Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos. 1- Chaos.

When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose, or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos -not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order- than there is in a universe made by a pattern, this draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine made world and and piece of mechanism; what a petty despicable microcosmos I had substituted for the reality.” Richard Jeffries, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1887.(1)


Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaos evokes the dark abyss of infinite space, the primal matrix of creation and destruction from which ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Taoists, Native Americans, and many other human communities have variously imagined the emergence of deities, stars, elements, other-than-human ancestors, and ultimately humankind.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with feminist accounts of how mother goddesses that once gave form and order to life were demoted during the Bronze age as ‘numinosity was transferred to a father god’.  The Iron Age Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (‘from on high’) is said to have been the first story in which a mother goddess who generated creation as part of herself was replaced by a god who ‘made’ the world as something separate from himself.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashford regard Marduk’s violent overthrow of Tiamat, in which a Goddess who once sacrificed her son/lover became the sacrificial victim, as the mythological root of patriarchal religion and as a template for subsequent dragon slaying hero myths.  They argue that it marked the overthrow of ‘a goddess culture’ emphasising ‘relationship between every aspect of creation’ by a ‘new culture’ that venerated male deities and rewarded mastery, control, objectification, and violation.(2)

Some three millenia later the feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen identified a masculinist Western imaginary (a formative constellation of constructs, images, meanings, and values) obsessed with death, and suggested privileging its repressed other, natality, as a transformative possibility.  Far from emerging ex-nihilo, or being ‘thrown into existence’, she reminded us that we are born from a mother’s womb ‘into a welcoming and nurturing web of relationships’.  She argued that a culture of natality would validate empathy and respect, and foster a sense of kinship with other-than-human beings.  ‘We have all begun as part of somebody else; we have all been utterly dependent […] and we are still deeply dependent on the web of relationships with other natals and on the earth that supports us’.(3)  On re-reading this I found myself wondering whether memories of perinatal experience as described by Stanislas Grof -which have often proved uncannily faithful to the mother’s lived experience of birth- might somehow have informed cultural images of chaos?(4)

Wendy Hollway writes “Underneath the image of nature in modern science as passive and entirely knowable is a suppressed signifier of nature as ultimate force, capable of wreaking havoc over mind and culture.  It contains intimations of something which always resists being fully known (like woman) and fully controlled (like woman) -else why the emphasis on pursuit and control.”(5)

I have Bernadette Brady to thank for sparking this train of thought.  She begins Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology (6) by referring to Hesiod’s telling of an ancient Greek creation myth in which a dramatic binary distinction between ‘gloomy chaos’ and the glorious heavens supplanted archaic imagery of a creative and generative primordial chaos.  In Hesiod’s Greece chaos and cosmos were conceived as opposite poles or states within a single continuum.  Cosmos brought knowable and reliable order out of chaos and was thus associated with reason, and valorised.

Not surprisingly, then, chaos, in one guise or another, has often been suggested as a remedy for modern worlds in the grip of alienating Cartesian logic.

In James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, for example, “While HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker/Here Comes Everyman) is the patriarchal hero on the ‘ghostwhite horse’ (FW 214.15) who, like Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, concludes unilinear history and the world, in Joyce’s writing of a ‘whorled without aimed’ (FW 272.4-5) he is toppled in the play of chance.”(6)

The Victorian writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries has been celebrated as a forerunner of Chaos ecology.  Fascinatingly, his ‘The Absence of Design in Nature’ (epigraph above) was published in the year before the Flammirion Engraving (also above) depicting a medieval missionary poking his head through a membrane dividing the sublunary world from a mechanical looking celestial sphere.  Perhaps this figure, thought to be the work of a Victorian era artist, expresses a gendered desire to escape incarnation and the memory of ever having been born?  I take Jeffries’ ‘absence of order’ to refer to the absence of an authoritarian overarching order -the kind of blueprint that might be produced by just such a seeker of transcendent cosmic knowledge- rather than an absence of regularity of any kind.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition 'Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family." IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition ‘Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family.” IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Scientists of complexity define chaos in terms of its negating function as ‘disorder, irregularity, and unpredictablity’ but also relate it to complex systems that manifest positive emergent properties.  Flocks, swarms, herds, crowds, and cities, are often cited as examples of such systems.  At worst, and this may be a caricature, the science of chaos seeks to ‘explain’ the complexity of life in reductive terms, using simple deterministic laws.  Cognitive scientists, for example, describe consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of brain neurochemistry and brain-environment interactions.  Although mathematical conceptions of chaos (and images generated from them) may have a certain glacial beauty, my difficulty with them is that they effectively erase the subjectivity, interiority, and agency of the myriad persons, human and more-than-human, who co-create the worlds they describe, and reduce questions about relationship to population level formulae.

Bernadette Brady draws attention to the work of the 8th/9th Century Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’allah ibn Athari who talked about aspects (the angular relationship) between planets in terms of relationship.  Under certain conditions Mars may want to ‘talk’ or ‘work’ with the Sun, but the sun is not open to an exchange (pp61-62).  I’m with her all the way when she compares what I would call his animistic perspective favourably with Kepler’s ‘pursuit of a mechanical sky’, and when she expresses reservations about some twentieth century reductionist approaches that leave no room for sumpatheia.

This Stoic term (or its Pythagorean equivalent harmonia) expressed a sense that, as Diogenes Laertius put it in the 3rd century B.C.E., all things are ‘rendered continuous by their mutual interchange’.(p7).  Crucially, for the Stoics, the cosmos was a perfect living body whose parts depended on the internal tension, or tonos, of the whole, created and sustained by the divine breath pneuma, or world soul.  Sumpatheia also referred to shared feelings.  Our English word “compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, which, it seems, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of this Greek philosophical term. (see here).  The assumption of interdependence and relationship (of many kinds) encoded in such terms is now more vital than ever, of course.

The key question here seems to be whether we regard chaos, cosmos, and chaosmos, as descriptions of a living world.  Collectively we are now confronted with a paradoxical scenario in which those who see the Earth as a resource that can be ransacked without consequence -the forces of mastery and control- are set to intensify an already alarming trajectory towards anthropogenic chaos -in the negative sense of the term.  It may be too late to hope for some humility in the face of Nature (!?), but its never too late to remember that we humans are (also) an incredibly creative, resilient, and compassionate species.  Harmonia!

B.T. 6th December 2016.

Part 2 looks at Cosmos, and cosmography.


(1) Richard Jeffries, 1887. The Absence of Design in Nature, cited in Heidi M. Scott, Chaos and Cosmos; Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British 19th Century.

(2) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Viking, 1991.

(3) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine, Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester University Press, 1998.

(4) Stanislas Grof, 1985. Beyond the Brain; Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, State University of New York.

(5) Wendy Hollway, 1989 Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, cited by Stephen Frosh, 1994. Sexual Difference; Masculinity and Psychoanalysis, Routledge pp102-5.

