What is the Tradition in Astrology? The Carter Memorial Lecture
The Carter Memorial Lecture, given at the Astrological Association Conference and the Astrological Lodge of London, September 2009.
What is the tradition in astrology?
There is a book by Miljiana Mitrovic & Alexsandar Imsiragic that is a collection of birthcharts of notable astrologers, from the earliest days down to the present time. It’s in Serbian, but as it’s a collection of birthcharts the language doesn’t matter much. What struck me when I was looking at this is that all the living astrologers associated with traditional astrology whose charts are published here have close Sun/Saturn oppositions. While those fluffy little creatures who frolic in the sun-drenched fields of modern astrology have…. things like planets in Libra! And most of them don’t have Saturn in their chart at all.
What does this tell us – apart from the fact that traditional astrologers are not top of anyone’s party-list? We might think, ‘Aha, they have this obsession with the past – with things that should by rights be long since dead and gone.’ But then we look at the nativities of Lilly, Culpeper, and find exactly the same close Sun/Saturn oppositions. It never crossed the mind of either Lilly or Culpeper that he was doing ‘traditional’ astrology, or that there was anything anachronistic about what he was doing. They were practising astrology as it is – there was no other variety on offer.
Far from being the stern traditionalist of modern legend, Lilly was in fact a gung-ho modernist. The innovations that Kepler was cooking up – the self-contradictory nonsense that is minor aspects – Lilly was first in the queue. I’m quite sure that if you’d gone up to him and said, ‘Hey, Bill, have you heard about Sedna?’ he’d have bitten your hand off. ‘Wow, look - it’s right on my Chiron!’ I’ll come back to the reason for this later.
I have heard people referring to the main-line 20th century astrology as ‘traditional astrology’, in a blithe unawareness that any other form of astrology does exist or ever has existed. But there does seem to be a growing realisation that there was life before Alan Leo. We may argue about what virtues main-line 20th century astrology possesses, but I don’t think there can be a serious argument claiming it as traditional.
Back to the question: what is traditional astrology? Within the world of those miserable, Saturn-afflicted creatures who might be described, whether by themselves or by others, as ‘traditional astrologers’ there are various factions going under various names – not unlike the world of revolutionary politics. People get terribly upset if you align them with the wrong faction, just as if you were confusing your Trotskyites with your Maoists.
There are those who practice ‘medieval astrology’. It baffles me why anyone should want to do this. I live in the 21st century. My clients live in the 21st century. Why should I do medieval astrology? ‘Does he love me?’ ‘Oh, it really doesn’t matter: you’re both going to die of the Black Death tomorrow’.
I must stress here that when I use the term ‘modern astrology’ as a contrast to traditional astrology, I do this in a very loose way, as an abbreviation for something like ‘astrology as most commonly practiced in the modern world’. I firmly maintain that the astrology I practice is every bit as modern as anything involving large numbers of asteroids. It is fully as modern – it just has rather deeper roots.
We hear about ‘classical astrology’. Classical – in contrast to what? If we have some stuff filed under ‘classical astrology’, we probably have a lot of other stuff filed under ‘easy-listening astrology’. Indeed, most of the astrology practiced in the modern world is exactly that: easy-listening astrology.
But this is by no means a modern phenomenon. Most of the astrology practiced throughout most of astrology’s history has been easy-listening astrology, because most of the time that is what the astrologer’s audience wants. ‘When will I meet him?’ ‘Oh, very soon – and in a quite unexpected manner.’ Or, at a bit more sophisticated level, the kind of thing we read in the almanacs: ‘There’s an eclipse in – well, whatever sign you like really - so a noble person will die.’ And, guess what: somewhere or other some noble person does die, thus proving that there is order in the universe. God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world.
This demand for easy-listening astrology is one of the main reasons why there is so much dross in the text-books, ancient as well as modern. Because that is all the easy-listening astrologer needs: a few bits of plausible hocus-pocus to mumble before telling the client exactly what the client wants to hear.
Medieval and Classical are terms employed by traditional astrologers themselves. One also hears, from time to time, the term ‘fundamentalist’ applied to them by others. In the current climate, of course, calling someone a fundamentalist allows you to dismiss their argument without needing to trouble yourself thinking about it. Insofar as ‘fundamentalist’ has a meaning other than that, it seems to be of exclusivity and rigid dogmatism. I would suggest, however, that the view of modernity, with the watchword of ‘it’s true for me’, is fully as exclusive and fully as dogmatic, in its inability or refusal to find value in anything that does not acknowledge its own basic assumptions.
I have been criticised many times for writing in my books that things are true, rather than ‘true for me’. I’m not quite arrogant enough to see why what is true for me should be of the slightest interest to anyone other than my nearest and dearest. What is true for me is that the Grateful Dead are a whole lot better than Celine Dion, but I’m not going to write a book to argue this.
