Research Project


Who Wants to Live Forever? Astrological Methods for Determining Lifespan in Western Culture

Helena Avelar de Carvalho

My research revealed that the theoretical notion of astrological determinism has changed significantly throughout time. Some of these changes were prompted by conceptual shifts, others by the need to defend astrology from attacks on its legitimacy. In some instances, the topic of determinism was instrumentalized to attack certain astrological practices, or astrology as a whole. In any case, the notion of fate embraced by the Greek doctrine had gradually shifted into more nuanced versions, culminating by the end of the medieval period in a conception of the future as a set of possibilities, with only a few unavoidable aspects – one of them being, obviously, death. By then, the stance of most astrologers on the knowledge of future events was more probabilistic than deterministic. Astrological prediction was seen not as much as the harbinger of an inescapable future, but mor as the key to access personal choices. Even in the wake of the papal prohibitions of the sixteenth century, this appears to have been the mainstream perspective. In this view, free will was no longer obliterated by determinism; instead, it has been turned into an operative force, capable of changing, to some extent at least, the power of astrological configurations.

These changes also reflected on the astrological methods to calculate the individual’s lifespan: different techniques produced different results but, instead of creating divergencies between practitioners, they were integrated into a complex system encompassing a minimum and a maximum life span. Within this interval the individual had some degree of agency to extend life as much as possible. The manner in which the astrologer dealt with the answers obtained with this method reflects his views on destiny and determinism. Although the rules retained the same overall structure from early authors, the attitude of medieval astrologers differed somewhat from that of their predecessors. This resulted in part from the merging of the different methodologies, in part from the shift in philosophical and religious stances. The outcome was a gradual flexibilization in the method, allowing the prevalence of free-will over fate.

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