Risum Teneatis Amici?

Today marks the anniversary of two Greenwich events. The first was the solemn laying of the foundation stone for the King’s new Royal Observatory on the site of Duke Humphrey’s Tower – August 10, 1675. The second marks a ‘hilarious’ joke played by the soon-to-be Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed on the same day, which led to a misunderstanding that has resounded down the centuries.
Flamsteed was well-known as an irascible astronomer with no time whatsoever for astrology. He had spent some time studying the art but had never managed to make any sense of it. He had come to the conclusion that astrologers filled their almanacs with “astrological whimseys tending only to abuse the people and disturb the public with anxious and jealous predictions,” and was convinced they were charlatans to a man, only in it for the cash.

He noted that whenever things didn’t happen according to prediction, astrologers were always making up excuses about minor alignments or other heavenly events that had got in the way. He complained that whenever predictions went really pear-shaped the astrologers merely said that God had overruled the heavens.

He was particularly scathing about a certain Mr Gadbury, pointing out that he was all-very-accurate when reading charts of dead people but “he predicted danger of death in 1661 for the King of Sweden (or 1663 if he should escape 1661), certain death in 1660 for the Prince of Orange, and the same in 1667 for the Duke of York, yet today (1674) all three are still alive and well.”

He went on to say “Since astrology finds no natural grounds to sustain it, and since experience shows us its falsehood, I hope my readers will withdraw any credit they may have given to this imposture.” What made him seethe even more was that at the time, Astrology and Astronomy were lumped in together as a more or less single subject and he was nigh-on apoplectic at the thought of being tarred with the same brush as such “foolish and opposite to reason” flim-flammery.

Why am I talking about this? Because, on this date in 1675, as a jolly jape to amuse his scientific pals, John Flamsteed actually drew up a horoscope for the Observatory’s birthday. You can see it at the top of this post. Don’t ask me to explain it – I have no idea how it works.

Despite the fact that he headed the whole thing with the Horace quote “Risum Teneatis Amici?” (Can you help but laugh, friends?) Flamsteed’s comedy horoscope has followed him down the years like a bad smell. There are not a few modern astrologers who believe that Flamsteed was an Ephemeridist himself – something that would make him turn in his grave.

Enjoy this beyond-comment extract, from Horogem, for example:

“In 1675, it was Flamsteed who selected Greenwich, England, for the erection of an observatory. The reason for his choice? When he made his mathematical calculations during the 1670s, the meridian running through Greenwich was the geodetic equivalent of no degrees of Aries- the first of the Zodiac signs and the beginning or spring point. London was then the world’s greatest city and the center of learning. Greenwich lies on the zero degree of longitude and, from that line, the meridians are numbered. Also from that line, comes “Greenwich mean time,” upon which time in every corner of the Earth is based.”

Well. There you have it.

Happy Royal Observatory Day, One and All!

One Comment to “Risum Teneatis Amici?”

  1. Importance of Horoscopes and Astrological Predictions

    A horoscope is precisely, the assembly of basic placements of planets at the time of birth. Effective astrological techniques are applied to assess horoscope and to make astrologers able to give accurate predictions pertaining to astrological issues. It can also be referred to as a map of the sky and the planets at a certain moment of a person’s birth. The concept of horoscope in the UK Vedic system is by far the most accurate and sophisticated method of astrological predictions.