We’ve all heard figures of speech like “a love that’s written in the stars,” “I thank my lucky stars for you,” or even “two star-crossed lovers …” But what is all this star talk about, anyway?
What could a bunch of massive balls of ionized gas millions of miles away possibly have to do with romance? These phrases, and others like them, date back to the middle ages, when the belief that the fate of all human endeavors was determined by the positions of various stars and planets in relationship to the Earth was widespread.
The tradition of Western astrology, which differs from the form practiced in most of Asia, originated more than four thousand years ago in ancient Babylon as a compilation of celestial omens. This system eventually passed into Egypt and ancient Greece, but was lost during the period of European history known as the “Dark Ages.” Astrology was reintroduced about 1000 years ago, and has had a major influence on Western culture ever since. Many of the most privileged and educated people during the Middle Ages based all of their important decisions on the advice of an astrologer.
Though astrology has faded into the background, its influence can still be seen today, not only in the form of the daily horoscopes found in newspapers around the country, but also in our language. Many of our words have astrological origins, such as “disaster,” which comes from the Latin dis aster, meaning “bad star.” “Influenza,” the proper name for the bug most of us now just call flu, comes from influential, which means “influence,” because medieval doctors believed flu epidemics were caused by unfavorable astrological influences.
Other stellar words include “lunatic,” from Luna or “moon,” “mercurial,” from Mercury, “martial,” from Mars, and “jovial,” from Jove, also known as Jupiter. All of those words describe personal characteristics that were believed to be caused or influenced by the star or planet they were named for.