The belt of sky along which the planets wander has long been known as the zodiac, from the ancient Greek zodiakos – ‘circle of animals’ or ‘sculpted animal figures’. Western (and many other) astrologies are, therefore, woven around stories about celestial powers or presences -perhaps we might call them the Wanderers -also from their ancient Greek name planetes- moving in a cyclic dance, through a succession of animal (including human, centaur, and other-than-human hybrid) figures and forms. A vivid depiction of the zodiac from Andreas Cellarius’s Atlas Coelestis of 1660 (above) reminds us of astrology’s deep animist roots.
In the first volume of his cultural history of Western astrology, Nick Campion finds, for example, remarkable similarities between stories about the Pleiades from North America, Europe, and Australia, and comments on the antiquity of bear mythology and shamanistic practice linked to the constellation of the Great Bear or Big Dipper in both northern Europe and North America. In the first millenium B.C.E. Babylonian astrologers had already established an astronomical framework for divination, effectively comprising an 18 constellation lunar zodiac that included most of our current zodiacal signs.(1) But, of course, ancient astronomer/astrologers were watching the colour and brightness of stars and planets, and observing them rise and set in the sky, rather than gazing into a computer monitor. Without the frisson of direct obervation, contemporary astrology can all too easily feel divorced from the fabric nature.
Roy Willis and Patrick Curry’s 2004 book, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, opens with a summary of Edward Tylor’s Victorian conception of animism as an ‘illusory’ belief in spirits or souls inhabiting and influencing people, animals, and ‘things’, that would in time be eradicated by scientific rationality. Willis recalls his younger self, in the 1960’s, agreeing that belief in ‘all these imaginary and unnecessary entities clogging up the works of what was, as Descartes and Newton had shown, no more than a vast machine’, was self-evidently absurd. Willis and Curry’s recent writing presents an extended riposte to Tylor and develops an alternative paradigm to the logic of modernity, and its recent expression in scientism (c.f. postmodern animist friendly science).
In Astrology, Science, and Culture they make a philosophical case for an animist astrology influenced by Max Weber and David Abram amongst others, and by feminist accounts of a progressive patriarchal takeover in prehistoric times. According to Curry “an effectively unlimited number of local cthonic and animistic deities […which…] insofar as they were gendered were almost certainly predominantly feminine […were…] supplanted by a pantheon of predominantly male Indo-Europoean sky gods”.(2) Although Marija Gimbutas’s work has been critiqued by a subsequent generation of feminist archaeologists(3), the authors’ attention to gender is certainly welcome given the well documented masculinist bias of Enlightenment era science. Their historical account makes it clear that constructions of the divine have often been deeply implicated in power relations, and that divination is, therefore, not necessarily unproblematic.
Roy Willis refers to the human as a ‘dialogical animal’. ‘We earthpeople (the root meaning of ‘human’) are designed to communicate’. We have an ‘innate impulsion to dialogue with a multiverse of intelligent beings, starting with fellow humans and including every animal and plant, every rock and river and ocean; also the clouds in the sky, winds and storm and rain, and all the luminous inhabitants of the starry vault. For this animal, all that is, is in some sense alive’. Although some aspects of their argument might have looked a bit different had Astrology, Science, and Culture not preceeded Graham Harvey’s Animism, this statement beautifully encapsulates Nurit Bird Davis’s now widely accepted understanding of animism as relational ontology.
Patrick Curry has developed his perspective in subsequent discussions of divination, always referring back to Moment of Astrology, Geoffrey Cornelius’s influential exposition of (most) astrology as divination -a way of entering into dialogue with the divine- as a key text. Astrology comes to life, especially when considered not simply as an abstract theory ‘but as a physically embodied, socially embedded, and ecologically earthed practice’ …’what astrology offers is the wonder of being part of an intrinsically meaningful place and moment on earth that specifically includes the cosmos, especially insofar as it can be directly experienced […] it is thus an experience at once cthonic, cosmic, and intimately personal’.(4) I would want to re-insert social or cultural here too, but if I were looking for a concise summary of the value of astrological experience, I would be more than happy with the proposition that it helps us understand that ‘Our home (ecos) includes a cosmic dimension.
The recent reframing of astrology as cultural astronomy has encouraged astrologers to look beyond Western perspectives on the heavens. Sky and Pysche, a collection of Sophia Centre conference lectures, for example, includes chapters on Siberian shamanic ‘spirit of place’, and Sun Gods and Moon Deities in Africa.(5) Although Patrick Curry’s theorising makes an important contribution towards reconnecting astrology with its animist roots, he seems most at home in the realms of high theory, and, somewhat frustratingly for this double Capricorn, reluctant to write about his own experience, or indeed any concrete experience that might show how animist astrology works.
For this we have to turn to many other (local) voices, such as the American astrologer Caroline Casey, who calls for a democratic animism, and hosts a series of radio shows on visionary activism that are available as podcasts here. Her interviews are linked to current astrological configurations, and often feature people engaged in social or ecological struggles. This focus on social as well as ecological issues is quite unusual amongst astrologers, and very much needed (my involvements have been on the periphery of U.K astrological communities). Caroline Casey’s enthusiastic style and particular eclectic mix may not appeal to everyone -that would be impossible!- but I’m looking forward to hearing and reading more of her work to see how she blends post-Jungian and neo-Pagan concepts and practices. Her website, for example, addresses ‘the Trickster Redeemer within us all’. Hmmm. I’m not too sure about that, but we’re on the same ‘side’, so if it work for you, perhaps ….