(6) Bernadette Brady, Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology, Rethinking the Nature of Astrology, Sophia Centre, 2014.

(7) Simon Crook, 2015.  A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegan’s Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, The Grammar of Matter accessed 28th November 2016.



Photographing the Underworld? A Note on NASA’s Pluto Fly-by.

Pluto's Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

Pluto’s Surface Mountains, NASA July 2015, Creative Commons.

For Plutophiles everywhere this has been a remarkable week.  I began writing about Pluto in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and eventually finished a 25,000 word essay on the cultural context, cosmography, and astrological symbolism in 1995*.  I’m not going to write about astrological particulars here, but in that essay I wrote that “astrology occasionally seems to afford us a privileged glimpse into the subtle infrastructure of a living solar system. The fascination, and difficulty, of the discipline, lies in the way in which these glimpses of an apparent cosmic ‘fabric’ are located in relation to the subjectivities of human experience. Whereas astronomy finds the raw material of both curiosity and wonder out there, towards the perimeter of the universe, astrology can work to dissolve the dualism which has, for so long, been part of our Western world view.

Within this framework it is Pluto, as ruler of occultation, and protector of the integrity of mystery, who guards the well-spring of experience and memory against casual intrusion, by insisting that knowledge is personally earned …”.  So I’ve long felt ambivalent about NASA’s New Horizon’s mission to Pluto.

Has it been a casual intrusion?  It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge that New Horizons has been a breathtaking technological feat.  When our trains struggle to run on time they’ve managed to send a small spacecraft on a nine year, three billion mile, journey, and arrive in the right place, just 12,472 kilometers from the surface of Pluto, on schedule.  The anatomy of the recently demoted ‘minor planet’ (not all astronomers agreed with Pluto’s 2006 demotion, so one outcome of this mission is likely to be a bid to re-instate Pluto as a full blown planet) -recently described by a B.B.C. reporter as ‘an inscrutable blob in our telescopes’- is in the process of being filmed, photographed, weighed, measured, probed, and ‘explained’.

Frozen Carbon Monoxide in Pluto's 'Heart'.  Data acquired 14-7-15 and transmitted 16-7-15.  NASA, C.C.

Frozen Carbon Monoxide in Pluto’s ‘Heart’. Data acquired 14-7-15 and transmitted 16-7-15. NASA, Creative Commons.

The resulting astronomical reports might mention the mythology of Pluto for decorative purposes, but astronomy, shorn of astrology, exemplifies Blake’s ‘single vision’ -one dimensionally objective, blind to metaphor, connection, correspondence, and similarity.  NASA’s scientists have apparently seen no connection between the domain of Ploutos, Hades, Persephone, Hekate, Ereshkigal, and all the other underworld deities, and the great cosmic drama of death and rebirth, endlessly enacted, which consititutes the core and heart of their domain, and the extraordinary offering they have just unwittingly made to those gods and goddesses.  Perhaps the fact that their plutonium powered spacecraft carried the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, ‘discoverer’ of Pluto, across the vastness of the outer solar system to the perimeter of their planet, is what saves this project from being just another act of casual intrusion?

In that astrological essay I traced the exteriorisation of Pluto in the history of the nuclear era, and found the planet’s signature etched into the geography of the discovery region, most notably in an extraordinary spatial co-incidence.  Pluto was discovered in 1930 at the Percevall Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona.  Ten years later Plutonium was manufactured at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, and five years after that the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Test Site north of Alamagordo in New Mexico.  Curiously these three sites fall in an almost perfect straight line, about a thousand miles long, that maps the connection between the planet and the nuclear project on to the land in the most unexpectedly graphic way.

The terrible wartime story of the nuclear scientists’ ‘mathematical transubstation’, and its apocalyptic outcome, contrasts starkly with the knowledge of indigenous peoples such as the Hopi, Zuni, and Navaho, who have long constructed their cosmology and sacred geography around creation stories in which humanity emerges from an underworld regarded as the body of Mother Earth.  These cosmologies have been described as ‘the way of the seeded earth’, and their portrayal of the earth has been compared, for example, with the Roman Tellus Mater, who, like Demeter, watched over the sowing and fruition of seed.

The discovery of Pluto teemed with many other synchronous events and ‘co-incidences’, so it was fitting that the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest contact with Pluto on a dark Moon**.  I had expected to see events in the world that reflected the well established concerns and manifestations of astrological Pluto.  Over those few days we saw the culmination of negotiations between Western powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme -much of which had been developed in concealed subterranean facilities.  We also saw the lengths to which the neoliberal ‘plutocrats’ of the European Union would go to humiliate Greece, surely in order to destroy the elected democratic socialist Syriza government, as a third ‘bail out’ was acrimoniously accepted.

On a more modest scale, I noticed a sequence of radio programmes on the morning of the fly-by, focussing on Plutonic/Dark Moon themes.  ‘The Life Scientific’ interviewed Carlos Frank, an astronomer who was instrumental in establishing the existence of dark matter.  This was followed by ‘Natural Histories’ on the Nightshade family, including deadly nightshade, and ‘the most magical of plants’, Mandrake.  Then, in ‘One to One’, a British Muslim spiritual healer discussed her experience of Jinns, and allegations of physical and sexual abuse by male religious figures in her community.

I still feel profoundly uncomfortable about the dissonance between the technical exuberance of the scientists, and what I know, from observation and hard won personal experience, about the domain of the underworld, and the negotiation of considerable anguish that seems to be entailed as the cost of meaningful admission to that realm.  As an astrologer I’ve seen several accounts of life changing encounters with underworld deities, from very different and otherwise unrelated traditions, that occured during major transits of Pluto.  As well as posing an interesting question for polytheists -what, or who, then, is ‘Pluto’?- such experiences cast a very different light on events this week, and suggest that a quite different perspective (and tone) might not only be more appropriate to the proceedings, but more fruitful in terms of generating understanding.

For example, there’s been much light-hearted celebration of the discovery of a large pale heart-shaped region on the surface of Pluto, now named ‘Tombaugh Regio’.  But would it not be worth considering whether that huge frozen heart might be an an apt symbol for the pandemic of emotional paralysis -of the kind that undermines compassionate and respectful relationship with anyone (or any being) perceived as ‘other’- that both propells, and is generated by, the absurd but all-too-real terrors of patriarchal/capitalist/monotheist ‘civilization’?  Just a thought.

B.T 18-7-15 (updated 19-7-15)

Notes and Sources:

* My rather over long essay from 1995 can be found in Suzi Harvey, ed Orpheus, Voices in Contemporary Astrology, Consider, 2000.

** The astrology of closest contact made my astrological hair stand on end, for example, the New Moon, two days later, fell one minute of arc square the midheaven of the horoscope for the recorded moment of Pluto’s discovery in 1930.  Extremely close aspects such as this, when they occur, are taken as confirmation of the ‘radicality’ of a chart.

