I’ve long been fascinated by the process of divination. When it works there can be a palpable sense of being in intimate dialogue with (being listened to, cared for, and answered by) persons or presences whose voices somehow come through from ‘other worlds’, or if you prefer, other dimensions of this incredible world. Divination is often misrepresented as being primarily about foretelling the future, but as the etymology makes clear (latin divi-, divinus, a deity), it simply refers to the business of seeking guidance from, or interpreting the will of, ‘divine beings’, not least those that mediate between ‘gods and mortals’. Such persons are variously construed as daemones (the spelling was changed in order to sidestep Christian caricature), spirit guides, allies, ancestors, animal powers, angels, and so forth. Daemones might appear in dreams and visions, or show themselves in signs, omens, or remarkable occurrences within the natural world (1).
Cicero, who wanted to preserve divination as a function of state for the purpose of maintaining civic order, adopted Plato’s distinction between ‘artificial’ (meaning ‘by art’) and natural forms. Articifical divination (entechnos, technike) involves observing natural phenomena and analysing data according to clear rules. Robert Flacelière glosses this as irrational in its assumptions, but sane in its methodology(!). Natural divination (atechnos, adidaktos), by contrast, engages the human body-mind directly, through dreams, divine possession, or other ‘altered states’. Plato referred to this as divine frenzy, a kind of madness, but regarded it as a higher form because it was untainted by dependence on the natural world. Interestingly, Cicero debated whether nature might give us signs without divine intervention from the perspective of a transcendental and hierarchical established (state) animism.(2) He described a cosmos that was mindful and purposeful, but rational and perfectly ordered. Neo-Platonism, with its conception of an ensouled world (anima mundi) survives in post-Jungian circles, where it constitutes another strand of contemporary animism. James Hillman, for example, advocated a ‘polytheistic’, explicitly animist (in the sense of anima=soul), and earth orientated, archetypal psychology.
The illustration (above) of Herakles and Apollo fighting over the tripod used by the Pythia (the seer) at Delphi reminds us that divination is inescapably implicated in power relations. From the perspective/s of postmodern animism/s most of the above will, at the very least, be debatable. There may, however, be some value in differentiating between cerebral and more fully embodied forms of divination.
In my own practice, the ‘cerebral’ end of divination is represented by astrology, whilst dreamwork, pendulum dowsing, and some forms of relationship with other-than-human people in the natural world, involve altered body-mind states and subtle modes of perception. I have relatively little experience of other systems of divination such as the I-Ching, Tarot, Runes, Oracle work, or geomancy, (not to mention the use of body parts of sacrificial animals), but similar issues no doubt arise.
1) Astrology as Divination.
“There is no technique to make signs and omens occur, but there is a ritual we make to invite the gods and spirits, and create the space wherein their sign may occur – the sacred space of the horoscope”. Geoffrey Cornelius.
The publication of the Moment of Astrology by Geoffrey Cornelius in 1994 unleashed vigorous debate about the nature of astrology. Pointing out that astral omen reading goes back at least to Mesopotamia, he argued that astrology was inextricably rooted in ‘the ancient conception that the whole universe is filled with spiritual being and intelligence ….’ and ‘the polytheistic and pagan understanding that the planets, stars, and all things of nature are innately divine’. Later constructions of astrology ‘established an abstracted, universal, and rationalised model of heavenly influences’ that increasingly conceived the cosmos as ‘a Machine of Destiny’. Drawing on traditional astrology and Jung’s notion of synchronicity as an a-causal connecting principle, Cornelius proposed that all ‘judicial’ or interpretative astrology, was divinatory. Astrology is, then, ‘a vessel for mysterious intuition’ or psi-(Neptune), ‘a metaphorical mirror’, and a mythopoetic art.
Although I was never entirely comfortable with the neo-Platonic philosophy underpinning Geoffrey Cornelius’ work I owe much to his exposition of horary astrology, in particular, as a form of divination**. In the days when most people didn’t know their birth time, an astrologer would cast a horoscope for the time that a meaningful question was posed. Following an elaborate interpretative tradition the astrologer would then give a reading that addressed pressing problems of everyday life, from stolen fish or lost cats, through matters of love and money, to the fate of nations. According to the late Derek Appleby, horary is a ‘lunar art’. The Moon, as fastest moving celestial body, is of utmost importance. Aspects she will make before leaving the sign she is in describe what is about to happen, and aspects she has already made describe what has previously occurred.
What I learned from this as a non-traditional astrologer was a divinatory attitude, a sensitivity to what ‘comes up’ during an astrological reading, and to the symbolism that ‘shows’ around a critical moment. Geoffrey Cornelius emphasises that the significance of an omen is participatory. Its appearance ‘for us, here, now’, relates specifically to those present, not least the astrologer, who is fully implicated in the process, and shown in the horoscope. One of the distinctive features of horary astrology is that it sets out a series of ‘considerations before judgement’, conditions that have to met before proceeding. These include checking the condition of the astrologer as signified in the chart. Astrological symbolism, when comes to life, particularly when shared, is often both hair-raisingly beautiful, and helpful as a guide to action. The guiding presence of daemones or guides is subtle, however, and perhaps best sensed in the quietly ecstatic moment (or process) of receiving gifts of understanding.
2 A Dream Visitation
Geoffrey Cornelius described dreams as ”the most ancient and primordial medium for divination’. I have long been interested by the relationship between dreams and astrology. The following dream, I hope, illustrates the phenomenon of divination, quite graphically. No prophecy is involved. This is an example of dream visitation. The ‘dream’ -the word seems too familiar, too commonplace- was brief but unforgettable.
