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Conjunctions That Changed the World : The conjunction of May 2000 is an occasion for looking back at planetary groupings that have changed history.

On May 5, 2000, the five naked-eye planets -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn -- with the Moon will be in conjunction along a 26[degrees] arc in the constellations Taurus and Aries. Less than two weeks later, on May 17th, the planets group even more tightly into a 1911/42[degrees] arc. Unfortunately, both planetary massings will be lost in the Sun's glare. Nevertheless, for nonastronomers these are highly anticipated astronomical events. Why? Various mystics and millennial World Wide Web sites have linked planetary groupings with the end of the world.

Such apocalyptic claims have long been associated with astronomical events, and there is a tradition of planetary gatherings being interpreted as causal omens. Here are a few tales from history in which conjunctions have changed the world in the minds of the beholders.

The Mandate of Heaven

In China, the ?Mandate of Heaven? concept has been used since ancient times as both a framework for history and a guide to future actions. The basic idea is that Heaven awards ruling power to a sage-king because of his virtue. His descendants remain as Earthly deputies until they become corrupted, whereupon outraged Heaven gives signs in the sky that the Mandate has passed on to a different sage-king to continue the cycle. Since rebels could use celestial events to claim that the Mandate had been transferred and thus seize power, astronomy became a politically sensitive subject reserved for a very high-level bureaucrat reporting directly to the king.

David Pankenier (Lehigh University) has shown that the Mandate of Heaven doctrine arose from the juxtaposition of ancient planetary conjunctions with changes in Chinese leadership. In the second millennium B.C., Chinese history passed from an almost mythical beginning to a succession of dynasties -- first the Hsia, then Shang, and finally Chou. The first dynasty was started in the middle of the 20th century B.C. by Yu, a great engineer who tamed wild floods. During this time, the five visible planets came to a very tight conjunction -- along an amazingly narrow 4.33[degrees] arc on February 26, 1953 B.C. -- by far the most compact grouping between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 5000. For two millenniums calendar makers idealized this massing as the start of time. Most important, it was seen as the Heavenly Mandate associated with the founding of the Hsia dynasty.

The 18th Hsia king, Chieh, was a cruel tyrant, and on December 20, 1576 B.C., a tight four-planet conjunction (with Venus nearby) signaled the passing of the Mandate. A new sage-king was found in the person of a noble named Ch'eng T'ang, who ruled the fief of Shang with unsurpassed virtue. He raised a successful rebellion, and the coincidence of a planetary massing and the beginning of a dynasty took on even greater importance.

The last Shang king, Ti Hsin, was vicious and barbaric. Waiting in the wings was the leader of the Chou region, named Wen, who had both great integrity and wisdom (traditionally, he is considered the author of the I-Ching). All he needed was a sign from above. He got it on May 28, 1059 B.C., when the second-tightest known conjunction (all five planets within a 6.45[degrees] arc in Cancer) signaled Heaven's will to Wen. He immediately declared himself king, started a new Mandate calendar, and began preparation for his righteous rebellion. He died before his preparations were completed, but his son Wu carried on the revolt.

Wu timed his campaign against the Shang king to begin when Jupiter entered the astrologically favored constellation of the Vermilion Bird (from the head of Hydra to Corvus). But after his expedition had traveled more than 500 kilometers, Jupiter retrograded. This forced Wu to turn back his army, much to the consternation of his generals. He told them, "You do not know the Mandate of Heaven; it may not yet be done." The following year, when Jupiter's position was propitious, Wu's time had come and his armies conquered the Shang to start the Chou dynasty.

The great Chinese historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien (145-87 B.C.) said, "When the five planets consort, this is a change of phase; a new Great Man is set up to possess the four quarters." The Hsia, Shang, and Chou conjunctions showed that Heaven's will was indeed written in the sky, forming the core of the Mandate of Heaven doctrine.

