International Society for the Study of Religion
Torino, July 2003

Returning Astrology to the Academy

Michael York
Bath Spa University College

Jean Baudrillard, in a brief footnote to his miniscule book entitled Simulations, stated simply that along with Plato’s consideration of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, we must now also add the virtual as a fourth ontological category (Baudrillard, 1983:157). Despite the brevity of Baudrillard’s statement concerning these fundamental categories, he has perhaps circumscribed the parameters of all human dialogue in its encounter with itself and the cosmos. But along with the real, the symbolic, the imaginary and the virtual, or what Baudrillard himself refers to as the hyperreal, I would want to add a possibly fifth category, the mnemonic, although, considering that Plato’s reality as the ideal is largely different from what we understand today as reality, I am not certain that the mnemonic might not be a third fundamental aspect of the real itself – along eros and death. (Perhaps a fourth component of the real, if we add the inevitability of taxes as well).

It was Freud who first delineated the ubiquitous role of the libido underlying human behaviour. He explored the function of physical and sexual attraction that operates and motivates us on a multitude of different levels – both consciously and, through repression, unconsciously. But along with the latent and actively goading force of attraction, that other fundamental constituent of human reality is of course death. Whether we as individuals believe that there is a post-mortem existence or not, for those of us `left behind’ when someone dies, there is a finality of death that broaches no compromise, no submission to wishful thinking and no other recourse but to face squarely the reality of the event.

Nevertheless, whilst Freud posits human history as the struggle between eros as the life instinct and thanatos as the death instinct, the importance of memory is nonetheless essential for us as human beings. Granted someone with the insights of Ram Dass can stress `being here now’, but Richard Alpert’s adage would seem to have more to do with the stresses and pressures of contemporary life in which we are increasingly ruled by targets and future planning, with no time for the present. In contrast, I can consider my mother who has spent her future and yet cannot remember whether my brother-in-law visited her earlier in the day. Whilst she is fortunately not having to contend with Alzheimer’s and can remember events from her past, she is forced by default to live increasingly solely in the present and `to be here now’.

However, as viably functioning individuals – composing in addition viably functioning societies, memory is essential. Whether we codify our remembrances as history or embed them into various cultural constructs, our ability to recollect the past is vital to any feasible programme to prepare for the future as well as any possibility toward not simply repeating the same mistakes we have made previously. The institutionalisation of collective memory plays a crucial role in the formation of social identity on all levels: the national, ethnic, religious, professional, avocational and so forth. We honour seminally significant individuals by naming after them buildings, academic chairs, airports, cities and streets, by erecting monuments and plaques to their memory, or by retaining – and studying – their legacies in libraries and museums. More broadly, collective experience is stereotyped and mythologised into national, civil and non-secular religions, into various forms of hero worship – whether military, athletic or cultural, and into a range of hermeneutical traditions ranging from the scientific to the esoteric.

As scholars, we want to, and must, study all of these. Neglect of our pasts encourages collective amnesia and the political madnesses that can result from such forgetting. It is for this reason that the academic serves a pivotal and instrumental social function. She forever examines the past to help the rest of us prepare for the future – and, in so doing, allows for the present to become as viably optimal as possible for all of us. This is a central role of education, and in the latitude of its remit, there is ultimately nothing that is out of bounds or to be excluded as a bona fide subject of study in the arena of the university.

Until the advent of contemporary methodologies in which science became the prima facie only means to reliable knowledge, traditional didactic areas of focus included alchemy, the hermetic arts, numerology and astrology. In fact, originally astrology concerned the application of astronomy to human uses. As with the fluidity between alchemy and chemistry, the distinction between astrology and astronomy was nominal if it existed at all. Astronomy is simply the study of the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies and the phenomena that involve them; astrology is the practical application of astronomical knowledge to human concerns. Until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, astrology occupied a central place in the university curriculum.

As an astral form of divination, astrology is traced to the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians. We encounter little of the practice in Greece until after the time of Alexander the Great, but it flourished subsequently for irregular intervals under the Romans where professional astrologers were known as chaldaei or mathematici. As essentially a Hellenistic development, astrology came to combine Chaldean and Egyptian astral religions with Hellenic astronomy, mathematics and mythology. It was attributed to the Egyptian god Thoth, who was identified with the Greek Hermes and considered progenitor of the hermetic arts. During the Republic, respect for the Chaldaeans was considerably low, and they were expelled from the city and all of Italy in 139 BCE. Their fortunes reversed, however, during the civil wars and the Empire, though they were still subject to trials for treason and expulsion. Nevertheless, due to being increasingly consulted by the imperial family, eventually astrologers were only forbidden to consult the stars to determine the length of the emperor’s life. Not until after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity did subsequent emperors issue various edicts forbidding all astrological consultation.