In the late 1970’s my younger self had an intense relationship with a woman who had two young daughters. Naïvely, I plunged enthusiastically into child care, and quickly formed an intense bond with the younger girl, who I’ll call Jane. Jane was a wild, sometimes fierce child, who hated school. We had a lot of fun together and got on very well. She loved to sit on my lap and watch scary television programmes through a chink in my fingers. Sadly, my relationship with her mother broke up after about three years, due to incompatible needs. I kept in touch for several years but eventually lost contact with the girls. Mercifully we humans have access to very little foreknowledge. I recently heard that I’ve now outlived both of them. Though much younger than me, they have become ‘ancestors’. Jane went to live with her father, and evidently had a very difficult adolescence. Had she not died in 1996, due to a heart condition, at the age of 22, she would have been forty this year.
On October 6th 2009 I awoke from a vivid dream in which a young woman twice came up to me and asked “are you up for a ghost story”. She had a tiny baby. Later in the dream she mentioned my long dead great aunt. I woke with my whole body tingling from a very strong charge, and an ‘electric sense’ of a presence in the room. I immediately recognised Jane, and told her how much I’d loved her. At that point she vanished.
Only later did I realise that October 6th was Jane’s birthday. I’d not seen her in over 15 years, and had forgotten the date. I decided to cast the horoscope for the dream. I don’t find it easy to translate the nuances of a chart to non-astrologers, but in this case the main features are quite dramatic. I hope the following brief description conveys something of the power and beauty of what this map signifies.
Firstly, the Moon -universal signifier of our past, of childhood and children, maternity, heredity, and family- exalted in the sign of Taurus, is prominently placed (angular) both on the mid-heaven at the moment of the dream, and on Jane’s natal midheaven. As we have seen, the Moon is regarded as a primary indicator in divination. Luna also closely opposes Jane’s natal Mercury, planet of communications, whilst simultaneously transiting my Earth Point/’Lower Heaven’- signifying my intimate life, family, and forbears, highlighting an important connection between our charts.
A Full Moon, two days previously, had fallen opposite Jane’s natal Sun, drawing attention to, and activating, a close conjunction between her Sun and my natal 9th house Neptune (planet of dreams, visions, and ‘psi-‘ in the house of divination). In the Homeric Hymn to Selene we read “… at evening, in the middle of the month/when her great orb swells to the full and her beams appear most brilliant …she becomes a pledge, a sign for human beings”. The Moon, is of course a potent signifier at any time, but this is a clear example of the importance of a Full Moon contact. At times like this I like to pause and reflect upon the physical reality of the Moon, and her orbit!
Because the dream occurred on Jane’s birthday, the Sun was illuminating her natal Sun (the position of the Sun on the day she was born, hence the phrase ‘many happy -solar- returns’ ), and was of course, simultaneously transiting my natal Neptune.
Moreover, the dream Ascendant fell quite close to Jane’s confident Leo ascendant. (astrologers may also like to note that her progressed Mercury and Sun were on 17 and 18 Scorpio respectively, the latter squaring the dream Ascendant ). In doing so, it reminds me that Jane’s Ascendant was conjunct my natal Saturn, planet of the elder, the authority figure. No wonder I became a father figure for her.
So, the ‘dream’ and visitation came at a moment when four of the main points in Jane’s natal horoscope that indicate communication -her Sun, Mercury, Ascendant, and Midheaven, were energised and illuminated by transit. Waking from the dream I was not in any doubt about who was in my room, but if I had been, the evidence of the horoscope for the moment would have given me a very definite answer. As it was, it strengthened my conviction about what had happened. Because of experiences like this -and, incidentally, I am less interested in attempting to work out what we might call such appearances, than in their vibrant emotional reality- I regard myself as a post-spiritualist. The kind of animist that Edward Tylor, writing in 1871, hoped scientific rationality would eliminate.
B.T. 13.6.13 ( updated 16/6/13).
Footnote: The natal chart was calculated for 1.20 a.m. g.m.t after adjusting from a birth time given to me by her mother, of 2.20 a.m (which would have been b.s.t).
Sources and Notes
(1) Geoffrey Cornelius The Moment of Astrology, Origins in Divination. Wessex Astrologer, 2003 (or 1st edition, Arkana 1994).
(2) Nicholas Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology; The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008. See pp195-201 ref Cicero and Divination.
Robert Falcelière, Greek Oracles, Elek Books, 1965/1976.
Michael Lowe and Carmen Blacker, eds. Divination and Oracles, George Allen and Unwin, 1981.
Derek Appleby, Horary Astrology, the Art of Astrological Divination, Astrology Classics, 2005.
Geoffrey Cornelius, Is Astrology Divination and Does it Matter?
Cura website, based on a lecture to the United Astrology Congress (May22nd 1998), published in Mountain Astrologer, Issue 81:Oct-Nov 1998). (available online, search title).
Jules Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, Cassell, 2003.
Note** Geoffrey Cornelius does argue that a monotheistic and transcendent definition of the divine lead to the demonisation of divination and magic in Christian culture, and distorted Western understandings of ‘primitive’ cultures, but still uses terms like ‘Saturnine bondage of time’ that reflect the earth-devaluing orientation of neo-Platonism. In exchanges with traditional astrologers I argued against the use of the essentialist terms ‘benefic’ and ‘malefic’ to describe planets, since they risk stereotyping those thus signified . I felt that neutral process-oriented terms such as ‘challenging’ and ‘facilitating’ would be preferable, and more accurate in a contemporary context marked by climate change, ecocide, and peak oil. Thus over-consumption, profligacy, excess (and promiscuousness) -all signified by ‘the greater benefic’ Jupiter -now appear highly problematic, whereas constraint, regulation, frugality, sobriety, and commitment (as well as matter, structure, and form) -all signifed by ‘the greater malefic’ Saturn -appear benign. Their respective traditional valuations date from times when scarcity was an ever present fear.