with great speed among ancient and medieval societies, and "it soon became clear" to Pingree that the history of these two subjects would provide an excellent view of past relations between Occident and Orient. In order to gain a more thorough knowledge of astrology, Pingree spent a year in Poona studying informally under an actual Indian astrologer. His instructor whom he calls "a fairly intelligent guy," read the heavens before engaging in any major venture--hardly surprising when one remembers that nearly ninety percent of India's population is greatly influenced by horoscope beliefs.

Pingree, sitting on a small pile of the books which take up most of the space in his room, outlined the history of reading the future in the stars. This pseudo-science, he explained, began about 4,000 years ago in Babylonia, where it was used to predict such things as floods, wars, famine, and the fates of kings. Eventually astrology reached Greece and India, and later began to flourish in Egypt. Around 300 B.C. complicated systems of epicycles and eccentrics were devised to explain and predict accurately the motions of the planets. At the same time, the horoscopic skills became more complex, using geometrical relations between the planetary positions, in addition to the older observations of eclipses, conjunctions, and retrogressions. Astrologists also brought their own work down to a personal level, making predictions about individuals, as well as national catastrophes.

One of the manuscripts which Pingree is now translating and annotating is a fine example of the manner in which astrological theories traveled from one culture to another. The text, acquired by the University from the Katmundu Library, is a 300 A.D. Indian translation of second century Greek work on horoscopy--the only remaining copy in the world.

In Europe from 550 to the end of the eighth century, astrology was virtually nonexistent "due to social and economic decay" which stifled most intellectual activity. Christianity and a related movement against predestination effectively dominated thought until the beginning of the ninth century, when the horoscopy which had been exported to the East returned once more to Europe. At this time, Arabic texts were translated into Greek and Latin, and court astrologers were appointed. During the Renaissance both astronomy and its mystical cousin prospered.

Even Kepler, Pingree pointed out, made most of his living by making astrological predictions. But the 18th century, with the growth of science, particularly of astronomy, brought an end to horoscopic fortune-telling.

India, however, still adheres to the ancient beliefs. A year ago its population braced itself for the destruction of the world which was predicted from the conjunction of eight celestial bodies. Fortunately, the accurate prediction of the event gave the people a chance to avert disaster: "The world was not demolished," explained Pingree with a smile, "because they prayed enough."

This June, when his three-year fellowship ends, Pingree will move to the University of Chicago to accept the position of Research Associate at the Oriental Institute. Stars permitting, of course.

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