The appearance of planetary conjunctions influenced later events in Chinese history. For example, the Battle of Cheng-p'u decided who controlled the government as Hegemon under the auspices of the Chou king. On May 23, 632 B.C., the planets almost exactly duplicated the Chou conjunction that had brought Wu to power. The difference was that only four planets were involved, befitting the lower rank of the position that was under contention.

Also, a massing of the planets in May 205 B.C. was misdated to justify the founding of the Han dynasty. Emperor Wang Mang manufactured omens to provide strong propaganda for his usurpation of the throne in A.D. 9. Fomenters of the Yellow Turban rebellion in A.D. 184, which precipitated the fall of the Han dynasty, had their fervor inspired by omens that the Mandate had passed from the Han. Another massing in October 750 was an omen for the disastrous rebellion of An Lu-shan, and yet another in April 967 was associated with the rise of the Sung dynasty. And so it goes.

If the current Chinese regime is susceptible to the traditional concept of the Mandate of Heaven, perhaps this month's planetary massing will be taken as an omen. Or, should the communists survive this celestial event, they can only anticipate the next tight conjunction of September 8, 2040.

Genghis Khan

In terms of area and power, the greatest conqueror of all time was Genghis Khan (about 1162-1227). He assumed the leadership of a petty Mongol tribe and, through military genius and statesmanship, created an empire ultimately stretching from Korea to Iraq and from Indochina to Poland.

The emperor was known for the extent of his genocides, decimating whole populations of large countries. The death toll of civilians was more than 20,000,000, which places the khan third among mass murderers (after Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin).

The Mongols frequently paid attention to astronomical omens. For example, a solar eclipse on May 23, 1221, led to the brief suspension of a military campaign against the people of the Honan province. Some years later Marco Polo recounted that the Mongol capital had 5,000 astrologers and soothsayers, who guided actions both big and small.

In governing his vast empire Genghis Khan relied heavily on the astrologer Yeh-lu Ch'u-ts'ai, who also held several high posts in the khanate as one of its most influential and effective bureaucrats.

In March 1226 Genghis Khan returned victorious from his campaigns in central Asia. He next took up a war against the Tangut empire of Hsi Hsia in western China. Fighting went on through the winter in order to avoid the scorching summer heat, and it allowed for easy passage over frozen rivers. Early in the campaign, Yeh-lu Ch'u-ts'ai joined the army, yet he remained content to salvage books and gather medicinal herbs. Later we hear of him curing a garrison of an epidemic (possibly typhus or dysentery).

After capturing Yen-Ch'uan Chou in December 1226 the emperor commanded his soldiers to exterminate the entire Tangut race. Some of his military commanders asked that this genocide order be extended to the Chinese subjects of the Tanguts so they could get more grazing land for their horses.

At the same time, five planets were massing within a 31[degrees] arc centered in Capricornus. Yeh-lu Ch'u-ts'ai quickly pointed this out to Genghis Khan. The astrologer interpreted the conjunction as a strong omen against the edict of death. The emperor used the planetary conjunction (as well as an economic argument from Yeh-lu Ch'u-ts'ai) to order a halt to the massacres and indiscriminate looting. While this order was not perfectly carried out (for example, there was a massacre after the capture of Chi-shih Chou around March 1227), the planets were inadvertently responsible for saving perhaps 100,000 lives.

The war against the Tanguts continued until the summer of 1227. Genghis Khan died in August of that year after a short illness, but his death was kept secret. In September, the Tangut king Li Hsien surrendered, not to Genghis's successor, but to a tent where the khan's body had been hidden.

End-of-the-World Floods

Beyond presaging changes in governments, conjunctions have been used to foretell deluges. For instance, all five planets came to an 11.6[degrees]-wide conjunction on September 14, 1186, while the Moon eclipsed the Sun 2.9[degrees] away. The scholar Bar Hebraeus wrote, "All the astronomers predicted that a universal flood and a mighty whirlwind would take place in the world, and that all mankind would perish. Kelej Arslan, the Sultan of Iconium (now modern Turkey), more than any other man, believed this silly talk. And he spent large sums of money wastefully, and made excavations in the ground, and built strong houses in the depths thereof."

