The Astrological Tradition

The Golden Dawn stands as an inheritor of the Hermetic tradition with its Trivium Hermeticum, the triune spiritual disciplines of theurgy (magic), alchemy, and astrology. The role of astrology in the Golden Dawn as is also the case with the entire Hermetic tradtion, is surprisingly not primarily one of divination or fortune telling. Rather it is used as an adjunct to theurgy and alchemy, as for example, in astrological magic, or in the use of specific astrological cycled in both alchemy and theurgy.

History of Astrology in the West

The precise origin of astrology is lost to history, but its practice appears to have developed independently in both China and Mesopotamia, and was quite known early in India. One of the most remarkable astrological treatises of all history is the fabulous Bhrigu-Samhita of ancient India, said to contain formulas for ascertaining the names of all individuals, past, present, and future, and their destinies. Unlike popular Western astrology, the key to a Bhrigu consultation is not the birth sign and conjunction of planets, but the moment of consultation of the oracle.

Marco Polo found astrology well established in China, although Chinese astrology developed apart from Western history and only recently has been imported into the West. Western astrology seems to have originated in Mesopotamia, and all of the cultures of ancient Iraq and Iran contributed to its creation. Among the earliest records of astrology are the cuneiform tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (669-626B.C.E.). Astrologers were making periodic reports to Ashurbanipal on such matters as the possibility of war and the probable size of the harvest. Astrology had been present in the region for at least a millennium but was given a distinctive boost by the Chaldeans who took over the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in 606 B.C.E. The Chaldeans mapped the sky, improved the methods for recording the passing of time, successfully predicted eclipses, and accurately determined the length of the solar year (within 26 minutes).

Thus astrology was well developed in Chaldea when (in the second millennium B.C.E.) the biblical Abraham migrated from Ur of the Chaldees (Gen. 11:31) to Palestine. The conflict between the emerging religions of the Israelites and Babylonian astrology can be seen in Isa. 47:13 and repeatedly in the book of Daniel (e.g. 2:27, 4:7). A primitive astrology had developed among the Greeks, but during the conquests of Alexander in the West beginning in 334 B.C.E. Chaldean astrology flowed into the Mediterranean basin. Alexander's conquests also introduced astrology into India, although the Indians took the Chaldean notions and developed them in a unique direction.

In Egyptian tradition the invention of astrology is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, called Thoth by the Egyptians, the god of wisdom, learning, and literature. He is the Mercury of the Romans, the eloquent deliverer of the messages of the gods.

In imperial Rome astrology was held in great repute, especially under the reign of Tiberius (14-37 C.E.). Augustus (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.) had discouraged the practice of astrology by banishing its practitioners from Rome, but his successors recalled them; and although occasional edicts in subsequent reigns restrained and even punished all who divined by the stars, the practices of the astrologers were secretly encouraged and their predictions extensively believed. Domitian (51-96 C.E.), in spite of his hostility toward them, was in fear of their pronouncements. They prophesied the year, the hour, and the manner of his death, and agreed with his father in foretelling that he should perish not by poison, but by the dagger. The early Christians gave some sanction to astrology in the Gospel of Matthew, which opens with the visit of the three magi (Persian astrologers) who, having seen the star in the east, have come to worship Christ.

After the age of the Antonines and the work of the third-century C.E. Roman scholar Censorinus, we hear little of astrology for some generations. In the eighth century the Venerable Bede and his distinguished scholar, Alcuin, are said to have pursued this mystic study. Immediately following, the Arabians revived and encouraged it. Under the patronage of Almaimon, in the year 827, the Megale Syntaxis of Ptolemy was translated, under the title Almagest, by al-Hazen Ben Yusseph. Albumasar added to this work, and the astral science continued to receive new force from the labors of Alfraganus, Ebennozophim, Alfaragius, and Geber.

The conquest of Spain by the Moors carried this knowledge, with all their other treasures of learning, into Spain, and before their cruel expulsion it was naturalized among the Christian savants. Among these Alonzo (or Alfonso) of Castile has immortalized himself by his scientific research, and the Jewish and Christian doctors who arranged the tables named for him were convened from all the accessible parts of civilized Europe. Five years were employed in their discussion, and it has been said that the enormous sum of 400,000 ducats was disbursed in the towers of the Alcazar of Galiana in the adjustment and correction of Ptolemy's calculations. Nor was it only the physical motions of the stars that occupied this grave assembly. The two Kabbalistic volumes, yet existing in cipher, in the royal library of the kings of Spain, and which tradition assigns to Alonzo himself, indicate a more visionary study. In spite of the denunciations against this orthodoxy, which were thundered in his ears on the authority of Tertullian, Basil, and Bonaventure, the fearless monarch gave his sanction to such masters as practiced the art of divination by the stars, and in one part of his code enrolled astrology among the seven liberal sciences.

In Germany many eminent men pursued astrology. A long catalog could be made of those who have considered other sciences with reference to astrology and written on them as such. Faust has, of course, the credit of being an astrologer as well as a wizard, and we find that singular but splendid genius, Cornelius Agrippa writing with as much zeal against astrology as on behalf of other occult sciences.

Of the early developments in astrology in England little is known. Bede and Alcuin have been mentioned. Roger Bacon included it among his broad studies. But it is the period of the Stuarts that can be considered the acme of astrology in England. Then William Lilly employed the doctrine of the magical circle, engaged in the evocation of spirits from the Ars Notoria and used the form of prayer prescribed therein to the angel Salmonoeus, and entertained among his familiar acquaintance the guardian spirits of England, Salmael and Malchidael. His ill success with the divining rod induced him to surrender the pursuit of rhabdomancy. The successor of Lilly was Henry Coley, a tailor, who had been his amanuensis and was almost as successful in prophecy as his master.

While astrology flourished in England it was in high repute with its kindred pursuits of magic, necromancy, and alchemy at the court of France. Catherine de Medicis herself was an adept in the art. At the Revolution, which commenced a new era in France, astrology declined.

The most noticeable aspect of the occult revival of modern times has been the widespread popularity of astrology, particularly among young people. Astrology has now permeated every activity of modern life, from daily household activities to politics and stock market speculation. It is estimated that there are more than ten thousand professional astrologers in the United States, with a clientele of more than twenty million people. Most American newspapers run an astrology column. Even the respected Washington Post includes a horoscope column.