The Moors are credited with bringing astrology to Spain in the ninth century. The centrality of astrology to medieval epistemology is seen in the Faustian legend of Germany in which Faust is portrayed as an astrologer as well as a sorcerer. In France, astrology regained popularity during the reign of Catherine de Medici (1547-1559). English practitioners include Adelard of Bath (1075-1160), Michael Scot (c.1175-c.1232) and Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294). In the 16th century, John Dee used astrological symbols to construct his magical circle for the evocation of spirits. Consequently, even a superficial survey of the role of astrology in the history of Western culture indicates its pre-Enlightenment importance and the possibility if not likelihood of its function in shaping worldviews as well as views and memories of the past. My point is that astrology is a particular form of institutionalised collective memory that has played a significant part in the development of Western thought and, as is yet the case, a determinative function in the contemporary navigation of human life between the competing dimensions of the stellar, the psychological and the cyber.

In much of its Hellenistic origins, astrology is clearly a self-sufficient Platonic hermeneutic that has been systemically rather than empirically derived. With its Gnostic bias derived from Orphism, Plato, Plotinus and Hermeticism, astrology’s revival in the Renaissance stressing a transcendental understanding of the cosmos and the idea of the inner divine core of each individual became seminal to the later theosophical theology of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891). Already before Blavatsky, in 1816, James Wilson published his Complete Dictionary of Astrology in England. Shortly afterwards, various astrological works appeared under the pseudonym of Raphael (Robert C. Smith, 1795-1832). By far, however, it was the theosophist Alan Leo (William Frederick Allen, 1860-1917) who laid the foundations for the present-day understanding of astrology as a  `science of the stars’. The current popularity of astrology finds its origins in the late 1930s with the emergence of daily horoscopes in newspapers. As a professional astrologer, Leo founded the journal Modern Astrology and authored numerous books on the subject. In the course of the 20th century, especially through its links with theosophy, astrology became the lingua franca of the 1960s counterculture as well as the New Age movements that have descended from it. Its use of the astronomical phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes has become the guiding framework within which the New Age of Aquarius has been heralded.

Consequently, astrology remain as a persistent tradition within the West, along with its post-Hellenistic offshoots in India and the Islamic world, that is part of the wider field of cultural astronomy, namely, the impact of beliefs and/or understandings of the heavens on human behaviour. As such, cultural astronomy includes such foci as astral divination beside astrology (e.g., making prognoses through the observation of eclipses, comets, meteors or weather patterns), stellar aspects of religion (e.g., basing festivals and/or agricultural enterprise on the appearance of particular constellations; the use of meteoritic `stones from the sky’ as objects of veneration; the intricacy of the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra ceremony), cosmology, calendrical development in general and archaeo-astronomy (e.g., concerning the decipherment of the purpose behind such megalithic sites as Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange, Loughcrew and so on). Among the Mesopotamians, Chinese, Indians and Mayans, in particular, ritual calendars emerged in order to keep terrestrial culture linked to the gods conceived primarily as dwellers in the sky above. Whilst all these and more constitute the proper objects of cultural astronomical study, understanding both the calendar and its nuanced legacy and the institutionalised astrological patterns of the heavens remain central features of Western cultural identity in that they are not only closely interconnected with its history but also still impact on its contemporary thought of today. This last, in the face of the prevailing scientific hegemony, is perhaps all the more paradoxical and, accordingly, merits particular attention by the academic community. In a world that is promoted as understood only through rational and empirical means, why do people remain fascinated with the paranormal of the occult? Along with religion itself for the most part, what are the dynamics of cognitive dissonance in relation to the discipline of astrology? As Michael Hill (1973:247) points out, “Interest in astrology seems to be an area of considerable importance even in the most technologically advanced areas of Western society.”

It is easy – let alone relatively common – for the sceptic to be dismissive. But part of the dilemma of the academy’s reception of astrology as a legitimate area of study comes from a narrow understanding of astro-logos itself. The astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemeus, c. 100-178 CE) developed the astrological map that remained the geocentric model of understanding terra firma-based human endeavour vis-à-vis the heavenly bodies until the advances of knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1543, however, Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) proved that the sun is stationary in relation to the planets – including the earth – that revolve around it. With the recognition of the heliocentric structure of our universe and the further understandings contributed by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Ptolemaic astrology began its historic decline.

