Go is astrological in origin, you say? I say not a chance!

I just doubt it. Kind of a lot, like REALLY a lot.

Counters are very useful and so are grids. Fine. Lots of things we can count and keep track of, armies, villages, sacks of rice, mapping the farm or the sky, yes that all makes a lot of sense. A go set would make a fine substitute for a map or an abacus in a pinch.

But let me ask you this, how many Go players do you know who are into astrology or other metaphysical approaches to problem solving? How many accountants, engineers (software or otherwise) or generals do you know that truly rely on palm reading, tea leaves or which birds are flying on a given day to make a choice? Are they successful? Am I being an overly rhetorical smart ass? Wrong answers only please.

The idea that somehow a scant few thousand years ago we were all just superstitious primitives, problem-solving through divination just does not make sense to me. Were there people back then who did that kind of thing? I am certain of it because such people exist now. Were people in general more superstitious then than now? Probably so, they had less data with which to make rational decisions.

However, the attitudes and approaches needed for grids and counting would preclude such lines of thought. And specifically, the type of person who is attracted to abstract logic for fun, as in a game such as Go, simply does not seem like the kind of person who leaves their destiny up to fate. Those who believe in ‘fortune’ enjoy gambling on dice or horse racing, but don’t so often play go. Some people just like games, any kind of game. I am one of those people, but I play Go a lot more than I gamble at the casino. The mental approach needed for a game of Go is almost antithetical to fatalistic ‘will-of-the-gods’ type of approaches to life embodied by astrology.

I believe this origin story idea originates from confusion about which came first and the explanations people come up with for things they don’t understand. For example, Western astrological signs are based on astronomical observations. The astrologer uses a system of understanding time to divine the nature of a person’s spirit and soul. This system is fundamentally a calendar. When you study astronomy, it becomes clear really quickly which one is the origin and which is the outgrowth. The names of the different signs and their meanings are of human invention, but the part of the sky covered by each is not. Divide the orbital disk into twelve arcs, one zone for each month, and there you have it.

An ignorant bystander watching a couple of ancient astronomers staring at the sky and arguing about the import of the Sun being in Leo vs. Cancer might cause them to think it was a spiritual or religious conflict, but that wouldn’t make it so. Go players arguing over the status of a group of stones could also become passionate in their fervor over the situation. Still wouldn’t make it up to the gods to decide the fate of that group of stones, or the game. The rules might be imperfect, but they are the rules agreed upon by people, trying to do things in an orderly way, not the will of capricious gods.

Sometimes people who are technically focused make up simple explanations for things they are doing just to get someone off their back. That is especially true if they believe the person they are talking to won’t understand or be interested in the explanation if they gave it. Perhaps that is the origin of the presumed connection with astrology.

Who created the grid because they needed it? Who needed contrasting counters or tokens? Was it the astronomers or the astrologers? I know which group of people, which ways of thinking, I would put my money on, what about you? Does my thesis make sense, or am I missing some other intangible factor that somehow turns this thought experiment on its head?

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Looks like at least nineteen ;)


I’m not even posting this for the betting, but for the game explanation.

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Joking aside.

Rather than throw in my two cents, in the current cashless and covid-safe economy I’ll just link a video that I found quite interesting, on the division (or lack of) between “science” and “superstition”.

It’s about John Dee, who was an English scholar, experimenter and author of the 16th and early 17th C, and the way in which his studies overlapped what modern people would consider as those two separate categories, which might be better considered historically as more interlaced.


And a patent?!

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I think you’ll also appreciate a passage in Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History of Alexander, concerning the impact of an eclipse on the eve of one of Alexander the Great’s battles.

I’ll find my book, if I can, and quote from it. It’s an example of what you suggest, the use of astronomy for religious or political ends.

There is a saying which I think might derive from Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which goes something like “To the people, all gods were real; to the philosophers, none; and to the state, whichever were convenient.”

Turns out the exact form was “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”


One might imagine Go was invented like this: A 23 year old woman was relaxing on the soft grass on a Saturday evening, it was one of the last warm days of the year 3142 BC. She had counted bags of rice all day long and was looking at the stars, letting her thoughts wander to whatever came into her mind. And then slowly the stars began to move, dancing around each other until one was surrounded and vanished.

I’m pretty sure it happened like that, but I don’t know whether she was into astrology or astronomy. Were those separate fields back then?


Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, originally written in Latin probably about 350 years after the event described and based on a lost earlier source.

1984 Penguin edition (2001 revision)

Alexander encamped there [in Mesopotamia] for two days and had marching orders proclaimed for the third, but at about the first watch there was an eclipse of the moon. First the moon lost its usual brightness, and then became suffused with a blood-red colour which caused a general dimness in the light it shed.

