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Searching for secrets in the stars. A look at astrology's ancient roots and modern practice in America. Recent revelations about astrology in high places are nothing new. This ancient belief has had its ups and downs for some 4,000 years. Its hold on modern thought - in America and around the world - has deep roots in history and culture. Here is the first of a two-part series that looks at astrology's influence and where it comes from.

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SWINGING his hand toward a nearby rack, a busy Boston newsstand operator says, ``Astrology magazines are selling like hotcakes. We carry six different kinds of them, and they go in no time.'' A Florida professor reports: ``The pendulum is swinging back! We're definitely seeing a resurgence of student interest in astrology and other aspects of the occult.''

In Buffalo, N.Y., a group of academics awaits replies to a letter sent to every major US newspaper, asking that disclaimers be run next to the growing number of horoscopes.

Religions condemn it. Scientists scoff at it. Comedians have a heydey with it. But astrology - the ancient belief linking events on earth to the movement of heavenly bodies - is on a roll.

Those recent reports of astrology's presence in the White House were simply the more visible signposts of its presence. In a scientific and presumably skeptical age, it has a place - large or small - in the lives of an alarmingly broad spectrum of Americans.

Nearly two-thirds of US adults read astrology material periodically, and of these, some 26 million read them regularly, according to a report by Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University's Public Opinion Laboratory.

An April Gallup survey found that 85 percent of Americans know what ``sign'' they were born under - up from 76 percent in 1975. Twenty-five percent of Americans were shown to read astrology columns regularly - up 2 percent since 1975 (although there was a marked drop in Americans who professed a belief in astrology.

Some 5,000 professional astrologers practice now in the United States, says the American Federation of Astrologers, an international group with local affiliates. AFA estimates there are at least 50,000 part-time practitioners.

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