From Spain to Persia astrologers foresaw floods and earthquakes. Tunnels were dug, prayers sent to heaven, and penances performed. Nature confounded the seers by providing calm, dry weather throughout Europe. Even though the predictions were wrong, a pattern was set for future associations between celestial events and Earthly deluges.

Every 20 years or so, Jupiter comes into conjunction with Saturn, an event in which astrologers have always seen great portents. In a series starting in 1365 and lasting until 1538, these great conjunctions, with a couple of exceptions, occurred in the watery astrological signs of Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio. The logic was a feeling that something momentous was to happen (especially if more planets were tightly joined) and that it must involve water. So the prognostications rapidly escalated into predictions of a Universal Deluge of biblical proportions. For the 1385 event (four planets and the Sun within 6[degrees] across the astrological sign of Cancer), Chaucer wrote in his Troilus and Criseyde, "Saturn and Jove, in Cancer joined were that such a rain from heaven poured down." Astrologers warned of a worldwide cataclysm. Again, the weather turned out to be nice.

The most famous of the flood panics occurred in the years leading up to 1524, when the five planets and the Sun massed within a 12.4[degrees] arc in the watery astrological sign of Pisces. This was first pointed out by Johann Stoffler in his 1499 almanac, and later astrologers amplified the fact into a certain prophecy of the Universal Deluge. The dire predictions were publicized widely in pamphlets, the popular medium of the day. Thousands of authors penned these works, and at least 160 books described the threatened deluge. At the same time throughout Europe, as part of propaganda for the Reformation, the many feuding religious factions all proved their viewpoints using the conjunction as a direct sign from God.

With all the intelligentsia predicting a great flood, many people built arks or climbed high mountains on the appointed date. Johann Carion, astrologer at the royal court in Berlin, set the day of doom to be July 15, 1524. The entire court left Berlin to ride out the deluge on a mountaintop stocked with large quantities of food and wine. Two weeks after the prophesied rains should have started, courtiers got restless and started wandering back to Berlin. A possibly apocryphal tale claims that when the ruler's coach drove into the palace gate a stroke of lightning killed the coachman and four horses. Nevertheless, for Europe in general, the weather was normal throughout 1524. It's interesting that people tend to forget these failed predictions, because the next mystic who comes along with an end-of-the-world prophecy stirs up new fears and panics.

It happens in modern times, too. Our sophisticated culture merely serves up a new version of the same old story. In 1974 John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published a bestseller called The Jupiter Effect, which linked a planetary alignment in 1982 to the destruction of California. They claimed that forces from the alignment would raise tides on the Sun. Somehow, this would create more sunspots, increase the rate of solar flares, and thus cause more solar-wind gusts to hit the Earth. This, in turn, would result in anomalous migrations of air masses through the atmosphere and shift the rotation rate of the Earth. Earthquakes would be triggered, and California would get the long-awaited ?Big One.?

The truth is, there was no alignment. Planetary tides have no effect on sunspot or solar-flare rates, and the other links in this complex chain of reasoning and causality turned out to be very weak indeed.

Perhaps the simplest and strongest argument against the Jupiter Effect is to point to the frequent occasions when tides on the Sun have been high with no corresponding earthquakes of any size. Also, big quakes have never happened at times of big solar tides. Nevertheless, generalized fear was widespread, with the media happily fanning the flames of panic. As it turned out, 1982 proved a mild year for earthquakes.

Rudolf Hess

Since my youth, I have heard rumors that Nazi leaders had based important decisions on astrology; that timings for battles on the Russian front were perhaps based on fake horoscopes published by the British secret service in a foreign newspaper. I looked for confirmation of these stories, but the only thing I could find was a scene in the great movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Hitler is supposedly having his agents look around the world for occult treasures.

However, I did come across a thorough historical investigation by Ellic Howe showing conclusively that the Nazi hierarchy did not use astrology in any significant way. Low-level minions did have minor contacts with occult theorists, but this amounted to nothing. The only exception to this evaluation was one incident involving Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), the number-three Nazi after Adolph Hitler and Hermann Goring.

