Announcing Astrology as Art: Representation and Practice

The following is an excerpt of the foreword to Astrology As Art: Representation and Practice, edited by Nicholas Campion and Jennifer Zahrt. This volume was recently launched at the 4th annual Sophia Centre Postgraduate Conference at the London Campus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This anthology brings together key contributions from nine scholars who spoke at the Sophia Centre annual conference in 2015 on the theme ‘Astrology as Art’. We address the issues in two ways. First, is astrology an art? And, second, what does art say about astrology? And underpinning those two questions is the deeper one which asks how we create meaningful relationships with the cosmos. Please enjoy this excerpt:

Foreword to Astrology as Art

by Nicholas Campion and Jennifer Zahrt

The chapters in this anthology – the latest in the Sophia Centre Press series on ‘Studies in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology’ – are based on papers originally presented at the 2015 Sophia Centre conference on ‘Astrology as Art: Representation and Practice’. Two questions arise from the title: first ‘is astrology an art?’ and, second, ‘how does art represent astrology?’ The first question may be understood in various ways, such as ‘is the act of interpreting astrological symbols an art?’, or ‘is the visual language used by astrologers artistic?’ And then, on a deeper level, if astrological artefacts are considered to be alive, as talismans may be, then they are not representational. In that sense, how do we consider them art without misrepresenting their identity.

The definition of astrology as an art is familiar from secondary sources. Morris Jastrow in the The Encyclopaedia Britannica described it as ‘the ancient art or science of divining the fate and future of human beings from indications given by the positions of the stars (sun, moon, and planets)’.1 The Concise Oxford Dictionary defined it as ‘(Formerly) practical astronomy (also called natural ~); art of judging of reputed occult influence of stars upon human affairs (judicial ~)’.2 Roger Beck wrote ‘Astrology, the art of converting astronomical data (i.e., the positions of the celestial bodies) into predictions of outcomes in human affairs’.3 And amongst astrologers, Margaret Hone, whose The Modern Text Book of Astrology ranked as one of the most influential textbooks of the 1950s–70s, considered art to be one way of describing astrology: ‘Since there are many angles of approach to astrology as to religion or art, it is not easy to formulate a definition to suit all, but few will find disagreement with the following: Astrology is a unique system of interpretation of the correlation of planetary action in human experience’.4 The key to Hone’s statement, perhaps, lies in the word ‘interpretation’ – astrology may have an objective existence written into the fabric of the cosmos, but the astrologer has to consider, reflect, and provide meaning.

Astrology and art are words with different and contested meanings. At its broadest we can define astrology as the observation of relationships between the sky, stars, planets, and Earth, a statement which includes both the traditional medieval branches of the discipline: natural astrology which deals with physical and seasonal cycles, and judicial astrology, in which astrologers interpret matters of human interest, offering advice, managing the present and, sometimes, predicting likely futures. Both, of course, may overlap. As Patrick Curry succinctly put it, ‘In practice the line between natural and judicial astrology was constantly blurred’.5

Art, meanwhile, is, like judicial astrology (any astrology in which the astrologer’s judgement and interpretative skills are central), is largely a human creation. It is an artefact. In the first century BCE, Cicero defined one of his two forms of divination as ‘artificial’, meaning it relies on a structure, a framework which the diviner creates in order to reach a logical answer to a question.6 Popular modern examples include tarot cards and the I Ching. The astrological horoscope, the complex schematic diagram used by astrologers, can be another, although not necessarily so. Cicero’s other form of divination was ‘natural’, by which he meant that it is unrestrained by reason and logic. It is spontaneous and involves a direct interaction between the diviner and the divined. Divination from dreams, trance, and forms of enchantment are examples of natural divination.

Art relates to the modern English words artifice and artificial: a work of art is artificial. It is something deliberately created and, for most of western history, has required a high level of craft. A skill has to be learnt, and if it is implemented well then the viewer, listener, or reader is moved and inspired. The practitioner of artificial divination has to aspire to such heights of they are to be successful in providing effective advice. However the history of western art since the late eighteenth century has seen first the Romantic notion that the artist must express the soul – either their own soul or the soul of nature, or the world soul. And as the twentieth century progressed, the idea began to take hold amongst some that skill and craft were irrelevant compared to the artist’s all-important self-expression. We are reminded both of Cicero’s natural divination in which the diviner naturally speaks the truth on the basis of a deep connection with the world, and of modern astrologers who regard themselves as speaking the truth on the basis of intuitions – ideas, thought and feelings emerging into consciousness from the psychic depths – rather than the application of the technical rules of astrology. Some artists, though, have reached a position in which art has no essential existence or quality. The value of what they create is judged entirely by the audience. Astrology tips into this domain even though few dare to admit it. After all Alexander Ruperti, one of the leading astrologers of the western world in the 1970s–90s declared that

there is not one Astrology with a capital A. In each epoch, the astrology of the time was a reflection of the kind of order each culture saw in celestial motions, of the kind of relationship the culture formulated between heaven and earth.7

Within mainstream western astrological thought itself runs the notion that judicial astrology has no absolute truth but evolves with culture. A medieval horoscope may resemble a Gothic cathedral, a modern one Le Corbusier. Some forms of art have moved from the representational to the conceptual. Astrological iconography conforms to both. There are artistic representations of zodiac signs and planets that may have no specific astrological use. Then there are the visual forms used by astrologers: glyphs to represent planets and drawings of horoscopes. Glyphs themselves carry concepts and some modern astrologers regard the reading of the symbol as the key act of the astrologer, as if the symbol has no fixed meaning.8 We then move into the realm of contemporary conceptual art, in which what is or is not a work of art is as dependent on the viewer as the creator.

The boundary between representation and practice is fluid and each of the nine chapters in this volume passes between them. They explore the meanings of art and astrology, the iconography of astrology and the nature of its practice, the use of zodiac signs, and the portrayal stars and planets in literature and the visual arts. The volume opens with Martin Gansten’s exploration of what exactly we mean by ‘art’. Micah Ross and Suzanne Nolan then consider astrological iconography in Mesopotamian and Mediterranean culture, and the Mesoamerican worlds, respectively. John Meeks moves into literary territory with his analysis of astrological symbolism in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s thirteenth-century epic, Parzifâl. Claudia Rousseau, Ruth Clydesdale, Spike Bucklow, and Richard Dunn then take four perspectives on the European Renaissance, a highpoint for the use of astrology through imagery, metaphor, and symbol. Liesbeth Grotenhuis closes the volume by moving the debate to the modern era with her study of the symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff.

Nicholas Campion,
Associate Professor of Cosmology in Culture,
Principal Lecturer, Faculty of Humanities and the Performing Arts,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Jennifer Zahrt,
Honorary Research Fellow,
Faculty of Humanities and the Performing Arts,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


  1. Morris Jastrow, ‘Astrology’ in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10th edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), p. 795.
  2. ‘Astrology’, Concise Oxford Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).
  3. ‘Astrology’ in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition, Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p 195.
  4. Margaret Hone, The Modern Text Book of Astrology (Romford: Fowler, 1951), p. 16.
  5. Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England (Oxford: Polity Press, 1989), p. 10.
  6. Cicero, De Divinatione, trans. W. A. Falconer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929), I:lvi.
  7. Alexander Ruperti, ‘Dane Rudhyar – March 23, 1895–September 13, 1985 – A Seed-Man for the New Era’,, originally printed in Astrological Journal 33, no. 2 (Spring 1986): p. 55. See also [accessed 25 June 2017].
  8. Liz Greene, ‘Signs, Signatures, and Symbols: the Languages of Heaven’, in Nicholas Campion and Liz Greene eds., Astrologies: Plurality and Diversity (Lampeter: Sophia Centre Press, 2011), pp. 17–45; Nicholas Campion, ‘Is Astrology a Symbolic Language?’ in Nicholas Campion and Liz Greene, eds., Sky and Symbol (Lampeter: Sophia Centre Press, 2013), pp. 9–46.

On ‘Mars and the Mediums’

Today Mars turns retrograde, appearing to carve a backwards path against the backdrop of the zodiac. This is reason enough to turn our attention to the Red Planet. Now scholar Clive Davenhall has examined our cultural conceptions of Mars in his article ‘Mars and the Mediums’ reproduced in its entirety here. This work appears in our forthcoming volume Imagining Other Worlds, an anthology of the latest work in astronomy and culture based on the 2016 Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena (INSAP) conference at London’s Gresham College. So as the ambient Mars embarks on its retrograde journey, join us in celebrating past engagements with the red planet and our cultural imagination.

Mars and the Mediums

by Clive Davenhall

The second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth were the heyday of both spiritualism and the Martian ‘canal craze’.1 The canal craze imagined the planet as a dying, desert world where an advanced civilisation had hoarded its dwindling water resources. A surprising confluence of these ideas led to reports of occult communication with Mars. These reports are widely scattered and, unsurprisingly, rarely feature in the astronomical literature, though there have been a few modern surveys.2 Mediums reported travelling to Mars, and less frequently elsewhere, by astral projection and similar techniques. They reported communication with intelligent Martians by thought transference, recollected past lives on Mars and anticipated reincarnation there. This paper outlines this unexpected corner of the interaction between astronomy and wider culture. Subsequent sections summarise the relevant background, both spiritualist and astronomical, present examples of actual reports by mediums and similar ideas employed in fiction, and finally discuss the phenomenon.


Mars was seen to display a disk soon after the telescope was applied to astronomy in the early years of the seventeenth century and the first permanent markings on it were identified later in the same century.3 Thereafter it was the subject of careful if sporadic observation. By the mid-nineteenth century a consensus understanding of the planet had been achieved. The rotation period differed by only a few minutes from that of the Earth. There were permanent markings on the surface, though their appearance varied somewhat. The darker, greenish patches were usually thought to be seas and the lighter red-brown regions to be continents. The polar caps waxed and wained with the seasons and were considered to be made of water ice. A substantial atmosphere supported occasional clouds. There was already speculation about whether the planet was inhabited, in an established tradition of ‘the plurality of worlds’.4

The 1877 perihelic opposition brought the planet unusually close, thus positioning it favourably for observation, and it was extensively studied by a large number of observers. The most unexpected results were obtained by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1853–1910), a Professor of astronomy from Milan, who had previously shown little interest in the planet.5 He produced maps showing unprecedented detail and introduced a new, elegant system of names, based on classical mythology and geography, which still forms the basis of Martian nomenclature. His maps were notable for showing, particularly in the northern hemisphere, a grid of hitherto unsuspected dark lines criss-crossing the lighter ‘continents’ and linking the darker ‘seas’.6 Schiaparelli called these features canali, Italian for ‘channels’, but the term was mis-translated into English as ‘canals’, suggesting an artificial origin, though Schiaparelli always remained non-comital about their nature. At successive oppositions Schiaparelli produced further maps showing an increasingly complex canal network. Initially only he saw the canals, but soon other observers were reporting them and by around 1890 their existence, if not their nature, was considered well-established.

The nature of the canals remained a matter of debate (and in the event they turned out to be optical illusions). The idea that they were artificial and constructed by intelligent beings was never accepted by most astronomers. However it had two powerful and effective advocates, Camille Flammarion and Percival Lowell, who popularised it amongst the wider public.7 Camille Flammarion (1842–1925) was a prolific, self-educated French astronomer and populariser of astronomy. He was widely-read in France and discussed his ideas in numerous popular astronomy books, articles and also in works of fiction. Percival Lowell (1855-1916) was a wealthy American businessman, traveller and orientalist. He became fascinated by Mars in the early 1890s (initially by reading one of Flammarion’s books) and founded the observatory that bears his name in Flagstaff, Arizona principally to study the planet. He was an eloquent and persuasive author who wrote several books expounding his ideas about the planet and his observatory issued a blizzard of press releases.

Flammarion and Lowell’s ideas about Mars differed somewhat. Flammarion adhered to the earlier idea that the dark patches were seas and the lighter ones continents.8 These continents supported lush vegetation of a riot of colours, but predominantly red and orange rather than green (H.G. Wells borrowed this idea for the ‘red weed’ that briefly overran South East England in The War of the Worlds). Percival Lowell’s conception of the planet was significantly different. For him the orange areas were true desert and the darker ones arid semi-desert supporting sparse vegetation. The seas that the planet once possessed had long-since vanished. Both, however, saw the canals as the artificial constructs of an advanced civilisation.

Spiritualism in its modern form emerged in 1848 with the Fox sisters from Hydesville in Wayne County, New York State, with table-rapping and other phenomena.9 It quickly became popular throughout the US and Europe and by the turn of the century had become a mass-movement with about eight million followers. The central tenet of spiritualism is that the spirit or soul enjoys a continued existence after death and, further, it is possible for the living to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. Some people were particularly adept at such communication and would act as ‘mediums’, mediating communications for others by relaying questions and answers. The movement quickly developed its now-familiar trappings: groups of communicants sitting in a darkened room with a medium, speaking in altered voices, automatic writing, sound effects such as bells and trumpets, and even the manifestation of ‘aports’ or physical objects.

