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Early Star Maps and Astrology

So far as we know, the first people to map the positions of stars were the Chinese astronomers Shi Shen, Gan De and Wu Xian in the third and fourth century BC. Their work was passed along over the centuries in various media, although inaccurately. The earliest copy we have is a star map from the Tang Dynasty (roughly 9th century AD), discovered in modern times in the ruins of a monastery in the deserts of central Asia.

The constellations as seen by ancient astronomers
in China, in a copy of a copy of a 4th-century BC star map.

The earliest Western catalog of stars was created by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus around 129 BC, building on earlier work going back to the Babylonians. Most of Hipparchus’s work was lost, although later astronomers used parts of it. A record of his star map may be preserved in the celestial globe on a second-century AD statue of Atlas, recovered from Roman ruins during the Renaissance.

Roman statue of Atlas bearing the heavens showing constellations, possibly from a 2nd-century BC Greek star map, including mythical images still more ancient.

The early Chinese, Babylonians and Greeks were chiefly interested in how the Sun, Moon and planets moved through the patterns the stars made on the sky. A main aim was astrological predictions. But each culture grouped stars in different “constellations,” and astrologers were never able to agree on a system for prediction. Astrology was a grand first attempt at cosmology that is, a system for understanding the workings of the universe but it could never develop into a science. For the world is not in fact influenced by the positions of stars. After all, the patterns they form would look completely different if they were viewed from some other position in space.

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