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Christopher Columbus, Astrology, and the Discovery of America

Ponder the pivotal role that astrological forecasting played in Columbus discovering the Americas. Would there even be an "America" such as we know it today without astrology and astrological forecasting?

The Untold Story

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Yep... the insight that Columbus (1451-1506) discovered the Americas on October 12, 1492 (Old Style Calendar) sums up what I carried away from my elementary school studies regarding Columbus' discovery of the Americas.

I, also, remember learning that Spain had paid the massive bill for the trip and that it involved three ships named the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

With my early school years occurring in the late 1950s and early 60s, the naive textbook image of Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo or Crostóbal Colón) was that of a courageous, fearless, and dashing explorer.

In recent years - in the genre of “tell it like it really was” books - the image, reputation, mortality, and motivations of Columbus have all been painted with much darker, blemished, and realistic colors.

However, the still untold story is that there was a (now) forgotten motivation spurring on the voyages of Christopher Columbus. This little remembered motivation was a mixture of astrology, astrological forecasting, and apocalyptic (end of the world) Christian zeal.

Columbus and Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly
How do we know about this untold motivating factor for Columbus? According to historian Laura Ackerman Smoller in her fascinating book History, Prophecy, and the Stars... Columbus had a practice of scribbling in the margins of his books. Like us... the more interesting he found a certain passage, the more he scribbled.

What's fascinating (and important) about this bit of Columbus trivia is that facsimiles of his "scribbled-in books" are still around. One such facsimile is the Imago Mundi written by Petrus de Aliaco (most recently republished facsimile; Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society 1927).

Petrus de Aliaco is the Italian rendering of the French name Pierre d’Ailly.

It just so happens that this particular Pierre d’Ailly was a well known, respected French Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church during the later Middle Ages living just prior to the life and times of Christopher Columbus.

In this facsimile of the 288 page d’Ailly book republished in 1483 AD, there were almost 900 hand scribbled notes by Columbus (some possibly by his son).

Bottom line, Columbus was very interested in this book.

The Great Schism
During Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly’s lifetime (1350-1420 AD), a “Great Schism” (1378-1414 AD) had occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. At one point, the schism had become so outrageous that there were simultaneously three different popes appointed by three differing authorities within the church.

It was commonly believed by church leaders of the time that the “Great Schism” was a sign of the end times and of the imminent coming of the antichrist. Cardinal d’Ailly from France was a highly regarded cleric and leader within the church, and as such he played a crucial role in its restoration at the Council of Constance held from November 5, 1414 to April 22, 1418 AD. (Whew! Talk about long meetings. And we think 3 hour meetings are unbearable.)

Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly and the Almost Apocalypse
So, with patience now wearing extremely thin, you might rightly ask: "What in the heck does an obscure book written by an even more obscure medieval French cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church have to do with astrology?"

Cardinal d’Ailly was an advocate of astrology and of astrological forecasting. Based on his own astrological forecasting, d’Ailly shared, preached, and (most importantly) wrote with increasing confidence that the "Great Schism" of the church could be healed and was not meant as a signal that the world was at an end.

Based on the French Cardinal d’Ailly's knowledge of astrology, he (d’Ailly) was convinced the coming of the antichrist would not take place until around the year of 1789 AD. Living in the early 1400s AD, the year of 1789 AD probably seemed like a long way away...

For d’Ailly the astrological planets appeared to be revealing a religious change of great magnitude that was to take place in 1789 AD. The eschatological (end time) scriptures in d'Ailly's Christian Bible provided him with the interpretation that this great change in religion would likely take form as the coming of the antichrist and the resulting apocalypse.

In hindsight, we have the advantage of now knowing that 1789 actually marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Due to the nature of the French Revolution - focusing its sites on the wealth and privileges of nobility, the church, and royalty - Cardinal d'Ailly might well have thought that his beloved France was going to hell in a hand-basket.

Forward Back To Columbus
Moving slightly forward in time, Columbus - based on his readings of Cardinal d'Ailly's Imago Mundi - was convinced that our world had less than 200 years to go before "the end," and said as much in a letter to his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

“Astrology dictated that the world would endure only some 155 years to come. Preceding its destruction, however, Columbus told the monarchs: all of the races would be converted to Christianity. He saw his own voyages as part of the universal missionizing of the last days.” From: History, Prophecy, and the Stars by Laura Ackerman Smoller

Creative Manipulation Of Dates
In the unlikely event you've been paying close attention (yawn), then you might have noticed that for some odd reason Columbus felt the need to move up d’Ailly’s astrological prediction by over 100 years.

Why did Columbus do this? Well... perhaps he was just really bad at math. However, my best guess is he thought d’Ailly’s forecast (placing the end of the world in 1789 AD in around 300 years) wouldn’t be pressing and/or convincing enough for his rich Spanish benefactors to cough up the vast fortune needed to fund his voyages.

Ponder This (Naval Gazing)
Yep! It's fascinating to ponder just how pivotal a role astrology played in Columbus discovering the Americas. Would there even be an "America" such as we know it today, if it weren't for Pierre d'Ailly's admittedly less than perfect apocalyptic and astrological forecasting of the end of the world? I wonder...

Recommended Reading: The following two scholastic books are likely to be of most value to those folks interested in the history of astrology especially as it pertains to the Medieval Period. These two books do not contain practical information on how to practice Medieval Astrology.

History, Prophecy, and the Stars by Laura Ackerman Smoller

The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe by Valerie Flint

Related Article:

How A Lunar Eclipse Saved Columbus by Joe Rao at Space.com. Find out how an almanac prepared by the astrologer Regiomontanus saved Columbus' bacon.

The Untold Story at Understanding Prejudice. This is the other untold story. Many people are surprised to learn that Christopher Columbus and his men enslaved native inhabitants of the West Indies, forced them to convert to Christianity, and subdued them with violence in an effort to seek riches.

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