Though spiritualism was a mass-movement it had little formal organisation. Rather, communication was through periodicals, lectures and practitioners. The later nineteenth century also saw the development of similar movements, such as theosophy and the founding of societies to investigate and assess the validity of these ideas, such as the Society for Psychical Research (in 1882) and the American Society for Psychical Research (in 1885).


Writing in 1959 the psychoanalyst and journalist Nandor Fodor recalled that ‘at least a dozen well-known mediums have been involved with the planet Mars’ and it seems likely that there were others.10 Only a few examples will be mentioned here.

William Denton (1823-83), originally from Darlington, County Durham, settled in Ohio, where he became a geologist and political activist, advocating women’s rights, the abolition of slavery and temperance.11 He and his family also practiced ‘psychometry’, a form of divination that purports to discern the nature and history of objects merely by handling them. Between 1863 and 1874 William and his wife Elizabeth wrote the three volumes of The Soul of Things which included reports of trips that several family members had made to Mars while in a trance state.12 Together they found several more-or-less human races (each member encountered a somewhat different species), all with civilisations broadly similar to the terrestrial one. Anne Denton Cridge, William’s sister, reported a dense life-sustaining atmosphere, great mountains and lush valleys that were home to large crocodile-like reptiles.

Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), originally from Leipzig, was a successful and highly respected judge, presiding over the Saxon High Court of Appeals, until in early middle age he suffered the onset of the mental illness that would periodically plague him for the rest of his life. Its underlying cause may have been an unusually strict upbringing. He suffered three periods of illness: 1884–85, 1893–1902 and 1907–11, separated by periods of recovery. After the second he wrote a book about his condition, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903).13 It scandalised his family, but was quickly adopted by psychiatrists; a
rare example of a textbook written by the patient rather than the doctor. It remains well-known, perhaps because Freud subsequently wrote a book re-assessing it in terms of psychoanalysis.14

Schreber’s illness took several forms, including memories of previous incarnations. He wrote:

…I had lived for years in doubt as to whether I was really still on earth or whether on some other celestial body. Even in the year 1895 I still considered the possibility of my being on Phobos, a satellite of the planet Mars mentioned by the voices in some other context, and wondered whether the moon, which I sometimes saw in the sky, was not the main planet Mars.

Interplanetary journeys were peripheral to Schreber’s condition, but played an important part in the case of Hélène Smith, one of the better-known examples of spirit voyages to Mars. She was studied by Théodore Flournoy (1854–1920), the first Professor of psychology at the University of Geneva.16 Flournoy, a contemporary of Freud and early mentor to Jung, was an important figure in the development of psychology, particularly in Switzerland. He reported Mlle Smith’s case in From India to the Planet Mars which on publication in 1899 became something of a best-seller, running through several editions in a few months. An English translation appeared in the same year.17

Hélène Smith (or Helen Smith in the English edition, real name Catherine-Elise Müller; Flournoy adopted the pseudonym to protect her identity) came from a respectable Geneva family and worked as a secretary. She was also a well-known medium who gave seances to a circle of friends. She would enter a trance state in which she spoke in the persona of spirits she encountered, and produce automatic writing and drawings. During a trance she would recall previous lives, mostly under the tutelage of ‘Leopold’, a spirit guide. Most of Mlle Smith’s previous lives were terrestrial (and included an Indian princess; hence the title of Flournoy’s book). However, one sequence involved communication with Mars. Amazingly she produced an entire Martian language, complete with script, vocabulary and grammar, and also drawings of the Martian scenes she witnessed. The language was later discovered to be a version of her native French, but it had been produced entirely automatically.

Flournoy thought Mlle Smith entirely sincere, but did not believe her experiences were real. He describes them as products of cryptomnesia and as a ‘romance of the subliminal imagination’. Mlle Smith considered Flournoy’s skepticism a betrayal and ended cooperation when the book was published.While Hélène Smith is well-documented, little is known of Sara Weiss other than that she was the American author of two books reporting astral journeys to Mars (or Ento in the Martian tongue): Journeys to the Planet Mars (1903), and Decimon Huydas: A Romance of Mars (1906).18 Both journeys were made with the assistance of spirit guides. Her principal guide was one Carl De L’Ester but others included such luminaries as Giordano Bruno and Alexander von Humboldt. The journeys had occurred during 1893–94 though the books were not published until a decade later.

The first book, Journeys, is a rambling, digressive travelogue with detours into spiritualist doctrine. There are sections on the Martian language and flora and several well-executed drawings of the latter. Decimon Huydas is similar but has a narrative, relating a domestic tragedy that had occurred a few hundred years earlier. Both books are informed by a contemporary understanding of Mars. Giant irrigation projects, embankments and other civil engineering projects are mentioned and there are explicit references to Schiaparelli and Flammarion.

Finally, Hugh Mansfield Robinson was a practicing solicitor who had been the Town Clerk of Shoreditch (1900–11).19 He was also a psychic and medium; his first astral visit to Mars was in 1918. His Mars was home to an advanced civilisation and on his first visit he arrived at a radio station. The Martians had a highly developed radio technology and generated hydro-electric power using waterfalls in the mountains and canals. The Martians themselves were 6–8 feet tall, with oriental features and large ears. Robinson’s guide was the Lady Oomaruru, who later turned out to be a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

During Mars’ 1926 opposition Robinson tried to validate his astral communication by also establishing radio contact with the planet. He tried sending messages using standard commercial services and equipment then available to the public. No convincing replies were received, though his efforts were widely reported in national and local newspapers. He made further attempts in 1928 and on subsequent occasions before sinking in obscurity. The idea of communicating with Mars by radio had been discussed intermittently since the turn of the century and the idea resurfaced in the early 1920s, which may have sparked Robinson’s interest. During the 1924 opposition the astronomer David Todd had organised a coordinated and widely-reported attempt to listen for signals.20

Examples from Fiction

The idea of astral communication with Martians or astral travel to the planet was not unusual in proto-science fiction of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best-remembered of these stories is undoubtedly Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars, first published in 1912, and its many sequels.21 In the first story the hero projects himself to Mars basically by force of will and strength of desire. There he finds a vaguely Lowellian desert world, criss-crossed by canals and inhabited by various advanced (and not so advanced) civilisations.

George du Maurier (1834–96) was a book illustrator and cartoonist best remembered for his work for Punch.22 He also wrote three novels: Peter IbItson (1891), Trilby(1894) and The Martian (published posthumously in 1897).23 Both of the two earlier novels include some supernatural elements. The Martian is largely a conventional story that tells a fictionalised version of its author’s own career. However, towards the end it is unexpectedly revealed that throughout his life the author has been unwittingly directed by a telepathic Martian. She had arrived on Earth about a hundred years earlier in a meteor shower and in the interim had tutored several earthlings. Latterly some of the Martians have taken an interest in directing suitably inclined earthlings towards an interest in and appreciation of higher things: aesthetics, philosophy etc. Du Maurier’s Mars is an aged world that is nearing the end of the period during which it can support life. The amphibious seal-like Martians live near the equator, the only part of the planet still habitable.

Richard Ganthony’s A Message from Mars (1899) was a popular and widely-performed play. Though it was first performed in 1899 the earliest reference to a printed version appears to be a revision from 1923.24 Ganthony, collaborating with the novelist Mabel Knowles, later adapted it into a novel.25 It also inspired both a spin-off by Owen Hall and a spoof by Mostyn T. Pigott, and was filmed three times, in: 1903 (New Zealand), 1913 (UK) and 1921 (US).26

The story concerns one Horace Parker, the ‘most selfish man on earth’. He is visited by a messenger from Mars, who has come to show him the error of his ways, rather in the manner of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The visitor has considerable psychic powers, and they are the means by which he journeyed to earth. The stage production was a notable success for the celebrated actor Sir Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923) who also starred in the 1913 film.

Finally To Mars via the Moon (1911) by Mark Wicks is an early space adventure.27 The narrator designs and builds a spaceship, the Areonal, in which he and two companions travel to Mars. The book was partly intended as an introduction to astronomy for younger readers and early chapters present astronomically-accurate descriptions of the Sun, Moon and Mars. Once the explorers arrive on Mars its geography is entirely Lowellian; indeed the book is dedicated to Lowell. The Martian civilisation is also similarly Lowellian: peaceful and technologically and spiritually advanced, with all the usual attributes of a literary utopia. So far, there has been no connection with spiritualism, but it turns out that the Martians, or at least some of them, are reincarnated earth-humans, and the narrator meets his dead son.

Little is known of Wicks: his only other published work is on the entirely different topic of making organs.28 However, the astronomical descriptions and familiarity with Lowell’s ideas clearly demonstrate a sound general knowledge of astronomy and the dedication and preface make it clear that he was familiar with Lowell’s books.


Ideas of interplanetary spirit travel and reincarnation on other planets seem odd, if not ridiculous, now. However, they have a long pedigree. Following the Copernican revolution of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the Earth and the other planets became essentially the same sort of body, all orbiting the Sun. The question of whether the other planets were inhabited then arose naturally and a tradition of the ‘plurality of worlds’ was widely, if not universally, accepted: as all the planets were God’s creation they were thought likely to be inhabited. Bernard de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) in which a philosopher discusses astronomy with a marquise as they walk in the latter’s garden under the stars effectively and eloquently spread the idea.29

The modern idea of communicating with the inhabitants of other planets begins with the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) who amongst his voluminous writings reported conversations with spirits from all the then-known planets and described the nature of each of them.30 Swedenborg’s writings remained known and he was certainly an influence on some of the authors of astral journeys. A more direct influence, however, seems likely to have been Camille Flammarion. In addition to being an influential populariser of astronomy whose books were widely read he was a firm believer in spiritualism. In this respect he differed from Percival Lowell who consistently adopted a skeptical attitude to spiritualism and an entirely materialist approach to his Martian studies. Flammarion joined the Societé Parisienne des Études Spirites as a young man and later held office in it. Towards the end of his life he was also President of the Society for Psychical Research. He regularly contributed to spiritualist journals and pamphlets. These publications discussed reincarnation on other planets and the idea features in his novels Lumen and Urania.31

The influence of Flammarion is obvious, for example, in Gustave Le Rouge’s early space adventure Prisoner of the Vampires of Mars and its sequel.32 The version of Mars that features in this story, particularly the description at the start of Chapter 8, might have been taken from one of Flammarion’s astronomy books. Le Rouge does not use reincarnation or astral travel but does introduce his own variation: his hero travels to Mars in a physical spacecraft, but it is propelled by the psychic power of Indian mystics. There are also instances of telepathy in the novels.

Hélène Smith and Theodore Flournoy were both French-speaking Swiss. Flournoy was certainly familiar with Flammarion’s work; he quotes from one of his books in From India to the Planet Mars.33 He notes that Hélène Smith moved in spiritualist circles and that, though he did not know if she had ever read an astronomy book, she was certainly familiar with Flammarion’s ideas about both astronomy and spiritualism, including reincarnation on other worlds. The question of communication with Mars was first discussed amongst Mlle Smith’s group in 1892, but there was then a gap of two years before it resurfaced.

During 1894 the circle to which Mlle Smith belonged began holding seances at the house of one M. Lemaître, who expressed an interest in knowing ‘what is happening upon other planets’. Mlle Smith was also introduced to a Mme Mirbel, a widow seeking to contact her recently deceased son, Alexis. During a seance held in October 1894 Hélène Smith relayed messages to Mme Mirbel from Alexis and a companion, Prof. Raspail. Both Alexis and Prof. Raspail were communicating from an unspecified location that was not discussed. The next seance was held the following month on 25 October. Alexis and Prof. Raspail reappear, but are now explicitly located as resident on Mars. The 1894 opposition of Mars occurred on 20 October, between these two seances. This opposition was well-placed for observation and was both anticipated and widely reported. Mlle Smith may well have read reports about it in either newspapers or periodicals and, remembering M. Lemaître’s remark earlier in the year, inserted Martian elements into her communication for Mme Mirbel. Following this episode Mlle Smith’s Martian narrative does not reappear until February 1896 when it is fully developed.

The various accounts of spiritual journeys to Mars, both purportedly real and avowedly fictional, were influenced by the contemporary understanding of the planet to varying degrees, ranging from none to re-capitualisations of astronomical texts, complete with the reproduction of maps. However, where there is astronomical influence it always followed the popular accounts of Lowell or Flammarion. I am not aware any accounts that describe the rather more inhospitable planet that had become the consensus amongst astronomers by the early twentieth century, let alone the considerably more inimical world later revealed by robotic spacecraft. This failure to find the real Mars is further convincing evidence, if such is needed, against spiritualism.