Klara Bonsack Kelly and Harris Francis, Navaho Sacred Places, Indiana University Press, 1994.

A Crescent Sun, Time for Some Citizen Astrology?

Partial Solar Eclipse, Spring Equinox 2015.

Partial Solar Eclipse, Spring Equinox 2015.

Yesterday’s partial solar eclipse felt powerful.  After a night of vivid dreams I came downstairs feeling bleary, and under-prepared.  My other half was already busy with an impressive array of pinholes, and our trusty colander, last pressed into astronomical service for the memorable eclipse of 1999.  I felt a bit like the boy at the back of the class who hadn’t done his homework properly.  I did have a piece of cardboard with a hole in it though, and guess whose pinole worked best!

We had some Moony fun comparing results and got quite excited as Luna’s round form appeared, gradually protruding across more and more of our small solar images.  The first appearance of ‘her’ shadow brought a slight shudder of realisation -that these are physical bodies, moving round, out there in space.

Then I realised I could get a better picture on the LCD screen of my camera (by manually focussing and being careful not to look up!).

\pinhole images of partial solar eclipse

Pinhole images of partial solar eclipse.

Most people had wanted a clear sky, but I was glad when a continuous veil of cloud covered the spectacle sufficiently for us to be able to watch the shimmering molten crescent directly -that was the best bit- and take photos without a special filter.  I’ve never seen a total eclipse, but this was extremely beautiful.

So, of course, is the astronomical ‘co-incidence’ that the respective difference in size, and distance from earth, of the Sun and Moon (x400 in each case), means that their discs appear exactly the same size when viewed from earth (at least until some point in the inconceivably distant future).

For me, though, the real work of the eclipse was going on already.  In a piece of writing I’ve been busy with (its personal and deals with bereavement and end-of-life experiences), in bodily phenomena (some more comfortable than others), feelings, and dreams.

As an astrologer I’ve once again felt frustrated by the domination of mainstream coverage by scientists.  The Guardian, for example, did a predictable ‘science v superstition’ piece.  The front page of our local paper, which publishes a sarcastic ‘horoscope’ column every week, had a banner headline that read: ‘Town in Shock Pays Tribute …’.   A well loved local butcher had been run over by two vehicles on the previous Sunday night.  Although serious astrologers are careful to distance themselves from fearful beliefs about eclipses, the symbolism of a great light being extinguished does quite often seem to co-incide with the death of a popular figure around the time of a solar eclipse.  The link wasn’t considered in this case, of course.

Strangely, perhaps, the symbolism can refer to events either before, or five or six (or more) months after a solar eclipse.  In either case the timing would be indicated when a point in the horoscope ‘sensitised’ by an eclipse is transited by other planets.  There are various interpretive schema, but for instance, R.C. Davidson, in his 1950’s manual The Technique of Prediction writes: “lunations and eclipses falling on sensitive points of the horoscope are nothing more than a double transit of the Sun and Moon”.  Just as an alignment of these bodies causes higher tides, “their influence is simlarly potent when applied to the sea of human experience”.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Nowadays we tend to emphasise that astrology is about signs, symbols, and metaphors; about discerning a good course of action, rather than predicting deterministic effects.  In the case of solar eclipses the symbolism is about the lunar principle -emotion, intuition, imagination, embodiment, dreams, unconscious processes, flow, memory, childhood, ‘mothering’- temporarily occluding the solar -rationality, purposiveness, clarity, individuality, conscious awareness, leadership, mentoring, ‘heroism’, and so forth.

Events associated with an eclipse can, of course, be positive.  Before the 1999 solar eclipse, which was total, though as it turned out invisible, in Cornwall, I was (despite the above caveats) concerned about what it might signify for a friend who was living there at the time.  The eclipse was due to fall within a degree and a half of her natal Sun in Leo.  In Western astrological tradition the Sun rules the heart, and she’d been having palpitations, intermittently, for some time.

She tells me that she’d felt quite positive about the eclipse on a personal level, seeing it as an opportunity for change.  When I wrote to her after the event she replied (at the end of September 1999) saying that she’d felt very emotional for quite a long time afterwards, that this may have been an unblocking, and that ‘things were flowing well now’.

If we had approached that eclipse looking for celestial causes of earthly events we might have concluded that astrology didn’t work because nothing had happened, or that even if something had happened there would be nothing we could have done about it.  Approaching astrology as a way of working with natural/cosmic symbolism and timing, on the other hand, we might argue that a temporary occlusion of a person’s solar nature by an upwelling of emotion is just what the symbolism suggested, and would seem to have recommended.  For astrologers, meaning is written into the fabric of nature.

B.T 21/3/15.


We are Stardust – A Quick Look at Paracelsus.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from 'L'Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1998. "a medieval missionary claims to have found the point where heaven and earth meet'.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from ‘L’Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1898. “a medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and earth meet”.

Following an alchemical thread, I’ve been having a quick look at the writings of Philippus Aureolas Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a Paracelsus.  Born in a Swiss village in the year after Columbus reached America, he’s variously celebrated as a pioneering theorist of modern medicine who founded antisepsis and wound surgery, or as an early exponent of holism.  Rejecting the classical canon of his day (Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna) Paracelsus preferred to put his trust in a combination of devout, if unconventional, Christian faith, a cosmological system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm (as opposed to the theory of humours and temperaments), personal experience – including as an army surgeon, and medical lore gleaned from ‘herb-women, bath attendants, peasants, gypsies and magicians’.(1)  His writings, therefore, give us a vivid sense of the thickets of European thought at the dawn of modernity.

Little is known about the early life of Paracelsus, except that his mother is thought to have taken her own life when he was about nine years old.  His father, a respected local doctor, ‘gave him herbs and stones, water and metal, as friends’.(2) As a young man he embarked on extensive travels that took him right across Europe, to renaissance Italy, then as far as Algiers, Constantinople, Russia, and Ireland.

Paracelsus regarded the human spirit as a divine spark, and believed in free will to the extent of thinking we could act upon the stars (of which more later).  Because he saw divine potential in humanity, he often took a stand against social convention, vested interests, or political structures.  This was usually done with a flourish, as when he staged a public burning of Avicenna’s authoritative textbook, or when he promised the be-robed doctors and academics of Basel that he would reveal the greatest secret of medicine, before presenting them with a dish of steaming human excrement. “If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians!”(3).

