Astro‐medicine

Abstract

Astromedicine, the notion that human health is in some way linked to the stars, is found in many societies. The Babylonians and Ancient Egyptians were famous for their astronomical knowledge, and used it to predict and diagnose disease, and influenced some Greek and Roman doctors from 100 BCE onwards. Galen of Pergamum preferred a meteorological explanation for illness, but his discussion of critical days allowed his successors in Late Antiquity to include the influence of the stars in their calculations. This Galenic astromedicine was developed by the Arabs and taken over in the learned medicine of Western Europe from 1200 CE. Objections were raised in the Renaissance, and by 1600, medical astrology had fallen out of favour among the elite physicians. Patients, however, still flocked to astrologers like Simon Forman. Arabic astromedicine also spread eastwards to India and Tibet, although Chinese astromedicine developed differently.

Key Concepts:

  • Astromedicine has been widely practised for centuries in many societies.

  • From Egypt and Babylonia predicting diseases by the stars entered Greek medicine around 250 BCE.

  • Astromedicine achieved respectability in Late Antiquity, and was further developed in the Islamic world.

  • From the Islamic world astromedicine passed to Western Europe as part of the new university medical education.

  • The Renaissance humanist doctors strongly attacked astromedicine, which by 1650 was seen as dubious quackery, even if many patients believed in it.

  • Indian and particularly Chinese medicine included astromedicine as a significant part of their continuing medical traditions.

Keywords: astrology; astromedicine; diagnosis; Galenism; prognosis

Figure 1.

Zodiac Man. The body depicted with the star signs that govern each part, Wellcome Library, London, WMS 8004, pp. 75–76. From an English handbook of medicine written in 1453–1454. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Image no: L0038614. © Wellcome Library.

Figure 2.

Zodiac Man. A leaf from a medieval English almanac, showing the body with its star signs, Wellcome Library, London, WMS 40, fol. 7. The vellum leaves were first folded over and then into three, before being provided with a vellum outer cover with a small tag that allowed the almanac to be hung from a belt and consulted when visiting patients. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Image no: L0010970. © Wellcome Library.

Figure 3.

Bleeding according to the stars. Wellcome Library, London, WMS 49, produced in central Germany around 1425, which contains a striking series of medical images in the middle of religious texts. On this page, fol. 41 recto, are depicted the sites for bloodletting with lines linking them to the constellations and planets that determine a successful outcome. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Image no: L0029316. © Wellcome Library.

Figure 4.

A Tibetan astromedical chart. A Tibetan astrological chart indicating good and bad days for bloodletting and for protection against demons, Wellcome Library, London, Ms. Or. Tibetan 114. The outer circles show the 12 animals of the months and, below, the signs of the 7 days of the week. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Image no: L0035125. © Wellcome Library.

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Nutton, Vivian(Sep 2013) Astro‐medicine. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025092]