While Mars was the most common destination for spiritual interplanetary travel it was not the only one. Other examples include Flammarion’s own Lumen, where the recently deceased narrator travels to several external star systems, and the early German film Algol: Tragedy of Power (1920) which sees a visit from an extra-terrestrial, presumably from a planet orbiting the eponymous star.34

Astral journeys were not the only engagement between astronomy and spiritualism; astronomers feature amongst the membership of the Society for Psychical Research and its American counterpart, and some have served terms as President. A few have been more directly involved. For example Farie MacGeorge, Chief Observer at the Great Melbourne Telescope from 1870–73, resigned in order to be free to pursue his spiritualist interests.35 Sir William Peck (1862–1925), the respected Director of the Edinburgh City Observatory on Calton Hill, was a member of the Golden Dawn who reportedly undertook astral journeys, as did other members of the Golden Dawn.36

Finally, this discussion stops at the end of the inter-war period, but interplanetary spiritual journeys continued post-war, merging into the UFO and ‘new age’ movements. As robotic spacecraft revealed an inhospitable solar system the destinations receded to planets orbiting other stars. The Aetherius Society will serve as an example.37

Jennifer Zahrt,
Honorary Research Fellow,
Faculty of Humanities and the Performing Arts,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


  1. For a comprehensive discussion of spiritualism see Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England 1850–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985). For a more popular account see Ronald Pearsall, The Table Rappers (1972; repr. Stroud: Sutton, 2004). The Martian canal craze has been well-studied. Michael Crowe gives a succinct account in ‘The Battle over the Planet of War’, Chapter 9 of his The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750–1900 (New York: Dover, 1999), 480–546. There is also much relevant material in: O. Morton, Mapping Mars (London: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, 2003); R. Markley, Dying Planet (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Robert Crossley, Imagining Mars (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011); Maria D. Lane, Geographies of Mars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); and H.V. Hendrix, G. Slusser and E.S. Rabkin, eds., Visions of Mars (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).
  2. The most comprehensive recent survey of Mars and spiritualism is Chapter 7 of Crossley, Imagining Mars, pp. 129–48. There is also useful material in Chapter 8 of Jerome Clark, Hidden Realms, Lost Civilizations and Beings from Other Worlds (Detroit: Visible Ink, 2010), pp. 129–68 and Gareth Medway, ‘Mediums, Mystics and Martians’, Magonia 99 (2009): pp. 3–9.
  3. The definitive account of the early history of observation of Mars is Camille Flammarion, La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1892). An English edition has recently been published: William Sheehan, ed., Camille Flammarion’s the Planet Mars, trans. Patrick Moore (New York: Springer, 2015). See also Patrick Moore, ‘The Mapping of Mars’, J. Brit. Aston. Assoc, 94 no. 2 (1984), 45-54.
  4. Michael Crowe, Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 480-546.
  5. See M. Beech, ‘Schiaparelli, Giovanni’ in the Biographical Encyclopaedia of Astronomers (henceforth BEA), T. Hockey (ed.), 2007 (New York: Springer, 2007a), 1020-1021 and also obituaries Anon., Astrophys J. 32 (1910), 313-319 and ‘E.B.K.’ (probably E.B. Knobel), Mon. Not. R. Astron Soc. 71 (1911), 282–87.
  6. [See featured image of this blog post. —Ed.] Schiaparelli produced maps for the 1877 opposition and several subsequent ones. They were originally published as memoirs of the Milan Observatory, of which he was Director, and were reproduced in Flammarion’s La planète Mars and have appeared many times since. See Sheehan, Flammarion’s Mars, 248, 258, 280–81, 288, 302–3. On-line versions are available at, for example [accessed 21 August 2016].
  7. Flammarion was a prolific author and wrote many popular astronomy books, including La Pluralité des Mondes Habités (Paris: Mallet-Bachelier, 1861), Les terres du ciel (Paris: Didier, 1877) and Astronomie populaire (Paris: C. Marpon et E. Flammarion, 1880). For an English-language account of his ideas about Mars see, for example, book IV, chapter IV of the English translation of Astronomie populaire: Camille Flammarion and J. Ellard Gore, Popular Astronomy: a General Description of the Heavens (Chatto and Windus: London, 1894), 373–98, especially 382 onwards. For biographical details see R. Baum, ‘Flammarion, Camille’ in BEA, 934–35 and the obituary by A.F. Miller, ‘Camille Flammarion: his Life and his Work’, J. R. Astron. Soc. Canada 19 (1925), 265–85. Lowell wrote three books setting out his ideas about Mars: Mars (Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1895), Mars and its Canals (New York: Macmillan, 1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (New York: Macmillan, 1908). His life and career have been well-studied. His most comprehensive biography is David Strauss’ Percival Lowell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). More concisely, Strauss also contributed Lowell’s entry in BEA, 710–11.
  8. See Flammarion and Gore, Popular Astronomy, or Sheehan, Flammarion’s Mars, 435–41.
  9. See Janet Oppenheim, Other World or Ronald Pearsall, Table Rappers.
  10. Nandor Fodor, The Haunted Mind: a Psychoanalyst Looks at the Supernatural (New York: Helix Press, 1959), 262.
  11. For William Denton see Jerome Clark, Hidden Realms, 142-143, 151. For additional details see the biographical note prepared by the Wellesley Historical Society and available at [accessed 21 August 2016].
  12. William and Elizabeth M.F. Denton, The Soul of Things: or Psychometric Researches and Discoveries (Boston: Walker Wise and Co, 1863); William and Elizabeth M.F. Denton, The Soul of Things: or Psychometric Researches and Discoveries II (Wellesley, Mass: E.M.F. Denton, 1873) and William and Elizabeth M.F. Denton, The Soul of Things: or Psychometric Researches and Discoveries III (Wellesley, Mass: E.M.F. Denton, 1874).
  13. Daniel Paul Schreber, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1903); edition consulted: Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter (eds, trans.), Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). Alex Pheby’s recent novel Playthings (Norwich: Galley Beggar, 2015) is a fictional account of Schreber’s case.
  14. Sigmund Freud, The Schreber Case, trans. Andrew Webber (London: Penguin, 2002).
  15. Schreber, Memoirs, p. 88.
  16. See Ronald Earl Goldsmith, The Life and Work of Theodore Flournoy, 1854–1920, 1979, PhD Thesis, Michigan State University, Dept. of History; and James Witzig, ‘Theodore Flournoy, A Friend Indeed’, J. Ann. Psychology, 27 (1982), pp. 131-48.
  17. Théodore Flournoy, Des Indes à la planète Mars: étude sur un cas de somnambulisme avec glossolalie (Paris: F. Alcan ; Geneva: Ch. Eggimann, 1900). English edition (somewhat abridged): From India to the planet Mars: a Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia, trans. Daniel B. Vermilye (New York; London: Harper & Bros, 1900). See [accessed 21 August 2016].
  18. Sara Weiss, Journeys to the Planet Mars; Or, ‘Our mission to Ento’ (New York: The Bradford Press, 1903); Decimon Hûŷdas: A Romance of Mars (Rochester, NY: The Austin Publishing Co., 1906). A review of the former appeared in the New York Times, 19 December 1903, available at [accessed 21 August 2016].
  19. Nandor Fodor, Haunted Mind, ‘Interplanetary Fantasies’, pp. 259–69.
  20. Steven J. Dick, The Biological Universe: the Twentieth-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 401–10.
  21. Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1917). Originally serialised under the pseudonym Norman Bean and title ‘Under The Moons of Mars’ in The All-Story magazine, beginning February 1912.
  22. Leonée Ormond, ‘Du Maurier, George Louis Palmella Busson (1834–1896)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2008,, [accessed 21 August 2016].
  23. George Du Maurier, The Martian (London: Harper & Bros., 1897).
  24. Richard Ganthony A Message from Mars (New York: Samuel French, 1923).
  25. Richard Ganthony and Lester Lurgan, Message from Mars (London: Greening & Co, 1912). Lester Lurgan was a pseudonym for the novelist Mabel Knowles (1875–1949).
  26. Owen Hall, The Silver Slipper: a Modern Extravaganza (London: Francis, Day & Hunter, 1901); Mostyn T. Pigott, ‘The Messenger from Mars’, The World Christmas number, 1900 (London) 5-17; The British Film Institute has recently released a full restoration of the 1913 version: A Message from Mars, dir. J. Wallett Waller. See: [accessed 21 August 2016].
  27. Mark Wicks, To Mars via the Moon: an Astronomical Story (London: Seeley & Co, 1911).
  28. Mark Wicks, Organ Building for Amateurs. A Practical Guide for Home-workers (London: Ward, Lock and Co. Ltd, 1887).
  29. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, 1686). Three English translations appeared within a couple of years of the French original. The second of these, by playwright and author Aphra Behn, has recently been republished: Bernard de Fontenelle, A Discovery of New Worlds, trans. Aphra Behn (London: Hesperus, 2012).
  30. Swedenborg’s extra-terrestrial visitations were originally collected as De Telluribus in Mondo Nostro Solari (1758), which was largely extracted from his earlier Arcana Caelestia (1749–56). For a modern English translation see E. Swedenborg, The Worlds in Space, trans. J. Chadwick (London: The Swedenborg Society, 1997). For a general introduction to Swedenborg see, for example, G. Lachman, Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg (London: The Swedenborg Society, 2006).
  31. Camille Flammarion, ‘Lumen’ in Recits de L’Infini (Stories of Infinity, 1872). A modern English edition is available: Lumen, trans. Brian Stableford (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002). Camille Flammarion, Uranie (1889), trans. Mary J. Serrano (New York: Cassell, 1890).
  32. Gustave Le Rouge, Le Prisonnier de la Planête Mars (Paris: Méricault, 1908) and La Guerre des vampires (Paris: Méricault, 1909). A recent English translation of both novels is available: Prisoner of the Vampire of Mars, trans. David Beus and Brian Evenson (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
  33. Théodore Flournoy, From India to the planet Mars, pp. 139–53.
  34. Hans Werckmeister, Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Algol: Tragedy of Power, 1920).
  35. Richard Gillespie, The Great Melbourne Telescope (Melbourne: Museum Victoria, 2011).
  36. For brief biographical details of Sir William Peck see Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 Biographical Index Part Two, available online: [accessed 21 August 2016]. For Peck and the Golden Dawn see Murphy Pizza and James R. Lewis, eds., Handbook of Contemporary Paganism (Leiden: Brill), p. 33. For the Golden Dawn and astral travel see Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  37. The Aetherius Society, [accessed 21 August 2016].

‘Passages between Worlds’ in the Andean Cosmos

An Excerpt from the Marriage of Heaven and Earth

We are pleased to announce that the latest volume of Culture and Cosmos is now available. This special double issue contains selected papers from the 2014 Sophia Centre conference on the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’, crossing from the Old World to the New, with such gems as Juan Belmonte on ‘Cosmic Landscapes in Ancient Egypt’, Kim Malville on ‘Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld in the Andean Cosmos’, Stanisław Iwaniszewski on ‘Communicating with the Ancestors in the Spiritual Landscape at Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico’, Edina Eszenyi on ‘Shaping the Image of Lucifer in the Cinquecento Veneto’ and Alexander Cummins on ‘Nature and Seventeenth-Century English Astrological Images’.

Here we present an excerpt from Kim Malville’s article which discusses specific architectural references to the three worlds in the ancient Andean cosmos. From the abstract, we learn that ‘the underworld is represented by the ocean itself, sunken circular plazas, caves sometimes with niches for mummies, and labyrinths. The heavens are represented by summits of pyramids, mounds, and high of peaks. Metaphorical passages between worlds are evidenced by monumental stairways and carved non-functional stairs associated with huacas. In the Inca empire, real passages involved climbing of some of the highest peaks of the Andes, the construction of ceremonial structures on their summits’.

Please enjoy this excerpt from Volume 20 of Culture and Cosmos:

by Kim Malville

Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld in the Andean Cosmos

And up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the dreadful thickets of lost forests
to you, Machu Picchu.
High city of stepped stones
Home, finally for everything the earth
couldn’t hide beneath its sleeping clothes.
In you, like two parallel lines,
the cradle of lightning and of man
rocked in a wind of spines.
Mother of stone, froth of condors.
Highest reef of mankind’s dawn.

—The Heights of Machu Picchu, Pablo Neruda


The experience of many of the first people to reach the coast of Peru would have been that of ascent from the ocean to the mountains. This paper proposes that the experience of climbing upward to the cordillera, combined with a shamanic symbolism of three worlds led to ritual ascents of truncated pyramids, the nearly ubiquitous non-functional carved stairways of the Incas, and, ultimately, the climbing of high Andean peaks. Water was an essential element of this theme of ascent. In Inca mythology, as part of the great hydrological cycle of the Andes, water was carried upward from the ocean to the snow covered mountains by the Mother Llama, Yacana. She appeared in the sky as a dark cloud constellation with the eyes of α and β Centauri, who drank water from the western ocean and carried it to the high mountains.2 Origin stories of the Inca involve water either in Lake Titicaca or the ocean at Pacacamac or Ecuador,3 which may be understood as a deep memory of ancestors arriving by sea and ascending inward. This paper suggests that the idea of ascent through three worlds was not only a geographic imperative, but it was also part of the shamanic tradition carried by early people who arrived in South America from Asia.