Though his motto was ‘… that man no other man shall own, who to himself belongs alone’, he drew upon medieval ideas of Christian community life.  He was a pacifist, sided with the rebellious peasants against the feudal lords of Salzburg in 1525, and was in contact with Anabaptist groups.  His religious views embraced the popular pantheism that influenced mystical anarchist and millenarian movements of the late middle ages -his concept of yliaster (probably from hyla matter, and astrum the stars) revived Avicebron’s doctrine of prime matter -a primal divine being originating, sustaining, and existing within the material substrate of all thingsFor Paracelsus it was this spiritual force that justified human freedom and moral agency.(4)

His charitable medical work involved risks to his own health and life.  He wrote the first  treatise of occupational medicine, on the miners’ disease, as well as advocating the therapeutic value of music, chants, magical seals, and amulets.  Like the alchemists he sought invisible virtues within substances, and believed that “decay is the beginning of all birth”. Paracelsus regarded base metals as analogous to disease, and based his remedies upon the homoeopathic principle of sympathies between diseases and the arcana (mysteries, secerets).  Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke argues that his predominant contribution was the foundation of an alternative science and medicine, ‘the science of the symbol’.(3)

Nicholas Campion, however, points out that whilst Paracelsus made conventional assumptions about astrological correspondences, he argued that, from the moment of birth, the physician should respect individual autonomy by examining a patient’s physical processes on their own terms, rather than imposing a univeral astrological model for each disease.  For Paracelsus, the Kaballah impelled empirical observation.  Campion goes on to argue that ‘Paracelsus’s emphasis on the functional separation of nature and spirit, even if they were theoretically entwined in the Kabbalistic cosmos, presages the mind-body split written into Western thought by Rene Descartes in the next century ….’.  In Paracelsus’s work ‘magic was a stepping stone to modern science’.(6)

Witches Being Burned in Harz, 1555.  Anon.  Creative Commons.

Witches Being Burned in Harz, 1555. Anon. Creative Commons.

Although there is much of interest, and much to like, in Paracelsus’s prolific writings, Goodrick-Clarke’s account erases some major contradictions and difficulties.  According to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus believed the relationship between humanity and the stars to be particularly close in relation to ‘mental illness’ (I prefer ‘distress’, and ‘madness’).  For Paracelsus, madness resulted from “the subjugation of man (sic) and his divine spirit by his low animal instincts, notably lust, covetousness, and the passions of the soul in general … each star corresponds to an animal with its characteristic emotional behaviour, also to a single passion in man.  When he falls prey to these passions, the star awakens in him the one that corresponds to its own animal nature”.  Moreover, “He who is prone to meanness has chosen Saturn as his wife, for each star is a woman.  Hence in this case, the cure must be directed against Saturn.  The patient must be talked to, admonished, and encouraged to confess in church.  His disease must be explained to him.  If he is not accessible to advice he must be taken into custody ‘lest he lead astray with his animal spirits (vichgiestern) the whole town, his house, and the country.”

Whilst some of Paracelsus’s reccomendations sound like a relatively ‘modern’ and progressive, albeit paternalistic, response to the complex and difficult realities of crisis support, his markedly gendered -and anthropocentric- understanding of the underlying causes clearly express the dominant Christian/neo-Platonist assumptions of his day.  Unfortunately, according to Walter Pagel, Paracelsus was also ‘deeply immersed in the contemporary belief in witches and demoniacal and devilish posession as causes of insanity’ and ‘in some treatises recommended the burning of the patient lest they become an instrument of the devil’. (7)  He was hardly progressive in this respect then!  But let’s not forget that he also wrote that “Every cure should proceed from the power of the heart; for only thereby can all diseases be expelled”.

Or that he talked about the ‘light of nature’ -which Jolande Jacobi gives as- ‘intuitive knowledge gained by experience of nature and implicit in all beings at birth’; about ‘magnalia (Dei)’ -remedies and works whose special efficacy derives from the divine power inherent in them; and about the matrix -‘the primal womb or mother, the formless receptacle of form’.  Interestingly, Paracelsus used the term anima (soul), mainly when referring to the notion of a sidereal body (an inner heaven) -but also for anything resembling breath, or for ‘the specifically effective part of medicine’.  Another interesting term he used was the astrum (or sidereal body) -‘an impression engraved in man at the hour of his birth by the external heaven’, consituting an inner heaven, and giving us our innate disposition.(8)  As Joni Mitchell (in Woodstock) put it more recently: “We are stardust/billion year old carbon/we are golden …”.

 B.T 28/11/14.


Some Paracelsus quotes:

“Every land is a leaf of the codex of nature, and he who would explore her must tread her books with his feet”

“Decay is the midwife of very great things!”

“Dreams must be heeded and accepted, for a great many of them come true”.

“The art of astronomy helps us to discover the secrets of the innate disposition of the heart..”

“How can a man say ‘I am certain’ when he is so far from any certainty?”.

“I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum, monarch of the physicians”, and I can prove to you what you cannot prove”.


1) Nicholas Goodricke Clarke, ed. Paracelsus, North Atlantic Books, 1999.

2 and 8) Jolande Jacobi, ed. Paracelsus, Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Bollingen series XXVIII, 1958.  (this book has a useful glossary).

3) Philip Bell, The Devil’s Doctor, Heinemann, 2006.

4 and 5) Goodricke Clarke, Op Cit.

6) Nicholas Campion, A History of Western Astrology, Vol 2, The Medieval and Modern Worlds, Continuum 2009 pp117-8.

7) Walter Pagel, Paracelsus; an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, 2nd ed. 1982 S. Karger. A.G. Basel.

As Summer Fades (Memory, Image, and Symbol).

Heather Moorland, A Distinctive Local Habitat.

Heather Moorland, A Distinctive Local Habitat.


There’s been a definite chill in the air recently.  A flock of about fifty house martins came swooping round the hillside, contentedly chittering to each other.  The juvenile birds (I presume, though no-one has been able to confirm this) hurtle up to a parent, then both birds momentarily jam on the brakes and the youngster gets fed in mid air.  I love it when they race past at head height.  Such energy, and all powered by tiny insects.  At this time of year they gather in larger flocks, getting ready to leave for Africa, while we humans stoop to pick blackberries (and soon bilberries) hopefully leaving some for the birds that feed at ground level.

One of my recent walks brought me along a soft peaty path across a heather moor.  Wading through the deep heather, the scented air was charged with the warm electric buzzing music of hundreds, probably thousands, of bumble bees, collecting pollen.  Best of all, for me, the place was alive with peacock, and some red admiral, butterflies.  Their quite big dark shapes flapped up from the path, and from nearby bushes as we passed.  This was very pleasing as I’d seen very few on garden buddleias this year.  Clearly this was a nectaring hotspot!  In 1634, Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to King Charles 1, commented that the ‘eyes’ on the wings of the Peacock butterfly “shine curiously like stars, and do cast about them sparks of the colours of the Rainbow”.(1)  They lay their eggs on the underside of nettle leaves.

Peacock Butterfly basking on garden steps.

Peacock Butterfly basking on garden steps.

As the lived moment fades into memory, I find myself revisiting it in various ways.  A rational voice might say something like ‘in the U.K we have about 75 per cent of the world’s remaining heather moorland, so this is an internationally important habitat, and its under considerable threat …..’.  I value this voice for its ability investigate the complexity of ecosystems, cultural forces, and political realites, but another voice  wants to stay with the hypnotic beauty of the eyes on a butterflies wings (voice 1 immediately cuts in “from a human perspective! -they’re there to frighten predators!).  I often find myself in one or other mode, but hope to encourage amicable dialogue between these (and other) voices.