Right on the brink of a decisive battle [against Darius and his Persian army] the men were already in a state of anxiety, and this now struck them with a deep religious awe which precipitated a kind of panic. They complained that the gods opposed them being taken to the ends of the earth, that now rivers forbade them access, heavenly bodies did not maintain their erstwhile brightness, and they were met everywhere by desolation and desert. The blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country, disowned his father Philip, and had deluded ideas about aspiring to heaven.

Mutiny was but a step away when, unperturbed by all this, Alexander summoned a full meeting of his generals and officers in his tent and ordered the Egyptian seers (whom he believed to possess expert knowledge of the sky and the stars) to give their opinion. They were well aware that the annual cycle follows a pattern of changes, that the moon is eclipsed when it passes behind the earth or is blocked by the sun, but they did not give this explanation, which they themselves knew, to the common soldiers.

Instead, they declared that the sun represented the Greeks and the moon the Persians, and that an eclipse of the moon predicted disaster and slaughter for those nations.

They then listed examples from history of Persian kings whom a lunar eclipse had demonstrated to have fought without divine approval. Nothing exercises greater control over the masses than superstition. Usually ungovernable, cruel and capricious, when they are gripped by superstition by obey prophets more readily than their generals.

Thus the dissemination of the Egyptians’ responses restored hope and confidence to the dispirited soldiers.


I know OP knows this thread, but we should still link it in:

If I understand correctly (and I haven’t reread it recently), the model of @claire_yang is basically that Go models a conflict over water in a classically Chinese sedentary farming society, with the lines and intersections representing irrigation canals and wells / ponds, and the squares standing in for the rice paddies that needed the water to thrive. One controls the water to control the land.


Paging resident Go Historian @claire_yang

edit: whoops i see bugcat just did that >.<


I have seen my share of betting at the go board, for sure. Is betting on Go the same as playing a slot machine? Not really, in my opinion, especially if you are betting on your own behalf against your opponent in a game with no real chance, except perhaps who gets black…

Still thank you for this cool article!

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As a visual artist, scientists tend to look at what I do as being ‘not science’, and I agree with them up to a point. Art can be truthful without being scientific, per say. A great many artistic expressions/achievements precede the same ideas being verified by experimentation. This is because artists, some kinds of artists at least, are like scientists who create intuitive proofs of their ideas. That is to say, the goal is to get the audience to recognize the truthfulness and/or merit of an idea, or to appreciate a feeling or sensation through their own direct experience of it, rather than through the use of a logical proof such as the scientific method and data metrics. Everything that is unknown to people first appears magical, because they can’t see an explanation. That doesn’t mean they are magic though. Yet, there are still a lot of ideas and people which, in my opinion, are nonsense either way. Also @Jon_Ko : For creativity, one must be receptive to what comes without judgement or label. I am just grateful she thought of it so I would have something to think about that I could never really tire of and only put down for a while when I run out of energy or depth…

Friendly advice: Don’t ask this question an astronomer.


Who are you arguing with? Where did the proposition in the thread title appear?

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But, but…my handy straw man…

I think @claire_yang would be the one to confirm or deny this is one of the common rumors or origin stories, but I feel pretty confident that at least some people like to reference this concept, particularly with cosmic numerology, and Tao as in Yin and Yang in perfect harmony on the board, etc. @bugcat already dropped a link to one of the relevant historical discussions if you are curious…

Maybe I’ll ask Josef M. Gaßner – Wikipedia, he’s a nice guy with great (German) YouTube content.

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The line between astrology and astronomy has always been a particularly fuzzy one, even in our times. I could say that all the astronomers of the past had to moonlight as astrologers so they could fund their researches/remain unhanged-unburnt/promote religions/support a king etc. Therefore, I would consider it a “yes” as long as an “astrologer” of the past was in reality a professional astronomer in fancy jewlery.


I am not into astrology at all, so I do not have much to contribute, but if you are worried about the veracity of ancient astronomy/astrology there was a very good theory I had read once that the ancient scientists used the astrological star-signs to track the sun, for their own practical purposes (be that for harvesting or predicting things concerning the cycle of the sun).

The common people knew of the tracking of the sun via those stars, but they were not aware of the practical implications which the scientists of the time were using. Fast forward an untold amount of years and either by social divolution or war or internal strife the scientists were gone and their “sacred/secret” knowledge which was passed from master to apprentice was now gone.

What was left was " the tracking of the sun via those stars" and thus astrology and all the superstition around it were born because that was all that was left.


DARPA wants their research funding back. Kidding! :sweat_smile:

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At the risk of repeating myself: I believe that many living astronomers might feel offended / sad after hearing this statement. Astronomy is science, astrology is capitalizing on superstition.

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