There is one term that I do like, however. At our Real Astrology conference and 6-day natal intensive, which we hold most years, I was discussing Hellenistic astrology when a slip of the tongue by our German translator gave birth to the wonderful concept of Hedonistic Astrology. That is something to which I’ve devoted many years of dedicated research.
Let’s look a little more at William Lilly. There is a strange affliction of the eyesight that affects people when they approach Lilly. It makes 50% of the title of his great textbook invisible. What’s it called? ‘Astrology’? ‘Horary Astrology’? ‘Grumpy Astrology’? Well, no: ‘Christian Astrology’. When this other 50% of the title is noticed, it is explained away as a lip-service to powers that might wish to persecute him – a kind of offering at their altars. Why else would anyone want to call what they do a Christian astrology, except as a way of crostsing the fingers and crying ‘Nix Nix’?
Far from being some politic lip-service, this 50% of the title was, for Lilly, probably the most important word in the whole book. That’s why it’s the one you read first. He is making a direct reference to Tertullian. Tertullian’s fun. If you’ve read Lilly and think he’s a cantankerous so & so – try reading Tertullian. He’s the Liam Gallagher of the Fathers of the Church.
In his tract ‘On Idolatry’ Tertullian at one point turns his attention specifically to astrology. Astrology being idolatry, because it implies the investment of power in the planets. We may think we don’t do that today, but oh we do! Anyone who has ever said ‘Saturn’s transiting my Ascendant, so it’s such a bad time for me’ or ‘I can’t do that today, because Mercury’s retrograde’ is investing power in the planets. My colleagues are out in the courtyard, preparing a fire, so those of you who have done this, please form an orderly queue when the lecture’s over and we will burn you at the stake.
‘But’, Tertullian says, in his discussion of astrology, raising an argument against himself, ‘what about the Magi? They were astrologers.’ He makes much of the statement in the gospel that ‘they went home by a different route’. They were changed by this encounter with Christ. They gave up astrology and took to… he doesn’t specify what – opening a gift shop perhaps. But the exact point that Lilly refers to is Tertullian’s statement that ‘Astrology nowadays treats of Christ. It is the science of the stars of Christ.’ So when Lilly calls his book Christian Astrology, this is a radical statement. It is not mere lip-service, but a nailing of his colours to the mast.
Lilly was a millenarian. We don’t know to exactly which sect he adhered, but it is clear that he believed he was living in the last days. Within the space of his life, either the second coming of Christ on earth or the rule of the saints that would usher in this second coming would undoubtedly occur. So he turns his astrology towards that great event.
Tertullian was not, of course, advocating a new astrology – ‘Hey, this is how we do Christian astrology!’ He was saying that astrology is now redundant. It is most unlikely that Lilly had read Tertullian. But it is equally unlikely that he had not heard Tertullian’s argument given many times by some hell-fire preacher inveighing against astrologers. Inveighing against people such as William Lilly. Remember that Lilly would have listened to two or three sermons on any given Sunday, and idolatry, especially the question of what did or did not constitute idolatry, was the big religious issue of the day. These preachers would have meant something quite different by saying that ‘astrology nowadays treats of Christ’. They were following Tertullian and dismissing astrology. But Lilly picks up this statement and takes it to himself: ‘OK,’ he is saying ‘this is a Christian astrology’.
So the title of Christian Astrology is a bold statement of intent: it’s his manifesto for the book. We all know that bold statements of intent are easy to make; following them up is more difficult. Many among my audience here have written books: you will know well the difference between the bold vision and what one can manage. Does Christian Astrology live up to Lilly’s bold vision? Not that much. There is an awful lot of easy-listening astrology in it: the specious hocus-pocus. (As a completely irrelevant, but perhaps interesting, aside I’ll point out that the term ‘hocus-pocus’ derives from exactly the arguments about idolatry that were going on in Lilly’s day. Hocus-pocus is a mockery of ‘hoc est corpus’: this is the body. ‘Jack-in-the-box’ is from the same idea.)
Lilly picks up what has gone before in astrological manuals. He does a certain amount of winnowing out - ‘the ancients say this, but it doesn’t work’ - but not a great deal. But there are places where he aims for something more. These are in his political judgements: both in his horary examples on political issues, and in those passages in his natal volume which reflect the study he had made of King Charles’ chart, where the delineations are of course bent to his own less than impartial view of events.