In ancient Greek mythology the Titaness Mnemosyne, daughter of Uranus and Gaia (sky and earth), was the custodian of memory, and in turn gave birth to the seven muses.  She emerged from an oral culture that communicated by means of narrative, image, metaphor, and poetry, and “reminds us that our soul story is revealed through dreams, oracles, feelings, reveries, synchronicities, or sudden images ..” (2).

Re-membering is, of course, fundamental to creativity, and to any hope of biographical integrity.  So, memories of that path through the heather will be braided into my ever deepening mental map of the place in which I live, and next time I meet a peacock I might well recall the profusion of butterflies on that wonderful summer afternoon.


Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.  Note the tasteful inclusion of the author’s left arm.

Carl Jung emphasised the distinction between a ‘real symbol’ and a ‘mere sign’, and (in 1948) postulated that symbols arise from the unconscious by way of intuition, revelation, or in dreams, as a psychological mechanism that transforms energy. I’ve resorted to italics here to highlight his psychologising and interiorising language.  He argued that because of the ‘extermination of polytheism’, and the historical hegemony of Christianity, individual symbol formation has long been suppressed in the West, but presciently sensed its re-emergence.(3)  Fortunately his announcement of the extinction of polytheism was premature.

In the same volume Jung quotes extensively from Paracelsus, for whom the corner-stone of all truth was astronomia, and for whom the lumen naturae, the light of nature, was the ‘star’, astrum,  sidus, or firmament, within us.  The psyche was a night sky whose planets and constellations ‘represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity’.  Jung inserts the distancing notion of representation here, when, for Paracelsus, the star was the light of nature.

From the vast storehouse of Solar lore a fragment comes to hand from the renaissance neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino. “Our soul, besides maintaining the particular powers of its members, promotes the common power of life all through us, but especially through the heart, source of the intimate fire of the soul.  Similarly the World Soul flourishes everywhere, but especially through the sun, as it indiscriminately unfolds its common power of life”. (4)  Ficino gave a lengthy list of solar objects that are mostly recognisably sun-coloured and/or aromatic.  Thomas Moore comments ‘as if by sympathetic magic, these metaphorical objects can in fact bring us the spirit they represent … it is the image that effectively communicates the spirit’.  Ficino’s natural magic ‘is really a school of imagination’.  There’s that word ‘represent’ again; and that word ‘spirit’.

Geoffrey Cornelius (an influential exponent of divinatory astrology)  describes astrological interpretation as ‘an excercise in analogy’.  By metaphor, or transposition of meaning, the world is disclosed.  He gives an example in which the Sun is taken to represent the C.E.O of a company.  ‘We know these poetic transpositions or metaphors by the name of the law of correspondences, fulfilling the Hermetic axiom of ‘as above, so below’.(5)

Paul Ricouer quotes Mircea Eliade’s view that ‘the force of cosmic symbolism lies in the non-arbitrary relationship between the visible sky and the invisible order which it manifests.  The sky speaks of wisdom and justice, of immensity, by virtue of the analogical power of its primary signification.  Such is the fullness of the symbol as opposed to the emptiness of the sign’. (6)  I remember being quite excited when I first found this, but I’m sorry to say I now think the middle section is subjective (and ‘arbitrary’) nonsense.  As an astrologer, however, I’m bound to agree with the proposition that the (night) sky does have some sort of non-arbitrary relationship with an invisible order.

So, what to make of the symbol, from an ‘other-than neo-Platonist’ animist perspective?  For some contemporary animists, all this talk of an ‘invisible order’, ‘spirit’, and ‘the light of nature’, will reek of dualism, transcendence, and hyperseparation.  I’d like to urge caution however.  It so happens that I went up into my neighbour’s garden (we were feeding her cat) and took some pictures of her sunflowers on a day when Mercury (planet of communication and writing) was within one degree of the Sun, and at the very time of day when this Mercury-Sun conjunction was ‘on the midheaven’.  I had not been thinking about astrology, and had no plans to write about the images.  So the flower, named from the Sun, showed for me at the very time when the physical sun was showing prominently, but invisibly, according to astrological tradition, by its angular position.

This suggests to me, that what is being disclosed at such times is a pattern of affinity, co-ocurrance, and relationship, between beings or people (in Irving Hallowell’s sense, where people also refers to all  manner of other-than-human beings).  It is this affinity, this relationship -between, in this case, ‘solar objects’ and the Sun- that an astrologer, or practitioner of natural magic can work with. Perhaps we need not privilege ‘image’, ‘idea’, or ‘spirit’ then, since these are expressions of ‘real’ (material or subtle) connections -as are sounds, scents, and textures.

It also occurs to me that we should be careful not to assume we have access to a universal meaning of an analogous image.  For the human observer, those eyes on the butterfly’s wings might invoke curiosity, wonder, delicate beauty, the ‘stars’ and ‘sparks’ (scintillae) of alchemy.  For an approaching blue tit they effectively signify an animal much larger than the insect flashing them as a protective gesture.  So, are they ‘just’ a product of relationship, and not really ‘about us’ (humans) at all?  Or might we, as passers-by, with our symbolising minds, be included in these conversations too?

There’s been a definite chill in the air recently.  A flock of about fifty house martins came swooping round the hillside, contentedly chittering to each other …

B.T 28/8/14.

(as you may have guessed these are very much thoughts-in-progress, so this might be continued soon!).


Heather Moorland

(1) On the Peacock Butterfly.

Raptors Alive website, for some political realities of heather moorland politics.

(2) Brian Clark, Muses of Heaven, Astrological Journal, Jan/Feb 2104.

(3) C.J. Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics/Bollingen Foundation, 1960.

(4) Marsilio Ficino, The Planets, quoted by Thomas Moore, in The Planets Within, the Astrological Psychology of Marsilio, Ficino, Lindisfarne Books, 1982.

(5) Geoffrey Cornelius, Astrology, Imagination, and the Imaginal, the Astrological Journal, Jan/Feb 2014.

(6) Paul Ricouer, The Conflict of Interpretations, Northwestern University Press, 1974.