But of course, astrology has not only had to fend itself against the advances of modern science, it also fell under the anathema of Augustine who claimed all pagan divination to be the work of the devil. With the triumph of the Church, astrological practices, their treatises and use of the birth chart as a form of predicting the future were condemned. When Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529, Hellenic scholars took shelter in the Pahlavi empire of Persia. There they translated Greek texts that eventually reached India but, more importantly for the West, became foundational for the subsequent development of Arabic astrology. Nevertheless, astrology also suffered further in the West through the polarisation between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Enlightenment periods. But it was the advocacy of scientific methodology and modern philology that destroyed astrology as representing a priscia theologia or pure knowledge of God that reputedly stemmed from the origins of the world. Astrological interest survived only as a vernacular enterprise encapsulated in popular almanacs, textbooks and magazines until the `occult revival’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Inasmuch as contemporary astrology is a theosophical derivative, it follows a transcendental format, that is, it is essentially an a priori prognostic system developed out of its own internal logic and balancing of patterns. This does not preclude the possibility of subjecting astrology to empirical confirmation. But at the same time, it is important to recognise astrology as something more than merely a system of divination. In fact, Patrick Curry (Curry & Willis, 2004) argues that divination itself is less about telling us what will happen as it is about indicating to us what we should do. Metaphorically, as it has been traditionally, divination is the attempt by people to discern the will of the gods or God in relation to a human desire. Instead of working with presentiments or standardised expectations, astrology as a comprehensive system is one that seeks its informing patterns among the planets, luminaries and constellations of the heavens.

Astrology has been an inevitable part of humanity’s desire to know its place in the universe and understand macrocosmic/microcosmic connections. Overtime, and despite their being superseded by more sophisticated and predictable systems of explanation, the symbols and terms of astrology have entered into and become part of the cultural register. In the surfeit of choice that has come to characterize the contemporary West, the familiar and methodological are becoming supplemented and sometimes replaced by the exotic and superstitious. Many are turning to forgotten and discarded spiritual vernaculars in an attempt that might be interpreted as stemming from a desire for more colourful and mystically laden symbols and notions. Astrology is at the forefront of this popular interest – combining as it does the familiar with the obscure.

In 1770, astrology ceased to be studied at the University of Zaragoza. In general, the discipline faded along with the medieval curricula. Academic interest in the subject ostensibly ceased until 1999 when the Sophia Trust in Britain sponsored the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology at Southampton University. The Trust subsequently has funded a Research Fellowship at the Warburg Institute in London and cosmology and divination modules as part of the M.A. programme in Mysticism and Religious Experience at the University of Kent, Canterbury. In 2002, the Sophia Trust launched a full post-graduate programme at Bath Spa University College with the establishment of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology – definitively closing a hiatus in objective investigation of the astrological discipline as a legitimate focus of research. The Sophia Centre’s M.A. Programme is originally an initiative of Bath Spa’s Study of Religions Department that follows in the line of phenomenological scholarship and comparative religion studies. This methodology has sought to distance value-neutral investigation of religion – any religion – from traditional, Christian theological-oriented religious studies that follow essentially an apologetic approach incorporating religious bias. The Sophia Programme at Bath Spa, accordingly, endeavours to investigate the cultural aspects of astrology without passing judgment on the validity or invalidity of the subject itself.

In addition to the British initiatives – including the development of an M.A. in Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester, a B.A. programme has been authorised in July 2000 at Seattle’s Kepler College in Astrology and the Liberal Arts (Washington State, USA). Under Professor Jesús Navarro-Artigas, in 2000, the University of Zaragoza (Spain) has developed a collaborative Research Project involving the departments of Philosophy, History of Art and Electronics and Communications Engineering into the History of Astrology. That same year, Zaragoza offered a course on Astrology and its History in Western Civilisation. In the academic year 2001-2002, the course was expanded from six credits to nine.

For the Sophia Centre in Britain, the interest remains with the culture and history of astrology or, more broadly, cultural astronomy in which astrology is one area along with archaeoastronomy, calendrical science, stellar religion and cosmology among others. The programme looks specifically at human behaviour as it is influenced by belief concerning the stars and heavens. Consequently, rather than understanding astrology as exclusively or even principally a matter of divination, the undertaking at the Bath Spa University College considers astrology as a cultural narrative that is concerned with the cosmos as a whole and dynamics of interaction that permeate this cosmos between all its various components – especially humanity. Astrology is simply a particular, traditionally established, mnemonic worldview that assumes the human being’s micocosmic reflection in some form or another of the macrocosmic scope of the cosmos.

