Stars in their eyes, geopolitics on their minds

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The Independent Online

The audience nodded earnestly as a circle subdivided into zodiacal symbols and strings of digits was projected on to the wall of Hertfordshire University's state-of-the art lecture hall.

To the uninitiated, it looked like a random array of birth signs and planetary symbols drawn up by the sort of astrologer to be found on fairgrounds or obscure cable television channels predicting a spot of financial bother or a flurry of romance.

Instead, what the gathering of some of Britain's most ardent students of celestial bodies was looking at was altogether more ambitious and high-minded - an astrological explanation of the war in Iraq. Down the corridor, another devoted astrologer, Glenda Cole, was finalising a lecture showing how Harold Shipman's horoscope could cast light on the motivation and timing of the nation's most prolific murderer.

Welcome to zodiac gazing 21st century-style, where the relative positions of the stars have an influence not so much on interplanetary affairs but current affairs.

For the next two days, the Astrological Association of Great Britain (AAGB) will hold its 38th annual conference with some 200 delegates, aged 18 to 80 and spanning all walks of life, exploring how a discipline dismissed by the scientific establishment as baseless pseudo-science can cast new light on concrete matters from geo-politics to the criminal mind.

A glance at the programme shows workshops on the importance of solar arcs on a life along with sessions on the marriage of Venus to Eros and Pluto's nefarious role in promoting battles over ideology.

But, fed up with the glib image of their craft and the general perception that it is about as useful at predicting events as crystal ball gazing, leaders of the AAGB were yesterday determined to prove that astrology has been much misunderstood.

Roy Gillett, 68, the association's president, who gave up a career as an English teacher to become a full-time astrologer 30 years ago, said: "Things like sun sign horoscopes in the papers offer a very partial expression of what astrology is about. It is a far more complex and deeply-rooted subject which provides the basis for most of what we know as modern science.

"Astrology can provide an explanation not only for the war in Iraq but the entire situation in the Middle East for the most of the last century. There are a lot of people out there practising astrology who feel passionately that they can offer explanation in the modern world."

Indeed, the campus of Hertfordshire University was dotted with exponents of cutting-edge horoscope research - from a property developer to a barrister - who had left behind day jobs to interpret people, nations and events in the context of the firmament.

As well as explaining the conflagration in Iraq (apparently due to similarities in the birth charts of Tony Blair and George Bush and a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn), there were charts on display showing how a pinnacle of aggression had been expected this summer in Beirut due to an unusually aggressive and negative meeting between Mars and Saturn.

For the past 350 years such claims have been uniformly dismissed by scientists as mumbo-jumbo.

A German-Danish study of more than 15,000 people - the largest of its kind - concluded in April this year that there was "no support" for astrology's key tenet that date and time of birth can influence personality traits or general intelligence.

Yet the subject still attracts massive interest. The websites of celebrity astrologers such as Russell Grant or Jonathan Cainer attract some 10 million hits a month. While many at the conference would distance themselves from the populist end of astrology, they take heart from such enduring fascination.

Mr Gillett said: "We don't need to justify ourselves. We live in a time where we are wonderfully good at explaining the material but we have become very poor in our emotional understanding, our philosophical underpinning. Astrology is a different discipline which answers those needs."