Divination, an Animist Art – 2

Weathered Gravestone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Weathered Gravestone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Occasionally the processes of the natural world appear to respond to human intention in quite specific ways.  This beautifully weathered gravestone in the cliff top cemetery at Whitby would seem to be a case in point.  From within-and-beyond the immediate material (geochemical, microclimatic) processes of Nature, a voice seems to be speaking.  I find the resultant image as open-endedly evocative as any piece of human art.  Yet mainstream Western culture has no conception of other-than-animal agency, mind, or sentience, in nature.  Describing Koyukon sensibility, David Abram (drawing on the work of Richard Nelson) writes ‘Rather like the trickster, the Raven, who first gave it its current form, the sensuous world is a spontaneous, playful, and dangerous mystery in which we participate, an animate and articulate field of powers ever responsive to human actions and spoken words’.  Although Abram could almost be describing my own perspective here, I want to resist the assumption that the implications of such a world-view are obvious, readily generalisable, and even necessarily benign.(1)

The following notes were prompted by Patrick Curry’s discussion of animist divination, which (hard as it is for me as an ‘insider’ to make the point) could also be read as romanticising contact with Nature.  I found myself wondering whether I had become set in my ways, and wanted to consider the relevance of categories such as bidden and unbidden omens, and inductive or ‘rational’ versus direct or inspired divination, to my own practice.

When I’m concerned about a particular situation I tend to turn to astrology, or to dowsing with a pendulum.  These happen to be the media that work for me.  Astrology is a complex subject that I’d prefer to discuss elsewhere. It is worth noting, however, that traditional ‘horary’ astrology, where a horoscope is cast for the time a meaningful question is asked, has an in-built safeguard against casual or inappropriate use.  There are various ‘considerations before judgement’ that, if present, prevent a reading from going ahead.  These include a check on the condition of the astrologer.  This significant step may not be entirely foolproof, but it does foreground a crucial issue common to all modes of divination.

In an individualistic culture where anxiety and despair is endemic -one in five of the population in some parts of the U.K are now on anti-depressants!- there’s an understandable temptation to resort to divination either out of desperation, as an antidote to alienation, or instead of doing the necessary preparatory work on an issue, or looking for/setting up networks of mutual support.  Where someone is prone to anxiety, depression, or mental disorientation, astrology may make matters worse, though even in these circumstances, in the right hands (and with good back-up support) it can be a useful general guide to what’s going on, not least in terms of timing.

If I, or someone I’m concerned about, is faced with several specific options, I may dowse with a pendulum.  When I do this I am ‘bidding an omen’, eliciting a response from other-than-human persons.  I’m not sure, though, how applicable the term omen is in relation to such a direct method. Provided that I’ve done some research, that the question I’m asking matters, is timely and appropriate, I seem to get a clear and unambiguous response.*  This, for instance, is how I decided between two possible options when I was about to embark upon a PhD as a mature student. In this case I suspect that I was helped because my health challenges were a significant factor.  I was on the horns of a dilemma and needed to be in the right environment. As things turned out I got a good answer.

A pendulum reading may leave me with much to think about, but the message is not encrypted as a sign that needs to be deciphered or interpreted.  Either the pendulum stalls, indicating that my question may not be appropriate, or that there’s nothing I can do about the situation, or I receive a fairly immediate response to a particular statement (occasionally after an arm-aching few minutes!).  The method I use is blind and ‘randomised’, though again, the latter term, with its scientific connotations (randomised double blind pharmaceutical trials come to mind) doesn’t feel right.  This kind of dowsing happens within the protected enclosure of simple heartfelt ritual, and is a subtle meditative process involving careful mental and emotional attunement.  I have a vivid sense of intimate contact with one or more other-than-human-persons who can ‘see’ the matter at hand, and somehow move the pendulum using my receptive body-mind as a conduit in order to reply.  My act of ‘randomisation’ simply works to prevent my conscious/rational mind from interfering with reception.  This would also be the case if I were using cards, or throwing the I-Ching.

A crucial difference with the pendulum for me, however, is that the feeling tone that comes through is either a sufficient answer in itself, or is what confirms the validity of the reading.  This can sometimes give a good indication of how someone I may know little about is getting on, or what a person I’ve not (yet) met, and couldn’t have picked up subliminal signals from, is like.  This is why I find the method so powerful, and think that explanations involving my own ‘subconscious’ mind are inadequate.  I also find that the pendulum moves eloquently -detecting, conducting, and expressing psychic-emotional energy- in response to my ongoing questions or suggestions.  This can feel very much like a conversation with a close and trusted friend.  The process is, therefore, dialogical.  Another key element in the method of pendulum dowsing I use involves visualisation, often of a permeable membrane of some kind (curtains, a screen, a water surface) which helps me to distinguish received from internally generated imagery and feelings.  Once again, there is nothing casual about this kind of enquiry.  I doubt that anything would ‘come through’ unless the question I asked mattered in terms of someone’s wellbeing.

(Continued on next page)

Equinox Greetings; Organic Time.

Daffodils Shaking off Late Snow

Daffodils Shaking off Late Snow

The Equinox feels like a good time to ponder the way in which time is organically embedded in the fabric of the living world, and its symbolic correspondences.  This insight would seem obvious to most of our premodern ancestors.  The so-called Venus of Laussel, for example, a figurine carved in limestone and sprinkled with red ochre some twenty thousand years ago, rests her left hand on her swelling/waxing belly, and holds a curved/waxing horn incised with thirteen notches.  Since the Moon waxes for thirteen days between the first crescent and Full Moon, and there can be thirteen cycles in an observational lunar year, this gesture almost certainly celebrates an association between the Moon, fertility in nature, and motherhood.  Jules Cashford comments: ‘a more eloquent testimony to the unity of celestial and earthly orders would be hard to find’.  The Moon makes time measurable, and causes living forms to wax and wane.  Mircea Eliade refers to these basic rhythms as ‘Living Time’.

I was fortunate to meet the late Charles Harvey, an eminent late twentieth century British Astrologer.  He used to point out that we’re much more likely to be able to see planetary principles at work in the world around us than Sun signs.  There’s a considerable degree of consistency in planetary lore across astrological traditions (that often disagree about other horoscope factors) stretching back to Ptolemy, or even Mesopotamia.  Ultimately the roots of Western Astrology recede into the depths of prehistory.  Engaging with just one or two planetary principles can be a lifetime’s work.

When approached carefully, and with due respect, astrology can provide a powerful symbolic map of the significance of a moment.  Here is one such map, showing the positions of the planets at the time of a memorable Spring Equinox meditation fourteen years ago, that turned out to be biographically important.  I hope the following brief note does justice to it as an example of ‘testimony to the unity of celestial and earthly orders’.

Horoscope of Kingfisher Meditation,  Spring Equinox 1989. Calculated using Solar Fire V5.

Horoscope of Kingfisher Meditation, Spring Equinox 1989. Calculated using Solar Fire V5 (Placidus house system).

Contemporary Western astrology accords prominence to any celestial body on one of the angles (at each end of the horizontal and vertical axes) of a horoscope.  Turning to this map, my attention is drawn to the Moon, on the midheaven, and to Pluto, Lord of the Underworld or Dark Mother, rising in his/her own sign Scorpio, and thus ‘ruling’ this horoscope as well as ‘the Great Place Below’.  Pluto signifies the principle of Moira/Fate, or Necessity, that we find personified in underworld deities such as Hades, Dis Pater, Ereshkigal, Kali, or Maasaaw.