For instance, there is a horary on what form of execution the Archbishop of Canterbury would suffer. Lilly’s judgement of this chart owes nothing to astrological principles. What he is writing is purely a piece of propaganda. His concern is to show that the Archbishop of Canterbury – who was of the King’s party, so from Lilly’s point of view a major Baddie – really is a baddie, because it says so in the stars; and that he deserves his fate; and that Parliament is being merciful to him by giving him a more dignified death – having his head cut off, rather than being hanged. Lilly gives this lame addendum, that ‘I thought he was a decent enough guy’. But it is quite obvious from Lilly’s whole judgment that he didn’t think that at all: ‘Oh no you don’t, Bill!’ This is merely him saying ‘Don’t think I’m twisting things because I don’t like him. Look: these are the astrological facts!’
Which they are not. Here we find Lilly’s radical Christian astrology, as he demonstrates that the political events of his day are guided and ordained by God, as shown by their being written in the stars. ‘It’s all right, everyone – the Big Guy’s on our side’. Which is, of course, exactly what we are doing every time we look at a chart and say, ‘Your Moon is on my Sun: oh Darling, we’re made for each other!’ Lilly was by no means the first person who had ever used astrology in this way: such astrological propaganda was around from earliest days. But it is his belief that his astrology is helping to usher in Christ’s kingdom on earth that explains the invisible 50% of his book’s title.
So in Christian Astrology we have a lot of easy-listening astrology; we have a lot of propaganda – George Orwell says that, using the word politics in its widest sense, the ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction’, ‘no book is genuinely free from political bias’. Which is quite true: if you write a shopping-list it has a political agenda. And then, as with any book on anything more complex than the multiplication tables, we have the gaps in the author’s knowledge.
This is why Lilly is so keen on innovations: to fill the gaps in his knowledge.
There will always be such gaps, unless perhaps authors wait until they are dead before writing – which in many cases is, I think, an excellent idea. The logic of a book demands that we can’t leave gaps. We know A, we know B; but we have to say something about C, and – ‘Oh dear, C is something I’m really not sure about’. Often, the stretch this need demands produces inspiration, a leap forward in our knowledge. Sometimes what it produces is more like Wily Coyote realising that he has run over the edge of a cliff. Lilly has his fair share of Wily Coyote moments.
I am talking about Lilly here, because there are those who regard his writing as an infallible revelation, and twist all points of art in the attempt to justify this view. Exactly the same can be said of Bonatti – another popular candidate for infallibility – or any other authority. I’ve discussed only three reasons why books are flawed. There are many others. Books are not to be trusted, and vesting authority in them is misguided.
So the popular game among traditional astrologers of beating each other on the head with weighty volumes is a foolish one. There are those who like to play ‘My authority is older than yours’. Others prefer the variant ‘My authority is more obscure than yours’ – if you can base the whole of your astrology on the work of someone whom nobody else has ever heard of, you’ve really got something!
Ibn Ezra is instructive here. Ibn Ezra possessed what is undoubtedly one of the finest minds ever to have turned itself to astrology. But astrology wasn’t the day-job. He was a rabbi. Not just any old rabbi, but the man whom Maimonides regarded as the greatest of all rabbinical commentators on the Bible. What do rabbis do? They argue. So he knows a thing or two about argument – what is a sound argument and what is not.
His Book of Nativities doesn’t contain anything particularly earth-shattering in terms of technique. What is interesting is the way he treats authorities. I said that Lilly does a certain amount of winnowing-out in Christian Astrology. Ibn Ezra cites authority after authority, and there runs almost like a refrain throughout his book ‘This makes no sense at all’, ‘That can’t possibly work’, ‘Hasn’t this guy ever looked at a chart?’ You can feel him tearing his hair out in despair at what people have written. A lesson for us all. As Culpeper said, let us keep our wits in our heads, because that’s the place ordained for them, and not in our books.
If we follow Culpeper’s advice, we do not need our authorities to be infallible. The great value of Lilly – again, I take Lilly just as an example, because I am more familiar with his work than I am with that of others – is not that he is infallible, but that he gets it so obviously wrong so often. For instance, he laboriously works out somebody’s temperament, and then says, ‘But I know this guy, and he’s not like that at all’. Or he complains that a horary client isn’t grateful to him after he told her how she could persuade a certain man to marry her. We look at the chart, and see: ‘Of course she’s not grateful, Bill – you’ve married her to the wrong man!’
If he didn’t get it so obviously wrong, we might think his methods were perfect. They are far from that. As of course all our methods ever will be – but we can aspire to improve. Which brings me back to Lilly the gung-ho modernist. There are holes in our knowledge. Of course there are. How do we fill them? There are two common answers. There is the answer of modernity, which is to reach into the future, acquire enough new stuff that we can leave the flawed old stuff behind. I’m speaking now of modernity not only in astrological terms, but as the prevailing attitude of the western world for the past several hundred years.
Then there is the answer which is often claimed – I believe incorrectly – to be the traditional method, which is to reach back into the past.