Liminality relates to passages, often transformative ones, from one realm to another, coming from the Latin word līmen, meaning a threshold. These passages may involve the ambiguity and disorientation that can occur when one crosses into a new and unfamiliar space or time. The idea of liminality was extensively developed by [Victor] Turner in his discussion pilgrimage and the unsettling experience of traveling into unfamiliar landscapes.4 While in the liminal state, human beings have a heightened awareness of their surroundings and are open to transformative suggestions from the environment or their companions. Liminality can involve places as well as experiences. Liminal places can range from springs, caves, shores, rivers, crossroads, bridges, and sacred spaces such as temples. In India, passages involving a ‘crossing-over’ are known as tirthas, the most famous of all is on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Tirtha has multiple meanings; it is a place for passing from one side of a river to the other, a place for meeting gods who has passed from their realm into ours, and a place to pass out of this life.

Stairways, Spatial Similarity, and Fractal Interconnectedness

Especially during the Inca Empire, steps carved into rock appear to have symbolized passages between worlds.5 The rock outcrops or cliffs on which these steps were carved were perhaps themselves recognized as liminal, connecting the underworld from which they emerged and the present world that we occupy. In some cases, such as the steps cut into the northern side of Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu, they lead upward from a cave probably containing mummies, the Temple of the Moon. The steps are frequently associated with caves, water, and springs, and may be places where our world opens up to the underworld. Passage through a double-jamb doorway at the base of the stairway may have signified entry into a liminal realm.

A fascinating feature of these stairs is their multiplicity of scales, such as the double scale in the Royal Mausoleum (Figure 3a), the River Intiwatana (Figure 3b) or the extraordinary five scales carved into the Third Stone of Sayhuite (Figure 3c). These may be examples of spatial similarity, i.e., ascent is conveyed in patterns, independent of size. This phenomena of multiplicity of pattern scale is also found in self-organized systems, is identified as scale invariance,6 and is a characteristic of fractals and power law distributions.7 In the Andes, the climbing of a pyramid, the experience of moving from the ocean to the cordillera of the Andes, or the ascent of a sacred mountain parallel the movement from one world to the next, all perhaps, contained in the meaning of carved non-functional stairs in huacas.

Analogism and Animism

There is a more complex and deep meaning to these carved steps than representing or symbolizing shamanic-like ascent or descent. These passageways between the worlds may have been living beings (Harvey: ‘the world is full of persons, only a few of which are humans’.8)

Through the process of camay, water was an essential ingredient in animating the inanimate features of the high natural world, often bringing life to huacas.9 While some of these beings may be like us, others may have been understood to be dangerous and unpredictable. For example, Pachamama produces earthquakes; apus may produce avalanches, malevolent winds, and fail to provide sufficient water for agriculture.10 For ancient Andean people, the natural world may have been alive, but much of it may have been vast and complex beyond imagining.

The anthropologist Philippe Descola suggests that animism is but one of four ontologies involving living beings based upon their exterior and interior natures.11

Animists see many non-human objects as persons with self-awareness, thought, intentionality, and the ability to communicate. In their interior natures they are basically similar to humans, perhaps even humans in disguise. The living beings created by animists were most frequently found in gardens, jungles, and forests. Analogists, on the other hand, encounter beings that are fundamentally different from humans in both their interior and exterior natures, some would have been frightening huge and distant, such as the high peaks, the sun, and Milky Way. Descola suggests that such a cosmos may sometimes have seemed too incomprehensible to tolerate and that analogists create order by constructing analogies, bundling disparate things together. Such an invented bundle, he suggests, is the putative parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm. Andean people, living in a dangerous world of high peaks, earthquakes, floods, and avalanches, may have encountered a cosmos seemingly without primordial meaning. One approach to survive was to achieve reciprocal relations with these inscrutable and dangerous powers, perhaps through a compact involving offerings and requests.12

The disorienting chaos of the labyrinths of Chavín seem to reflect some of that terror of those inscrutable powers. Some sense of order and control over the world could also have been established by offerings at shrines as well as those ubiquitous carved stairways suggesting a strategy of survival through communication and contact with those powers. Paternosto describes the carved stairs as ‘obsessive metaphoric representation of a communication…. between the world of the here and now…and the world beyond…’13

As suggested by Descola,14 analogists encounter a cosmos consisting of a ‘dizzying’ atomism, of ‘differences infinitely multiplied’ with inscrutable purposes and meaning. Descola suggests that such a cosmos may have seemed too meaningless to tolerate. In response, disparate things were bundled together, such as a parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm. Perhaps this applies to Andean people, living in a dangerous world of high peaks, earthquakes, and avalanches. The disorienting chaos of the labyrinths of Chavín reflect some of that terror. Some order and control over the world could have been established by their non-functional ubiquitous carved stairways, suggestions of spatial similarity between the large and small, and hints of fractal interconnectedness. Their living huacas were not only extraordinarily powerful, but some were huge in scale such as the wall of Incamisana, the terraced pits of Moray, or the summit of Huayna Picchu. The mountains of the Andes were (and are) associated with living spirits, apus, who may have either resided in or actually have been the mountains themselves.15 Some of these high mountains were ritually ascended and sacrifices were placed near their summits. These apus of the highest world had great influence over humans; they may have been perceived as alien giants who could be either dangerous or benign, depending on how they were treated.

[…Discussions of Chupacigarro/Caral, Casma Valley, Chavín de Huatar, Chankillo, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Machu Picchu follow with many images, until we reach the…]

The Ultimate Passage: Ascending Sacred Mountains

Huayna Picchu is a smaller version of the great sacred mountains of Peru, many of which pilgrims climbed. Another example of a smaller sacred mountain is the conical hill of Sondor, which appears as an inversion of the sculptured pits of Moray. It contains a stairway with two double-jamb doorways, one at the bottom and one at the top, which leads upward to sunrise on the morning of the zenith sun. On the mornings of the day the sun reached the zenith, it may have been climbed by parties of pilgrims. A huaca is at the summit.16

There are reports of the Spanish Chroniclers that the Incas made annual pilgrimages and offerings to major mountain deities at special times of the years.17 If the peak was too difficult to ascend, offerings would be made from a place in view of the mountain, such as an ushnu, into which water, chichi, or, perhaps, llama blood would be poured. Sometimes offerings were thrown toward the summit. There are more than 100 peaks above 17,000 feet that were ascended by the Inca, containing shrines or other evidence of ritual activity.

The Incas are, indeed, renowned for their marvelous architecture, skillful masonry, political organization and for their extensive system of roads. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of their culture is the ascent and placing of structures on many of their highest peaks, the highest being Llullaillaco with an altitude of 22,110 feet. It is the seventh highest peak of the Americas, containing on its summit the world’s highest archaeological site, which has been carefully excavated by Johan Reinhard, Maria Ceruti, and colleagues.18 Reinhard has been the leader in locating and excavating many of these high archaeological sites, and it is to him that we turn for the definitive description of these remarkable summits, especially that of Llulliallaco.

The most important mountains were the sites of capacocha ceremonies, which involved human sacrifice, mostly boys and girls chosen for their beauty and perfection. These ceremonies on mountain summits may have been offerings to the sun, Inti, the weather god, Illapa and mountain deities. Offerings on the summits may have been attempts to get closer to the sun. Some of the sacrifices were intended as a marriage between the girl victim and the mountain god, with whom the girl was to live for eternity.

Capacocha pilgrimage to mountain summits could last weeks or months of travel, covering distances of 1000 km or more. These pilgrimages included priests, assistants, local inhabitants, the child to be sacrificed, and sometimes his or her parents. The procession would stop at sacred places along the way to make offerings. When passing through the mountains the pilgrims would reportedly keep as silent as possible to avoid angering the mountain gods.19 The priests leading the procession looked only straight ahead with their heads lowered. Sometimes blood of sacrificial llamas was carried to place as offerings at huacas along the route.

Llullaillaco is the seventh highest peak in the Americas, just 100 lower than Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru, lying on the border between Chile and Argentina, in the barren Atacama Desert. To reach it would have been an arduous journey for pilgrims, perhaps taking weeks or a month. Access to its summit is possible only five months of the year, between November to March, which includes December solstice, Capac Raymi, one of the major Inca festivals.

The pilgrimage trail to Llullaillaco contains several structures, which appear to be resting places for pilgrims, priests, and sacrificial victims. The largest of these way stations is a tambo at 17,000 feet, which could have housed 100 people, perhaps the majority of the pilgrimage party, who did not venture to the summit of the mountain. There are three, smaller, intermediate sites at 18,325’, 20,669’, and 21,325’. The capachocha priests, victim, and assistants would probably have reached the summit on the afternoon of the day before ceremonies and spent the night in the small summit building, which consisted of two rooms which may have been roofed with grass mats. The burial platform, measuring 10m x 6m and 50 cm in some places, contained the bodies of three sacrificial victims, 15-year-old woman, 6-year-old girl, and a 7-year-old boy. The well-established trail, clearly visible in Figures 18 and 19, leading to the platform suggests there may have been more visitors to the summit than those associated with three capacocha ceremonies.

Because the burials in the ceremonial platform were in undisturbed condition when excavated, we have evidence of astronomical meaning in the capacocha ceremony. The young boy was approximately oriented along the short side of the rectangular platform, facing east-southeast. The long wall was measured by several observers to have an orientation of approximately 30magnetic, with an uncertainty of several degrees due to the irregularities of the wall (see Figure 19) and the difficulties of measurement under the severe conditions on the summit.20 That orientation corresponds to an azimuth for the short side of the platform of 118.7 degrees true. The first gleam of the sun on December solstice 1500 CE on a flat horizon would have an azimuth of 116.6 degrees based upon a refraction of .6 degrees. Considering the additional uncertainties of unknown refraction at such an altitude, the exact orientation of the mummy, and the extreme difficulties of the Inca in constructing a platform on the summit, it is possible the boy was intended to be buried facing sunrise on a date close to December solstice, the date of Capac Raymi, when the mountain was climbable. This extraordinary ceremony involving an arduous and lengthy pilgrimage to the base of the mountain and the difficult ascent to the highest mountain yet climbed by humankind is paradigmatic exemplar of a liminal passage way between worlds, the best example we have in the Inca cosmos.


Jennifer Zahrt,
Honorary Research Fellow,
Faculty of Humanities and the Performing Arts,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


  1. Pablo Neruda, Alturas de Machu Picchu, 1950; English translation by Lito Tejada-Flores, 1998.
  2. Frank Solomon and George L. Urioste (translators), The Huarochirí Manuscript (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1991).
  3. Gary Urton, Inca Myths (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).
  4. Victor Turner, ‘Liminality and Communitas’, in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction Press, 2008); Victor Turner, Process, Performance, and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative symbology (New Delhi: Concept, 1979).
  5. Carolyn A. Dean, A Culture of Stone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
  6. J. M. Malville, ‘Complexity and Self-organization in Pilgrimage Systems’, in Pilgrimage: Sacred Landscapes and Self-Organized Complexity, edited by J. M. Malville and B. N. Saraswati, (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2009).
  7. Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (New York: Springer Verlag, 1996).
  8. Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 9.
  9. J. M. Malville, ‘Animating the Inanimate: Camay and Astronomical Huacas of Peru’, in Cosmology Across Cultures, edited by J. Alberto Rubiño-Martín, Juan Antonio Belmonte, Francisco Prada and Antxon Alberdi, (San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2009), pp. 261–66.
  10. Inge Bolin, Rituals of Respect: The Secret of Survival in the High Peruvian Andes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).
  11. Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  12. Laurence A. Kuzner, ‘An Introduction to Andean Religious Ethnoarchaeology: Preliminary Results and Future Directions’, in Ethnoarchaeology of Andean South America, edited by L. A. Kukznar, (Ann Arbor: International Monographs in Prehistory, 2001), pp. 38–66.
  13. César Paternosto, The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), p. 71.
  14. Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, p. 202.
  15. Carolyn Dean, ‘Men Who Would Be Rocks: The Inca Wank’a’, in The Archaeology of Wak’as: Explorations of the Sacred in the Pre-Columbian Andes, edited by T. L. Bray, (Boulder: University Press of Boulder, 2015), pp. 213–38.
  16. M. Zawaski and J. McKim Malville, ‘An Archaeoastronomical Survey of Major Inca Sites in Peru’, Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 21 (2010): pp. 20–38.
  17. Johan Reinhard, The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes (Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2005); Johan Reinhard and Maria Constanza Ceruti, Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains: A Study of the World’s Highest Archaeological Sites (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2010).
  18. Reinhard and Ceruti, Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains.
  19. Reinhard and Ceruti, Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains, pp. 88–89.
  20. Johan Reinhard, personal communication.