In the meditation, I received (rather than constructed – the distinction is important) some unusually vivid imagery of Kingfishers, a bird I had been strongly attracted to over the previous few months.  At the time I was unaware that my mother had long identified with the species.  Over the next two years or so the appearance of Kingfishers in the flesh, and in dreams, came to be associated with her struggle with cancer, and eventual death, and with my own process of bereavement.  With the benefit of hindsight I can now see that this horoscope, with its angular Moon (the mother) and Pluto (transformation/death), prefigured this unambiguously.

Another striking feature of the chart is a close conjunction between Saturn (giver of form, boundaries, limits, the material real) and Neptune (boundless unity, water-mother, the flood, dream-time, meditative vision).  Referring to this planetary combination Liz Greene talks about ‘the gift of incarnating vision’.  The conjunction therefore seems to describe both the process of meditation, the condensation (Saturn) of visionary images (Neptune), and the content of those images.  Because Saturn is concerned with the restrictions of Old Age, The Fisher King comes to mind.  Unsurprisingly, Kingfishers are also associated with flood mythology.  Another image evocative of Saturn-Neptune is the walled garden of Paradise, with its crystal streams.  Turning to Liz Greene again, she writes: ‘paradise is the world of the already-born, immersed in the bliss of the breast’.

This biographically significant map is moored to my natal horoscope by Neptune, which makes a partile – exact to the degree and minute of arc-  ‘square’ (90 degree aspect) to it’s position at the moment I was born.  The Sun in this horoscope illuminates the position of the Moon at the time of my birth.  That, no doubt, is why, around the time of the Spring Equinox, I remember my mother, and think about the Kingfishers, who are out there, at this very moment, laying their next clutch of eggs.


I’ve written about my affinity with Kingfishers at:

Note:  Two planets simultaneously occupying two of the angles in a chart are said to be ‘in paran’ (in  paranatellon).  Such double crossings are regarded as symbolically powerful.  The Moon and Pluto in the above chart are also in quintile aspect.

Note:  good astrological practice is not about making loose definitions fit the task at hand.  I recently spent a full day writing a post about another significant moment, only to find, on checking my diary, that, ten years ago, I’d made a mistake when recording the date.  The piece had to be scrapped!


Jules Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, Cassell Illustrated, 2003.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology; Vol 1 – The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, George Allen and Unwin, 1984.

Liz greene, The Astrological Neptune, and the Quest for Redemption,Samuel Weiser, 1996.

In the Wake of a Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk.  Photo Kevin Ingleby.

Sparrowhawk on Bird Feeder ( photo by ‘anon’ ).

This morning we’ve had the first snow of the year.  Lovely blobs and lumps falling on to white trees, fields, and hills.  I had to restrain the urge to go out and play though.  I’ve strained some muscles in my back – ones that turn out to be needed when pulling socks on unassisted, or putting weight on my right foot – so I’ve been gritting my teeth and chewing over something that happened on a memorable walk back in late November.

On that day an old friend drove us out to a West Pennine reservoir.  We followed a circular route, and met Nuthatches, Goldcrests, and a juvenile Grey Heron.  By the time we got back to the car park it was mid-afternoon.  The low winter sun was already setting.  I was pleased to have spotted a flock of Fieldfares in the bare branches of some distant trees, when I suddenly noticed a dark ball of ‘energy’, hurtling towards my face.  I ducked instinctively to my left, just in time for a Thrush in full flight, and pursuing Sparrowhawk, to whoosh past my head in a thunder of wing muscle.  The whole thing happened too fast to register much visual detail, but as they vanished into the adjacent wood, I thought I heard a brief death yelp.  Phew!

What to make of this?  After the drama of the moment had subsided, my first thought was that the theme of power and violence had been ‘in the air’ that afternoon.  My friend, for example, had been talking about his research into Conscientious Objectors during the First World War, many of whom were tortured.  Putting my astrological hat on (bear with me), I found that the event had coincided quite closely with a Lunar Eclipse.  My initial reading of this was that the ‘Full Moon’ had drawn the energy of nature to a tidal peak in that location, and that the chance to witness this drama at unusually close quarters was, for me, its particular gift (see footnote).  I wasn’t sure why, but at the very least this felt like a vivid reminder that we humans and birds are part of a greater animate whole.

I then found myself wondering in what sense the birds engaged in that life or death struggle were other-than-human-people?  Irving Hallowell’s term, expressing the Ojibwa notion that any communicative individual, regardless of species, indeed any conversant entity or phenomenon, is a person, has been quite widely adopted by contemporary animists. (see Graham Harvey, 2005 pp17-20).  In the heat of the moment, however, for various reasons that I’m still trying to unpack, I found myself wanting to disqualify those two birds as people, the category that conventionally defines my kind, and think of them instead as other-than-human-beings.  They seemed completely other.  This moment of questioning was, I’m sure, partly due to the gravitational pull of linguistic habit, but the prospect of Westerners en-masse adopting a broader non species-specific understanding of people has never struck me as entirely unproblematic. (pauses to scratch head).  The assumption that people are human is not easily unlearned, so Hallowell’s term tends to be heard as other-than-human-humans.

Graham Harvey points out that the animists he has had conversations with are pragmatic about the need for many other-than-human-people  to eat other people in order to survive.  I have some difficulty, however, with his concluding evocation of a ‘community of life’, in which, as I understand it, the rules of killing and eating are somehow reconciled with an all-encompassing ethic of inter-species dialogue and respectful relationship.  Although many indigenous hunters undoubtedly have a respectful attitude towards their prey, I’m not sure how far the notion of respectful relationship can be extended into the realm of other-than-human predation, where the manner of death often appears cruel, and the predator radically dissociated from the personhood of their prey.  Think, for instance of that Thrush being squeezed and torn to death by the hungry Sparrowhawk.  Scenes like this, when enacted in the domesticated space of private gardens, inspire much vitriol against the species.  Those who describe Sparrowhawks as ‘sneaky killing machines’ often seem unmoved by the abundant ecological evidence that raptors are not responsible for the steep decline in song bird populations.

Sparrowhawk Relaxing After Meal.  Dave Fincham.

Sparrowhawk Relaxing After Meal. Dave Fincham.

To represent, let alone judge, the lives of ‘birds of prey’ solely in terms of these occasionally public and visible moments of killing, makes about as much sense as representing meat-eating humans solely as ‘apes of prey’.  Sparrowhawks are people too, insofar as they are willful, communicative, sociable beings, whose lives include private and tender moments.  Furthermore, given that humans have persecuted birds of prey and poisoned them on an industrial scale (due to the use of organochlorine pesticides between the mid-1950’s and mid-1970’s) causing countless equally horrible deaths, there would be considerable irony in excluding raptors from the category of persons on the basis of their capacity for ‘cruelty’, especially since, for these birds, inflicting mortal injury is an unavoidable by-product of their means of survival.  A quick glance in the rear view mirror of history should suffice to remind us that humans are in no position to claim moral superiority, particularly when it comes to intra-species violence.