He joined the Nazi party in 1920, became Hitler's friend and confidant, fought in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and voluntarily joined Hitler in his prison cell to take dictation of Mein Kampf. By 1939 he was in the Cabinet and had the rank of Reichminister. But Hess was not an intelligent man and by 1941 he was being pushed aside by other leaders.

That spring the Germans controlled most of Europe and their blitz over Great Britain was at its height. However, England was fighting hard, and Hitler was planning to attack Russia. The German generals realized that a second front could lead to disaster, so peace with England was vital. Hess saw an opportunity to act as the peacemaker and restore his lost prestige. His scheme was to fly to England for a personal meeting with either King George VI or Winston Churchill. He hoped that his private negotiations would stop the war. More specifically, he planned to fly to Scotland secretly and land at the castle of the Duke of Hamilton (whom he had met briefly at the Berlin Olympics) to get inside the British ruling circle.

This plan apparently started in January 1941 when Ernst Schulte-Strathaus (an amateur astrologer on Hess's staff) told him about a planetary conjunction occurring on May 10th. The Sun, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus would all occupy an 8[degrees] arc in Taurus. A Munich astrologer named Maria Nagengast told Hess that it would be a propitious day for a journey abroad. Consultation with other astrologers revealed the necessity of action during an upcoming crisis in Anglo-German relations. One of these consultants, Albrecht Haushofer, had independently been trying to contact the Duke of Hamilton by mail and this likely provided another aspect of Hess's plan.

A second vital astronomical feature of that date was that it was the night of a full Moon. To navigate within Scotland, Hess had to be able to see the coastline to determine where to parachute down onto the duke's estate south of Glasgow. Bright illumination of the countryside was the only means he had for finding the landing site. (With a similar need for illumination on the ground, the Luftwaffe mounted its biggest air raid against London on the same night.)

Starting at 5:45 p.m. on May 10, Hess piloted a Messerschmidt-110 fighter plane from Augsburg to Scotland. The London Blitz provided a diversion while the full-Moon ploy allowed him to locate the Duke's estate. He bailed out of the plane, landed in a farmer's field, and was immediately captured and quickly identified. The next morning Hess then dictated unrealistic peace terms. Churchill showed no interest in these proposals and confined him as a special prisoner of war.

Hess's flight was quite a jolt. A modern analogy might be if Vice President Dan Quayle had parachuted into Baghdad at the height of the Desert Storm campaign. Hitler covered his shock by telling the world that Hess was insane and had been influenced by astrologers. In an operation called "Aktion Hess," the Gestapo rounded up somewhere between 300 and 1,000 German astrologers on June 9, 1941, and threw them into the notorious Nazi death camps.

Are Conjunctions Dangerous?

Many astronomical events have been used to predict the end of the world. These include the passage of the Earth through the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910; the comet panics of 1773, 1798, and 1857; planetary conjunctions in 1186, 1365, 1504, 1524, 1962, and 1982; solar and lunar eclipses heralding the Day of Judgment for both Christians and Moslems; and, more recently, the Saturn-like object behind Comet Hale-Bopp. Placed with these, the May 2000 conjunction seems tame.

The rationale for associating this month's conjunction with the end of the world is simply the proximity in time to the change of the millennium. So why not use the Leonid meteor storm, the Christmas Day 2000 solar eclipse, or last December's "brightest" full Moon as the prop for propaganda or prophecy? The sky is full of wondrous spectacles, plenty of fodder for a mystic or seer to justify any dogma.

Will this month's conjunction lead to the end of us? Based on history, I think not. And I am willing to take bets at any odds that the world will not be destroyed by the end of the year 2000.

Bradley E. Schaefer is an astrophysicist at Yale University. In 1991 he planned his series of articles titled ". . . That Changed the World," which has run in the pages of Sky & Telescope.
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Title Annotation:the Moon, with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn
Author:Schaefer, Bradley E.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:3099
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