The Time Has Come: First Ever European Dark Sky Places Conference

Across the world the desire to see an unpolluted night sky is growing to the extent that we can now legitimately talk about a ‘dark sky movement’. The first ever European Dark Sky Places Conference will take place this September close to Galloway Forest Park, the first area in Europe to achieve dark sky park status. The conference offers a wide variety of stakeholders from the fields of astronomy, planning, lighting design, environmentalism, tourism and health and wellbeing an opportunity to discuss the benefits that dark sky status can bring. The adverse impacts of artificial light at night on the health and wellbeing of humans and wildlife and the consequent loss of our night sky heritage is becoming more widely accepted.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA)

by Ada Blair

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) established in 1988 describes itself as, ‘the largest NGO fighting for the night!’ and its main focus is combating light pollution and educating the public and policymakers about night sky conservation. Its Dark Sky Places Program encourages communities around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education; it recently designated Bodmin Moor in England as its 85th dark sky place. When I began my MA research into the role the night sky plays in the lives of the Dark Sky island community of Sark there was less than half that number. Places as diverse as Canada, Namibia, France and South Korea are recognising the importance of preserving unpolluted night skies for present and future generations.

Humans have always gazed up at the night sky and woven myth and meaning around what they observed. Viewing dark skies leads to feelings of awe and connectedness to others viewing the sky in other places, and to something bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately however, as light pollution continues to grow, it is getting more difficult to see a pristine sky. How many of us regularly see the Milky Way now? In Los Angeles in 1994 when an earthquake caused a massive power outage, worried residents rang the authorities about a huge, silvery cloud, not realising it was the Milky Way, which many had never seen before due to sky glow.

Light pollution is not the only obstacle to stargazing, our insatiable thirst for faster ways to communicate, find our way home and spy on our neighbours means a proliferation of satellites. In some areas we’re more likely to see communication satellites than comets, space junk than Saturn. Worryingly, there are currently no international regulations limiting space debris nor the most appropriate disposal methods. One of my interviewees on Sark recounted the story of a famous astronomer asking about a particular star that he did not recognise in the west, and she enjoyed telling him it was actually a plane bound for Guernsey.1 Increased air travel means there will be many more aircraft in the sky and aircraft lights also contribute to obscuring views of the night sky.

Although it seems humans have always travelled to watch celestial events – for example to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico which has a number of monumental buildings built by the Chacoan people that are aligned with solar and lunar cycles – as the number of recognised dark sky places grows so has the associated industry of astro-tourism. Bryce Canyon National Park in the Colorado Plateau offers around 100 astronomy programs a year, guest astronomers and an annual four day astronomy festival: in 2012, there were over 50,000 night-sky related visits contributing over $2 million to the local economy.2 At the other end of the scale, in Northumberland, England, guests at local hotels are now routinely provided with night-vision torches, and deckchairs are put out at night. Both places now recognise the economic benefits of labelling and marketing a phenomenon, which they had previously taken for granted.

Most people however live in urban areas, and viewing dark skies often means travelling to more remote, less accessible areas. For some this is simply not possible. One of the areas I have begun to turn my attention to is how to encourage dark sky preservation in urban areas. There is evidence showing how providing urban green spaces can help bring people together, create community cohesion and catalyse community activism.3 Perhaps this model can be extended to our urban skies.

Whilst hoping to see stars or planets from anywhere in the world is perhaps unrealistic, with a little effort even city dwellers can find spots in between buildings and trees. Consider the phenomenon of ‘Manhattanhenge’ – twice yearly in May and July the sunset perfectly aligns with the streets of New York (and a similar effect occurs in cities such as Toronto and Boston) and for a few brief moments thousands of people are captivated by the spectacle taking place in the night sky

A little knowledge about phases of the moon also helps when choosing when to look up. The best moon phases for stargazing are the new moon and the third quarter phase when the moon is starting to wane. In cities I have taken to stargazing later at night or early morning when there is less light pollution, with my back away from the city.

Darkness however holds different associations for different people and it has been suggested that humans have a primeval fear of the dark.4 Recently local people near my home in Edinburgh took to social media to discuss the pros and cons of the council’s proposal for less bright streetlighting, highlighting that for some the possibility of darker skies brings anxiety about increased crime. Rebecca Steinbach et al. however suggested that as long as all risks were considered carefully, local authorities can reduce street lighting without there being a subsequent rise in road collisions or crime.5 It seems that there is still work to be done to allay the fears of those used to brightly lit streets.


I will be speaking about the role that the night sky plays in the lives of the Dark Sky island community of Sark at the European Dark Sky Places Conference which takes place from 20-22 September at Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, south west Scotland. Whilst my Sark research found many benefits associated with spending time under a dark sky, I am now narrowing my focus to the effects of one particular celestial body, the moon, on wellbeing and investigating the activity of ‘moonbathing’.

Ada Blair,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


  1. See, Ada Blair, Sark in the Dark: Wellbeing and Community on the Dark Sky Island of Sark (Ceredigion, Wales: Sophia Centre Press, 2016), pp. 144–45.
  2. National Parks Conservation Association, Destination Darkness
  3. T.A. More, ‘The Parks are Being Loved to Death. And Other Frauds and Deceits in Recreation Management’, Journal of Leisure Research 34.1 (2002): pp. 52–78. C.L.E. Rohde and A.D. Kendle, Human Well-being, Natural Landscapes and Wildlife in Urban, Areas: A Review, English Nature Science Report No. 22 (Peterborough: English Nature, 1994).
  4. A. Roger Ekirch, ‘At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past’, p. 3.
  5. Rebecca Steinbach, Chloe Perkins, Lisa Tompson, Shane Johnson, Ben Armstrong, Judith Green, Chris Grundy, Paul Wilkinson and Phil Edwards, ‘The Effect of Reduced Street Lighting on Road Casualties and Crime in England and Wales: Controlled Interrupted Time Series Analysis’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 69.11 (2015): 1118–24.

Astral Ascent in the Occult Revival

An Excerpt from

Celestial Magic: Joscelyn Godwin, ‘Astral Ascent in the Occult Revival’

The following is an extract from Joscelyn Godwin’s paper in ‘Celestial Magic’, the latest issue of Culture and Cosmos. Godwin, who is Emeritus Professor of Music at Colgate University and one of the most distinguished scholars of Western esoteric and occult ideas and practices, takes as his theme ‘Astral Ascent in the Occult Revival’. In this article he discusses how the occult revival of the later nineteenth century inherited Neoplatonic and Hermetic ideas of astral ascent and commerce with the planetary spirits, but felt obliged to square these with contemporary discoveries in astronomy. In this work, Godwin covers Swedenborgian ideas into a semi-scientific cosmology to the works of Emma Hardinge Britten, H. P. Blavatsky, and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and on to the lesser known teachings of Cyrus Teed, known as Koresh, who taught that the earth is a concave sphere with the heavenly bodies at the center. Please enjoy this excerpt:

Astral Ascent in the Occult Revival

The ascent of the soul through the planetary spheres is one of the archetypal images of the Western esoteric tradition. The classic account is in the Poimandres, the first book of the Corpus Hermeticum, where the divine Mind explains to Hermes Trismegistus what happens to the human being before birth and after death.1 The Hermetic ascent takes for granted the ‘Standard Model’ of how the cosmos is put together: a model that unites astronomy, psychology (the science of psyche, the soul), and metaphysics. Louis Rougier calls it the ‘astral religion of the antique world’, that was

[f]ormulated by the Pythagoreans, developed in the winged myths of Plato, appropriated by Posidonius of Apamea to Stoic physics, permeated by Chaldaean astrology, expounded by Cicero in the form of a neo-Pythagorean apocalypse in the Dream of Scipio Africanus, celebrated in the Emperor Julian’s Discourse on the Sovereign Star as the religious testament of Hellenism; hymned at paganism’s close in Hierocles’s Golden Verses; then, for more than ten centuries, after successively infusing the oriental salvation religions of Judaism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Christianity, Manicheism, and Islam, it was the veritable faith of the elites of the Mediterranean shores. It survived the triumph of Christianity; it traversed the Middle Ages and inspired the Divine Comedy, and received its quietus only with Kepler’s new astronomy and Galileo’s modern mechanics.2

The Standard Model is spherical, geocentric and dualist. In its classic formulation by Aristotle and, following him, Ptolemy, it consists of a perfect world of eight celestial spheres, enclosing an imperfect world of four elements distinguished by their tendencies towards or away from the center of the system.3 In principle the elements form four concentric spheres, with all the earth compressed in the center and all the fire on the outside, but in practice they are continually stirred up and mingling with each other: hence the mutable condition of the sublunary world. The celestial world, in contrast, is made from a subtle quintessence or aether. From the Moon’s sphere outwards, all is self-moving, eternal, and perfect, and consequently all the motions of the stars and planets are circular. The Standard Model terminates with an eighth sphere carrying all the fixed stars, including the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Beyond that, nothing is visible; hence opinions differ. Aristotle posited a Prime Mover (primum mobile) as the necessary mechanism that spins the whole celestial world once a day around the static Earth.4 Some Hermetic texts insert the thirty-six Decans between that all-encompassing sphere and the zodiac.5 The Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Proclus extends the system with a hierarchy of Intelligibles;6 Kabbalism does likewise with the ten Sephiroth;7 Christianity, with the nine orders of angels, makes a third, divine world above (or enclosing) the celestial and elemental worlds. Beyond that is infinite emptiness, or if you prefer, God.

Since the microcosm resembles the macrocosm, the human body corresponds to the elemental world, the soul to the celestial. At least, that is the exoteric version. In the Neoplatonism that became the mainstay of esoteric anthropology, the human being is threefold. To soma, the body, and psyche, the soul, it adds the nous.8 That translates as ‘mind’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’, ‘intellect’, ‘mood’, ‘reason’, ‘discretion’ or ‘judgment’; so evidently English has no word for something perfect and eternal, belonging to a state where knowledge and being are one. The nous has its home either among the stars, or beyond them. According to Trismegistus, we are here on Earth because our divine part has left that perfect condition to descend through the constricting spheres of the Standard Model.9

This is the astral descent, a necessary prelude to the present theme and the most imaginative rationale for natal astrology. On its way down through the spheres, the nous acquires seven vestures that constitute the psyche.10 Each sphere stamps it with qualities and tendencies, which vary according to the planet’s current position and aspects. By the time the soul enters the body with the baby’s first breath, it bears the imprint of the celestial world as it stood at that moment, recorded in the natal horoscope. It then grows as body and soul, with the knowledge of its divine origin as a dormant potential.

To the Hermetic philosopher, life on Earth is a preparation for the return to the pre-lapsarian state. The Poimandres describes the process.11 At death, the physical body returns to the elements of which it was compounded. The vital energies dissolve in the general reservoir. The psyche, free from its material baggage, rises to the first celestial sphere, that of the Moon. Is it able to renounce or slough off those tendencies that it picked up from the Moon on its way down? If so, it continues upwards and outwards. If not, it wanders around in the sublunary region until it can incarnate again.

Continuing with the Hermetic account, at every celestial sphere the soul has to surrender one of its powers, or at least the negative aspect of it. To the Moon, ruler of generation, it surrenders the ‘power of increasing and diminishing’; at Mercury’s sphere, ingenuity turned to evil purposes; at Venus’s, concupiscence; at the Sun’s, desire for power and ambition; at Mars’s, rashness and violence; at Jupiter’s, the evil impulses that come from wealth; at Saturn’s, falsehood and deceit. ‘And then stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the Ogdoad [the eighth sphere]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father.’ Even that is not the end for such souls, for ‘having become powers, they enter into god, which is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god’.12

Thus the Poimandres. Less familiar is the Apathanatismos, a unique document from the cult of Mithras, preserved in a fourth-century papyrus manuscript now in Paris.13 It instructs the initiate in a process resembling the Hermetic ascent, but in a much more active mode befitting the warrior mentality. When he faces the various hazards, trials and challenges he shouts ‘Silence!’ or bellows like a bull. On meeting each of the Seven Immortal Gods of the cosmos, who are the planetary gods, he does not submit to their judgment but conjures each one to ‘Open the door!’. After passing their spheres he greets the Fates, who appear as seven virgins with serpent heads, and the Lords of the Pole, seven gods with the heads of black bulls. Finally Mithras himself appears, the polar divinity, whom the initiate commands to stay forever in his soul.

Deification was not an option in the monotheistic traditions, nor did their concept of man require the nous. Exoteric Christianity and Islam kept the Standard Model as their cosmology, but modified the soul’s history within it. Souls have no prehistory and only one life; the only judge is God; the only outcome an eternity in Hell, which is probably inside the earth, or in Heaven beyond the cosmic circuits. Dante compromised with the esoteric view in his Divine Comedy. He kept the purgative stages of the astral ascent as levels on the Mountain of Purgatory, and made the planetary spheres the lower circles of Paradise. But the fortunate souls in the monotheists’ heaven are still souls, not gods or even angels.