The distinction between what is traditional and what is not is often seen as a temporal division. Old stuff is traditional; new stuff is not. This is an error – a fact that I see more clearly now than when I was writing The Real Astrology. Traditional astrology did not finish at some point in the 18th century. It is alive and well today. A book like The Horary Textbook, for example, is not secondary literature, a book about the tradition. It is as much a living part of that tradition as anything written by any one of the illustrious dead.
Nor is it true that anything written a long time ago is part of that tradition. The western tradition of astrology is a monotheistic tradition. It is the astrology of the Jews, the Christians, and the Moslems. As such, it stands over and against any astrology rooted in relativism. Egyptian astrology; Hellenistic astrology; Vedic astrology; the astrology generally practised today: these are not part of the western tradition of astrology, and, because of the philosophies within which they are framed, have far more in common with each other than they do with that tradition.
This has a lot to do with why Hellenistic astrology is for so many the acceptable face of the tradition. Yes, the Greeks wrote a lot of books, and they had the decency to put ‘Astrology’ in big letters on the front cover, rather than making us read between the lines to find the astrology, as in many other works. But I suspect also the enthusiasm for the Hellenes has a lot to do with an image of that society that seems in many ways not so dissimilar to our own – certain modern authors who would quite fancy a job in the library of Alexandria. This has led to an over-valuation of the Hellenes’ place in history.
It is also most important to realise that the tradition is not a yearning for some past age when things were better than they are today. There is a traditionalist literature outside the world of astrology – authors such as Huston Smith, Coomaraswarmy, Schuon - which holds such a view, and traditional astrologers are often accused of espousing it, no matter how few there are who do so. ‘There was once a golden age, and life has been getting remorselessly worse ever since.’ No matter with what intellectual gravitas this view is expressed, it always reminds me of my grandmother’s firm belief that civilization came to an end when postmen stopped wearing hats. This view is profoundly untraditional. It owes much to a nostalgia for lost youth; much to the Romantic movement, with its idealisation of childhood: nothing at all to an understanding of what tradition is.
Tradition is a living thing. It lives and breathes, moves and changes. A tradition that does not change is dead – and what interest does that hold for us, other than as a piece of sterile intellectual archaeology? This changing is what the Catholic Church refers to as ‘the operation of the Holy Spirit’. This is not some theological abstraction, but the recognition that a tradition, like an individual, can grow in wisdom. Things are learned, things are realised. We grow up.
Coming from a different direction than this traditionalist literature, the theologian Josef Pieper writes that tradition must be passed on exactly as it was received. This too is an error. If tradition were a material artefact it would, of course, be true: if I inherit the Mona Lisa from my father, it is my duty to pass it on to my son without adding any embellishments of my own. Tradition is not a material artefact. It must change, must be changed. The vital thing is, these changes must always preserve its pure essence. So long as that essence remains – so long as its philosophical truth does not become corrupt, does not slide into an easy relativism to suit contemporary trends – the external form of that tradition must adapt to the demands of the time, else it becomes mere anachronism. Traditional astrology is not a costume drama! The idea that we should adhere strictly to this or that authority from the past is as ridiculous as the sword & sandals movies, where Mr Collegiate America wraps himself in a bed-sheet and pretends to be an ancient Roman.
The idea that seeks perfection in the past - there was once perfection and we’ve fallen away since – is no more than the mirror image of the idea that there will be perfection in the future, if only we can piece together enough new stuff: discover enough new planets, for example. The story of the Tower of Babel should persuade us against this idea of a man-made perfection in the future. But when we see those who seek for authority in the past beating each other on the head with their weighty volumes, we see that reaching into the past brings us just as certainly to Babel.
I suggest that our attitude to the tradition should be not one of trying to revert it to its past, nor of trying to remake it in the future, but of understanding it in the present. This increased understanding will come not from reading many books, but from gradually shifting the perceptions so that we see what is before us, not merely manifestations of our own self. This demands a willingness to change ourselves so that we may understand, not a readiness to change the astrology so that it may be understood. It is for this reason that the words with which ibn Ezra began his textbook are the most important words ever written on astrology: The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. It is this that is the heart of the western astrological tradition.
Because this is the basic geographical alignment: up there is the Creat-or; we are his creat-ures – and therefore there a necessary relationship between us. This is the fundamental ‘You are here’ of the astrological map. It doesn’t matter how elaborate we make this map, how many new planets we throw in, or how many old techniques we unearth: if we don’t have the ‘You are here’, the map is useless. It is plainly evident how many of these innovations – whether imported from the future or from the past - are an attempt to make up for the absence of exactly this ‘You are here’.
Truth is not back there somewhere, nor over there somewhere, but only, always, and ever, up there.
That is why this is the picture of the traditional astrologer.