Mary Midgley and others have described an exaggerated and markedly gendered sense of difference between ourselves and other species that pervades the political ecology of Western culture.  But there has also been a paradoxical tendency to naturalise patriarchal violence.   ‘Man the hunter’ sets out to control wild nature, but is also said to be predisposed towards aggression, competitiveness, and territoriality.  Bob Connell writes that despite a considerable body of research evidence refuting biological determinism, ‘the endocrine theory of masculinity, like brain-sex theory, has passed into journalistic common sense’.  We don’t need to believe in a simple overarching schema of progress, surely, to acknowledge the importance of challenges to patriarchal culture, and the associated pandemic of violence, that in terms of scale, motivation, and function, differs markedly from predation in the natural world.  One of my initial reservations about referring to members of other species as people was that this might encourage misplaced identification with predators, and thereby undermine attempts to foster a culture of non-violence amongst men.

Advertisement for binoculars encourages identification with Sparrowhawk

Advertisement for Swarovski binoculars encourages identification with Sparrowhawk.

The devotion of naturalists towards the objects of their affection can be something to behold.  Sparrowhawk-phile Dave Culley has constructed a 50 metre tunnel and 38 foot tower in order to film a pair that share ‘Sparrowhawk Island’ with him, and feed images back to monitors in his house.  This extraordinary exercise in high-tech surveillance has produced footage of hitherto unknown aspects of Sparrowhawk life, including a possible courtship dance performed by the male.  I say possible, as various nay sayers have claimed that the clip only shows a wash and brush up routine.  I hope they’re wrong, but either way the male Sparrowhawk undermines traditional associations between Hawks and military masculinity (the Hawk fighter jet; the Hawk of May, all-seeing bird of solar light, linked with the English patriotic warrior St. George, clearly a Falcon in modern ornithological terms, not one of the secretive Hawks).  In all birds of prey the female is significantly larger than the male, but in the case of the Sparrowhawk the weight difference is greatest.  So great that, according to Ian Newton, males are an ideal sized prey item for females, and quite often killed by them.  We might expect him to be circumspect around her, then!  In the ‘courtship display’ he bows, picks at his talons, fluffs himself up, and fans his undertail coverts, giving the impression of a miniature burlesque dancer.  Or perhaps he’s just sprucing himself up for her benefit. Sparrowhawk#p0088t0d

From a human perspective, another potential downside to importing a wider conception of personhood into contemporary Western discourse is that, rather than extending agency, subjectivity, and rights, to other species, it could open the floodgates to a sentimental anthropomorphism that denies the ‘engulfing difference of biodiversity’.  Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller write that ecological difference confronts us with the possibility of encounter with an infinity of non-human others.  Quite apart from opening up a mind boggling array of ethical dilemmas, this teeming multiplicity and vertiginous intensity of difference is fundamental to the dynamism of living systems.  Val Plumwood, in her critique of deep ecology, famously informed by the experience of becoming prey to a Saltwater Crocodile, makes a similar point.  Those of us working against the grain of hyper-separation from nature should be careful not to overcompensate by exaggerating similarity and empathy. ‘We must attain solidarity with the other in their difference’.  In the concluding chapter of his study of Yukaghir hunters in northeastern Siberia, entitled Taking Animism Seriously, Rane Willerslev also stresses the power to differentiate.  ‘What defines power in the Yukaghir world, where all beings continually mirror and echo one another, and where the various boundaries between self and other are permeable and easily crossed, is the ability not to confuse analogy with identity.’

We humans are people in the sense that we have a pronounced capacity for reflexivity, and for engaging in purposive social and ecological change.  As a collective we live far more differently from even our recent ancestors than do Sparrowhawks.  There’s much to debate here, but we, surely, are people in some very particular ways.

Returning to my close encounter, the astrology of that Lunar eclipse may have held the key to avoiding the horrible sciatica I’ve been struggling with over recent weeks.  To appreciate this you would need to step beyond the dualistic (subject/object splitting) epistemology of scientific rationality, and acknowledge a universe of meaningful contingency.  Geoffrey Cornelius writes ‘where the omen comes unbidden, the gods speak in a space of their choosing, blessing or touching events … ‘.  Such omens have participatory significance.  The eclipse chart pointed unmistakeably towards my natal Mars (the eclipsed Moon falling only 19 minutes of arc from ‘square’ that point).  Amongst other things, Mars signifies muscles and all the stuff we use them for.  Yet I was resistant to reading the event as an omen.  I’m not keen on the tendency to see an omen in every puff of wind, but there could hardly have been a more dramatic way of drawing my attention to the eclipse.  I should also say, by the way, that I’m not suggesting that those birds were cognisant of the potential human meaning of the strange blessing they delivered.

It so happens that at the time of a Lunar eclipse, intuitive embodied knowledge tends to get overshadowed by rationality and purpose.  Alas, I didn’t pick up the cue, let alone work effectively with it.  But at least I’ve enjoyed thinking through some of the implications of that dramatic moment.  Are Sparrowhawks people?  I think I might reserve other-than-human-people for times when I want to emphasise their similarity to ourselves, and opt for other-than-human-beings (or non-human others) when focusing on our differences.

B.T 23/1/13.


Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters;  Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, University of California Press, 2007.

On Sparrowhawk ecology see the RSPB’s page ( June 2011):

Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst and Co, 2005.

Bob Connell, Masculinities (second edition), Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ian Newton, The Sparrowhawk, T. and A. D. Poyser, 1986/2011 and The Sparrowhawk, Shire, 1987.

Kearns, L. and Keller, C.  Ecospirit, Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, Fordham University Press, 2007.

Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture; The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, 2002. also, her essay: Being Prey ( available online as a PDF ).

ref the Lunar eclipse, see Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology, Wessex Astrologer, 2003 ( e.g. pp132-133 ) for an account of astrology as divination, including unbidden omens.  The chart included a Mars-Pluto conjunction, these being the two most likely candidates in any astrological picture of predation, and highlighted Chiron, the ‘wounded healer’, opposing natal Mars.  As Chiron closed to around one degree opposite natal Mars, around New Year, sciatica struck.

Horoscope for the Lunar Eclipse of 28/11/12 set for Bolton.

Horoscope for the Lunar Eclipse of 28/11/12 set for Bolton.

Comments can be sent by e-mail using the contact form at the bottom of the home page.  Just say which bit you’d like included.

E-mail messages:

“Just read your description of dramatic encounter.  Astonishing. You must be a magnet!”  Chris Drinkwater.

“The sparrowhawk piece is interesting. It’s like the appreciation of different cultures, taken to an extreme. Can we see through the eyes of a hawk? some people claim such experiences but it’s not something I’ve ever known. we can imagine it but that’s still from a human perspective. I suppose it’s a matter of appreciating their aliveness or our common animality.”  Jo Pacsoo.