With the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the Hermetic and Neoplatonic writings, the possibilities re-expanded. We can call this the first occult revival. The Renaissance magi, true to their Neoplatonic preceptors, saw the process as something to be attempted during life, rather than after it. György Szőnyi chooses the term exaltatio for the doctrine, ‘according to which man—with the help of certain techniques, including magic—could bring himself into such a state that enables him to leave the body and seek the company of the Deity’.14 He quotes Pico della Mirandola, who in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, declares that man can attain a state from which he can ‘measure all things’ and ‘become He who made us’, and Paracelsus, who claims that man is ‘greater than heaven and earth’ and that in his creative work he ‘establishes a new heaven’.15 Ficino, in his ‘Praise of Philosophy’, ended with the promise of the Golden Verses: that upon death, the devoted philosopher ‘will go straight and free to the upper regions and will ascend beyond human form, having become God of life-giving heaven’.16 Cornelius Agrippa devoted his Three Books of Occult Philosophy to the magics of the natural, celestial, and angelic worlds, all accessible because ‘not only man being made another world [i.e. a microcosm] doth comprehend all the parts thereof in himself but also doth receive and contain even God himself’.17

Joscelyn Godwin,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


  1. See Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, ed. and trans. Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 1–7.
  2. Louis Rougier, L’origine astronomique de la croyance pythagoricienne en l’immortalité céleste des âmes (Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1933), pp. vi–vii. Author’s translation.
  3. Aristotle, Metaphysics, XII.8 (1073b–1074a) on the planetary spheres, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), pp. 882–83; On Generation and Corruption, II.2 (330a–b) on the four elements (ed. cit., pp. 510–11); On the Heavens, I.2–3 (269b–270b) on æther (ed. cit., pp. 400–402); on all of these, Ptolemy, Almagest, Book I, in Ptolemy’s Almagest, trans. and annotated G. J. Toomer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
  4. Aristotle, Metaphysics, XII,7–8 (1072b–1074a), pp. 880–82.
  5. G. R. S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes (London: John M. Watkins, 1949), vol. III, p. 46, quoting Stobaeus.
  6. Plotinus, Enneads, III.2.8, see Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), pp. 167–68; Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides I, 1, in Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, trans. Glenn R. Morrow and John M. Dillon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 1, also the chart of the hierarchy on p. xxxiii.
  7. First appearing in the Sepher Yetzirah, see The Book of Creation, trans. Irving Friedman (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1977), pp. 1–2.
  8. The triad appears in Plato, Timaeus, 30b, see Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 1162–63. For the meanings of nous or noos, see the searchable Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, [accessed 20 April 2016].
  9. See Hermetica, I, 12–15, p. 3. Compare Plotinus, Enneads, IV.7.13, IV.8, pp. 356–64.
  10. Elaborated in Aristeides Quintilianus, De Musica, II.17 (87), see On Music, in Three Books, ed. and trans. Thomas J. Mathiesen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 152; Macrobius, In somnium Scipionis, 12–13, see Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, ed. and trans. William Harris Stahl (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), p. 136.
  11. Hermetica, I, 24–26.
  12. Hermetica, I, 26.
  13. English translation, with commentary, in Julius Evola and the UR Group, Introduction to Magic: Rituals and Practical Techniques for the Magus, trans. Guido Stucco, ed. Michael Moynihan (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2001), pp. 98–128.
  14. György E. Szőnyi, John Dee’s Occultism: Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), p. 34.
  15. Szőnyi, John Dee’s Occultism, p. 35.
  16. Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, trans. Members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science (London: Gingko Press, 1985), Vol. III, p. 21 (Letter 13).
  17. Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. ‘J.F.’ (Hastings: Chthonios Books, 1986), p. 459 (Bk. III, ch. 36).

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt. If you would like to continue reading this and the many other articles on ‘Celestial Magic’, you may purchase the latest issue of Culture and Cosmos here.

A full list of Joscelyn Godwin’s books may be found here.

In Memoriam – Luis Rodolfo Vilhena, author of The World of Astrology

Author of

Last week, May 29, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Luis Rodolfo Vilhena at the age of 33 in a motorcycle accident. O Mundo da Astrologia, published in English translation by the Sophia Press in 2014 as The World of Astrology, was his first book, based on his 1988 Master’s thesis at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

An influential book describing the work of his Doctoral thesis on the history of the Brazilian Folklorist movement, Projeto e Missao: O Movimento Folklorico Brasileiro 1947–64 was published posthumously, and reviewed by Elizabeth Travassos in the journal Mana.1 More biographical information, and a full list of his publications can be found (in Portuguese) on a website set up by his colleagues.2 A whole day conference was held on May 24th this year at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, to discuss his work in Folklore Studies and Social Research, including his study of astrologers. Over 100 people were in attendance.

It is interesting that in his second book he was again focusing on the situation of a movement and a study (folklorism), which found itself excluded and dismissed by conventional science. In this case the sociologists, influenced by European and American traditions, rejected folklore studies as amateurish and unworthy of consideration as a science at a crucial time in the intellectual history of Brazil, before the military coup of 1964. The folklorists insisted on the validity of data collected by amateurs engaged in the transmission, as well as study, of local folkloric traditions, and untrained in social-scientific methods.

The author’s grandmother is Professor Cleonice Berardinelli, who celebrated her 100th birthday last year. She is an authority on the work of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who was himself deeply involved in astrology, although this is not believed to have influenced Vilhena in his choice of research.

Commenting in the preface to The World of Astrology, Professor Gilberto Velho, his supervisor, says:

In his research on astrology, Luis Rodolfo sought to characterize a group of individuals in the context of their social networks, who possessed in this system of beliefs and understanding, a fundamental reference point for their daily lives and aspirations. To implement this project, he studied the history of astrology and also carried out fieldwork, observing situations, arranging interviews and recording life stories. In this sense, his work was already an important contribution to the study of complex contemporary societies in general, and in Brazil in particular. It explored the freedom of action and alternative choices of values and goals available to his informants, in their particular sector of Brazilian society. He attempted to establish points of connection between participation in the world of astrology on the one hand, and an ethos, a lifestyle and a world-view on the other; contributing in this way to a better understanding of the construction of individual and social identities.

This is a work of great interdisciplinary value, with implications which extend beyond the limits of what is strictly social anthropology, offering contributions to social psychology and the history of culture, among other areas of learning. At the time of his death, besides his important research work, Luis Rodolfo was also known as an inspiring teacher in both the Pontifical Catholic University and the State University in Rio de Janeiro. Although he left us prematurely he has given us an intellectual and personal inheritance of great value.

Gilberto Velho is frequently quoted throughout the book, bringing sociological perspectives to Vilhena’s analysis, which was careful to avoid so-called ‘diagnostic’ approaches to astrology, such as Morin’s where occult interests were seen merely as symptoms of moral weakness. And the term ‘deviant’ is shown to be valued positively within members of the counter-culture of which occultism forms a part. The deviancy in question is not a matter of absolute values but of the relationship between fringe and majority groups.

In more recent PhDs on astrology a sociological perspective is frequent and uncontroversial, but Vilhena’s work was the pioneering study, published over a decade earlier. The value of the anthropological perspective for astrological research is clear from this passage from the book:

There is no doubt that the study of Kantian philosophy provides us with important assistance for the analysis of the consequences of the emergence of valuation of the individual as a constituent of modern ideology. It holds a strategic historical value since it was an attempt to supply a foundation, not only to the democratic ideals which culminated in the French Revolution but also to the Newtonian system, whose genesis signified the decline of astrology. However, above and beyond this abstract investigation of individualist ideology, it is necessary to recall, as Velho reminds us, that ‘there is no single individualism’. In the study of Brazilian society, this contextualisation becomes especially acute if we take into account that the process of modernisation that is occurring there has a limited extent, not having reached all its [societal] sectors, as well as being able to display particular characteristics due to its delayed manifestation in relation to European societies.3

Patrick Curry, in his recent review, also makes clear the richness that anthropological approaches can bring to our understanding of astrology:

Vilhena shows convincingly, for example, that rather than rejecting science outright, some of his astrologers are trying to spiritualise it. Others are working to the same end using psychology as a project that is, for them, both scientific and spiritual. That was precisely Jung’s hope, of course.

and continues:

Still others reject modern materialism altogether, taking refuge in astrology as an ancient esoteric and occult ‘science’ of the kind defended by the rebarbative René Guénon. But as Vilhena points out, both that rejection and the presumptive remedy are themselves thoroughly modern responses.

As the recent university conference in Rio de Janeiro shows, Vilhena’s work is still influential in anthropology, twenty years after his early death. In astrological research, he still has insights to offer the serious student who wishes to consider the practice of astrology in its social context. The papers presented at this conference will be posted on the site mentioned above shortly, and it is hoped that we may be able to make at least some of them available in English translation.

Graham Douglas,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


  1. (Vol. 4 (1): 186-188, 1998, in Portuguese
  2. accessed May 24, 2017
  3. Luis Rodolfo Vilhena, World of Astrology, trans. Graham Douglas, (Ceredigion: Sophia Centre Press, 2014), 70.

Mundane Astrology Key Concept

Webinar with Nicholas Campion

at the


On Monday, May 8, BBC presenter Andrew Marr began his regular Monday radio show with the statement, ‘These feel like wild and disorientating times’. One way to get a sense of perspective, he said, is to go back to the old epics.

This weekend, Nicholas Campion will consider one of the grand epics of the ancient world, the use of astrology to measure and manage politics and historical change in his online Key Concept lecture from the University of Wales. These lectures are open to the public and draw on material in the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s programme in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology.

We cordially invite you to attend and learn more about mundane astrology during this ‘wild and disorientating’ time.

Key Concepts in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology Mundane Astrology 1: Fate, Freewill and Planetary Cycles

With Dr Nicholas Campion


Saturday, 13 May 2017 at 16:00 GMT

This seminar will examine key concepts in the theory and technique of mundane astrology drawing on the three central thinkers: the Greek philosopher Plato, who established the idea that the state and society are linked to planetary cycles, embedded in the flow of time, and linked to the stars via the soul; Claudius Ptolemy, who claimed that both individual personality and political affairs are an essential part of a natural environment which includes the sky; and Johannes Kepler, who developed Plato’s model, arguing that politics could be managed for the benefit of all if planetary cycles could be properly understood. The questions that arise focus on fate and freewill: can the future be predicted and, if so, what is the role of political action?

The lecture will last about 75 minutes followed by time for questions and discussion.

Lecturer: Nicholas Campion is Programme Director of the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture and Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and the Performing at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

His recent books include the two-volume History of Western Astrology (London: Continuum 2008/9) and The New Age in the Modern West: Counter-Culture, Utopia and Prophecy from the late Eighteenth Century to the Present Day (London: Bloomsbury 2015). Recent papers include ‘The Moral Philosophy of Space Travel: A Historical Review’, in Jai Galliot (ed.), Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy, Governance (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2015), pp. 9-22; ‘Archaeoastronomy and Calendar Cities’ in Daniel Brown (ed.), Modern Archaeoastronomy: From Material Culture to Cosmology, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, Vol. 865, 2016, pp. 1-7; and ‘The Imaginal Sky in the Medieval World’ in Eric Lacey (ed.), Starcræft. Watching the Heavens in the Middle Ages, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press (forthcoming).

Defining Skyscape

An Excerpt from

Celestial Magic: Joscelyn Godwin, ‘Astral Ascent in the Occult Revival’

The term skyscape was first used within the remit of cultural astronomy in 2006 by Jan Harding and collaborators in an article published in the Archaeoastronomy journal,1 and established in a session of the Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting of 2012, organized by myself and Nicholas Campion, director of the Sophia Centre. But it was not until 2015 that it reached a wider academic audience.

by Fabio Silva

Three significant events galvanized the term in 2015: Oxbow Books published a collection of papers delivered in that formative TAG session, titled Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Meanwhile, the Archaeoastronomy module offered by the Sophia Centre as part of its MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology was retitled Skyscapes, Cosmology and Archaeology and its curriculum redesigned to fall in line with this theme. And last but not least, that very same year, the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, co-founded and co-edited by myself and Liz Henty, published its first two issues.

The term was met positively by archaeoastronomers and archaeologists alike, which bodes well for its future. However, there is still some confusion about its meaning, with some archaeoastronomers thinking of it as a mixture of sky and landscape, which was and is not its intended significance. Here I would like to present and discuss the theoretical underpinnings of the term skyscape, including the motivation behind the term and how the two definitions in print fare against that motivation.

In his 1999 book Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, the archaeoastronomer Clive L. N. Ruggles, one of the leading figures in the field, wrote of prehistoric astronomy when discussing the way prehistoric societies engaged with the sky. Other terms often found in the archaeoastronomical literature include megalithic sciencemegalithic astronomy and ancient astronomy. In a more recent volume, Ruggles defined archaeoastronomy as a field concerned with ‘every conceivable form of data that might provide insights into thoughts and practices relating to astronomy in the past’.2 This is a good, broad definition, yet it demonstrates a degree of anachronism. I am in no way criticising Ruggles himself, who has done more to bridge the gap between cultural astronomy and archaeology than anyone else, alive or dead. What I am critiquing here is the emphasis on the word astronomy, particularly when applied to prehistoric people, but equally generalizable to any non-western society. The problem is a simple one: does it make sense to talk of a prehistoric astronomy?