If there is a single area with which astrology in the twenty-first century is concerned, it would have to be with how and why people assign and determine value – perhaps in this case the projection of worth against the unavoidable awe concerning the firmament and our place within it. The relevance of any astrological contribution to axial study stands in contrast to the rising self-indulgence of our times that Justin Cartwright bemoaned in a recent article entitled the “Rise of the new infantilism” published in The Guardian’s Review (05.07.03:7):

Fundamentalism … is a kind of infantilism. Although it pretends to subsume the individual into a greater truth, it is in a sense the mirror image of the promotion of the self: it provides a simple, infantile, answer to the world’s problems. Just as fairy tales simplify moral choices, and religions codify them, so fundamentalism discounts liberal democracy and human rights. In contemporary society it also provides an identity: look, I have discovered the truth and certainty, while you are still groping about in a kind of moral swamp. And from this certainty, as history has shown, consequences inevitably follow.

For Cartwright, the problem is not really the `dumbing-down’ that has been linked to television but is instead “a society that has no confidence in attributing value.” From this follows both self-indulgence and infantile behaviour and, from these, childish political solutions and commercial promises. According to Cartwright, “It’s a kind of make-believe because we don’t know what our values are.”

In astrology’s pinning of the human enterprise to the full sweep of the cosmos, its thinking by default must question the attribution of significance and value at every turn. Confronted by the magnitude of the universe, the astrological inclination is almost invariably away from the elementary certainties of fundamentalism and toward the open-ended doubts and perpetual exchange embedded in cosmopolitanism. In the middle ages, someone like Trithemius of Würzberg, who was born in 1462, developed a complex system of astrological ciphers or encryptions to interact with astral intelligences or zodiacal archons. Today, astrological language is used and interpreted more in line with psychological understandings such as we see in the work of Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas.

But if our world is now being infected by Baudrillard’s `ontological virus’ of the hyperreal, cyberspace still offers a further dimension to our cosmos. According to Erik Davis (1999:251), Baudrillard suggests that “the simulacrum has an apocalyptic power. By manufacturing a multiverse of virtual realities, simulation can end the world simply by throwing the stability of all worlds into permanent crisis.” But short of Baudrillard’s totalising pessimism, cyberspace may offer simply a further dimension along with cosmic space for the human encounter. As with all space, there are inherent dangers, but the possibilities of the experiential in the realms of virtual reality are increasingly being suggested by the likes of the currently popular Matrix films as well as pervasive employment of youth culture trance techniques from rave dance, psychedelics and pagan ritual. In both reflective entertainment and psychotropic experimentation, the basic thrust is to breakdown ontological barriers between cosmic reality, the psychologically real and the hyperreal to explore dimensional interdependence. At the same time, contemporary explorations of trance tend to transform aspects of the imaginary into the hyperreal or imaginal, perhaps as a means to interact with the supernatural or preternatural itself and thereby re-enchant an overly rational and secularised world.

Astrology is the study of the cosmos – both the macrocosm and microcosm – in terms of human value and meaning. It anchors the psychological against stellar signposts in order to explore the vagaries of human emotion and fortune along with the expanding possibilities of nanotechnology and hyperreality. Against the astral and the cyber, it works with the libido of attraction – whether the physical attraction between people or the stellar attraction and influence of heavenly bodies. In short, astrology is concerned with the cosmos in its fullest sense. This is not a concern with a static cosmos but rather with the attraction and influence within and throughout a dynamic cosmos.

Freud’s erotic may be identified as part of the living pull that renders our cosmos something other than simply a gigantic machine. In the all-encompassing dynamics of centrifuge and repulsion, the force of attraction operates through the generation of order from chaos, the gravitational attraction of physical bodies, the reversing pulsation of magnetism, and the erotic/aesthetic pull of individuals – including that most centring emotion we know as love. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the emerging patterns seen to be at the heart of the cybernetic feedback loop have been labelled `strange attractors’. In short, whether we are concerned with the principle of order that gives shape to the nuclear, the molecular, the organic, the human or the cosmic, whether the technical or the natural, we are concerned with the ordering principle of nature itself. The magnetic impetus toward order behind both the most infinitesimal and the vast cosmos as well as the social drives of humanity are the concerns of astrology as a discipline that has re-entered the scrutiny of scholarly investigation.



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Cartwright, Justin. “Rise of the new infantilism,” The Guardian: Review (5 May 2003:7).

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