Astronomy is a very specific form of engagement with the heavens. It has a long history – it is usually considered the oldest of the natural sciences – but in modern times it has crystallized as ‘the study of the space beyond the Earth and its contents’, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy.3 Study implies a peculiar kind of interest in the subject matter, an almost detached interest. Indeed, this is strengthened by the exclusion in the above definition of the Earth and, therefore, of any possible relation between the Earth and space, or the sky. The emphasis of astronomy is on an objective reading of an external subject – the sky – itself devoid of meaning. This is achieved through application of the scientific method alone, which helps identify laws that are then formalized mathematically.

This description is filled with uniquely western characteristics: positivism, objectivity, lack of meaning, laws, and mathematics. However, not all societies, present or past, engage with the heavens in this manner, nor would they be interested in this particular form of engagement. Even within western society, most philosophers since Kant would disagree that the universe (i.e., the cosmos or reality) can be objectively described by mathematical, and hence conceptual, frameworks, let alone non-western peoples.4

Beyond western society, Campion has demonstrated in his 2012 book Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions that ‘there is no human society that does not somehow, in some way, relate its fears, concerns, hopes, and wishes to the sky’.5 This point is strengthened by the ethnographical record which attests that, for many societies, ‘important celestial bodies are perceived as animate entities and their motions in the sky are described in terms of social relations […]. Human societies often people their skies with supernaturals, ancestors or mythological heroes to whom they become related through family ties, mythological narratives, political alliances or power relationships’, as Stanislaw Iwaniszewski put it.6 Astronomy, as defined by the modern West, excludes such forms of engagement.

This sharp contrast between western and non-western engagements demands that we question whether the interpretations of structural alignments to celestial objects have been influenced, either explicitly or implicitly, by the forced use of the word astronomy. Already from its early days, archaeoastronomy was plagued by unfounded claims of megalithic scienceastronomer-priests and prehistoric observatories, but it is important to realise that what all these interpretative elements have in common is that they relate to the modern concept of astronomy, namely to its method (science), its professional (the astronomer), and its institution (the observatories). We’ve certainly moved on from this fallacious paradigm, yet how much are we actually still being influenced by it, as evidenced by our persistence in applying the word astronomy to non-western peoples?

The problems of forcing western terms to describe indigenous beliefs and practices are neither new nor restricted to archaeoastronomy: they are as old as anthropology. It has only been in the past few decades that it was recognized that applying western terms such as religion, magic, witchcraft and sorcery into other societies – as indeed most ethnographers were prone to do – was counter-productive to the anthropological enterprise.7 To overcome this issue, anthropologists have been advocating the use of emic terms, that is, terms derived from the very people they study, rather than those imposed on them by the ethnographers.8

We could, and indeed we should, use emic terms describing a society’s relation to the sky whenever possible, however in many cases (as indeed for all prehistoric societies) an emic term does not exist or cannot be recovered. It is in these instances that I would advocate the use of a new, purpose-built and value-free, general term – for which skyscape is a good option for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the term has a ‘clean past’, stemming from the art world where it represents ‘a picture that includes an extensive view of the sky’.9 The term is being appropriated, but not repurposed, for even in its artsy crib, the term already implies a subjective representation, since any art form can be said to be a materialization of meaning. Second, it mirrors and recalls the term landscape. The landscape is an already well-established field of inquiry in both anthropology and archaeology and therefore provides a good counterpoint and framework for what we can do with the concept of skyscape.10 I have elaborated on the comparable characteristics of skyscapes and cultural landscapes in the introduction to the Skyscapes volume, and elsewhere, and others have further developed the links between the two (see, for example, the article by Daniel Brown in Culture and Cosmos 17.2).

Having a new term, however, is not enough, for it can easily be misappropriated, misunderstood, or misused. The point is not to effect a simple relabelling but to ensure that, by doing it, we permeate the field with a stronger interest in social issues, in how the skyscape is imbued with meaning, how it is intimately related to, and interpenetrates with, the beliefs and practices of people. In the process, a modicum of reflexivity,11 where we identify and critique the biases we bring to our research, should equally be part of the skyscape ‘mission’.

As Bruno Latour put it, there is ‘no good word anyway, only sensible usage’.12 Therefore, before we attempt to define skyscape, or argue for a particular definition among several possible, we should specify what would constitute sensible usage for the term – a set of axioms, to borrow the term from mathematics. The need, identified above, is for a conceptual framework that: 1) is general enough that it can be applied across most, if not all, societies and, therefore, be inclusive of known emic terms, including astronomy and astrology; 2) brings meaning, thick description and social context to the fore; and 3) brings reflexivity into our terminology, theory, and method. These axioms will act as a guide as we look at, and compare, two ways in which scholars have used the word skyscape.

Skyscapes as Cultural Constructs

‘…the sky is a natural phenomenon that is turned into a cultural skyscape through human agency.’13

This sentence, taken from the introduction to the Skyscapes volume, captures the definition of skyscape as a cultural construct. Such a skyscape is neither acultural, nor natural, nor anything else that doesn’t involve agency. Humans conceptualize skyscapes: humans look up to the sky and derive or attach meaning to celestial objects; humans correlate those objects with other aspects of social life; they create art to represent their own views of the celestial objects; they build monumental structures with alignments to them; they tell stories about them. This is the view I originally espoused in 2012, even though it only reached print in 2015.

Skyscapes, therefore are indigenous conceptual frameworks that constitute a society’s understanding of ‘the heavens and the celestial bodies and how they relate back down to human beliefs and practices, to their notions of time and place, to their structures and material remains’.14 This is the view also expressed by Iwaniszewski when he wrote that the ‘sky is an aspect of the physical universe which is universally perceived by all humans, although comprehended and structured in different ways’: he simply didn’t have a word for it yet.15

The implication is that different societies ‘see completely different skyscapes’ even though they might see the same sky.16 Ethnographical and historical examples abound – for instance, of different societies forming differently shaped constellations. A skyscape would be formed not only of those constellations (in addition to other celestial objects), but also of the socio-cultural elements associated with them: stories and myths, agricultural or environmental cycles, art, structures that align with them, topographic features marking their risings and settings, etc. The skyscape is meaning mapped into, or pre-existing in, the sky. Indeed, such a skyscape would be part and parcel of a society’s worldview, of their cosmovision or cosmology, the part that specifically relates to the celestial objects.

There is a lot of good in this definition. Firstly, every society will have their own version(s) of a skyscape (axiom 1). Some societies might give it a name, or names, such as skyheavenparadiseDuatAsgardTlalocanastronomy or astrology; all of which are examples of skyscapes. Secondly, this definition of skyscape highlights its cultural, and therefore social, aspects (axiom 2). This is a significant step up from using the word astronomy which, as we saw, excludes these aspects. Thirdly, it puts agency at the centre of the debate, since it is through agency that skyscapes are constructed out of the ‘raw material’ of the sky. Agency, defined as ‘the proposition that human beings think about the intentional actions they perform and the resources they need to achieve their ends’,17 is a very powerful concept in anthropology that, unfortunately, still hasn’t found a foothold within archaeoastronomy, despite some very brave attempts.18 And finally, it implies a level of theoretical reflexivity (axiom 3) not often found in archaeoastronomy, as it demands that the scholar not only pay lip service to the socio-cultural context, but actually attempts to contextualise any identified alignments or iconography of a celestial nature within the period and culture – without this, one is not identifying a skyscape, but merely a celestial target of potential interest to that society.

Skyscapes as Sky and Landscape

Some scholars, perhaps mistaking metaphor for metonymy, have been using the term skyscape to refer to the sky as a part of the landscape, as forming a union of sky and landscape, or to highlight the intersection of land and sky – the horizon. This was expressed for the first time in print by Daniel Brown in his Culture & Cosmos article previously mentioned. He wrote that the ‘meaning for an alignment can now be negotiated within the landscape with emphasis on its skyscape component…’,19 which seems to imply that a given society actually conceives of sky and land as a unity.

Indeed, both the sky and the land are elements of the world of every society, which means we cannot ignore either one.20 And some societies can conceptualize the sky as part of the landscape, as Fabiola Jara has suggested for the Lokono and Carib.21 In other cases, the sky might be conceived to have characteristics and features similar to those of a landscape, such as containing fields, rivers and lakes. But this is far from being a universal feature.

Both the historic and ethnographic record are full of iconography, texts and tales relating to celestial objects in the absence of, or despite the presence of, the landscape. In his afterword to the Skyscapes volume, Timothy Darvill highlighted a key difference between the landscape and skyscape: ‘Whereas the landscape is physically appropriated though modification and thereby turned into a dimension of tangible material culture, skyscapes by contrast are metaphysically appropriated through projection whereby intangible material culture is mapped onto the heavens’.22 There is a materiality to the landscape that is of a different nature to that of the skyscape: landscapes are accessible, can be tangibly manipulated; skyscapes only metaphorically or by non-humans. Phenomenologically they are also very distinct, particularly during the day: the sky is blue, grey, or black; the landscape green, brown, or grey. From this perspective, the skyscape might actually share a lot more in common with sea- or waterscapes: they are both blue during day, black at night; the sky has white clouds, whereas moving water typically forms white spume; water can reflect celestial objects both during the day and night; the Milky Way at night is similar to a river, and so on.23

The point is that, though some societies might see the sky and landscape as one, not all societies will do this, and even those that do might not attach particular value to that aspect of it. Therefore, and in the interest of generality of use (our first axiom), it is counter-productive to restrict ourselves a priori by considering the skyscape to be the union of sky and landscape. By doing so, we impose a reductionist framework to our academic inquiry, one that is not necessarily shared by the societies we study. In this sense, such a definition would be as flawed as using the term astronomy (which this definition actually excludes), and we would be back to square one.

By this I don’t mean that we should stop studying the skyscape in its relation to the landscape. By all means, there is power and potential in looking at skyscape and landscape together,24 indeed most archaeoastronomical work of the past half century has inevitably been done in this way, as scholars were interested in rising and setting events that occur at or close to the horizon. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, in fact the best research questions look not at a single but at a multiplicity of parameters. So, while such research projects are worthy endeavours, I do not see in them a need for rebranding.

Adopting this definition of skyscape would also fail to bring about the change demanded by axioms two and three: it might reduce some biases, but at the cost of introducing new ones; nor would it add sufficient reflexivity to our scholarship. One of the main motivations with the introduction of the new term was to expand what has been done so far into consideration of other aspects of a society’s worldview, aspects that are of much more interest to archaeologists, anthropologists and historians than just the identification of potential celestial targets of structural alignments. The skyscape can and should be looked at in connection to other aspects of society too: religion, ritual, ontology, magic, notions of time and place, etc.

Skyscape was introduced as a neutral term intended to replace a value-laden one – astronomy – that has been anachronistically projected into societies where it has no place. Such ethno-projections reveal more about our modern biases than the societies we study, and their continued use, despite any methodological precautions and disclaimers, can be anchor points through which unconscious memetic viruses pass through the best methodological firewalls, potentially leading to interpretations that betray their, otherwise unspoken, presence. Even worse, they can prevent scholars from taking the leap into what Clifford Geertz called thick description,25 as if the scholar had been spontaneously and utterly destroyed by the virus before it got a chance to interpret and contextualize the identified structural alignment within the society that built and used the structure.

Only in defining a skyscape as a cultural construct, can this act of relabelling fulfil its intended role as a theoretical rift meant to put theory and method at the forefront of our field, starting with reflexive thinking about the very words we use, as well as putting a stronger emphasis on social relations and cultural contextualization. When understood in this way, the term’s application should not be restricted to the subjects of archaeoastronomy or skyscape archaeology: it applies equally across the entire field of cultural astronomy. It makes sense to use the word skyscape to describe and conceptualize the way a particular society engages with the sky, regardless of whether one is studying that society via its archaeological remains, historical texts, imagery or by interviewing or observing its members. The skyscape, in its original definition, is the broadest possible term for what we have been, perhaps uncritically, calling cultural astronomy and astrology.

Nevertheless, and despite fulfilling all three axioms, such a view of the skyscape betrays a lack of engagement with the ‘ontological turn’ that has been taking the humanities by storm.26 In effect, this issue is endemic to all of cultural astronomy: our terminology, methods and interpretations all work under a Cartesian substantivist ontology, wherein reality is composed of a single world (one nature), but many worldviews (many cultures), as Darvill highlighted in his afterword to Skyscapes.27 This is yet another western imposition, albeit one that operates at much deeper levels. We should therefore seek to reframe skyscape in a way that, at the very least, acknowledges that other societies can have different ontologies. But that will be the topic for a future post.

Fabio Silva,
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow

Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) Spain.


  1. Jan Harding, B Johnson and G Goodrich 2006, Neolithic Cosmology and the Monument Complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire. Archaeoastronomy 20: 26-51.
  2. Clive L.N. Ruggles 2011, Pushing back the frontiers or still running around the same circles? ‘Interpretative archaeoastronomy’ thirty years on. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7(S278): 1-18, p.1. Available online.
  3. Ian Ridpath 2012. Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy. 2nd revised ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.36. Available online.
  4. See, for example, Peter Gratton 2014. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp.13-38.
  5. Nicholas Campion N 2012, Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions. New York University Press, p.1.
  6. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2011, The sky as a social field. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7 (S278): 20-37, p.31. Available online.
  7. See, for example, Mary Douglas 1970. Introduction: Thirty Years after Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic. In Mary Douglas (ed), Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. London and New York: Routledge, pp. xiii-xxxviii.
  8. Marvin Harris 2001. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Revised ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, pp. 568-604.
  9. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.1.
  10. See, for example: Robert Layton, and P Ucko (eds) 1999. The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape. London and New York: Routledge; Bruno David and J Thomas (eds) 2016. Handbook of Landscape Archaeology. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
  11. See, for example, Charlotte A. Davies 1999. Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. London and New York: Routledge.
  12. Bruno Latour 2005. Reassembling the Social: an introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.132.
  13. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.2.
  14. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.3.
  15. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2011, The sky as a social field. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7(S278): 20-37, p.30. Available online. [my emphasis]
  16. Fabio Silva 2015, The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology: an introduction. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.2.
  17. Timothy Darvill 2009. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available online.
  18. Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2011, The sky as a social field. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 7(S278): 20-37, p.30. Available online; Stanislaw Iwaniszewski 2016, The social life of celestial bodies: the sky in cultural perspective. In M.A. Rappenglück, B. Rappenglück, N. Campion and F. Silva (eds) Astronomy and Power: How Worlds are Structured. BAR International Series S2794. Oxford: BAR Publishing, pp.11-16.
  19. Daniel Brown 2013, The Experience of Watching: place defined by the trinity of land-, sea-, and skyscape. Culture & Cosmos 17(2): 5-24, p.24. Available online. [my emphasis]
  20. Nicholas Campion 2015, Skyscapes: Locating Archaeoastronomy within Academia. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 8-9.
  21. Fabiola Jara 2015, Skyscape of an Amazonian Diaspora: Arawak Astronomy in Historical Comparative Perspective. In C.L.N. Ruggles (ed) Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy. New York: Springer, p. 942.
  22. Timothy Darvill 2015, Afterword: Dances Beneath a Diamond Sky. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.145. [my emphasis]
  23. For some thoughts in this direction, see Ilaria Cristofaro (in print) Reflecting the Sky in Water: A Phenomenological Exploration of Water-skyscapes. Journal of Skyscape Archaeology 3(1).
  24. See, for example, Fabio Silva 2014. A Tomb with a View: New Methods for bridging the gap between land and sky in megalithic archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Practice 2(1): 24-37.
  25. Clifford Geertz 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, pp. 3-30.
  26. See, for example: Bruno Latour 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; A. Henare, M. Holbraad and S Wastell 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London and New York: Routledge; Eduardo Viveiros de Castro 2015. The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds. Chicago: Hau Books.
  27. Timothy Darvill 2015, Afterword: Dances Beneath a Diamond Sky. In F Silva and N Campion (eds) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, p.141.

Review of ‘The World of Astrology, by Luís Rodolfo Vilhena’

The World of Astrology

by Luís Rodolfo Vilhena

This book review first appeared in Culture and Cosmos Volume 18, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2014), available here.

by Patrick Curry

University of Wales Trinity Saint David

The author of this book, Luís Rodolfo Vilhena, was a promising Brazilian anthropologist who died tragically young in 1997 at the age of thirty-three. The World of Astrology, based upon his research for a Masters degree at the University of Rio de Janeiro, was originally published in Portuguese in 1990. Its chance discovery (as we say) by Graham Douglas in a Lisbon bookshop inspired him to produce this excellent translation, and both he and the Sophia Centre Press are to be congratulated for the resulting new addition to the Anglophone world of scholarship and research into modern astrology.

Douglas also contributes a helpful preface in which he situates Vilhena’s work in a double context: influences on that work, especially Claude Lévi-Strauss, and subsequent research in English conducted independently, especially by Alie Bird, Kirsten Munk, Bridget Costello, Bernadette Brady and Nicholas Campion. Their work comprises a mixture of ethnography, anthropology more broadly, and sociology.1

Vilhena’s subjects are members of the urban middle classes in Rio de Janeiro with varying degrees of involvement in astrology, from professional practitioners to those who only consult astrologers. They are also involved with astrology in ways and for reasons which differ. The period is the 1980s, but surprisingly little seems to have changed. Some informants value astrology as a spiritual path (although not formally religious), some as a psychotherapeutic practice allied with Jung’s analytical psychology, and some as an esoteric knowledge resisting the scientific materialism of modernity. The only thing missing here is the subsequent rise of astrology as divination which, because it doesn’t fall neatly into any of those categories, has complicated them in an interesting and potentially fruitful way.

The strength of Vilhena’s approach follows from his adherence to Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, which reveals the scope, sensitivity and flexibility of astrology as a classificatory system, based on synchronic binary oppositions, with which to make sense of experience, social relationships and the world. The ultimate development of this kind of astrology is perhaps in the orientations it enables towards the modern world as such, in tandem with the way its academic study can reveal those orientations.

Vilhena shows convincingly, for example, that rather than rejecting science outright, some of his astrologers are trying to spiritualise it. Others are working to the same end using psychology as a project that is, for them, both scientific and spiritual. That was precisely Jung’s hope, of course. (The result can equally be seen as a disingenuous attempt to disguise its real nature, a muddled but pragmatic compromise, or a promising new synthesis.) Still others reject modern materialism altogether, taking refuge in astrology as an ancient esoteric and occult ‘science’ of the kind defended by the rebarbative René Guénon. But as Vilhena points out, both that rejection and the presumptive remedy are themselves thoroughly modern responses.

Vilhena makes the related point (as have others) that astrology’s emphasis on exact astronomical positions, mathematical calculations and a complex set of theoretical rules for interpretation potentially position it as a scientific and/or objective enterprise, while the irreducibility of qualitative planetary principles, never far removed from divinities, equally mark it as ‘magical’. Again, it offers, or seems to offer, a solution to the question of how to be in the modern world but not of it.

It seems worth adding that magic in fact offers a deeply compromised way to oppose the modern world. Although ‘spiritual’, a great deal of it is already implicated in the mode of instrumental power-knowledge that is so central to modernity: aiming for mastery, manipulating ‘energies’, using the will to bring about desired changes (whether ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’). That which is radically non-modern, and which therefore marks its limits, is something else: enchantment. (Although, confusingly, the same word – magic – is often used to describe it). But wonder cannot be used, let alone organised, and with that realisation, people who mainly want power lose interest.2

Vilhena works hard to relate the various positions taken to the social classes and relationships of their takers, and with some success. It’s odd, though, that he doesn’t seem to have been aware of T. W. Adorno’s early and influential writings on astrology based on the L.A. Times’ sun-sign column and its readers in the 1950s.3 Amid Adorno’s dollops of Marxism and psychoanalysis and his wildly speculative conclusions are some valuable insights, especially the idea that astrology, in any depth beyond sun-sign columns, appeals mostly to the ‘semi-erudite’. By this, Adorno meant those sufficiently well educated to follow its sometimes intellectually demanding complexities, but not so well-educated that they have thereby succumbed to the intellectual elite’s metaphysical worldview. (Since the late seventeenth century, that has been one which excludes even the possibility that astrology is true or real.) Of course, this concept is also too crude, but it is at least interesting and potentially fruitful.

Although it’s not a serious omission, the commentary here might also have mentioned Bauer and Durant’s 1997 empirical study ‘Belief in Astrology’, which follows up Adorno’s work. It broadly supports the conclusions in this book.4

Not surprisingly, the weakness of Vilhena’s work also follows from the source of his insights, namely its structuralism. That commitment means, as he says, that ‘I approached astrology as a whole principally in terms of its beliefs’ (p. 103). Belief and knowledge are functions of epistemology. As such, they encourage a neglect of how astrology works as ontology: a way of life, not only a way of knowing, in which working with symbolism, arguably the heart of astrology, is central. We learn much about various worldviews and their social dimension, but it is possible to miss a close study of how astrological symbolism itself works when it is an essential part of lived experience. For that – not as a replacement for Vilhena’s sociology and social anthropology, but as a necessary complement – a more phenomenological and/or hermeneutic approach is necessary.

Such a call by no means rules out anthropology, which is a very roomy (and contested) discipline. It does, however, move in the direction of the humanities and away from the social sciences. A start, and good example, is provided by an MPhil thesis briefly mentioned in Douglas’s preface: Lindsay Radermacher’s ‘The Role of Dialogue in Astrological Divination’ (2011).5

It also follows, I think, that to understand what it’s like to be a practising astrologer (including, but not only, what it feels like), one needs to at least have had the experience of being one.6 Vilhena studied astrology but mainly, it seems, as a ‘system’ which one ‘applies’ to generate meaning. It is that, and an admirable and fascinating one, as this fine study shows; but it is far from only that.

Luís Rodolfo Vilhena
The World of Astrology:
An Ethnography of Astrology in Contemporary Brazil

translated by Graham Douglas
(Ceredigion: Sophia Centre Press, 2014)
ISBN: 978-1-907767-04-3
 244 pp.

Patrick Curry,
University of Wales Trinity Saint David


  1. Much of it, although by no means all, is available at [accessed 29 September 2016].
  2. I explore this and related issues in ‘Enchantment and Modernity’, PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature 9 (2012): pp. 76–89, available here [accessed 29 September 2016].
  3. T. W. Adorno, ‘The stars down to earth: The Los Angeles Times astrology column, a study in secondary superstition’, Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien 2 (1957): pp. 19–88, reprinted in T. W. Adorno, The stars down to earth and other essays on the irrational in culture, ed. Stephen Crook (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).
  4. Martin Bauer and John Durant, ‘Belief in Astrology: A Social-Psychological Analysis’, Culture and Cosmos 1 (1997): pp. 55–72.
  5. Lindsay Radermacher, ‘The Role of Dialogue in Astrological Divination’ (MPhil, University of Kent, 2011), available here [accessed 29 September 2016].
  6. I address this issue in relation to the history of astrology in ‘The Historiography of Astrology: A Diagnosis and a Prescription’, in Horoscopes and Public Spheres: Essays on the History of Astrology, ed. K. von Stuckrad, G. Oestmann, and H. D. Rutkin (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), pp. 261–74.

Gillian Clarke Speaks at Sophia Centre Press Book Launch

Gillian Clarke

former National Poet of Wales


The Press was delighted to host the former National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, at the launch of Ada Blair’s book, Sark in the Dark on the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s Lampeter campus on 6 December. This was a double celebration for the Press – 3 December was our seventh birthday. Clarke is also one of our distinguished Press authors: her paper ‘Man, Mystery, Myth and Metaphor: Poetry and the Heavens’ is published in Heavenly Discourses. Gillian’s first poetry was published in 1971 and her escalating reputation resulted in her appointment as third National Poet of Wales in 2008, a post she held until 2016.

In her paper Clarke recalls a seminal incident from her childhood: ‘When I was a child my father would take me out on a clear night to look up at the sky. Often, quoting from Sean O’Casey’s play ‘Juno and the Paycock’, he’d say: ‘What is the stars?.’ We might have worked out what the stars are made of, but we can still gaze upwards and ask the same question. On another occasion, she remembers a gathering of 16 year olds from Reading at Ty Newydd, the Welsh Writers house in Gwynedd. This is how she tells it:

One clear night we doused the house lights and stepped out to watch the Perseids, the August meteor shower. We lay on our backs on the lawn. Between their chorus of cries at every shooting star, I pointed out the planets, the constellations, the Milky Way. The students were astonished. For them such heavenly bodies were the stuff of fantasy, the content of science fiction novels, comics and movies. Suddenly one of the boys uttered these immortal words: ‘Wow! Do we ‘ave these in Reading?’

One of the revolutionary features of the sky is that it’s mostly the same wherever we are. Some stars may be seen only in the northern hemisphere or the southern, but the Sun, Moon and planets are no respecters of national boundaries. The same Sun rises in Portugal as Peru and in Canada as Cameroon, reminding us that the national boundaries w believe in so fervently are temporary fabrications.

A good crowd turned out to the grand surroundings of the University’s Old Hall and were rewarded with wine and mince pies. Clarke was erudite and eloquent, Blair’s book was launched and the Press entered its eighth year.

Enjoy the full programme here:

Lecturer: Nicholas Campion is Programme Director of the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture and Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and the Performing at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

His recent books include the two-volume History of Western Astrology (London: Continuum 2008/9) and The New Age in the Modern West: Counter-Culture, Utopia and Prophecy from the late Eighteenth Century to the Present Day (London: Bloomsbury 2015). Recent papers include ‘The Moral Philosophy of Space Travel: A Historical Review’, in Jai Galliot (ed.), Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy, Governance (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2015), pp. 9-22; ‘Archaeoastronomy and Calendar Cities’ in Daniel Brown (ed.), Modern Archaeoastronomy: From Material Culture to Cosmology, Journal of Physics: Conference Series, Vol. 865, 2016, pp. 1-7; and ‘The Imaginal Sky in the Medieval World’ in Eric Lacey (ed.), Starcræft. Watching the Heavens in the Middle Ages, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press (forthcoming).